I'm trying to design a world for a fantasy setting where some disgruntled god decided to give the general population magic powers. However, rather than recite a spell or use sheer will to use magic, people use runes.

In this world to use magic you have to write the runes involved in whatever change on the item. Your intention also matters. For example if you wanted to start a fire you could write the rune for "Flame" on a sheet of paper and set it in a fire pit, and it would do nothing. But writing runes for "Bind Will Fire" (As in, bind it to you, effect will happen when the person or thing it is bound to wills it to happen, and the effect is fire) and setting the paper in the fire pit, then willing it to happen, will cause the fire to ignite converting the matter of the paper into energy to fuel the effect.

There are also some rules and restrictions. You can only perform magic on things that you have considerably more willpower than. Everything living and nonliving, but not things that were once living, have sentient or semi-sentient spirits, and therefore wills. So you cannot perform magic on the planet Earth, as the spirit of the Earth has a much stronger will than any person. You'll also find that magic on another person is very weak, as most people have around the same level of willpower.

My questions are:

  • How do I make magic that works like this interesting in a combat situation?

  • What do I call someone that uses this magic?

  • If the first question is too hard to answer, what changes can be made to the system to make it interesting?


  • I have gone with Grapheiomancer as a name for someone who uses this magic. It came from the Latin word 'Graphein', which means 'to write'.

  • When no power source is specified, the atomic bonds of the object the rune is written on are broken to release energy. If the rune is written on a tablet or something of that nature, it consumes the whole object, and any excess energy is released as light and force, unless specified otherwise by the caster. Otherwise, if it's written on something they have a stronger will than, or if what they're writing on consents to the magic being preformed, then it leaves a crater, with the same way of dealing with extra energy.

  • A power source can be anything that stores or produces any sort of energy. A battery for example. For extrasensory magic, many Grapheiomancers prefer to use their metabolism as a source of energy.

  • There are spirits and gods in this world, and most spirits are bound to certain parts of the natural world. These spirits have a strong effect on how runes are used. For example, you usually can't trigger magic written on the ground, or stone connected to the ground, because the spirit of the Earth would destroy the rune and send you flying for even trying. Plants also have spirits, but most people can overpower them. You can't perform magic of the wind, but you can ask the spirits of the wind to do things. This requires a special rune, which most Grapheiomancers have tattooed on the backs of their off hand.

  • The tech levels of this world are from the 'Anachronisms because plot' era. This means it's got a dark age peasant vibe going in the commoners villages, but there are elements of gearpunk thrown in, and a guy who was pretty much Nikola Tesla caused an electrical revolution. So the gears are fading out and giving way to arcs.

  • Runes have an effect and draw energy at the time of triggering, and can have ongoing effects as long as they have a power source.

  • The runes are the language of the gods, so they are the only ones who can create new ones. They grant knowledge to those of their followers who they think deserve it. They don't get mad when the knowledge spreads. (Usually.)

  • The magic format is Trigger-Power Source-Effect-Modifiers, and anything included in the modifiers can be omitted and left to will by masters, but if a novice tries to do it, they will most likely end up injured by runaway magic.

  • Because of the spirits, some magic is stronger and weaker depending on where it's being casted. A fire spell in a forest will be dampened or disabled because the forest spirits don't like fire. (Understandably.)

    • You need to know what a rune does as you trigger it to actually use it. If you don't, then it just does nothing. Assuming you can even READ the trigger condition.
  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    May 20, 2015 at 23:02
  • $\begingroup$ Oh, can runes create spirits or living things? For example, what if Felinicia, the cat goddess, gave a set of runes to create the perfect pet kitten? Would it be possible? Or would the gods not do weird things like that? (I was actually thinking salves/clones) $\endgroup$ Mar 8, 2016 at 5:09
  • $\begingroup$ @XandarTheZenon With the system I have in place, I think it should be possible to create a magical AI of at least human level, and to create a body for it. At that point, whether or not it is a "person" or "alive" is a philosophical debate. As for biological life, it's probably possible on paper, but the energy and material requirements would be impractical. And if you don't bind an AI to a location/person/object, it would default to being "tethered" to whatever the runes comprising its existence are written on. As in, the further it gets from the runes, the more power it needs. $\endgroup$ Mar 8, 2016 at 11:33
  • $\begingroup$ @XandarTheZenon An unbound AI would essentially be a spirit. $\endgroup$ Mar 8, 2016 at 11:35
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ 'Graphein' is most definitely not a Latin word $\endgroup$ Mar 3, 2017 at 23:06

7 Answers 7


But writing runes for "Bind Will Fire" (As in, bind it to you, effect will happen when the person or thing it is bound to wills it to happen, and the effect is fire) and setting the paper in the fire pit, then willing it to happen, will cause the fire to ignite converting the matter of the paper into energy to fuel the effect.

Regarding battles, the mage could cast a number of prepared runes in order to distribute amongst wielders in the battle. These prepared runes could be in any format, such as a scroll with a simple fire rune, or a heal, however these prepared runes can be 'willed' into activation at any point by the mage.

I propose the following situations: Catapults/trebuchets to launch runed jars/containers of explosive/flammable oils/substances which can be ignited by the mage. Alternatively, these could be wielded by a soldier/scout, thereby allowing a single soldier to do significant damage even after he falls.

This type of danger will lead to a change in battle tactics; looser squad formations, inclusion of anti-magic strategies (anti-magic runes? training to deal with various common magic effects, i.e. fire dousing?)

The limitations with this type of magic, is how/when do the runes consume power; Are they imbued at time of creation, therefore requiring nothing but will to trigger (meaning given time, one mage could wield enough power to destroy empires), or will they be the channel for the power of the mages magic, thereby limiting each mages effectivity to power/restfulness.

Also one must note that sieging of cities/castles would be completely different, and even ambushes would be a different affair. This would be due to the ability to lay traps that could be activated by the mage at will, catching opponents off-guard and potentially decimating his foes.

You must also decide how common these abilities are, how common the knowledge is and how one goes about developing these gifts (i.e. are they conscripted as battlemages? is there a group of these mages i.e. a guild?), and also are there any non-combat or indirect beneficial aspects to the abilities (i.e. light rune on an object for a portable light, wind/air rune on a boat so as to reduce journey times, etc). More interestingly, is there a way for the runes to be triggered by one who is not the caster? In this you may have a way of 'disarming' traps or reducing the impact of runed projectiles. Or perhaps this will allow for non-magic beings to purchase and make use of runes, perhaps on a black market for offensive abilities, but other runes may be available (at a price) such as runes of healing, light, or effects to help civilian life.

As for the name of these mages, most likely candidate being Runemage or Runecaster.

The system is interesting in itself, however possibly the most interesting question that can be asked is; where does the runic power come from (i.e. the casters life force?, some resevoir of mana for the world (Is it finite?), do they require sacrifices?, etc.). The most interesting thing about magic is not what it can do, but what its limits are.

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    $\begingroup$ I actually really like this answer! To answer some of the questions, anyone can use this magic, but knowledge of the runic language is limited to Grapheiomancers. The runes use power at the time of casting, unless otherwise specified by the caster. The power comes from wherever the caster specifies, though the thing the rune is written on will be consumed if no power source is specified. The non combat uses of the runes are many and varied, a rune can be bound to people other than the caster, and there is no mana well for the world. $\endgroup$ May 18, 2015 at 11:15
  • $\begingroup$ Seems a good system, I would like to see the world that such a system would result in. $\endgroup$
    – nickson104
    May 18, 2015 at 12:20

It's a neat system. I've been brewing up something similar myself. For my system the runes need to be rather specific. For instance, you can't just write 'fire', you need to describe the chemical reaction which should take place. The more abstract the spell the weaker that spell is. In this way the very best magic users are the scientists, using the latest research. Also those few gifted individuals who have excellent mental models on the way things really work.

How do I make magic that works like this interesting in a combat situation?

The combatants need to prepare materials before combat that will be consumed in the fight. This would be similar to a wizard memorizing their spells and using reagents for them. Or using scrolls to cast spells. Clearly a user might want to keep a pen around to improvise with, but writing something down in the middle of combat would be a last resort kind of solution.

What do I call someone that uses this magic?

You call them Runemasters or Runecasters.

If the first question is too hard to answer, what changes can be made to the system to make it interesting?

It works well the way it is. It's not horribly overpowered. The requirement for preparation makes it interesting and requires the users to be rather clever (and literate).

  • $\begingroup$ I like the idea of calling them Runecasters, I'll wait a few hours for more answers just to consider all of them, but this one will probably be the one I make the official answer. $\endgroup$ May 15, 2015 at 23:07
  • $\begingroup$ How about having some bad ass runecasters that engraved certain much used rune combinations in their skin. Would look bad ass. $\endgroup$
    – Robin
    May 18, 2015 at 7:30
  • $\begingroup$ This would probably only be good for some kind of self destruction spell, as the runes usually burn what they are written on. Unless there is a way to negate this effect or maybe specify a power source, maybe by using energy from respiration or your life force. If not then it would be very painful for the user. If it is possible, then a spell to protect or strengthen the body would be best. $\endgroup$
    – Necessity
    May 18, 2015 at 11:14
  • $\begingroup$ @Robin The tattoos are actually a part of the story. The magic users sometimes give themselves extra senses, and have combat spells they like to use a lot. For the senses, they set the power source to respiration, and for combat spells, they carry around many of a kind of battery in their clothing. So yes, the bad ass runes are canon. $\endgroup$ May 19, 2015 at 11:38
  • $\begingroup$ Nice, maybe you can consider to giving it a higher cost? Having them on you gives you a big benefit. Maybe they need to be fuelled by blood or something? If the only real price to pay is the pain of the tatt, I think all casters would be covered :D $\endgroup$
    – Robin
    May 22, 2015 at 9:26

I like the rune craft ideas. Runemaster and Runecaster are the traditional terms for it, though it's often referred to as 'scribing'...have had a lot of fun with it in the past. The 'Rifts' roleplaying game had some interesting runes. The biggest thing is creativity for it really.

Bind will fire is an interesting methodology...what do you think of these options?

  • Bind will proximity barrier. Person walks by a rune, which triggers the rune (proximity being the trigger there) and erects a temporary colorless barrier infront of them...a little prankish (same effect as a person walking into a glass window they didn't see), but it will also block an attempt to flee

  • Bind will impact force. The rune master wears this rune on their person on their cloak or armor. In combat it activates upon being struck and it forces the opponent that struck the rune back 20 feet with a rushing force. If you prefer, these can also be written on your own feet giving you a one time ability to trigger them for a 'force' assisted jump.

  • Bind will impact fire. Same idea as above, it's just written on the back side of a club. When the wielder flips the club around and strikes an opponent, the rune bursts into flames

  • Bind will ice cover Stepping on this coats the ground in ice for some slippery fun

Runes are really limited to the extent of the language they are expressed in...repair boat? cut beam (a wooden pillar cuts in half triggering a cave-in)? mend clothing (or change cloth color)? tree skin (cover yourself in bark for camouflage or additional armor)? If it can be expressed in the runic language, then it can be used to some effect.

As you can see, the main draw to this in combat is pure creativity. Runes can be put on a huge variety of things...more words, more specific of reaction, more time to write.

Combat now includes a 'home turf' advantage that it wouldn't have had in the past and the ability to 'choose' the field of engagement to be one that you've had the chance to pre-scribe becomes a game changer.

And yes, your average person has around the same willpower. Your basic runic Scribe rivals that of a trained Navy Seal, and your rune master makes a Buddhist monk look like myself when I'm craving a smoke. Training your will power (meditation? discipline?) becomes and end all of these people.

Adding a bit more:

There is usually somewhat of a standardization to Rune wording.

Activation rune - trigger condition rune - effect runes

An activation rune is simply the 'this is a live rune' statement. A bunch of runes written in a row do nothing until this rune is written infront of it. "Bind Will" appears to be your choice here, though it can take varied forms.

Trigger condition is what activates the rune. Be it impact (touching the rune), proximity to the rune, a muttered phrase, a particular time (in a runic calendar?), a particular person or event, or next to anything you can think of. Lack of a trigger rune usually refers to it being activated by the rune scribers will.

And of course the effect runes are your desired outcome when the rune is triggered.

  • $\begingroup$ Some great ideas here! But strong effects are single-use, and consume whatever they're written on. So that boost jump would kill the user, or at the very least take his foot off. And the system I have right now is Trigger-Power Source (If applicable)-Effect-Modifier(If applicable). If no power source is specified, then it becomes a single-use spell. Bind Will means that the trigger is the caster(author?)'s will, so the rune will take effect when the castauthor wills it. $\endgroup$ May 15, 2015 at 23:47
  • $\begingroup$ @user4627545 castauthor...heh, that's a great term! And just more creativity needed...the boost jump is written on the bottom of a steel plate boot and leaves a shoeless castauthor flying through the air and trying not to land on anything sharp (runes never imply safety). And that trigger/power source / effect idea works perfectly...though you may want to consider the 'live rune' symbol (allows runes to be written and shared without triggering, and also provides a universal 'holy crap thats live!' response in anyone that recognizes it regardless if they know what the rune does). $\endgroup$
    – Twelfth
    May 15, 2015 at 23:56
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    $\begingroup$ I'm thinking of leaving it as-is to add some tension with characters seeing a dangerous trap rune with a vague trigger condition, and standing still, hotly debating wether or not they had triggered it $\endgroup$ May 16, 2015 at 0:01

One just has to be creative with the materials they have available.

A rune-wizard may scribe hundreds of small objects (with low willpower) with varying phrases in preparation for combat. They may be hidden about his body like ninja weapons so that he can rapidly grab an effective one.

Consider, however, a rune-dancer. I beg the question of "why do we need the paper in the first place?" The usual answer is that you have to sacrifice something. However, could one not perhaps sacrifice emotions to get the same effect. I see an image of a rune-wizard standing on one side of a platform ready to cast a traditional fireball, while on the other side, the rune-dancer holds an ornate brush in her hand. With a crack of a smile, she rotates out from underneath the brush, bringing it down and letting it curve back up, writing runes into the air with her smallest of flourishes. The rune-wizard procures a small clay arrowhead enscribed with a spell and wills a fireball into being, it collides with the rune dancer, only to find that she had scribed a fire protection spell into the air as he was casting it. Now he faces her attack as she scribes a call for lightning. It's not as powerful as the wizard's abilities (which were prepared beforehand), but it is custom tailored to the current situation. The lightning forces him to step backwards, but that's right where he needs to be for a large spell she's been preparing the whole time to come down. Now he has to deal with a spell that she was effectively casting for the last 10 seconds, and his counterspells are up under his collar - he'll never get them in time before the spell lands.

The rune-dancer twirls twice, as a sign of thanks for the gods of magic listening to her with enough clarity to vanquish this foe, then calmly puts the brush away.

  • $\begingroup$ Whats the difference between writing runes in the air and waving around a magic wand? $\endgroup$
    – Twelfth
    May 16, 2015 at 0:00
  • $\begingroup$ The god that allowed the people magic requires the runes be physically written or carved. (He's not a very fun god.) $\endgroup$ May 16, 2015 at 0:04
  • $\begingroup$ @Twelfth no difference. I just felt the brush was a more artistic touch. I see this sort of thinking more often in Eastern scenarios, where calligraphy is still considered by many to be a high art. Unfortunately, if the runes have to be physically carved, it will be very difficult to make combat any more thrilling than watching a heated chess match with 2 hour time controls unless everything gets prepped beforehand (which I find makes for very droll fight scenes. People want to see spontaneity in fights) $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    May 16, 2015 at 0:53

Well the most interesting part of this to me personally is laying out the runes. You have to inscribe them in a certain way, a certain order, with certain intent, etc, etc. The way I see it, at least to make this style of magic interesting in combat, is that you would end up developing different styles of magic for each purpose in combat and different titles for each kind of magic user. For instance, you may have front liners with big rubber stamps that say "bind will fire" and aim stamp attacks onto enemy clothing, then will the clothes to be on fire. Artillery attacks get easy as well. You could enchant an arrow to say "bind will fire" or "enemy hit fire" or the like and any arrow that hits an opponent bursts into flames. Even into the modern day, you could inscribe shells with runes to tell the shrapnel to burst into flames on impact. In combat, it would probably just make killing people cheaper and more efficient.

More interesting would be the ability to effect the physical qualities of something. For instance, if I could tell a cinder block to be flammable and set it on fire, I would have a pretty efficient, renewable energy source for my witch burning fires or whatever I would want to use flammable cinderblocks for. And by that same token, I could burn random things for electricity in the modern setting. Pyromania would be very profitable.

And in this fiery bombardment universe, you would call the casters sir (or ma'am). I would call them rune-atics. They could be called epigraphists (after epigraphy) if you wanted to go that route.

  • $\begingroup$ That sounds like a programming language! At least the Clerks of the Gods don't demand forms in triplicate. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    May 19, 2015 at 21:02
  • $\begingroup$ I had something like that in mind. I based parts of this answer off of a show I watched years ago. $\endgroup$
    – Jake
    May 20, 2015 at 11:35
  • $\begingroup$ I wish I could remember the books, but I read one where anyone could use magic, but only a few gifted were able to use it on any sort of scale. In comes a programmer form our world who does not have much base line ability, but he becomes a powerful wizard by figuring out how to use magic as a scripting language. simple small commands that combine to create more powerful effects. $\endgroup$
    – Paul TIKI
    Jan 6, 2017 at 17:11

I have a pretty close idea for magic myself. I came up with mine while thinking about computer science and programming so i likened it to programming. Think of a single script of code as a "Spell", and with that spell can change the properties, realities, the laws of reality to the Spell references too. That would of course be a very easy system to manipulate, a fight that makes sense would be very boring and easy. So I decided that the magic must be more structured to prevent anyone being to strong too easy. Whatever effect that is desired must be written and your life forces or something with energy would fill in the text. And once the spell is fully filled and written it is ready to execute with what ever "gesture" you have assigned it. For example, a snap or words, or a kick. theoretically anything containing your life "essences" could be used, like pee, feces, blood, body parts, sweat, spit, or just your energy. The more space you use to write Magic will require more energy, so writing small, efficient, and smart are desirable traits. Also the objects that you effect or create will require more willpower/energy the more mass(something along those lines) its has. I also made non humans(Animals fairies, demons) just produce more magic energy than humans do.

so a spell to set a ball on fire could be "ball = this exe. statement is snap() when exe. statement= present set ball on fire, or set ball temp BIG NUMBER"

Then when the script is filled you can snap* and the ball is on fire Like coding, referencing preexisting objects with their default variable name is probably than making your own object with properties the exact same as the default object just so you can call it all you own would take more energy. so affecting something already preexisting is easier than making your own raw stuff out of magic. I do agree with you that writing magic in another language is better, because no you cant accidentally write in magic.

so to answer your question,

  1. Yours or my system are both prep intensive(not a bad thing), so direct improv, on the spot magic would be really hard not impossible. Because thinking is hard if someone's punching you. So most wizards would prep a bunch of papers before hand like cards books, essay :p as ammo for fighting. my favorite, wizards start writing magic onto the cloths for easy acess to magic on their person. They soon start wearing/ developing big clothes like hats, scarfs, and ties or just more clothes to write more magic.

you also have tattoos as an idea, cool. What if those tattoos were runes and magic text spells themselves that automatically charge as you live. so you could shoot lazers out of your hands, electricity fire, or more arms. Or an if/and statements on your lungs or stomach.

This way fighting can still be improvised but not as easily.

2.I didn't think of names. Other people here have a good idea from picking from old names of writing. If not wizards, Reality writers? script men, pencil dorks? ANTI TRADITIONAL SCIENCE

3.your magic systems sounds really good and sound as it is. But with magic here, i think society would develop much faster if it were like us right? Now magic everything would be too expensive. But basic mechanical machines are too dumb and dont do anything cool, so if you mix both you can theoretically maximize efficiency. Like a combustion engine that keeps itself going by moving one piston on when one is off and in turn. a water filter or mask that litterly only permits clean things to pass through. if thats what you want.

I also made messing with life with magic like tattoos taboo and later illegal or heavily monitored.

Powers that come from god are very easily explained. But are just suspension of disbelief i believe. you could have them discover magic by accident and then through experimentation develop an organised language.

I wish you cool stuff, i feel bad I wasn't the only one to come up with this idea but its also kinda cool in its own right. I believe that this system possibilities are limitless as long as they make sense. soon Humans will amass enough ambition and power to become their own gods. Keep up the hard work.


If things has "spirits" and spirits has willpower, it also has a will. Maybe the will of the spirit of the flames is more arguable with you. Lets go back a step.

If someone is hurt, you write the rune of skin and health on the wound, on a person who as more willpower than you, BUT - he will allow you to heal the wound. It will either be the same or more potent.

So, if you are writing a rune of fire, binding it to someone and the will of the spirits are with you - the flame is more potent. That is also, if you write a rune on the the mother earth, and the earth spirits are with you in this case. The magic will be more powerful.

Now the question was to make it interesting?: Well when you write the runes that is affected by spirits. You really don't know if they think it is a good idea. So the main character will have to make friends with the spirits. Maybe if the spirits don't like each other, and you make friends with the fires spirits the water spirits gets angry.

This gives you diplomacy, a lot of chance, the will of an uncontrollable part and the spirits of different stuff. That is interesting.

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    $\begingroup$ I assume by this you are saying similar to: You cannot cast a strong fire rune in a forest as an earth spirit/elemental will overpower your will with theirs, however casting a rune of growth would be amenable to the spirits and so would be permitted, perhaps even empowered with their will also? $\endgroup$
    – nickson104
    May 18, 2015 at 12:28
  • $\begingroup$ @nickson104 yes! That is correct. And even cast a decay rune on the forest because of the will of the forest will be larger than yours. $\endgroup$ May 18, 2015 at 12:51

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