Magic Monday Dispatches No 2: A Few Good Fantasy Worldbuilding Terms

To kick off my Magic Monday Dispatches, I talked a little bit about the definition of magic and offered twenty questions to help you worldbuild.

Today, I want to introduce a few worldbuilding terms I use to help you think more deeply about the magic in your fantasy world.

Ability: In this case, the skills and knowledge a practitioner possesses to perform magic.

Area of Effect: Or range of effect. When a spell is performed, all characters within range will suffer its effects. This is used a lot in fantasy roleplaying games, but it’s also useful if you’re thinking about ways to limit your magic.

Backlash: In this instance, an undesirable result caused by the spell. A type of failure. The spell could have been: the wrong incantation, performed poorly, interfered with, had the wrong components, defended against, etc.

Cost: I’m sure you’ve heard the words “magic must have a price” before. The cost of doing magic implies something that must be spent in order to influence the natural world. Costs can be scalable to complement a spell’s complexity and relay rarity or potency. A spell to summon a pixie might have more common components than one to hail a fairy queen, for example. Typically, the cost of performing magic becomes more complicated when types (or schools) of magic are added. Having necromancy and creation magic in the same setting, for example, might generate directly opposing costs and ritual requirements that include time of day, dried herbs or flowers, crystals, candles, animal/body parts, blood, etc.

When there’s no consequence or cost to using magic, then the scale of effect is harder for the reader to place. In these situations, the magic presents itself as limitless and the only thing stopping practitioners from significantly changing their environment is moral fiber.

Effect: Or consequence. The effect is simply what happens when the spell is performed.

Frequency: How often magic is performed and by whom. The frequency of spells performed can contribute to a backlash or it can stretch the practitioner’s limits.

Limit: A limit can mean 1) the maximum exertion a practitioner can extend for a spell or period of time. 2) the limit of what the magic system can do. Or 3) The number of magic practitioners able to perform magic. Building limits into a magic system is a good idea, but often we see a system holds infinite power but can only be accessed by literate characters or those with the proper blood/parentage. There are other ways to add limits without tapping into a user’s genetic makeup by introducing an element of time. Celestial events, time of day, age of ritual components, etc. are natural limits to performing magic because they are recurring states or access points. These limits force the player to conserve the use of magic until replenished. The mage must find new ingredients. The wizard must wait until the next full moon.

Magic System: Also known as a “school” of magic. A set of magical spells and rituals around a common theme. Fire, Water, Air, Earth, Solar, Lunar, Birth, Death, etc. Most magic systems that possess schools have more than one.

Scale of Effect: Or, magical potency. The scale of effect typically shows how powerful the practitioner (or their spell/components) is. A magician who can summon a thunderstorm steamrolls any character who can only conjure a glass of water. The reason why magic often has an associated price (or cost) is to limit its usage which reduces the frequency of magical effect.

Source: Magic can be found in sunlight, moonlight, earth, fire, water, air, metal, blood, words, etc. The scale of effect, limit, and cost can naturally stem from any of these, because the sources themselves aren’t limitless. Daylight doesn’t shine for twenty-four hours; a cloudy sky could spell disaster. The source of magic can be renewable (sunlight) or finite (crystal).



Monica Valentinelli is a writer, editor, and game developer. Her portfolio includes stories, games, comics, essays, and pop culture books.

In addition to her own worlds, she has worked on a number of different properties including Firefly, Vampire: the Masquerade, Shadowrun, Hunter: the Vigil, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, and Robert E. Howard’s Conan.

Looking for Monica’s books and games that are still in print? Visit Monica Valentinelli on Amazon’s Author Central or a bookstore and game store near you.

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