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So, I'm trying to come up with my own world system where words like(for example): Magic, Alchemy, Sorcery, etc and have a specific meaning. Also being a(n)(for example): Alchemist, Witch, Sorcerer, Gypsy, Pagan, etc are all different things. I'm running the problem that I feel that one thing is not that much different from the other. That they're not that distinct or that they're too alike. Any help or tips that I can make them distinctly different?

For example, magic in my world runs like batteries. A wand or amulet or staff is infused with a magic-source item and when this item runs out of magic, the magic-user resorts to his life-force. They can obtain more wands and the like, though. Of course, they're expensive, especially if a item has more magic energy than the other. Moving on. Sorcerers are people whose magic is genetic. A Witch/warlock is a human who learned the art. But what makes one special from the other? I know I'm supposed to be the one to make the differentiations but I'm stumbling over myself here. A demonesque is someone who hexes other people and "hijacks" their life force for their own magic use. They sell their services to people to make money, usually. "Pay me for a location spell," and the like. Another example of my troubles. For example, a sorcerer casts an invisibility spell over himself. Can't a witch/warlock do that same? Then why are they different at all? Why not sum them up to a different class? Mystics, for example.

Perhaps I'm just looking for variety and lines drawn plainly. I would explain my whole logic and world if not for the fact that it's "under construction." It bothers me (this for example): Let's say we have a person with shapeshifting abilities, which is rare. But we also have a witch that has cast a spell or has an amulet that allows her to do the same thing. Why would the Shapeshifter be so rare if you can achieve the same result with magic?

I don't know if I'm explaining myself right here if at all, but any answers or suggestions or even explanations would be great. At this point, I feel like I'm being extremely anal. I'm trying to put everything in layman terms without launching into three pages of dialogue or writing on "how race is different" or "why and how this works." Simplicity is the best. Thanks.

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10 Answers 10

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It sounds to me like there are two concepts at play in your magic system.

  1. How each type of magic works.
  2. What each type of magic can do.

For example, you've defined a difference between Sorcerers and Witches:

Sorcerers are people whose magic is genetic. A Witch/warlock is a human who learned the art.

This is a difference in (1). How does the magic work (where does the power come from?) However, it is not a difference in (2). You haven't indicated any difference in what the two can do. Witches can fly, and so can Sorcerers.

Your problem is that you've introduced a lot of types of magic that are extremely similar to each other, but you want them to all be totally unique.

To solve this problem, you'll need to provide strict limits to what each type of magic can do. A common trope is the four elements. For example, In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Benders can manipulate air, or water, or earth, or fire, but not more than one. The powers of each type of Bender are clearly delineated.

Or consider Sanderson's Mistborn series. In that series, one type of "allomancer" can temporarily improve his physical strength. Another can enhance his senses. Another can dampen others' emotions. And so on. Each type of "caster" has very specific abilities that the other casters do not have.

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It sounds to me like each of your different magic types draws their power from a different source. Sorcerers get it from themselves, demonesques get it from other people, and maybe witches/wizards get it from the environment, or from wands/amulets.

An analogue to this could be found in light sources. Say you have a light connected to a wall socket, a light connected to a battery, and a light with a hand crank charger. Even if these devices have the same output, they're going to look very different, and be useful in different situations. Some differences:
1- Hand crank takes a while to start shining, you don't want it for quick illumination, but it's useful anywhere, forever.
2- Plugged in light isn't very mobile, you don't want it if you're travelling or don't have access to a socket, but it has a lot of power at its disposal once it's plugged in.
3- Battery light is useful on the move, but it can run out and need recharging.

So, at least in terms of speed, availability of energy, and portability, I'd think your magic types would have enough differences to distinguish themselves. If you want more differences than this, try thinking of other tasks that can be accomplished in different ways, and try mapping your types to those.

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  • $\begingroup$ +1 good explanation of potential strengths and weaknesses. $\endgroup$ – Green Sep 15 '15 at 22:44
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I think one entity with magic can be combine with different characteristic:

  1. Source of the Magic
  2. Type of the Magic
  3. Race

For the source of the Magic: we can categorize it with: Sorcerer and Wizard have the source in there gene, Witch use magical charm or wand, Alchemist use ingredient to make potions and hex bags..

For the type of magic: I suggest using the "Might & Magic" series system. With Elemental magic like Fire, Water, Earth, Wind and Spiritual Magic and Mind Magic like Heal, Hypnotize, or Fear..

Race: This will explain the skill like Shapeshifting, bloodsucking. The skill goes with the race of the entity.

A combination of those three will make up the magic-using entity in your world. Like - A Shapeshifting Alchemist which specialize in Fire Potions that can make fire balls or fire wall and can use the Skill Shapeshifting

  • A Vampiric demonesque can sell various spell if their expertise is broad enough. Like a wand of mind control, or a hex bag of craziness.

  • A Human Wind Sorcerer or Wizard can cast thunder bolt out of their hand, but have no special skill.

Thanks to celtschk answer we can distinguish between magic and skill. The skill is used with the cost of anything other than magic. So even if they are not sorcerer, but they have the skill they can do it without magic aided item.

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  • $\begingroup$ Nice answer, welcome to the site Quan. $\endgroup$ – James Sep 29 '15 at 19:28
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Perhaps you could take some inspiration from the similarities between Chemistry, Physics. Each field takes a different approach to a problems and solve different sets of problems though the three fields are tightly bound together by a heavy dependence on Math.

The below comic may also offer you some insight into how to order the various practitioners of magic in your world. They will all be "magicians" but some more pure magic users than others.

XKCD Purity of Science

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As some others have noted, the primary distinction between the magics depends both on what their practitioners are capable of, and what the source of a practitioner's ability is. I would say that there are other factors, though, namely: What must be true of each caster? In other words, does the magic do anything to them? Also, what is the general life philosophy of people who practice a certain kind of magic? This is really important for plot purposes, since the restrictions people create are often more important than those nature imposes.

For example, you state that pure shapeshifting magic is rare, but question why that would be if a witch can simply do the same thing. Well, calculators are ubiquitous, but a person who can multiply 10-digit numbers in their head, in less than a second no less, is still quite a savant (not an Allomantic savant, Benjamin). So perhaps the witch has to go through a lot of effort to shapeshift, whereas an innate shapeshifter can do it in the blink of an eye. Or perhaps certain spells require much more power than others, and a witch who can shapeshift is very powerful indeed, so that there are actually more shapeshifters than witches who can change their shape.

As for witches and sorcerers apparently having the same powers, this is really not a problem at all. The situation you have is basically identical to that in D&D (at least v3.5), where wizards and sorcerers essentially differ only in source of their spells (learning or magical ancestry, respectively). Thinking about this from a social perspective makes a lot of sense. In your world, a sorcerer may be born with the ability to perform powerful magic. But if I am not a sorcerer, maybe I still want to learn. Maybe there are not enough sorcerers to get everything done. And here you get into the non-magical characteristics of each group. Witches are smarter. They can read at a college level, they know the theory of magic. They won't kill themselves trying to stop the tide or do something similarly ridiculous. Maybe they look down on sorcerers, who always seem to be setting their villages on fire.

Now, of course you can "sum" the two classes and call them mystics. The people in your world probably do exactly that, to distinguish them from demonesques and so forth. However, just as a painter is not the same as a sculptor, even though they are both artists, so too are there distinctions among various mystics.

P.S. As a side note, using the terms gypsy and pagan to refer to certain classes of magic-user might be problematic when it comes time to publish (if that is your plan), insofar as they refer to real-life groups that are still extant, and the first one is often considered pejorative. Perhaps traveler or wanderer might work for the former, and druid or shaman for the latter.

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Someone else mentioned D&D. Expanding on that: Clerics have a really large pool of spells to choose from but can only have a certain amount known at a time and these are divinely given knowledge. They really have no idea how they work, other than they do. Sorcerers are the innate, powerful type that have inherent talent but a fairly limited pool of spells. Wizards are the scholar-type magic user - they have to spend time each night to memorize the spells they want to use the next day. They have a wide array of magic (though not as much as the cleric) and can cast some powerful spells but tire quickly.

Perhaps you can make distinctions in the effort it takes to learn/cast the spells that is tied in to the source of the magic. For instance, a genetic-ability person could cast some instinctively but have a hard time learning and casting more than that. A cleric type may be at the mercy of their deity and randomly forget some spells overnight - education and training for them may involve learning how to recognize what they have available each day or learning to actually learn the spells once they have them so they can still cast them after they would otherwise forget albeit at a less powerful level. A wizard would simply need to be in school for EVER and take a while to learn new things - in this sense wizards would typically focus on one or two specialty spells and market themselves as masters of certain useful things. Healers may get their powers from nature (perhaps they are human-dryad half-breeds) and need to be in contact with some form of flora or fauna to actually cast a healing spell.

I like what you did with the Hexer class - using life-force is a good way to make a distinction and at the same time give them a limit.

Also, I love what Jonah said (and don't know how to properly quote him): " [Witches] won't kill themselves trying to stop the tide or do something similarly ridiculous. Maybe they look down on sorcerers, who always seem to be setting their villages on fire."

I play D&D with a sorcerer who randomly farts out bursts of uncontrolled magic... It makes things really interesting when he is trying to kill a zombie and instead casts levitate on the skeleton archer.

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I had to dig this up from an answer I gave a few months time ago: Will my magic system decrease its credibility?

It is reproduced here for convenience. The verbiage is slightly different (this particular question was looking at the credibility of their magic system), but the situation is very similar. They were worried that having multiple ways to do the same magic would hurt their credibility. You appear worried that your multiple magics aren't different enough. I believe the same terminology-and-approach argument works in both cases.


I think you can maintain credibility with your magic system. I would feel comfortable claiming we have similar verbiage in real life describing martial arts. All of the martial arts are going towards the same goal, but the paths they take are strikingly different. Given that I can see real life corollaries, credibility should be possible.

If you wish to use this martial arts metaphor to maintain credibility, I recommend carefully crafting the way people view the world to match their particular magic style. If someone has "witch" style magic, they should view "holy" magic in witch-magic terminology, trying to explain how holy mages do their things in terms of the trinkets and familiars and spells witches use. A holy mage will describe the same abilities using different verbage. A natural magic worker might view holy magic as a very strict version of growth without much room for self expression.

Each style should be able to do anything, but there may be things which are hard to do using one style, and easy to do in another. If it is hard to do in a style, individuals who practice that style should develop lifestyles where they don't have any want to do things that are hard in their magic and easy in others.

As an example, Xing Yi, a Chinese martial art, focuses heavily on how to attack on straight lines. One would be foolish to believe they can't attack on curves -- such a mistake would be rectified shortly. However, their techniques function better on straight lines. They prefer it. Accordingly, they will structure their life such that many of the obstacles they want to overcome appear on straight lines.

In contract, Baugua, another Chinese martial art, focuses heavily on how to move in circular motion. Think they can't move in straight lines for a moment, and you'll regret it. However, their technique functions better on circles. They prefer it. Accordingly, they will structure their life such that many obstacles can be dealt with by rotating around them to find a better angle to attack.

If you ask a practitioner of Xing Yi about Bauga, they might say "sure, circles are nice, but if I can get ahead of your movement ever so slightly, I'll strike out in a straight line, and pulverize you. Circles are useless in comparison to straight lines. A practitioner of Baugua, when asked about Xing Yi, might say, "Yeah, they can put a lot of power on straight lines, but I'm not going to let anybody keep me on a straight line. I'll weave around, and when they weaken themselves by attacking and missing, then I'll strike them along a curve they can't predict."

Both styles are known as "internal" martial arts, and it is a commonly accepted attitude that they are "climbing the same mountain, just taking different routes." In fact, there's a third traditional internal martial art, Tai Chi, which takes even a different route. All of them go towards making the internal self better, but they do it in different ways. They each have different verbiages to describe the others, and practitioners will organize their life based on the strengths and weaknesses of their art.

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IIRC Sergei Lukyanenko's Night Watch series use a similar idea. there is a definite "hierarchy" of magic. Some are born into it, being magical creatures like Shapeshifters or Vampires. Some learn it, like magicians, and can only really "channel" magic via articles like Wands etc. Some can channel magic into items themselves for use later, or for others to use, whilst still others have a natural affinity for magic and can "just do" magic.

Sounds like you want to go with something similar -

  • Alchemist - creates magical items for later use following specific rules (Magic rings, staffs, cloaks, wands)
  • Witch - can use magical items to channel their magic more effectively
  • Sorcerer - doesn't need articles to channel, can "just do" magic
  • Gypsy - uses words (Spells) to channel their magic, as well as creating their own magical articles more naturally than the alchemist (potions and other natural stuff)
  • Pagan - uses ritual to channel their magic
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You have to give your magic more rules. For example, is life force replenished over time? Does everybody have the same amount of life force? How do people use magic, is it used though incantation or is it more mental and possibly an action that activates it?

Once these and other questions like it are answered, you can apply the knowledge to different classes; like so:

  • Sorcerers are people who have more Life force than a regular person, they could also have a magic power that they dont have to use an incantation for. They obviously also have the knowledge that has been passed down that family.

  • Witches/Wizards can only use incatation and have the usual amount of life force.

  • Shapeshifter are people who can use a type of magic without incantation but have no or little knowledge or skill of any other magic.

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Well, let's look at the example of shape shifting.

A natural born shapeshifter will change form just as he wants. It will cost him only little effort, and because it's an ability he's born with, almost nobody else can do anything to prevent him from shape shifting. Nobody except demonesques, that is: Demonesques can stop naturally born shapeshifters by simply stealing their energy they need to shapeshift.

W witch can shape shift if she learned the spell, and manages to cast it correctly. If she didn't learn the spell, fails to remember it correctly, or fails to spell it correctly, she will not change her form, or worse, will change it in a different way than intended. You can stop her by preventing that she casts the spell; in the simplest case by simply holding a hand over her mouth (or some magic doing the same — note that we again have two ways to achieve the same result, physical and magical!). You could try to distract her while she casts that spell, so she fails to cast it correctly. Probably the spell is very complicated, so it's not easy to cast it correctly. Just like few people are natural born shape shifters, few witches master the art of casting the spell correctly. Moreover, unlike natural shapeshifters, witches cannot just change their own form, but use the spell on other people. A shapeshifter can turn himself into a frog, but not you. But a witch could just as well turn you into a frog.

A demonesque is dependent on other people whose power he can draw. If he can't draw from other people (be it because nobody is there, be it because their life energy is protected by some magic) he's powerless. Presumably to shape shift needs a lot of energy, so unless there are many people there whose energy he can draw (most people don't have enough energy to shapeshift, that's why there are so few naturally born shapeshifters), he won't be able to change form. In the worst case (for him), he's trapped in an unfortunate form because after changing form, some people left (or died because he drew too much energy from them), and he cannot shift back. The jackpot for him is if he can draw energy from a shapeshifter, because a shapeshifter has, of course, sufficient energy to shapeshift; while a demonesque draws that energy from him, the shapeshifter cannot shapeshift, however. Like a witch, a demonesque can shapeshift other people if he has the energy, however not those people he's currently drawing energy from.

Shape shiftzing may also be done by magig rings, produced by experienced alchemists. Creating a ring of shapeshifting is hard and takes lots of time; only the best alchemists can do it, and those rings are expensive and rare. On the positive side, everyone with only basic knowledge on using those rings can use them — provided they are currently in a shape that has fingers on which the ring fits. There is a well-known story about a man who stole a ring of shapeshifting and turned himself into a fly in order to spy on someone, but only after he was a fly he recognized that a fly cannot use a ring, and therefore he could not change back, and since flies don't live long, he died the next day (it is known because when you die, you always turn back into your original form, and it was observed how the fly turned back into the man). A ring of shapeshifting cannot be used to shapeshift anyone else but the wearer.

So you see, although all those different types of magic lead to shape shifting, they still have important differences. Only a demonesque can stop a natural born shapeshifter from shapeshifting. Only witches and demonesques can change the shape of other people. Rings can only be used if you're in the right shape.

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