Creating a Magic System: Interaction, Items and Artifacts - syndicated from @thefourpartland

The following is syndicated from The Four Part Land and is posted here with permission.

So over the course of the series, I've looked at how Strength and Prevalence affect both a magic system and a setting, and how Style and Powers shape and define that magic system. Now I'm going to examine Magical Interaction and Items and Artifacts.

The second of these, Items and Artifacts, is something that as fantasy readers and writers we understand and is near and dear to our hearts. Magical Interaction is a little bit more of a nebulous concept, because there's two distinct areas that qualify, and I'm going to try and cover both today.

Magical Interaction is either how magic interacts with itself, or how people interact with magic. Both of these are critical when designing a magic system, as one has a huge impact on what it can do, and the other on how it cane be used.

And now to the choices!

Choice #5: Magical Interaction – How does magic affect magic? Does the concept of counterspelling or disruptive magic exist? Are there chaotic effects or logical ones? Counterspelling, spell-breaking, etc. has a long history in fantasy stories, most commonly when dealing with enchantments or curses. In most cases, there has to be a way to undo the damage being caused, because without it the story cannot advance.

But what about combat spellcasting? Should a mage be able to cast a spell that negates those of the opposing side? Not negates in the sense of equal yet opposing powers, but simply cancelling out, stopping the spell from ever being cast? And then how easy or hard is it to do? If spell-breaking is easier than spellcasting, then magic is a very weak and feeble force. If it is too hard to spell-break a casting, then it will feel as if the opportunity does not exist, or isn't the smart choice. After all, if it's easier to hit the opposing wizard with a fireball than try and cancel his spell, why not just kill him?

A careful balance must be struck if using spell-breaking, for regardless of the difficulty of the approach, if it's only used by the good forces (or the bad), it then starts to feel like a contrived plot device to force the story in a given direction, rather than another ability that lives within the world.

Now for the second part of Magical Interaction – how people interact with magic. Are they afraid of it? Accept it amongst their daily lives? View it as the province of the elite? This ties in heavily with Prevalence, but is not the same. If magic is common in the world, it could be that magic is another tool, and the cobblers use it to mend shoes better. Or it could be that those born with the magic are seen as shapeshifting demons who will eat their souls in the night, and that gifted children are slain at birth if caught.

Obviously many other parts of the setting factor into this decision, but it plays an important role in devising the setting. In both The Four Part Land and Splintered Lands, there are about the same number of mages to population (or at least it feels that way). In The Four Part Land, they serve as mining engineers, ship captains, factory workers, architects, using their talents to perform at fairly normal and mundane jobs. In Splintered Lands, they are hunted and killed whenever they are found, for they are seen as being responsible for the breaking of the lands.

Possessing magic could also be the instant ticket to the nobility that so many dream of, or it could see people relegated to the gutter as vile refuse. There are many different ways to choose, and it is up to the author to determine the best one for the style of story he wishes to write.

Choice #6: Items and Artifacts – Can magic be put into items? If so, how powerful is that magic? Common? Extremely rare? This in many ways determines how accessible magic is to the non-gifted characters in the story. If the only source of magic is from within a character or at a predetermined location, then it is quite rare, but if Backpacks of Spell Generation are going for five quid over at the local corner shop, then it's quite a different place.

There is no right or wrong answer to these questions, but the more common magical items are, the higher the ambient level of magic usually is, and thus main character magicians tend to be even more powerful, so that they stand out above the general level of the background. Likewise, having magical items tends to mean that non-gifted characters have the ability to perform more and varied actions, through the use of the tools they acquire over the years.

Now, powerful magic items are very often used as quest hooks or pivotal plot points, so removing them entirely from the setting does reduce the author's options in some ways. But it is also possible to have the items dominate the action, where it becomes about them and the new an interesting ways they can be used, rather than about the character or the story. If an author finds themselves writing so they can do something cool, rather than writing what fits the story, then they are using items as a crutch that pushes them away from the core plot.

In some ways, Magical Items have all of the same problems as a magic system. What Power and Prevalence are they, what Style and Strength, and how do people interact with them? If the author chooses to have Magical Items in their setting, I would recommend running through Choices #1-#5 again, only thinking about the Magical Items.

That wraps up the six main choices that I use when designing a magic system. Next, I'll be talking about Other Considerations, a collection of ideas and suggestions that can dramatically change a magic system.


Bringing life to a new captivating world of literature, James Tallett is the innovative author behind the fantasy series, The Four Part Land. The first installment of this provocative new series, Tarranau, was published by Deepwood Publishing in July 2011.

Delving into the trenches of a perplexing world far beyond our imaginations, James also created the Splintered Lands anthology project. The fantasy realm of the Splintered Lands takes readers on a mythical adventure and introduces readers to an assortment of colorful and endearing characters. Bringing together four outstanding writers, James Tallett led the birth of a dynamic literature collaboration for the Splintered Lands project.

James Tallett, an avid global traveler, infuses his passion for hiking and cultural exploration within his writing. He whimsically incorporates his most beloved travel destinations into his vivid storytelling.

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