White and Black Magic - The Art of World Building
Feb 152021

When most of us think of magic, we mean wizardry unless indicating a subtype as described in this section. Wizardry is broadly defined as the harnessing of magical energy, using any combination of words, gestures, and components (aka ingredients), with practitioners in a robe, wielding a staff, and being of advanced age; all of these clichés are best avoided.

Once we define types of magic, we begin breaking them into groups that people can perform or not. What follows is a high-level discussion of several types, but more can be found with an internet search. There are specialized forms of magic that other world builders have imagined, which are public domain, and which we might want to include in a setting in addition to anything we devise.

When deciding on our needs, we should consider how many people can perform each type of magic and why that is. Rarity means more valuable and feared. The specialists in this section are just that and can be treated as generally less available unless our setting and story requires a lot of them. The next chart lists reasons for magic being rare or common.

Reasons for RarityReasons for Commonplace
It’s dangerousIt’s safe
It’s fearedIt’s accepted
Practitioners are fearedPractitioners are admired
Training is unavailable, limited, hard, or costlyTraining is available, easy, and inexpensive
Materials needed to perform it are hard to acquireMaterials are plentiful
Spell books are rare or poorSpell books are common and good
Talent is rareTalent is common
There’s no money in itIt’s lucrative
Family and friends shun youFamily and friends are not impacted

For each magic type in our setting, we can mix and match commonplace and rarity, such as making the talent or spell books common, the magic dangerous, and the materials rare. Such variations make our worlds more believable and help distinguish types from each other.

White and Black Magic

Magic can either be beneficial or harmful to others and the environment. These are referred to as white and black magic, respectively. We can also think of them as good and evil, possibly associating them with good and evil beings (gods, demons, etc.) as the provider of each. This can mean that a wizard aligns himself with a deity, who might have requirements for behavior and their mental or spiritual state. A white wizard might need to be noble, benevolent, and kind, for example, and perform mostly for the benefit of others (rather than the self) or access to the power fails.

Black magic may include voodoo with its hexes, curses, poisons, and association with zombies. What must a black magic wizard be like or do regularly? Sacrifice animals or people? Sow discord? Black magic is considered bad due to being used for selfish or evil purposes. In popular culture, practitioners are feared and shunned not only for their practices, but what those practices say about them as people. This is a convenient way to characterize someone.

Those with a poor understanding of either may confuse someone doing white magic with one doing black magic; this trope has been used with witches, where all are branded evil due to ignorance and fear of their practices, reputation, or appearance. Other types of magic in this section can be considered black, such as necromancy or shamanism, but this often results from ignorance about the practices. People fear what they don’t understand, and we can cause conflict by including magic practitioners that act, dress, or talk strangely or secretively (even if for good reasons). For all magic types, consider dividing them along this good vs. evil axis. Another option is “grey magic” that lies between these extremes.


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