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Systems of Magic - Part 1
by Rob Lockhart on 10/10/13 12:44:00 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 a game that involves magic and magical epistemology.  Consequently, I've been doing a lot of research about magical systems.  I'd like to describe a few here, for those of you interested in incorporating magic into your games.  One of the things games are best suited to is to give a person the feeling of being able to do something impossible.  What could be more impossible, or more satisfying, than the ability to use magic?  I hope that this post will inspire you to create interactive systems of magic that are amusingly unique and uniquely amusing.


Harry Potter & The Lord of the Rings (& Naruto)

I love Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings series both, but they share a sloppy dismissive view of magic.  If I were going to try to attempt to answer questions about how magic works in the universes these works of fiction take place, I'd be hard pressed for a place to start.  There seem to be spells for all kinds of things available in various arcane languages, but with very little discernible pattern as to how the spells are constructed.  Magical items, too, might answer to any description, and can have arbitrary powers.

J.R.R. TolkienJ.K. Rowing and Masashi Kishimoto are great writers, so they don't use spells or items as deus-ex-machina.  Every spell or item is well introduced to the reader before it can have an impact on the plot.  Nonetheless, the lack of a coherent mythology which explains the workings of magic invites this kind of abuse of narrative form, and less skilled writers who try to emulate these authors or who work in a similar milieu have trouble pulling out a previously unheard-of magical trick when it is convenient for the story.

In a way, it is unfortunate that J.R.R. Tolkien was so influential to Gary Gygax, and that Gary Gygax has had such a huge impact on video games.  This kind of disordered free-for-all view of magic makes the enjoyment of many games (such as WoW) dependent upon memorization (or constant reference), in some measure, for their full enjoyment.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

In this novel, magic was an art lost to time, except for a few obscure references scattered across a few hundred rare and otherwise un-entertaining books, so it would be excusable for the magic to be just as chaotic as in LOTR, since the characters only have a small piece of an established body of knowledge.  In fact, it does seem this way for most of the novel's length.

Near the end, however, a bit of coherence is added when Mr. Strange is granted nearly limitless power.  He merely speaks to the objects in nature in their own language, and they obey.  This is an element of magical fiction I like to call the "Language of Nature."  While not being a perfect explanation for how magic is allowed to influence the world within the fiction, it at least provides a distinct path to mastery -- to learn magic, you must learn this language.  This also implies that the elements of nature have a a degree of consciousness; at least enough to understand a (presumably unconstructed, aka natural) language, and obey.

This also helps one of the important narrative conundrum in any fictional universe that includes magic: 'why can't everyone use magic all the time?'  In this case, the answer is that the language is largely forgotten, or (even better) it is extraordinarily difficult to master.

This brings to mind the general principle, shared by many conceptions of magic, that symbols can have a direct influence on the world (other than via the human mind).  In truth, it seems that the 'language of nature' seems to be Mathematics, but it's a language nature only speaks but doesn't understand.  This must have frustrated even the earliest people making systematic observations of nature.  While numeracy and symbols have so much explanatory power, they have no power whatsoever to influence the things they describe.  But what if...

click the image for artist's page
click the image for artist's page

A Wizard of Earthsea

'A Wizard of Earthsea' and its follow-up novels have a similar conceit.  In order to command the forces of nature, one must know the true name of the thing one is trying to command.  That name, such as the name referring to the wind, can also change regionally, so a wind over the Pacific might have a different name than the winds over the Atlantic.  Simply knowing the name seems to be enough to summon a thing, like summoning a hawk out of the sky, one of the earliest bits of magic the main character, Ged, is able to accomplish.

The Name of the Wind

This book, as the title suggests, also includes the concept of the power of names.  It also includes descriptions of a lesser form of magic known as Sympathy.

In sympathy, the magic user must form the firm belief that two entities are linked, and then they become so.  This is another theme quite common in magical mythology: mind over matter.  One's state of mind is an important component of many magical practices, whether it be perfectly calm, fiercely effortful, or, in this case, utterly credulous.

Once linked, entities may have a sort of positional entanglement, or may be able to transfer heat at a distance, or change heat from one into kinetic energy in the other, etc.  Sympathy also introduces the idea that a sympathetic link's efficiency depends on the similarity and provenance of the two linked entities.  For example, two apparently identical coins will be easier to link than two coins of different denominations.  Personally, I think this is a very clever concept, which puts firm limitations on the performance of this kind of magic, while still allowing miraculous things.

Sympathy has its own explanations for why magic is uncommon.  Here, creating this unshakable belief of a known falsehood is a near-impossible mental exercise.  In addition, performing most useful magic involves a Rube Goldberg-esque set of complex interconnections between various things.

Sympathy also preserves quite a lot of laws of nature, including conservation of energy.  For instance, a character might light a candle by linking the wick to her own body, drawing heat from herself, but this will make her very cold very fast.

Fullmetal Alchemist

This manga and anime series also preserves quite a lot of laws of nature - notably conservation of mass.  This is known in the lore of this series as the "Law of Equivalent Exchange."  It also states that you can't transmute something from one material to another.  However, alchemists who know the proper runes and transmutation circles are able to alter the form of physical matter however they see fit.

There is also an exception to the Law of Equivalent Exchange.  If an alchemist is in physical contact with a crystalline material known as a Philosopher's Stone (which can only be crafted using the blood of thousands of dead people), their transmutations need not obey Equivalent Exchange.  This makes Philosopher's Stones so valuable that people are routinely willing to commit mass murder to obtain them.

Here is another concept common to many ideas of magic: physical contact.  In real-world physics, physical contact has no real definition.  At the scale of fundamental particles, messenger particles are being exchanged in order to repel clouds of electrons from one another.  The same is true for every set of two materials, and even within materials - there is little difference in the process of atoms nearing one another.  The idea of a discrete 'object' or of 'touching' that object are telltale signs of a pre-20th century model of nature.  Nonetheless, from a commonsense perspective, the idea of losing or gaining some ability while touching or holding a special object still has rhetorical power.


Brandon Sanderson's novels introduce a fascinating form of magic.  In his universe, there exist three forms of magic, but the one I'll describe here is the most ingeniously crafted, and clearly the basis for the rest.  Allomancy is the rare genetic ability to 'burn' metals in order to gain specific powers.  Most allomancers can only burn one kind of metal, granting them one supernatural power.  A few, called Mistborn, can burn all the allomantic metals.  An appendix in the back of each of the books explain the workings of each of the metals:

Twelve of the 16 metals.

 This power comes with a lot of limitations (assuming you possess it at all).  You must ingest the correct metal, which means you have a finite supply.  Someone burning bronze can locate other allomancers, unless they or someone nearby is burning copper.

The whole system is very balanced and rational, which is part of what makes this series so thrilling.  Grasping the full extent of the powers available takes very little time, so it becomes a game of how to use and combine these skills in novel ways.

The Last Airbender

In the Nickelodeon cartoon series "Avatar: The Last Airbender," magic is a unique skill which is randomly granted to a small percentage of the population.  Furthermore, the world is ethnically and geopolitically divided into four parts: Earth, Air, Water and Fire.  Likewise, the magical system is divided: Earthbending, Airbending, Waterbending and Firebending.  People from the Fire Nation, for instance, are only granted the ability to Firebend, if any.

All these types of 'bending' require a source of the material in question, so waterbenders are powerless in the desert (unless they bring their own water, which would be wise).  And manipulation of the material is done through special gestures, as well as a little mind over matter.  This introduces the new concept of body motions as magical symbols.

In this lore, only one person in the world can do more than one kind of bending -- the Avatar, who must master all four.


In the Abhorsen trilogy, there are a few kinds of magic.  The most common is Charter magic, which involves bringing your conciousness into another plane with runes that flow like a river through it.  Practitioners of charter magic, called 'charter mages' must pluck these runes from the flow and bring them into the material world, where they assemble spells like recipes.  This brings up the interesting notion of symbols taking physical form.  This is common in many supernatural anime, such as Fairy Tail and Strait Jacket.

There is also free magic, which has a sort of wildness and unpredictability to it.  Necromancers command one form of free magic which has its own schema involving seven bells.  The bells can be used in life, but are most effective when traveling into the seven precincts of death - a process which, from the outside, looks like someone voluntarily going into a coma or trance.  Here, sounds are symbols, and even sometimes have a rough equivalency to charter runes.



Codemancer is a fantasy video game I'm working on in which magic is code.  Players write 'spells' (programs) and then 'cast' (run) them.  This is a variation on the "Language of Nature" with a hint of mind over matter.  In this case, the language of nature is so specifically defined that it doesn't require a human-level of intelligence to understand it, just a simple computer-level intelligence.

You can see a bit about how the magic works in this youtube video.


As game developers, my opinion is: the more logical the magical systems in our games, the better.  A logical magical system drastically decreases the learning curve of the game, and may decrease development time as well.  I've found that it's especially satisfying if players can stack or combine a few abilities in novel ways, and to master these combinations, before new ones are introduced.  If enemies abilities fall within the same logical system, then so much the better.  Enemies who must act within the same constraints (even if given more power to work with) increases our sense of fair play, which is a fragile thing.

I hope you've enjoyed this first round of magical systems.  Stay tuned for part 2!

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Christian Nutt
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Super cool post. I like the Harry Potter series, but one of the reasons I couldn't take it "seriously," so to speak, is that JKR is rather incoherent and inconsistent about what magic is or does.

An author I like a great deal and who puts thought into this is Diana Wynne Jones (perhaps best known for Howl's Moving Castle, the book the Ghibli movie is based on.) She's not so controlled as to devise whole systems of magic (well, not true -- sometimes she does) but she does ensure (well I should say DID ensure, as she passed away) that there was internal logic to them. It's good for fiction, though may not work for a games (as an approach, I mean.)

Rob Lockhart
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I'll definitely check out her work. Any particularly relevant stuff I should read?

Christian Nutt
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Well it's hard to say because it's subjective and she has a broad catalogue. People tend to like the Howl books a lot (there are a few) or the Chrestomanci books a lot (there are several.) She also has another short series based on a realm called Dalemark (4 books.) The "series" tend to be rather loosely connected compared to fantasy sagas (or HP) and mainly share worlds in common (if that) with a few common characters (a main character in a former book will be a secondary character in a new book.)

Uh, that may be information overload. I'd just start with either Howl's Moving Castle (particularly if you like/have seen the film) or Charmed Life and/or The Lives of Christopher Chant if your tastes run a bit more in the Harry Potter direction, perhaps. Not very similar but not totally dissimilar either.

Rob Lockhart
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The Lives of Christopher Chant sounds like it's for me. I'm particularly interested in stories where a child or young adult learns magic and grows up at the same time.

Christian Nutt
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It's my favorite so if you hate it blame me. =)

Remy Trolong
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You could have a word about the Belgarath's series (written by David and Leigh Eddings).

Magic is described as the Will, a conjonction between your will and what it means... There are a few books too, those about the origins of Belgarath speaks more about the magic. The initial story is about Garion who is Belgarath's grandson (if I remember well...)

It's like a "kid's rated" game of thrones, i loved it :D

Nick Minkler
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From what I gathered, Gary Gygax was influenced by Jack Vance much much more than Tolkien. Vance's idea of magic, and levels of magic much more parallels what Gygax pulled into the DnD systems than anything Tolkien ever described. In fact, I'm a bit surprised that you're doing research on magic systems and you've completely skipped over Vance, even the wikipedia page explicitly states 'the rules for simulating magic were inspired by the works of fantasy author Jack Vance.....'

I've not seen any mention of Gygax being inspired by Tolkien's descriptions of magic (I'm sure it's plausible, but I'd like references here). magic systems like Tolkien described are much more limited, and describe a much different style of Fantasy universe than say Grayhawk.

Toward the end you talk about the logical progressions of magic and how it makes for better systems, but in essence, this is exactly what a Vancian magical system is (which is what DnD is).

Not trying to pump up DnD as the best best, (I feel like people get stuck in the same idea of magic as it has).

Rob Lockhart
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I have heard of Vance, though I've never read any of his books yet, and I know that Vance is a major source for the DnD magic system. What has Vance added to a general Tolkienesque concept of magic as a simple list of random, but cool, powers, other than the fact that you can only remember a few at a time?

Nicholas Halderman
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I'd strongly recommend checking out The Compleat Enchanter (sic) by L. Sprague de Camp. In these stories, a pair of logicians discover they can travel to various other lands in which magic works, simply by convincing themselves of an alternate set of logical axioms. Upon arriving in these lands, which turn out to be famous works of literature, they work out the nature of the magical rules of the realm. For instance, in Don Quixote, knights are granted supernatural prowess based on the fervor of their beliefs. That sort of thing. Being of a scientific bent, one of the things the logicians do is catalog the forms of magic in the way you do here--sympathetic magic is one they note, and another (although the name now escapes me) involves something like synecdoche, in which influencing a portion of something influences the whole. All those sorts of laws. The books are also quite funny. I think they'd be right up your alley.

Rob Lockhart
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This sounds great!

Adam Rebika
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As a diehard fan of Tolkien, I can provide more insight regarding how magic works in his setting. And, Tolkien being Tolkien, nothing is random at all in how he designed it.
Basically, you first have to understand that, in Tolkien's mythology, everything started when Illuvatar (the creator of everything) and the Ainurs (minor gods and other powerful spirits, such as the Balrogs, the Istari, Sauron...) sang a song that described the history of the world to come, with everyone having a voice in this song.

This is the core idea: your voice in the song. As history and the world itself are controlled through this song, by changing the lyrics, you can influence the fabric of the world. But of course, as there are thousands of voices singing at the same time, not everyone can be heard. The more important your voice is in the song, the more influent you are on the world, and the greater your magical powers are. The Valar, the minor gods, are like the lead singers, the ones who make the song itself, so they have huge powers, and effectively shaped the world. Meanwhile, a random human who lived his whole life in his village, without doing anything particular, will have little to no influence, and his voice will be lost in the chorus, so no powers for him.
So basically, magic is direct influence on the world. Every being is given, through its nature and its destiny, a set amount of influence, that can be expressed in any way said being sees fit. Some can do some small tricks, while others can do pretty much whatever they want.

The mages are a special case. This word is only used for a limited number of characters, which are also caled the Istari: Gandalf, Saruman, Radagast and the two blue ones no one cares about. They fit the traditional role of mages, while actually being Maiar ("minor minor" gods). Their powers are huge, but they have been "trapped" inside an "enhanced" human body. Basically, these are lead singers that are forced, for a little while, to whisper.

This theme is made obvious by the character of Tom Bombadil, who, by singing, can do pretty much anything he wants. Here's how he's described:
"Old Tom Bombadil is a merry fellow,
Bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow.
None has ever caught him yet, for Tom, he is the master:
His songs are stronger songs, and his feet are faster."
And at some point, when rescuing the Hobbits from Old Man Willow, he explicitely says:
"'Old Man Willow? Naught worse than that, eh? That can soon be mended. I know the tune for him. Old grey Willow-man! I'll freeze his marrow cold, if he don't behave himself. I'll sing his roots off. I'll sing a wind up and blow leaf and branch away."

Otherwise, back on the core subject. I would disagree with your choice of words in this sentence:
"As game developers, my opinion is: the more logical the magical systems in our games, the better. "
I'd replace the word logical by the word consistent. Logical is too rooted in reality.
When creating a magic system, one should first break the rules of logic, then build a brand new set of rules, consistent with each other.
Then, you can give your players a double level of comprehension. The basic level, the one that will directly influence the player's experience, while the deeper level is reserved for those who want to know more, who want to spend hours reading about your setting's lore.

A simple example is how magic works in The Elder Scrolls setting.
Basic level of comprehension? I learn a spell, I can cast it, it costs me some magicka, which will come back with a potion or some rest. Easy, simple, nothing too tricky. Spells are divided in several categories, depending on what they do (restoration for healing spells, destruction for attack spells etc), and mages seem to specialize in one or the other category. The more I use magic, the better I am at it.
Deep level of comprehension? Magicka flows through the sun, which is actually a hole in the fabric of reality through which we can see in another dimension from which magic is originated. This energy is everywhere, and mages are those who learn how to master it.
Very deep level of comprehension? Just have a look at this:

Rob Lockhart
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Thanks for this background on Tolkien's mythology. I agree that 'consistent' might have been a better choice of words. All I meant was that the player, reader, or whatever, should be able to predict what powers are possible based on a small(ish) set of principles or rules. Having a good origin story is not enough.

Adam Rebika
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Yeah right. Obviously, especially when it comes to video games, the designer's first priority is to make sure the player will easily understand what magic is about and what to expect from it.
The rest is like spices: they are necessary to add some flavor, but if the meal is poorly done, they can't save it.

Ananda Gupta
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In David Farland's Runelords series, the main practice of magic takes the form of exploiting "blood metal", which is used to create "forcibles". A forcible allows a person to grant an "endowment" of one of his or her personal qualities to someone else - so you could grant your brawn to someone else, who would gain it additively (but you become very weak). Runelords are individuals who have received many endowments of different types; some are almost unimaginably powerful, including the series' main villain, Raj Ahten, who seeks to become "the Sum of All Men" by taking endowments from literally everyone in the world. People who grant endowments are called Dedicates, and Runelords closely guard their Dedicates, since if a Dedicate dies, the endowment is cancelled. This leads to some interesting military situations, where killing or disabling an enemy's Dedicates may be the most important tactical goal.

Rob Lockhart
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That's a really cool concept. I'd love to see that in a game!

Gregory Parsons
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The idea of programming language-like magic systems is something that has also been on my mind quite a lot recently(/life-long obsession).
Some book series that have systems that I find somewhat inspiring:

The Laundry Files books by Charles Stross - Magic is a branch of mathematics, consequently magic can be done by computers. Software and circuitry is critical to modern magic. Computational Demonologist is a valid job title.

The Wiz series by Rick Cook - Modern programmer is summoned to a land where Magic is a programming language. Beware of bugs. Lots of Unix jokes. (Just started reading these today)

The Death's Gate Cycle by Weis and Hickman - Somewhere between several of the above systems. Rune magic is discussed in a couple of the appendices where runes are drawn, spoken or performed to describe the possible future effect that is desired. The amount of magical energy required depends upon the relative improbability of such a thing occurring at this time. (There's also a related point and click adventure computer game, but I found it a little disappointing)

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson - If you haven't read this one... do so.. NOW. I'll wait.

Game-type inspirations: Serpent's Tongue card game play test, Hack-N-Slash (Doublefine Amnesia Fortnight Prototype), Magicka, Nox, Dark Signs (Hacking Game with full scripting language for puzzle solving)

I'll have to check out your game after I get out from behind a content filter. I'm very interested in seeing how you went about it. Definitely something to keep my eye on.

Jake Forbes
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Fun topic! Laura Anne Gilman's "Vineart War" has one of the most unique and (literally) grounded magical systems I've encountered in recent fantasy fiction. Magic is distilled from vineyards, and like wine, it is influenced by the soil, the climate, heritage of the vine, etc.

While not quite the same as spells, the Monster Blood Tattoo universe of D.M. Cornish includes basically magical powers derived from monster organs that are spliced into human hosts at great physical cost. I always thought that world would make a great game setting as the rules are both explicit and exotic.

In the Diana Wynne Jones vein, I also heartily recommend the Flora Segunda books by Ysabeau Wilce feature a blend of very physical magic systems drawing on both European and central american traditions to create a magically infused ~19th century fantasy world on top of San Francisco geography.

Bart Stewart
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An excellent overview of some different styles of magic.

Back in 1993 I wrote an (unpublished) article that proposed a classification scheme for types of magic in fantasy fiction. You can read it at
ies-in-fantasy.html if you're that curious ;).

The quick summary is that it looks at whether magic is available only to some or to all, and whether the power of magic comes from inside or outside the wielder. Crossing these yields four modes:

Inherited (Internal, Some): Deryni, Harry Potter
Innate (Internal, All): Xanth
Owned (External, Some): magic rings, swords, etc.
Learned (External, All): Earthsea, Compleat Enchanter

The Lord of the Rings contains all of these, plus a special type: supplication. (I explore this wealth of magical styles in LOTR in painfully geeky detail in a follow-up article from 1998:
rth-in-mmorpg.html )

One other note: a spectacularly fun example of multiple styles of magic in one book is Lyndon Hardy's _Master of the Five Magics_ from 1980. To get what he wants, the protagonist has to understand each of the five styles of magic: Thaumaturgy, Alchemy, Magic, Sorcery, and Wizardry. Each style -- its rules, its powers, and its dangers -- are laid out with game designer-like coherence, and it's still an entertaining read.

Looking forward to Part 2 of this series!

Klaude Thomas
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'The term "magic" is used here to mean a method in which reality is controlled by non-physical means.'
I'd suggest that this quote from your interesting discussion perhaps does capture the way magic is used in much modern fantasy, but fatally neglects that magic defies science. Not only does it act by immaterial means, those means are not subject to scientific scrutiny. That means they cannot truly be systematised. (If they could be, they would be science.) A magician may intend a thing to happen, but that does not mean that the thing will happen, or will happen as the magician intends. Many stories do capture that (Earthsea and LotR, among them of course).

Klaude Thomas
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An interesting challenge to video-game magic systems to date, arises from an observation that historical magic (of the sort of the Key of Solomon or White Goddess) relies on dualistic metaphysics and should not, ultimately, be repeatable or predictable. Historical magic is not scientific. There may be systematic approaches to it, but they are not the same as saying that a mystic can be put in a laboratory and made to satisfy a thesis through repeatable expressions of her art. Largely, they are about preparing the magician to be able to cast. I think any modern-day druid would resist the idea of a codified magic system that ticks spells off like clockwork.

I think there are approaches to representing such a conceptual framework, using non-linear system dynamics. The goal would be to allow players' reasonable intuitions to often-enough prove true, but to contain unexpected surprises.

But even if one's goal is to make a science of magic, I still would suggest that game designers rather than fiction writers have a much better chance of proposing successful systems. Game designers by experience and training learn to conceive of dynamic systems. Authors create linear arrangements of putative-causality and often the most successful book-magic-systems rightly stop at suggestive. They can be inspiring and so of course it makes some sense to consider them, but in doing so I'd still feel one should briskly move on to the classic magic systems of games, which are a richer source. Or at least, I feel someone in this thread should make that point - not to denigrate your efforts which are likeable and welcome, but to point out that much inspiring magic system design has been done by game designers. Where their systems seem to fall short of fictional ones, it is because they have had to fill in the gaps and produce a system that works, instead of a system that one merely need write about working.

Atso Sariola
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You should probably check out Harry Potter and The Methods of Rationality, a rethinking of Harry Potter magic through bayesian reasoning and rational thinking.
While at that, Erfworld has a novel magic system that you might want to check out here:

Baron Zemm
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I found the HP lovecraft take on the subject to be fairly interesting. A combination of ancient rights, gestures and ceremonies as well as knowledge of "unknown" mathematical principles and alternate laws of nature.

A healthy dose of fictitious science and witchcraft.

Jacob Mooney
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Great post, Rob! I'm going to have to get some of the books mentioned here.

JoseArias NikanoruS
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Could you elaborate a little on why you think Naruto isn't as consistent in its "magic"?

I ask because while the effects of the different "jutsus" cover a wide range of effects they are somehow explained. It is explained that chakra is transformed from physical energy and there is also the explanation as for why chakra exists at all.

There are 5 basic natures that you can use and then there are mixed ones (that are restricted to certain bloodlines and that add some other elements like "Ice"), there is even a combination of three natures and then the "power of god" that can mix all the chakra natures (a combination of Ying and Yang in the current arc).

Then, the seals that are inspired by the chinese zodiac that have many combinations and then the amount of chakra you use also affects the outcome. Also, there are many prerequisites for any jutsu (like inhaling, and focusing chakra in your stomach, and then exhaling to "breath fire") so I think that all in all it is kind of consistent.

About Fullmetal Alchesmit I would like to add that the philosopher's stone actually follows the "Law of Equivalent Exchange", the thing is that a philosopher stone is like a battery that is charged with the life of thousands of persons. So, since there is all that energy already stored you can use it to balance every exchange you need to do (making it seem like you are breaking the law; by the way, I really liked how in the anime they explained that there was additional energy being used in alchemy, energy that came from the lifes from another dimension). And just as a battery, a philosopher stone can run out of juice. The homunculi seem to be immortal but that's because they are being regenerated using the power of the philosopher's stone and once the power of the philosophers is exhausted the homunculi actually die (like Lust did).

Tomasz Mazurek
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Hey man, I am currently working on a magic system of my own, so this summary is of great value to me. Have you done research into any kinds of real world magical traditions?

John Trauger
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What? No webcomics?

Erfworld and El Goonish Shive both have very developed magic systems, especially EGS.

Jack Everitt
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Rob, to me, the best author at making Magic Systems is Robin Hobb (Megan Lindholm). Each kingdom/region in her Farseer Trilogy and The Wild Rain Chronicles (same world) has magic systems that are different, inventive, well-thought-out and consistent compared to well, the rest of the authors in Fantasy (in general). She is just level above everyone.