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 crrowenson.com, and check out his Youtube channel.
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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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
Not quite yet. I'd like to learn a little bit more about you before we get into the process side of things.
See, I'm already just like magic.
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?
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".
Oh, what's that? I haven't heard of it.
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.
Got it. [It's] not for the faint of heart.
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.
Pathfinder, the game?
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.
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?
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."
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?"
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
Yeah, it helps a lot.
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.
Yeah, it's a good book. I don't have it handy.
I love little micro histories like that.
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.
Oh, there's something really beautiful in that. Do you remember where in the world that happened?
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.
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.
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 -
Get into details, please.
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.
There's a quadrant, the other access is, I call it "rational" and "irrational".
Oh, I love a 2x2.
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.
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.
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?
Absolutely. So with hard and soft magic systems, it's all about how much of the magic system is known or understood.
By the audience or by the people who practice it?
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.
Oh, sneak peek.
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.
Okay. And that can change over the course of a single book, or movie or project or whatever, as long as you define it?
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.
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.
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.
Do you have any examples of that because I am not that familiar with Harry Potter.
So one of the classic examples is the time turner in the third book - spoilers.
This is a spoiler friendly podcast, it's fine.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Oh, you're so kind. That's nice.
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.
Pretty much all of Brandon Sanderson's stuff I love it to death.
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.
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.
Prime soft-irrational. Okay.
I also really enjoyed, [and] I need to reread it actually, Uprooted by Naomi Novik is such a good book.
I read that.
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.
All right. I feel like I have this magic system primer, ready to learn about your steps, if you're ready?
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.
Okay, I am ready, I can rein you in, I promise.
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."
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?"
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."
You know, no one has told me that there were zero special powers from COVID. Okay, so stage one inspiration.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
Yeah, as evidenced by my little giggle, right.
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.
Yeah, we don't want that.
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.
Yeah, doing what you can to make the magic support the story and the characters and themes and all that stuff.
What's stage four?
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.
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.
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.
Yeah, love it.
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.
I have a feeling I'm gonna love stage five, when we get to it.
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..."
But, yes. I feel like the Superman people who like came up with Superman could have spent more time in stage five.
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.
Oh, well, one brief moment of clarity.
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.
So stage six, is my personal favorite.
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.
Just having fun?
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?"
Oh, okay. So like testing the bounds.
Stress testing. Yeah.
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,
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.
Why would having more godlike characters break the system?
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.
I mean, Jeff Bezos is like basically a god.
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.
It's good to know where those likely trouble areas are.
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.
Yes. Okay. So you test your system. And then what's last?
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.
That makes sense to me.
Yeah. Our books aren't good on the first draft, our magic systems aren't going to be either.
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.