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.]


How Jack’s POV deepened as it shallowed

So I just signed off on what I am told are the final edits for Beanstalk and Beyond. [Pause for rejoicing.] On of the main issues on the second round was establishing “deep POV”. Beanstalk and Beyond is all first person from Jack’s point of view. What the wanted me to do was remove any reference found in Jack’s narration that pulls the reader outside of that current time and place; to make the narration as if he is telling the story in real time, as opposed to recounting it years afterwards.

This took a bit, because the original manuscript envisioned Jack writing in the future – towards the end of his life in fact. The working title of the series was The Autobiography of Jack the Giant Killer. My inspiration was not so much the volumes of YA novels which use the deep POV approach, but instead actual autobiographies such as Benvenuto Cellini.

This is from the original query letter:

This huge pile of ancient documents I’ve been trying to translate is breaking my heart. Even if every word is true, giants in the clouds with magic harps will never pass for Serious History. So much for my half-hour of glory on C-Span!  

I had hopes to discover some rare historical insight into Dark-age Britain. As I picked my way through the mish-mash of Latin and Anglic script, though, what emerged was a first-person account of Jack and the Beanstalk.

That was the gag: I was “translating” this document. I even had in mind a deluxe leather bound edition with research footnotes. Nobody bit on that query.

Cellini’s autobiography is widely known and admired (for its pluck if not its accuracy), but it’s hardly a bestseller.

Since nobody actually reads this blog, I can share a secret here: Jack writes his autobiography from  prison, from 1840’s America, because time travel. At one point in his life, he trades his left eye for The Wisdom, one of the effects of which is perfect recall of events ( and realization of their consequences).

Here’s another secret: I still have that mindset when I hand-write the first draft. The deep POV approach is an artifact of editing the manuscript for a modern audience.


The Magic Harp



The above is a sketch I made for reference when describing the Harp in Beanstalk and Beyond. What I could do with colored pencils and what I can do with words are slightly different:

By now I had maneuvered to get a good look at the Giant’s wonderful instrument. The base of the triangular harp consisted of hardwood, inlaid with seashells,  pearls and shimmering jewels. The golden torso of a nude female stretched upwards from the hardwood base below, like a goddess emerging from a great conch shell.. Her golden hair flowed down to meet the shells inlaid on the other side of the base, making up the slope of the triangle, and the golden strings stretched taut between her hair and the seashells below.  At first I thought it a trick of the firelight, but her face indeed moved when she sang.

There’s a little bit more about the harp on my personal blog, What Have We Learned.



“The only one in this castle that won’t eat you on sight”

I recently turned in my final edit for the Beanstalk and Beyond, being volume 1 of the Autobiography of Jack the Giant Killer.


I am posting short excerpts from that work at random intervals. This is one of them.

Art by Tony Padegimas
Then, the great hand [of the ogress] came for me once more. “Now, don’t do anything foolish like squirming or screaming. I’m the only one in this castle that won’t eat you on sight.”

Jack meets the Cockatrice

In this excerpt from my upcoming novel, The Beanstalk and Beyond, the Ogress has imprisoned Jack in the giant chicken coop, where he discovers that he is not the only non-chicken trapped within.

Cockatrice scan


When I have told this story in the past, I typically described the bird as a hen or a goose. Truth is far stranger; I have not seen anything like this bird before or since. In the moonlight, it seemed about the size of a good goose, but parts of its head had scales instead of feathers. Its eyes glowed amber, like a dragon’s, if you’ve ever had the misfortune to stare into such a gaze, and its beak had teeth.

“We must escape tonight, before sunlight,” that beak announced.

“Wha-aaw!” I jumped, for I was yet unaccustomed to animals starting conversations with me.“You talk.”

“Of course I talk; I’m a cockatrice. And I am relieved that you speak some words as well. You’re a human, right? Funny, I’d always imagined your kind larger and hairier. No matter. We must escape tonight.”



The Foolhardy Dolts

In this excerpt from Beanstalk and Beyond,  Jack relates the tale of the giant’s battle with local militia, partly from overhearing the giant tell it while Jack hides in the kettle.

foolhardy dolt
Art by Tony Padegimas

Rheghed, the third son of Merchion Gul, was eager to prove himself worthy of more than the scraps of land he might otherwise inherit should Merchion the Lean ever actually pass on. Perhaps he felt this was that chance.

“The foolhardy dolts marched right up to me in an open field.” The giant said as the ogress plopped the kettle on some high counter somewhere. “The one on horseback dared speak to me, shouting some nonsense about how those were his cows and I had no right to take them. I told him what I thought of that, and then he and his men starting hurling their pointed sticks.”

Beanstalk and Beyond Preview 7 of several

I recently turned in my final edit for the Beanstalk and Beyond, being volume 1 of the Autobiography of Jack the Giant Killer.

I am posting short excerpts from that work at random intervals. This is one of them.

Since the giants have fallen asleep without eating him, Jack makes the most of his opportunity.

I’d like to say I spent even a moment considering the moral implications of stealing a hat full of gold coins from my hosts, but starving peasants waste no time on such thoughts. That the giant was a hate-filled tyrant intent on destroying humanity had nothing to do with my decision.  I took the gold because I could reach it, and my only reservations had to do with how much I could carry.

It would be many years before I considered such matters differently.


I have often wondered how my life might have differed if I had done the sensible thing and climbed down the beanstalk then and there. But, naturally, the poor peasant boy elected to go back and get another hat full of gold.