Writing Excuses Episode 14: Magic Systems and their Rules

Does magic need rules? Sometimes yes and sometimes no; our intrepid podcasters talk about how to know which situation is which, and explore the pros and cons of each method. We’ll also yak for a while about the differences between Superman and Gandalf, which makes us, if nothing else, huge nerds.

Liner Notes:

Sanderson’s first law

This week from our sponsor, Tor: The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two B ,by Ben Bova (Editor)

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84 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Episode 14: Magic Systems and their Rules”

  1. I love you guys! I’ve been killing myself to try to come up with a decent magic system for a story, and I wake up this morning to find that you guys did a podcast on it!

    Get out of my head, get out of my head!

    Now you just need to make one about how to make good names for characters and cities. =)

  2. > Now you just need to make one about how to make good names for characters and cities. =)

    You’re on to something there, Faith_Cross. It takes ages for me to come up with good names for my characters, and I just can’t seem to get things to flow until I actually know each character’s name.

  3. Thanks so much for this podcast! I love hearing you guys talk about this stuff. The magic system is often what really draws me into a book. When I think about the times I’ve sat and thought to myself “if only I were a Mistborn.” (Yes, I have no life.)

    And Howard, thank you for finally hitting the nail on the head about Harry Potter.

  4. As some who grew up reading comics and fantasy I was delighted with your discussion of both genres. What do you think are the biggest mistakes beginning fantasy writers make with their magic systems?

  5. I’d say noob mistake number one (which we have all made) is having a magic system with no costs. Even if you’re magic doesn’t have rules, per se, it should have a cost–there should be repercussions for its use. We talk about that more next week, though, so I won’t go into it.

    Noob mistake number two is, quite simply, breaking Sanderson’s law: solving problems with magic, but without any rules to give your problem-solving a logical framework.

    The first book I wrote broke both of these rules, usually at the same time. It was horrible, but I’ve gotten better (or so I tell myself).

  6. I like Sanderson’s law very much. I’ve read about a number of the noob mistakes like those Dan mentions here. However, I’ve never heard the distinction that Sanderson’s law makes, as well as the corresponding benefits you guys listed. As usual, great stuff!

    I had another comment I thought of on my commute, but it won’t come to me now.

  7. Interesting podcast today. Thanks. It seems to me this discussion aptly applies to sci-fi stuff as well. Technology that we do not have nor are close to achieving in essence is “magic” to us. While some (many) things in sf may be based upon real science, it seems to me that most of the “magic” technology exists because the story needs it. This is perhaps most prevalent in the “space opera” genre. Take space flight for example. Galactic sf stories tend to rely upon some form of “warp speed,” “hypersapce” or “stargate” to travel, because how else are you going to get from point “A” to astronomically far away point “B”? I think the better the defined rules of travel are, the more solidly the story hangs true. Sci-fi stories without fully defined “magic” technology, have to continually fall back on techno-babble to legitimize whatever “magic” fix is going to take place.

    I think the show “Stargate” is an interesting example of a rule based “magic” transport system. The writers thought out the method and implications of the technology. How do you get from point “a” to “b”, well you need the “address” of the place you want to connect to. They considered the problem of how stars continually move, and over time, the “address” may get distorted to the point that you can no longer make a connection. Calls can only go “one way”. How do you defend yourself from unwanted visitors? Create an metal iris that will interfere with rematerialization on your end. Stargate uses as much techno-babble as any other sci-fi show, and can suffer at times because of it, but I think this show has endured as long as it has (in its varied forms) in part because of the really well defined rules governing the “powers” or limitations of its “magic” transport system. Sure the stargate is a gimmick, but it is a well thought out one, and the audience respects this.

    In general, whether fantasy or sci-fi, I think defining your magic system has everything to do with what kind of world you are creating. When you decide on the rules, structure or limitations of how someone uses the magic / technology, all other sorts of questions then come up: Who can use this magic / technology? Priests? Hackers? Wizards? Mad scientists? The chosen few, or one? Is the magic / technology the source of political or military power? Etc. These question help to sharpen your world, your plot, and your characters’ personalities and motivations. The better defined of a magic system, I think the more fully realized the world becomes. Thus it becomes easier and more enjoyable for us, the reader / viewer to visualize the world and imagine ourselves wandering around in it.

    Note to Howard: I would argue that you have created and defined a magic system with your teraport “technology,” as well as with defining the “magical” abilities / properties of Schlock himself.

  8. I’ve been enjoying these podcasts. This one was nice in that it helped me realize that a magic system I’ve been working on and thinking of as hard, was only hard in that it had a psudo-scientific rational, not because it had any particular rules about what it can or cannot do. Thank you for helping me appreciate this distinction.

    I prefer hard magic systems. I think it is because I’m an avid player of RPGs and you really cannot have a soft magic system in an RPG, because, even if you ban wizards as PCs (thus essentially denying your audience magic using viewpoint characters), most gamers are still legitimately going to want to know enough about the magic system to enable them to kill the evil wizard if they have to.

  9. Wonderful! Interesting – insightful – fun!

    I read a lot of fantasy and I’ve read quite a lot of comics (belonging to my brothers, actually – Spiderman, Fantastic Four, X-men, Daredevil) growing up – so I especially enjoyed this podcast.

    Another advantage to having no rules is of course that one can do pretty much whatever one wants. If the novel/story is meant to be suspensful, of course, this obviously might not be a good thing – the deus ex machina. However, I think it works very well in “Alice in Wonderland”. And the person with the problem shoul of course not be using it – that is a really interesting point.

  10. Where to start…

    How about with contradicting Howard? Howard hasin fact created his own magic system! I believe it was Larry Niven who stated (paraphrasing) any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Harry Potter has a port key, and Commander Andreyasn has a terraport. The important thing to note is that each has its own internal logic.

    Whatever rules that you apply to your story (or world if you are world building) only need to apply within that story (or world). Case in point is the movie Pan’s Labyrinth: all of the fantastic events and creatures encountered by the young girl fall within a Grimm’s Fairytale sort of logic.

    Years ago I did a lot of research into both fictional and non-fictional magic, and wrote a ‘treatise on magick’ (yes, with the lame ‘k’ on the end). The exercise functioned on two levels: first as a means for me to understand how I think the magic should work, and also to write the system down as the character would say or write it. The treatise was written ‘in character’ as if it was a medieval grimmoire. Careful reading would show that I obliquely quote Ursula K. LeGuin, Alistair Crowley, Katherine Kurtz, Heinrich Agrippa, Yoda and others. However, it was not intended to be read by anyone but myself.

    Over 15 years later as I write my screen plays, occasionally I have a character spout off some magical law or theorem as if they read it in school or were forced to recite it as a child. They are actually just quoting from the treatise. It is the framework that I work within.

    If one was to take the time to read all of the (gratuitous amount of) background information that went into Tolkein’s Middle Earth one would find the rules that applied to Gandalf. He could do certain things because he wore one of the Elvin rings. But like the other Istari such as Saruman, Radagast, Alatar and Pallando, Gandalf also had angelic-like powers. They are the lesser Maiar (angel) to the greater Valar (archangels). So he would be superhuman but not quite god-like in powers. But again, this is all in the background and was unnecessary to spell out in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. (And yes, I had to look all that stuff up and didn’t have it memorized!)

    I think it is helpful for an author to set up a framework for their magic system, but with wiggle room for adjustments.

  11. Karl commented “I believe it was Larry Niven who stated (paraphrasing) any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Actually it was Arthur C. Clarke that said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” (though it’s been quoted a lot by a lot of folks).

    Larry Niven countered by stating “any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.”

    I found (hopefully correct!) references here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clarke's_three_laws.

    Karl also excellently pointed out the back story of Gandalf. Tolkien knew all that stuff, and Gandalf’s abilities/strengths/weaknesses made internal sense to him. On the other hand, I guess Tolkien knew it was not necessary to weary the reader with all the explicit detail in the Lord of the Rings.

    Karl, writing the treatise sounds like a good exercise in world building.

  12. @Howard: Hey, it’s Professor Wikipedia, so it must be correct :-P

    I wish they had referenced the source of the quote.

  13. Great podcast guys! I am new to these, but I have listened to all of them in the past couple weeks.

    Thanks for your distinctions on rule-based magic systems vs. those who aren’t. I for one, am someone who is very annoyed by magic “systems” which don’t have internally consistent rules. I think “Sanderson’s Law” is a real gem for all fantasy (and sci-fi) writers to keep in mind (even if they’re going to “break” it).

    I agree that technology in sci-fi serves the same purposes as magic in fantasy. Compare the technology in Star Wars (non rule-based) versus that in Star Trek (rule based). There are books out there by physicists talking about how Star Trek tech “could” work. There are similar books about the Star Wars “tech”, but I don’t think they make nearly as much sense. No one’s been able to satisfactorily explain how a lightsaber would work, for instance. I think your discussion on magic rule systems can directly tie into your podcast on sci-fi genres (space opera vs. hard sci fi).

    As for the mention of character and city names, I have one suggestion:
    Study other languages. As Brandon pointed out on one of his Mistborn annotations, fantasy writers often (knowingly or not) use words from other languages when they make up character and place names. For instance, in the Death Gate Cycle, Weiss and Hickman used the word “mensch” as a way for the magical races to refer to the nonmagical races. Mensch means “people” in German. By the way, I think it’s especially cool if the real-world meaning makes sense to the fantasy meaning, if that makes sense for your story (it did in Death Gate because it was really set in the far distant future). Also, on this topic, don’t forget the more obscure languages, like the Native American languages, and other tribal languages throughout the world. Some of them have very neat and “alien” sounds. I heard Lucas used tribal languages as bases for a lot of his alien languages in Star Wars, but I don’t know if that’s true.

  14. I just had a thought as I was reading over the blog posts again. In one of your other podcasts you mentioned the idea of having one unimportant element of your world that you explain a lot, and another fundamental part of your world that you don’t explain at all.

    How do you think it would work if the part you DIDN’T explain was how your magic worked? You have a system worked out, but you never explain it, making the reader have to figure it out for themselves.

  15. Guerry: Thanks for the correction. I no longer believe it was Larry Niven who said that. I stand corrected!

    The major hazard in using the treatise I created is that I have to ignore large sections that were derived from other well known authors. I admire Katherine Kurtz too much to have her sue my dupa off for copyright infringement. So I mostly rely on the parts that were non-fiction derived or the sections of my own contrivance.

    I suppose one of the disappointments for me in reading fantasy, and the cause of my writing the treatise, was that many authors gloss over their own rules (if they have any). I got tired of reading ‘…and then he uttered something incomprehensible that drifted away on the wind…’

    I would also say that the reverse of Mr. Clarke’s dictum is also true: that any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology. In one of Roger Zelazny’s Dilvish the Damned he has one wizard examining a spell created by another wizard step by step to see how it works. It struck me that it was the equivalence of one programmer reading the software code of another programmer to see how the program worked.

  16. Nitpick about the Witch King’s death in the book: Eowyn is just a brief distraction and gets badly wounded for her trouble. One of the hobbits (Merry, I think) gets the kill, using one of the Numenorian swords they found in the Barrow Downs. The rule is negated by a distinction of race, not gender, and it’s helped along by the work of an ancient master smith.

  17. As regards Gandalf, I still believe that even if you read all the backstory (and I have read most of it), there are never any real rules to his magic. Yes, he can cast flame-based stuff because he has the fire-based ring; that’s not a rule, it’s an explanation. Gandalf can do magical things by tapping into the magic energies of Middle Earth and the powers of creation itself, but we don’t know where those energies come from, how they are used, what they can do, what they cost, or anything else. As Karl and Guerry pointed out, Tolkien didn’t bother telling us all of that stuff because it wasn’t important to his story, but I would further posit that Tolkien didn’t bother figuring it out at all. It was enough to know that Gandalf could do anything the story called upon him to do, and that most of the stuff in the story would be done by other characters.

    Now, as is always the case with Tolkien, we have to point out that our statements are not derogatory; no, he didn’t have rules to his magic, and no, that’s not a bad thing. He didn’t need them for the story he was telling. If you write a story that uses magic in a similar way, you don’t need rules either. It all depends on the needs of your story; neither end of the scale is inherently right or wrong.

  18. Well to be sure.
    First and probably last post here.
    Enharmonic is your magical word.
    Just.solves.everything
    (have to know a bit about music to understand.)
    Magic or ‘majik’ is mostly fruitloop bullshit wrapped in nonsense, what is left is dangerous to yourself and others; madness as it were.
    Stay sane and write hard science.

  19. Hi – Great podcast as always – thanks to all for doing them :)

    I have two characters in my urban fantasy novel who use magic – one is pretty standard natural magic stuff which I’m pretty comfortable with. The other is more techno-magic – and despite my teccie background – I was feeling less sure of him.

    Think I’ll go back to the basics and stick some rules around his system as is discussed here, and see if he becomes more credible to me – then also hopefully to readers.

    Cheers for the inspiration.

  20. @Douglas: I have often wondered the same thing for many years. In all my Tolkien back-reading, I have never seen it stated definitively that Merry actually struck the mortal blow. I had actually settled my mind that Eowyn killed the witch king, and that Merry’s ability to strike any blow came from the Numenorean knife he wielded. Tolkien did say that that knife was originally made by its creator to be able to hurt the witch-king, special made for the purpose. Have you read anywhere from Tolkien that Merry actually did the mortal blow? Just curious. I love that stuff too much. :-)

    @Dan: I agree with your statement “I would further posit that Tolkien didn’t bother figuring it out at all.” I don’t think Tolkien ever really laid out rules or bounds on magic or powers or such. What I was particularly addressing is that there is all this back-story about Gandalf’s identity and where he comes from, who he served, etc. (all of which lends creedence to his powers), and Tolkien barely touches on it in the Rings trilogy.

  21. About Eowyn: AFAIK She did take the kill. Merrin just distracted the “Dunklen Reiter” with a stab from an ancient knife.

    She did slice her sword below his crown, and she lost any strength in her arm as a result, because she went against a foe which was too big for her.

    But she won.

    And I think Gandalf had rules: “The powerful can feel the magic” – when he created fire in the mountains above the mines of moria he said “now I have shown myself”, and that is a severe limitation – and a rule how magic works.

    Besides: For all german speaking in here (I know there are some), here’s a resource for creating magic systems in roleplaying games:

    http://rollenspielmagie.de

    -> Articles on summoners magic (and how it fits almost every system), difference between what the mages believe and what the rules say, many ideas for magic beliefs, etc.

    (yes, I already posted this in Howards blog – I think it helps people who work out magic systems – and I began writing it, when I was horrified by a book which called gemstone magic “revolutionary”, even though the mages just said “this is a ruby, so I can shoot fire with it” – I didn’t want to read something like that again, so I created a resource for people who want to create their own magic system – and do it a bit more creatively :) ).

  22. Arne:
    You’re absolutely correct: one of the very big, very major rules of Tolkien’s magic system (which we failed to mention) is that other powerful magic users can sense it every time you use it. Sauron knows when someone wears the ring. Saruman can feel it when Gandalf does something big, and vice versa. Even normal people can feel a change when in the presence of magic.

    More often than not, this rule is used as a way to limiting magic so that it is not used to solve problems. The entire concept of the Fellowship, in fact, springs from the idea that the ringbearer must fly under the radar in order to get his job done, and by the time they get to Moria Gandalf has realized that his very presence is a threat to the ring, because monsters and bad guys are drawn to him because of his magic signature (so to speak).

  23. My first post was going on memory. Now, looking at the actual text of the scene, I must say that paragraph is poorly written. The final blow is delivered by ‘her’ and ‘she’ where the obvious person for pronouns in those positions to refer to is Merry. Despite having a name that I have always thought of as feminine, however, Merry is male, so it has to be Eowyn.

    So, Eowyn did definitively get the final blow.

    However, a paragraph three pages later describing what happens to Merry’s sword makes it quite clear that Eowyn’s attack by itself would not have been sufficient – “No other blade, not though mightier hands had wielded it, would have dealt that foe a wound so bitter, cleaving the undead flesh, breaking the spell that knit his unseen sinews to his will.”

    Final conclusion: They have to split the credit. Oh, and Tolkien had some poor pronoun use.

  24. I have to side with those who believe that Tolkein did not create a complete magic system. He, unlike many fantasy writers today, was writing from position that was heavily influenced by myth, folk lore/fairy tale, and epic poetry. Specifically, he drew his inspiration from the Nordic and European legends/sagas like the Kalevala. I am no expert on these texts but rarely do they have what we could call a magic system. The heroes of these stories, like the heroes in Lord of the Rings, use magic to further the story. Even though all writers draw on the myths and folk stories from around the world, few intend to create myth. I may be wrong but I thought one of Tolkein’s intentions was create a mythology for England (or was it the Anglo-Saxons).

  25. I’d have to say with regards to Tolkien that he didn’t need to explain his magic system because he never tells the story from the viewpoint of a magic user. Its always the hapless hobbit ‘meddling in the affairs of Wizards’ that is awed by the supernatural fireworks, or watching the true king bringing someone back from the grave.
    He does explain some of his magic though. Example, the Seeing Stones. Its been awhile and i have no idea where i got this from, but in one of his collections of notes he explains in detail how the Palantir work. It takes great will to command a Stone, you must be looking in the right direction, if what you want to see is not open to light you cannot see it, and so on. You could never read a magic tome with a Stone because light does not fall on all the pages.

  26. Okay, my two cents:

    Tolkien’s whole point was that magic doesn’t solve problems; it creates them. Humans, and even, though to a lesser extent, Elves and Ainur (angels) cannot be trusted with power. And, being the staunch Catholic that he was, he wanted to demonstrate the Biblical principle that God chose the weak things of this world to shame the wise. That’s why Frodo and Sam are more dynamic characters who ultimately resolve the central conflict, not the mighty Aragorn, Elrond, Galadriel or Gandalf. As a result, whether he thought of it this way or not, there was no point in demonstrating a rule base for the magic system, because it was never intended to solve any problems.

    There, I said it. Moving on to rule-based systems in general, and hard magic in particular.

    My very favorite kind of fantasy is the kind with a massivly complex world structure and a firmly rule-based magic system that the author explains about 5% of, and I have to pry the rest out for myself. The best example I can think of is Steven Brust’s Khaavren novels, starting with The Phoenix Guards. All of the characters know what’s going on, and the narrator knows what’s going on, so none of them try to explain it, and it is a beautiful thing to behold.

    I’m a scientist by trade, so as a writer, I strive for hard magic. You can bend the Laws of Thermodynamics, but you can’t break them. Genetics, the conservation of matter, the chemistry of blood oxygenation, the geological forces behind fossil fuels–it’s all got to get at least a nod, or I don’t want to use it. It makes me wonder, though, how big the hard magic audience base is. Someone mentioned ‘genre-less monstrosities’ in a previous podcast as being commercially unviable. I love it, but does anybody else?

  27. This was an excellent discussion on magic systems.

    Thanks a lot for the LotR spoilers, Brandon…

    :)

  28. Off topic: I didn’t realize you were making up the example of Spock’s extra eyelids until you called them radioactive. I can’t name the episode, but it involved a planet invaded by giant brain cells. Long story short, Spock’s extra eyelids had nothing to do with solving that problem; they were an end-of-episode retcon to give his eyesight back. Of course, it was handled without any grace whatsoever.

    Further off-topic: Despite being a white guy myself, I have lots of trouble telling apart the three white guys on this show. I desperately wish I could offer a solution.

  29. I can think of at least four ‘hard’ magic stories/series:

    Master of the Five Magics by Lyndon Hardy
    A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
    The Deryni series by Katherine Kurtz
    The Lord Darcy books by Randall Garrett

    There’s another book I read a few years back that a friend loaned to me. It was set in a roughly contemporary timeperiod in the North American continent where magic worked and the British Empire still ruled what is now the USA. The main character was a field agent for this world’s version of the EPA, however protecting the populas from dangerous leftover magical pollution. It was quite funny and insightful. And if I remember rightly it had a specific means by which magic was allowed to work (i.e. government regulated) as well as how the magic functioned in a practical sense. Wish I could remember the author’s name or the title of the book. I should track down a copy for my own collection.

    I’m sure there are others. I’m sure opinions will vary on what defines ‘hard’ magic.

  30. It has always bothered me the X-Men have no rules defining mutation; It leads to the story device of “How do we solve this problem?” with the answer being “Let’s create a new character whose mutation solves the problem!”

    It seems like taking the easy way out, with no consequence.

  31. I allways thought of Gandalf on Tolkien as a Deus Ex Machina. Allways having the solution, allways knowing what needs knowing and allways arriving on the neck of time.
    So with that in mind, I dont think he was under the same rule system of magic as where the Arda dweling races.
    As for the magic system, I allways use in both my stories, and my RPG groups magic that allways takes as much as it gives.
    Let me quote Terry Pratchett here…well I cant remember the exact quote, but it was on the lines that if you try to lift a huge log with just the power of your mind, then your brain will pop from your ears. Or something like that anyhow.
    Bottom point is, that magic is just another means to do things differently, and maybe more efficiently, and the real difficulty in it is finding the right place to push, so things happen with the less amount of effort.
    Offcourse considering that this type of system…takes a bit the magic away from magic(no pun intended) , i find myself sometimes using what I call outside forces (deus ex machinas again) that have tremendous powers on their own, and can be considered forces of nature that the character, or vilain can tap in and disturb the balance, thus creating another plot.

  32. Karl: that would be the Case of the Toxic Spell Dump which I also quite liked.

    Jen: I’m inclined to think that many people who play RPGs would prefer rules based hard magic systems, simply because they will have grown used to the idea that magic has rules that must be obeyed as opposed to the idea that, well, “a wizard did it, don’t worry about how.”

  33. I would like to say that a large chunk of what you folks were talking about on the podcast was really just Chekov’s law (no, not the Star Trek guy, the original one). If you have a gun in the third act, you have it in the first act. All the stuff about laying out the rules of magic is just putting out the gun in the first act (or at least before the third act) so that you can pull the trigger in the third act.

    There’s the generic rule of writing that you don’t just pull something out of nowhere before the ending to solve the hole that you’ve written yourself into. That applies to magic systems, technology in science fiction, as well as to more conventional stories. You don’t end a murder mystery (or any other story) by pulling out a totally new character with no foreshadowing in the final chapter.

  34. I was listening to this podcast for the third time this morning, taking notes. At one point, all of you were talking about the benefits of having rules for your magic. Howard mentioned how his daughter had internalized the magic rules from “Mistborn”, and how that was in affect a “sense of wonder”. Then and you guys went back and forth trying to define that sense of wonder as opposed to the sense of wonder typically spoken of when reading spec fic.

    A way to express that particular “sense of wonder”, I think, and not get into overloaded phrases, would be this: Having rules for your magic allows the reader to be an apprentice to that magic system, and if your perspective character walks the path from apprentice to master, then so does the reader. This engages them into the system, and allows them the apprentice’s sense of wonder. Something like that anyway. Personally, I love that stuff.

    I’ve begun reading “Mistborn” and just hit Kelsier’s visit to the fortress looking for, er, supplies, ahem, anyway, not looking to drop spoilers. But, the magic system really took off there, and wow, quite cool stuff Brandon.

  35. I found Lawrence Watt-Evans’ article on the laws of fantasy very interesting http://www.watt-evans.com/lawsoffantasy.html

    Based on this podcast, I would say these are laws for hard fantasy not soft fantasy. I’ve read a lot of his stuff, and would say that he has magical systems similar to Mistborn, with clearly defined rules.

  36. Thanos:
    I can safely say that “on the neck of time” is my new favorite phrase.

    Cy:
    Yeah, I couldn’t remember exactly what the extra eyelids did in the story, but I remembered it was dumb. And they did that ALL THE TIME with Spock. They would occasionally do that with Worf as well (“That should have killed him, but it turns out Klingons have a full second set of internal organs. Who knew?”). We can do better than this, guys.

    By the way, this is Dan, but when I’m on my home computer it always identifies me as admin instead. I don’t know why.

  37. I absolutely loved this podcast. I thoroughly enjoyed this episode. And as always, I find your banter hilarious.

    I love to design magic systems, although I often find myself over thinking it; everything has to be balanced, has to make sense, etc. You’d think I was designing a board game or something!

  38. This podcast embodies what’s so great about books like Mistborn (W.E. theme music here) and the Dave Wolverton series Runelords–the magic has costs. You know that when tin is being burned, by golly, no obligator will find you. You run out of metals to burn, you die.

    Anyway, got some great ideas for my own magic system, especially with the link to Sanderson’s Law. The superhero system being explained as hard magic made total sense and was ultimately helpful.

    Thanks for the great casts!

  39. Thanks guys and gals for a great week blogging. For three days straight I have checked the comments to see what people have posted. Martin and Guerry your last comments were right on. Also, looking forward to next week’s magic system segement. Dan, Howard, Brandon, and mystery Admin (or this really Dan?) thanks for providing me with weekly thought-provoking dish of quality entertainment.

  40. I’d be interested in your take on Robert Jordan’s magic system. Especially Brandon’s take, as he’s in the position of having to really think about it.

    I find I think tWoT books are somewhere inbetween rule-based and no-rules systems. Saidar is very rule based, the rules are fleshed out well, and explained mostly to the reader, mostly because the Aes Sedai have been using and studying it throughout the age. However, there are Ter’Angreal that they don’t understand. There seem to be rules for them, but they haven’t figured them out, and we don’t know them. Until the end of the series there are a lot of other rules that aren’t revealed to the reader, as well (making of Angeal, the real nature of ‘stilling’ and what can be done about it, the nature of healing, etc).

    Saidin, however, is much more an unknown quantity. Obviously some of the rules are shared, but Jordan makes the point that not all of them are (the way Rand puts out fire would be deadly to a Saidar user because of the nature of the different halves, and the way in which the source is accessed and managed are two examples of stark differences).

    Rand is another great example in that the readers *don’t* know what he can do. Heck, *Rand* doesn’t know what he can do, he’s constantly doing things that surprise him and others around him (usually with the help of Lews Therin: The swirling death gates and many other things used in that scene, the dark-friend-seeking lightning in the stone of Tear, etc). We also find places in the books where known “rules” are shown to be false (unreversible stilling, the taint on the male half of the source) or are changed by the users of the magic. This was one of the most interesting things to me, that the users of the magic seemed able to change some of the rules. For Rand there are many circumstances where hard rules may exist, but they haven’t been revealed to either the reader or the character.

    So, I guess what it boils down to: Is it enough to have rules that you follow in writing without revealing them to the readers or even to the characters to satisfy Sanderson’s first law?

  41. I might be biased because I’m in the middle of writing what I’d describe as an “urban fantasy” novel, but I think it was a great discussion on a very interesting topic, and very thought-provoking. Can’t wait for the next podcast. :-)

    Just one small (personal) nit I’d like to pick: It may be a good idea to define what you guys are talking about a little sooner than halfway into the discussion. The “oh, hey, and what we mean by rule-based magic is….” moment came rather late.

  42. pneumonochrome:
    To answer your final question, I’m very tempted to say no–your ability to solve problems with magic hinges on your ability to manipulate or exploit the rules of magic, and if the reader doesn’t know those rules then it will still feel like cheating even when the rules are actually quite firm.

    Consider a mystery novel, where the detective says “we know that Mr. Billingsworth is the killer because of this deposit in his swiss bank account,” except that the reader had no idea that anybody had a swiss bank account, or that it was important to the story. Within the world of the novel, that solution works because it is very strict and very simple and follows very clear rules, but from the reader’s perspective it’s a big fat cheat because the swiss bank account seemingly appeared out of nowhere.

    Now, on the other hand, rule-based magic that follows its own rules but never gets explained to us can still work if used properly. If one guy can shoot fireballs out of his hands, and does so throughout the book, and then uses those fireballs to solve the problem at the end, that’s fine–we don’t need to know how he does it, as long as we accept that he can. Guns are the same way: you point at something, pull the trigger, and the something dies; we don’t need to know how, we just need to know that it happens consistently. Now, if sometimes you pull the trigger and the target gets healed, or gets painted blue, or changes gender, then we’re going to get confused. If our fireball-shooting hero solves the final problem by shooting ice, that doesn’t work–we don’t know what rules your magic follows, but we know that our understanding of those rules has just been broken.

    In answer to your first, and much bigger, question, I’ll tell you right now that I don’t dare discuss WoT online. I get raked across the coals when I discuss Tolkien, despite knowing his work really well and usually being quite complimentary of it; Wheel of Time, which I don’t know very well at all and which has an even more rabid fanbase, I wisely stay away from.

  43. Glad you liked it Dan.
    Just allow me to correct myself, cause lack of caffeine does that to you…
    Its actually ”IN the neck of time” .
    I ll go get me some more coffee now.
    Great Podcast by the way, cant wait for part 2.

  44. Dan: Thanks for the response. On rereading Sanderson’s First Law of Magics, I agree with you. And the way the law is written it indicates this rather unambiguously: ability to solve problems with magic is directly proportional to the reader’s understanding of the magic.

    Which leaves me still wondering about the magic in tWoT, because it certainly seems to me to defy that rule, but I still ove the books, and I think that Jordan has made it work, leaving me to try to analyze why it works.

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