Magic systems are bo-ring nowadays. The Vancian system of magic, where spellcasters memorize spells, expend spell slots, and maybe have a book, has been canonized in fantasy roleplaying games to the point of being stale. Magic needs to be, you know, magical, so I’ve been trying to think of some interesting ways to spice up a world’s magic system and make it a bit different. Here’s what I’ve come up with:
The Ten Percent Law
For those of you who snoozed in high school Biology class, The Ten Percent Law dictates that a consumer of organic food will end up obtaining about ten percent of the available caloric energy of the consumed.
Maybe you see where I’m going with this.
Someone really, really messed up in your magical world discovered that the Ten Percent Law also, unfortunately, extends to magical energy. By consuming a magical being, you obtain ten percent of that being’s magical power. For the little stuff, the fairies and pixies of the world, ten percent is a barely noticeable bump. But were you to climb to the top of the tower of the greatest wizard of the land, strike him down, and dig in, you’d find yourself wielding noticeable new power.
Thus, the wizards of this world have made the devil’s trade, allowing themselves to commit the most heinous sin in exchange for ultimate power. Spellcasting duels usually end with the winner tearing the flesh from the body of the loser. Extremely high-end restaurants emerge, offering to cook up and serve powerful magical beasts for the enrichment of its sorcerous diners. Some people, with an unpleasant combination of ambition and psychopathy, hope to one day consume the gods themselves, in order to ascend to divinity.
A somewhat common spin on traditional magic is what I’ll call “Name Magic”. Popularized in the Earthsea series as well as in the Inheritance Cycle, the fundamental idea is that everything has a sort of “true name”, its name in the unknowable, ancient language spoken by the fundamental forces of the universe. By speaking that name, you exert dominance over that thing.
This ideas is extremely common with reference to demons. The idea is that knowing a demon’s true name grants you control over its very being, essentially enslaving it to you. In my homebrew D&D setting, the demons themselves use this ability to establish a hierarchy: greater demons carry scrolls containing the names of thousands of subservient demons, which can all in a moment be magically read to move the horde.
The interesting thing about this system is that it suddenly gives magic a bunch of quirks which we normally associate with linguistics. What happens when you speak the Fundamental Language of the Universe with an accent? When someone creates something truly novel and unique, how do you refer to that thing in the Ancient Tongue of Creation? Moreover, if you understand some of the phonemes of the One True Language, you can potentially learn new and devastating magic just by reading. All of a sudden, magicians are engaged in the same war to control literacy as the church was in our real world 500 years ago.
Memory Limit Exceeded
When you’re casting what we traditionally consider to be 8th or 9th level spells, you’re manipulating fundamental forces of the universe. There’s a lot of factors involved with getting a wish or opening a gate, and you need to account for all of them, or else your spell will not go the way you want it to.
To this effect, a mortal being literally does not have the mental capacity to process all of the information needed to successfully cast an 8th or higher level spell. If they try, the spell will invariably backfire, as some incalculable equation is calculated wrong, an impossible degree of focus is not achieved, or maybe just some rogue factor is simply forgotten.
The challenge which serves as the threshold between great spellcasters and those that change the world lies in how they shortcut this need for expanded mental capacity. In my D&D setting, the aforementioned demons cheat by distributing the tasks of spellcasting amongst their subservient demons. Artificers might construct objects that essentially serve as magical computers, crunching the numbers in the background to help a spellcaster deal with more complex world-warping. Particularly daring wizards might just try to magically expand their brain, although doing so, and especially botching such a procedure, might have disastrous consequences.
It’s fairly common in fantasy settings to have artificers enchant magical weapons, perhaps by fitting it with jewels or inscribing magical runes in order to grant a weapon new powers. With this in mind, consider a world in which enchanters use this ability to enchant America’s favorite weapon: the gun. Or, more interestingly, the bullet.
Making ammunition is hard, and its even harder to try and attempt to inscribe tiny, precise magical runes onto those little metal cylinders. As a result, the world’s ammomancers, those with the knowledge of the ancients and steady hands, are some of the most valued enchanters in the world. Entire kingdoms rise and fall due to the work of history’s greatest ammomancers.
While magical ammunition is pretty cool (bullets that explode! bullets that open portals! bullets that banish monsters to other dimensions!), the interesting worldbuilding potential comes from magical warfare experiencing a similar shift that actual war experienced at the end of the Middle Ages, a shift of democratization. It’s much easier to fire a gun than it is to swing a sword, and it’s also much easier to fire a gun than to cast a spell. With magical ammunition rampant, any commoner with the right equipment can cast spells like any great wizard. People will attempt to construct special mills that automate the enchanting process, with it completely changing the face of magic as it is known. How will the magical orthodoxy respond to this?
You Have Broken The Greatest Of Laws
There is a Divine Creator of this world, one who wrote the Laws of Creation by which the fundamental forces of the universe work. You, as a spellcaster, have found a way to bend and break these laws for your own good. While you seem like a man of miracles to those around you, in the eyes of God, you are a lawbreaker, and lawbreakers must be punished.
If you perform a little magic here and there, you’ll get some omens that something greater than yourself isn’t happy: bad dreams, some black cats cross your way, maybe someone says something really foreboding to you before forgetting it ever happened. However, if you start doing some big magic, like throwing fireballs and resurrecting the dead, you’ll have problems on your hands. More, specifically, you’ll have Angels.
Far from the peaceful, wisdom-dispensing and Heaven-delivering angels we usually think of, these Angels exist to find anyone who breaks the Laws of Reality and remove them from the world, usually violently. These Angels are merciless hunters but, much like police officers, they are bound to the Law that they enforce. Thus, Angels do not have any abilities that we would consider “magical”. Instead, they exhibit an incredible control over probability. Instead of performing the impossible, they instead bend the odds on what’s possible to end up on their preference.
For big, big magic, like mass resurrections, profane rituals, and really, really bad stuff, God isn’t above some direct intervention. People tell stories about a kingdom up on a mountain which believed itself mightier than any divinity, thanks to its massive leaps in magic. Out of wrath, God struck the mountain with a force so strong it demolished the mountain, killed everyone in the kingdom, and sunk every last remnant of the civilization into an unknowably deep pit.