This blog partly references a recent episode of the WorldCraft Club Podcast, check it out here.
First, a point of clarity: I’m not saying ‘hard’ as in the worldbuilding term characterized by solid delineated rules for a given system but rather hard as in ‘difficult’, soft magic systems can be incredible.
Prior to the podcast interview with the highly esteemed Ryan Wilshusen I had the pleasure of talking with him via a text format. We spent a lot of time discussing magic systems and I have to say that I love his ideas.
Magic in his world is complex and nuanced. The rules are clear enough to be easily understood but have enough shades of gray that he can still surprise you with it. That sense of mythic depth is still well conveyed.
This type of balance is hard to accomplish and I think it can trip a lot of writers up early on. If I had to place Ryan somewhere on the ‘Tolkien to Rowling’ scale which we frequently use to gauge a creator’s commitment to making thick, highly detailed, worlds vs thin, lightly constructed, worlds, I’d put him on the Tolkien end. Lots of development. In fact, the last time I talked to him he’d filled his (soon to be released) World Anvil with content and was talking about expanding it. Whew, son, that’s a lot of detail.
Still, I don’t think the detail is what makes the magic system great. It’s the simplicity (read ‘clarity’) of it. There are a few simple questions that any magic system should be able to answer if it’s going to be plausible.
- Why can’t you just kill someone at 400 yards?
- What problems isn’t magic used to solve and why?
- What controls the limits of my magic? Essentially magnitude, if I can make a fireball why not a meteor?
These are really just the same question rephrased, and I’m sure you could think of more. It comes down to the worldbuilding question of boundaries. Remember that boundaries are what make your world feel realistic. If you start out your story with an underdeveloped magic system you can quickly find yourself in a narrative bind. Because at some point in your story your characters will encounter a conflict and that conflict will have a potential magical solution and you’ll have to explain (if you don’t desire your characters to simply magic themselves out of it) why that’s not possible, why they must grow and develop in some way to overcome their problem. It also prevents the opposite problem of using magic as a plot device (‘they can’t cross this chasm because magic’) from being used. With the above questions answered, though, and some well established boundaries we have tools at our disposal to lay that plausibility groundwork.
Those boundaries don’t have to be highly detailed and thoroughly explained, but they do need to be expressed if not through direct exposition than through demonstration. This contrast lets your reader know how to spot unusual things in a world that’s already striking and unusual to them. ‘Wait a minute! I’ve been told that magic can’t manifest physical things yet that villainous cad did just that! Mischief is afoot!’ is what your readers would say if they were be-monocled pith helmet wearing victorian englishmen.
In the process of our pre-interview conversation Ryan and I covered a number of topics but there was one point where I asked him about his hottest tip for worldbuilding. He said this: “Magic. must. be. hard.” and it’s these boundaries that he was talking about. The reader has to have a sense that magic is not a cure-all that can be applied at a whim, the above questions must be answered. Why can’t your character’s just solve all their problems with magic?
Before you dive too deep into your magical story stop for a second and ponder these questions. You’ll thank me (or Ryan, for that matter) later.
Stay tuned for more writing from the WorldCraft Club as we explore worldbuilding and the crafting of fictional settings to inspire your creativity.
James wrote this! James is a host on the Worldcraft Club Podcast. He loves tabletop rpgs, running and drinking too much coffee. He lives with his wife and young son somewhere in Central Pennsylvania.
We’re happy to host guest blogs on here whenever we can, it gives James a break and let’s other people contribute their ideas. Let us know if you have a worldbuilding concept or strategy to get off your chest, we’d love to hear it.