I’ve been involved in a couple of world-building projects recently that are based in the fantasy genre. This has been great, since I haven’t visited swords and sorcery fantasy for quite a while. I certainly grew up on a healthy diet of Pratchett, Feist, and Weis & Hickman, but my reading habits eventually moved on to the sci-fi Gibsons and the urban fantasy deLints and Gaimans.
(There is always time to revisit Discworld though. Always.)
Returning to the fantasy genre, I was keenly aware that the important keystone in developing a fantasy world is the magic system. Almost every time we came across a hurdle elsewhere in a project’s world-building, it was because the magic system was had not yet been fully developed.
I explained this to a friend by putting the concept of magic into perspective with the rest of the world. A world with magic is like our own world, where a fundamental part of our model of physics is altered.
By itself, that’s a really interesting exercise to try. Take one simple aspect of our current model of physics, and then alter a variable. Maybe electricity moves slower. Perhaps liquids disperse more violently. What if light had measurable weight?
Now, thinking about this simple alteration, consider how this would change the natural world. Lightning storms would certainly be creepy with lightning strikes that travel at only two feet per second. There’s some very basic changes from the outset that you can easily see with any kind of variable you might choose.
Next is to think about how we would have adapted biologically. The human body would have evolved differently based on these new parameters within the physical world. Perhaps only minute changes, but perhaps they would be huge changes.
Then, how is technology affected? Sciences? Humanities? Language? The basic core of civilisation is dependent on the survival of its environment. If you change that environment, how does the civilisation adapt?
And perhaps most interestingly - from a world-building perspective, at least - how effect does this tiny change in the physical world affect the civilisation’s culture? Does the decrease in electron speed mean we would no longer have Thor as an Avenger? Our technological basis would be completely different, since electricity now only moves at a snail’s pace. Would thunderstorms be considered the more predictable of the weather patterns, or would we revere the slow-moving raging behemoths?
All of that from a single inferred change in variables to our current world.
When you introduce magic to a world, the approach should be the same. Magic isn’t a simple layer that fits neatly over the top of an already constructed world. It causes a molecular difference in the fabric of the world you are creating, which of course goes on to have drastic affects to every aspect, from nature to construction, religion to science, governance to culture to economics.
Trials and Tribulations
Here’s some of the things I thought about while writing (and rewriting and rewriting) a magic system for Black Lab Games’ upcoming RPG, Trial By Magic;
Biology - How do the entities in the world physically create the changes that we would perceive as spell effects? Is it ranged manipulation of different classes of energies? Is there a tertiary force between the caster and the effect that implements the change? What are the biological reasons for some races of creatures being more attuned to magic forces than others?
Economical - If a certain percentage of the population can theoretically call water and fire from their fingertips, this would create a technological leap in agriculture, construction and delicious baked goods. How does this impact on the economy of an individual, a village, a city? Do farmers become obsolete, or do they become land-owners who hire freelancing magic-users to create improbably fertile conditions for their crops? Alternately, if magic is a by-product of a natural resource instead of biological manipulation, how does the magic resource affect currency and exchange? Construction materials? Weapons of warfare?
Accreditation - This is a great consideration I learned from this Specializations and Credentialing post at World Building Academy. Not everyone gets to be special, and any time a particular resource is valued, it will be placed into an economic or cultural structure to be validated. Figuring out who controls the resource - in this case, the access to knowledge, learned abilities or physical abilities of the magic system - and how they share the resource, can then give you a great idea of what your characters can have access to, what they can get access to if they work at it, and what they will be confronted with when they come into conflict. Do the protagonists have greater access to magic than their enemies, or less? Have they had to study, or hone physical mastery? Are you found as a child prodigy, or do you have to work as barstaff to pay your way through magic school?
Arts - I like considering this one a lot. It’s easy to think what religious impact magic might have on society, but how would magic alter the arts and humanities of a civilisation? Would artistic ability be enhanced beyond physical limitations? Would this then lead to reverence or disdain for artists who work in “mundane” mediums? Does literature empower or suppress the use of magic? And what about the actual manufacturing of art - does the printing press become even more effective, or are unique pieces made even more valuable for the magic seam inherent in the material?
The long and short of it is that magic can be more than fireballs and enchantment materials. Having a good grasp on the ongoing effects of a magical reality can shape your fantasy world into something that stands out above the other hundred fluffy sword and sorcery worlds.
Of course, implementing these into game mechanics is discussion for another day!
Further reading: Sanderson’s First Law is absolutely required reading when considering how to implement magic into your setting.