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The system of magic I've settled on for my world is that magic users use magic to change the world around them, somewhat based on the idea of parallel universes.
Basically a mage can 'move' (for want of a better word) the universe into another parallel one where the thing they want to do happens. The more probable the event is originally the easier it is to achieve.

This is limited by a mana like substance which mages absorb from the world around them and by their own strength. Lighting a pile of dry sticks on fire is relatively easy, the potential for it to happen is there. Damp sticks is slightly harder. Lighting a pile of stones on fire is significantly more difficult as it is a highly improbable event.
(I'm fairly sure I've seen a proper name for this kind of system, but wish fulfilment was the best I could think of)

I'm not too worried about the potential power of mages as I think the limiting factors mean vast world changing spells are only achievable by groups of mages working in tandem or really power individuals, both of which would be rare.

Where I'm struggling is; how does teaching magic work in such a system?
If spells in the way we are familiar with them don't exist (as in magical recipes of some sort repeatable by anyone with the instructions and talent) what do mages teach each other?

I would like there to be magical colleges and similar institutions but I struggle to see what a mage could learn from them if all they really need is to be able to imagine the outcome they want. I do have a couple of ideas (which I will share as an answer if no one else mentions them first) but I would like to see what other's can come up with and if I'm missing something.

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    $\begingroup$ It looks like you're wanting us to do your idea generation for you. $\endgroup$ – sphennings Jul 18 '17 at 16:45
  • $\begingroup$ @sphennings Hmm, I suppose you could look at it like that.. the system is fairly complete in my head, I just don't see how it fits with my desire for magic to be something that is taught and was hoping some outside eyes might see something I'm missing (or just tell me the two are incompatible) $\endgroup$ – adaliabooks Jul 18 '17 at 16:49
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    $\begingroup$ You ask "How do spells work in such a system?" The answer is they work however you want them to work. You built the system. You get to pick the rules. $\endgroup$ – sphennings Jul 18 '17 at 16:51
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    $\begingroup$ but I struggle to see what a mage could learn from them if all they really need is to be able to imagine the outcome they want. What they would learn is self-control. Trying to keep your mind focused on one thing for any significant period of time is really difficult; extraneous thoughts will try to intrude and distract you, etc. Also, control. If all it takes for a tree to burst into flame is a mage imagining it, then that's spectacularly dangerous. There needs to be an 'on switch' for the mage to trigger while imagining the effect they want to achieve, which would be difficult too. $\endgroup$ – IronWaffleMan Jul 18 '17 at 16:59
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    $\begingroup$ @IronWaffleMan Just to throw out the other side of the coin, there are some martial arts which seek to not need an "on switch." They seek to be safe enough to leave "always on" while still being able to summon the raw power needed at a moment's notice. I think it'd be fascinating to have a world with such powers, and a sort of rivalry between those mages who seek more and more powerful "on switches," vs those who strive to not need an "on switch" at all. (Their martial art equivalents tend not to see eye to eye) $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Jul 18 '17 at 17:11
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What you describe is similar to what is used to teach internal martial arts. In such arts, it's recognized that anyone can do anything (e.g. mothers lifting cars to save children), but they need refinement to be able to do it safely and effortlessly. For those teachers, teaching is more about helping students grow under their own power.

Granting a wish is one thing. Determining the right wish to have, and the right way to wish for it is a very different challenge. Ever play with the wishes in DnD? Sure, you can wish for the cursed staff of the evil Necromancer... but wish in the wrong way, and the staff may appear in front of you, along with a temporally displaced and terribly angry Necromancer. Crafting a wish is hard.

Even once you do, the next step is efficiency. I don't know what mana limits you have in mind, but waste not want not. Learn to wish for the smallest changes possible which accomplish your goals.

Whether you believe in any sort of mana or chi like the internal martial arts do or not, you'll find that you can study how a teacher raises up their students to greatness, and you'll see patterns that can be applied in your story.

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    $\begingroup$ That makes sense, so rather than teaching people specific things (making a fireball, raising the dead) they would be thought the general principles of magic and how it works. Maybe things like how to use the world around you to reduce the mana needed (don't conjure a fireball from thin air, light an object on fire and throw that) $\endgroup$ – adaliabooks Jul 18 '17 at 17:12
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Based on your concerns, it sounds like you have a perspective problem. I generally put magic systems into one of two overarching categories: free-form and structured. It seems you're mixing the two, which would cause problems to arise.

Structured systems have very specific rules, allowances, and limitations. They work well for games such as World of Warcraft and Dungeons and Dragons because they generalize magic and make it easy to understand. Structured systems lend themselves to definitive instruction patterns, such as learning the specific hand gestures or material components of a fireball or heal.

Free-form systems, such as yours, are hard to codify, but tend to have much better results specifically because they can't be easily codified. These are great for storytelling, but not so great for hard-and-fast rules-oriented environments, such as gaming.

Let's take a look at writing essays. An informative paper requires a well-stated thesis, supporting evidence, and a details of the research or experimentation. A persuasive paper, on the hand, requires a well-framed argument and maybe some research.

An institution of a structured magic system would excel at giving students the ability to research and use well-known magical formulas. A free-form institution, however, would teach students how to think (not what to think, though that may happen due to human influence in the process).

Of course, both systems can provide introductory-level material into what magic is and how to use it, ethics courses, and various other periphery material to the actual use of magic.

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  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, I think you make a very good point... and probably hit the nail on the head as to why as well. I'm building this world for potential use in both games and novels and maybe trying too hard to have my cake and eat it.. $\endgroup$ – adaliabooks Jul 18 '17 at 17:24
  • $\begingroup$ @adaliabooks I had this problem with my own magic system a while ago. I ended up in some half-assed point between the two I didn't like. I eventually (last year) redid the entire thing to move it firmly into free-form, but still use it in D&D. I would strongly suggest going for what feels right, rather than trying to make it work for both. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Jul 18 '17 at 17:28
  • $\begingroup$ I think I'm likely to follow a similar path, more free form certainly fits the setting better (and can probably be easily bent to fit games if required) $\endgroup$ – adaliabooks Jul 18 '17 at 17:31
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I would posit that the curriculum in the educational facilities would focus on teaching students to be open-minded and creative rather than just filling them to the brim with arbitrary knowledge like they normally do.

Take superheroes, for instance. They are known for using their tremendous powers which habitually break the laws of thermodynamics to... uh... fight crime. Sometimes in a single city, no less. In children that can do literally anything they want, creativity is absolutely key if you want the world to use magic in society.

Children, with more flexible minds than adults, may also be trained to think in many more dimensions than a human would normally so as to design more elaborate creations, short-term memory training will be used so that they can process more complex operations with ease, and if it is easier to do things that are more likely, physics will definitely have a place in the curriculum as well.

What is probably the most interesting thing that children would learn in a magic school, mind you, is morality. In a world where literally everything can be blamed on someone somewhere, justifiably so, with no real way of proving that that hurricane that destroyed an entire city wasn't you, the people would more likely than not have a much stricter moral code that they would be held to and cling to with their very lives. Even the occasional bout of mischief from a mage would be cause for suspicion if some disaster just happened to affect someone they didn't get along with. As such, magic-capable children would have to be taught at a young age to be absolute paragons of calm, collected, disciplined infallibility, never interfering with the natural world more than necessary, lest they pose a danger to others, themselves, and possibly magecraft itself by virtue of starting a witch hunt should their abilities have dreadful consequences. Or not. Perhaps the muggles are just paranoid. But at the end of the day, it doesn't matter if the reasoning is right or wrong: social uprising can collapse entire civilisations.

tl;dr: Teach your mages self-control first, creativity second.

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I would first say that since it's about going to parallel worlds that are able to access a desired affect and bring it here, the first thing you would teach would be how to get to those worlds and what is different... essentially, think of it as teaching a multi-dimensional map. Perhaps smaller effects are available in closer systems and you have to travel further for more desired effects. It will take more energy to access a realm that is further away from us than one that is closer too us. Perhaps you can short cut through realms. Realm A cannot access Realm Z directly with all the manna available in either one Realm. However, Realm A can accesses Realm B and for a very payable fee, short cuts into Realm Z. More short cuts still require more energy, but not nearly enough as a direct link. This makes the need for a location lesson and a pathing lesson. Think of it as opening a file on your computer for the latter and think of the former as knowing where the file is in relation to another file... assume a very disorganized filer.

Another option that I'm working on is that "magic" is essentially a rule system that doesn't operate on the rules of logic as we know it (actually, the logic as we know it is itself just the most commonly accepted for of magic). Thus, the lesson isn't about the formula but learning the mindset of the logic behind the effect... this allows for creativity as the making it work part is more on the mindset of the spell user than the actual spell and allows for specialization. Magic works because you reject the logic that says it should not work and thus accept that the world will work differently under your new logic. In this system, I use the forllowing example:

Given (i.e. the situation): A door with no windows that that is unattached to any walls standing in the middle of an empty field.

Prove (i.e. Magical outcome): It can open to another location not near the present one.

Proof (i.e. The spell):

  • Magic exists.
  • All doors facilitate travel through otherwise unpassible barriers.
  • A door's function relies on an unpassible barrier.
  • All doors must have an unpassible barrier.
  • If a barrier exists but I can walk around this door without being stopped, than the barrier must exist in some form that I do not percieve as having height, length, or width.
  • If it does not have those things, than the barrier exist in directions I cannot comprehend.
  • If it exists in directions I cannot comprehend, than by passing through this door, I must pass through in a direction I cannot comprehend.
  • Therefor, if I can comprehend this direction I can get to the room on the otherside, no matter how thick the barrier.
  • Since Magic exists, magic will allow me to comprehend this new direction.
  • Therefor, there is a room on the otherside.
  • Therefor, I shall open this door, enter in the correct manner, and go to the room on the otherside.
  • Therefor, there is a room on the other side of this door.

At which point, your wizard/witch can open the door to a wizarding bar. And by knowing this spell, the wizard or witch can thus prove its possible and thus make their own version.

If magic revolves around moving stuff between an infinate number of dimensions, there must exist a dimension where your desired outcome happens. If such a dimension exists, you must be able to reach it. If directly reaching it is impossible given the manna, than I can reach it by way of a path through other dimensions. Therefor, I need to know that the dimension exists (i.e. the result) AND the path (i.e. the spell).

Compared with Harry Potter: Magic there has very little described rules because the purpose of the stories wasn't how magic works, it was that it works and here's all the adventures that happen with that in mind. You want a world that relies on the mechanics of magic to work in a particular way because its essential to see why something that should be impossible is possible. In Harry Potter, the rule was you wave a wand, say a funny word or words, and something happens. Here, it's not so much what you do and say that makes it happen, by why it happens. In Harry Potter, magic is a science. In systems that describe why magic works, it's a rejection of science. There are less rules and more cleverness to get around the few rules that are.

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