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Systems of Magic - Part 2

Some observations about magical fiction which I hope will help other game designers to craft the mythologies of their games.

Bobby Lockhart, Blogger

June 10, 2014

8 Min Read

I'm Rob Lockhart, the Creative Director of Important Little Games.  If you were to follow me on twitter, I'd be grateful.


I'm working on an educational game that involves magic and magical epistemology.  Consequently, I've been doing a lot of research about magical systems.  I'm sharing my thoughts for those of you who may one day include magic in your games.

Whereas the last blog post in this series acts as a sort of catalog of magical systems I'd read about at that time, I've attempted here to synthesize some ideas about the underlying philosophies of these systems, in part prompted by some additional recent reading.



Human beings have developed two methods of precise communication: Programs, which are made to communicate precisely to machines, and Legalese, which is used to communicate precisely to other minds.

Many fantasy worlds use the metaphor of a 'contract' with supernatural forces.  It's a pretty straightforward step of the imagination to imagine forming a contract with a demon, a faierie, or any other more-or-less anthropomorphic entity.  Dr. Faustus is the example that comes most readily to mind.  Daniel Abraham's Long Price Quartet, too, is centered on this idea.

However, the most powerful application of this concept is when you combine it with Animism, the belief that all natural substances possess souls (which, in the ancient world, is equivalent to saying that everything has a mind).  If everything has a mind, you can potentially create a contract with anything - so long as you can communicate with it.

Often these two types of magic coexist within the same mythology.  For example, in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Mr. Norrell is capable of the animistic sort of magic only after being 'enlightened' after a fashion.  Recently, I picked up The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic, in which the 'second-order' magic of agreements with humanlike beings is accessible to anyone who has the inclination to learn, whereas 'first-order' magic is available only to those with an ineffable 'knack.'

Somewhat in-between is Monism, the idea, popularized by Calculus inventor Gottfried Liebniz, that everything has some amount of 'mind stuff,' or monads.  Monads are not full minds, but can be thought of as mind-fragments.  Presumably things like rocks and trees have just a few.  Humans have enough for a whole mind.  As I understand it, according to Liebniz, God is basically made up of a metric shit-ton of monads.  Individual monads are mechanistic, like logic gates, but can be arranged to do information processing of arbitrary complexity.

This view, as fantastical as it may seem, may have some basis in fact.  Stephen Wolfram, in his book A New Kind of Science, points out that there are surprisingly many natural systems which are in the band between simplistic and chaotic, and that many of these, in turn, are capable of computation.  It's this underlying philosophy that I adopt in Codemancer -- that many natural systems are at least capable of following the kinds of algorithms we feed to computers today, if not the kind that produce what you'd call a Mind.  I'd still classify this as a form of first-order magic, but with a less mystical flavor.

In first-order magic, the mechanism for feeding requests or instructions to these beings is often, of necessity, a bit hand-wavy.  Talking to a demon may be easy because the demon has met you at your own level.  Demons usually speak the local language, and transmit them using sound waves as most of us do.  What language to the beings of first order programming speak?  In Codemancer, they speak a programming language, but in most stories they require some kind of unspecified mental discipline.  Even so, nobody, including Codemancer, explains how the signal of first-order magic is transmitted from magic-user to enchanted object.



Fantasy worlds often need an explanation of why Magic cannot be done by just anyone.  This usually boils down to some kind of genetics (or its equivalent, the 'ineffable knack' I spoke of earlier).  Sometimes two non-magic-users (or 'Muggles' in the parlance of Harry Potter) can produce a magic-user, evidently by some sort of a recessive gene.  In any case, there is an exclusive class of beings with magical abilities, and the rest of the world which has no inkling of the cataclysmic supernatural goings-on which form the plot of these tales.

To me, the business smacks of the servile.  The Divine Right of Kings is dredged up in this fashion and fed to children, essentially teaching that you are either one of the chosen or you're not.  No amount of striving -- no amount of sacrifice can bring you from one category into the other.  This is an ugly feature of magical fantasy which could easily be done away with.

One of the worst offenders is the Amber series by Roger Zelazny, which I enjoyed very much despite its problematic message.  It began with magic-use as entirely limited to the royal family of a fantastical realm (known as Amber) -- numbering a dozen or so people.  Later in the series, genealogical excuses are made to bring more and more characters into the club.

Occasionally it's a quality of one's character - purity of heart, or determination that grants magical ability.  The Neverending Story, as well as some versions of the Arthurian and Thor legends make use of this concept.  This is a step in the right direction.  Still a bit too obscure, in my opinion, how one would go about improving one's own 'purity of heart.'  Perhaps this is where magical systems and theology intersect (Thor, after all, was once a sincerely worshipped deity, rather than an action movie superhero).

Even more rarely, magic use is a question of intellectual rigor.  Lev Grossman's The Magicians, for example, claims that magic's use is like brain surgery or rocket science, only moreso.  This seems to satisfy the constraints satisfactorily.  How many rocket scientists or brain surgeons do you know?  If you're not in the same or a similar line of work, it's probably pretty few.  It also allows characters a whole spectrum of competency, rather than a discrete jump between the Muggles and the Wizards.  Some people might have read a few books and know a little about magic, perhaps enough to change the channel on the TV without using the remote.  Other might be so well-studied, and consequently powerful, that they are basically Gods.

What I like most about this is that you can train to become a better user of magic, and you can get rusty at it if you forget specifics.  Think of the Rocky training montage, but with magical spells instead of punching.  That is one of the best messages one can give a child (or an adult, really) -- Hard Work Pays Off.  That's part of what I hope players will learn when they play Codemancer.


There are many more features of magical systems I'd like to explore in future blog posts.  Please let me know your thoughts and suggestions in the comments.  Thanks!

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