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S2E04: Building Magic Systems with Clark Rowenson

HOSTED by Dr. Moiya McTier (@GoAstroMo), astrophysicist and folklorist


C.R. Rowenson is a trained chemical engineer who's passionate about writing and building magic systems. You can follow him on twitter @ClarkRRowenson, find fantastic resources on his website, and check out his Youtube channel.


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Moiya 0:08

Hello there friends, welcome to Exolore, the show that helps you imagine other worlds with facts and science. I am your host, Dr. Moiya McTier. I'm an astrophysicist who studied pretty much everything in space from planetary orbits to the radiation leftover from the Big Bang to star formation and black holes and galaxy evolution. But I am especially interested in the motion of stars and how that affects the habitability of exoplanets, which are planets outside of our solar system. I am also a folklorist who specializes in building and analyzing fictional worlds. And this podcast is my way of sharing those worlds and that knowledge with you. So let's get started.

Moiya 0:52

Clark, thank you so much for being on the show. Do you want to tell the listeners who you are and what you do in your own words?

Clark 0:59

Yeah, so I'm C.R. Rowenson. I am a developmental editor and a freelance writing coach. But mostly, I write nonfiction [that's] completely targeted to help storytellers craft and repair marvelous magic systems for their stories. I don't care if you're an author, a video game writer, tabletop RPG, whatever. If it has a magic system I'm there.

Moiya 1:22

That's great. And you've come up with like a step by step process that you teach people to help them build their magic systems?

Clark 1:29

Yeah. So as I've been doing this, over the years, I've started to recognize a number of different stages that people were repeating, whether they knew it or not, and which one we actually want to go through. It's going to depend on what we want to end up with. I can start with the general seven stages, and we can move on from there if you want.

Moiya 1:49

Not quite yet. I'd like to learn a little bit more about you before we get into the process side of things.

Clark 1:54

See, I'm already just like magic.

Moiya 1:57

Let's get to it. You're so excited. I love that. One thing that I always ask my guests is what fictional worlds they've been inhabiting lately. And so is there any cool fictional world that you've been spending time in?

Clark 2:09

Well, I've been listening to a lot of worldbuilding podcasts. So like, actually, I've been digging through some of yours. I listened to the "social dragon fly" one recently, which was fun. A couple other worldbuilding podcasts that do some rotating stuff. I really like "Worldbuild With Us." I've been playing a lot of "Darkest Dungeon".

Moiya 2:28

Oh, what's that? I haven't heard of it.

Clark 2:29

It is a roguelike Cthulhu dungeon crawler. Most players end up with a love-hate relationship with it, because that's how "Darkest Dungeon" wants it. It's not a gentle game.

Moiya 2:29

Got it. [It's] not for the faint of heart.

Clark 2:42

So yeah, I've been playing that, and that's mostly what I've been doing. And now I've just been neck deep in my own book that I've been working on. So I haven't done a ton of fiction reading the past couple months. I have been reading a Pathfinder Adventures guide, though. So that has been fun.

Moiya 2:58

Pathfinder, the game?

Clark 2:59

Yes. So I got a copy of Rise of the Runelords that whole adventure path. And I've been reading to that because I'm that kind of nerd who just reads that for fun.

Moiya 3:10

Then you're my favorite type of nerd. When you're reading those guides, do you feel like you want to add more onto it? Do you feel like you want to take stuff from the worlds you read about and incorporate them into your magic systems? Like how do you approach consuming these worldbuilding media?

Clark 3:30

I'm always watching for how other people do stuff. I don't have all the answers, and the second, I think I do I'm wrong. So especially with the Pathfinder Guide, I do want to get more into helping people with like tabletop RPG systems and adventures and stuff like that. So I'm reading through those because those are some of the pivotal, well known ones. So I'm, I'm studying it in terms of setting up a tabletop module. But I do just keep an eye on the things that [I find] really cool. Or they're doing one of the things that I talked about, but they're missing a little piece of it. Like I could help them tweak it here, if we just talked about it a little bit more. Stuff like that. And it's the same thing with fantasy novels and TV shows and movies. I just watch to try and see where the pieces might fit and ways that if I was given complete control, I might tweak and try and adjust before I just handed it back and be like, "now go do the thing you're really good at."

Moiya 4:27

Yeah, I feel like that's one of the blessings and curses of being someone who thinks about worldbuilding in this way, is that you're always kind of a little bit trying to view things through the lens of, "Oh, well, what would I have done in that situation?"

Clark 4:40

Right. And I actually ended up in worldbuilding through the magic systems. I used to just build the magic systems for fun. And then I really started exploring like, "well, what would that do to everybody around them?" And I have a background in chemical engineering, but I'm still pretty bad at doing some of the hardcore research like you and some of your other guests do to be like, "Okay, this is how it would work?" So I've really appreciated that.

Moiya 5:06

Thank you. I'd love to dig deeper into that. How do you go from being a chemical engineer to building magical systems? What's the sequence of events that happened there?

Clark 5:17

Being obsessed with magic systems since I could imagine a pine cone as a fireball. That's pretty much where it started. So when I was a little kid. I am now a full time project manager, but I have the full time job. And I'm working on transitioning over to the writing side and all of that. But yeah, it just started with a love of wanting to be able to do cool things. And then that's why I became obsessed with fantasy stories. Like, that's all I read. My parents had to force me to read nonfiction [and] then video games and movies and TV shows and tabletop games. If it has magic, I am like 70% more likely to pick it up.

Moiya 5:55

I know how you feel. I also pretty much exclusively read fantasy as a kid. But my mom fanned that fire. My mom fuel[ed] my interest in fantasy. Did you enjoy reading nonfiction or was it really a chore?

Clark 6:16

I did. I am going to be honest, though. Like, I wish I had paid more attention to a lot of the nonfiction which is funny coming from somebody who just did a whole bunch of stuff in engineering, but like, my geography is really bad. My history isn't great. And once I figured out I wanted to do writing - do fiction and do worldbuilding. It's like, oh, man, I wish I had paid more attention and kept that in here.

Moiya 6:40

Yeah, it helps a lot.

Clark 6:41

Yeah. So now I've actually been getting a lot more into nonfiction because I can see like, oh, here's how it will work in like guns, germs and steel, obviously. But A History of Salt. If you haven't read it also very interesting.

Moiya 6:54

I haven't.

Clark 6:54

Yeah, it's a good book. I don't have it handy.

Moiya 6:57

I love little micro histories like that.

Clark 7:00

Yeah, it was really interesting. I ended up with just like a pile of notes for ideas, because he mentioned sin eaters, which was a cultural thing where when somebody died, they would have like a bowl of salt to represent their sin. I'm sure I'm butchering this, I apologize to anybody who actually knows about these cultures. But there was somebody whose job was to come by and eat the salt at the funeral to symbolize eating away this person sins so that they could go into the afterlife clean. I was like, that's super cool. I want to do some weird magic stuff around it, because that's how I see everything.

Moiya 7:33

Oh, there's something really beautiful in that. Do you remember where in the world that happened?

Clark 7:38

I don't. It's something I need to dig into a little bit more because he just mentioned it. And I was like, "What is that?" So I started digging into it a little bit. And I feel like I veered way off your question.

Moiya 7:51

That's okay. One of the things that I push in facts based worldbuilding is the idea that you have to know more about how our world works and how things in our reality tie together to build rich feeling fictional worlds and, you know, little micro histories like this [and] just learning more about small, unassuming ways that the world is connected can help with worldbuilding.

Clark 8:15

So one of the things that I really like talking about with magic systems is there's different types of magic systems. And one of the things you can do, and without getting too much into details -

Moiya 8:26

Get into details, please.

Clark 8:28

Okay, well, there's different types of magic. Most people are probably going to be familiar with the concept of hard and soft magic. There's, I think, another access that makes a quadrant, which since I'm on the computer with you, [I can] share screen.

Moiya 8:43


Clark 8:44

There's a quadrant, the other access is, I call it "rational" and "irrational".

Moiya 8:50

Oh, I love a 2x2.

Clark 8:54

For a long time, I was trying to figure [it] out. The example is in Brandon Sanderson's original essay on the first law of magic where he talks about hard and soft, he uses Superman as an example, and says how Superman is a hard magic system, because we know so much about it. And it's true, but it felt so different from other hard systems, I couldn't wrap my head around it. So these are spectrums. And if you want to move your system more to the rational side, which right now I'm seeing a lot of favor placed towards hard rational systems, probably because of Brandon Sanderson, because this stuff is amazing. If you want to shift it more towards the rational side, if you can base your magic or parts of your magic off of real world patterns, it doesn't matter that the rest of it is made up, it will feel real and it will feel more rational.

Moiya 9:41


Clark 9:42

Yeah, there's a whole bunch of stuff you can play with with that or like even if you just build structures that are pseudo real but fabricated, that will make it feel more realistic because we're such pattern seeking creatures.

Moiya 9:53

Yeah, maybe we should go into this in a little more detail. For those who aren't familiar. Could you say a bit more about the day difference between hard and soft magic systems?

Clark 10:02

Absolutely. So with hard and soft magic systems, it's all about how much of the magic system is known or understood.

Moiya 10:13

By the audience or by the people who practice it?

Clark 10:15

Those are great questions, I'm actually going to roll back a couple of steps if that's okay. When when I say "magic," I'm actually casting a pretty broad net. To me, magic is anything enabling actions beyond our capability or understanding. So to me that captures sci-fi, that captures horror monsters that captures alien races, like all of that stuff, their magic systems. So with that in mind, whenever you're working on your magic system, I will actually move it so you can see on the screen here, as a side note, what you're looking at Moiya is from my current book that I'm working on.

Moiya 10:52

Oh, sneak peek.

Clark 10:53

Yeah, this is a tool that I've built up to help people build magic systems at a high level. And this is like one of the two ways that we could go about it today, if you wanted. And one of the things high up on here is perspective, especially when you're trying to explore the type of magic the hard and soft, rational, irrational, it is vital that you identify the perspective you're analyzing it from. You asked if I meant, if that's how it seems to the users to the reader, or whoever the answer is, yes, you just have to define which one you're handling at a specific time.

Moiya 11:27

Okay. And that can change over the course of a single book, or movie or project or whatever, as long as you define it?

Clark 11:32

Yeah, and it will change from perspective to perspective. So the example I use is, as a creator, a system will always be harder to us as a creator than it will be to the reader - because we know more; we built more we know the directions it's going to go, that's unavoidable. So that's the best way to think of it is to you, it may be a very hard rational system, you know, all the ins and outs, you know all of the underlying patterns, and you can extrapolate from what you've already built, depending on what you show your reader. They might not be able to, they may see just one piece and see apparently contradictory stuff so that they can't properly extrapolate or build upon it. And they may actually be seeing a soft, irrational magic system, which is why the perspective is important. So "hard" and "soft", is how much you know about the system, "rational" and "irrational" is all about your ability to extrapolate beyond what you currently see. So if you can predict and extrapolate from known portions to unknown portions, it's rational. If you can't, it's irrational.

Moiya 12:36

I'm getting like a very emotional response here to the idea of an irrational magic system because - I [have a] creative license, [so] I get it. But I personally hate when I can't go from things that I know and extrapolate out to what are the other possibilities.

Clark 12:52

And they all have pros and cons, because that's another one of my big things is we're leaning heavily towards hard rational systems right now in our media, that's what people really want. That doesn't mean it's the best, because there is no best cause they all have their own strengths and weaknesses. But Harry Potter is a great irrational system. So the example I like to give is the expelliarmus spell. We as readers know that one wizard can use that to knock the wand out of another wizards hand. And that's all we know. We don't know if that will work with books, we don't know if it will work with knives or with guns. And we won't know unless we see it happen because there are other cases where it should logically extrapolate and carry over to another application. And it doesn't.

Moiya 13:38

Do you have any examples of that because I am not that familiar with Harry Potter.

Clark 13:42

So one of the classic examples is the time turner in the third book - spoilers.

Moiya 13:47

This is a spoiler friendly podcast, it's fine.

Clark 13:49

They use the time turner to go back in time and save some people's lives. And one of the big questions is, why didn't somebody use a time turner to ever stop Voldemort? It seems like a big loophole. But if we're going to suspend our disbelief, then that means we are assuming there are reasons that it didn't work, or reasons that they couldn't, or maybe people tried and failed, and we're just not seeing it, or there's just something there that makes it non functional, and we just don't know what it is. So that's one example where because of how it played out, I personally as a reader felt like I couldn't just extend the logic and be like, oh, they could use it this way, this way, and this way. I felt like [I was] missing something. So I can't take anything for granted beyond what I've seen.

Moiya 14:31

I really like this 2x2, this irrational/rational access that you've added to the hard/soft axis because I feel like it gives more opportunities to give grace to the author or the creator in a way. Often, when I see something that I would interpret as irrational, I assume that that's because, you know, the creator just didn't think it out or that it was maybe incompetence in some way. But I love the idea that something can be intentionally irrational.

Clark 15:00

Yeah. So it has the 2x2 with the axis and each quadrants - that's what I refer to as the types of magic. So like you have the "hard rational", "hard irrational", "soft irrational' and "soft rational'. They're actually just, you know, two traits that are always conjoined is really what we're looking at.

Moiya 15:17

Right. Awesome. So that's how you define magic and how you would classify these magic systems. Do you have any examples of magic systems that you absolutely love? Or absolutely don't love?

Clark 15:34

Yeah. So I'm really a sucker for magic systems in general. Like they all have their own cool things about them. I personally don't think there's such a thing as a bad magic system. I think there are incomplete or poorly implemented magic systems.

Moiya 15:50

Oh, you're so kind. That's nice.

Clark 15:53

So one that I didn't feel was very well implemented, and this series is immensely popular. It's The Night Angel series by Brent Weeks, and I need to read his Lightbringer series because I'm told that I would like that. I did not care for Night Angel, and part of that had to do with how the magic was just kind of there. It felt like it was just trying to live out like a stereotypical fantasy, rather than being its own thing that was part of the world. And it felt really jarring to me and disconnected with other stuff and that with some other things in the book, it never really jived with me.

Moiya 16:28

Yeah. Okay.

Clark 16:29

Pretty much all of Brandon Sanderson's stuff I love it to death.

Moiya 16:33

Everyone I've met, who's read Sanderson has told me Moiya, you have to read this. The magic system is amazing. And I just haven't gotten to it yet. But you said that it's probably in the "hard rational" quadrant.

Clark 16:44

Yes. I also really enjoy a lot of horror, so like Cthulhu, Lovecraftian type stuff. And that is prime soft, irrational stuff. You don't know what's happening. You don't know what it can do. But it's bad.

Moiya 16:59

Prime soft-irrational. Okay.

Clark 17:01

I also really enjoyed, [and] I need to reread it actually, Uprooted by Naomi Novik is such a good book.

Moiya 17:08

I read that.

Clark 17:09

That is also a soft-irrational system, because we don't know the extent of magic in that world. And each caster is incredibly unique and distinct. And we can't assume just because we saw the dragon do this, the other person can do something similar.

Moiya 17:26

All right. I feel like I have this magic system primer, ready to learn about your steps, if you're ready?

Clark 17:34

Yeah. So, like, when you reached out to me, I was honest, and like, okay, so whether we can do this in an hour, like, it's gonna depend on you kind of keeping me on a leash, because I love magic.

Moiya 17:47

Okay, I am ready, I can rein you in, I promise.

Clark 17:51

So the seven stages of building a magic system are kind of as follows. And this is what I see other people doing even though they don't necessarily know it. Stage One is inspiration, you have to find the concept or you have to find why you're doing it. It may be that you already have your story, you already have your character you already have something or you may just be starting with it [being] cool to do a magic system about blank. So like in the image, you're looking at one of the magic systems I built up before COVID - I need to be clear on this - is a virus based magic system. So I got like a 12 post series on my blog right as COVID started getting really bad. And I was like, "I have the history to show I did this ahead of time."

Moiya 18:37

Did it bring you any small comfort imagining like, "okay, now there is a big virus out there. What cool magic would I be able to do with it?"

Clark 18:45

That was my joke as I was talking with my friends, "Okay, I'm not saying that I brought this on us. But if anybody gets special powers, you're welcome."

Moiya 18:54

You know, no one has told me that there were zero special powers from COVID. Okay, so stage one inspiration.

Clark 19:02

Yeah. And stage two is idea generation. Thomas Edison kind of said it the best with, "to have a great idea, have lots of them." Idea generation is where you just need to sit down and go crazy, generating as many different ideas for magical effects for correlations, for limitations, for cool moments for whatever you can think of, and just get it all written down. You just need to generate swarms of ideas more than you could possibly handle, and then they're probably enough good ones in there for you to use.

Moiya 19:36

So the idea in this step is that you're expansively coming up with what are the possible uses and consequences of this magic system? And then later, you can go through and pick which ones of those you like, and see how they can all work together?

Clark 19:52

Right. So stage two is idea generation without constraint just coming up with anything that you can then, stage three is Is alignment, which is one that I find exceptionally important where you need to take everything that you have, and start pairing it up and putting it in parallel with what you want to do with it. So if you're trying to tell a story and you have an idea what your story is, stage three is where you take this giant cloud of ideas, and you start picking and placing the ones that will help feed the story in the direction you want to go. That's part of what I mean by poorly implemented magic systems, is you could have the coolest like nanotech magic system. But then if you put it in a setting with goblins and dragons, unless it's like really integral to the setting, that's probably going to end up being jarring. Not saying you can't do it, because you can. But if you don't set it up, right, they'll grate against each other and actually hurt each other.

Moiya 20:53

Where do you think that jarred response is coming from? Is it because people have expectations already, and if those expectations aren't met, that they might be disappointed? Why would a magic system be jarring if it's not aligned correctly?

Clark 21:10

Storytelling is an experience, right? Real Life is messy, and things are going in all kinds of directions, [and] that's why stories are fiction and not reality. [This is because] you don't have time to capture all of those little truths and idiosyncrasies of reality. And if you have things that are going cross purpose, too often, it feels weird. The reader or the audience,[ then doesn't know] where to place [their] attention, right? So if this is supposed to be like a sweet romance story, but the magic is about organ harvesting, again, you can make it work, the right person can make anything work.

Moiya 21:51

Yeah, as evidenced by my little giggle, right.

Clark 21:55

So I really think that's what it comes to is, with the stories, we need to give an effective, streamlined experience. And if all of your pieces aren't working together, then you're kind of gumming up the works. And your engine is clunky and loud and grading noises, and it still does the job. But you know, it's loud and grading and smokes pouring out the sides.

Moiya 22:16

Yeah, we don't want that.

Clark 22:17


Moiya 22:18

So make sure that your magic system and the decisions that you've made about it also line up well, with the the world that you're building, or the story that you're trying to tell alignment. Okay.

Clark 22:30

Yeah, doing what you can to make the magic support the story and the characters and themes and all that stuff.

Moiya 22:35

What's stage four?

Clark 22:36

Stage four is what most people are familiar with, when we talk about building magic systems. This is definition this is where you define what your magic is, you've come up with ideas, you've got a general sense of what it needs to be because of alignment, the direction it needs to help things go. Stage four is where you really get into what it is. You batten down exactly what the magical effects are, you figure out the rules, you figure out how it actually works, and you figure out its place in the world. And that's a bit where the types of magic starts to become a little more relevant.

Moiya 23:11

I like that you get more concrete about things after you've already done this broad expansive ideation and figured out how it fits into your story or world. That makes sense, I think a lot of people would probably assume that you have to make all of the decisions right at the beginning.

Clark 23:27

You're trying to cast a broad net so that you can then narrow it down to what you need, and what will serve the purpose best, rather than just starting with something that's cool, and making it work whether it's the best option or not.

Moiya 23:38

Yeah, love it.

Clark 23:39

And then stage five is the flip side of definition. This is restrictions. So stage four, you looked at what your system can do, stage five is where you dig into what your system can't do.

Moiya 23:52

I have a feeling I'm gonna love stage five, when we get to it.

Clark 23:56

Stage five is a lot of fun. I'm kind of literary sadist, and I like to do terrible things to my characters. The restrictions are where you can do that because you're like, "yeah, this is a really great power, BUT..."

Moiya 24:11

But, yes. I feel like the Superman people who like came up with Superman could have spent more time in stage five.

Clark 24:19

And that's actually a big part of why I'm not really a fan of Superman, a friend showed me a snippet from one of the animation series that would have made me interested in where he talks about how he feels like he's in a world of cardboard. And he's always having to hold himself back and I'm like, yeah, if they had explored that, that would have been cool, because that's societal limitations on unlimited power. But then they didn't, they just went back to the other stuff.

Moiya 24:43

Oh, well, one brief moment of clarity.

Clark 24:48

And some of that again, goes back to Brandon Sanderson is currently like the best known person talking about magic systems. And going back to one of your earlier questions of how I got into magic, it is because of Sanderson. [It's] because I was going through my engineering degree, and I read a couple of this books. And that's when I had the "aha" moment of [realizing that] people would like the type of systems that I built, because I build them with that very rational, mechanized, if you understand the quirks, you can find these loopholes, and these workarounds and power A could be masqueraded to look like power B. I love that stuff. And the fact that his stuff was successful helped me see that people like that. And I tried to look into it. And there was like, zero instruction, other than Sanderson's, three laws of magic, and we've already covered one. The second one is limitations are greater than power. And that's just what we're talking about here with Superman, his limitations are often the more interesting aspect. And they're actually what will drive conflict and drive interest around your characters, what they need to do and your connection with your readers.

Moiya 25:52

Love it.

Clark 25:53

So stage six, is my personal favorite.

Moiya 25:56

Oh, okay.

Clark 25:57

Stage six is testing. This is where you take everything that you've laid out, and you just see what do you can do with it.

Moiya 26:04

Just having fun?

Clark 26:05

Yeah, you go nuts. You go left, you go right, you up, you go down, you try and find workarounds. You're like, "okay, I put this restriction in here. Is there any way that people could ignore that?"

Moiya 26:16

Oh, okay. So like testing the bounds.

Clark 26:19

Stress testing. Yeah.

Moiya 26:20

Yeah, seeing what the edge cases are and how you might react to them. And that would give you a sense to how the audience would react right them,

Clark 26:29

Right. And there are a couple of core areas you want to pay attention to when you're stress testing. I have a workbook specifically on building limitations for magic systems, because it's one of the trickier things and I talk about some main areas that you really want to pay attention to. There's a lot of stuff you can look at, but in general, I call them the "god factors". [There's] omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. The closer your characters get to one of those, the more godlike they become, and the more likely your system is to break.

Moiya 27:00

Why would having more godlike characters break the system?

Clark 27:04

The closer you get to those, the harder it is to challenge them. And challenge is the heart of conflict, which is the heart of story, at least in our Western version of storytelling. So overpowered characters can be really boring, they often are really boring. And the closer you get to that, the more likely you are to run into that problem. The fourth area is unlimited wealth, because well, it's not technically a superpower, it is effectively [a] superpower.

Moiya 27:37

I mean, Jeff Bezos is like basically a god.

Clark 27:41

Right. So just ask Tony Stark, or Batman, you know. And these are just caution areas. It's not saying that if you have a god character, your magic is broken, your story is broken. That's never what I'm saying. There's always workarounds and ways to make things function. Those are just the most likely places to break your system in ways that you didn't intend.

Moiya 28:02

It's good to know where those likely trouble areas are.

Clark 28:05

Yeah, I find that really helpful. If you want to work with a broken system, you can have tons and tons of fun doing that. But you want to do it on purpose is my point.

Moiya 28:13

Yes. Okay. So you test your system. And then what's last?

Clark 28:17

So stage seven, I make some people mad at this point iteration, you need to go back and do it again because you've gone through, you found these breaks, you now need to go back, revisit your inspiration, see if it's where you want it to be, or if that's changed, generate more ideas around problems you found or maybe it's not quite the direction, you want to go, realign it, redefine it, re-restrict it, retest it. And you don't necessarily have to go in that order. But you need to do some repeating, you need to do some iteration.

Moiya 28:48

That makes sense to me.

Clark 28:49

Yeah. Our books aren't good on the first draft, our magic systems aren't going to be either.

Moiya 28:54

When I teach people about worldbuilding, I have never made it this explicit. But now I think I might steal this a little bit. I say that at the end, you have to go back once you define the environment, biology and culture, those will influence each other, so you have to cycle through again. I like this as the seventh step.

Clark 29:13

I'm glad. Yeah. I like the seven stages, because when I hit them, I'm like, "Oh, I'm gonna apply this to everything now!"

Moiya 29:19

Yes, the last stage of everything you ever do should always be iteration.

Clark 29:24

Well, in general, I go through the inspiration, idea generation, the alignment... I go through all of it. Where's it coming from? What could it be? What do I need it to be? And all that stuff.

Moiya 29:34

I love that.

Clark 29:35

So that's the seven stages. That's one way that we could work through magic system.

Moiya 29:39

There's another?

Clark 29:39

Yeah. So this is if you want to get to a complete magic system where you have everything mapped out. Like you have all the rules written down, you have all the details to the level of granularity that you need as a storyteller. The other way that we can go about it is at a much higher, more holistic level where we get a general sense of how the magic functions in general, and how that helps it fit into the world and the story around it.

Moiya 30:07

Interesting. What are the pros and cons of each of these strategies? When would you want to use each of them?

Clark 30:12

Most of the time, I start with the holistic approach, because that leaves me the least tied down, but with a lot of stuff figured out, and generally helps spur a whole lot of new ideas because I get to the point where I'm like, "okay, it works roughly like this. Now, here are all of the cool directions that I could take that." The seven stages are what I go through when I need a magic system to use in my story. So I have to go through the seven stages to have a complete system to actually write with. If I'm just brainstorming and having fun, I usually go with the higher level holistic one.

Moiya 30:48

Okay, let's do that one.

Clark 30:50

All right.

Moiya 30:51

All right. Well, first, let's take a little break to hear from our sponsors. And then we'll come back and actually build out a little magic system based on a world that we are about to build on Exolore.

Moiya 31:04

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Moiya 32:03

If you like my worldbuilding work, if you are enjoying Exolore, and you want to support it, a great way to do that is by joining my Patreon. And speaking of Patreon, I want to thank my new center level patron Brianna, or Brianna for joining the team. Welcome Brianna. And thank you for your support. Patrons do get some perks like early access to episodes and you get to see my research notes which I guess are post hoc research notes for different episodes, and I'm adding benefits over time as I learn more about what Exolore is, and what it can be. Your monthly recurring support on Patreon would help me do things like pay my editor and eventually get to pay my guests and just keep the lights on here at Exolore. So if you are inclined and able, I would love for you to go to "", and see whatever you can give. Welcome back. I am so excited to build this system. Well I guess first we should say like what's the seed? What's the inspiration here for the magic system of this world? Or is that not how the holistic approach starts?

Clark 33:13

That is definitely how it starts, at least for me, I always need what I call the "seed crystal" first. Chemists what they do in labs is they'll start with a little tiny moat to grow seeds off of because they actually need a substrate to grow. And that allows them to grow higher purity crystals faster. So anyway, seed crystal random chemistry stuff that you probably didn't need.

Moiya 33:33

No, I love that you bring in the chemistry side of your expertise. That's awesome. Okay, so the seed for this magic system is a characteristic of a world that we're going to be building in the next episode, listeners. And it's a world where the night sky is pretty much always changing. So it's a world that's in a part of the galaxy with higher stellar density. So there are a lot more stars around. And every year as you return to the same point in your orbit, the constellations are different. So it's just different constellations every year, or I guess technically every season as you're moving around your sun.

Clark 34:10

Cool. Okay, so at this point, it's not on the image I'm showing you, but you generally need to spend a little time daydreaming so you have a vague idea of where stuff is going. I had a couple of thoughts since you sent me that seed crystal, I wanted to see what you thought and we can latch on to one and sort of run with it.

Moiya 34:29


Clark 34:30

So if that changing sky is the seed crystal, I most definitely think that we should build it so that the magic is related to the sky. Like to the point where maybe the powers that people have, change depending on the constellations that are in the sky, so the moving of the astral bodies actually affects the magic system.

Moiya 34:51

I love that. Yeah, and this world would still have a moon like we do. So the moon phases will be the same.

Clark 34:57

Oh, that's perfect.

Moiya 34:58

But the constellations will change.

Clark 34:59

That's perfect, because then you can have a stable core that is the moon magic. And then you'll have all these peripherals that can be changing throughout the seasons and years that are going to be the constellation magics.

Moiya 35:11

Okay, awesome. I love this.

Clark 35:12

Cool. Yeah, this is already great. So that is the seed crystal. So what I'm showing you this is the tool that I built up. It is called the magic system blueprint And it has all of these universal properties that exist across all magic systems, laid out as a kind of dashboard or almost soundboard.

Moiya 35:32

Yeah, there are little dials here that you can twist for different magical system characteristics, I guess.

Clark 35:38

Yeah. And sliders so that you can move it from low to high depending on what variable you're looking at. That's my current work in progress. This is what I have been obsessed with for like over a year now and has been like, I think about a decade in the making as I slowly pieced this stuff together.

Moiya 35:54

Oh, wow. Congratulations. It looks awesome.

Clark 35:56

Thank you. I'm really excited. My plan is to have this out in October or November of 2021. So anyway, that's what we're looking at, we talked a little bit about perspective, the easiest perspective to adopt initially is usually that of the Creator, because that's us. If we wanted to push, we could try and pick a specific character or the audience. But since we don't currently know the story that we're going to tell, and we don't have any characters built out, it's probably going to be easiest to approach it from the Creator perspective.

Moiya 36:29

Awesome, because for the worlds that we build, I typically don't have stories in mind for them. I like to imagine it as a world sandbox.

Clark 36:37

Right. And since we don't have the world yet, the easiest way to make sort of like a setting agnostic magic system, is to do the creator perspective. If we had done the world, like you had done with some of the others, like with the migratory bird people, we could have focused on one of the cultures like the the pole birds that did the migration, we could have tried to build out the magic system from their perspective.

Moiya 37:00

Okay. Well, yeah, we'll build it from ours.

Clark 37:02

Yeah. So the first part really is the types of magic that we talked about. We have the 2x2. The hard, soft, rational, irrational, so we want to figure out for us, what type of system we want it to be.

Moiya 37:16

My gut response is to say hard rational, because that's what I am most comfortable with. But I want to go a little bit out of my comfort zone today.

Clark 37:24

Okay, I definitely think it's gonna end up rational whether we want it to or not, because it's you and me.

Moiya 37:31

We can make a soft rational system.

Clark 37:33

Okay. Yeah, that sounds good. So some other examples of soft rational systems. Stargate SG-1 is my favorite example.

Moiya 37:39

I just finished watching Stargate SG-1, and I'm a big fan.

Clark 37:42

Have you made it through Atlantis yet?

Moiya 37:44

I just started Atlantis after I finished SG-1. And it's a little bit more of a struggle to get going through that. But I'm holding out at least until Season Two so that I can see a young, wet Jason Momoa.

Clark 37:57

That's fair. I prefer Stargate Atlantis, because it's a bit more fantastical. And there's more elements of horror in there because they're so isolated. But that's a whole other thing. The technology in Stargate is a great example of a soft rational system, because all the pieces function rationally, and we see that the Goa'uld scepters work a specific way and we know the Stargate works a specific way. So then we could be like, "Oh, well, then it probably works this way too" like, even if you go back to the movie Stargate, they had one Stargate address. And then there was just the rationale of like, "oh, if we change the order, it might go to a different place."

Moiya 38:40

But they had to get the cartouche, right. Like when they had to get the map that told them the constellations or the positions.

Clark 38:47

They had to know the order, and then there's the logic of, well, what if the gate on the other side is broken? Well, then it doesn't work. So in it's very rational, but we know so little about what is possible in that universe, that it's still a very soft system.

Moiya 39:03

Got it. And I just want to go on the record saying that I didn't bring Stargate up this time because typically, I'm the one who brings it up in every episode, but this time you did it.

Clark 39:12

No, that was all me. So yeah, it does sound like we want to shoot for a soft rational system. So what that's going to mean for us is we're definitely going to want to understand some of the underlying patterns. I think there's already a bunch there that you have, because of your background Moiya that we're gonna lean heavily on.

Moiya 39:29

Okay, good.

Clark 39:30

To make it softer. That can actually be surprisingly easy. It's all about making the system seem larger than what we know. So as long as we go in being like, "we're focusing in on this piece", and if we were presenting it to an audience as a soft rational system, there would also be the addemdums of sprinkling some stuff around to show that there's more beyond what they've seen. [That's] stuff that doesn't make sense stuff. That's bizarre. Again, going back to Stargate, hints of the other races and other types of technology. That's all how they made it feel like humans were just like a tiny piece in this bigger universe. That's kind of what we need. And as a creator, it's as simple as saying, "what I'm building now is not the entire thing." It's just saying, "I can come back later and add a whole piece onto it."

Moiya 40:16

I love that.

Clark 40:17

So those are the types of magic. First two variables that we really want to consider -- this is where we're getting into the sliders -- is "transference" and "prevalence". Prevalence is the age old question of who can use the magic? More specifically, it's about how common it is, or just how prevalent it is from that given perspective. So as a reader, it would be like, how often do we see it in the story? As a person in the world, how often do I see it in the world around me? Us as the creators, it's us taking a high look at the universe or the setting, that we're building the world that we're building, and trying to get a feel for how common and ubiquitous this magic is going to be throughout that setting.

Moiya 41:02

Yeah, cuz I can imagine a world where everyone is a magic user, that's a very different world from one where it's a small fraction of the population using magic,

Clark 41:10

Right, and the return is something you had said before. All of these things can change over time, when you map out the blueprint, you were taking a snapshot of your magic system from a specific viewpoint at a specific point in time. And there's cool stuff you can do with that, because you could start with high prevalence system and then over the series make it a low prevalence system, because the whole point of the series is that the magic users are being hunted down to extinction.

Moiya 41:39

Is it really just a matter of choosing in this order prevalence first, and then transference?

Clark 41:45

You can really go whatever order you want. In the blueprint, I placed them at the top, because these are the more common things that will help give you the most information, the fastest, the type of magic will tell you the most of generally, how it's going to function and how much you're going to need to figure out that kind of stuff. Prevalence is going to tell you a lot about how you would need to craft your story and that kind of thing. And it really is just a matter of picking like somewhere between low and high.

Moiya 42:08

Okay. So for prevalence, I would love it if only people born under a certain moon phase could use the magic like if you're born during a full moon.

Clark 42:22

Okay, what about other astrological events? Are there other events that could happen that would also give people magical abilities? Or is it entirely moon based?

Moiya 42:32

Maybe eclipses also - which are related to the moon. Yeah, so I think maybe I'm just thinking of a system that is grounded or rooted in moon phases.

Clark 42:45

Okay, if you remember the seven stages, were sort of going all over the place with this, but that's fine, because the blueprint is to get this high level sense, and then you go through the seven stages to really hash it out.

Moiya 42:55


Clark 42:55

But like one of the ideas that's triggering is what if it's all about like the shadow of the moon, or the shadow cast on the moon? So maybe it's new moons and eclipses? So [maybe] when light is being blocked, or something like that. I don't know. That is a structure we could build up, but it sounds like that is going to be either medium low or low prevalence.

Moiya 43:16

Yes. If it's just full moon, then it's like, 128-130.

Clark 43:22

Yeah, it would depend on how much flex there is outside that true Full Moon.

Moiya 43:26

I'm also imagining [that] if people catch on to this, then maybe there are movements to try and have children on certain days. Like try and line it up.

Clark 43:35

Moon is full, induce labor.

Moiya 43:39

Yeah, to artificially bump up that ratio.

Clark 43:41

Yeah, that is great because that is a fantastic segue back into transference because transference is all about how easy it is to gain or lose the power. Simply put, it is the transference - the transferability of the magic to and from users. So how easy is it for somebody to gain magical powers? How easy is it to lose it? Can one person give their magical powers to somebody else? It's taking this core ability and passing it around. So technology tends to be high transference. We go back to "Stargate", the cloaking devices and all of that, that's stuff that you hand it off, and anybody who owns it can do it. Whereas a lot of your standard stuff like "Harry Potter" is low transference, because you're either born with it or you're not.

Moiya 44:29

Right. Okay.

Clark 44:31

So I guess the question for you is, aside from being born with it, is it possible to lose your magic? And is it possible to gain it later? Or like steal it from somebody else?

Moiya 44:45

I want to say yes, just because I like when there are nefarious deeds. I want people to be able to steal magic.

Clark 44:51

Okay, maybe that's what the eclipse is.

Moiya 44:54

Yeah, maybe with the eclipse [there's] a combination of an eclipse happening and like a moonstone type of thing. I like when physical objects can hold magic, and then be transferred.

Clark 45:05

Okay, yeah, so the eclipses are going to be really rare and really location dependent. So if that's the only way to transfer it is to be born with it or go through one of these like, incredibly difficult processes, then we're still looking at a low transference system.

Moiya 45:21

Yes. Okay, so low transference, low prevalence system.

Clark 45:26

Okay, so then next is flux. So we talked about prevalence, I should have gone 1-2, 1-2, but that's fine. So we know what prevalence is, flux is the change in prevalence over time. So is the prevalence of the magic increasing, decreasing or staying the same?

Moiya 45:44

I mean, how often there's a full moon, that's not going to be changing over time.

Clark 45:48

Right, but you were saying that there might be artificial ways for people to do that, does that actually work? If it doesn't, like if it is something where it's a combination of predetermined fate of when your true birth date would have been, then they have no control over it. So a thing about flux is you you define the boundary you're looking at entirely has to do with the amount entering and leaving. So you can have a neutral flux while stuff is leaving as long as more as entering at the same rate. So if our population is stable, and birthing patterns have not changed at all, it's likely to be a neutral flux, if people can artificially scan the system and are figuring out like, "oh, if we induce labor on these days, within these hours, it increases chances of having magic and the strength of magic," flux is likely to be positive, as society as a whole is doing more to generate more of these magic users or generate less depending on how they feel about the magic.

Moiya 46:46

Can I throw a little wrench in here?

Clark 46:49

Do it.

Moiya 46:51

I would love for there to be positive flux. So over time, people are realizing that if you have a baby on the full moon that they have magic, but I would like the magic to get weaker, the more people there are who have it.

Clark 47:05

Okay. The way I would look at that is as creators, That actually sounds neutral, because it sounds like you're talking about a total quantity of magic that is remaining constant and just becoming dilute.

Moiya 47:17


Clark 47:17

Now, if we jumped to a nation perspective, flux would be positive, because they have more magic users every year. If we jump to an individual perspective, it might be neutral, or positive or negative, depending on whether they gain, lose or keep their powers as they grow older and go through different stages of life. So perspective is so important. Honestly, that's one of the things I figured out while working on this, and it's probably the most useful thing of the whole blue print.

Moiya 47:45

Yeah, it is a really helpful lens to think about this with.

Clark 47:49

It really clears some things up because usually, that's where a lot of the confusion comes in. People [would be] like, well, what about the reader? What about the magic user? How do I reconcile those? Look at it one at a time, and that'll help. Okay, so it sounds like we have neutral flux as a creator, as a setting as a whole, but probably on a nation and family level, we're probably looking at positive flux. So the next one you have is source, so this is all about where the magic comes from, specifically how the power flows from its origin into the generation of the magical effect. I'm not necessarily saying like "oh it was gifted to them by gods." I mean, when I use it, is the magic from within me, is it from outside of me and I draw it in shape it and then create a magical effect. What do I do? So one aspect is internal versus external. So when people are using their celestial magic, like their sky magic, are they drawing power from the sky? Or is this an internal reserve?

Moiya 48:50

[The] sky.

Clark 48:51

Sky, okay. So external source. The next piece of that is whether that source is finite, infinite, or renewable, and the amount of power it has.

Moiya 49:03

I think, because I just said I want the people to get less powerful if there are more magic wielders, I think that would imply that the source is finite.

Clark 49:12

So it could be, so finite would be like dealing with fossil fuels or rare minerals, right, the more you use them and burn them up, the reserve is dwindling. You may start with such a large reserve that you don't notice it. But if it's finite, that means that the magic could eventually run out.

Moiya 49:31

Oh, I don't want that. No. So the moon will continue to be there? Maybe I should just take out the dilution bit.

Clark 49:38

No, the dilution bit and the amount of power in the well are two different things. So the strength of the magic that people have, that is decreasing over time as it is being distributed. Like if you think of it as a well of water, they're casting the water over a larger area of land, so the water saturation overall is lower. Same amount of water, but you're wanting to well to either be infinite, like people can just keep drawing from it as long as they need or it can drain but then if you give it time it will refill.

Moiya 50:10

Okay, then I'll say infinite because the moon and the stars, they're going to be there.

Clark 50:15

And the main way that plays out is going to be like in your stories, whether people can be put in a pinch where their magic runs dry, or all of a sudden they're not able to do it and they have to wait or they have to complete some kind of ritual. That's really where renewable and finite come into play. If you just want them doing their magic anytime they want to do their magic infinite is the way to go.

Moiya 50:35

Okay. Yes, then infinite.

Clark 50:36

All right. So naturalness. I think I know where this is gonna go, but this has to do with how natural and cohesive it feels with the rest of the world around it. So if it feels like a natural extension of the world, you have high naturalness. Technology often is going to be lower naturalness, because it doesn't feel right. Cthulhu level stuff, Lovecraftian stuff. Very low naturalness because that's the point is it's uncomprehensable, and not of this world.

Moiya 51:07

Got it? So this magic system because it's based on nature is high naturalness.

Clark 51:14

That's what it sounds like. Yeah. Okay. So then you have ease of use. This is a little bit into the specific users. But just in general, if you're born with the magic, how difficult is it to start using the magic? Does it require years of education, special materials, really meticulous and specific gestures and articulation of words? Or is it just, "I wanted to do thing and it did a thing"?

Moiya 51:38

Yeah. My gut is telling me that there are some things that everyone can do like innately like they just understand how to do it. But there are other things that require knowledge and training. So since this is a system that's based on the motion of the moon, and on these constellations, I would love it if you got more access to your powers as you learned more about the motion of these celestial objects.

Clark 52:09

Okay, let's put that at medium to medium low for now, because one of the last two is going to be really fun. Second to last you have reliability. How much can somebody using the magic rely on it to do what they want? When they want? Does it have random effects? Does it break? Does it just randomly be like, "well, it didn't work today? What are we gonna do?"

Moiya 52:32

Yeah, I think all of those, because the way I'm envisioning this is that you have to understand where the moon is in relation to the changing constellations. And so, if there's not the right alignment, or if you have it wrong in your head, then the magic won't work in the way that you want it to.

Clark 52:53

Okay. So it sounds like initially, it's actually going to be low reliability, because people can try it, but at first, especially when people are first getting the magic, they're not really going to know whether it's going to work until they try it, which there's an interesting relationship between the hardness of a magic system, the rationality of a magic system, and the reliability. In general, the more you know, the more we begin to rationalize it as humans, the more we rationalize it, the more effective we are at using it in the right way and making it more reliable. They aren't dependent on each other, but they do influence each other.

Moiya 53:26

That makes sense.

Clark 53:27

A lot of these influence each other in fun ways. So low to medium low reliability changing as civilization becomes more advanced, or a specific character learns more about the important factors.

Moiya 53:39

I like this having low reliability, and that some things are very easy to use, because I like the idea of people accidentally using magic that goes horribly wrong, when they're first starting out. I guess, if it's based on when you're born, you'll know if you have magic.

Clark 53:58

So that brings us to the last one, which is consistency, it may seem like that is a duplicate of reliability. But consistency is not talking about the consistency of the magic itself, so to speak. It is talking about the consistency of all your other variables. So we said transference was low, how consistent is that? Is it consistently low? Or is there some flux where some cases it's a little higher? You just said you wanted there to be some wiggle room and reliability, so we know that consistency for reliability is not super high. If you think of it in terms of margins of error with data, that's what consistency is.

Moiya 54:38

What are my error bars?

Clark 54:40


Moiya 54:40

Thank you, that does help. Yeah. So probably consistently low transference. There are only a couple of ways to get and transfer this magic. The prevalence does change over time. So that's like mid consistency.

Clark 54:56

So again, we don't want to look at over time. We just want to look at a snapshot. In general, without going through one at a time, what would you say the size of the error bars on all the other variables are? Are they large error bars? Small, Medium?

Moiya 55:11


Clark 55:12

Okay, so our consistency for the system is medium. So that's the blueprint. And I hope it makes sense now what I meant with this being a holistic sense of how it's going to function in the world, and we haven't actually defined anything about the magic system.

Moiya 55:29

That's true. We haven't. But no, it really does help to go through this exercise. I love the way that you put it as sliders or as dials, because if you slide one thing like that will not directly control how you have to define other characteristics, but it will influence it.

Clark 55:49

Yeah. And that's why I like starting here, if I'm just brainstorming, or just quickly generating one, because this tells me so much about how it can show up in stories and in the world around it, and how the characters are going to have to behave with it. Because with the low reliability, they're not going to storm a keep with the magic being the key factor. They're just not, that would be a bad idea.

Moiya 56:10

Unless you have someone who's like very experienced and powerful/

Clark 56:14

Yeah, which then in itself would be a major plot point. So this is the point where we would jump over to the seven stages, and really start working through all of the details.

Moiya 56:26

I think it might be a good idea to stop here and have you back on the show for part two, where we can dig deeper into this magic system after I actually build the world with this ever changing night sky.

Clark 56:36

I would be totally down for that.

Moiya 56:38

But until you come back, how can the listeners learn more about you, Clark and the work that you're doing? Where can they find you on the interwebs?

Clark 56:45

Of course, yeah, cuz I would love to be back. This has been great. So the best place to find me is through my website, I have a contact page, you can email me. I love hearing from people. I am currently in the process of abandoning Twitter and Facebook and moving over to Pinterest and Instagram. So you can watch for me on all of those places as "the magic engineer", you can also find me on Youtube with the channel, "the magic engineer." And that's where I'm going to be posting monthly videos about magic systems.

Moiya 57:19

Oh, that's so exciting.

Clark 57:21

I'm really excited about my book that's going to be coming out. I'm even looking at doing a kickstarter campaign around August to help recuperate some of the costs because publishing is expensive when you're doing it independently.

Moiya 57:33

Facts. Awesome. Okay, well, I'll include the links in the show notes to your website and your socials and your YouTube channel. And can we pre order your book anywhere?

Clark 57:41

Not yet. At the time of recording this. It's currently out with beta readers.

Moiya 57:46

Got it. Well, good luck in the beta reading process. I am sure that's an interesting sequence of steps to go through. Thank you so much for building this proto magic system with me. I'm excited to have you back to really flesh out the rest of it.

Clark 58:03

It was a blast being here, so thank you for having me.

Moiya 58:08

This episode of Exolore was edited by Mischa Stanton, the cover art is by Steven J. Reisig. The transcript is by Iesir Moss, and the music is from Exolore is a member of Multitude Productions, an independent podcast collective and production studio. I highly recommend checking out the other Multitude shows, all you have to do is type "Multitude" into the search bar of your favorite podcast app. If you want to support me and my worldbuilding work, the first way to do that is to rate and review the show on Apple podcasts. It's free, you don't need any sort of Apple device and it really does make a difference and help the show grow. Second, you can support me on Patreon. Your monthly support would make it possible for me to continue working on this passion project of mine. So if you're able, please head on over to", again that's x o l o r e p o d. If you can, be sure to follow Exolore on Twitter or Instagram @exolorepod, and if you like this episode, share it with your friends and subscribe to the show because that way you can catch me next time on another world.

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