Creating the magic system for the Three Realms has been a long and rambling process, but at the end of all the iterating I landed on a concept that I think works really well. There are a tremendous number of resources out there for how to create magic systems, nearly endless articles and discussions and analysis of different works. This journal entry is really just a record of what I did, and also a convenient way of having “the rules” for the serial written down and publicly available.
(Don’t worry, it’ll come out naturally in the story as well. You don’t need to read this.)
Step one is to decide whether or not there even needs to be magic. Magic is fun to read about and to write, it’s a spectacle and there’s definitely something to be said for the cool factor. It’s also a decent hook for readers, and I think part of that is the joy of figuring something out. There’s also the power fantasy side of it, of getting to vicariously experience someone who has the power to do as they will; but personally, I’ve always enjoyed puzzling the system out more. So I knew that I was going to have a magic system because I wanted one, and I knew I wanted it to be decipherable so that readers could work it out and play with it themselves and make theories and whatnot (because that’s fun).
I also needed the system to be important to the story, as much as magic being fun is a fine reason to include it, tying it into the plot is important to ensuring that the magic has weight. If the story could happen without the magic at all, then it’s just going to feel tacked on. As I have previously discussed in these journal posts, I knew my main character was going to be a field researcher interested in exploring and learning about the world (to make the world building feel more justified), and having that character also be a magician seemed like a fun reason to have fantastical creatures and phenomena.
(This was happening simultaneously with ideas about the high level meta structure of the setting, creation myths and things, which are also fun to play around with. The world building process for me is very much like making a stew, I couldn’t tell you the order that the potatoes and carrots were cooked in, they’re just in there.)
Now that I had a character who would be using magic, and knew that there would be magic, actually creating the system came next. One of the first things anyone is going to run into when it comes to building a magic system are Sanderson’s Laws, a set of rules used by Brandon Sanderson when creating the numerous magic systems for his book series. (If you haven’t watched his university lectures and you like writing, you should. They’re good.) In case you haven’t come across these, the short versions (2020 BYU Lecture 6 of 14):
- Your ability to solve problems with magic in a satisfying way is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.
- Flaws or limitations are more interesting than powers.
- Before adding something new, expand what you have.
To me, what these rules point to is a system that creates a lot of tension with minimal initial complexity. That is, a set of rules that are easy to understand at first but develop complexity as they are applied, and which generate inherent tension. That, to me, sounds like a Game. Games, especially ones that have been around for a long time, have a lot in common with creating a magic system. They’re an arbitrary set of rules that need to be easy to understand, that have strategic complexity, and have built in tension.
Two separate kinds of games came together as I was working on the Three Realms magic system, old 2D video games, and the casino staple blackjack. When I was spending time studying visual art I ended up watching a lot of videos on 2D video games and I found myself really appreciating the way that the functionality of those characters was conveyed. They had to be simple because of the limitations of the hardware, and what they were doing had to be crystal clear (for the same reason). The card game blackjack (or 21) has always been interesting to me from a design standpoint. There’s something interesting about trying to not bust. In most narratives, and in most game systems, you want to have as much of whatever there is as possible. More power. More points. More magic, whatever. There’s something very interesting to me about a system that encourages you to fall into that same mentality, but then punishes going too far. I like the element of risk management (tension!) and also the way that the game is played, more or less, against the dealer.
With all of that preamble out of the way, let’s get to the actual system.
While the setting is called Three Realms, the stories take place in the world of Vanoree, which is itself not a realm. Rather, the Vanoree (or simply the world) is the product of the realms of Substance, Time, and Memory overlapping. This overlap and imbalances caused by the slow procession of the realms through one another, is what allows not only for magic to exist in Vanoree, but for Vanoree to exist at all. A world in perfect balance would be a static world, still and dead.
Everything in Vanoree is made up of the ephemera from the realms in different parts: Lyr for Substance, Fas for Time, and Met for Memory. Whenever anything does anything some amount of one or more of the ephemera is drafted into the world from the realms. Under normal circumstances this drafted ephemera powers the change that is happening and is dissipated by that change. When people in Vanoree refer to magic, what they are referring to is drafting ephemera with intentionality. While different groups and cultures have many varied names for different styles or flavors of magic, all magic in Vanoree is this. Since the ephemera of the realms is the stuff the world is made of and the energy of change, pooling it and directing it to perform a specific task can have profound and powerful results.
While each of the three ephemera has differing behavior and capability (called temperaments) all three follow these two rules:
- Ephemera calls to itself, the more there is in one place the more readily more comes.
- If the drafting vessel exceeds its capacity for ephemera, it breaks.
Taking these two rules, the people of Vanoree have devised several ways to use magic that are defined by the type of drafting vessel:
- Adjureal: The drafting vessel is a native of the realms, a giant, fairy, or spirit with much better understanding of their own limitations and the nature of their ephemera than the magician. Abjureal magic is very safe, and almost never results in a break. However, it is limited to one type of ephemera at a time and the will and whim of the magician’s patron.
- Corporeal: The drafting vessel is an object specifically crafted to be used as a vessel. This is usually a staff, a wand or rod, a ring, cup or dish of some kind. Corporeal magic is very common and nearly as safe as Abjureal magic, especially if the person who crafted the vessel is the one drafting with it (since they well know its limitations). Unlike adjureal patrons, corporeal items have no ability to tell their magician “no” so there is some danger of overtaxing and breaking them. Fortunately, objects generally have rather limited capacities to begin with so the results of the break aren’t likely to be severe. How the item was made, and what it is made of, determine what ephemera it can be used to draft. Drafting multiple ephemera can produce potent and complex magic, but generally reduces the object’s capacity.
- Empyreal: The drafting vessel is the magician. Empyreal magic is fast, dangerous, and devastating. The level of self awareness required for a person to accurately evaluate their own drafting capacity is beyond the reach of most people; indeed, most magicians level headed and introspective enough to know such a thing about themselves wouldn’t practice Empyreal magic in the first place. The benefits of Empyreal magic are quite tempting, with no limitation on blending all three ephemera many wonders are possible, and a living creature has a much greater drafting capacity than most objects. Thus, it provides the benefits of both Adjureal capacity and Corporeal flexibility. Furthermore, the magician is constrained only by themselves, and not the whims of a patron or the material constraints of an item. Empyreal breaks do not usually kill the drafting magician, but do frequently result in maiming, dementia, and rapid aging; it is possible for a magician to kill themselves by overdrafting, but they’d have to be trying to do that. Similar to how your body is inclined to collapse from exhaustion long before you’ve worked yourself, literally, to death.
There are also two broad strategies when it comes to using magic, regardless of what kind of drafting vessel the magician is using: 1) Casting, in which the magician tries to draft the correct amount of ephemera as quickly as possible and then release it for the magical effect, and 2) Enchanting in which the magician tries to draft for as long as possible (sometimes for decades) while methodically releasing the ephemera for a continuous effect without ever breaking. Since casting is frequently favored in high stress situations, like combat, it generally favors an Adjureal approach, since it is impossible for the magician to accidentally overdraft; Enchanting prefers not to use Adjureal since it would be dependent on the continuous and indefinite cooperation of a patron, so Corporeal mechanisms are more common.
Aside from true magic, which uses drafting by definition, Vanoree also features several pseudo magics. These consist of specialized knowledge or skills that can produce magical effects, but don’t require any actual drafting. The most common of these are medicine and metallurgy, which contain a mix of real world science, and the application of some of Vanoree’s innately magical plants, animals, and minerals.
Innate Magic in Vanoree
Certain animals, plants, minerals and even places, as well as the native inhabitants of the realms, are innately magical. They have unique properties that are derived not from drafting ephemera but because the balance of the three ephemera within them is extremely lopsided, functionally making them a passive ephemera pool. These tend to be cyclical and have to do with the way that the realms slowly rotate through one another. The results are varied and numerous, but some of the more common things are cataloged by the peoples of Vanoree and built into their cultures.
Who can use Magic in Vanoree?
Anyone can use magic, but not everyone can use it to the same degree. The most organized group of magicians in Vanoree, the Colloquium of Melyn, have categorized three traits which affect a person’s ability to be a magician: Talent, how much ephemera they can naturally draft before breaking; Luck, how easily they can begin to draft; and Skill, how well they can dissipate or stop the draft prior to breaking. Deficiencies in each of these traits can be overcome with training, equipment, and study. Talent by self reflection, Luck by being attentive of your surroundings and flexible in your plans, and Skill by practicing. However, most inhabitants of Vanoree are busy with their lives and their work and their families and are not inclined to magical pursuits unless it comes easily (or is ‘in the family’).
Adjureal magic does play some mischief with this set up, however. For all that it is the most safe in the hands of a professional magician with a well worn relationship to their patron; fairies and spirits have also been known to offer patronage to people for all manner of reasons. Words spoken in anger, or good deeds done in secret, sometimes lead to curses inflicted or wishes granted if the season and moon and the mood happen to be right.
What can the magic actually do, and what are the consequences of breaking?
The magic of the three realms is extremely versatile, while I wanted to have a hard set of simple rules as a foundation, I still wanted to capture the sort of fairytale and folklore magic in the application. Individual magicians and groups of magicians will have worked out some absolutes, where a process can be followed and the same result achieved every time; but there is no full catalog of what can be done.
There are broad stroke limitations tied to each ephemera, however. 1) Magic drafted from fas (time) always affects a change or reaction, but the change must have a duration it cannot be permanent; 2) Magic drafted from lyr (substance) always affects form or material, but it can’t change what that material is (eg; a block of marble could become a marble statue, but not a flesh and blood); 3) Magic drafted from met (memory) always affects perception or the mind, but cannot touch the physical world.
What each can do, and what they can do in combination, and how much ephemera is required to do a specific thing are a matter of experimentation and imagination. Which is to say, I’ve given myself a lot of room to play.
Keep an eye out for a Three Realms Short Story before the end of the month! The Three Realms Serial will begin in earnest in July 2021. April and May will not have planned journal entries, due to work and school conflicts, but I may post some short stories or flash fiction for you. If there’s a particular subject you’d like to hear my thoughts on, or you just want to share your own experiences with the writing process please leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @realm_wright