Thursday, August 26, 2010

Magic: The Rules of the World, Part 1

Any good fantasy setting has, as one of its defining features, a distinctive magic system. Harry Potter has wands, pseudo-Latin, and magical ingredients; in D&D and its inspiration The Dying Earth, spells vanish from the wizard's mind once cast, and have to be laboriously memorized over and over; The Earthsea Trilogy and The Name of the Wind state that everything in the world can be controlled by their True Names. So, what would my magic be like?

First, I wanted to avoid the D&D tropes as much as possible, because their ideas have always seemed unnatural and unsatisfying. D&D's spells are laid out in a list, with the precise effect and limits laid out and unchangeable, where casting a spell is like picking off a  restaurant menu: when you cast "Magic Missile," it will always have exactly the same ingredients put together in exactly the same way -- the targets, damage, range, and effect are all exactly the same every time the spell is cast, with no leeway in changing it. I wanted my magic to be fluid, flexible, and to reward creativity -- I wanted the PCs to be chefs, cooking from scratch.

However, every chef needs ingredients and a cuisine. For magical ingredients, I was temporarily flummoxed -- I wasn't sure if I wanted the classic "words and gestures," and I was fairly certain I didn't want materials like eye of newt and toe of frog -- but what did I want? Energy from ley lines? Runes? True Names? I set that aside for the time being and moved on to the "cuisines" of magic. I wanted there to be more choice and flavor than "a wizard" able to do anything and everything -- a given magic-user should have a specialty, that informs not only what they are capable of, but who they are.

I started with a central division, between two fundamental concepts of the universe: Order and Chaos. So, every cuisine -- let's call them "disciplines," why not -- will fall under the auspices of Order or Chaos. Sounds like a good start. A good division, provides a central conflict between two types of mages/wizards -- let's call them "Crafters" -- without the moral difficulties of Good vs. Evil. So, what kind of magics should my world include?

We begin with the obvious: Elementalism. Since we're working on a dualistic system, we'll use the traditional Western 4-element system (Fire, Water, Wind, Earth) rather than the Eastern 5-element system (Fire, Water, Earth, Wood, Metal). So which belongs on which side of the dividing line? Fire is obviously Chaos -- and since Water is its opposite, that means Water is Order. Similarly, Earth is obviously Order, which makes Air Chaos.

So for now it looks like this:

Chaos Order
Fire Water
Air Earth

So, another handful of ideas, with a sense of where they go on Order and Chaos: Teleportation/Summoning, Telekinesis, Telepathy, Illusions, Necromancy, and Healing. And it seems like every discipline should have an opposite.

Chaos Order
Fire Water
Air Earth
Telekinesis ?
Healing? Necromancy?
Necromancy? Healing?
? Teleportation
? Telepathy
Illusions ?
Okay, so we've got something here -- though necromancy can be seen as either Chaos (controlling the forces of entropy and corruption) or Order (what's more ordered than dead people?), and since I like the idea of healing also including body modifications and transformation, it can also be seen as either Chaos or Order.

So let's fill this out a little more, with some fairly obvious opposites (or, at least, they're obvious to me...), and a few more disciplines I'm looking for in my game.

Shadow Control
Animal/Plant Control
Light Control
Magical Item Creation
Okay, so we've got a fair start here. But there are a couple places missing opposites, and the question is what goes where -- and there should be more divisions than just Order vs. Chaos -- there's an obvious division between physical and mental, but maybe we can do something else...

Join me next time for Magic: The Rules of the World, Part 2 to determine the answers to these dilemmas.