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Notable Fantasy Magic Systems?


aimlessgun

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I've been fiddling around with designing a magic system, but I'm a little worried that what I might think is original or interesting has already been done, since I have not even come close to reading all the fantasy out there, and most of what I have read subscribed to the "keep it vague" philosophy.

So what are the notable/original treatments of magic out there?

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If there is no pg# that means the thread does not contain any other real info.

Abercrombie: First Law-pg1

Abraham: Long Price-pg1

Bakker: Prince of Nothing-pg2

Bishop: Black Jewels-pg4

Bujold: Chalion-pg4

Butcher: Codex Alera-pg1

Card: Hart's Hope-pg1

Cherryh: Rusalka, Chernevog, Yvgenie-pg3

Clarke: Strange and Mr. Norrell

Coe: Wind of the Forelands/BotS-pg2

Dean: The Dubious Hills-pg1

Donaldson: Mordant's Need-pg2

..................Thomas Covenant-pg2

Duncan: A Man of His Word-pg2

Eddings: -pg2, pg5

Erikson: Malazan-pg1

Farland: Runelords-pg1

Feist: Riftwar

Freeman: Covenants-pg4

Friedman: Coldfire-pg1,pg4

Garret: Lord Darcy-pg5

Gilman: Vineart War-pg1

Griffith: Matthew Swift

Hardy: Master of the Five Magics-pg3

Hobb: Elderling-pg3

..........Soldier's Son-pg2

Hoffman: Chapel Hollow-pg4

Hunt: Court of Air-pg3

Jordan: Wheel of Time-pg1,pg2

LeGuin: Earthsea-pg1

Macleod: The Light Ages-pg4

May: Boreal Moon-pg5

Mckillip: Land-Rule-pg4

Modesitt: Saga of Recluse-pg3

Monette: Doctrine of Labyrinths

Naruto: -pg3

Nix: Old Kingdom-pg3

Nylund: Pawn's Dream-pg4

Parker: Fencer

Pratchett: Small Gods-pg4

.................Discworld Generally-Narrative Causality-pg5

Rawn, Roberson, Elliot: The Golden Key-pg3

Rawn: The Dragon Prince-pg4

Rothfuss: Name of the Wind-pg1

Rowling: Harry Potter-pg1

Sanderson: Mistborn-pg1

..................Warbreaker-pg1

..................Way of Kings-pg1,pg2

Stroud: Bartimaeus-pg1

Vance: Dying Earth-pg1

............Lyonesse-pg1

Walton: Lifelode-pg1

Weeks: Black Prism-pg2

Weis, Hickman: Death Gate Cycle-pg4

Wurts: War of Light and Shadow-pg4

Zelazny: Amber-pg1

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Could you give a brief review of those books' magic systems? It would help those who haven't read the books. Thanks. :)

These descriptions are very superficial. Also due to faulty memory I might be flat out wrong (hopefully not).

Mistborn has this system where 'allomancers' ingest metals and gain certain powers/effects from different metals.

Wheel of Time could be described as a permutation of the 4 elements style, where there are various branches of magic that the user 'weaves' together to create effects. Magic is also different depending on gender.

Earthsea has some magic based on knowing the true names of things, which gives you power over them.

Runelords allows people to give up a part of themselves (eyesight, strength, intellect etc) and imprint it on another person, allowing the creation of superhumans with enough donations of various attributes.

Name of the Wind so far seems to have some name based magic, but mostly what we've seen involves a process called 'sympathy' which generally amounts to energy transfer between like objects.

R. Scott Bakker’s is the best I’ve seen. But then, I’m not widely read in the genre.

The one that feels most like magic (and least like a role-playing game) is Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.

I'll have to get to Bakker (accusations of sexism on this board notwithstanding!)

Clarke's magic is very fun, but is far from internally consistent and logical. It sort of falls under 'do almost anything' magic but is written so well and with so much style and fun that it works really well.

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Jack Vance's magic systems are quite interesting; the one he used in The Dying Earth (sorcerors can only memorise a limited number of spells at any one time and when they're used up, they're gone, you have to memorise them all over again) is quite different from the various systems in the Lyonesse trilogy, though both are of the "do anything" variety. In Lyonesse, there are some creatures that are inherently magical, and a human wizard has to channel that power, which differs depending on which creature you use. So, faerie magic is fickle and illusory, where sandestin magic gives real results, though often in a kind of cheating way - for example, Shimrod turns a flower into a gold coin, but suggests that the sandestins actually nicked the coin from the king's nearby treasury, as it was much easier than just transmuting the matter.

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The Long Price quartet has a nice approach: anyone can become a magician, by devising and writing a poem, which is really an invocation that will bind a concept into a physical form, and the summon can then perform actions in relation to its nature when ordered. However the devising of the invocation takes years, no two invocation can be the similar, and a problem in the equations means it fails and backfires on the summoner. gruesomely. Also the invocation is intelligent, has independent thoughts and will do its utmost to break the control the summer has on it. And yet again, holding one single summon takes all the time and resources one elite guy can give. But anyway, once you have bound the concept of say "death" into your slave, you can tell it to kill everyone in the world and it WILL happen, or you could tell it to remove death from people, and you'll ressurrect them, just like that. It is not really a "balanced" magic for use in classical D&D-like RPGs, unless you fancy adventurers launching selective nukes on dungeons, then hiring a pack mule to collect everything from the bodies.

Amber is something to read in any case, but the "magic" system is noteworthy, in that it has several, in the first place, including some classical Vancian one, but the most noteworthy is reality manipulation. One man can travel what is called "shadows", which are ripples, reflection of an "absolute order" world, toward an "absolute chaos" world, and thus find absolutely anything he can think of (or he can pull what he thinks of towards him), just powered by his link to those absolute order/absolute chaos symbols/archetypes (obtained via a possibly lethal ritual). There's also some tarot cards, used as teleportation gates and/or mental communication devices. Of course Amber already has its own RPG.

Not that I particularily like them, but I have to also throw into the pot:


  • Harry Potter: Classical chanted spells, in some "esoteric" language. You learn the stuff and practice and voila: comics superpowers. You didnt mention it in the OP, so...
  • Malazan: Maybe a spin on a classic: mages have/are attuned to what they call "warrens", which are mostly specialized types of magic (maybe even the veins of an elder god), manipulation of this specialized raw power depends then on one's personality and expertise (What they call Omtose Phellack, the warren of ice, basically, can freeze a whole continent in the right hands). You can also more or less teleport through these. There's also some shapeshifting (into multiple entities also) and a system of progressive promotion to godhood and some multi-plane shenanigans.
  • Codex Alera: it's Pokemon - everyone has one or two invisible elemental "pets" (of differing strength depending on people) who can act directly or boost one's capacities. Glamour, invisibility, super-speed, strength, super-fighting-skills, whatever, you can get it from your super-pet, depending on its type. Makes the magic influenced by weather and surroundings, which is pretty nice too. But I wouldn't recommend reading the series.

I have to +1 that Bakker's take on magic is really nice

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You know i read the books, a while ago now, and i don't think I ever really understood the magic system.

You have to say one thing and think another ? And Kellhus is overpowered because he thinkS two different things while he speaks ? Geometric spells ? Then there is the faith based Fanim Magic which works how ? They also have that possession thing that Akka did to the doll.

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You have to say one thing and think another ? And Kellhus is overpowered because he think two different things while he speaks ?

Basically. The Schools have language-based magic at their core. Chanted magic spells as have existed in fantasy for ages. The twist is the "inutteral" phrase. If you have the sorcerous gift, you have a link to the Outside (presumably) and can channel energy from it (though you'll be damned in the process). But to do so you need such specific meaning that you need to be saying two things at once, like on the one hand you'd be talking about the world as it is and on the other you'd be talking about the world as you want it to be (that's just an example, the books actually talk about grammar and logic, which makes me think more of subject and predicate), requiring a certain amount of discipline to hold two different thoughts in your head at once. Kellhen can add new layers of meaning by holding yet another inutteral in his head. It's pretty abstract rather than specific, but thematically, the magic's in-line with certain concepts the Dunyain embody-- words having power, changing the way you can affect world by changing the way you think, etc.

I've never really thought about the geometry stuff. Thinking about it now, it's probably related to Platonic ("Let none ignorant of maths enter here") or maybe Pythagorean (as in the philosophy branch, not the theorem per se) metaphysics or something like that, but I've never really thought about it before. I've always just considered it descriptive of effect rather than function, so I picture lights getting shot out at weird angles. If function comes into it, then at a guess it would either be proofs and the weird logic going into the magical grammar or defining areas of effect for the spells.

We don't know a whole lot about the witch-dolls or the Fanim. Haven't really seen much from their point of view. They seem to interact with the Outside somewhat differently. I'm pretty sure all we know is that the dolls have souls and that the Fanim's strength is related to their emotion.

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One of my favorite series is the Bartimaeus trilogy. The magic system consists of the mages only having the ability of doing summons, complete with candles and pentagrams and so on, that call various spirits from another plane. The spirits are the ones having the magic powers and they usually have to obey whoever calls them.

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I've never really thought about the geometry stuff. Thinking about it now, it's probably related to Platonic ("Let none ignorant of maths enter here") or maybe Pythagorean (as in the philosophy branch, not the theorem per se) metaphysics or something like that, but I've never really thought about it before. I've always just considered it descriptive of effect rather than function, so I picture lights getting shot out at weird angles. If function comes into it, then at a guess it would either be proofs and the weird logic going into the magical grammar or defining areas of effect for the spells.

If I remember correctly, the geometric descriptions were only ever used for gnostic sorcery. The difference between gnostic and anagogic sorcery is that anagogic sorcerers have to describe the effects they want in relation to something else whereas gnostic sorcerers use abstract concepts. So I've always thought that the geometry in relation to gnostic sorcery was the sorcerer describing the effect he wants mathematically for absolute precision.

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A series that (thus far) is notable pretty much ONLY for it's magic system is the Vinearth War books... Basically magic is done by making wine (of different types depending on soil etc. Sme grapes makes good weather-control wines, others for healing, some for fire spells etc.) a vineart has to drink the wine in order to cast a spell (anyone can drink spellwine, and use it, but vinearts are strongr, and they're stronger still when using wine from their own vineyards.)

Oh, and only those who have been slaves can become vinearts. Which means that they have to keep slaves in order to "reproduce" themselves...

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Jack Vance's magic systems are quite interesting; the one he used in The Dying Earth (sorcerors can only memorise a limited number of spells at any one time and when they're used up, they're gone, you have to memorise them all over again)

An interesting little piece by Gary Gygax on how he synthesized magic systems from several authors - though Vance most noticeably, who he actually obtained permission from in order to use the system and specific items - in creating the original system for Dungeons and Dragons can be found here. Might be of some interest to the OP.

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Then there is the faith based Fanim Magic which works how ?
Basically, if I remember correctly, magic is a power drawn from "god", or in any case from the "outside". Magic users can see through the veil and access that outside, you just need a strong enough trait for that, for the Fanims, that's belief, whose strength is enough to puncture the veil, for the gnostic and anagogic, that's intellect, whose strength is enough to understand (more or less) where there are holes in the veil to be exploited. the inutterals thing is only gnostic, iirc, but that's a technicality probably thrown there to highlight the nature of that magic: shaping the word starting from pure abstract and complex concepts, whereas anagogic shape it empirically, by copying something they already had experience of. Also explain why Moenghus was a dismal Fanim sorcerer: he didn't have, could not have enough faith to access that source of magic.

In essence, Fanims= Wisdom priests, Anagogic = run of the mill Int wizards with multiple specs, Gnostic = Hermetic magicians

A series that (thus far) is notable pretty much ONLY for it's magic system is the Vinearth War books... Basically magic is done by making wine [...] Oh, and only those who have been slaves can become vinearts. Which means that they have to keep slaves in order to "reproduce" themselves...
Hmm festive alchemy with slaves, then. That sounds pretty bad, now, but since we're on that topic, what about magic in stuff like "Touched by venom" (dragon venom apparently miraculous, also needing female circumcision) or Sword of Truthiness (being tortured while a kid and fucking monsters give you the power to punch melon-sized holes in people) or, hey, the Dark Jewels... jewel magic, with which you can reshape not only the world but helle and heaven (and make magical cockrings of obedience)
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Card's Hart's Hope does a nice job developing a system of blood magic, whereby "nice" I mean "dark and disturbing."

Friedman's Coldfire trilogy is, okay, technically science fiction, but for all intents and purposes the fae are magic. It's an interesting look at a world where everyone can work magic, often by accident, and frequently to disastrous ends. Her Magister trilogy is explicitly fantasy, and takes on the "magic uses life force" trope in some detail.

Parker's Fencer trilogy develops the concept of backlash better than most.

Monette's Doctrine of Labyrinths quartet has a ton of different magic systems, although few are more than briefly sketched. Also, it should only be read by those who have a very high tolerance for angst and purple prose.

Griffith's Matthew Swift series does the best job with urban-based magic I've seen.

Dean's The Dubious Hills and Walton's Lifelode both tell fairly domestic stories set in worlds where magic does very strange things to the nature of reality--in Dubious Hills it changes the nature of epistemology, in Lifelode magic and time are a function of geography.

Stewart's Cloud's End also has some interesting subtle, domestic magics in it.

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Im suprised more of Brandon Sandersons magic hasnt been quoted, since it is one of his strong points and truely is original.

Mistborn has been mentioned, and you forgot thats it no just allomancy - there is another kind of metal based power called Feruchemy, in which one can store a physical or mental attribute from themselves to tap on later. So for example, say some guy wants to pick up a really big rock, but he cant. He gets his 'pewtermind' (pewter being the correct metal here) and puts it on, and spends a few hours half as strong, really weak. He can then spend a certain amount of time (not exactly the same time, it has diminishing returns) twice as strong. Or even less time three times as strong. One can also store memories (after which the memory can only be acessed through the metal its stored in, but in return, at the full clarity of the time it was stored). etc.

His Warbreaker book had a brilliant color based system involving something called Biochromatic Breath. Every single person has one breath, but use of the magic requires hundreds of breaths. Because of this, its not uncommon for someone to sell his or her breath, because it must be given willingly. The more breaths one has, he gets a certain power and additional functions, although the use of actual practived BioChroma would require those breaths to be relinquished (although they could then be retreived from the item they were used on after)

His 'The Way of Kings' also had an interesting system involving things called 'lashes', in which one could, in several ways, lash things to something else. 'Lashing' is sort of a way of twisting gravity. So you could lash yourself fully to the ceiling, and your gravity is reversed. Or you could semi-lash yourself to the ceiling and end up still having proper gravity, but being half as heavy. You could also lash objects to each other, etc. In addition, gemstones could be used to 'soulcast' (create) objects, like food, or remove them.

One funny thing about the way of kings which i noticed is that the character in question who we see using this magic only ever lashes himself to other directions, never his clothes or weapons. So he would be lashed to the wall, but shouldnt his clothes and sword be dragging him down?

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HE, that is an amazingly complete explanation. I'll read Bakker anyways though :)

An interesting little piece by Gary Gygax on how he synthesized magic systems from several authors - though Vance most noticeably, who he actually obtained permission from in order to use the system and specific items - in creating the original system for Dungeons and Dragons can be found here. Might be of some interest to the OP.

Ah I thought it sounded familiar. And yeah the idea does work rather well for a game environment.

Tons of other info

Thanks all for the tons of different systems so far!

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His 'The Way of Kings' also had an interesting system involving things called 'lashes', in which one could, in several ways, lash things to something else. 'Lashing' is sort of a way of twisting gravity. So you could lash yourself fully to the ceiling, and your gravity is reversed. Or you could semi-lash yourself to the ceiling and end up still having proper gravity, but being half as heavy. You could also lash objects to each other, etc. In addition, gemstones could be used to 'soulcast' (create) objects, like food, or remove them.

One funny thing about the way of kings which i noticed is that the character in question who we see using this magic only ever lashes himself to other directions, never his clothes or weapons. So he would be lashed to the wall, but shouldnt his clothes and sword be dragging him down?

Nitpicking here - half-lashing oneself to the ceiling makes one weightless, because one has half one's weight pulling down and half pulling up. To make oneself half-weight, it would be a quarter lashing.

And we do see him lashing both other people, and inanimate objects, as well as himself. I would assume that anything he's holding (such as clothes or weapons) is affected by the lashing.

BTW, it's not the gemstones themselves that are used to power the magic, it's the stormlight within them (which is finite, but can be refilled by simply leaving the gems outside during a storm).

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