# Can you have magic that doesn't have rules?

Edits are in italics. To narrow it down more, can you have 'magical' force that doesn't have laws the way physics has laws? For example, in Tamora Pierce's books, magic is tied to the users physical and mental strength. The magic is a bit like a muscle, you can build it up, but everyone's maximum strength levels are different. It you use too much at once you die. Can a world exist without universal restrictions, or would the magic force simply make it uninhabitable for continuous life?

Can magic, if it were a random force creating and uncreating things, a bit like the Infinite Improbability Drive (that spaceship from Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy) be forced to follow rules? It doesn't necessarily do exactly what you want it to, or even close to what you want it to. I understand that this is a very vague question, I am have trouble describing the phenomena.

This is for a book series, not an RPG (at least, for now) the story will focus on the main characters trying to make rules the magic will follow.

• This seems like a paradox to me, if you say that they don't have rules, then they do have the rule of that they don't have rules. To be more serious, the magic will do whatever you want it to do, if you want magic to make your universe uninhabitable, then you can. The important thing is that you declare there to be no rules, so there is the possibility where nothing is possible and another where nothing is impossible. With such a vaguely worded question, you are likely to gain vaguely worded answers as well Mar 29, 2015 at 3:42
• Basically, you are asking 'what happens if more than one person is omnipotent?', the answer to which is (Greek) Mythology. Mar 29, 2015 at 18:56
• In a sense, if it's bound by rules, then it's physics, not magic. Mar 30, 2015 at 8:13
• A more likely issue with having no rules is that the first dummy who uses magic to destroy the universe will do so. Jan 6, 2016 at 21:11
• i'm going to go with no, because if there were truly no rules, then there would be no limitations either, no "magic can't do this", or "you need this much skill to do this much magic" scenarios. And for a world where anyone with any understanding of magic can do LITERALLY anything, i can see a universe like that ceasing to exist, very very quickly. Mar 17, 2016 at 18:10

Yes, you can! The one caveat is that whenever you have the characters use magic to solve a problem, as opposed to having characters having to solve problems caused by magic, you risk writing a deus ex machina.

Like Cort Ammon's answer, I'm going to recommend reading Sanderson's First Law of Magic. However, I disagree strongly with Cort Ammon's claim, "Sanderson's First Law of Magic suggests it is remarkably difficult to use such a rule-less magic in a book."

If you read the article on Sanderson's First Law, Brandon Sanderson writes most emphatically that magic systems without rules can be effective! He does give some advice on how to use them in your storytelling, though. In particular, he says that such magic systems should be used primarily in one way: to make it very clear that the main characters have little control over their worlds. To quote some of the article (emphasis mine):

I [developed] my first law as a way to include magic systems that don’t follow very strict rules, but which also don’t undermine their plots. [...]

This leaves room for those who want to preserve the sense of wonder in their books. [...] Books that focus on this use of magic tend to want to indicate that men are a small, small part of the eternal and mystical workings of the universe. This gives the reader a sense of tension as they’re never certain what dangers—or wonders—the characters will encounter.

Sanderson continues in his article to say that the major weakness of a magic system with few rules is that, in most cases, resolving conflicts with this magic cheapens the story. As I wrote above, there is great risk that it will come off as a deus ex machina. This is because, since magic cannot be understood, any time it helps out the main characters greatly, it can break suspension of belief. Sandrerson writes:

The really good writers of [magic systems without rules] very, very rarely use their magic to solve problems in their books. Magic creates problems, then people solve those problems on their own without much magic. [...]

So, if you want to write soft magic systems, I suggest you hold yourself to NOT letting your magic solve problems for your characters. If the characters try to use the magic, it shouldn’t do what they expect it to—as the reader doesn’t know what to expect either. Use the magic [...] to screw up things for the characters.

Looking at your original question, I noticed that you wrote, "[T]he story will focus on the main characters trying to make rules the magic will follow." This is very much in the spirit of Sanderson's first law! I believe that you can create a successful world with strong narrative potential based on your goals.

Yes, however, Sanderson's First Law of Magic suggests it is remarkably difficult to use such a rule-less magic in a book

Sanderson’s First Law of Magics: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

It is simply easier for readers to understand the magic if there are rules governing how it operates.

There are absolutely ways to help a reader "understand" the magic without rules, but it will be up to you to figure out how to do it in your particular story with your particular readers. Magic systems that seem to revolve around things like "love" and "harmony" have a tendency to be very understandable without resorting to rules. If your audience is teens, magic systems which reflect the chaos and complexity of puberty also tend to come across as highly understandable.

Good luck!

• From the OP's question, "the story will focus on the main characters trying to make rules the magic will follow." So magic isn't being used to solve conflict, but rather to create it! So Sanderson's First Law might not actually apply for what he or she is trying to do. Mar 29, 2015 at 6:05

Have magic behave like the weather. There are definitely rules, but it is part of a whole so vast, with so many factors to take into account, that it is impossible to properly predict the outcome of anything remotely complex.

Let's say in your world someone wants to light a candle. It's an action that is fairly simple, it should work always as expected 99,9999999% of the time. However start trying to summon up fire beings or create a firestorm and you may end up firing up the nearby volcano instead or accidentally putting out every single fire in the province or even burning your neighbors' cooking.

• That is a bit like what I'm thinking, but to use your example, if you want to light a candle, you might also end up with an elephant in your garden. Sometimes the magic does stuff without being called upon. One day half the world might be completely gone, the next day it could be back or it could have rotated 41.999999999° to the east. Mar 29, 2015 at 4:24
• Okay well in the same line of thought then, maybe magic behaves and follows certain currents and forms (not unlike weather :P ). Using magic translates in modifying those in order to obtain the result desired. If someone were to bluntly chop through the forms/currents without knowing what they were doing, then indeed instead of lighting a candle they could spawn an elephant in your garden. Discovering how to read the currents and just slightly nudge them along would be the goal. Making complex use even harder and prone to giving wacky results. Mar 29, 2015 at 4:30

I can think of a few works which might be of use. They all fall into the category of "making sense out of apparently nonsense rules".

"Harry Potter And The Methods Of Rationality" is fanfic exploring the opposite: an analytically trained Harry Potter tries to make sense of the magic in the Wizarding World using the scientific method. It's meant to teach you how to think, and it's a great read! It might give you ideas to read it and see the sorts of objections Harry has when he tries to make sense of the apparently nonsense rules of the Wizarding World. For example, when he tries to figure out how his magic bag works.

"Aaaaaaarrrgh this doesn't make any sense! "

The witch beside him lifted a lofty eyebrow. "Problems, Mr. Potter?"

"I just falsified every single hypothesis I had! How can it know that 'bag of 115 Galleons' is okay but not 'bag of 90 plus 25 Galleons'? It can count but it can't add? It can understand nouns, but not some noun phrases that mean the same thing? The person who made this probably didn't speak Japanese and I don't speak any Hebrew, so it's not using their knowledge, and it's not using my knowledge -" Harry waved a hand helplessly. "The rules seem sorta consistent but they don't mean anything! I'm not even going to ask how a pouch ends up with voice recognition and natural language understanding when the best Artificial Intelligence programmers can't get the fastest supercomputers to do it after thirty-five years of hard work," Harry gasped for breath, "but what is going on?"

"Magic," said Professor McGonagall.

"That's just a word! Even after you tell me that, I can't make any new predictions! It's exactly like saying 'phlogiston' or 'elan vital' or 'emergence' or 'complexity'!"

The black-robed witch laughed aloud. "But it is magic, Mr. Potter."

"The Order Of The Stick" is a web comic about a adventurers in a world which follows the rules of Dungeons And Dragons and the characters know it. But unlike other works which break the fourth wall, this is just how their world works. They treat the rules of D&D like we treat physics. In particular, Bards are people with the skill to explain why things happen and predict what will happen next by studying the plot, theme and tone of the story. Things just happen to you because you're the hero. They frequently rely on action cliches.

Elan: Really?? Wow, what were the chances?

Julio: Pretty good, considering we wouldn't be having this scene if it didn't forward the plot in some way.

Elan: Oh, right.

The Uncertainty Principle isn't a work of fiction, it's how our universe fundamentally works. Put informally, at the smallest scales everything is fundamentally uncertain, everything is a roll of the dice. At normal scales it all evens out and you can pretend the Universe is clockwork, that's Classical or Newtonian Mechanics, but it's all based on the average probabilities of bazillions of tiny interactions.

This leads to weird edge cases like quantum foam where "empty" space is really pairs of particles and anti-particles popping into existence and immediately annihilating each other, and quantum tunnelling where because the position of a particle is uncertain it can appear to pass straight through an impassible barrier.

So, in a sense, what you're describing is our own reality.

Can a world exist without any sort of universal restrictions,

Sure, we live in a world where micro scale physics and macro scale physics require two different math models to calculate, and the universe still seems to be around last I checked.

To explain further, there is no inherent Metaphysical force that will cause the world to destroy itself if two parts of the world function differently. Of course, this being your world and your setting, you could simply say that there IS some force that destroyed the world because some parts of the world is functioning differently, however, it may be difficult to write a story set in a setting with no world.

or would the magic force simply make it uninhabitable for continuous life?

Funnily enough, the answer to both parts of your question can be yes. You could say that the force that dislikes differing rules may also completely neuter any and all life on the world, which only makes it more difficult to write a story with no characters or world

I have two answer - and they may contradict each other. First answer: the universe IS magical, and it does follow rules that we are still trying to fully elucidate. Second answer: assuming you mean "Harry Potter" type of magic, then the answer is clearly 'yes'. Such magic implies limitless 'jump the shark' outcomes, which implies that there are no rules. Magic implies no laws. You write a story with magic rules and I can write a sequel where a wizard has magic to break those rules. Such magic would contradict the known universe - which does have rules. Like I said, my answers contradict but are both true. Interesting.

It is possible to write magic without rules, probably the best example of the thought behind this is when asked about the speed of his ships someone (probably in regards to firefly) replied that they travel at the 'speed of plot', this allows you to use any magic that helps the plot (not necessarily the characters).

Another approach is to have rules and tell no one what they are. This is a great method to allow the characters to think they know what is going on, but be wrong having incomplete or inaccurate knowledge of the rules.

This is how I'd do it: Write a big list of possible outcomes (and number them), then every time the 'random' spell is evoked, use a true random number generator to pick the outcome for the story.

You could take this a step further and get your random results via randomly generating a number and using it to select a random word from a random website, or some thing like that perhaps.

the story will focus on the main characters trying to make rules the magic will follow.

That is not actually a magic without rules. There are two options:

1. Magic has rules, but they have not been discovered.
2. Magic has rules, but the way they interact with magic use is undefined.


The first case should be pretty clear. This is how science works. Thunder was magical, incomprehensible, thing beyond human power and understanding with a powerful god behind it. Until science explained it. Not sure you could write on riveting story of magician experimenting to discover the rules of magic. Then again lots of the scientists behind major discoveries really were quite exceptional people with interesting personalities and stories. And you could use those real world stories as a basis for characters, so it might work.

Still, I think you mean the second case. I actually have read a series that had this as the main plot. The world had supernatural spirits or whatever that made reality malleable and interacted with human minds. When first settlers arrived the events "imprinted" magic with a certain pattern of interaction, which turned out to be undesirable. So later the main characters used a ritual to re-imprint magic with a new pattern.

If we replace the "undesirable pattern" with "no coherent pattern established" this sounds a lot like what you wanted. This is actually the model used in quite a lot of stories with super powers. Since the various universes were originally assembled with separately created fragments without any real overall planning and coherence, different people would have different powers with entirely separate rationales. By now this has become traditional so even settings that are otherwise coherent do not try to make powers of different characters to make sense together.

So I guess in a world with magic like that, magicians would be very similar to mutants in Marvels X-men. Magic would awaken in puberty, and each magician would have his own unique powers with its own unique rules. Essentially the will and mind of the magician would force the rules or pattern of interaction on the magic. It would work the way it works because the magician believes it does. And the magician would believe it works the way it does because that is the way it works. A self-reinforcing loop.

Reasonably since the expectations of magicians would impact the original power and pattern different cultures would have widely different traditions of magic with entirely separate common powers and patterns. Since magic comes from interaction with external field magicians would presumably be stronger in areas where people believe in their tradition.

So if you were able to construct a model of interaction with magic that has the properties you wish and then imprint that model on the magic itself, you could become quite powerful and make your enemies nearly powerless. Even better you could connect power with actions and patterns you approve of and disconnect it from patterns you disapprove of. Human sacrifice is an easy example. You could make even your enemies act the way your prefer...