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I recently read Brandon Sanderson's articles on magic systems and they gave me a lot to think about, especially in the form of costs and weaknesses. I think I came up with a fairly interesting system for those two things. (Questions are forthcoming, I promise.)

Essentially, magic at its core is influencing the energy flow of the world. To do this, you have to immerse yourself in it, feel it, then subtly nudge or forcefully redirect it. Doing so, however, causes you to lose your own individuality and draws you further in. You risk becoming disconnected from reality. To avoid this rather nasty consequence, you have to have some kind of emotion or feeling to anchor your sense of self.

This anchoring has its own ramifications. When you immerse yourself into the flow of magic and fixate on your anchor emotion, it becomes the only thing that you can distinguish as yourself. You become that emotion, for lack of a better word, in order to keep yourself grounded in reality.

That's the basis. Some other details:

  • The desire to delve deeper into the flow requires self-control to suppress, and without it you will eventually dive too deep and become hopelessly disconnected. Using magic becomes a struggle between your emotion, self-control, and the desire to pull more power.
  • Obviously, more powerful anchors are required in order to delve deeper into the flow. While past memories can serve as weak to medium strength anchors, the strongest ones are feelings that come about in the moment and are immediate.
  • Emotions require a drive to be powerful anchors; they can't be just happy or sad. Even love and anger are circumstantial. While love can bring about the desire to protect, by itself it is not a particularly strong anchor, and likewise anger in general will be a weak anchor but can carry the desire to injure or destroy.
  • Actions that are outside the scope of the anchor emotion wreaks havoc with the delicate balance mentioned in the first bullet point, in addition to creating more stress on the user of the magic.
  • Very important: the deeper into the flow you are, the stronger the emotional anchor needs to be and the more that emotion becomes you. You have the most conscious control over the magic when you are using very small amounts with a weak anchor; using close to your capacity of magic with an intense anchor leads to little more than instinctual actions aligned with the feeling.

So, onto my questions.

  1. Are there any obvious flaws with the system I don't see? (Only talking about the costs and weaknesses aspect.)
  2. How will using magic with this system affect a person's personality? Will it make them prone to emotional outbursts in the moment, scarily self-composed, or somewhere in between?

Thanks for all of your answers ahead of time. This is my first post on the Worldbuilding Stack Exchange, so be gentle and tell me if I can do anything to clean up my post. Also, any ideas not related to my questions are welcome as well.

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  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling Done. Also, in the other threads, is it acceptable to just link to this question to avoid having the background information repeated? (I'm rather new to the SO format.) $\endgroup$ – Azure Heights Jun 2 '17 at 9:25
  • $\begingroup$ It's best to try to include only the relevant portions of the background material in each question, such that each question can stand on its own but also such that each question doesn't become overloaded with background material not needed to answer. Linking to previous questions on the site is okay, but making sure each question can stand on its own is better. What we absolutely discourage is questions that rely on external resources to be answerable; such questions may be closed as "unclear what you are asking", similar to how answers that do the same can be deleted as "not an answer". $\endgroup$ – a CVn Jun 2 '17 at 9:32
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    $\begingroup$ You should ask one question in a Question. The “are there flaws?” is a reality-check so I added that tag. You might like to read my Lessons in writing questions, and also the list of suggestions I link from there. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jun 2 '17 at 10:34
  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding! Have you see the tour? $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jun 2 '17 at 10:35
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    $\begingroup$ Don't forget that magic systems with flaws in them (from the standpoint of one mage trying to best another) are inherently more interesting than "perfect" systems. It's the same reason the Three Laws of Robotics are flawed: without those flaws, there'd be no story. If a mage can do his research and find out what gets under the skin of the other guy, during that evenly-matched duel he can be like, "I saw your mother the other day. She misses you." and cause his opponent's emotional state to shift off the peak of power. $\endgroup$ – Draco18s Jun 2 '17 at 14:31
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  1. Are there any obvious flaws with the system I don't see?

I don't think so. The magic seems to be quite well balanced: minor feats are easily achievable without much risk. This will make small feats of magic cheap and common place in society, which should be fine for a fantasy setting. However, for every major use of magic you have both stronger restrictions (requirement of a strong emotion that supports that particular magic action) and a generally increased risk of losing yourself in the magic. This means that society as a whole can never completely rely on magic and technology will likely also be developed further.

  1. How will using magic with this system affect a person's personality? Will it make them prone to emotional outbursts in the moment, scarily self-composed, or somewhere in between?

There's two ways to look at this: short term (just one person changing during his lifetime) and long term (basically the effect of magic on the evolution of your people). In principle I would say that in any case the final answer is 'somewhere in the middle'.

Obliviously the ability to feel strong emotions in general and about many different things in particular, will give a person access to powerful magic that can be used in a variety of ways. The downside of this emotional range is of course, that it can be quite overwhelming and will significantly increase mental problems, stress and so forth (which could manifest as emotional outburst). Since self control is necessary to use magic safely, a healthy balance seems about right.

An individual person can try to go either way: someone with a set goal and strong ambition/drive could fully embrace all their emotions and have strong magic, but suffer through the consequences of increased mental problems (they may well lose the focus of their actual goal during depression like stages) and the risk to overdo it someday. On the other hand a person 'who plays it safe', would focus more on his/her own mental control and would therefore not be able to use strong magic, but could reliably do smaller spells or the like.

From an evolutionary view, it would make sense that your people/humans can generally feel stronger emotions without losing their self control (basically increasing the power level of magic that can be used safely). Depending on when humans figured out magic (which in this case might be quit early), they could have significantly stronger emotions than we have at a comparable level of self composure - still, its probably best to have some variation in the population. On a side note you could also have (very rare) persons with overly strong emotions (and therefore magic capacity), but barely any self control (kind of like a reverse Asperger's syndrom).

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Are there any obvious flaws with the system I don't see? (Only talking about the costs and weaknesses aspect.)

Well, you mentioned that diving deeper is risky, but didn't mention any specifics of what would actually happen if you dive too deep, beyond a vague notion of "becoming disconnected from reality". So I'm going to try and explore that aspect.

Assuming I understand the system correctly, the deeper you dive, the more your anchor emotion will consume you. So depending on the emotion you're harnessing, diving too deep could have some interesting effects:

  • Happiness: You sink into euphoria. Using magic feels so good. You want more. You dive deeper. The bliss increases. You never want it to end. You'd keep diving until you couldn't be pulled out even if you wanted to. I imagine it like drug addiction: you'd end up strung out on the floor, helpless, overwhelmed by your own high. This would probably eventually kill you.
  • Sadness: I don't know why you'd use sadness as an anchor emotion, but let's say you did. You'd get progressively sadder until eventually you reached the point of a nervous breakdown, at which point you'd stop resisting and be dragged into the flow, lost forever. Again, this would basically kill you.
  • Fear: This could make a pretty good anchor, actually, because it would likely prevent you from diving too deep out of fear of the potential consequences. If you do dive too deep, you'll probably get the same result as sadness: hysterical mental breakdown followed by catatonia and death. Or maybe a heart attack.
  • Love: Hoo boy. In most magical settings, love is treated as being directly proportional to power: the stronger your love, the more powerful your magic. But what happens when you love someone too much? Bad things. Bad things happen. (Bad things also happen if you browse TV Tropes too much, so be warned)
  • Anger: This one's pretty obvious. Using anger in a fight is not a good idea. You're angry. You want the other person to just die. You push harder. You want the power to kill them. You grow angrier. You want the power to destroy all that opposes you. You push harder. You grow angrier. It's a vicious cycle. Soon you're consumed by your anger and lose all control, all rational thought. I wouldn't want to be in your vicinity when that happens. I imagine quite a few evil magicians have lost themselves in this manner.

How will using magic with this system affect a person's personality? Will it make them prone to emotional outbursts in the moment, scarily self-composed, or somewhere in between?

I imagine people would try to use positive emotions like love and joy as anchors, especially for powerful magic, because being taken over by sadness or anger would not feel good. Too much sadness in one go and you might end up needing therapy afterwards, and you'd definitely swear off using sadness as an anchor again. You wouldn't want to feel that way again. You could balance this by making different spells require different anchor emotions (to do fire magic, you need to harness anger, for example).

I'd say experienced wizards would be more along the lines of "self-composed", as they'd have plenty of experience at handling their anchor emotions and would be much better at controlling them. Amateur wizards, or those who already have emotional problems, would be more affected by their anchor emotions. I don't know whether they'd be prone to outbursts when they're not using magic, but they might struggle when they are.

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  • $\begingroup$ I really like this. Especially the way that certain spells could be reliant on harnessing certain emotions. This way, people could be innately attuned for a certain area or certain spells but may struggle in other areas. This way magic and spells become more like already existing human attributes like being innately good at mathematics or language or arts etc. This also creates room for a dynamic need for cooperation and teamwork to compensate each other's weaknesses. In short, more balanced people and groups would do better than specialized ones in terms of sanity but not raw strength. $\endgroup$ – DannyBoy Oct 9 '17 at 12:33
  • $\begingroup$ I just have to add also, that being more balanced might introduce combinations of spells fueled by different emotions and thus, make being more balanced in one's emotions, more versatile. There is so much that your take on this can create. I'm actually inspired myself by this concept! $\endgroup$ – DannyBoy Oct 9 '17 at 12:40
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Are there any obvious flaws with the system I don't see? (Only talking about the costs and weaknesses aspect.)

I don't see any obvious flaws in your concept. This is an interesting way to balance the costs and effects.

How will using magic with this system affect a person's personality? Will it make them prone to emotional outbursts in the moment, scarily self-composed, or somewhere in between?

Now we come to the interesting part. There is a lot of room to explore with this concept. My first idea was pretty much what F1Krazy already mentioned: drug addiction. Magic feels like a drug and should be treated as such. You have to be careful, you shouldn't use it all the time and for everything, but some people won't be able to withstand the feelings and getting lost in your own happiness, becoming addicted to magic.

But drugs have another aspect - they might help your wizards. Imagine that your people invent a drug that makes you forget the last hour or so reliably. By taking this drug after using magic you would forget about the feelings of getting lost in the magic. It could help your wizards ease out of their most recent magic high. They could more easily become useful members of society again and this process might be faster than the normal acclimatation. Drugs become very important for wizards. This is just an extreme example. Everything that helps to reinforce their feelings to live in the here and now, in the reality that currently exists, will help them cope with the effects of magic.

Another usage of drugs could be to make it easier to use magic, for example in the battlefield. When you are on the battlefield it might not be easy to use destructive magic if you are afraid of dying and can only use magic that would make you invisible or teleport you away. This is because of your restriction:

Actions that are outside the scope of the anchor emotion wreaks havoc with the delicate balance mentioned in the first bullet point, in addition to creating more stress on the user of the magic.

Likewise you wouldn't be able to heal anyone if you are afraid right now. You either need extremely fine-grained control over your emotions, which is neigh impossible for most humans, even if they adapted to magic and therefore emotional control, or you could simply try to invent drugs that help invoke a certain feeling in your soldiers. This is basically trying to create a super-soldier that is not afraid anymore, which people already tried in reality. But as you have access to magic and creating a few pills shouldn't be that hard for wizards you might have the drugs necessary and in a wide variety for every use-case. This is especially important because of your restriction:

While past memories can serve as weak to medium strength anchors, the strongest ones are feelings that come about in the moment and are immediate.

You could even make this dystopian: your wizards are forced to take drugs on a regular basis to perform magic in a way regulated by the government. For example prisoners with an ability to perform magic might be used as magic-slaves to reduce their sentences, which could be used as a means to create more drugs or goods or energy or anything else your society might need.

Having control over your emotions would be an incredibly important asset and status symbol in your society and might even be used for marriage reason - hoping that your children will have a knack for magic and good control over your emotions.

People who are often angry will have problems fitting in - people would be afraid that they might do something bad when they are in a rage.

On the other hand people who are always friendly and happy would be incredibly popular, not only because they are nice people to hang out with, but because they are powerful and they can't hurt you. Instead they would be able to heal you whatever may happen to you. A great safety net.

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