Top 5 Magic Systems

A few little points of business before I begin here:

First, I’m really sorry to do this to you guys, especially after you all gave so much support to it and me for writing it, but… the newest chapters of So I Married a Supervillain are a mess. I did the front half of the book something like three years ago and only gave it a cursory re-read when I came back to it, and the new chapters are a kind of a mess of tone and continuity gaffs that aren’t being helped by my massively-packed schedule.

That, and my schedule itself is… insane. I’m writing Soul Battery 2, I’m writing the DM book, I’m trying to write that Issacor short I promised, I’m devving WoEd20. I’m trying to format ebooks to sell so I can eat, I’m doing marketing stuff, and that’s on top of the ~10k words I do a week for the site. Plus, you know, as an author you’ve got to read or you start going… weird because you’re detached from literature.

So what’s going to have to happen is that I’m going to have to put SIMaS on hold again. I know. I’m terribly sorry. It’s not going to be forever, but right now, I need to re-read the whole story from the top, all 50K words of it, and then re-write the last four chapters because IMO, they were ass and I don’t want to leave them up on the site they way they are now. And I need the ‘break’ having 4th Wednesdays open allows to get things done. My plan right now is to have my ducks in a row and have an actual buffer (I jumped the gun on bringing back SiMaS, that was my problem. SIMaS has NO buffer. I have to write it out like that week, resulting n a lot of rushing.) and I hope to have it back up and worthy of your earlier praise again b the end of summer.

Second… the blog. I probably waste two days out of every week trying to come up with blog topics most times. Like, if I don’t notice something on a forum, or read something that trips my critical sensors, I have a genuinely hard time coming up with blog posts to inform an entertain you guys. Buuut, it’s good for maintaining our little community here, driving some interesting conversations and such, so I don’t want to ax it, or designate a no-blog week.

So what I’m going t do is do more ‘easy mode’ stuff. Expect more ‘Let’s Watch’ segments, more Top Lists, and This Old Monsters, all blogs I can write quickly and move on to the stories. Also, there might be a short story in this space once in a while, or a story concept I’m kicking around. Or just a power or villain I’m considering. And they may be shorter than the 5-page, 3K word monsters I produce in this space now.

And if anyone wants to help, I’m happy to take guest submissions; articles about the subjects I cover, fanfiction, hell, fan art—that would be cool, considering I draw aobut as well as a monkey with a ballpoint pen jammed up its nose.

Man, look at all those words.

Look, sorry if this came off as whining or something, but I didn’t want to blindside anyone, especially the folks that said so many nice things about the blog and SIMaS. I thank you all for your understanding. On with the show.

So yeah, magic systems. I’ve said before, and I’ll say it again, I love a good magic system. The rules and constraints that govern them are one of those subplots I love to sink my teeth into, epsecially if the characters start getting creative with them. I have actually tried shows (especially anime) just because they had a cool entry in a Magic System trope over at TV Tropes.

That said, some are cooler or more interesting than others. Here are my Top 5 (and Bottom 1) magic systems from all media.

Dishonorable Mention: Vancian Casting (Dungeons and Dragons)

Okay, so D&D didn’t originate Vancian Casting. As the name implies, it was the creation of Jack Vance as part of his Dying Earth stories.

Magic in the Dying Earth setting is a quasi-living thing, something like a psychic parasite. It exists on a page, dormant until someone of sufficient learning and power ‘prepares’ it and effectively putting a nearly-cast copy of it into your brain. You cast it by finishing the spell and allowing it to manifest in our world.

That doesn’t sound too bad and admittedly, I haven’t read the Dying Earth, but that’s why I listed D&D, not Dying Earth up there. In D&D, Vancian Magic pretty much exists to arbitrarily limit you and make just a ton of freaking paperwork.

D&D Wizards, Clerics and Druids need to prepare their spells from their list known (the later two choose from LITERALLY EVER SPELL THEIR CLASS CAN CAST while wizards are limited by what they can fit into their spellbook (as in, the book has 100 pages or so, each spell takes up 1 page per level and the levels go up to freaking 9 because that doesn’t become a nightmare of minutia. At that point, you can only cast those spells and if a surprise happens, you are boned.

That’s 3e. In 4e, everyone had stuff they could only do once a day and it was annoying because it’s like those JRPGs where you get an item that does 999 damage ~about ten feet from your starting town, and you spend the entire game terrified to use it because you might need it later. That was what happened all the time with the 3e wizard, so 4e decided everyone needed to deal with that. Also some of your magic items did it too because the universe hates you.

I honestly don’t know what 5e did with wizards. I think they cast cantrips at-will (because, stealing from Pathfinder) but you get paperwork for everything else. I read it, honest I did, but whenever I look at any D&D Vancian casting class entry, I can’t concentrate because of al the chimps screaming and strangling one another in my head.

Yeah, Vancian Magic: Why WoEd20 will have spell points.

Number 5: Elemental Bending (Avatar: The Last Airbender)

No one should be surprised here. The reason I shill Avatar so much in this space is because I really, really like the show and a big part of that is how awesome the magic (er… bending. Seriously, they make distinction in the first episode) is.

Short and sweet: in the Avatar-verse, you can be born with the ability to manipulate the elements. Which element is determined by your nationality/heritage, but in order to actually manipulate said elements, you need to perform martial arts to exert your influence on them.

Thus, if you’re an earthbender, you can stomp to rip a chunk of stone out of the ground, then punch that stone right into a dude’s face. Or use tai-chi movements to command the water around you to rise up into the form of a huge octopus that deflects enemy attacks.

That may or may not sound cool in prose, but that’s the beauty of it: it was clearly designed for a visual medium where you can see the (genuine and accurate) martial arts motions and the corresponding elemental assault:

She is the greatest earthbender in the world and don’t you forget it.

It’s very cool to watch, and the characters really get creative with it.

Why is it only #5? Well it’s kind of the Avatar’s fault (what isn’t?). See, the Avatar is cool and special in part because they alone can control all four classical elements. Not only does this mean that no other character can really get up to combining them, but as far as I remember, the Avatar doesn’t do a lot of combining them either. For example, I never once say water and fire combined to generate steam for your face-scalding pleasure.

Come on, Aang, you were on at least three steam-powers ships over the course of the show. Get a clue!

Number 4: The Staff of One (Runaways)

This one is so damn simple and yet so elegant.

Are you ready for this?

The Staff of One is a big ‘ol magic wand that can do literally anything. The catch? It can only do a specific thing once.


So you can bring someone back from the dead, go back in time, stop bullets, literally declare that you win the fight… but once you do that, you can never do it again. Oh, you can cheat and ask for something similar. Like once you can slow your fall, next you can stop yourself from being hurt by the fall, then you make a truck full of feathers appear below you, etc… but every time, you need to get more creative because you’re using up your golden tickets.

The best part? Its owner, Nico Minoru, never expected that she would have to use it long, so she used up a LOT of the easy gimmies in fairly short order.

It also fits very well into the story of the Runaways in general. Everyone’s powers are kind of right for the Marvel Universe they exist in, but at the same time aren’t fully what you’d expect and are in the hands of someone not skilled at using them. For example, we also have Molly Hayes (aka Princess Powerful), a little girl with ludicrous super-strength… only it makes her sleepy to use it. So the combination of over-powered and hard to use represented by the Staff of One fits right in.

I’ll ignore the bit Joss Whedon put in after the fact where the staff can be recharged/refreshed by breaking the spirit of the user because if you’ve seen Buffy or Angel, you’ll know that Joss Whedon himself recharges/refreshes by breaking the spirits of young women.

It’s even more remarkable because comic book magic tends to be… ill defined. Even I’m guilty of it to some extent in Descendants. In comics, character with magic just sort of… do stuff and the most detail is put into explaining why they can’t do certain stuff. I’ve tried to get a handle on it by making character learn the spells they can cast on the fly ‘on screen’, but still, it’s not as codified as it could be and the best systems are.

My only problem with the Staff of One though is that there’s just one (ignoring Whedon’s run. Look, I don’t hate Joss Whedon. I don’t agree with some thing he says, but I love a lot of his work. It’s just that his comic work at Marvel was terrible. Runaways and X-men. Awful.). I’d really like to see a setting that worked on this principle: all magi are capable of casting any spell, but they can only do it once. So the longer you’re a spellcaster, either the weaker you get or the more savvy you become. It guarantees that any experienced mage is also a guile hero who lives more by their wits than their power.

All in all, pretty awesome.

Number 3: Chaos Words (Slayers)

Anyone who has read my stuff knows how much I love incantations for spells. Not all spells, but the more important spells. A lot of that comes from anime series Slayers, which uses incantations for everything.

The system in Slayers is pretty cool on the whole: The world is the battleground for two groups: the Dragons led by Seipheed, and the Mazuko, lead by Shabrinigdo. White (protection) magic and Black (battle) magic Spells in the Slayers universe draw power from specific demons and dragon gods, and in order to use them, you need to speak the Chaos words, basically a request addressed to them to lend you their power.

It’s unclear what the source gets out of this, but they never reject the request, thought the skill and natural power of the caster determines how much they can channel.

Now here si the clever bit. Let’s say you’ve got a spell that draws on Shabrinigdo himself. The Dragon Slave (Slayer) is one such spell:

In case you couldn’t watch that, it goes:

Darkness beyond twilight, Crimson beyond blood that flows,

Buried in the stream of time.

In thy great name, I pledge myself to darkness.

Let the fools who stand before us be destroy by the power that I possess— DRAGON SLAVE!

That’s pretty clearly describing the big demon dude to give you the power to blow up a city. And yet you don’t have to use it for evil. Buuut, try an use it on him? It doesn’t work. As the star of the show, Lina Inverse puts it, trying that is going ‘Hey you, can you help me kill you?’

And if you use lesser spells like Gaav Flare (using the power of Shabby’s subordinate Demon Dragon King Gaav), that won’t work either because you’re tapping someone who can’t take him in a fight. And if some upstart adventurers reading Deities and Demigods discovers the stats for Gaav and kills him? Yeah, Gaav Flare stops working—FOR EVERYONE FOREVER.

Your powers are literally fueled by the power of beings who are out there walking around, and that has an effect on the setting. Thanks to serial escalation, the party does kill from of the mazuko generals as the series progresses and their spells stop working forever. That’s super cool.

By the way, you totally can play in this world using the Big Eyes, Small Mouth: Slayers book. I highly recommend BESM and the D20 version because they’re a fun, lighter version of HERO’s point buy character system applied to the standard D20 classes.

Number 2: Forging Magic Weapons on the Fly (Sacred Blacksmith)

I haven’t watched all of Sacred Blacksmith, but I can already tell that the magic system is badass. In fact, when I first watched the very first episode, I was floored by the insanity of what the main caster character does as his ‘magic’. It is so wired and so off the wall, but so perfect for the story being told, I felt like I was home.

Are you ready to hear this?

Okay, so first he has his little elf girl sidekick (what, you don’t have a little elf girl to be your sidekick? You poor deprived fool!) project a series of magic circles out of her eye. Yes. The magic circles create a mystic forge, to which he adds a bar of steel and a hilt (what kind determines the type of finished sword) and an additional reagent, and then speed-forges a goddamn katana right there on the battlefield. We don’t see it because his arms are thrust into the mystic forge thing, but the elf girl narrates all the steps to forging and finishing a sword until he produces a brand new, badass magical weapon.

He can then use it himself or pass it off to another character, but the weapon is fragile form being forged in less than a minute, and so only lasts a certain number of attacks before breaking. But what attacks they are! Fire bolts, razor wind, ice strikes (there is a permanent sword… that is also a woman… who does razor wind too)… the whole fantasy combo platter can come of this.

Which makes me realize just how tailored this system is to D&D. Think about it: spend a full-round action to forge a temporary magic weapon that breaks after a certain amount of time? Due, that’s spiritual weapon if spiritual weapon came in frost or flaming varieties. I… may have to adapt this concept to WoED20… HD projector elf not included.

This system is unique and utterly cool to watch, but it also fits very well into the series where warrior culture is king and the main character is a swordswoman who wants to prove herself worthy of her family sword. And some of the characters are swords.

If you describe this setting and then the magic system, people will go ,”Why yes, this is the kind of magic people in the setting would come up with’. And that is worth a lot in my book. Magic should shape and be shaped by the setting, not some alien thing that runs along parallel to it until a wizard is called for.

Number 1: Breath (Warbreaker)

You all knew Brandon Sanderson was going to be on this list. It was really just a question of whether it was Allomancy from Mistborn or this, really. It picked Warbreaker because Breath is just so amazingly weird that I had to share it with you guys.

In the world of Warbreaker, everyone has a measure of Breath—note the upper case here, because ‘Breath’ is more like ‘soul’. With a higher than average amount, your senses increase and you start gaining new ones and greater ability. With a lower amount, you literally start losing our color, your senses and mind dull, and you become a ‘Drab’, a person with almost no will to live and function was their soul is mising. Because of all the bennies you get from having Breath, and the fact that it can only be given freely, it’s an actual commodity, with people selling breath in special containers to those rich enough to afford it.

And what do they do with it? What don’t they do with it! Like I said, Breath is like soul and the soul is, in many belief systems, the animating force. Which means you can put it into object to animate them (the more humanoid the better it works). This can result in creating little homunculi that do your bidding, or turning your clothes into powered armor. Powered armor that lets you wall-crawl.

When I say the more humanoid the application the better, that’s exactly what I mean: the object mimic human motions or enhance them. So the magic can’t do literally anything, but does enough to be varied, but limited enough that skill trumps power because a creative and thoughtful person can whip the ass of the physical gods of this world, let alone someone with way more Breath than you.

As I’ve said a loooong time ago in my Rules post, having more rules and limitations actually forces creativity and therefore more interesting character actions. The fact that these rules do make sense (a soul need a human shape to work best) in a metaphysical sense makes it better, like it was a natural evolution that followed the discovery of this magic as the figured and refined it.

And it has a massive effect on the setting! The entire class structure s based on Breath, to the point that if you don’t have certain senses (from having certain ‘levels’ of Breath, you just can’t get into some places—or know they exist!

And that’s it for this week. If you can think of a subject you’d like to see here, please post it in the comments. For example, what monsters would you like to see in the next This Old Monster?

Some of you might have already noticed, but there is now a subforum for WoED20, where I’ll post stuff about the game from time to time.

Also, the Pen and Cape Society has been busy! Check out our second anthology, The Good Fight: Villains, and the debut novel of our newest member, Samantha Bryant.

Finally, I’m working on a Patreon page but… I have no idea what I’m doing setting that thing up. It might be a while.

Until next week folk, stay awesome!

About Vaal

Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter. You can also purchase his books from all major platforms from the bookstore
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  1. That’s not actually the invocation she uses in that particular video. 😛

    Darkness beyond twilight.
    Crimson beyond blood that flows.
    Buried in the stream of time is where your power grows.
    I pledge myself to conquer all the foes who stand before the mighty gift bestowed in my unworthy hands.
    Let the fools who stand before me be destroyed by the power you and I possess.

    • It always annoyed me that the dub has like five variations. The one from The Motion Picture goes on for freaking ever.

  2. Warbreaker was fun to read – once. As a universe to roleplay in the way that any important character would have to have sucked up the Breath of dozens or hundreds of mooks (you have to give all of it up, you can’t give up half your Breath IIRC) would create enough injustice to drive me nuts. The 2nd-3rd options would be much easier to live with.

    Spell points are a valid way of running a game, providing that it doesn’t create a situation where the best action is the same every time, and you spam the same action over and over because of this.

    • Well, Vaal is being pretty hyperbolic talking about “almost no will to live”. That’s certainly how they see it in that society that considers giving away your Breath to be horrible, but we actually meet a Drab who rejects the notion that it’s been bad for her at all to have given away her Breath to one of the gods when she was a child.

      I remember coming away from the book with the impression that there WAS an effect (if only through genre savviness), but it’s kept ambiguous in-setting, and the effects, if any, are small enough to rationalize away. It’s not a big deal to go from one Breath to two, after all, so why would it be bad to go from one to zero?

    • IIRC, they have to willingly give you their Breath, so unless you’re torturing them into it, they want you to have it.

  3. Well, as much as I want new SIMaS, I don’t want you to burn yourself out. I also don’t want you to rush out material you feel is inferior. So take the time you need.

    For This Old Monster, any chance we could get the Golem? This might include the Homunculus, Frankenstein’s Monster, and other man-made monsters.


    • I’m scared to touch Frankenstein’s Monster because I suggested Hollywood do a sexified version in the first ‘Letter to Hollywood’ and two years later, they put out I, Frankenstein.

      Golems though… I love me some golems. This might be a thing that happens.

      • Funny thing about Frankenstein’s monster is that it’s mispresentation in later media is in a way the exact opposite to that of Mr. Hyde’s.

        Frankenstein’s creature wasn’t really particularly evil, it simply hated it’s cruel creator with what could be seen as good reason. It’s a monster not for what it did, but for what it was, a re-animated collection of corpse bits.
        Whereas Mr. Hyde, who is typically depicted as a hulking monstrosity, is described in the book as SMALLER than Jekyll, and while somewhat monkey-like is a monster not for what he is, but for what he does.

  4. No complaints on the blog, I love “This Old Monster.” I will miss SIMaS, but I do appreciate quality, so I’ll endure till it meets standards.
    I’d like to see some new takes on the phoenix, and since your brownie post was so cool, a post on pixies or sprites would be neat.

  5. I watched Avatar and Korra mostly because of reading this blog, and I don’t regret it; they were both very cool shows. I particularly appreciated the way LoK had each season’s plot influenced by prior events, even though they were definitely single-season arcs rather than a more unified arc for the whole show. I thought they were doing a very good job of that by the end, and the fourth season was my favorite largely as a result. Anyway, bending is definitely one of my favored systems as well, and I agree that it was well-matched to the medium. Would probably work reasonably well in comic form, too.

    A good magic system is really hard to construct, but also laying out the rules usually kills my sense of mysticism and wonder. That doesn’t mean I dislike it, just that I think vagueness can be a valid approach, especially since long digressions about constantly gathering reagents or anything of that sort can be boring to read or watch.

    I do like the Slayers angle, and the idea that the magic system has to fit with the setting, though. Does power come from gods? Is it just floating around, waiting to be claimed? Are people born with it? Do they have to earn it somehow? There are lots of interesting options. It’s funny how little thought is given to those questions in some fantasy, but I guess it all depends on what you’re trying to write.

    • I feel that you don’t have to lay out the rules clearly to the audience as long as you’re following them and the audience can notice that.

  6. For 5e: Cantrips are all at will, so if you have a cantrip, you can cast it whenever. Wizards have a spellbook. There’s no limit to how many spells it can hold, but you have to spend time and gold in order to copy a spell into the book, and it has to be a spell of a level you can cast. You can prepare a certain number of spells per day, and you can cast them using whatever spell slot you please (as long as it’s of an equal or higher level than the spell), however many times you please.

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