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Systems of Magic - Part 2
by Rob Lockhart on 06/10/14 04:50:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


I'm Rob Lockhart, the Creative Director of Important Little Games.  If you were to follow me on twitter, I'd be grateful.


I'm working on an educational game that involves magic and magical epistemology.  Consequently, I've been doing a lot of research about magical systems.  I'm sharing my thoughts for those of you who may one day include magic in your games.

Whereas the last blog post in this series acts as a sort of catalog of magical systems I'd read about at that time, I've attempted here to synthesize some ideas about the underlying philosophies of these systems, in part prompted by some additional recent reading.



Human beings have developed two methods of precise communication: Programs, which are made to communicate precisely to machines, and Legalese, which is used to communicate precisely to other minds.

Many fantasy worlds use the metaphor of a 'contract' with supernatural forces.  It's a pretty straightforward step of the imagination to imagine forming a contract with a demon, a faierie, or any other more-or-less anthropomorphic entity.  Dr. Faustus is the example that comes most readily to mind.  Daniel Abraham's Long Price Quartet, too, is centered on this idea.

However, the most powerful application of this concept is when you combine it with Animism, the belief that all natural substances possess souls (which, in the ancient world, is equivalent to saying that everything has a mind).  If everything has a mind, you can potentially create a contract with anything - so long as you can communicate with it.

Often these two types of magic coexist within the same mythology.  For example, in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Mr. Norrell is capable of the animistic sort of magic only after being 'enlightened' after a fashion.  Recently, I picked up The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic, in which the 'second-order' magic of agreements with humanlike beings is accessible to anyone who has the inclination to learn, whereas 'first-order' magic is available only to those with an ineffable 'knack.'

Somewhat in-between is Monism, the idea, popularized by Calculus inventor Gottfried Liebniz, that everything has some amount of 'mind stuff,' or monads.  Monads are not full minds, but can be thought of as mind-fragments.  Presumably things like rocks and trees have just a few.  Humans have enough for a whole mind.  As I understand it, according to Liebniz, God is basically made up of a metric shit-ton of monads.  Individual monads are mechanistic, like logic gates, but can be arranged to do information processing of arbitrary complexity.

This view, as fantastical as it may seem, may have some basis in fact.  Stephen Wolfram, in his book A New Kind of Science, points out that there are surprisingly many natural systems which are in the band between simplistic and chaotic, and that many of these, in turn, are capable of computation.  It's this underlying philosophy that I adopt in Codemancer -- that many natural systems are at least capable of following the kinds of algorithms we feed to computers today, if not the kind that produce what you'd call a Mind.  I'd still classify this as a form of first-order magic, but with a less mystical flavor.

In first-order magic, the mechanism for feeding requests or instructions to these beings is often, of necessity, a bit hand-wavy.  Talking to a demon may be easy because the demon has met you at your own level.  Demons usually speak the local language, and transmit them using sound waves as most of us do.  What language to the beings of first order programming speak?  In Codemancer, they speak a programming language, but in most stories they require some kind of unspecified mental discipline.  Even so, nobody, including Codemancer, explains how the signal of first-order magic is transmitted from magic-user to enchanted object.



Fantasy worlds often need an explanation of why Magic cannot be done by just anyone.  This usually boils down to some kind of genetics (or its equivalent, the 'ineffable knack' I spoke of earlier).  Sometimes two non-magic-users (or 'Muggles' in the parlance of Harry Potter) can produce a magic-user, evidently by some sort of a recessive gene.  In any case, there is an exclusive class of beings with magical abilities, and the rest of the world which has no inkling of the cataclysmic supernatural goings-on which form the plot of these tales.

To me, the business smacks of the servile.  The Divine Right of Kings is dredged up in this fashion and fed to children, essentially teaching that you are either one of the chosen or you're not.  No amount of striving -- no amount of sacrifice can bring you from one category into the other.  This is an ugly feature of magical fantasy which could easily be done away with.

One of the worst offenders is the Amber series by Roger Zelazny, which I enjoyed very much despite its problematic message.  It began with magic-use as entirely limited to the royal family of a fantastical realm (known as Amber) -- numbering a dozen or so people.  Later in the series, genealogical excuses are made to bring more and more characters into the club.

Occasionally it's a quality of one's character - purity of heart, or determination that grants magical ability.  The Neverending Story, as well as some versions of the Arthurian and Thor legends make use of this concept.  This is a step in the right direction.  Still a bit too obscure, in my opinion, how one would go about improving one's own 'purity of heart.'  Perhaps this is where magical systems and theology intersect (Thor, after all, was once a sincerely worshipped deity, rather than an action movie superhero).

Even more rarely, magic use is a question of intellectual rigor.  Lev Grossman's The Magicians, for example, claims that magic's use is like brain surgery or rocket science, only moreso.  This seems to satisfy the constraints satisfactorily.  How many rocket scientists or brain surgeons do you know?  If you're not in the same or a similar line of work, it's probably pretty few.  It also allows characters a whole spectrum of competency, rather than a discrete jump between the Muggles and the Wizards.  Some people might have read a few books and know a little about magic, perhaps enough to change the channel on the TV without using the remote.  Other might be so well-studied, and consequently powerful, that they are basically Gods.

What I like most about this is that you can train to become a better user of magic, and you can get rusty at it if you forget specifics.  Think of the Rocky training montage, but with magical spells instead of punching.  That is one of the best messages one can give a child (or an adult, really) -- Hard Work Pays Off.  That's part of what I hope players will learn when they play Codemancer.


There are many more features of magical systems I'd like to explore in future blog posts.  Please let me know your thoughts and suggestions in the comments.  Thanks!

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Andreas Ahlborn
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Great Read. I Like especially how you link Monadology and Automata Theory to Magic systems.

Also I´m interested to hear from you how black & white magic would fit into the grand scheme.

For games I find especially useful Clarkes 3rd Law ( ).
It clearly states that magic is nothing supernatural but in fact very scientific. I don`t know if Lucas "Force" Principle was the first to popularize the idea that there can be some kind of "space magic" but Science Fiction Sagas like Mass Effect show that the use of magic (Biotics) in games can have much more interesting purposes then your typical medieval-like fantasy setting.

Jason Kaler
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Thanks for this article.
Another type of magic-like activity is what the bible calls prophecy. The basic concept it that the closer one comes to the truth, the more of the spiritual working of the world are revealed, the more one can communicate with and potentially influence spiritual beings.
It is totally attained through study and apprenticeship, although some are born with a natural talent, as with any other skill, and is often passed on to ones children - growing up in a home filled with magic is bound to have the kids follow the same path.
Attaining prophesy became taboo in the dark ages. Possibly because the church didn't want commoners discovering immense power. It was Shoved on the shelf with witchcraft and forbidden by penalty of death.

Andreas Ahlborn mentions black and white magic. Are they separate things or just different use of the same thing? A gun can be used to hunt food or to murder, so too with a spell.

Joshua Darlington
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Really the best source material for magical systems is something like cultural geography and anthropological surveys. Magic and religion are political distinctions and obviously there's a deep body of religious text. You could also look at actual first hand accounts like historical mystical autobiographies and shamanic vision narratives.

IMO the most interesting quality of magic systems are spiritually mediated powers, making magical processes dependent on social dynamics. (Pleading with or threatening spirits to come to your aid)

On the other hand - religion as tech is a modern philosophical paradigm and could save you from the murky waters of social representations in game.

Bart Stewart
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The distinction between Learned and Innate forms of magic nicely summarized in this article is one of the two modes I tried to puzzle out back in 1993. (I linked to that essay in the comments to your previous Gamasutra article in this series.) The other mode that seems to matter most is whether everyone can do magic, or only some people can.

When you combine those two modes, you get categorizations like Innate/Some: magical ability is natural to a select few, as in "Harry Potter" or Katherine Kurtz's "Deryni" novels. I agree that this lends itself to telling haves vs. have-nots kinds of stories. But while those can devolve into boring sociopolitical screeds, they don't have to go there.

The other combinations lead to other kinds of societies and suggest other gameplay mechanics. Nice to see these ideas getting attention in this and the previous article!

Leonard Frankel
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This doesn't really have much to do with games specifically, though. This is just storyline.

I was expecting an investigation of game mechanics that happen to use magic as their narrative device. Eg do spells require a resource (like mana) or can they be cast ad nauseum? On a timer? Can that resource be replenished by using items? Is the magic an accessory/powerup/get-out-of-jail-free-card, or is it the player's standard tool to deal with puzzles? How powerful is it relative to other things the player can do? Are there different "schools" or 'flavours" of magic? Can they interact with each other? Do they behave differently when cast on different creatures?

Would have been interested to read that...

Rob Lockhart
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Me too. Wish I were qualified to write it, but I haven't played enough games with interesting magic to feel like I am.

Scott Sheppard
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Not quite what you were looking for, but I wrote an article a while back that infringes on this topic:

Jorge Miralles
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Very interesting article I also been thinking about it for some time trying to create a magic system in wich only the laws and bases are set, not the habilities/spells that could be used (that's the player works, to create those habilities).

You should check the manga/anime HunterxHunter it has a very different magic system away from the common elemental magic. The magic system is based on the use of "aura" the vital force of a living being, the aura is acquired through combat expirience or trauma mainly. Its is divided into categories and forms of use. The forms of use give a lot of versatility to how people use their habilities in fight mainly. The categories states what kind of habilities develops the user. Users has a main category but can use the others in a lesser degree. But neither of the two restricts the effects of those habilities.

There is a test to determine the user's main category consisting in the user focusing its aura in a glass of water with a leaf on it. In a chapter a character speaks of a different method he developed to determining the category of a user analizing its personality

James Coote
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Definitely agree with your point about exclusivity. The idea that really appeals to me is of infectious magic. I read a lot of manga comics, and within the usual trope of magic wielding high school students trying to keep their powers secret from everyone, you from time to time get one of their friends or another student, who is perceptive enough to know something is going on, but can't quite put their finger on it. And you just know they are going to end up imbibing some of that magic almost by sheer osmosis.

But for me, any "system" which you can pin down into a set of repeatable rules just becomes an alternate set of physics laws.

For me, magic is that period before dawn when you get that ethereal grey light, or the moment in summer just before the thunderstorm when the air is heavy and electric with energy and that sixth sense of yours is telling you it's about to rain (or maybe you only develop that that living in England because it rains so damn often :p). Or moreover, the feeling that anything could happen in those fleeting moments.

Or when you discover a hidden doorway to a secret garden. Suddenly you're in a different space and time. Just as with the infectious magic, you stumble across a place or thing or secret bit of information (that maybe you shouldn't have?) and that sense of possibilities open up, is the magic. Either you acquiring magic abilities or the world around you has changed. But in both cases, your perception has shifted a gear, has changed. In fiction, you can bring an audience through that journey/change, and so affect them too.

Guess you could term it "event-driven magic"

I have no idea how you reproduce those feelings in a video game though. I've never experienced it when playing a game. Closest comes when a new room or vista opens up in a game world. I did however speak to another game dev who whilst watching Sony's E3 presentation, saw the No Man's Sky trailer, and it sounds like he got something pretty close to that feeling. At least enough to drop $400 on a PS4 right there and then.

Chris Proctor
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Good article.

Now I want to see a magical version of a Rocky training montage.

Rob Lockhart
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So very me too.

Randall Stevens
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Codemancer sounds like something Neal Stephenson would write, or has written. If you aren't familiar with his work you might find it interesting. Snow Crash for example has (simply put) the idea of magic as a form of linguistic hacking.

There are a lot of interesting historical takes on why magic would work. Various cultures have had far more interesting reasons for magic than we see in fantasy novels. I think old religious/mythological works offer more interesting ideas than fiction has created.

Rob Lockhart
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I'm an obsessive Neal Stephenson fan.

I agree that ancient cultures have some 'interesting' cultural explanations for magic. Unfortunately, they're all too often either in service to a deity or to further the opression of women, other tribes, etc.

Brandon Van Every
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I think there is a risk when one tries to craft detailed explanations for "magic", that one merely turns it into a technology and is in fact writing science fiction. The subjective experience of magic is one of mystique, which is easily destroyed.

Rob Lockhart
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For those who prefer their magical systems etherial and ill-defined, I cannot argue a matter of taste. Narratively, it's harder to pull off. Drama demands a setup - payoff structure, but if we don't know what kind of things are possible or impossible then anything could happen, which sounds nice but is actually quite unsatisfying.