Thursday, April 29, 2010

Storyteller: Rules of Magic

(Because Even Wizards Need Rules, Boundaries and Limitations)

For my first world-building topic I’m starting with magic. If you’re writing fantasy, urban fantasy, paranormal or even sci-fi there’s probably magic of some sort in your setting. I’m using a broad definition of magic here—it doesn’t have to be the big, flashy, chanting-in-an-arcane-language sort of variety. It can be as simple as a few psychic impressions (I’ve got a gut feeling that the killer will strike again), an alien race’s innate abilities (Vulcan mind meld, anyone?), or it can be some mystical energy controlling your destiny (Use the Force, Luke!). Whatever flavor of magic you’re using, I’m assuming you’ve put some thought into how it works in your world, because “it works because it’s magic!” isn’t engaging. My goal is to make you overthink how magic works. Gamers overthink it. We expect so many rules that we’ll buy supplemental rule books to learn more about the magic system in a game. And dedicated gamers know those rules backwards and forwards. I’ve sat through countless meals surrounded by gamers trying to figure out how to best manipulate the rules to benefit their characters. These players know the system and how to work it, bend it, break it beyond repair and make it cry for its mommy. Readers can be rather like these players—they’re memorizing your rules, so you’d better stick to them, or at the very least explain your reasoning when you make exceptions.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you build the world’s most complex magic system (I’ll leave that up to Wizards of the Coast). I am suggesting that a well thought out system adds depth to your setting and your characters as well. A writer should consider both the benefits and drawbacks of the magic in their world. Ultimate power comes with ultimate responsibility. If your wizard is hurling around fireballs left and right, he may want to consider the fact that he’s lighting his home/the village/the forest on fire too. If he doesn’t, you the author should, because that’s a fabulous opportunity to make him suffer. And making characters suffer is fun for everyone.

I’ve broken some suggestions for magic down into three different areas:

1.) Mana

In many RPGs, mana is the fuel that powers magic. Casters are given a finite amount of it, usually boosted through enchanted items, special skills and abilities, and through gaining levels. As you gain experience, usually by slaying monsters to complete quests, you become more powerful and gain a bigger mana pool. So why is this important? Because it puts limits on magic; the caster may be able to call down holy hellfire, but he can only handle so many spells at once. If your character can cast spells all day long without breaking a sweat, the game is boring. There’s no worry in that, no risk.

In World of Warcraft, when your character runs out of mana he or she will tell you, in a very calm but annoying voice, that they can’t cast that spell right now. (Thankfully there’s an option that lets you turn that voice off.) Being unable to cast a spell quickly gets on your nerves, especially if you’re surrounded by big angry ogres who are kicking your robe-wearing butt. It’s annoying to watch your health bar shrink until finally you die, and then you’re faced with the run of shame back to your body because you got greedy and picked a fight you couldn’t win.

Now imagine it from a writer’s point of view, in a setting where dying is actually permanent (gasp!) and something more important than loot and experience points are on the line: The hero is alone, surrounded on all sides by his attackers. He’s weak and bloodied, desperate to dredge up just enough power to cast one last spell and save himself from certain death. If he fails his quest, horrible things will happen to the people of his kingdom. All he needs is one… last… spell… Better, right? But in both examples the hero is struggling with the limits of his power, because power should have limits.

Mana can also be useful in deciding what the source of one’s magic is. Do they get it from an internal source, like their blood? Or an external force, like drawing it from nature? Is it from a divine source (think cleric, druid, or paladin)? An item, like an enchanted ring? (My preciousss…) Is it something they’re born with, or something that’s learned? Were midichlorians involved? (I hate you, George Lucas. So much. Flames. On the side of my face…)

Anyway, you get the idea. Onward!

2.) Caster Classes

In most RPGs your character belongs to a class—not a social or economic class, but an adventuring class, like warrior, ranger, thief, wizard, etc. Your class encompasses what sort of skills and abilities your character has, and most games have different sorts of magic users. They each approach magic in a different way. In WoW, mages cast big, direct damage spells to blast things to bits, priests either heal other players or zot things with evil shadow magic, and warlocks rely on the aid of a demon pet to distract the target while the warlock casts spells. In game terms, this allows players to choose a character that’s best suited to their playing style and allows for variety in groups (because sometimes you just don’t want to send a mage to do a warlock’s job). But in creating your own setting, these differences can allow for political plots. Like sneaky, shady magician politics, muahaha! Or plain old outright war magician politics. Do your different types of magic users play nice with each other? Or are they more likely to chase each other with scissors, pull hair, and kick other kids in the shins? Do they have religious differences? Are they allied with different kingdoms? For hire to the highest bidder? Are some nobility, while others are considered lower-class magic users? Are any of them rare, one-born-every-generation types?

Right, you get the idea. And once you figure out how your magic users interact with each other, then you can work on how the rest of the world feels about them. (“What else do we burn aside from witches?” “More witches!”)

3.) Critical Fail

We all know what happens when spells work right—fireballs, explosions, Jedi mind tricks—but what happens when they go wrong? When you’re considering the mechanics of how your magic works, you should also consider how it doesn’t work. And then what happens when it fails spectacularly. In some table top games, if you roll a 1 you automatically fail, and then the Game Master can take the opportunity to make your bad situation worse. I loved being evil to my players when they failed, because it opened up opportunities to do mean things to their characters. I’ve often heard authors give the advice that if you’re stuck in a scene, think of the worst thing that could possibly happen, and then write it. Pile on the adversity. It builds character.

In EverQuest, there was the possibility that your spell could fizzle, as in you’d go through the motions of casting it, it’d use up the mana, but nothing would happen. Boy did that suck if you were in a tough fight. So why not do that to your character? What happens if he’s facing down the villain and his spell fizzles? Or worse, what if it backfires? Fireballs sound cool until you’re on fire, with singed robes and no eyebrows. Or, what if the character is desperate and he tries something out of his area of expertise as a last ditch effort to save his life? Sure he casts that fireball, but it careens out of control and hits innocent bystanders too. Maybe he’s pissed and tries an evil spell. In The Courtship of Princess Leia, the witches of the planet Dathomir are Force users who weren’t trained as Jedi, but use the Force through casting spells. During one of the big fight scenes in the book one witch loses her temper as she uses a spell, and her use of the dark side manifests in a mark/bruise on her face. What’s worse is that anyone bearing that mark is expelled from her clan. Thus a moment of weakness results in huge drama for that character. A moment of fail can result in a lifetime’s worth of character angst.

I could talk forever about creating rules for magic, but now I want to hear from you. Are there any examples of “ooh, that was so cool!” that you’ve seen in other books/movies/games? Any questions about things that you’re stuck on in your writing?

Next week, we’ll discuss creating your own Monster Manuals, filled with all the things that go bump in the night, whether they try to kill your hero/heroine or they are your hero/heroine.


Nancy said...

The manuscript I am working on has a present day witch dabbling with witchcraft. What she DOES NOT know about her craft sends her into the past, so I agree we must show both sides of the power. Thanks!

Gwen Mitchell said...

Awesome post, Robyn! I agree whole-heartedly on all counts. Limits are so important to avoiding the "Mary Sue" complex. I can't say how many times I've seen writers pile on the conflict, paint their characters into nice little corners, and then Huzzah! uber magical powers solve all problems at once!

In my witch stories, the witches rely on a magical conduit that is the insulation between the mortal realm and the realms of light/dark. The strength of their connection to that conduit fluctuates based on the course of the moon and the balance of light/dark. So, at times when my witches are weaker, opposing forces of darkness are stronger. Basically, there's a finite amount of power to go around and it gets divied up differently at different times - no choice in the matter!

Thanks for the fabulous opening discussion. I'm gonna tweet this, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the Storyteller series (and your upcoming release).



iamtherobyn said...

@Nancy That's cool, and a good example of how what a character doesn't know can bite them. ;)

@Gwen Thanks! Ooh, I like that, that's a great way to show balance but create conflict between the two. Very cool.