Magic… it’s a common thread throughout fantasy worlds. Though it’s given many different names and many different sources, it results in people who can develop extraordinary power to do things that ordinary people cannot. From card tricks and rabbits-in-hats to the power of flight, healing, tossing fireballs and shape changing, magic has a seemingly endless range of accomplishments. However, as tempting as it is to develop a world where magic is limitless, often it is the laws that you place on magic users that give depth and meaning to their power.
We are always so enthralled by imagining up all the things that magic can do… it may be unusual to stop and try to figure out what magic cannot do. Yet, as common as the concept of magic is across fantasy worlds, it is the limitations and structure that an author places on these unseen forces that can set their “brand” of magic apart from everyone else’s.
Here are a few suggestions on how laws and limitations on magic can be used to develop a foundation for a unique system for your world:
The Chosen Ones. Is magic rare in your world — are there only certain people that can tap into it? If so, why? Is it based on race, gender or place of origins? Maybe only children have a certain kind of power and not the adults? What determines if someone is magically gifted… and what are the social results of these chosen magic users (for good or bad)?
Everyone Has A Little Bit. Is magic so common in your world that it’s seen as completely normal? If so, does everyone have their own unique ability… and what do they have to do to learn it? What do they do with this ability… does it become like an occupation? What happens if someone is magic-less in a magic-ful world? How is society different because the plentiful presence of magic in everyone?
Magic Comes In Types. Magic in this world is based on strict typology. It can’t do everything, but it can do particular things within a certain, specialized area. Maybe magic is created through music or voice. Maybe magic is created through crafting of runes and special written languages. Perhaps there are mind-sensitive people who can use the power of thought in special ways. There may be those who can bend the elements of the world to their will. It doesn’t matter what type you choose to use as long as magic users are bound by the rules of that particular specialization.
Magic Only With Outside Aid. Magic exists in this world… but requires the use of items or more powerful beings to channel and use it. This opens up doors to lots of questing for special items and the possibility of mis-use if these items were to fall in the wrong hands. Maybe magic only comes from a certain source? If so… what is this source called and what do people have to do in order to gain power from it?
Magic With Consequences. Think about the Three Wishes and Genie in a Bottle stories. You’re given the possibility to wish for anything you want – that’s similar to magic in a way. However, you have to be very careful what you ask for… because the consequences of your wish coming true may be more risk than you’re willing to take. Magic can work like that as well. Perhaps your magic users have to be very careful of unplanned consequences every time they cast their magic. This could make for a lot of fun scenarios!
The Lawbreaker. Sometimes, rules of magic can be put in place so that you can create a character specifically to break these rules. When this character rises above the limitations that everyone else seems to be bound to, they prove themselves to be more skilled and powerful than the norm. It’s a great way to use limitations to highlight certain legendary characters… or to develop your own new legend by exploring how rules can be overcome.
There are lots of ways you can choose to structure your system of magic – the above are just a few samples. What kind of laws and limitations do you use in your world? If you haven’t nailed down a structure, it might be fun to sit down and brainstorm some concepts of how your magic works – where it comes from, what it can and cannot do, and who is able to use it. You might just find that laws (and breaking laws) are a lot more fun than you knew!