I am attempting to construct a magic system for a fictional modern world akin to ours. In this world, like ours, magic has largely been forgotten, so it is no longer part of the world and has had no influence on it. However a small number of people begin to rediscover it in the current day.

Here’s what I have figured out about the magic system:

Magic is cast using spells. If you follow the spell instructions, you will get some amount of expected magical effect, anyone who follows the instructions well enough can do it. Each spell is different, requiring spoken words, gestures and/or components as the spell describes.

Each spell is powered by Force, generated via the caster’s emotional intensity. More emotional intensity means more intense/bigger results.

Each spell is controlled by Focus. The more self-control the caster has, the more successfully they will be able to cast the spell and keep the effects under control – for example, directing it to a target.

Since self-control and emotional intensity can be opposing natures, it’s hard to accomplish both. People who have access to the emotion of cold fury are a notable exception.

The behind the scenes truth of the matter is that the spells are NOT the magic, they are merely the trigger for the magic. Way back at some point in the past, someone crafted an effect (like throwing a fireball) and tied it to a spell (like saying “Sadhi Kahlum!” and holding a large ruby while pointing with two fingers.) Once the spell trigger was tied to the magical effect, anyone who knows the trigger can use it. Think of spells almost like universal macros for pre-created magic.

However, the spellcaster may not know any of this, all they know is when they do the steps, they created a directed fireball – and the more emotion they channel, the more energy it contains, while the more control they mentally wield, the more the fireball does what the caster wants.

I really like this system because it explains why there is no necessary rhyme or reason as to which spells trigger which effects, and it also explains why spells are often in an ancient language – because that was the language the spell-crafter used.

Here is my problem, I have no good answers for how spells are crafted, and why magic works in the first place!

Take the fireball spell. I know that someone very long ago created this effect and tied it to the spell – that is, made it so from that point on, performing the specific steps anywhere in the universe triggered the effect they assembled/crafted.

But assuming that the spell merely invokes the pre-designed magic effect like a trigger, how and why does that magic edit and/or change reality? How is it physics can be defied and science ignored? After all, there is no conservation of energy/matter, momentum can be ignored, etc.

Here are some answers I find do NOT work for me and my intentions:

  • The magic comes from divine or more powerful beings. (There are no divine beings in this world, no afterlife, etc. Somehow in molding the spells effect, the crafter is working on reality itself.)

  • The world is a simulation or virtual reality – like the Matrix – and spellcrafters are just coding. (I don’t want the world of the story to be a fake layer on top of a realer world. I also would vastly prefer that magic does not wind up being akin to programming or interacting with computer-like systems.)

  • The magic comes from an alternate reality or dimension. (I want there to be just the Earth.)

  • The magic comes from life force/faeries/gaia. (Well, there are no faeries/elves/mythic creatures, plus I want spellcrafting to be possible anywhere, even the depths of space. It should be part of reality itself.)

  • The magic comes from belief – either the crafters belief, or the communal beliefs of the human race. (I want magic to be as independent of “belief” as gravity itself is.)

So, there’s my conundrum. I need to explain spell crafting and how and why magic alters reality to produce its effects, without just hand-waving over it.

Specifically, how is it that all of our understanding of reality that we call science – physics, chemistry, etc – is reliable and true, while at the same time it can be countermanded by magic – without resorting to the undesirable explanations above?

And whatever the explanation is, it has to be non-trivial enough that over three centuries of science our best scientists haven’t stumbled onto it.

Thus my actual question: What options do I have that conform to all of the above, on which I can base such a magic system on? Or have I eliminated all possibilities by the above constraints?

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    $\begingroup$ Hello and Welcome to worldbuilding Sindry. From what I can tell, you want a good explanation of why words can be used to cast spells. I feel like this question is going to be primarily opinion based as all explanations could be valid for explaining how magic works. You have the decide the origin of your magic. It could be via a True Language (e.g. Eragon ) where words have power, Or by manifesting Will, or as you have listed before. There is no correct answer, as it is going to be purely up to you to decide what you like and what fits best for your World. $\endgroup$
    – Shadowzee
    Dec 12, 2018 at 0:17
  • $\begingroup$ It's really up to your imagination on how magic "happens" in the first place. Though, if you want some inspiration, have you watched The Irregular at Magic High School? It's on a futuristic setting where magic is a phenomena that can has been scientifically explained. Reading the light novel will have better explanation of the use of "magic than in manga/anime. $\endgroup$
    – Basher
    Dec 12, 2018 at 0:32
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    $\begingroup$ Oh, and your explanation of your magic system is similar to "Akashic Records of Bastard Magic Instructor", wherein a spell is indeed like a "macro" that makes it easier for a being to cast a specific magic. $\endgroup$
    – Basher
    Dec 12, 2018 at 0:36
  • $\begingroup$ Where do electrons come from? No one knows (there is a lot of science about it, but at some point we just say x,y,z, just ARE), and yet we use them every day, even creating 'macros'/spells/progs from it (i.e. the stuff that lets us communicate right here). I have no real idea why it's Ctrl+C that lets me copy things, so that is a pretty similar state of things. Not having a manual, you'd be left trying things and slowly working out how stuff works (you may stumble over sudo rm -s before you get anything good, but that's magic, to you... So what do you perceive as a problem in your scenario? $\endgroup$
    – bukwyrm
    Dec 12, 2018 at 15:09

2 Answers 2


Specifically, how is it that all of our understanding of reality that we call science – physics, chemistry, etc – is reliable and true, while at the same time it can be countermanded by magic – without resorting to the undesirable explanations above?

The key here is that you ask too much. In this world, presently, we can't say physics, chemistry, etc. is true. Indeed, in many cases we are quite confident it is not! I recently heard of a textbook that I wish I had in one of my classes. In its introduction it stated:

Most likely some of the things in this textbook are wrong. If we are really lucky, most of the things in this textbook are wrong.

We teach students that the content of our physics and chemistry books is truth. I have long argued that this is a tremendous disservice to our youth, because they are not true. Unlearning a thing that you thought is true is terribly difficult. I'm reminded of a class on the metalurgy of steel that one of my friends took. The professor opened the first class with, "Everything you have learned about material science so far is wrong. The sooner you learn this, the better you will do in this course." Anyone who has done material sciences will agree with me that steel is magic! The properties of steel are so unlike anything else in this world that they defy just about every simplification you might put in an undergraduate or high school level textbook.

What science does provide is an astonishingly good predictive capacity. I do not believe Newton's law of universal gravitation is true (it has been proven inaccurate and superseded by general relativity), but I use it mightily while I walk. If I did not, I would fall. If I bothered to sweat out all the GR calculations, it'd take too long, and I'd fall.

The question for science and engineering is what domains do these laws work well for. Science is constantly trying to find laws which work "everywhere." Engineers are constantly trying to find laws which work for the domain they need to operate in. But nobody has found the "top level" domain of "everywhere."

Incidentally, you mention "conservation of energy." Did you know that energy is not necessarily conserved in our universe? The inflation of space can actually add energy into the system, so we aren't exactly a closed system. But don't think that that means I'll listen to your latest perpetual motion machine idea. ;-)

So we have to set some ground rules. For mixing science and magic, here's my ground rules:

  • Reality is what it is. Never say that reality is what it isn't. If your reality has a rule that nobody wears blue hats, do not try to make a magic system which causes someone to wear a blue hat.
  • Reality is not physics. Do not assume that what you know of physics is the true underlying reality. (Indeed, this is a good rule even when you're not magic magic systems)
  • Minor magic is a class of magic for which there is an explanation why science didn't uncover it. "Science checked 99 doors before declaring their law perfect, when it was the 100th door that showed them wrong" fits perfectly in this way of thinking. It also happens to be the way scientists think when they're seeking new science.
  • Major magic is a class of magic where science should have uncovered it, but didn't, and your reader has to come to grips with this.

You clearly seek not to have any major magic. So everything you do needs to have some explanation why science's exploration failed to detect it.

There's countless ways to do this. You can have the laws of reality change, rendering the old ones void. You can have magic actively trying to avoid detection by science (perhaps magic is killed by science). But my own personal favorite is the assumption of the independent observer.

In modern science as we know it, the observer of a system is always outside of the system. When doctors try to test a new medicine, they always blind themselves so that they don't accidentally influence the trial. We are fanatical about this. But it isn't true! Sure, it's pretty darn true. I rely on it all the time, but it isn't perfect. Your brainwaves are resonating along with everything else in the room, influencing the results. Now from a science perspective, we typically discount this. The amplitudes of brain waves are infintessimal compared to other noise sources. But the point is this is imperfect.

What if magic is what happens when you embrace the observer as part of the system, instead of trying to isolate it? If this was the case, scientists would never think to put the observer in the system, so they'd never be successful in identifying the rules of magic.

This leads to your concept of instructions. Typically we think of instructions as being independent of the person doing them. But what if they aren't? I practice Tai Chi. My sifu will tell us all to "sink." That's a very clear instruction. It means one thing. If we do it, the results are typically amazing. But there's a trick: nobody will define what "sink" means for us. In fact, I have a belief that it is not something which can be defined, just as it is so dreadfully hard to define "love" or "life."

A powerful construction by the mathematician Tarski is the idea of an "interpreted language." In it, you define a string, like "touch your toes." This string has no meaning until it is associated with an interpretation, which provides the semantic meaning of bending certain joints and trying to get certain phalanges near each other. The interpreter is a key part of the system, not a secondary concern.

In this case, it is easy to see how a fireball spell takes form. It doesn't take form in the instruction, in the language. It takes form in the interpreter, and the interpreter assigns meaning to some new word or motion.

How interpretations are passed down is a tricky thing, even in mere language. Magical language will be more tricky, but that provides you all the wiggle room you need for some people to be able to do things, and some people to be unable to. The instructions may be a simple string, but the doing is more complex.

And, of course, you would lose some magical interpretations over time. You'd need a way to generate new ones such that you don't accidentally let all of magic die out. You can do this in any way you like, but I have a Stack Exchange answer which answers it in the way I like most.


Here is my problem, I have no good answers for how spells are crafted, and why magic works in the first place!

Another answer addresses the second part well. In this partial answer I want to focus on the first part, how spells are crafted.

You sort of answered this without realizing it when you described spells as like macros. A macro makes a set of instructions easier to use, but it is not required. Long before some wizard decided he needed fireballs readily to hand and developed the macro with the red gem, two pointing fingers, and specific words, he was able to create fireballs the hard way -- by reaching into his pool of emotion, using his will to shape the magical forces, and, with a great deal of work, directing that fireball to its intended target. He had to remember about 57 individual steps, but he could do it.

Then he decided that this was too much hassle (and, anyway, DRY (don't repeat yourself) isn't just for programming), and he created the "spell" (macro) to encapsulate those 57 steps. He still needs to put the emotion and the will into it; that part didn't get easier. But he doesn't have to remember and individually execute all the steps.

An implication of this is that there are multiple ways to make fireballs. People who learned one tradition do it with rubies and pointed fingers, but meanwhile, some completely different magic-user in another part of the world might have developed a macro based on rubbing two sticks together and then throwing one of them. And people who learned that tradition create fireballs with sticks and don't know how to use the rubies. Meanwhile, somebody else has only ever needed fireballs twice in his life and he did it the slow way because it just hadn't been worth finding and learning a spell.

Another implication is that macros can be refined and combined. Somewhere in the world is a wizard whose fireball spell is just his campfire spell on steroids.

Spellcraft, then, is an ongoing process. There's less of it now than there used to be because somebody's already done the hard work of creating macros for the most pressing needs, so people who want to do magic seek out teachers or ancient recipe books. A smaller number of people want to learn not just how to cast spells but how magic works; these are the ones who will craft new spells and refine existing ones. You get to decide how secretive all these people are; spellcraft could fall anywhere on the spectrum from closely-guarded patents to open-source collections.


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