Randy Ellefson's Laws of Magic - The Art of World Building
Feb 082021
 
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World builders can choose to enforce any, all, or none of my laws for creating magic systems for themselves. These laws are not about how to use a magic system once created, but how to create those systems. Most are self-explanatory with a single sentence, but a few words follow each. Some include examples, which are not meant to build upon each, but rather offer possibilities and world building prompts. Use these ideas as guidance for what we should do to craft a magic system.

First Law

World builders shall decide what the laws of magic are.

The universe (or another authority such as gods) has determined what works and what doesn’t, and under what conditions. This should be defined for all magic types. Examples:

  1. Spells are required.
  2. Magic can be performed at-will like a god.
  3. There is a finite amount of magic energy and once consumed, it is gone.
  4. Naturally occurring places exist where magic doesn’t work.
  5. With rare exceptions, a wizard can only perform one type of magic and they do not get to choose.
  6. Elves cannot perform elemental magic.

Second Law

World builders shall define what makes someone capable of performing each magic type, and how common practitioners are.

Examples:

  1. Anyone born with the talent can perform magic. These people are rare.
  2. The gods decide who can do magic and can grant or revoke ability at will.
  3. Anyone who consumes a specific item with a specific frequency acquires the ability as long as said item continues to be consumed.
  4. Witchcraft requires a deal with Satan. Witches are common.
  5. A near-death experience is required to become a shaman. Shamans are rare.
  6. Consumption of alcohol eliminates the ability to perform magic for several days.

Third Law

If multiple types of magic exist, world builders shall define what is possible in each, the differences between them, and whether practitioners can perform more than one type (and under what circumstances).

Short examples (yours should be much more in depth):

  1. There are two types of magic, with most practitioners relegated to one type:
    1. Low magic: only simple spells to assist daily living (like cantrips)
    2. High magic: all higher level, more powerful spells
  2. There are several magic types:
    1. Alchemists: can only work with materials to affect personal change
    2. High wizardry: can draw on magic energy in the environment
    3. Witchcraft: must work with spirits or demons for power

Fourth Law

World builders shall determine what happens when an attempt to use magic fails.

Examples:

  1. A spell either works within its parameters or fails. There are no accidental results.
  2. A failed spell will visibly/invisibly release gathered energy chaotically/safely.
  3. A failed spell traps gathered energy within the caster’s body until released
  4. A failed spell produces an unexpected result of a different nature but not extremely so.
  5. Magic (done without spells) energy is safely released back to its source when the casting fails.

Fifth Law

World builders shall decide what local laws exist in each location where a story takes place.

Examples:

  1. Alchemists must register with the local guild.
  2. Wizards must surrender their staves upon entering the city limits.
  3. Only valend wizards may create magic items.
  4. Only those with a valid permit may use magic items within city limits.
  5. Wizards will be killed on sight.
  6. Necromancy is forbidden except within 48 hours of the deceased’s burial.
  7. Wizards are not allowed on the city council.
  8. Those accused of witchcraft must identify another witch to avoid execution.
  9. Unlicensed mindreading, without written permission from the subject, is illegal.
  10. Public sources (such as the water well, torches, etc.) are not to be used for elemental magic.
  11. Elemental wizards who do not participate in resolving a public crises (like a flood or fire) are to be sentenced to one year’s hard labor.

Sixth Law

World builders shall follow the rules they set forth.

This rule applies to all world building, not just magic systems. Fantasy and SF audiences are adept at noticing our mistakes, so keep a list of all rules and abide by them. It can be best to narrate a rule with some flexibility. For example, “most (italics) wizards cannot do so-and-so.” One trick is to narrate the law this way: “people said wizards couldn’t do so-and-so.”  That makes it popular opinion, not a statement of fact. Another trick is to have a character, not the narrator, state a law. Characters don’t always get things right, so when our story proves them wrong, it’s not the author breaking our rule. However, do this on purpose. Why would we want to? Because we might want to suggest something to the reader, and then surprise them later, but it must be a good surprise. It is effective when a character finding out the truth protests that another character told them so; this also channels the audience’s potential upset into acceptance.

Seventh Law

For each location, world builders shall decide if magical training is available, what form it takes, what is involved, limitations imposed before graduation, testing criteria, and what restrictions if any exist on those who graduate.

This one is more of a suggestion; not doing so is unlikely to cause problems, while doing it will almost certainly benefit us. Examples:

  1. Training is only available via an apprenticeship where sanctioned by the sovereign power
  2. Wizards must pass the Kierdyn Test by the third attempt or have magic ability suppressed for life
  3. Prior to graduation, only low magic spells can be performed outside the guild
  4. Wizards are tested for the ability to release magic energy safely

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