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    Entropy impacts your fantasy world

    Entropy infects all systems. Things wear down, and either collapse or shake apart into new configurations.

    Fantasy worlds are divided into a series of ages, where myths are split apart from legends and history. They might look like this Middle-Earth inspired history (at least my high school D&D campaign world did):

    • First Age – Gods walk the earth, or make the world. Evil gods are dealt with or bound.
    • Second Age – The great civilizations flourish, items of remarkable power of crafted and legendary battles occur. Famous institutions like kingdoms, and bloodlines are established.
    • Third Age – Not as epic, as the first or second age. The hero grows up on a farm or distant location and learns about the age of magic. Perhaps they’ll inherit a sword or learn lost secrets. There are ruins everywhere. Some dark threat left over from the second age will return and be dealt with. Perhaps the hero will reconnect with one of the elite institutions established in the second age.
    • Fourth Age – The age of magic ends, and everything changes. Elves sail away, gods leave the world, and hand it over to people, who, live in wisdom and peace and tell stories about the good old days to the kids.

    This is also a metaphor for human life. The first age is childhood when you believe impossible things and dragons, the second age is when you’re young, fighting for your passions, the third age is when you get your job and learn how the systems of the world work. And the fourth age is when you’re paying off the mortgage, and you don’t have time to play D&D anymore or read books, but you’ve got fond memories of those days and will tell your bored family members about the good old days.

    Let’s cut to 2020, COVID era. I’m in the fourth age of my life. During lockdown, I work through a bunch of intense personal stuff. One of them is that my epic fantasy novel series is doomed not to be finished in its current state—it’s lost in a muddle of endless rewrites. The book had lots of POVs, good character work and world building, but not much of a plot apart from an expedition across a continent. Time to recognize that it would never be done. I’ll never be Brandon Sanderson. (At least with that book.)

    I get out my shotgun, place the barrel against the malformed, beating dreams of finishing that series, and pull the trigger.

    Time to reboot. Start something else. I need to create I can finish. Shorter, less epic. Except, being one of those eternal gamemaster types, I can’t tell stories without a world.

    Yeah, I could build any world I want and—my subconscious wants to design a setting in a fantasy world’s fourth age. When I was younger, the concept of the fourth age horrified me. Who’d want to tell stories in a world where the magic went away, and everything was about modern life, office workers and cars? 

    Now, I find that interesting. Because the past is a magical one, right? How would that influence the modern day? And how did the magic leave the world? What if something went wrong with the final epic battle between light and darkness? What if losing magic was a last ditch strike? A nuclear option. Not a gentle fading of magic like in Middle-Earth—a planned obsolescence—but a catastrophe mess that broke the world.

    And what if magic survived, but became hidden, messy and complicated?

    So that’s the key idea I had when designing my world. Modern, yet with a hidden layer of magic.

    Now to figure out what that looked like. And what sort of stories would it drive?

    How about you—did you build your world by thinking about this sort of thing to start with (themes) or did you start with some other idea? Or even a sense of a character or a vision of a scene? (I love the story by CS Lewis how his initial idea for Narnia was simply a mental picture of Lucy and Mr. Tumnus walking arm-in-arm through a snowy wood…)

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    Happy WBW! What part of your world would your protagonist (& others if you want) change? Aaaand go! ♥️

    Hey @toribookworm22! My world was badly damaged when the Age of Magic ended. Zheist was created by magic; its supernatural ecology and metaphysical architecture were shattered when reality shifted to one driven by physics and technology (although some magic remains).

    When my protagonist, Lukie, was murdered, she was shocked to discover there was no automatic paradise, only the dismal Underworld where souls hunted each other to survive. She made a pact with a ghostly sovereign of the Underworld to return as an undead revenant; surrendering her agency in exchange for the power to return to living lands.

    And while she has the ability to rescue trapped ghosts and take them to the Lanes of the Dead where they can travel onwards, she’d change the current system in a heartbeat. If she had the power, she’d make it so that no one ever again fell into the black tarpit void of the Underworld, and everyone would move onto their afterlife without judgement or condemnation.

    Alas, that remains an impossiblity for now…

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    Magic: Transmission and Effect

    Here’s what you should think about when developing your magic system.

    • Why do people use it? Viewing magic as a process, why do people want to use it? How do they use it to do something in your story that they couldn’t otherwise?
    • How does it work? This is the transmission layer. By what mechanism does the magic do the thing it does? It’s perfectly okay to say ‘by the blood of dead gods spilled into the ethereal seams of the world’ but I like it when there’s some thought behind it. Even if the characters don’t know, stick this thought in your 90% of worldbuilding that the reader will never see. It’ll help for background consistency.
    • What does it feel like to use magic? I love stories where people are exploring their powers (I enjoy superhero origin stories, except those we’ve seen repeatedly; looking at you Batman, Superman and Spiderman). How does it feel to channel and cast power? Anxiety of trying to memorise a difficult formula? Getting high from channelling raw energy from the gods? Is there a taste or sensation? Or even boredom, if magic is perfunctory?
    • Who can use it? Trained wizards? Anyone who gets the spell right?
    • Where does the magic fit into your world and society? Is it a secret? Only used by the elite?

    Does your magic have an overall paradigm? Like a special esoteric programming code (spell) that can hack reality can if done right? Calling upon ancient gods for boons? The flavour is important to me. I read the first few pages of a book where the hero ‘magicked a barrier in front of the demon’ and while the scene was action-paced, the flavor of the magic didn’t grab me.

    Let’s run my magic system through these questions:

    • Why do people use it? To do things they can’t do via ordinary mortal means. Because it requires making a pact, it’s all for personal gain or desperation. Maybe to help with revenge, or to return after death to deal with your unfinished business.
    • How does it work? Magic is a flow of energy from another dimension. A flow of extra-dimensional energy overwrites the localised reality, enabling supernatural effects when present. For example, to summon a zombie, you’ll need a source of spectral energy from the Underworld, the land of the dead.
    • What does it feel like to use? Each realm has a distinct flavour of energy. Infernal magic is painful, like barbwire running through your guts. Death magic is sad and regretful, like holding a party that no one shows up to.
    • Who can use it? After the Rending—the terrible event when the Age of Magic ended—all portals to other dimensions were abruptly sealed off. Demons, fae, nature spirits, angels are trapped in their home realms and have limited agency to influence the mortal world. However, if you make a pact with one, you gain their vestige—a shard of their soul—and this enables you to channel supernatural energy into the mortal world. This changes you—you’re not a normal mortal anymore. You’re now half an extradimensional entity. Someone who accepts a demon’s vestige becomes a cambion; another who makes a pact with a fae becomes a changeling.
    • Where does the magic fit into the world? It’s secret and hidden. You have to figure out that magic exists, who you want to make a pact with, and hopefully find a patron whose goals align with yours.

    The overall vibe is if you want magic, you hustle for it, and cut deals with powerful extra-dimensional entities. It’s a grungy, noir occult world. You take on supernatural debt and have to weigh the bargain you’ve made against the power you gain. Sometimes you may not have a choice but to agree.

    “So everyone’s a D&D warlock?” someone asked when I described this.


    Or John Constantine, as you sit on a teetering mound of debts and favors that are gradually spiralling out of control…

    How about you? How does your world’s magic work?