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Magic Systems: The Rules About the Rules

One of the central hallmarks of any fantasy series is how the author sets up the magic system. This includes a lot of things, obviously. You need to know how common magic is, how easy is it to access, how powerful it is, who has it, how is it used, and so on. All of those topics there are probably blog posts waiting to happen, but today I want to focus on one thing: how magic is supposed to work.

The common misconception about fantasy (and scifi, for that matter, which occasionally strays into the use of ‘magic,’ as well, though in different guises) is that you can “do whatever you want.” You want flying dragon balloons that spit orangutans? Done! You want it to rain fire every Tuesday afternoon? Go for it! You want people to have nipples on their back while being able to spit acid from their nostrils? That’s a-ok! The thing is, though, that there’s more to it that simply that.

Of course you can do any of those things, but you can’t just do them for the hell of it and expect it to work. You need to build the underlying rationale for these things so that we, the audience, accept them as plausible or at least believable. This goes for any aspect of a fantasy setting, but it applies to the magic system in particular. It is especially true when the magic system plays a crucial part in the lives of the characters. So, for instance, Jim Butcher’s magic system for the Dresden Files (which is probably the best one I know of, by the way) is painstakingly laid out because his main character (and only POV character) is an actual wizard. George RR Martin, on the other hand, has magic only existing on the fringes of his world and only barely hinted at, so at present it is rather vague and mysterious (which suits his setting just fine). That said, I am fairly certain GRRM has a pretty solid grasp of how sorcery works in his world – his world-building is deep and robust in every direction – so even in his case, what I’m about to say probably holds true.

In order for magic to make sense and work in your fantasy setting, it needs rules. Magic that can do anything at any time is problematic for a number of plot and conflict reasons, not the least of them being the constant and obvious temptation to allow your characters to escape any danger with the wave of a wand. That’s too easy and too easy is boring. It becomes “why don’t the eagles just fly Sam and Frodo to Mordor” over and over again.

So, rules.

Be honest: you read this book and walked around the house saying "Accio TV Remote!" and "Accio Popcorn!" for days, didn't you?

Be honest: you read this book and walked around the house saying “Accio TV Remote!” and “Accio Popcorn!” for days, didn’t you?

Good rules are clear enough to lay out the potential and guidelines of the powers available to those gifted with them. They should be set up to be exciting and also potentially dangerous. A good magic system, like a good superpower, is something that your readers might actively think would be fun and cool and interesting. Everybody wants to have the Force; everybody would love to have access to the Bene Gesserit’s Voice. Furthermore, a good magic system needs to be understandable enough to allow that kind of fantasizing to take place. We love the fact that Harry Potter can wave his wand and say “Accio Broom!” and his broom will shoot out from wherever it is and arrive in his hand. We love it in part because the power seems fun and interesting, but also because it seems understandable and logical: “If I, too, were a wizard and I, too, had a magic wand then I, too, would be able to reach my coffee without having to get up.”

There is, however, a balance to be struck. A system can be too vague, obviously, and this is problematic in the sense that the magic system soon becomes ignored or unimportant. Naturally, if this is your intention (e.g. Tolkien), then that’s all well and good. Nobody, though, goes walking around trying to imitate the magic of the Elves. It isn’t super clear that they have magic or, if they do, how it works. Like, in the movies did Arwen summon those white-water horses? What the hell did Elrond do to heal Frodo? If Gandalf can make flaming projectiles out of pine cones, why doesn’t he keep a bunch of pine cones in his backpack? No, magic, in the case of Tolkien anyway (and those like him), isn’t so much a system as it is a basic dramatic effect. It lacks detail and, therefore, while it gains mystery, it also loses a sense of concrete fascination for the audience. If that’s your intention, as I said, this is fine (there’s a lot of good low-magic fantasy out there), but if your intent is to create a world where the practice of magic is central to the plot somehow, you’re going to need detail.

Ah ha! The way to infiltrate the Black Gate is to hit up up, down down, left right, left right, B A, B A Start!

Ah ha! The way to infiltrate the Black Gate is to hit up up, down down, left right, left right, B A, B A Start!

Conversely (and perhaps paradoxically), magic systems can become too detailed and too concrete. You need rules, yes, but the rules (in my opinion) should remain sufficiently complex to prevent the audience from completely grasping them. Magic, in other words, shouldn’t seem easy. A system, even an interesting system, laid out with too much specificity starts to feel less like an eldritch code by which to manipulate the universe and more like a series of button-patterns to hit in a video game.

For my own part, in Alandar I’ve created a complex system laid out as the complex interactions of five naturally occurring energies of creation. They interact in a kind of pseudoscientific fashion and can (and have) been harnessed to create all manner of complex “technologies” based upon them. The system I hope is deep and interesting, and being a mage in this world should seem cool. In end, though, it should seem like the kind of thing you’d need to study years to master and the depths of which have yet to be fathomed by the reader and by the characters alike.



We, the World Weavers

In the Gospel of Saint John, it begins:

In the beginning, there was the Word, and the Word was God.

When I studied scripture (yes, I have studied scripture – both in high school and in college. Go Jesuits!), recall spending a fair amount of time discussing this line. John’s gospel is significantly different than the other three. In it, John emphasizes the divinity of Jesus and, as a consequence, it’s a trifle more abstract in places. It works with certain metaphors the other gospels don’t (as those gospels were more concerned with Jesus as a human being and how he relates to humanity). In the original Ancient Greek, the word we translate as “Word” is logos.

Logos means “word,” but not in the conventional sense (that is lexis). Logos, rather, means something along the lines of “rational basis” or “premise”. In the theological sense, among the ancient Hebrews it indicated “that through which everything was made.” It makes sense, in this context, that Saint John would relate God to logos, as that is literally what God is – the thing through which everything is made. I also think it is profound to think of the metaphor being constructed here, irrespective of your religious beliefs: Word as God.

Neil Postman, the media theorist and cultural critic (and professor of communications and culture at NYU), goes on at some length about the power of words. In his essay “The Word Weavers/The World Makers,” he says:

For whatever we believe in, or don’t believe in, is to a considerable extent a function of how our language addresses the world.

We cannot conceive of things we have no words for. Our words and our language dictates how we interact and understand the world around us and it is very difficult to escape. Even if you learn several languages, our frames of meaning and understanding are still hung upon a framework of words. Now, there is some argument among linguists and biologists and so on regarding how language came about (are we born with it hardwired in or do we learn it/not learn it according to environment), but regardless of that, the simple fact remains that words are the very stuff of creation. What’s more, language is basically just a metaphor – it exists at what Postman says is “at considerable remove from the reality of the world itself.”

Words are magic, but not how you think they are.

Words are magic, but not how you think they are.

Consider any object. Can you see the back of it? Obviously not unless you turn it around, but then, of course, you can’t see the front anymore. Indeed, you cannot ever see all of an object at once without using a series of mirrors, and even then you are only seeing reflections and images of that object’s full self. Nevertheless, if you look at the coffee mug on your desk , you know its shape and its function and its color and, despite no current sensory evidence, you are able to conceive of it without needing to see it. This, Postman insists, is the function words serve. They are metaphors and metaphors, he says, are “organs of perception.”

This brings me, as it always seems to, back to fantasy literature. Magic, as it is commonly portrayed, is almost always somehow verbal in nature: speak the magic words, know the magic incantations, write the magic runes, speak a thing’s True Name, etc.. Tolkien has Middle Earth sung into existence, Le Guin has Ged the Wizard work his magic by speaking the names of things, and Rothfuss’s Kvothe wishes for nothing more than to Speak the Name of the Wind. Historically, this is an ancient belief and custom – we can see it in the Gospel of Saint John just as we can see it in the beliefs of the ancient Hebrew Kabbalists and even the ancient Sumerians who saw names and writing and speech as somehow magical in nature.

What’s interesting about this is that those ancient cultures were right! Words are magical, and not in some mealy-mouthed “inspire you to write and love books” way, either. They are actually magical in the sense that they are what gives the world shape or, rather, enable us to shape the world around us into something understandable. One cannot stare into a void without having a word for void or, rather, if you were to stare into the void (or anything else for that matter) without words, you would have no way to think about the experience outside of dull, animal impressions. Words – how we use them, where we use them, when we use them – have real, actual power over the world around us and the people we meet.

To study words, to understand them, and to wield them is to hold real power. No magic wands required.

Alandar: A Brief History of Sorcery, Part 1 (The Energies)

The Art – known as ‘magic’ or ‘sorcery’ – is of utmost importance to life in Alandar. Indeed, one cannot separate the very stuff of sorcery from the very substance of the world itself – they are one in the same, and one who has power over the former has, by default, power over the latter.

Basic Principles

dark_wizard_revis_by_capprottiSorcery, it should be noted, describes the substance more than it does the act. If something is of a sorcerous nature, that means it is behaving in a particular way or made up of a particular substance. The practice of sorcery is known as the Art, and is divided into two parts: the High Arts and the Low Arts. The term ‘magic’ is a superstitious word, applied by those who do not understand the powers that shape their own world to explain what they witness as being miraculous or unknowable. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. The most important fact about the Art (and the most violently guarded secret in history) is that anyone can master it. Anyone. So long as an individual possesses the proper discipline, work-ethic, intelligence, and wisdom, they can learn to become a wizard at the least and a full mage at the best. This is because sorcery is not some kind of moral reward or genetically transmitted power – it is simply another word for discussing the substance of the universe itself.

The Five Energies

The stuff of sorcery is understood by separating it into five different energies which, by their combination, comprise the physical and spiritual world that surrounds us. They are very broad, very complex concepts and should not be understood simplistically, nor should they be judged by moral concerns. The Ether is no more ‘evil’ than the Lumen can be, nor is the Fey more destructive than the Dweomer, per se. The world, as you should know by now, is a complicated and contradictory place. The energies are as follows:

The Lumen is the power of growth, life, and light. It has affinity with the number seven, the color white, and is commonly associated with ‘positive’ feelings and emotions, though this is a simplistic view. It is perhaps best understood as the power of connectivity and community – of how multiple parts work together to benefit a whole. This explains how it echoes with growth (the life force of our body growing by incorporating materials into itself to benefit the whole), kindness (being kind to one another enhances cooperation and benefits society), and so on. It is most strongly found in healthy soil or among plants and trees, and so has become associated with the Earth, even though it is hardly limited to that arena.

The Ether is the Lumen’s opposing force – the power of death, decay, and darkness. Its affinities are the number thirteen, the color black, and is commonly associated with ‘negative’ feelings and emotions like falsehood, deception, and cruelty. Like the Lumen, its true nature is rather more nuanced. The Ether is the power of solitude or self-interest – how individual members cease to operate in conjunction for the benefit of said individuals. In this way, it has connections with the Fey just as the Lumen has connections with the Dweomer, but it should be noted that other aspects of the Ether (lies, plots, binding) have much in common with the Dweomer, and so we must not simplify the world into a dualistic paradigm. The Ether is all about caring for the self, and hence decay and death (where things cease to operate in concert and, rather, dissociate themselves and break down into their constituent units). It is solitary, and therefore has affinity with lies and treachery and stealth – acts that benefit individuals who act outside social order. Due to its mysterious and oft-mercurial nature, the Ether has become associated with water – rivers, oceans, lakes, etc. – and is very powerful in those arenas.

The Dweomer is the power of order, stability, and reason. It has affinity with the number three, the color blue, and is considered the ‘rational’ power, though both the Ether and Lumen have their rational aspects. The Dweomer, however, is more pure – it is completely lacking in emotional content. At its most basic level, the Dweomer exists as the lack of motion – rigid, unchanging, sensible, and controlling. It is, for this reason, most easily channeled in cold environments – a lack of motion among most aspects of nature is common at lower temperatures, thanks to the increased dweomeric presence there. Though often considered a ‘good’ force when compared with its opposite, the Fey, this is easily found to be false by simply considering the behavior of tyrants and slavers – chains are dweomeric in nature more than they are anything else. The Dweomer is associated with the open sky and the wind, which seems contradictory at first blush, but must be understood in context: the sky, though in motion, is an orderly thing, as the passage of the stars and moon can attest, as can the rigid nature of the seasons. Even the winds are predictable, as sailors can attest, and often any variation is due to unusual spikes in temperature, which leads us to a discussion of the fourth energy.

The Fey is the power of chaos, madness, and complete freedom. It has affinity with the number one, the color red, and is considered to be the power of destruction, though that isn’t strictly fair. The Fey is pure emotion and chaos – absolute freedom of motion. This has the side effect of often being destructive – the Fey knocks down what the Deweomer builds – but it is worth noting that the Fey’s behavior often leads to growth and needed change (in other words, its destruction leads to the Lumen’s growth or the Ether’s decay, and often both), and in this sense is both essential and very positive. The Fey, unsurprisingly, is associated with fire – the destroyer, but also the giver of warmth and life.

The Astral is the fifth energy and requires special mention. For long ages, the existence of the Astral was unknown or misunderstood, because it does not, in and of itself, do much of anything. The Astral provides the medium through which all of the rest of the powers move and operate. The Astral is present everywhere, and is rarely more or less present in any one location (the ley lines excepted, but in those places there is more of everything, so that stands to reason). Were it not for the Astral, the world would cease to exist as the four opposing powers would cancel one another out in a colossal explosion. In practical terms, the Astral seems to be the chief governor of Time and Space and (arguably) fate and causality. Though technically colorless, gray has become its associated color and it has a demonstrated affinity with the number five. The Astral, though probably the most important energy, is the least visible and hardest to manipulate. Only the great magi of the Arcanostrum have had much luck with it and, indeed, this is probably why they are the current rulers of the sorcerous world.

The High Arts Vs the Low Arts

As already alluded to, the work of the magician (put crudely, but for the sake of clarity), is separated into practitioners of the High Arts and Low Arts. The High Arts are the great works of sorcery itself. It is the direct manipulation of the five energies through incantation, focus, and ritual. It is very powerful and very flexible and is the source of everything we commonly understand as sorcery. Indeed, it is these acts that only a ‘sorcerer’ (in the technical sense) can perform.

The Low Arts, conversely, are those arts that manipulate the five energies indirectly, through materials and mediums that shape the ley of the universe. The ley, by the by, is a generic term referring to the general disposition of sorcerous energy in an area. So, for instance, if someone were to say a place has a ‘dweomeric’ ley, it would mean there is a preponderance of dweomeric energy present and, therefore, proportionally less Fey energy. In any event, practicioners of the Low Arts include alchemists (who work together chemicals and materials to create sorcerous concoctions), thaumaturges (who distill purer sorcerous energies from the universe through careful scientific processes), warlocks (who construct items that channel sorcerous energy into machine-work), and so on. Though they may go by a variety of professional titles (witch, talismancer, etc.), the vast majority of Low Arts practitioners fall broadly into the preceeding three categories. While certainly important and powerful in their own way, there is little that the Low Arts can accomplish that the High Arts cannot do also, but more powerfully and more quickly (though at much greater risk to the sorcerer). The Low Arts, however, require somewhat less schooling and are far less risky. Accordingly, practitioners of the Low Arts are much more common in society, especially here in the West.

To Be Continued…

Don’t Mess with Arrendale

I have been watching Frozen on loop now for the past several months. I have listened the soundtrack a million times. My daughter insists we sing “Love is an Open Door” as a duet, making sure I don’t edge in on the Anna part, since I’m supposed to just sing the Hans part.

The movie has been on my mind a lot.

Piss her off, and kiss your crops goodbye, folks.

Piss her off, and kiss your crops goodbye, folks.

Among the many, many things to say about this movie (and it is a great Disney movie, mind you), one comes to mind: How screwed is everybody else in the Frozen universe? I mean, seriously, Queen Elsa has just thrown down the geopolitical gauntlet. Think about it – this is a young woman who dropped her entire country into the depth of winter in the middle of the summer and she did this by accident. Holy shit.

Here’s how every negotiation with Arrendale goes from here on out:

Ambassador: Your Highness, we think these trade agreements are unfair.

Elsa: Oh, really? Because I think it’s rather nice of me to let your country have any liquid water at all. You know, if you catch my meaning.

Ambassador: These trade agreements look great! Boy, howdy, what a deal!

If Elsa learns to control her powers (which she seems to at the end), this is going to be great for Arrendale in the short term, sure. What appears to be a rather small, isolated country now needn’t fear foreign invasion and stands to have a lot of political weight to throw around if another country decides to play dirty.

Of course, as any historian can tell you, having some kind of overwhelming power while everyone else lacks it might be a recipe for regional hegemony, it also often leads to military conflict. One can see a group of nations banding together to take down the Witch of Arrendale if for no other reason than they are tired of living in terror of Queen Elsa’s foul moods. I mean, just how many ambassadors can you have shipped back to you in a block of ice with a note reading “sorry, he was rude.”

This could be avoided by Elsa not using her powers, naturally, or sharply curtailing their use. However, since she spent most of her youth being forbidden to ‘be herself’, now that she can use them (and her people love her for it), how can she not? If Weaseltown makes a shady move to box Arrendale out of some kind of trade market, hurting her citizens, do you think Elsa isn’t going to send a blizzard to make those Weasels rethink their decision? Not likely.

War is certainly coming, one way or another, or, to borrow the Starks words, Winter is Coming. For Arrendale and everybody else in the region, it’s likely to be a long one, too. No one can put up with one country having a weapon of mass destruction and not having one themselves unless those nations are willing to play second fiddle to Arrendale’s new superpower status. Sure, they may do this for a while, but not forever. And what happens, then, when Elsa dies? Do the vultures come to feed then? Do old scores get settled? Even worse to consider is this: what happens if Elsa’s gift propagates to her offspring? Now Arrendale controls a bloodline of super-weapons, and now it becomes a geopolitical struggle to control and contain them. This means dead and kidnapped babies, everybody – dead and kidnapped babies.

This guy sees the writing on the wall.

This guy sees the writing on the wall.

One can scarcely blame the Lord of Weaseltown, then, from looking to eliminate Elsa immediately. He’s an old guy and, despite his goofy appearance, he clearly knows his diplomatic business. He doesn’t just want Elsa dead because she’s scary, but also because her very existence will destabilize a region that, up until then, seems to be fairly peaceful and prosperous. Killing Elsa is the best thing not only for Weaseltown, but arguably for Arrendale, as well. Heck, even if he doesn’t manage killing her, demonizing her as a monster will keep her off the throne, and that’s enough to keep the world on an even keel. What he’s doing, while underhanded and reactionary, could very likely avoid generations of terror and violence in the land. He, in a certain sense, is doing us all a favor.

Then again, who knows? Maybe Elsa is wise enough to use her power sparingly, to keep it out of the geopolitical spectrum, and to control it carefully and conscientiously for the good of all. Then again, you know what they always say about absolute power, too. I’m not so sure Elsa is going to beat the odds there. If you live in one of Arrendale’s neighboring countries, I’d start stocking up on firewood and, for God’s sake, get the hell out of the ice business.

Ways of Magic: Now Available!

The cover art is inspired by my story.

The cover art is inspired by my story.

The next month is going to be full of great news for my writing career, so let’s kick it off with the release of a short fiction anthology featuring my story “Dreamflight of the Katatha.”

The Ways of Magic anthology, released by Deepwood Publishing, is now available via Amazon as well as Barnes and Noble and Kobo. I encourage you to check it out, as I’m proud of the story within it and have every confidence the whole thing is a good read. If story anthologies are your thing, then you’ve got a lot of good news coming your way, as I’ve got two more like this coming out in the next couple weeks (one of which has an advance copy sitting on my desk right now).

And then, of course, is my Big News, which is still under wraps, but never fear – you’ll find out soon enough!

Enough listening to me gab, though – go out and buy this book!

Back to (Magic) School

Is it just me, or are there a lot of magical educational institutions in the fantasy genre? I mean, it makes sense – if you have a world where there’s a wizard in every town, they all have to learn their trade somewhere, right? What I find odd, though, is the extent to which we, the readers, always find ourselves there, going to classes, worrying about tests, and the rest of it. Now, while I do enjoy a well-rendered magic school scene as much as the next guy, I feel like this particular trope of the genre is getting worn out. I mean, consider all the magic schools out there:

  • Hogwarts (naturally)
  • The Jedi Academy
  • The University (Kingkiller Chronicles)
  • Brakebills (The Magicians)
  • The White Tower of Tar Valon (The Wheel of Time)
  • Roke (Earthsea Trilogy)

There are more than this, too, and there are also those other fantastic schools we see that, while they don’t teach magic, they do teach rather off-beat things like mutant powers (Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters) or high-tech strategy (the Battle School in Ender’s Game) and so on and so forth. My own world, Alandar, has a magical school, too (the Arcanostrum of Saldor), and I’d bet there are at least a thousand other first novels out there all brandishing their own version of how to learn to throw fire from your hands and tell the future with a dish of water. And, while I don’t begrudge anybody from trying to figure that stuff out in their fantasy world, I am getting a little tired of having to take the curriculum myself.

Been there, done that--in both the real world and in fiction. Let's move on.

Been there, done that–in both the real world and in fiction. Let’s move on.

I don’t want to go to class with these kids. I don’t want to meet their teachers. I don’t want to see their tests or worry with them over their tuition or any of that. It’s becoming exhausting for me – I feel like I never get the chance to graduate from these places. Once I’m out of one, I’m enrolled in another. It’s starting to drive me crazy. I have now forsworn ever writing any further magic school scenes that deal with the troubles of students learning the mystical arts (I have done it in the past, but no more). Why? It’s done now. Beat to death.

Now, there are some very good reasons why this trope has infiltrated so much of the genre and, honestly, one of the reasons it bothers me is that I, myself, am a teacher and reading this stuff just makes me feel like I’m at work to some extent. Most simply, though, the primary reason we keep seeing magical schools is that so much of this genre is targeted at kids who are still in high school or college. Hell, the Young Adult Fantasy genre is almost exclusively concerned with an audience for whom a major (if not the major) source of conflict in their lives is their experiences in school. I would bet that adults like these things because they, themselves, enjoy the nostalgia that comes with being obsessed with the troubles that come with school (which, kids, if I may pull my Old Man Card here, are wonderfully simple problems compared to the Real World). Even beyond audience appeal, they also serve as excellent ways to introduce a reader to the magical scheme of the fantasy world in question – as they learn, so do you.

In all those senses, I get it; I understand why we keep going back to these places. Can we shake it up, though? Can we tell the story of a teacher instead of a student? Can we follow a student who finds school easy but their personal life hard (though I suppose Grossman does this in The Magicians to some extent)? Can we follow a student who is so terrible at school that he isn’t any good and he drops out and then finds something else to do with his life? What about not having a school, but just a master and apprentice? This has been done, yes, but hardly as often and not with as much detail. What about somebody who’s just plain old self-taught? What about somebody founding a school? What about a school that gets dissolved?

There’s a lot of stuff to be done here, but I feel like we keep running in the same circles. We got the same talented kid who has some trouble in school but overall does impressive stuff who has a teacher s/he likes, a teacher s/he hates, a group of plucky friends, and a headmaster who makes a good mentor. They go through their adventures, get their degree, and there the story stops. This I find deeply ironic to some extent since, as all adults know, that’s the point where the story really starts.


There is a price to knowledge.

It is more dearly bought than thou thinkest.

A son wishes to know his father’s secrets. To learn them is cheap – time, patience, vigilance, cunning are all in ready supply. These are not the price. The price is in the knowing.

The son learns the father is a cheat, an adulterer, a coward, a liar. Or the son learns the father is a hero, a paragon, a faultless man of integrity. Or the son learns his father is exactly as he appears, and nothing more. The exact fact does not matter.

To know is to cease to hope. Learn, and kill possibilities with broad strokes. Slay thy dreams with every learned fact. Build thy prison out of truth and evidence. Watch thy youth die at a pace with thy tutelage.

Think thou that I and my brethren were ever thus? We once walked with men in an age before thy reckoning. We were scholars, prying at the seams of Truth, seeking the answers to all questions. We learned them. We Know.

The Knowing had a price. Death became our slave, pain our tutor, power our currency. We were undone; our humanity withered with our imagined wisdom. We cared not. We wished to Know, and there was no price too high. It is only now, with the perspective of aeons, that we can savor the rich irony of our quest. We wished to become gods through our learning. Instead we have become servants; slaves to the Truth. Custodians of the Answer.

The wonder in our souls is but a half-remembered whisper. Our curiosity is as dead as the cities that birthed us. We are men no longer. We are husks, hollowed out with secrets. Thou cometh hither to seek such secrets; for them thou shalt pay. This, though, I give thee for free:

Ask not. Let thy secrets lie. Dwell in the possible.

On the Holy Hill

Author’s Note: This is a discarded chapter from a novel I’ve been working on the past few years. Hool’s story has changed somewhat, but this little scene is still worth a gander, I suppose. Not perfect, but not bad, either.

Snow. Not yet, but very soon. Brekhool could smell it in the air—a clean, fresh scent that burned her nostrils. She looked up at the sun—a cold metal plate shining through the gray autumn sky—it was early in the year for snow. A long winter was ahead.

            “Hool.” Hapta growled. Brekhool laid her ears back against her broad skull as she looked over at her pack-sister’s whelp. Hapta was ten years old now—practically grown—but he was lean and his gray fur was thin around his back and shoulders. She hoped he would not survive this winter’s frost.

            Hapta flared his nostrils and showed his teeth between black lips. “Momma waits on the hill, Hool. Jump.”

            Hool closed her left paw into a fist and rolled her broad shoulders into a backhand slap that sent Hapta tumbling into the dirt. When he rolled to get up, she put her knee on his back and pinned him. Twisting his ear to her muzzle, she let her snarl rumble around his flat head for a moment before speaking. “You are not so big to show teeth, pup. Next time you try, I will skin you.”

            Hapta went limp, but did not beg. Hool thought about making him, but he was right—everyone was waiting on the hill, and they had been waiting long enough.

            Settling down on to all four limbs, Hool trotted off to the south across the vast grasslands of her home. Ahead, she could see the holy hill named Adoo—the highest point for a very long way. At its top stood the grotto of sacred trees where the whole of Hool’s pack was gathered around, watching her approach. In the crowd, she could pick out her eldest daughter, Groodan, and her second son, Hoodrad, but the pups were nowhere to be seen. Sniffing the breeze, she could catch the barest hint of their scent, and guessed they were near the center of the grotto—probably to get a better view. She reminded herself to scold Groodan for letting them slip away again. The girl-pup would be a terrible mother. Half her litter would end up griffon food for certain. 

She stood and climbed on two legs up the slope of the hill. The pack, their eyes down and ears low, parted around her, some rattling bone charms and muttering to themselves. Hool could only catch pieces of their prayers, so it was difficult to say who was with her or against her.

It was cold at the top of the hill. She wished she could have brought a hide to wear, but Mogro the shaman had been very specific—no hides, no charms, no weapons. A shaman speaking from a holy hill was not to be denied, and so she came naked. As she suspected, she spied her youngest—Brana and Opa—sitting quietly at the front of the pack. Their ears perked up when she passed by and Brana opened his mouth to speak, but she stilled him with a hard glare and he sat down again—such a good pup, he was.

At the center of the grotto, in a ring of dirt and dry leaves, waited Broda. She had shaved parts of her black fur to the skin in the traditional patterns of a warrior, though the effect was not flattering—Broda was always too bony to look menacing. As Hool entered the ring, Broda showed her teeth and stomped on the ground. Hool did not meet her gaze, and instead looked at Mogro, who came to stand between them.

 By comparison with Broda, Mogro was a giant. Though old and graying around the muzzle, he was broad as a stallion and stood head and shoulders above all the gnolls present, even Brekhool herself. He wore many necklaces of holy bones that clattered in the wind, and he leaned upon a great staff that bore the ears, fingers, and teeth of defeated foes on long rawhide strings. It was said that when Mogro grew angry, even the earth trembled.

What little noise there had been before Hool entered the ring at the center of the grotto was now gone. All eyes were on the shaman. For long moments only the rustle of the dead leaves in the wind and the faint clatter of Mogro’s holy bones disturbed the silence of the hill. Then, some of the younger pups began to grumble and whine at the delay, and their mothers snarled for them to be quiet. Behind her, Hool knew that Brana was fidgeting, but he made no sound. Such a good pup! She would make certain to hunt him a fine scatterlark for breakfast tomorrow.

“Do not listen for your children, Brekhool. You have other worries at this moment.” Mogro’s deep voice was like a thunderclap. Dead silence followed his words. Even the wind died.

Hool bowed her head. “Sorry, Wise Mogro.”

He held up a hand and then raised his staff. “Brekhool, daughter of Agmor, why do you come to Adoo?”

“I come to be First of my pack.”

Mogro shook the staff twice. “Your pack has its First, and it is Broda.”

Brekhool’s ears flattened against her head. “Then I will throw her down.”

Mogro shook the staff twice more, and turned to Broda. “What say you, Broda, First of your pack?”

Broda’s yellow eyes burned. “Let her come.”

“So be it.” Said Mogro, and he drove the staff into the earth.

             Broda roared and leapt at Hool. Bearing her teeth, Hool threw her shoulder into her rival’s path, and knocked the lighter gnoll sprawling on the ground. Teeth bared, Hool pressed her advantage, leaping on Broda’s back and bringing her fists down on the back of her head. Flipping over, Broda and Hool grappled and rolled in the dirt.

Around them, the yips and barks of the pack cheered them on. Hool heard Opa singing, “Momma mighty, big and tall! Momma mighty make her fall! She is ugly, she is mean! Break her bottom, make her scream!”

Brekhool was far stronger than Broda, but Broda was very quick, and so the two wrestled for some time without either gaining the advantage. Finally, Hool managed to wrap her jaws around Broda’s forearm and bore down, breaking it. Broda yelped and punched Hool in the nose hard enough to make lights dance in her eyes. They broke apart, and circled one another around the ring.

Broda snarled, nursing her arm. “You will not win, Hool. The sky and the earth are singing for me.”

Brekhool wiped blood from her nose. “The sky and the earth sound a lot like my pups.”

Broda charged in again. Hool evaded her jaws and kicked her in the knee. As she went down, Hool was on top of her, raining blows on her face and neck. She heard Brana and Opa cheering as she smashed Broda’s head into the ground over and over.

Sitting on Broda’s chest, Hool roared in her face. “You killed Agmor so you could be First!”

Broda twisted and tried to scramble away, but Hool grabbed her ears and wrenched her back into the hold, still roaring. “You killed him with poison, like a dirty human!”

“No!” Broda yelped, weakly trying to ward off the blows.

Rage thrilled through Hool’s body, and she smashed her rival’s head against the ground so hard that one of Broda’s teeth came loose. “You will say it! You will say you poisoned my Dadda, or I swear I will take your throat, and wear your skin as a coat!”

Broda made another escape attempt, but did not get far. Hool sat on her chest, her golden eyes blazing with anger. This was it! This was her moment of triumph! A whole year she had waited for this moment, waited for the murderess to be at her mercy. No more being called a liar. No more ugly whispers behind her back, no more vicious rumors being spread by Broda and her brood. It all ended here and now.

Say it!” Brekhool roared, striking Broda again. One of her rival’s eyes was swollen shut, and blood was pouring from her nose and mouth.

Broda coughed and barked a single word, “Wind!”

At that moment, a great gust blew through the grotto and hit Hool with such force that she was thrown across the ring and against the trunk of a tree. Her breath rushed past her lips, and she fell to the ground, dazed and gasping. Her thoughts screamed, “No! Get up!”

It was too late. Hool rolled to her feet just in time to catch Broda’s charge in the chest. Her head hit the tree trunk with a crack, and the world spun. She heard the pack howling, but whether it was from joy or shock, she couldn’t tell. The next thing she felt was Broda’s teeth at her throat.

            She had lost.

            “Enough!” Mogro took his staff from the ground. “The challenge is ended.”

            Broda released Hool’s throat and limped to Mogro’s side. “Thank the wind and earth.”

            “She is a liar, Wise Mogro!” Hool had pulled herself up by the tree and was still dizzy.

            Broda growled. “You are not First, pup! You are defeated!”

            “You nasty, dirty human-pet! You used magic, that was human magic that threw me!” Hool looked around at the pack. Their eyes were downcast. “Listen to me—the wind does not pick gnolls up and hurl them against trees. Don’t be stupid!”

            Only Mogro looked at her. “The wind does what the wind wills, Brekhool. All the stories tell this. Did not Broda call out to the wind for aid?”

            Hool snorted. “The wind does not obey Broda.”

            Mogro nodded his head. “It did just now. You must accept it.”

            “I will not. It isn’t possible.” How could it be? Broda? A wind-master? No. Never—she cheated. She had to have cheated. This couldn’t be happening.

            “You will submit to me, Hool.” Broda said, showing her bloody and uneven teeth.

            Hool looked to the rest of the pack. “Are all of you blind? Can’t you see what happened? It isn’t possible! She is a liar! I have seen her with the humans—she makes deals, she trades with them, she goes to their cities. How can you follow her?” Her voice cracked, and she realized she was close to howling. She closed her mouth and took a deep breath. “Mogro, please.”

            Mogro shook his head. “The battle is finished, and you are the loser. You must obey Broda.”

            “She will never obey me.” Broda snorted. “She thinks that just because she was Agmor’s favorite pup, she is special.”

            “Do not speak his name, Broda. I will kill you for it.”

            Broda looked to the pack. “You see? Even when beaten she threatens me! This is against the laws of the pack. Brekhool is dangerous, and a threat to us all.”

            The pack kept its eyes lowered to their First, but there were a few snorts and yips of assent. Hool looked at Brana and Opa; their eyes were not dropped. They glared at Broda, and showed their teeth. Broda saw them, and growled. “Look at her pups—even the littlest ones defy me!”

            Hapta was the first to speak, “What should we do, Momma?”

            Broda turned slowly to Hool, her battered face leering. “Brekhool, daughter of Agmor, you are not our pack any longer.”

            Gasps and barks of shock all around. Brekhool herself blinked. “Wh…what?!”

            “You heard me, Hool. You are not of our pack. Go away and never come back.”

            “No.” Hool looked to Mogro, “She can’t do that!”

            Mogro heaved a great sigh that caused his jowls to flutter, and shook his staff three times. “It is so. Broda, the First of her pack, has banished Brekhool. She is never to return.”

            “No! My puppies!” Brekhool yelped.

            Mogro’s black eyes were stern, impassive. “You must go. Your puppies remain with their pack, as it should be.”

            Terror made a knot in Hool’s stomach. It couldn’t be. It couldn’t be. “But…where? Where can I go? There is nowhere else!”

            One by one, the pack turned their backs. An older gnoll picked up Opa and Brana and turned them around as well, even as Brana’s soft voice asked, “But why? Why does Momma have to go?”

            Broda, snickering, turned her back as well, leaving only Mogro. Hool threw herself to his feet. “No, I won’t go! I won’t leave!”

            Mogro kicked her back. “You must go.” Then he turned away.

            Hool remained at the top of the holy hill named Adoo for many hours, howling at her pack to look at her, but none did. Brana and Opa had to be carried off, so that they could not speak to her. Finally, weeping, she slowly made her way through the crowd and down the hill again. Every step was heavy, and with every foot she drew away from her family, her home, her people, she felt an unbearable anguish build in the depths of her body. It was as though she were slowly tearing off an arm, so great was the desire to turn back, to stop the pain growing greater and greater. When she finally turned to look, the pack had moved on and the hill was empty, but for one.

            Brana sat at the edge of the grove, his fluffy mane of gold fur waving in the wind. The little gnoll, no more than two years old, raised his head and howled.

            It was the last time Brekhool heard his voice.

The Magic of RPGs

Most role playing games involve some kind of magic, whether they actually call it that or not. If it’s a fantasy setting, you’ve got wizards wandering around; if it’s science fiction, you’ve got psychics; if it’s modern, you have eldritch rituals and witchcraft and some such. With rare exception, however, magic is seldom ‘magical’ in RPG settings. It might be interpreted as such by the inhabitants of that setting, but when the rules get slapped atop the sorcery, it rapidly becomes what I’d call ‘mundane’. It is rare that I’ve run across a magic system I’ve liked, including the ones I’ve created myself.

How Magic Usually Works

In most role-playing settings, magic give characters the ability to alter the environment for the purpose of destroying enemies, assisting friends, or acting as a toolbox by which the player can do things he otherwise couldn’t–climb cliffs, open/lock doors, clean his room, carry stuff, etc.. In this role, I usually fail to see how magic differs from, say, equipment. I’ve got a longbow and you can throw lightning bolts–what’s the difference, really? Well, usually it’s two things: (1) magic is more potent and (2) magic costs more. The lightning bolt really only differs from the longbow in the fact that it does more damage than the bow (in most cases) and it requires the character to pay some kind of price for its use, including things like being lousy in combat, taking some kind of drain on their person (aging, a headache, the chance they might catch on fire, etc.), or having some kind of limit on the number of times it can be used.

All in all this arrangement is fairly functional and easy to manage. The trope of the wizard who can throw giant fireballs but can’t defend himself in a wrestling match is well known, as is the ambitious sorcerer who calls down a little too much power and burns themselves up. My problem with it is that, all-in-all, it is fairly uninspiring stuff. I don’t really want magic to be equitable to equipment–I want it to be special, impressive, even frightning. Now, some systems try to achieve this to varying extents (Riddle of Steel is probably my favorite–, and others don’t even bother (4th Ed D&D, for instance, has some of the most boring magic in existence, and it is literally indistinguishable from the abilities of other non-magical players). This is not to say magic isn’t fun (the only character I ever play these days in D&D is a wizard), but it really doesn’t capture what I want magic to capture.

What Magic Should Be

To my mind, magic should be unique, impressive, flexible, and dangerous. I want wizards to toss spells that do more than simple damage to their enemies–I want them to do things that make everybody else in the game go ‘whoaaa.’ I want wizards to have a few spells they use regularly (the simple stuff, like telekinesis and little bolts of energy or whatever), but also have access to spells that they only ever use once and that very well may be unique to themselves. I want the execution of those really impressive spells to have a huge cost for the wizard or the environment or the plot or something. In short, I want magic to be a Big Deal.

This goal, of course, raises a lot of problems in an RPG. The first, and the one most often groused about, is regarding ‘game balance.’ Now, first of all, I don’t really think game balance is all that important in an RPG, mostly because game balance is a concept best applied to competitive or adversarial games, like Risk or Warhammer or Baseball. Since an RPG isn’t adversarial or competitive, but rather collaborative, it shouldn’t really matter if one player is ‘better’ than another. Furthermore, if you’ve got a good GM who allows players to solve problems creatively and is able and willing to raise or lower the level of challenge to make sure the game remains interesting (and you’re using a system that allows such things–i.e. not D&D), then the comparative power levels of the PCs and NPCs doesn’t so much break the game as dictate tactics. Obviously you should not engage the superwizard in a wizard’s duel–you’ll die. Figure out a way around it, folks.

Related to the game balance issue, however, and something that is (to my mind) more important, is the fact that magic, if too powerful, kills the challenge inherent in a game. Players always want to do things easily and almost always want to avoid difficulties or risk whenever possible. Paradoxically, if this desire is indulged, the game becomes no fun. If I ever have to say ‘congratulations, you infiltrated the Tower of Despair and escaped with the Crown of Doom without anyone noticing’, I have failed as a GM (that is unless, of course, the Tower of Despair isn’t the main objective of the mission but rather a sideshow that is best dispensed with quickly, but I digress…). Danger is essential to fun in an RPG. It comes in many forms, of course–not all danger is purely to life and limb–but it must be present. Something must be at stake, and there must be a very reall chance of losing it. Therefore, magic that is too powerful without there being some kind or price inherent in it can kill the game and, furthermore, granting players power that they will abuse for the purpose of eliminating challenge is counter-productive to a successful game. This kind of ‘game-balance’ (not the intra-character kind) must be carefully managed. Again, a flexible GM can fix this often enough (by raising the level of difficulty on the fly), but all-powerful wizards can still derail this if magic isn’t properly managed.

So, with these things in mind, let me outline how the ideal system of magic should work, so far as I’m concerned:


If and when a wizard throws a curse at a person, that person should suffer for it. There is nothing I dislike more than a system where somebody gets hit with a giant lightning bolt and keeps going like nothing happened. Super lame. Combat spells should hurt, defensive spells should be potent, movement spells should do what they say they do. Shadowrun was always pretty good at this (, as is Riddle of Steel. I, of course, like deadly games, so perhaps that’s just me.


Spells should be applicable in multiple situations or, barring that, wizards should have general knowledge of entire schools of sorcery so that they can execute spells that fulfill a variety of roles. If you can produce a telekinetic blast, I see no reason why you shouldn’t be able to produce a telekinetic hand to pick something up or to hold somebody in place. Talislanta is pretty good at this, as is Riddle of Steel (which is actually too flexible, but anyway). 


Wizards should have sharp limits to their power in that they should either not know everything or not be good at certain things or have magic that possesses certain liabilities (like the need to carry around certain objects to do it, or need certain quantities of time, etc.). This is needed so that a wizard can still be challenged and, furthermore, so that the other players won’t feel useless. This is one area where Riddle of Steel falls a little short–those wizards can do just about anything, though they need a few seconds. Talislanta is marginally better, with all their various Schools of Sorcery having unique and particular limitations to their use.  


Those who use magic should be wary, since it should exact a stiff toll on them if they overstep themselves. I want wizards to have the capacity to obliterate city blocks, but should be forced to balance that with whether or not it’s worth it. This effect needn’t always be physical. You don’t need to burn out you brain or age, for instance–you could instead simply owe progressively more of your soul to the underworld, or be forced to repay the favor the Gods did you in some fashion to be named later. In terms of price, Shadowrun is okay at this (wizards who overstep themselves routinely fall unconscious) and Riddle of Steel makes an effort (but who really cares about aging their character? How is that interesting?), but no system I’ve seen really nails this idea. Burning Wheel  ( leaves the possibility open in their Magic Burner, but don’t really explore it much.


Finally, magic should be really cool in its application and execution. I don’t really want it to function identically to other game mechanics–it needs something special. It must be at least partially apart from the other ways of doing things because that’s what it is–magic. I understand and appreciate the wish to streamline rules and gameplay–I really do–but I don’t wish it done at the cost of flavor, if you will. To this end, D&D falls flat, as does TalislantaRiddle of Steel, Burning Wheel, and Shadowrun do it pretty well, but often at the cost of extremely clunky rules and confusing sets of new stats. I’d like to find a balance, if possible.


As those of you who know me can probably guess, I have been tinkering with an attempt to create my own ideal magic system for some time now. It is all going along with my revamp of the rule system I created for my own fantasy setting, Alandar (in which the story “The Martyr” is set, incidentally, along with a novel I’ve written and a huge quantity of background material). Perhaps someday, perhaps even on this very blog, I’ll debut it. It isn’t ready yet, though. Not yet. For now, I and all of us must make our way as best we can with the magic that we’re given, as pedestrian as it might seem.