Wiscon Day 2: Designing a Magic System Panel

Panelists: Gregory Rihn, Alex Bledsoe, Kater Cheek, Catherine Krahe, Elizabeth Bear

One liner: Writers and readers talk about what they like and don’t like regarding magical design.

The panel began with examples of magic systems that didn’t work for the panelists. Several authors were mentioned, among them J.K. Rowling, Mercedes Lackey, George Lucas, and Gary Gygax. A particularly entertaining moment was Alex Bledsoe’s description of the Force from mystic belief to scientific nanotech.

Kater was an advocate of magic needing to cost something. The panelists went back and forth on this. There was also some discussion on how magic affects the society around you, the relationships you have, and the consequences of magic in every society.

Kater preferred explanations of how a magical system worked. Cassie thought you could still have rational magic without explanation. Bear added that gaming magic has to be fair, but fictional magic does not.

Magic was broken down into several possible subsets:

Magic as a skill.
Magic as energy.
Magic from the gods.
Magic as technology.

Some discussion ensured about magic thwarting physics, or magic and the technological divide. An example was used of a match as technology not working in a magical world, and how that violated thermodynamics, which would then cause all sorts of trouble in the universe. The panelists had no problem mashing magic vresus technology.

Alex raised the issue of the role of the magician in the society. Cassie asked what is magic used for in the society. Kater pointed out that in some books magic isn’t the same in all parts of a country. Also, what do the gods get out of magic, if anything?

Some other vital questions:

Does magic slow the development of technology?
If you are learning magic, what are you not learning?
How does the introduction of a new magic change a society?
Is magic aristocratic or hierarchical? Who is magic for?

Suggestions of trying to make magic different from the stream or conduit paradigm were encouraged.

Author: Catherine Schaff-Stump

Catherine Schaff-Stump writes fiction for children and young adults. Her most recent book, The Vessel of Ra, is the first book in the Klaereon Scroll series. She is currently working on its sequel, as well as penning the middle grade adventures of Abigail Rath, monster hunter.

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