Anybody got advice on creating a fairly simple magic system for a fantasy world? I am new to writing the fantasy genre and quite frankly, I have no idea what I'm doing, so any advice helps!
If you’re new to fantasy, my immediate suggestion would be to read a ‘ton’ of fantasy books, the more, the better. Also, if you’re one for rpgs, DnD and Pathfinder are two good fantasy rpgs, and have a pretty simple magic system. Also, research mythology, any culture, it can be inspiring. (Forgotten Realms and TSR are good fantasy novel publishers to read from, though there is obviously a lot more available)
Also, for magic systems specifically, besides using DnD/Pathfinder as a reference, you can reference real life people/things like witches/wiccans, which often use things like spellbooks, candles/incense, wands, athames (a knife/dagger used specifically for spells and the like), altars, cauldrons, and a lot of personal willpower/energy. More personal willpower, or more people with lots of willpower for covens, equals stronger spells. (This is what I know of it, so I may be a bit inaccurate)
Finally, it’s mainly up to you how you want to do it. Something I usually do, despite having very underdeveloped magic systems, is make tiers of how powerful the spell is, determine how expensive and/or exhausting the spell is, and how long it takes to cast/how long it can be cast with constant concentration. In other words, how powerful the spell is, how quick it exhausts the caster, and how long it takes to cast. I also categorize spells based on their type (example: a fireball is elemental)
Hope this helps.
What made you want to write in the fantasy genre?
I ask because if you want, for example, a magic boost to character development, then you can go for "fairy tale magic" which is that somebody who knows how to do it simply sprouts a prophecy or grants a wish. Like, 'For not inviting me to this party, your firstborn child will die young from a spinning wheel spindle' (prophecy) and somebody else with magic counteracts it with, 'It's not a death sentence, it's a coma.'
Then it makes symbolic sense, although it's not a "hard" magic system. It is instead this surrealist, "soft" kind of magic, because they don't tell you why they don't just undo the whole thing so this firstborn child doesn't even go into a coma. It makes sense that they can't undo that, even without explaining the details of how it works or doesn't work. The curse won't come from a hat pin or a mosquito bite, but a spinning wheel spindle—that's just how it's going to be, because the curse-caster said so. That's what some people call "soft" magic systems.
Michael Carpenter in The Dresden Files and Frances Hodgeson Burnett's characters (Sara Crewe and Mary Lennox) display a different kind of magic that's more like "happy coincidences all the time", like some small good thing happens at the best time…even if it doesn't solve everything, because the good thing that happens is so small. Sara Crewe is saved from starvation once or twice by this magic, but her father is still dead and there's still something too bad about the people who were supposed to adopt her after her father's death, living right next door but not being able to find her.
Those are all examples of "soft" magic systems.
What's really popular right now, though, is "hard" magic systems:
In The Dresden Files again, the main character is a wizard, and is also the point of view character…so, Michael Carpenter's lucky accidents aren't something the wizard character knows about, even though they are both in the story setting. Instead, the wizard describes preparing potions—always composed of 5 ingredients that have something to do with one of the 5 Senses. What the ingredients do to those senses determine what the potion will do. Like, if he wanted a potion to keep him awake, then ingredients would include the smell of coffee and the sound of a rooster crow.
These "hard" magic systems usually have patterns and clear limitations… Based on Four Elements, for example, or "If you shapeshift into an animal then you have to have seen the animal that you are imitating" (from the True Blood television series).
So, a "hard" magic system has very clear and often very elaborate rules and limitations…more like a physics textbook or a user manual for a branch of science in a parallel universe.
So it depends on what you want to do.
EXAMPLE: Animal shapeshifting
Soft: This is an ability that some people naturally have, maybe favor from a polytheistic deity who never announces this so it's just in-world priests guessing that that's the cause. There's supposed to be a mysterious ritual or evil deity a person can appeal to if they want this power but are not naturally gifted with it, but then they're more likely to think and act like an animal even in human form—unlike the socially-accepted way to get this ability, whose gifted ones know their own mind all the time. Nobody can predict or choose or change their animal form, and it seems that most people who have this only get one.
Hard: This is an ability passed down the generations by bloodline, or at least the secret training. You choose your form by studying different animals and build confidence that you know what their anatomy is like. When you shapeshift, the animal you turn into will have equal mass as your human body.
In-Between: Your human body seems to be asleep while your mind has dreams that match the experience of an existing, waking animal that's moving around at the time. (Both A Song of Ice and Fire as well as the Discworld book series does this.)
The same can be sorted for conjuring up balls of fire (is this something that happens because witches can do this? or are there techniques explained as to how and why they can do this, even if only to yourself?), reading people's minds, levitation and flight, talking to ghosts, or whatever your story needs.
I also think it's very possible for a writer to have a hard magic system in the worldbuilding diary—but write the story itself from the point of view in which magic seems mysterious and vague to the point-of-view character who never finds out more about it. So in the actually written-out story, it's a soft magic system.
It's also possible for a story to have more than one magic system, like The Dresden Files above where they're kept separate, or in Fires of the Faithful by Naomi Kritzer where they crossover and compete with each other, or Avatar: Legend of Aang in which the control of different elements (earth and metal, water and blood or sap, fire, and air) operate by the same mind/heart magic until people invented divisions to be limited by, but in that context there is this unified theory of all magic.
HOLY COW these were both so helpful. I think I've got the start of a few ideas to work with, we'll see how it goes :)
Thanks so much!
To have a magical system you need to use two things :
1 - Imaginary
2 - Writing skills
Good luck :)