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Author Topic: Rules based and freeform magic systems  (Read 6450 times)

Offline Yora

Re: Rules based and freeform magic systems
« Reply #15 on: September 18, 2015, 05:22:06 PM »
I think Tom Bombadil is not a big problem for the story as a whole because he only solves problems that just started in the previous scene and which don't have any relevance for the rest of the plot. Something random and unexplained magical does happeb, but it doesn't affect the big problems of the plot. That makes a quite important difference. It doesn't negate the struggles of the heroes.
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Offline JMack

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Re: Rules based and freeform magic systems
« Reply #16 on: September 18, 2015, 06:17:15 PM »
I think Tom Bombadil is not a big problem for the story as a whole because he only solves problems that just started in the previous scene and which don't have any relevance for the rest of the plot. Something random and unexplained magical does happeb, but it doesn't affect the big problems of the plot. That makes a quite important difference. It doesn't negate the struggles of the heroes.

I completely agree.
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Offline Ryan Mueller

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Re: Rules based and freeform magic systems
« Reply #17 on: September 18, 2015, 07:57:26 PM »
I generally prefer rule-based magic (probably because I'm an Engineering student). If you're going to write something that uses magic heavily, you have to know what you can and cannot do with that magic. You can take the Sanderson approach and clearly define what magic can and cannot do. I also find Jim Butcher generally uses this kind of magic. In both authors' works, you find that a lot of situations are resolved through the characters creative use of magic. This works because we know the magic has certain rules.

I'm a big fan of Sanderson's laws for both magic in fantasy and technology in science fiction. In many ways, the two are the same. If you're going to use them frequently to solve plot issues, you have to define what they can and cannot do. For example, it's a well-known fact in Star Trek that you have to lower your shields to use the transporters, which frequently creates problematic situations.

Offline NightWrite

Re: Rules based and freeform magic systems
« Reply #18 on: September 18, 2015, 08:50:01 PM »
I lean more to the side of structured magic. If we were to lay it out like a scale as Sanderson's article says I'd fall closer to the hard-magic side. Not 100% hard-magic, but far closer to it than soft-magic. I believe the way it works doesn't have to be revealed, at least directly or in entirety, but it should still be there.
« Last Edit: September 18, 2015, 08:51:38 PM by NightWrite »

Offline ArhiX

Re: Rules based and freeform magic systems
« Reply #19 on: September 18, 2015, 09:24:12 PM »
Big and complex magic system is one thing, and how it is showed and explained - another.
Readers don't usually care about 10000 pages book about magic system in actually. Maybe some nerds. I don't.
Magic system should feel complex, but be easy (or at least not VERY hard) to understand. Well - actually just like real-world physics.

We know there is gravity and electricity. Things fall on earth when you throw them up. Lightbulb emits light when you hit the switch. Lel - MAGIC! Then you learn there are actual physical formulas to calculate how fast things will fall and electricity is created by flow of electrons. etc. Then you learn, that there is mysterious something called "gravity field" and "electromagnetic field" and everything has it and creates fluctuation in it (sounds like magic - isn't it?).
And that's actually almost everything one needs to know about how things work. If something is heavy - it will be harder to pull up. Why? Gravity. If you will put your finger in electrical outlet you will get hurt. There is electrical resistance etc...

What I don't need to know is that there are some quantum fields, and this fields have particles, and they are called gravitons (which are massless) and they create gravity fields and gravity is much stronger in higher dimensions and... Well... Maybe you can tell me about it as some kind of little curiosity. You don't have to show me every quantum-formulas behind functioning of battery. I will learn it at University. If I will have to.

How it relates to magic in fantasy world?
Well. We know there is Magics. Everything has a little of it, but some things are more Magics and some less Magics. This guy - The Villain - was sealed from Magics when he tried to destroy the world. Now he can do Magics but because of the effect of the seal he is less Magics then he was before. But still more Magics than anyone else.
We can say - Wow! How strong The Villain is! He was sealed but he can still Magics! Much Strengths. Many Powerfulls.
Basic things.
Then you get to know that to Magics you have to suck Magics from your surroundings. The more you suck, the more powerfull you are. To stop The Villain, The Hero needs him to stop suck Magics or suck even more than The Villain. And yes - I know how it sounds.

What I can know next is there are "sucking fields" and there are people who uses Magics to prevent people from sucking on Magics and cast Magics. Splendid.

But if an autor is going to drown me in quntum formulas for sucking Magics and all of the technical issues and full manual to "AntiMajicks unSucker 3000" and it REALLY isn't relevant to a plot (it does not create or resolve problems and mysteries) then... God have mercy over his soul. And mine too...

Let's say Malazan magic system is simple at first glance. There are magicians, there are dimensions related to it. Magician opens it and he can do things related to it's aspect. Yay!
Then throught the series we get to know it's much more complex. Dimensions have their own names, they can be shatters of bigger dimensions. There are dragons and stuff. Everything plot related. We get to know it's "hows" and "whys". I can't really recall anything about this magic system what was just "a curiosity" and wasn't later mentioned at some point as "problem maker"/"problem resolver".

So... Yet again. It's not about complexity of the dish. It's about how it is served to us.

Edit: I actually like complex magic systems. If it is showed well and everything ticks, autor should be recognized by it. If something happens because something happens, then there is too high of a chance of Deus ex Magic.
« Last Edit: September 18, 2015, 09:30:03 PM by ArhiX »
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Offline Raptori

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Re: Rules based and freeform magic systems
« Reply #20 on: September 18, 2015, 09:33:53 PM »
Quote
And actually, the most prominent example of magic in LotR - Gandalf vs Balrog - is one of the clearest examples of soft magic being used to solve plot problems.

Hmm. Except for the destruction of the Ring itself, I don't think magic ever truly solves any plot problems in LotR. And even the destruction of the Ring is truly secondary to the character effort and heroism it took to get the Ring to the Cracks of Doom.

Magic exists in Middle Earth, and is a fundamental condition of things. Mostly, things are magical or they're not. And it almost doesn't matter, because the fundamental story is about people making hard choices to face incredible challenges. I really can't think of any case where magic just appears and... hooray!

> Eagles at the end... who cares? We should let Sam and Frodo burn? Their bravery and endurance win the day; getting them out by deus ex eagle is a sideshow.

> Eowyn kills the Nazgul Lord because she isn't a man and he not immune to her? Hey, it's cool! And if she and Merry hadn't had the guts and drive to join the battle - or stand up to the witch king over Theoden's body - it wouldn't have happened.

> Gandalf defeats the Balrog? It happens offstage, is told in flashback. It's interesting, and you compare the idea of Gandalf winning to the terror he shows at Khazad-Dum and think: wow. Gandalf doesn't win because he figured out that if he "pulled" on the metal in the balrog's whip, he could then "push" the Balrog onto a spike, or whatever. He wins because of his willpower.

For me, the interest in these things is the human emotion and drive, more than the magical facts at play.

> Well, OK. Tom Bombadil is an exception. Both times he saves the Hobbits, it's sort of deus ex Bombadil. You got me there. I still love those parts, as random as they seem. (But their randomness is really about how strange and dangerous the world is for a few small hobbitses.)
Haha I knew you'd jump on that!  :P

As I said:
Quote
The rest of the time there's very little magic at all, from what I remember, and the sense of wonder comes from the world itself rather than actual magic.
Meaning little magic that relates to the plot - the other bits I can remember are fairly unimportant such as Gandalf's light in Moria, and don't break that law.

On the Gandalf v Balrog fight, when (or even whether) Gandalf kills hit is actually irrelevant. The plot point is "we need to escape from this monster", and that is solved by Gandalf using magic to confront the Balrog and allow the party to escape. The magic is not understood by the reader whatsoever, and it's used to solve a fairly major plot point that, so it's clearly violating that law.

The saving grace to that event is that they do end up paying a huge price for it, which ends up negating the potential issue. However, if that kind of thing were to happen throughout the book it just wouldn't work, and readers would likely get very frustrated that these things keep on happening but never get explained, which is the point of that law.
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Offline Yora

Re: Rules based and freeform magic systems
« Reply #21 on: September 18, 2015, 10:16:00 PM »
We know there is gravity and electricity. Things fall on earth when you throw them up. Lightbulb emits light when you hit the switch. Lel - MAGIC! Then you learn there are actual physical formulas to calculate how fast things will fall and electricity is created by flow of electrons. etc. Then you learn, that there is mysterious something called "gravity field" and "electromagnetic field" and everything has it and creates fluctuation in it (sounds like magic - isn't it?).
And that's actually almost everything one needs to know about how things work. If something is heavy - it will be harder to pull up. Why? Gravity. If you will put your finger in electrical outlet you will get hurt. There is electrical resistance etc...

What I don't need to know is that there are some quantum fields, and this fields have particles, and they are called gravitons (which are massless) and they create gravity fields and gravity is much stronger in higher dimensions and... Well... Maybe you can tell me about it as some kind of little curiosity. You don't have to show me every quantum-formulas behind functioning of battery. I will learn it at University. If I will have to.

With that point I very much agree. My personal tastes go even further than that in that I generally dislike any kinds of formulas or equations, even if they are only mentioned to exist without being described in detail. Because the use of magic is generally not a theoretical science but a practical action. We can calculate the exact equations for throwing a ball at a target by knowing the distance and relative angle and getting the correct acceleration and muscle mechanics. But when we throw a ball we don't do any of that. Having it seen in action and practiced it enough times,  we can do it intuitively. In a way the brain "calculates" the correct angle, speed, grip, and moment of release to make the ball hit were we want, but we're never actively dealing with formal equations.
What I often wonder is how the user of magic is interacting with the magical energies. And my personal taste it that it should work without any kinds of formulas, more like balancing or throwing things. Not to say it's not also just as valid to have a magic system where new spells are computed for specific applications. It just doesn't appeal to me personally.

Another oddity for me is the frequently reliance on sounds and hand gestures which somehow make magic come into existance. Even though it's something that has and is believed all over the world. The Indian concepts of both mantras and mudras are just that. But I think there are lots of protective hand signs to ward against evil all over the world. And of course there's runes where an arangement of paint or scratches also somehow has real magical effects.
Probably completely irrational that I consider the superhuman uses of chi in lots of Chinese fantasy a lot more plausible.  ;D

On the Gandalf v Balrog fight, when (or even whether) Gandalf kills hit is actually irrelevant. The plot point is "we need to escape from this monster", and that is solved by Gandalf using magic to confront the Balrog and allow the party to escape. The magic is not understood by the reader whatsoever, and it's used to solve a fairly major plot point that, so it's clearly violating that law.
I don't think so. For one thing, like Tom Bombadil, Gandalfs use of magic to solve a magical problem happens in the same scene in which the problem first appears. That they encounter a balrog is not plot relevant. You could not have a balrog at all in the whole story and it wouldn't change a thing. The plot relevant part of the scene is that they lose Gandalf. He could also have been tripped by a goblin and fallen into the chasm. Would have work out all the same. Unexplained magic is used to clear a short term obstacle, not solve a long term conflict.
If the story had been "How do we destroy Durin's Bane so that the dwarves can reclaim Moria?" then I would agree. Gandalf using magic to break a bridge under the balrogs feet, displaying an ability the he was never indicated to have before, would have been anticlimactic. In the novel the current plot problem is "How do we get safely to the other side of the mountains even though Saruman is blocking the south route?". And in this endeavour they fail spectacularly. First they lose Gandalf and without him the whole expedition falls apart losing three more members and the remaining five splitting up. This is not at all what they wanted. It's almost the opposite.
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Offline ultamentkiller

Re: Rules based and freeform magic systems
« Reply #22 on: September 18, 2015, 11:42:36 PM »
Rule-based magic for me.
I'm pretty much agreeing with what everyone had said about it. Brandon Sanderson's Mistbourne and Brent Week's Light Bringer Saga do it the best. They tell you the basic rules, and the basic exceptions. But then, as the series goes on, you learn more and more about the magic system. There's always something new to explore.
In the end, it only matters if the author has the system hashed out or not. Sometimes it's best to reveal it to the reader, others it's not. It all depends on the type of system. If something's needed for a particular type of magic to work, the character needs to know about it, so the reader does too. However, if it's just gestures and spells and things like that, there's no major requirements. It's all based on the character's knowledge. The character's probably not going to be thinking about what they need to do this and that all too often. They just do it. Thus, the reader doesn't need to know everything. There's only one exception. If there in a tight spot, and the author can't get them out through magic, as a reader I'm thinking, don't you know a spell that can work for this? That's when the magical limitations for that particular situation need to be explained.

Offline Raptori

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Re: Rules based and freeform magic systems
« Reply #23 on: September 19, 2015, 02:42:33 AM »
On the Gandalf v Balrog fight, when (or even whether) Gandalf kills hit is actually irrelevant. The plot point is "we need to escape from this monster", and that is solved by Gandalf using magic to confront the Balrog and allow the party to escape. The magic is not understood by the reader whatsoever, and it's used to solve a fairly major plot point that, so it's clearly violating that law.
I don't think so. For one thing, like Tom Bombadil, Gandalfs use of magic to solve a magical problem happens in the same scene in which the problem first appears. That they encounter a balrog is not plot relevant. You could not have a balrog at all in the whole story and it wouldn't change a thing. The plot relevant part of the scene is that they lose Gandalf. He could also have been tripped by a goblin and fallen into the chasm. Would have work out all the same. Unexplained magic is used to clear a short term obstacle, not solve a long term conflict.
If the story had been "How do we destroy Durin's Bane so that the dwarves can reclaim Moria?" then I would agree. Gandalf using magic to break a bridge under the balrogs feet, displaying an ability the he was never indicated to have before, would have been anticlimactic. In the novel the current plot problem is "How do we get safely to the other side of the mountains even though Saruman is blocking the south route?". And in this endeavour they fail spectacularly. First they lose Gandalf and without him the whole expedition falls apart losing three more members and the remaining five splitting up. This is not at all what they wanted. It's almost the opposite.
That's a good point, I never saw it like that. It makes sense in this case, though I still think that if you had a string of events like that it'd end up feeling frustrating for the readers. It'd feel like the scary obstacles are there just to show off how powerful and mysterious the magic is, and it'd feel like (and be) a fairly cheap and transparent attempt at raising the tension.  :P
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Offline Doctor_Chill

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Re: Rules based and freeform magic systems
« Reply #24 on: September 19, 2015, 05:44:24 AM »
1. What can magic do that our world's physics or technology cannot?
2. What medium do you use for magic?
3. What are its limitations and/or side-effects?

If you can answer those three, then you should be fine for me. No more than a paragraph each, though. I don't read SFF because of a magic system; I read it for a magic system.
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Offline Yora

Re: Rules based and freeform magic systems
« Reply #25 on: September 19, 2015, 09:27:04 AM »
That's a good point, I never saw it like that. It makes sense in this case, though I still think that if you had a string of events like that it'd end up feeling frustrating for the readers. It'd feel like the scary obstacles are there just to show off how powerful and mysterious the magic is, and it'd feel like (and be) a fairly cheap and transparent attempt at raising the tension.  :P
Oh yes, totally. I think it probably works reasonably well in Lord of the Rings because the use of magic is generally quite sparse to begin with. The magic of the elves, wizards, and Sauron is more hinted at than being closely observed and examined.

It probably also makes an important difference that Frodo is just as clueless about how magic works as the reader. Something that always super annoys me is when mystery is created by withholding information from the reader that the protagonist obviously has and is acting on. That's just a really cheap trick.
If the protagonist is using magic, you probably need to have a pretty well explained magic system. I don't really see how it could work well otherwise.
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Offline ArcaneArtsVelho

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Re: Rules based and freeform magic systems
« Reply #26 on: September 19, 2015, 09:33:16 AM »
1. What can magic do that our world's physics or technology cannot?
2. What medium do you use for magic?
3. What are its limitations and/or side-effects?

If you can answer those three, then you should be fine for me.
I think that's a nice and adequate way of defining your magic "system". In my opinion, those answers don't even have to be all that precise (from the reader's point of view), but rather implied.

That they encounter a balrog is not plot relevant. You could not have a balrog at all in the whole story and it wouldn't change a thing.
Well, Gandalf does need the xp from defeating balrog to become White.  ;)
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Offline Justan Henner

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Re: Rules based and freeform magic systems
« Reply #27 on: September 19, 2015, 04:57:56 PM »
I haven't chosen a side. I don't think it's important how far into the mechanics an author goes, so long as the amount of depth supports the type of story they're trying to tell. The Force works because ultimately most of the stories set in that universe are an emotional conflict between good, evil, and the fine line between them. It's about temptation, and two competing philosophies trying to explain the universe, which makes the vague nature perfect because it makes you question, which side is right? Maybe they both have their merits, and their flaws? Which to me, is the reason I love star wars so much.

On the other side, the runes in Elantris are a good 'hard magic' addition because the plot and resolution are dependent upon the intricate details.

What's important to me, is the mood the magic sets, and how it serves the story, not the way it functions. Another example of what I would call 'in-between' is the magic system from Dragon Age. The different schools of magic are tied to an ethereal spirit realm, where demons can control humans who aren't careful. The precarious nature of magic making one vulnerable builds a sense of dread and parlays into a rational fear, which makes the interaction between mages, templars, and local governments feel tense and realistic. The addition of blood magic, and its gruesome nature, make the world feel grim and hopeless, which is perfect for a world in which a demon apocalypse occurs every so many years.

So long as the magic supports all the conflict, the plot, the tone, and the character building, the functionality doesn't matter to me.
« Last Edit: September 19, 2015, 05:00:03 PM by Justan Henner »

Offline Yora

Re: Rules based and freeform magic systems
« Reply #28 on: September 19, 2015, 06:32:32 PM »
While I am not a big fan of the games (though I've played the first two), I think the worldbuilding of Dragon Age is really outstandingly good. And I normally have a pretty strong aversion against Renaisance Fantasy. (The wordbuilding for their sci-fi series Mass Effect is just as excelent.)
The system of Dragon Age does not really deal much with the mechanisms and techniques of magic, but instead there's a very complex development of how magic is interwoven with religion. What magic really is, what the creator good intended with it when he made it, and what role it should have in society is one of the major questions all the religions are concerned with. It's a major component of all theology, even though the two largest religions don't have any mages among their priests. And the use of magic in other religions has led to various big crusades and fall of empires.
The "magic system" in Dragon Age is just as much theology and the big questions are not what spells could possibly be created and how they could be used in creative ways, but whether it is a sacred gift of the gods or some force of destruction that ultimate leads to death and the end of the world. Or it might be a means to transcend mortality and become divine. And lots of other things people are wondering. And there's enough substance to it that the audience can follow the different opinions that are debated by the characters. Really very interesting writing.

Offline Doctor_Chill

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Re: Rules based and freeform magic systems
« Reply #29 on: September 19, 2015, 07:02:36 PM »
Gonna +1 Justan's comment, especially when dealing with functionality. The magic system should fit the tone, because if you're going for a comedy and have gritty blood magic as your system, then you might want to reconsider (though I'm sure there are ways to make blood magic funny).
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