Monday, January 7, 2013

6 Favorite Magic Systems

Well, while I take a break from “Warrior, Wizard” as I’m preparing to head back to college, I thought I’d take a break from rambling about my own work to ramble about other people’s.

I’m the sort of guy who puts the fan in fantasy, and what’s fantasy without a good magic system? After all, we consume fantasy media to escape, and when we escape, we desire to escape into the fantastic.  Magic systems can take on so many different forms, from incantations to thought to summoning and so on.  Really, it’s rare for two magic systems to be exactly the same.  However, there are some that stand out above the crowd.  That’s why I’m going into what are probably my six favorite magic systems and why I like them so much.

First a few explanations: I’m not going into my favorite worlds or my favorite stories.  Just the magic systems.  However, if said magic is inherent in the world itself, I’ll probably go into it some.  Also, I don’t care if it’s explicitly stated within the story itself to be “totally not magic” (like two of the examples).  It’s still magic to us, so don’t split hairs about that in the comments.

And off we go!

6: Once Upon a Time: “Every power comes with a price!”

Perhaps the biggest arc words in Once Upon a Time are 4 8 15 16 23 42 “Every power comes with a price,” uttered most often by our favorite impish antagonistic dealer of deals, Rumpelstiltskin.  It states that, well…every power comes with a price, though the price is not obviously apparent.  For example, Regina is a powerful witch with access to magic—but at the price of what it is that makes her humane.  Her power has corrupted her.

This is at the bottom of the list because it’s not so much an explanation of magic as a statement of the nature of magic.  The magic in the show isn’t particularly fleshed out or exciting. I just love how it takes a frequent concept and bases the show around it.  The deals Rumpelstiltskin makes have his obvious fee, and sometimes that’s the extent of it.  But often times, the meaning of the fee runs much deeper than the characters expect, and using the magic has unfortunate consequences itself.  It’s a good concept to base a magic system around, and its execution makes it one of my favorite magic systems.

5. One Piece: Devil Fruits

One Piece has a fun world filled with great characters, and the magic system is no exception.  One Piece’s magic runs on something called “Devil Fruits,” rare fruits that grant special powers to those who eat them: at the price of never being able to swim again.

While some of the various powers are similar, they’re all different and interact in interesting ways.  The protagonist Luffy’s body acts like rubber, stretching and inflating as he needs.  Another one of the main characters can cause any part of her body to replicate and sprout from anywhere within a certain range (for example, she can restrain people by having hands sprout from their own bodies to grapple them).  Another character can make any part of his body explosive. 

There are also “Logia Fruits” which grant control of a certain element like fire, smoke, sand, or ice.  The powers also interact in interesting ways.  For example, one villain has electric powers and is nigh-invincible because of it—but his powers have no effect on the rubber-based Luffy.  Pretty much every power can be countered with some creative thinking (while blunt bullets and cannonballs have no effect on Luffy, he can still easily be cut or stabbed, and Crocodile’s sand-based powers don’t work when he gets wet), so no character can truly be called invincible.  What’s more, the inability to swim is a huge handicap in such a nautical world where most every character is a pirate or a marine, leading to a system that is, in the end, very balanced.

4. Xanth: Everyone has a power

While my opinions on Piers Anthony’s writing isn’t exactly favorable (congrats, you made a pun-based, totally-not-a-magical-version-of-my-home-state-Florida world and filled it with misogyny), I love how the world of Xanth’s magic system.  Basically, everyone has some form of magic, and all these magical powers work in different ways, from the “spot-on-the-wall” magic (e.g., projecting a colored spot onto a wall or being able to change the color of your pee) to miscellaneous powers like being able to create illusions, or a woman who cycles from beautiful and stupid to plain and normal to ugly and intelligent (a real feminist, aren’t you, Mr. Anthony?), to sorcerer-class powers like manipulating weather or complete immunity to all magical harm.

It’s a really interesting way of doing magic, and the cause for the magic is also pretty cool: apparently it’s coming from a demon named Xanth (or some mathematical formula similar to “Xanth”) who is (as far as I can recall) on time-out from a game he’s playing with other demons, exiled to somewhere under the land of Florida Xanth.  His presence gives off all sorts of magic that leaks into the land.  Pretty cool concept, if you ask me.

3. Shadowmagic: True Magic and Shadowmagic

If you’ve never heard of Shadowmagic by John Lenahan, that’s probably because it’s pretty obscure [/hipster].  It is, however, the top-rated book on  You can listen to it for free.  Check it out.

Now that my plugging for a small-time author is done, let me go into it a bit more.  Shadowmagic is a fantasy story that’s actually fairly standard for a fantasy story.  There are some things that set it apart, but for the most part, it’s not new ground: just old ground painted a different color.  Except, that is, for the magic system, which is probably one of the most creative ones I’ve seen in this type of fantasy series.

Basically, there are two types of magic.  The most common one is “true magic.”  True magic doesn’t run on willpower or incantations or spells or runes or anything like that.  No, true magic is powered by gold.  For example, a dagger with a gold tip will home in on its target, and a slate with a golden surface will transmit messages written on it to its sister slate.  Gold is, consequently, more valuable as a resource than a currency.  However, magic will also consume gold.  That dagger will only last for so many throws before the magic wears off completely and it ceases to be magical.

The other form of magic is shadowmagic, which is used for different purposes and, I believe, runs on tree sap rather than gold (also worth noting at this point is that trees in this universe are conscious and can communicate with humans and each other).  There’s a ban against its use, considering that one woman caused a devastating war using shadowmagic and it developed a huge stigma.  However, that ban is eventually lifted because it’s not an inherently evil magic.  Like most things, it can be used for good or ill.

In a world where this type of fantasy is generally just full of a familiar magic system, Shadowmagic takes it in a completely different direction—to great effect.

2. Fullmetal Alchemist: Alchemy and Equivalent Exchange

One of the “we swear it’s not really magic” entries on the list.  Alchemy is, within the world of Fullmetal Alchemist, a science.  But it’s here because by our standards it’s totally magic.

“Humankind cannot gain without first giving something in return.  To obtain, something of equal value must be lost.  That is Alchemy’s First Law of Equivalent Exchange.”  Fans of FMA will probably recognize that statement as it appears at the beginning of every episode of the first anime adaptation.  It’s a really good way of introducing the principal of matter and setting Alchemy up as a magical science, since it draws strong parallels with the conservation of matter and energy that we have.  Alchemy cannot create from nothing like some forms of magic can: it can only change the form of things.  As the series continues, we get to see more and more of the strengths, rules, and limitations of Alchemy.

Alchemy is a magic system that manages to be both exciting (because come on, turning your metal arm into a sword or snapping your fingers to create flame is totally badass) and realistic.  Alchemy is the sort of system that feels like it could be real because it’s grounded in the science of the world, which just so happens to be fairly familiar.  It’s physics and chemistry, they just work differently from our physics and chemistry.  And while Alchemy is far from a concept unique to the series (I’m sure that you’ve heard of turning lead into gold, the philosopher’s stone, and other similar concepts), Fullmetal Alchemist does a wonderful job of portraying it and makes it fun.

So what tops that?  My personal all-time favorite magic system is

1. Avatar: The Last Airbender: Bending

A brilliant show with a brilliant magic system.  This is the other one of those “I can’t believe it’s not magic” shows but in reality…it kind of is.

Bending is the manipulation of one of the four classic elements: earth, water, fire, or air.  Benders are born with the skill instead of learning it, and the skill is usually genetic.  There’s also the Avatar, a man or woman who can bend all four elements and reincarnates after death.

One of the things that makes bending truly unique, though, is the method of its use.  Bending is less tossing elements around and more magical martial arts.  Each bending technique requires different philosophies and movements based on that element (and I assume that most styles and/or philosophies are based on real-world equivalents), and since one of the driving forces of the plot is the Avatar Aang’s need to learn all four elements, the show is able to go fairly in-depth about them.  Airbending is built around being calm and receptive to change and is heavily evasive, relying largely on turning opponents moves against them.  Earthbending, on the other hand, requires solidity and steadfastness.  Waterbending deals with balance and push and pull, while Firebending is fueled by passion and drive.  The movement is important, yes, but the philosophy is as well.  For example, the carefree Aang is a prodigy at airbending, but that same attitude makes it incredibly difficult for him to learn earthbending.  In the sequel series, Avatar: the Legend of Korra, Korra’s headstrong and aggressive attitude make her a natural firebender to the point that she seems to prefer it over waterbending despite being born Water Tribe, but that same direct approach to things give her immense trouble when it comes to airbending.

Another thing I love about Avatar’s magic system is that it’s not static.  It develops, and technologies that use it develop with it.  In The Last Airbender, Toph figures out how to bend metal, a skill everyone else thought impossible, when she senses impurities in it that she can bend.  A generation or two later in The Legend of Korra, her techniques have been passed on and the entire police force has training in metalbending.  Not only do we get to see technology evolve in the Avatar world, but we get to see bending developing alongside it.

These magic systems are the sorts of things I tried to keep in mind while developing my magic system.  How can I make it more in-depth?  What fuels it at the basest level?  How can I make it stand apart from more traditional magic systems?

So what are your favorite magic systems?  What forms of magic do you find most creative?  I’d love to know, so make sure to drop a comment!


  1. Thank for you kind words about my magic system. Nobody has ever commented on that before. You made my day.

    John Shadowmagic Lenahan

    1. Oh, wow! Is this really John Lenahan? If so, then I'd like to thank you for visiting my blog and leaving a comment. It means a lot to me.

      And yes, I did really enjoy your magic system! It was a very unique and creative take on magic, especially by western fantasy's standards.