Rules of Magic

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]

Sanderson’s Third Law of Magics 

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.

More about that here.

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.]


The Ghosts of History

History is full of ghosts, but ghosts do not seem full of history. It’s a shame; one would think them to be good witnesses. But they do not speak to use in any useful fashion – or if they have, no one has proved it.

Straight up: most cultures have some sort of ghost tradition, and there is no scientific evidence for any of it.

Why would we believe in something we can’t prove? Well, some of it has to do with the fact that any serious scientist who hunts ghosts runs the real risk of lo longer being considered a serious scientist. But most of it has to do with how unreliable our senses are under duress in dark, noisy places. Scientists have studied that fairly extensively.

LiveScience has a good summary of this sort of research..

And Listverse, of course, has a List:

If you skipped the second link, go back and scroll down to #1:

Or we’ll just quote the list (written by Nolan Moore) at length here:

No idea where ListServe got this.

Quantum mechanics is the study of the smallest types of matter, and it has led to some pretty awesome inventions. However, it can get pretty weird when physicists start talking about souls and ghosts. Take, for example, Dr. Stuart Hameroff and his physicist friend Roger Penrose. Hameroff and Penrose theorize that human consciousness comes from microtubules inside our brain cells, and these tubules are responsible for quantum processing (our souls basically). Hameroff and Penrose believe when people have a near-death experience, all that quantum information leaves the brain, yet continues to exist, which is why some people report out-of-body experiences and lights at the end of tunnels.

As you might expect, a lot of scientists have problems with Hameroff and Penrose’s theory. But Dr. Henry Stapp isn’t one of them. As a respected quantum physicist who worked with the famous Heisenberg, Stapp believes that a person’s personality might be able to survive death and exist as a “mental entity.” Stapp theorizes if these entities could return to the physical world, then concepts like possession and channeling could really be possible. Are men like Stapp, Hameroff, and Penrose just wishful thinkers? Or are they modern day Galileos?

Now here we have some basis to start making some stuff up. Let’s stipulate, for the sake of coherent fiction, that there’s something to that, and this is how ghosts work.

I’ve already done this. This is what I wrote for my time-travel role-playing game

Ghosts are incorporeal undead who retain some of their wits and memories of their time among the living.

Ghosts are the souls of the living who did not wish to, or could not depart this dimension as they died. Many are evil, and fear punishment in the afterlife. Many are simply so determined to finish their life’s work that they refused to go. Some remain because their deaths were so horrific that they could not accept the finality of it. And many are stuck for reasons beyond their control.

Battlefields are notorious for ghosts, not because of the nature of battle so much, but because the sheer number of deaths guarantees a certain amount of ghosts.

Ghosts are bound to a particular space (most often) or particular time. They cannot move freely beyond these limits. A ghost stuck in a place will be present in that place forever-after (unless some action is taken to counter this), but can move about in time as if it were no more than a long corridor. A ghost stuck in time can appear multiple places at the same instant, but never beyond that instant. To this ghost, the world seems frozen still as he just wanders endlessly about it. This weirdness is rarely evident to the living.

Because ghosts have no set physical form, they have no real stats, but they do have a core competence that depends upon their power level. Power level is determined by the strength of the character at death, and by the trauma of the death and/or burial. Horrific, unjust deaths tend to increase the power of the ghost.

Ghosts are divided loosely among five levels:

  • Haunt: (2 dice) generally do no more than make strange sounds, move small objects here and there, and bewilder the living. Haunts retain the least of their memories, and are often puzzled as to their condition. Haunts are rarely directly detected by the living, and the Haunts themselves rarely possess the means to directly reveal themselves. If they do appear, it is often little more than a floating orb of light. Sadly, this is by far the most common sort of ghost.
  • Phantom: (3 dice) are aware of their state, and can interface with the material world to a greater extent. They can move small objects on purpose, or appear visually (as they were at death), though not corporeally. Also known as Poltergeists when they move things or Apparitions when they appear. Most phantoms can do one or the other, but not both at the same time.
  • Ghost: (4 dice) are able to appear in any form they choose, and interact to a limited extent with the physical world, as separate tasks. Most ghost stories involve this level. This is the highest level an extra can achieve.
  • Shades: (5 dice) have some connection to negative energy and  are able to do emotional damage by touch, and cold damage by touch. Most of these are evil – the neutral tend to stop at Ghost.  Also known as shades or shadows.
  • Wraiths: (6 dice or more) all of the above plus one or more of the additional powers: possession (of a weaker personality); animation (or a recently deceased); corporeal form (where they will appear to be alive save for temperature). Almost all Wraiths are evil, and connected to negative energy.