An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.
That’s Brandon Sanderson’s “First Law of Magic.” His comments on the subject are well worth reading (as is any book he has written, in my experience). He has a Second Law posted as well, and in that post he explains a great deal about limitations, weaknesses, and costs associated with magic.
I presented a broad introduction to the world of the Bordermarches, and I later posted an explanation of how science relates to the setting. However, my goal has always been to write a fantasy setting, and that almost requires some form of magic.
Magic can be very vague, something “out there” that the populace is aware of but no one really understands. The Lord of the Rings is a great example; there just isn’t a lot of detail about what sort of powers or limitations are placed on Gandalf.
Then again, Gandalf’s magic isn’t the point of the story or the solution to the conflict.
Magic can also be clearly delineated, almost a “science” of sorts for the populace in a given setting. I think of Sanderson’s Mistborn series as an example of this, where most of the “rules” are well-known or at least are discovered in the course of the plot. I’d even toss Wheel of Time into this category to some extent, as those who use the One Power are usually taught specific patterns and weaves which accomplish various goals, almost like combining precise amounts of chemicals to get a desired reaction.
I loved Mistborn (and most of Wheel of Time), so I’m not surprised that I automatically wanted to come up with an explanation for magic and a system to lay out most of what is possible by its use.
What I wanted to avoid is the ubiquitous “I can do anything because *poof* MAGIC!”
Video games can use systems like “mana” or “willpower” to explain and limit how much magic a person can wield at any given time. But for my taste, that doesn’t work well in writing. I can’t really see writing, “Lyllithe wanted to cast a spell, but she was tired.”
Tabletop RPGs have their various systems as well; in old school D&D, your wizard had to choose from the spells he or she knew and memorize a few for the next day. The character would only have access to those spells, so the player had to guess what might be useful for the next few encounters and choose accordingly. In the newest D&D, your wizard has a few powers that are “easy” enough that he or she can use them all the time, but the really powerful abilities still have to be chosen on a daily basis.
Still, I can’t see writing, “Lyllithe had already used up her memorized spells that day, so she took out a dagger and began stabbing Deviols.”
And again, most of these are systems that let you use magic simply because you can.
I wanted a somewhat technological “magic” for the Bordermarches, and I wanted something more pseudo-science than just “Magic does whatever I want.”
So, in a butchering of the physics I learned in school, I thought about potential energy and kinetic energy. Kinetic energy is the energy of a thing in motion; potential energy is the energy that could be released if the object is set in motion. Borrowing from Wikipedia’s explanation, think of a roller-coaster. As the coaster is lifted up to the top of the hill, it builds potential energy. Something is working against gravity to raise the roller-coaster. So when the coaster stops at the top, it has its maximum potential energy. When it goes over the edge, it has kinetic energy, and at the bottom, its kinetic energy is greatest.
Matter (or technically the mass of matter) has energy.
Magic in the Bordermarches is about “refocusing” that energy from a body of mass into… well, whatever. It can be refocused into different mass — turning a sword into liquid, turning a rock into a ball of fire that the caster hurls at enemies, making the stone floor of a building temporarily gelatinous in order to trap an enemy when the stone reverts back to its original form.
Mass is energy is mass, so you can shift one to the other to another using whatever resources are available to you. Imagine siphoning the kinetic energy of a waterfall into a super-heated stream of fire you spray toward your foes. Picture “catching” and refocusing the arrows of your enemies into balls of lightning you throw back at them.
There has to be a limit to this world-bending.
I came up with a few.
1) If you’re a natural human, and thus not tied by blood to the elemental races (more on that later), then you have to have an eyepiece called an Ocular in order to manipulate magic. I liked the idea of an eyepiece because it can be almost anything: a monocle, a pair of glasses, a special lens installed in a plate metal helm, a glass suspended over one eye like a pirate’s patch, and so on.
An eyepiece can also be removed in combat, rendering the caster ineffective. And these eyepieces are numerous, but given the “fallen empire” setting of the Bordermarches, the means of making new Oculars has been lost. There’s a limited number of devices out there.
2) Having an Ocular doesn’t give you access to limitless power. The quality of the device affects the amount of energy it can refocus. Push too much energy through it, and you risk burning it up, like a blown fuse.
3) Your available power also depends on what resources you’re willing to use. The exchange from one form to another is not favorable. The thousands of gallons of falling water in the waterfall may fuel a stream of fire for mere seconds.
4) Perhaps the most important limitation is that you cannot take energy from a living thing; you can’t refocus a person into a puddle, or turn a dog into a fireball. Only inanimate objects can be used for refocusing.
So how does Refocusing work?
First, the caster takes energy from a source he or she can see. Since I like the idea of borrowing from Christian themes and concepts without going full Narnia-style allegory, I chose from Scripture (with my wife’s help) the terms of binding and loosing. The wearer of the Ocular looks at a source of energy and Glancebinds, drawing energy into the Ocular, up to the device’s inherent limit.
The caster can choose to draw on more energy than the Ocular can safely handle, but this risks great pain, permanent injury, and probable destruction of the device in the process.
After Glancebinding, the caster has a choice. They can Loose that energy, turning it into a different kind of mass or energy. This is how they can liquefy a stone floor or turn a waterfall into a fireball.
They can also Shackle the energy instead, charging up a ring or circuit of metal on their person. A wealthy caster might wear several circuits, and a wise caster will keep all those circuits charged, ready to be Unshackled as a source of immediate energy in time of need. The drawback is that charged circuits glow bright, so it’s tough to keep their presence a secret.
I feel like I’ve touched more on Sanderson’s Second Law than the First.
Oddly enough, though I was inspired by Mistborn and Sanderson’s First Law to create a magic system with clear rules, I believe Refocusing follows the Second Law more closely. The caster can do almost anything with the energy/mass they Glancebind. They’re just limited by what and how much they can Glancebind.
I did better capturing the First Law in my system of how Divine power works… but to explain that, I need to explain the relationship of the Divine to the world of the Bordermarches. So that’s next.