S2E07: Magic Systems Pt 2 with Clark Rowenson
C.R. Rowenson is back to finish the magic system we started. We talk about runic magic systems, the recent supernova shortage in the Milky Way, and how Sky High is an underrated superhero movie.
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. If you'd like to support Clark's book/worksheet (and get early access to the book when it's done!) check out his crowdfunding campaign here.
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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. Let's just jump right in, Clark, it's part two.
I'm excited to be back.
Yeah, this is my first Part Two episode - I think so.
Well, I'm flattered. That's awesome.
Well, it's just that we had so much to cover in the first one. And I didn't want to leave the audience hanging without a fully formed magic system.
And I will try and keep it brief, because otherwise, I'll keep you like working on it for a while.
Right, and I think we should probably say up top, we're not going to make a complete magic system in two hours over the two parts. But we will, I think, give enough detail that maybe the listeners will have some food for thought they can do some fun expansions of the magic system on their own. In the last episode, we went through your blueprint, the kind of high level more general ideation of the magic system. And now we're going to go through your seven stages to try and get more of the details worked out.
Awesome. So for those who didn't listen to the first episode, first of all, what are you doing? Go back and listen to the first episode; [and] second, you know, just in case, it's been a while and you don't want to listen to the whole thing again, Clark, who are you? What do you do? Why are you here?
Yeah, well, I am CR Rowenson. I am a developmental editor and a freelancing writing coach. Right now, [I] focus on nonfiction that is entirely centered on helping creatives craft and repair marvelous magic systems for their stories. And honestly, I don't care if you're a novelist, a graphic novel designer, a game designer, whatever. If you have magic, I'm down.
And what do you consider magic?
Magic is anything that allows actions or capability beyond our current understanding, or our own current capabilities. So that does include advanced tech, monsters, strange biology, and your more traditional magic.
Got it. I love that because any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic anyway.
Yes. And any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from technology.
That's a nice corollary.
Yeah, I found that on a webcomic called "Girl Genius", which is great. I call that "Agatha's law", because that was the character who said it.
I love that. I'll look that up later. But I wanted to summarize briefly what we covered in the last episode, and also in the worldbuilding episode that is relevant to this discussion. So we, together are building a magic system [that's] set on a world with an ever changing night sky, which we just recorded with Dr. Lauren Esposito, we imagined a planet full of these giant arachnids, that I imagined them as being like three feet tall, like puppy sized tarantulas, pretty much and they live in caves, and they're very social, they crave physical touch, I imagine them as very emotional. So I would love in our magic system if a lot of emotions were important, or if they were incorporated somehow. Although, this is just like expansive thought. So that's the life form we're dealing with. The magic system from the top down, like the very general overview that we did in Part One, it's a soft, rational magic system. Clark, do you want to explain what that means?
Yeah, so the short version, soft and hard magic is how much of the system is known or understood. So because it's a "soft system", we're going into this with the understanding that whatever we develop is just going to be a piece of a much larger hole, much like you see in Stargate, for example. Or even in Harry Potter, where we see some of it and we know it's not the whole world or even Harry Dresden. That's a great example of that. The rational-irrational [axis] is all about what you can do with the information you have. If you can take the pieces you've seen and use it to extrapolate and use logic to progress forward and predict and understand parts of the system, it's rational. If you can't do that, it's irrational. And none of these are better than the others. But we're kind of going with [the] soft-rational one because between a doctor who studies exoplanets and a chemical engineer, I don't think we can avoid it being rational.
So [we have] a soft rational system. I love your term, the seed crystal, this core idea of the magic system. For us, that's this constantly changing night sky. This changing constellation that you have every season and also every year, which is the real difference between this world and ours, we went through your blueprint system. And so I'm just gonna say what we decided so that we have that fresh in our minds. So we decided it's a low prevalence system. So there aren't a lot of people who can use magic, [and] that it's a low transference system. And please correct me if I'm wrong, but it will help me to go through and interpret what we said, a low transference system [makes] it possible to trade magic or for magic to go from one person to another. But it's difficult and it doesn't happen very often.
Stealing magic, yes. Because you know, not everyone in this world is going to be a good spider person, we decided there would be neutral flux. So there's the same amount of magic overall being used. And I remember we had a discussion about, well, from the creator's perspective, it's neutral. But maybe from the magic users perspective, it feels like positive flux, because there are more magic users over time.
And the other piece about that is because in the entire world, the flux is neutral. As it's getting distributed across more people, the individual strength of those people-spiders, is decreasing. So if you looked in history, when there were only 100 magic users, they were much more powerful than the 10,000, or whatever that they had 200 years later.
I'm imagining some consequences of this, where maybe some groups like if they use magic as a defense, or if they incorporate it into their society, then maybe there's a trade off between having lots of not very powerful magic users versus having a few very powerful users.
There's so many societal stuff that could get really messed up [depending on] what you wanted to do.
I love when societies have different values like that, because it is really something where neither one of you is right, but you know that there's probably going to be some clashing between them because they have these different points of view. So neutral flux, we decided that the source of the magic is external. [This] magic comes from the sky - from these constellations that are constantly changing. And because of coming from the sky, the source is infinite, like the stars are always there. It's not something that's going to be depleted. It's a very natural magic system. It's not very easy to use, there are some things that you'll be able to do right away. But to get to the upper levels of this magic system, you will have to go through training or get a lot of experience and that magic use is more reliable for people who have more experience or training and maybe less reliable for people who are just starting out.
Yeah, that matches everything I have. I know some of the other quick things that we had tossed out were magic users are the ones who were born on the day of a full moon, which is part of why it was a low number of people, and the moon and the stars. Like, that's a big part of what the magic is and how it works. And we don't really know any more than that yet.
Right? Yes. And now it's our job to figure that out.
So from the seven stages of creating a magic system, just to run through those real quick, there's INSPIRATION, which is where you find the seed crystal in your core, why your driving idea behind it. Stage two is IDEA GENERATION, where you just make as many random ideas as possible, you want way more ideas than you can use. Stage three is then ALIGNMENT, where you look at what you need your system to be, either from your story, or from the world or from themes or in our case, we're actually going to use the blueprint that we already lined up, and use that to help align any of the ideas. we come up with.
Stage four is DEFINITION, where you start getting into the details of what the magic system can do, building out some of your rules, really picking and choosing the specific magical effects and how it all kind of ties together. Stage five is then RESTRICTIONS where you are putting limitations and setting boundaries on what can be done and how because limitations make for really interesting magic systems. And you can really feel your story if you come up with some good limitations. Number six is TESTING - stress testing, you just try and break your system and find the little ways that can be exploited, abused, overused, extrapolated - loopholes, feedback, loops, all that kind of stuff. And then stage seven is ITERATION where you go back to the beginning and you go through it again as many times as you need to to get to a complete system.
And honestly, does the iteration ever end?
No, and just like with writing or any kind of creative thing, you have to decide when you're getting diminishing returns to [to decide] this is good enough. And that's a whole art in itself.
True. What is that like for you? Do you typically go through a set number of iterations? Or do you just go through as many times as it takes to feel like you're done and what does "done" mean for you?
So those are great questions. And it really is kind of wibbly wobbly, timey wimey stuff, because it comes down to whether you feel comfortable with it or not. So if you get to the end, and you feel that you have enough that you can work through the story, at whatever level you're at, then that's enough. Me, I want a pretty well refined and understood magic system before I actually start building out the plots or the characters or anything, different people work in different ways. So I've had some people I've worked with where we did a first draft of the magic system, we went through all seven stages once then she actually did the first draft of her book. And then we went back and reiterated the magic system before she did draft two of her book. It's really about finding what works for you. And as you get better, I don't always have to go through the entire process again. I can get to where I'm like, "well, I've done the stress testing. And because of what I've seen here, I like all my ideas. I like my inspiration, I like my alignment, all I really need to do is go back to definition and restriction and start tweaking those to patch some of these cracks and holes that I found". So it really depends, some systems will be easier to leave that way. And this is actually one advantage of soft magic systems is you can leave more of that in the air. Because even if you spot a potential problem, you can say, "Well, I never stated that this was the entire system. I tried to make it clear that pieces were missing. So this didn't work the way you expected because of these pieces that are missing". And as the creator, we honestly don't know what those pieces are yet, but the reader doesn't need to know.
I found it really interesting that you said you like to build the magic system before you come up with plot and characters and story. Is there a reason for that?
That just comes down to what I'm drawn to, and really where all of my stuff started. So now we're kind of just getting into the psychology of Clark, which can be a scary place. But everything for me starts with the magic systems. And this is actually an interesting conversation related to the seed crystals. Everything starts with the magic system. For me, I didn't start writing stories. And I didn't start worldbuilding, I started building magic systems. And then I realized nobody wanted to listen to me talk for six hours straight about this magic system, I needed to wrap it in a story. And I started doing that. And I started seeing like, "oh, but this magic is gonna have all of these repercussions and how they handle their technology, how they handle their warfare, how they handle their family units." So everything I do related to fiction has grown out of magic systems. So when I go back to a clean slate, I generally start with magic systems.
That makes a lot of sense. And I think that that's a good lesson for creative people out there. I think that this is a good lesson in start where you're most comfortable and where you're most excited, because I personally like to build worlds and stories and magic systems, when they're relevant - when they're useful. I build them in order of what I think naturally would have happened. Okay, so if it is a magic system that's based on nature, like here, then I think it for me would make sense to build the magic system before the creatures and we did that in this instance. But if it was a magic system that was maybe created by people on the world, then I probably would build the world first and the people and then build a magic system. And so there's no right way to do this, do whatever makes you most comfortable.
And something I just realized that we didn't talk about is when you should start building your magic system. And that also changes, and that relates to the seed crystal. So I had the one person, we did the first draft with magic than the first draft of the story. I've had other people where they needed the first draft of their book before we could even touch the magic.
Do you mean that they needed it because there was a deadline or like personally, they just wanted to have the book in place first?
They had a mental block. We tried to sit down and do the magic system, and no ideas were flowing. And I was trying to give prompts and trying to work because I like helping people and help them discover their magic. That's why through all of this, I'm mostly asking Moiya questions, cuz it's her magic system, and I'm just helping her find it. But it just wasn't working. And it wasn't until we stopped and did the first outline of her book that she was able to then come back and be like, "Oh, I now have all of these ideas for magical effects." And that's actually where the idea for the seed crystal came from. As I realized my seed crystal is always the magic itself. I can build a magic system in a vacuum. Not everybody can do that. [To] some people, it's a character, some people it's their plot. [To] some people, it's part of their world, [and for others], it's a specific conflict. But that's why the seed crystal is so important as it really harkens to who you are, and what you need. Basically, if something has you stuck, then you need to do it a little different[ly], and find what will get you unstuck. That's my whole thing as a writing coach. I don't care what it is, but what are we going to do to get you unstuck? Because that's the most important thing.
Oh, sounds like you're a good writing coach. That's nice. All right, should we go through the seven stages?
Yeah. And let's see what we can do. So for those who are not benefiting from the video feed, I'm sharing a mindmap that I like to use when we're doing this kind of stuff. And when brainstorming, there's so many options, just because of how my brain works. I categorize things and then sub categorize things and then sub categorize things,
Nice, categories all the way down.
Yeah, pretty much. I like to call these the pillars of brainstorming. And there are these large areas that your ideas are going to kind of fall into. And the main ones we've got to deal with right now are going to be the magical effects, themes, like themes and mediums. Like if there's a specific thing you want it to channel through or relate to, or something like that. So like I already kind of put emotion down as something you mentioned.
Yeah, I did. Is this "theme" like in Avatar: The Last Airbender, the magic systems are element themed.
Yeah, it's usually visual or tactile themes, rather than like story, philosophical themes. But you can do that as well. It's just the kind of stuff that you sort of want to resonate throughout, if you want anything. And you can have as many of those, or as few of those as you want. Another one that I really like to pull in is just spending some time pulling up some of your own favorite magic systems and using those as inspiration. And the last one, I just call "really cool hats." And that is anything else related to your magic system, a cool moment, character concept, character conflict. It's just a really cool hat that you might want in your story.
Nice. And now I also just want like actual very cool hats.
For the spiders? Yeah.
Yeah, like, you know, wizards in some folklore here on Earth get to wear really cool hats. I want our magic spider users to have cool hats.
So now is where we just get to cut loose and start coming up with tons of ideas.
I have some. Because they're spiders, and they have eight limbs instead of our four. But really, just to because it's hard to use our feet when we're standing. I am inspired by the magic system in The Magicians, the book series turned TV show on Syfy, where one way to use magic is through making your fingers and hands into very specific shapes. It looks like tutting - the dance style that some people use here where you're like dancing with your hands. And I think that they would just be able to do even more cool stuff with all of their eight legs in that way.
Yeah, that is both a great theme and an awesome example system for your favorite.
And also, I'm inspired by Runic magic systems where you have to channel your magic through intricately detailed drawings or shapes. And they're spiders, so they can make webs. And it would just be really nice if they had to, like use their webs and design certain shapes to get their magic to flow in a certain way.
Okay, cool. Anything else?
I'm wondering what this magic is going to be used for like, they live in caves. They do a lot of architecture within their caves. So I don't know.
So right now -- it's really hard to do -- but at the moment, we want to use the pieces that we have just as inspiration. We don't want to use them as limiters. So if something like that is being like, 'I'm not sure what this is going to do, and maybe that'll cut out these factors." Don't think about that. [Just think], "Okay, if they did do this, here's a whole bunch of things that would be useful or cool." And another thing that I want to point out if you haven't listened to the previous episode, with idea generation, we are going to be trying to generate way more ideas that are going to end up in the final system. So there's gonna be stuff that doesn't jive and doesn't flow together. And that's okay. You actually want a bunch of that because the more you have of that, the more you can intentionally select what you keep.
Okay, then maybe I'll put a time box on this because it's just a pure idea generation, then we could go forever. So let's do like four minutes. And you should also feel free to like add in ideas. This is our magic system, not just mine.
Well, let's see. So I think we're good on themes. Are there any other favorite systems that you really like and they don't even have to be related to this, just some that you really enjoyed?
I do like when magic systems are based on stories, I think the magic system in The Mermaid, the Witch and the Sea was really beautiful in that way. I like when magic systems are based on how much you can control yourself. I don't have an example of this, but just like being able to really manage your emotions and behavior - almost like Vulcan in a way.
Okay. Well, another thing to note is at this phase, especially at this phase, everything is going to feel pretty generic and stupid. And that's okay.
I do feel stupid right now. Yeah.
And that's part of the process. So I like having these little pithy quotes, because they helped me process stuff. Another one that I have is that creativity is in combination and distinction is in the details. So right now, it doesn't need to feel unique, because we're not at that stage yet. So with that in mind, we're going to have some pretty generic effects. Like one of the things that I'm thinking of is enhanced building material, because you did mention building that kind of stuff. So just enhanced and maybe enchanted webs, right.
Yeah, that's nice. Psychic abilities like telepathy and empathy, like the magic version of empathy?
Okay, so I'm going to list those as two different ones, telepathy, and motional control/sharing. So this is an old dying world. So some other stuff that I think would be really important is probably some survival based stuff. So in that we could have things like living without food, without air, some stuff that would just help them survive in some pretty harsh climates.
Yeah, so temperature resistance is a good one.
Something about body control. They do some dancing in their culture, like mating dances, but I think that that can easily extend to just like social dancing. And they'll need to be able to like crawl around these caves. So just like body control, if that makes any sense.
Body control, I'm also going to put in body morphing. Because I imagine that could be really relevant in a number of ways, because you had so many different types of arthropoda listed in this world, like not all of them are just spiders, you had the scorpions and the pseudo-scorpions and that kind of stuff. So doing that morphing could be super advantageous, if you were going into Scorpion lands, and you just wanted to be a scorpion for a while. So that that could be really cool.
Seeing the future, especially since these stars are so unpredictable, it'd be a big advantage if someone could see what's coming.
Oh, I love that because that's a twist on standard astrology type stuff. I am going to put into like, reading someone's soul. You know, just the concept of astrology, right? where you're supposed to be able to look at this piece about when they were born and determine these things about them. I like the idea of that being an effect where somebody can analyze you and be like, "this one here, that is a bad spider".
Yeah, almost like a Minority Report type of thing where you could see who the bad spiders are going to be ahead of time.
Or even if it really was just like peering into the quality of who they are. And being like, "this person is rotten, and I can see why they are and maybe one day, they'll fix it. But right now, it's safer to stay away."
Or maybe we can put policies in place in our society so that they don't have to deal with that struggle, and we as a whole can fix it.
All of that would come from the ability to see that. Other standard stuff - energy projection, which is any of your fireball, ice control [sort] of stuff that is often used more aggressively [like] lightning, that kind of thing [is] always a staple to have in here. You know what would be really cool, is just the ability to make things grow.
That would be cool.
Especially given how old and decaying everything is. That would be super valuable.
Yeah. [That] reminds me of the movie Sky High, and the girl who could make plants grow. I feel that her power was severely underrated. And I'm also thinking because this is like a weird cooled down, probably not very geologically active planet [that] something like in N.K. Jemisin's The Broken Earth trilogy where they can manipulate geological activity.
Yeah, [and] by the way, Sky High is a great movie. Being able to shape shift into a guinea pig way underrated.
All of the sidekicks' powers. I've loved that the point of the movie was to show that these underrated powers are also really cool and can save the day.
So making things grow. Yeah, that's really cool. What other kinds of effects could we do?
It's also been way more than four minutes, it's been about seven, [but] that's fine. Do we want to come up with some really cool hats?
I think we do. And one of the ones that you pointed out that I really liked was [this one and] I apologize for my spelling.
That's okay, they can't see it.
So a societal analysis of the quality of being and collective improvement systems. So kind of like what you had said, of like, this person is getting kind of dark. And it's up to all of us to come together and help nurture and regrow those good parts. I think that's a super cool hat and a really awesome way to end up using the magic system.
Yay. So that's what the hats are for, like, potential consequences, or uses of the magic system
Consequences, character conflicts, really cool moments where it's like. So for example, just a visual of a spider on its back, drawing four sets of glyphs simultaneously. That's just a cool hat. We have no idea what they're doing or anything like that. But that's a cool visual. And it's a cool hat.
Nice. We talked a lot in the worldbuilding episode about interesting [things like] sex relationships between different types of arachnids. And there was just so many different mating rituals. Maybe if you're pregnant, you can tap into some of these powers - they do this in The Magicians too, if you're pregnant, and your child has power, then you can also tap into that power.
Yeah, that was closer to 10 minutes, wasn't it? All right, so we have a lot of stuff. And this is the nice thing about soft magic system is if we wanted, we could keep all of that. There's a bunch of stuff here that kind of clashes with some of the other things, and that's totally fine - with a soft magic system, it makes it easier to do that. Also, with irrational magic systems, it becomes even easier because you don't need any continuity between the different pieces. So that is the idea generation.
I think, on that note, let's take a little break, and then come back and do the alignment.
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Welcome back. I'm interested to see how we do the alignment here because we don't have a story or a character or a plot in mind.
Right, and those are really good time[s] where if you don't know when you need to be building your magic system, and you aren't really sure if you're getting stuck on this, now is a great time to stop and do the first outline of your book, or outline of your story. Just a rough concept of, "I want it to be about the impermanence of all things" or whatever, and that will help you a lot with the alignment. What we do have, is the entire blueprint. So we can look at some of this stuff and see if any of it kind of breaks too far away, feels too far off from the different settings that we had on the blueprint. Which I didn't mention before in case anybody is out there Googling for "The Blueprint", it doesn't currently exist out in the world yet. That is my next book in progress. So please don't Google in frustration as you can't find it.
That's a good note.
Let's see here, we have low prevalence that I don't think really is going to change anything here. We forgot to put something in really cool hats, which is stealing power during an eclipse. High naturalness? I think we've already done a lot of that, because a lot of this ties into who they are and dealing with the natural world. Some of the weirdest things there are the Runic aspects that is going to make it feel less natural and more constructed, unless we want to pull in something where there are these natural patterns that are occurring throughout the world?
Oh, well, there always are. Like the Fibonacci sequence, pi - there are numbers and patterns that do occur.
Another thing we could do, because it is it has some super cool visuals, because I like it. And I'm trying to think of how to word this. So with magic systems, there are patterns that exist in reality that we can match the magic system to. And then we can fabricate patterns that make it feel rational, even though it's completely made up. And I think this is a place we can do that. So what if [with] the Runic system, the runes are the symbols for specific stars?
Oh, yeah, cuz you can tell when stars come back, you can identify individual stars, they might just come back in different patterns.
So in this case, the rune itself isn't natural. But it is something that the society built over who knows how long so that they have a quick association between these symbols and the stars. And that may be enough of a connection. It's one they had to fabricate. But that keeps it natural, where it was very much, man or spider kind, having to impose their will to forge a connection with nature. And I think that works. How do you feel about that?
Yeah, I mean, even if it started as a type of recording system, we talked in the worldbuilding episode about how they moved from the sea to the land, and there was a migration period. And during that time, like maybe they started navigating by the stars, but they would have to write these things down. And with their webs was one of the ways that they recorded the identities of stars.
Yeah, I think that works. That'll allow us to keep the naturalness high, especially this, I'm going to add this in as a cool hat, if the stars that are in the sky, actually impacts the world around them. So if the magic is coming from the star, it would make some sense that we see this star shining, that means these kinds of things are gonna start happening in the world around us.
I love this.
We know it's a good growing season, because that star is there.
Yeah. So one thing that these stars do that we touched on in the worldbuilding episode was that they are emitting radiation. And each one has - maybe not totally, but almost unique signature of the radiation that they're emitting. And spiders and scorpions, arachnids, because they molt, they're really good at withstanding this radiation.
And that can easily be also pseudo magical radiation, which is part of what is going on there. I'm actually really digging that because then they would have the runes where they'd be like, "okay, these are what's in the sky. We know from our old records that these are going to be sticking around for at least a couple months. Which means we need to plant food now".
Yes. Oh, and another really cool hat. We talked about when they molt, they go through this special secret spa like ritual to dispose of their old exoskeleton. And I remember reading this book about djinn when I was younger, like genies, but like djinn, and parts of your body hold your essence. And so if other people catch, or like, get ahold of parts of your body, they can control you through magic, but they have really careful destruction rituals for their exoskeletons, maybe in part because they don't want other people to be able to use those for bad.
And what's happening now is is very natural, where you want to start with as many ideas as possible. But as you're going through the other stuff, new stuff is going to come up. So I outline it as seven stages. But it's a web, you're jumping here and there and all over the place. It's just important.
Oh, yeah, it is now, especially when you're starting out it's important to try and focus and be deliberate. But as you get better at doing this, you can jump over because you'll understand like, "oh, I'm building a limitation real quick. I'm just going to drop it in this bucket over here for when I get there." So yeah, I really like that. I think we're actually in line with the rest of this - medium ease of use. It sounds like there's going to be some factors in terms of the phase of the moon, which stars are in the sky ,when you were born, which is going to be which powers you naturally have in which runes, you know. So that altogether, is gonna make it pretty complex to do things that you want. Low reliability, I think we can manage. So I'm just gonna, [write these] under themes, this is something that had been niggling in the back of my head is just the idea that the stars and the sky impact what magic can be performed at a given time?
Yeah, that's what I had in mind at first.