One Dozen ways to add complexity to your magic system
By Jesse C Cohoon
Designing complex, well-thought-out magic systems for your fiction and RPGs isn’t quite as straightforward as you might think. Consider the following areas to add more layers of depth to your games.
1) Ley Lines/ Nodes of Power. The world itself has areas that make magic more accessible, powerful or easier to cast. Ley lines, are “straight lines” on maps that ancient large stones, churches, cemeteries, mounds, etc. are built along. It has often been thought that these ley lines seem to have a special kind of power within them and people of old knew this. Nodes of Power, on the other hand, are places where Ley Lines cross.
In a world that uses ley lines, they could be a “bridge” to the afterlife, and paranormal activity of all sorts could increase in places that are supposedly sitting on these ley lines. And paranormal activity is even MORE active at Nodes of Power.
Another way that ley lines could be seen is that they could be made up of various kinds of energy; whatever kinds are more prominent in the line affects its properties. For example, there could be ley lines with defensive, disruptive, or restorative energies, able to be tapped into by magic users to draw power from them. Ley line magic could be more powerful than other known forms of casting, but there could be risks to using it as well in that some could be more stable than others, whereas others might have destructive energies.
In such a world, would the monuments destruction hamper magical ability, or simply change where the foci were?
2) Built in Protection. In some games, every time before a magic user wants to engage in battle, they must layer protections upon themselves. To me this is counterintuitive. In Margret Weiss / Tracy Hickman’s Death Gate series have a race that have runes literally tattooed onto their bodies.
In some magic systems magic users might have to build up strength where they carry a network of defenses ready to spring to the forefront when endangered, as in L.E. Modesitt, Jr’s Imager books.
A third way of looking at this is that a magic user is so conditioned to having protections about themselves that they no longer actively maintain them, that they are an integral part of the use of magic itself, and just as a fighter is ill-prepared without his weapon(s) and armor of choice, so too is a magic user without his protective wards that he built up on his (or her) person from years of use. This idea makes older magic users even tougher to deal with as one has to get past their protective wards to hurt them or those that they are protecting. This idea can even be further expanded to have a *place* with such layers of idle protection.
3) Magic Fight Tempo. Magic fights should be in a rapid tempo back and forth of volleys, reflection, deflection, and finding weak points in the others’ defenses and attacks. But keep in mind that these don’t necessarily need to be flashy. Sometimes a subtle turning of a magic attack is much more effective than the most stalwart defense in that it is not expected. Also traps or reflection of magical energies can hurt/ damage an enemy who isn’t expecting to be targeted or ensnared by their own casting(s). In fact, this is very clearly seen in the Yu-Gi-Oh manga and anime series where even the best protected characters are entrapped, and the most careful attacks are thwarted.
4) Religious Affiliation complexities exist when certain religious groups have access to certain spells and others do not. For instance, the god of war in your game isn’t going to grant his priests/ magic users a spell like “Zone of Peace” where people entering it don’t have any desire to fight. But the question becomes can characters serve multiple deities at the same time, provided the basic tenants of belief don’t contradict each other?
Another way of using religious affiliation is to have no “standard” magic; all magic must come from the same divine source. Breaking the tenants of the god of magic could leave casters devoid of power… or perhaps open up another source of magic entirely.
An additional way that religion could shape a world is that certain groups or types of magic may be outlawed. For instance, necromancy may be outlawed in a town that only worships life magic.
5) Political Affiliation/ ideologies exist when one branch teaches one thing and another teaches something entirely different. For example, one branch might feel that X political figure (or stance) should be supported, whereas another thinks that that the Y political figure – or even militant uprising should be supported. Just as differing religious practitioners will have different powers, different political affiliation may also use what powers they have towards different means, altering the spells to match their political ideologies.
Depending on the political climate, certain types of magic users may be outlawed because of the perception that they’re dangerous to prosperity, property, and health. Also, if a single magic user decided to try to take over the region, there would be political pressure from the people to deal with the threat by raising an army or hiring out someone (typically the PCs) to do it for them.
6) Ancestors: Sometimes a person’s ancestors will grant magical powers that are not available through other sources, and these powers may even be able to bypass “standard” magic systems.
Another way to view ancestors is to simply have them give advice in the magical realm. Perhaps they were a famous magus and their greatest spell was left uncompleted.
Or perhaps the ancestor is residing in the character’s weapon, and these ancestor-imbued weapons are the only magic in existence in the world.
7) Specialization opens up a slew of options with whatever is being specialized in. A character specializing in fire magic, for instance, might find ways to use fire that a generalized spell-caster might not such as teleporting through fire, using fire as a shield and so on. The drawback is that in exchange for specialization, the caster may limit his or her repertoire, as well as being a “one trick pony” which is able to be easily beaten once others know the trick of their powers.
8) Demon/ totem spirit summoning are other ways that magic users can get their powers. This is the idea behind the animes/ manga of Shaman King, Yu-gi-oh, and Pokémon. There is even a bit of it in the Naruto in the dog/ frog contracts. Summoning can be a thing where the person gets the power directly, directs the summoned thing, or fights alongside of it. However such things are dealt with, here are a few things to take ask yourself before introducing them into your game:
- How powerful of a game are you running?
- What will the powers/ stats of the creatures summoned be?
- How long will they take to summon?
- How long can they remain summoned?
9) Casting as a group/ ritual casting. Sometimes just one magic user doing a casting isn’t enough, as the magic power is more than one person can handle alone, is dangerous to do alone, or because of the complexity, simply can’t be done by a single caster. Some castings require a whole coven of witches, or a quorum above a certain number to be effective, or to make it worth casting, because the toll on any one magic user is negligible.
10) Magical Backlash: a magical system where nothing can go wrong is somewhat boring. There is no excitement, no danger, no sense of the forbidden that magic is supposed to entail. It can be as simple as in the Magic: the gathering card game where the player gets Mana burn, to aging, to complex ‘wild magic’ tables, to drawing the unwanted attention of extra planar entities, gods, or forces such as fate.
11) Magical Limitations are one of the most often overlooked ways of adding a complexity to a magic system because they want a magic system that can do anything if the caster is powerful enough. But some of the most interesting magic systems in fiction have serious limitations on the power that casters are able to wield – and the grave, often deadly consequences of those who try to hoard the power to themselves or who try to exceed those limitations. In fact I would go so far as to say that the first decision that should be made in the creation of any magic system is “what can’t the casters do and why?” In answering these question, you are able to shape the magic system to be much more believable.
12) Mind Magic/ Psionics is another way of having magical complexity. In traditional magic systems, magic is something that is ‘out there’ to wrest control over, to cast from, even if the spells and powers are something that must be learned, memorized over and over again. Mind magic is different in that it is an internal source, and is cast from a person’s own reserves, and, many times, can be cast on the fly. In these system when two users psionic users are battling for control, the battlefield is one of the mind, where they attack and defend in the astral plane. In some systems technology and magic powers may be able to cancel mind powers out, but in others they can’t because they are ‘blind’ to the other powers and how they operate.
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