There are things better left unsaid. There always have been. I’m certainly no different. I have things in my closet that I do not speak about openly. I think we all do. But given what is about to happen next, I think today is the time to speak of them.
When I was young and our family pets were old, I’d curse and shout at them for no longer being able to control themselves. They’d give me a sad look, like they wished they weren’t growing old, but they couldn’t do anything about it.
I wet the bed when I was older. For some reason, my bladder never stopped going in the night, and I had to hide it from everyone else. A little thing, but so embarrassing as a grown man.
I stole little things, here and there. They’d call out to me, speak to me, and I’d slip them in a pocket or under my shirt, and then be off with them. Nobody noticed, or at least I never got caught.
And well, there’s the reason I’m writing this. I slept with your wife. For years. And then I killed her and ate her. With barbecue sauce. Very tasty, if I may be so bold.
Anyway, that was what I wanted you to know.
Thanks again for being my friend all these years.
The end of the letter was splattered in blood.
Fire flickered against the steel, a deep crimson glow in the dark tunnel. Ice rimed the wood and bronze, a counterpoint to the crimson. Lýtling chuckled, and held his axe high, letting light bounce off the worked stone.
He had come here for treasure, like so many before. But he had come better prepared than the others. The thief had seen their corpses scattered about these ruins, some cut apart, others burned, each death a gruesome testament to their folly.
Lýtling would not fall into traps such as had caught them, and indeed, had not. He had survived pits, poison, and even the odd undead. The last one had been a particularly recalcitrant zombie. Now it was a small pile of ash. It really shouldn’t have let itself dry out.
The light revealed a glimmer in the dark, and he strode towards it. The tunnel emptied him out in a spacious room, and around him glittered rack upon rack of arms and armour, all ornate and adorned in filigree. One of those suits was the right one. The rest would kill him.
A clanking sounded from deep in the racks. Lýtling turned to see three armoured figures step forth, each brandishing a claymore. “Well now, life could do with a little excitement, eh?” He hefted his axe and shield, and stared down the foe.
They rushed at him, swords swinging in great horizontal sweeps. He dove left, slashing with the sharpened edge of his shield. Where the rim touched his metal foe, ice sparkled, then engulfed the iron form below the knee. Unable to walk, it died on the following swing of the axe.
The remaining two spread wide, seeking to come at him from both sides. The thief laughed and drove straight forwards, catching in the long thrust of the claymore on his shield and turning it aside. A stab with the spike of the axe sent flames bursting from the joints of the armour, and a countering stroke, brought it about in time to behead the third, charging him from behind.
Lýtling continued his exploration of the racks of armour. He had heard that the armour he wanted had a þrosm marked on the breast, a “dark space”. But all of the armour had designs in black or twilight upon them.
At last he gave up and dropped his weapons, climbing into the nearest suit of armour that would fit him.
“Ahhhh.” The cracking of bones filled Lýtling’s head. “It feels good to be worshipped again.”
Lýtling cursed. “I worship no one but myself.”
“Too late for that, boy. You wear the þrosm, now. And that means I get to feast.” A terrible ripping sound filled the room, and the thief felt strangely empty.
“What have you done?”
“Feasted. If you take the armour off now, you will die. So, death or me, boy?”
“Can you make me rich, powerful, all that claptrap gods promise followers?”
“No. But I can make life interesting.”
“Fair deal. Lead on.”
The suit of armour clanked from the room, a gaping hole where once the heart had lived.
So over the course of the series, I’ve looked at how Strength and Prevalence affect both a magic system and a setting, and how Style and Powers shape and define that magic system. Now I’m going to examine Magical Interaction and Items and Artefacts.
The second of these, Items and Artefacts, is something that as fantasy readers and writers we understand and is near and dear to our hearts. Magical Interaction is a little bit more of a nebulous concept, because there’s two distinct areas that qualify, and I’m going to try and cover both today.
Magical Interaction is either how magic interacts with itself, or how people interact with magic. Both of these are critical when designing a magic system, as one has a huge impact on what it can do, and the other on how it cane be used.
And now to the choices!
Choice #5: Magical Interaction – How does magic affect magic? Does the concept of counterspelling or disruptive magic exist? Are there chaotic effects or logical ones? Counterspelling, spell-breaking, etc. has a long history in fantasy stories, most commonly when dealing with enchantments or curses. In most cases, there has to be a way to undo the damage being caused, because without it the story cannot advance.
But what about combat spellcasting? Should a mage be able to cast a spell that negates those of the opposing side? Not negates in the sense of equal yet opposing powers, but simply cancelling out, stopping the spell from ever being cast? And then how easy or hard is it to do? If spell-breaking is easier than spellcasting, then magic is a very weak and feeble force. If it is too hard to spell-break a casting, then it will feel as if the opportunity does not exist, or isn’t the smart choice. After all, if it’s easier to hit the opposing wizard with a fireball than try and cancel his spell, why not just kill him?
A careful balance must be struck if using spell-breaking, for regardless of the difficulty of the approach, if it’s only used by the good forces (or the bad), it then starts to feel like a contrived plot device to force the story in a given direction, rather than another ability that lives within the world.
Now for the second part of Magical Interaction – how people interact with magic. Are they afraid of it? Accept it amongst their daily lives? View it as the province of the elite? This ties in heavily with Prevalence, but is not the same. If magic is common in the world, it could be that magic is another tool, and the cobblers use it to mend shoes better. Or it could be that those born with the magic are seen as shapeshifting demons who will eat their souls in the night, and that gifted children are slain at birth if caught.
Obviously many other parts of the setting factor into this decision, but it plays an important role in devising the setting. In both The Four Part Land and Splintered Lands, there are about the same number of mages to population (or at least it feels that way). In The Four Part Land, they serve as mining engineers, ship captains, factory workers, architects, using their talents to perform at fairly normal and mundane jobs. In Splintered Lands, they are hunted and killed whenever they are found, for they are seen as being responsible for the breaking of the lands.
Possessing magic could also be the instant ticket to the nobility that so many dream of, or it could see people relegated to the gutter as vile refuse. There are many different ways to choose, and it is up to the author to determine the best one for the style of story he wishes to write.
Choice #6: Items and Artefacts – Can magic be put into items? If so, how powerful is that magic? Common? Extremely rare? This in many ways determines how accessible magic is to the non-gifted characters in the story. If the only source of magic is from within a character or at a predetermined location, then it is quite rare, but if Backpacks of Spell Generation are going for five quid over at the local corner shop, then it’s quite a different place.
There is no right or wrong answer to these questions, but the more common magical items are, the higher the ambient level of magic usually is, and thus main character magicians tend to be even more powerful, so that they stand out above the general level of the background. Likewise, having magical items tends to mean that non-gifted characters have the ability to perform more and varied actions, through the use of the tools they acquire over the years.
Now, powerful magic items are very often used as quest hooks or pivotal plot points, so removing them entirely from the setting does reduce the author’s options in some ways. But it is also possible to have the items dominate the action, where it becomes about them and the new an interesting ways they can be used, rather than about the character or the story. If an author finds themselves writing so they can do something cool, rather than writing what fits the story, then they are using items as a crutch that pushes them away from the core plot.
In some ways, Magical Items have all of the same problems as a magic system. What Power and Prevalence are they, what Style and Strength, and how do people interact with them? If the author chooses to have Magical Items in their setting, I would recommend running through Choices #1-#5 again, only thinking about the Magical Items.
That wraps up the six main choices that I use when designing a magic system. Next, I’ll be talking about Other Considerations, a collection of ideas and suggestions that can dramatically change a magic system.
The twentieth installment of a 30k word short story set in The Four Part Land. It takes place 400 years in the past from the time of Tarranau and Chloddio, and details the collapse of Hymerodraeth Heula, the Empire of the Sun.
Glanhaol Fflamboethi made its way southward in three prongs, each drawing slightly closer to the other as the army neared Horaim. As the weeks passed, the patrols in search of food were doubled and then tripled in size, in response to increased Lianese forces in the area. Soon, the Veryan troops were but a two days march from the city they were to invest, and the three segments of the army reformed themselves into one great mass, although one that was running low on food supplies. There was, perhaps, enough food to last the army for a week once they arrived at the walls of Horaim, so it was imperative that the siege be conducted quickly, and that whatever supplies remained in the city be captured as well, otherwise the campaign would falter and fail. Unfortunately, it was presumed that the Lianese knew this as well, and so resistance would be extremely strong.
Rhy was not looking forward to reaching the city, for it meant that he would be forced into an incredibly dangerous situation, one that he had no experience in. He had been in numerous battles, but most of them had been wars of suppression, keeping a lid on the various provinces in the empire that hadn’t wished to behave, and the rest had been campaigns against strings of bandits. Never before had he had to match wits and forces with another full army, and most certainly not in a siege. The largest obstacle that he had seen invested before was a small fort of no more than fifty troops, not one of the larger cities this land possessed. Rhyfelwyr hoped that he and his squad could survive this encounter, as they had so many before.
A day of marching and shuffling about passed, and that night the camp fell asleep with the various elements of the army settled in such a way that they could invest the city on the morning. It was to be a quick investment of only a few days time, before the Veryan troops would be sent against the walls. It was hoped that those few days would give the Veryan officers the insight needed to break into the city, for sacrificing troops on the walls of Horaim would end this campaign as surely as starvation.
So it was on the morrow that Rhyfelwyr, Taflen, Locsyn and the others found themselves standing on a low mound, some miles out from Horaim, looking down over the terrain that surrounded the city. The city itself was perched on a low rise, a spine of sorts, that ran down to the south, on the far side. The walls were not high, perhaps only ten feet off the ground at the crenellations, but they were constructed of stone, not the hoped for wood. The gate was shut tight, and on both the walls and on the taller towers that sat behind, there were visible the silhouettes of archers. Outside of the walls of Horaim, the land was green scrub, with nothing in the way of cover for attacking troops, and a few small streams, which would break up the force of a massed charge. Aside from the low height of the walls, there was little that offered hope to the Veryan troops. There had once been houses and a small slum outside of the north gate, but it had been cleared away and burnt to the ground, to stop it offering any protection to the Veryan soldiers. The Lianese had been thorough in their preparation.
Locsyn nodded at the sweep of the army as it split into two columns to march around to the east and the west of the city. “We’re risking them having another force in Niam Liad, and getting caught in the middle.”
“There is little we can do in that case, for if they have such a superiority of numbers, we are likely to be done for regardless. I do not think that likely, however.” Taflen was the respondent.
“Oh, stop your moaning. We’ll just smash them and be done with it. Look at those walls, I could walk straight through them.”
“Maybe you could, Gwyth, but the rest of us are normal people, not some hulking brute who can use his skin for armour.”
“Hey, I have good looking skin.”
“Compared to what? An anifail chan beichia?”
Gwyth growled and shoved Locsyn, sending him sprawling to the ground in a loud clanking of armour and weapons. The large soldier then stood with feet planted staring down at the moustached man, anger turning his face a simmering red.
“Enough, enough. We’re supposed to be digging in up here to make sure they don’t use the north gate at all, not getting into fights. Gwyth, Locsyn, you can start digging the trenches. The rest of us will spell you when you need a break.”
The soldiers set about building small fortifications in front of their position with a determined look, a basic moat and wall system to break up any charges. Once they had the primary trench built, the soldiers added a second, shallow one some ten feet further out, in the hopes that two would fracture charges even better than just one, and that when the Lianese forces arrived at the wall, they would be disorganized and easier to combat.
Timothy struggled to bring the last of the boxes upstairs. There. He’d done it. The last of his belongings inside the house. He looked around and smiled. This was going to be a good house, a strong house. The piles of brown boxes took away from the charm somewhat, but it was his, his home.
The next few days were spent in unpacking, his belongings disappearing onto shelves, into closets, and under tables. And then the redecorating began. He should have done it earlier, before moving in, but he liked to see how his things would match up against the colours and styles he was choosing. His belongings were very precious to him, especially the ones that hung from the wall. He’d always been partial to a really nice wall hanging.
There was one final room to redo – the master bedroom. This was going to be his brilliant work of art, and Tim spent days going over the room with a pencil and ruler, dividing the walls up just how he wanted them to be. And then when he was done, he growled at the shoddy work he’d drawn in and took it all down. He was determined to get it right.
It was another week before Tim was finally satisfied, and he could begin with the base layer of paint. Getting the colour just right took him a while, but once he had, he stepped back and smiled. Then he tried a few of the wall hangings to see how it looked. Hmm. Lacking a certain something.
Timothy took them down again and painted a little more. There, that was it. The walls were covered properly now. Up went the hangings, each suspended from a noose about its neck. He left a blank spot above the bed. His wife would go there once the divorce was finalized.
Tick tock. Tick tock.
“Would someone shut that damn clock up?”
The clock chimed.
He walked over to the clock, glaring at the others in the room as he did.
Three chimes. Four.
He grabbed the pendulum.
Five chimes. Six.
“Damn thing doesn’t stop?” He moved the hands on the face away from the hour.
He looked at the others. “A little help guys.”
“C’mon, c’mon. Help me!”
Eleven. Twelve long chimes.
“Oh hell.” He pulled out a gun and faced the room.
A thirteenth chime, longer and lower than the previous twelve.
The gun fired once before he was overwhelmed.
Last time, I looked at how Strength and Prevalence affect both a magic system and a setting. This time around, I’m going to look at Style and Powers.
First off, a little background on each. Style is how the interactions with magic are portrayed to the reader, and how the characters in the story believe that magic acts. Powers is what can be done with that magic.
Here’s a quick example so that you understand what I’m trying to say.
Iudas pulled energy from his cells to excite the air molecules in front of him, creating a barrier of superheated air between him and the foes that chased him.
Iudas caught at the elemental fire within, forming it into a roaring, blazing wall between him and the foes that chased him.
The Power in question is more or less identical – a wall of superheated air/flame. Anyone attempting to pass through it will be burnt. But the Style is extremely different. The first is something I would associate with telekinetics or psionics, a much more modern, scientifically styled description of what is going on, while the second is much closer to how I see more traditional magic being described.
With that example out of the way, onto to the choices!
Choice #3: Style – How do you want to describe your magic, your world? Does it have Arabian influences? Eastern? Celtic? Each of these is a distinct culture in Earth’s history, and when authors choose a style to use, they are usually borrowing little bits and pieces of historical cultures and merging them together to create a unified whole.
Style is not the power itself, it is the trappings of power. This is most often seen when a wizard is casting a large, world-changing spell. Almost regardless of what is involved outside of that event, the particular casting will require long rituals, many complex agents and actors, and be capable of being spoiled in any number of ways. Yet if a god performs actions that have the same scale and scope, they are often described as taking mere moments and but a little thought.
This distinction is all about style. Style dictates how hard or easy casting a spell or accessing magic is for the user. Most often, this comes about from where the magic is sourced. Internal power tends to be easier to access, and most of the hold-ups and flaws are within the caster’s mind. This allows for moments of tension as the mage struggles to gain control of his emotions, and then unleashes a satisfy blast at the last moment to save the day. As a reader, we’ve probably all come across this scenario multiple times.
You can’t do that if the nature of magic requires that the wizard sit inside a magical rune and chant for one hour, at a minimum. If that is how magic is written in a given setting, then the author needs to plan out spaces and time for magic to be used. To create a similar feeling of duress, the caster would likely be under assault during the last few minutes of the casting process, with friends and allies attempting to stave off the incoming tide.
When creating the source of magic, it’s vitally important to think about how that choice of source, and the rules that affect accessing it, will have an impact on what situations you can and cannot devise in your writing. I highly recommend writing a short story or two about the use of magic before starting plotting and devising larger scopes, so that as an author you have a feel for how your system looks on paper.
Choice #4: Powers – What can magic do in your setting? Can it rewrite continents, or does it get used to fix a broken boot heel? Neither of these is any more valid than the other, and both can have significant impact on a story, but it is important to choose what a mage can and cannot do. If a caster can do everything that can be thought of, that is both a strain on the author and the world, and a temptation to allow magic to solve every problem that exists. That takes away from dramatic tension, if the author gets to a sticky part of the story and knows that the main character can wave his hand and create a solution.
Please note that Powers and Strength are not the same thing, but interact quite closely. Take a firemage. His powers are that he can summon and manipulate fire, and only fire, within a radius from his physical location. His strength, and the allowed strength of magic in the given setting, says whether that fire will be candle’s flame, or a ball of fire the size of a sun. If he can only produce a small flame, little more than a campfire, he is vastly more limited than if he can create a bonfire or an inferno. Yet his powers have not changed. It is the application of differing levels of strength to a singular power that dictates his effectiveness in a given situation.
Note that the choice of powers has a marked impact on how magic is viewed in the setting. If magic is primarily low in strength, and focused around fixing broken items, then in some ways a caster is the same as a modern day plumber or mechanic, and is probably treated similarly. Yet stay with me a moment as I layer style on top. Does it dictate that the magic can only be created in a sanctified temple? Or can the gifted mage come to a client’s house? In one situation, the client must go to the mage in his temple as a supplicant. In the other the mage goes to the client, as a man providing a service.
It is somewhat difficult to describe Powers, because the only limits are created by the imagination of the writer, but there are a few general choices.
All-encompassing occurs when each and every mage has the possibility to perform every spell or ritual allowed within a given world. They may not have the strength, or the required items, but at a fundamental level they could perform the spell.
Subset or discrete magic is when there are different powers of magic, and once a character is slotted into one, there is absolutely no possibility of ever casting from outside of that category. The most common of these is elemental magic, wherein a magician is attuned to either Air, Earth, Water, or Fire, and cannot, at even the most basic level, ever entertain the possibility of being able to use one of the other three aspects.
So, we have now gone through and picked out four aspects of our magic. Next week, we’ll wrap up this part of the series with the final two – Magical Interaction and Items and Artefacts.
The nineteenth installment of a 30k word short story set in The Four Part Land. It takes place 400 years in the past from the time of Tarranau and Chloddio, and details the collapse of Hymerodraeth Heula, the Empire of the Sun.
Leaving the others to their mirth and unwinding, Rhyfelwyr got up from the fire and tapped Rhocas on the shoulder, gesturing for the young soldier to follow into the quiet darkness. Rhocas did so reluctantly, and glanced back at the warm fire more than once as he followed the sergeant out. This conversation wasn’t one that the young man wanted to have.
Rhy turned and eyed the firemage in the dark. Nerves were visible in every aspect of Rhocas’ stance, and Rhyfelwyr patted him on the arm before gesturing at the ground and sitting himself.
“I know you don’t want to be out here, but I need to find out what’s going on with you. You’re a bloody firemage! You saved Taflen’s life, but you also should have been there to protect his right flank in the first place. It turned out well in the end, but, what are you? Did the mages send you down here to live like a soldier for some reason?”
Rhocas mumbled at first, his voice faint in the night. “No, I’m not a firemage. Never managed to have the training, never noticed I had the talent. Me, or the people who tested me when I was young. It doesn’t come out very much, just when I’m angry or scared, and then it comes out in big waves. It only started showing up a few years ago, and I thought something was going wrong until I realized I had a talent with fire. It’s not really all that useful, just shows up every now and again.”
“Not all that useful? Taflen would be dead if you didn’t have it. That counts as fairly useful to me. Now, why’d you never take yourself round to the firemages and get trained properly. The life’s better than grubbing along down in the dirt with us soldiers.”
“Never wanted to, and always thought I was too old to be allowed into the school, least by the time I knew anything about this. And when Ymerawdwyr was calling for young men to join the army, I decided I might as well go. I was just mucking out stables at a caravan rest, so a soldier’s life is a step up from where I was.”
Rhy nodded. “Still, you might want to go talk to one of the firemages that we have here with us. Doubt they can give you a lot training between now and Horaim, but it might be worth it to learn how to use your talent a little better. Can’t hurt to have an extra tool or two, and might make your life a good deal better in the long run, if you can get bumped up to that status.”
“I’d thought about it, but how would that work? They’re not going to believe that some poor fool of a soldier is a firemage just because he says he is.”
“I’ll talk to them, and bring the squad with me. We’ve been around for long enough that officers at least know I’m not going to lie to them. We’ll do that on the morrow, after we’ve all rested a good bit. Let’s get back to the others, I’m sure Locsyn’s about to have a fit with all the teasing the rest are doing.”
“Thanks, Rhy.” Rhy glanced back and nodded, and then led Rhocas back to the camp fire, where they settled in for the night with the rest of the squad, laughing and talking before finally falling asleep.
Rhyfelwyr and the rest of the squad saw Rhocas only but a little from that point onwards, for the firemages had believed the story, and taken Rhocas for training, where the young soldier now spent almost every waking moment of his day. Often, he would not return even for mealtimes and sleep, too exhausted to wend his way back across the camp. He would likely return when the army began to assault Horaim, but until that time, Rhy didn’t expect to see the soldier.
Let fly thy sacred arrow
Pierce me through the heart
but if you curse me such
I beg you now, curse another
that we may live forever vexed
In my eyes, what sets fantasy apart from any other setting is magic. How it is handled, the strength, the interactions, but mostly its very existence. Magic is the glue that holds a fantasy setting together, because it reflects the characteristics of the setting and the people within it. Very often this includes the main character. Goodkind, Jordan, Brooks, Rowling, all of them have their primary character(s) wield magic.
Given magic’s importance to the setting, it is incumbent upon us as fantasy writers to make sure we get it right. This is not an easy challenge, because of the myriad roles that magic plays within fantasy stories, and the way that it provides a background that holds every other facet of the story together. In this series of blog posts, I will attempt to answer some of the questions surrounding designing, building, and using magic in a fantasy setting. This is by no means a final answer, for there are as many ways to do magic as there are stars in the sky. There is only the choice that fits your novel best.
That said, I’ll begin with a few choices that arise regarding the design process of magic.
Choice #1: Strength – How strong is the magic in your world? Think carefully before answering this, for it affects every other aspect of the creation. If the magic acts like it does in the Dungeons and Dragons world, it rapidly becomes the most powerful and overwhelming aspect of creation. Every fighter has a magic sword, every powerful wizard can change continents, every creature has some aspect of magic to them, and every item is a magical artefact.
At the other end are worlds where casting a single spell requires great preparation, and may kill the caster; where it is not the first resort, but the last, and that with great cost. Settings with this type of magic often tend to have a post-apocalyptic or dystopian tinge, for resources are scarce. That, or the world looks more like medieval times in Earth’s history, when we didn’t have magic for our activities.
There is one exception to the “magic dictates power” rule – when magic is balanced by technology. This is often called “gunpowder fantasy”, and can be seen in novels such as L.E. Modesitt’s Saga of Recluce. Steam and gunpowder have created forces nearly as powerful as magic, and often the two are in opposition, although not always.
Make this choice carefully, for it will dictate much of the believability of the setting. If mages are on every street corner and magic items are sold in pawn shops, the rest of the world must be altered to take that into account, otherwise there will be a disconnect that the discerning reader will discover.
Choice #2: Prevalence – How common is magic in your setting? This goes hand in hand with Choice #1, and plays an equally important role in determining the world. If everyone has magic, especially powerful magic, there would likely be no poverty, and wars would be especially devastating, for each soldier could wield power far greater than their arm. But if magic is restricted to a few gifted individuals, the situation is much like one where the power of magic is very low – only a tiny proportion has access, and for those lacking the gift, the cost of acquiring magical aid is likely extremely high.
Likewise, it can help determine the fate of a gifted main character. Are they sought after for having a unique talent, or are they one amongst many, to be tossed to the side if they fail to meet some goal? In a multi-character story, this is also something to consider, for if magic is extremely rare, yet four of the five main characters possess it, that seems at odds with the setting.
Now that we as authors have made these first two choices about the magic in our world, we can move on to other aspects that are equally important, but are guided in certain directions by the choices made above. I hope you enjoyed this, and will be back for the next instalment, wherein I will discuss Style and Powers.