Magic needs rules to be an effective story-telling device. Even though you are channeling enough Power of the Cosmic Chaos through your body to melt a skyscraper, there are rules, right?
Well, there should be.
And even though I hear people at workshops and cons gush over the works of Brian Sanderson as if he invented the concept, Hard Magic – meaning magic with rules that the reader is in on – has been around since the 1970’s with Jack Vance and Larry Niven (yes, he wrote fantasy once in a while and oh, yeah, Dungeons and Dragons – which was literally a set of rules for using magic.
(Yes – I am aware that Gary Gygax, who wrote the original D&D books, was heavily influenced by Vance. )
Sanderson’s Laws are not laws about magic (compare with Lydon Hardy’s Master of the Five Magics, which actually spelled out the laws of magic in a prologue) but instead govern writing about magic.
The primary source is essays on his blog. I’ll summarize the actual laws here with links to the relevant essay:
Sanderson’s First Law of Magics: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.
Sanderson’s Second Law can be written very simply. It goes like this:
Limitations > Powers
[The limitations on magic are more interesting than the power of magic – my summary]
Expand what you already have before you add something new.
Which is really general world-building advice applied to magic systems.
For my fiction, which all shares the same essential cosmology, I relied upon a different law:
Clarke’s Law: Sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Thus I cooked up the Central Galactic Wish Machine, a matter/energy converter that ca be controlled by thought. In the Go Action Fun Time Universe, the Titans stole one and brought it with them when they fled to Earth to escape law enforcement.
Soon enough, those wily little humans learned how to use it (the technical term was spellcraft) – at least in a limited fashion, and magical mayhem ensued.
This is also the premise behind the magic in Beanstalk and Beyond, except few of the characters (and certainly not the narrator) have an inkling of the true backstory behind it all.
The game mechanics of GAFT go one step further stating that :
Magic is a hand-wave for forces that cannot be explained by physics. (If you can explain it with physics – do that.)
Magic is a status unto itself: there are forces that only affect magic, and there are things that are immune to magic.
Every parameter in magic is randomly determined. You do not have a range of 60’. You have a range of 1d6x15′.
All magic has a duration (randomly determined, natch.)
Let me note here that by forbidding permanent magic, we eliminate a lot of the world-breaking potential of magic.
When I ran the Antediluvain FRP game, using my own rules (of course) each of the five distinct civilizations practicing magic had distinct systems. To simulate (enable) this I drew inspiration from (stole from) different published magic systems. The Atlanteans used the old ICE Rolemaster system, the Gondwannan civilizations borrowed from various editions of D&D (So the Ophirian Detect Magic [AD&D2E] differed from the Stygian Detect Magic [3E] ) Imperial Tang used Palladium, and so forth.
That might seem like a lot of bookkeeping, but I chose those books because they were on my shelf.
If you are just writing narrative fiction, of course, you don not have to, and probably shouldn’ t explain all the technical nuances of spellcasting to anywhere near that detail. But you should know.
You are the expert.
Which brings me to my own humble law of fictional world building: If you don’t know – then nobody knows.
[This sets up an upcoming entry about magic vs technology.]