It has been said that any reasonable kind of magic would be possible to study and thus, would be like just another branch of science. That is, unless it makes absolutely no sense.

I have created a setting where magic is present everywhere, but not everyone can use it. Despite millennia of effort, no one-size-fits-all system exists to describe how it works.

I want it to be impossible to really study for the common populace, otherwise my world will just end up similar to alternative history instead of having the mystique that magic brings.

The reason this magic can not be studied is that it relies on a purely mental mechanism that is individual to each person. Think of it like meditation, except that you can't trigger this mechanism through breathing exercises or any other physical activity. The effects are very much objective though. It's the classical fireball-throwing kind of magic. Casting magic requires effort in proportion to how powerful the spell is, although being skilled can reduce that effort a lot. Using magic exhausts you and once you are exhausted enough you simply can't concentrate well, just like in real life. Magic is not based on imagination, but rather is as normal to mages as moving hands is to you. It's just like a bodily function, although triggered mentally. As such, you don't need to imagine what you're about to do, but can simply do it, provided that you have learned to do it. The fatigue that using magic causes is mental. Excessive effort can cause headaches like mental work in general and you are not able to keep concentrating at your fullest all day long. The energy used for spells is out there in the world. It takes effort to control it, but you don't need to expend as much energy as the spell itself takes, since the world "pays for it". Different kinds of magic have different energy sources, but in general some kind of nature will be harmed if too much magic is used.

The technological level is akin to medieval.

Magic schools do exist, but they are not rote-of-memory like our own, since that would be basically impossible.

So here's my question: How would you study this kind of magic, if you can't study the core mechanism? How do you teach it, if it's so subjective?

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    $\begingroup$ Study how mental discipline in real life is taught, through meditation and the such. While we can't do magic, it sounds very similar to the magic in your world. (Also, maybe study what groups like the Order of the Golden Dawn believed and how they taught, if you want to go fringe.) $\endgroup$ – Michael Jul 19 '17 at 14:13
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    $\begingroup$ we study psychology which is purely mental, mental does not mean "follows no rules or patterns" If your magic system has a pattern it can be studied, if it has no pattern then it doesn't matter becasue people can't do anything with it much less study it, becasue the causes and effects are completely random. If even one person can do things with it even semi-reliably, it can be studied. $\endgroup$ – John Jul 19 '17 at 15:21
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    $\begingroup$ Sounds like the greater and lesser paths of magic described in Raymond Feist's Magician. You won't need to read the whole novel to understand it, so if you just want to read that part I think you'll find it useful. $\endgroup$ – Marcin Jul 20 '17 at 22:54
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    $\begingroup$ Xonok, based on comments I think you could rephrase your question to something like: "A scientifically explained form of magic that can still be seen as mystical and unexplained to the readers". You want to define the magic for yourself, but sell it as undefined :-) $\endgroup$ – Nahshon paz Jul 25 '17 at 14:15
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    $\begingroup$ Well, I don't want it entirely impossible to define. Just complicated. The reason I want to keep science out of this is that it would make it less mystical, even if only the readers know how it works. I want there to be a lingering feeling that somehow it all makes sense, but leave the exact interpretation up to the reader. Without rules a system is not engaging, but with too clear rules it's not magic. $\endgroup$ – Xonok Jul 25 '17 at 18:40

14 Answers 14


I think this question can be better answered if we look at it a little differently: not as magic, but as superpowers. As far as I understand, your world is full of people who have supernatural abilities, based on a physical property (mental acuity and endurance), that can be practiced and honed, but nigh impossible to learn from scratch if you didn't have the ability. In a sense, it's similar to how superheros just have powers, without actually learning them.

Why is this important? Because of a show/manga called My Hero Academia, a show about teaching kids to use and master their individual powers. Here are some lessons we can translate from MHA (no pun intended).

  • Students are encouraged to train their physical bodies. Magic might be a mental endeavor, but physical fortitude helps strengthen mental fortitude. Healthy bodies lead to healthy brains, and thus should be an important aspect of a magic system that relies on user endurance. I suspect magic will also be used for combat, so being strong in body is useful in that respect as well.
  • Teachers are more like tutors. Every kid is different, and must be taught differently.
  • Students must take internships. Not only does this give real world experience, it also allows for the 1 on 1 time needed to hone individual skills.
  • Teachers with skills in defense (force shields, damage mitigation, magic nullification) are used for students to safely practice their art in more practical ways. It's not a big deal that you are slinging fireballs at each other if Mr Firebutt can cast an anti-fire shield on everyone.
  • Classes focus less on pure theory (like normal schools) and more on practice.
  • All magic and students, are documented as much as possible. We know Tommy knows null magic, so let's figure out ways to let him foster that ability.

In addition to all of this, there should be a focus on similarities in feelings and mindsets. If all ice magic feels the same (even if it wasn't quantifiable), ice magicians should be assigned to kids who can use ice magic. If all else fails, the most important thing is to encourage students to self-study, and provide them the ability to do so in a safe environment. If magic cannot be empirically taught, it's profoundly important to foster a sense of self-teaching and self-reflection. Magic schools should try to provide a foundation, so that talented mages can develop without being bogged down by theory that doesn't actually apply to them.

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    $\begingroup$ Spot on with the list of things to consider. Some I realized on my own, such as the tutoring part, but some I didn't think of, like the defensive magic and physical training parts. Exactly what I was asking for. Will also look for an anime version of MHA. $\endgroup$ – Xonok Jul 19 '17 at 14:39
  • $\begingroup$ Dunno, what if a particular mage cast best when drunk? Or when tettering on the edge of sleep? Or if physical exercise takes up valuable motor cortex neurons needed for casting? There are so many scenarios in a non-logical magic system where the above would not be accurate. $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Jul 19 '17 at 17:42
  • $\begingroup$ @SerbanTanasa I was just going off Xonok's statement that magic is an exhaustive mental exercise, I doubt being half asleep will help you cast in this scenario. Nevertheless, that's why self-study is important, so that the "special" ones who don't conform to that rule can identify their own ways of honing their art $\endgroup$ – Jim Wu Jul 19 '17 at 17:53
  • $\begingroup$ Other things to consider, albeit outside the remit of the question: 1) given they're ridonkulously powerful and likely wealthy, why would they become teachers? I'd argue that the "guild"/"wheel group" would have a rule for membership that you're required to spend a certain amount of time teaching. 2) Morality courses, professional ethics classes, dilemma resolution. You agree to a task, then discover it's distasteful. Do you still use your magic as agreed, or withhold it? Mentoring seems the best way to teach the Right Thing To Do, here. $\endgroup$ – Dewi Morgan Jul 20 '17 at 16:51
  • $\begingroup$ This answer is ripped from the anime "Boku no Hero Academia" for sure. $\endgroup$ – Totumus Maximus Jul 21 '17 at 13:45

Consider it like a PhD program, in science. I shall explain! (and I do hold a PhD in a scientific field, if you wonder if I know what I am talking about.)

Given an average level of intellectual capacity, Bachelor's and Master's degrees can be earned by simple memorization and doing the assigned work. You do not have to invent anything, you just need to learn what is there.

The PhD is different (if done honorably): You must make an original contribution to the field, which is obviously inventing something new and cannot just be an assignment or rehash of something others have done. It is also supposed to be the PhD Candidate's original idea, NOT his advisor's idea or an invention.

So what, exactly, does the Advisor (the PhD guiding a Candidate to their own PhD) do in order to help somebody come up with their own original idea?

The answer is, we must be guides. We need to help them explore, keep them focused on a particular aspect of technology that will hold their interest, and guide them in becoming educated enough to know where the edge of that topic lies: Meaning where the problems and shortcomings are. Then we need to help them separate what is plausibly solvable given a few years of full time work, versus what is probably intractable.

Note that we don't know where this is going to end up, either. But the approach consistently works to help them find something original, that can be published in a "good" peer-reviewed journal (along with agreement by their committee, an essential element of proof of originality and a "contribution").

In most cases we want to see explorations result in multiple papers.

Applying that as a metaphor to the learning of magic, you have a similar problem: The teachers do not know exactly, for any given student, what the hell they are going to do to get magic to work. So it is more like a novice going looking for treasure with an expert prospector; somebody that tells you, "You won't find anything there," or "This looks promising." Somebody that can watch you through a series of structured mental exercises to detect any hint of magic, even ones you may not recognize, and say "Okay, stop there. What were you thinking? What were you feeling? Because I'm watching the dust motes in the light, and some of them veered left."

The students have to explore their own mental landscape; but clearly if there are mages, the very first of them must have found their magic on their own, perhaps by accident or luck. The job of the teachers is to increase the odds on accident and luck, not by magic, but by guiding their students through thousands of exercises and thought patterns they might never have experienced without such guidance. Further, even if they did, they may not have been paying attention to some minuscule magical effect, whereas the expert eye of the magician trainer spots the tiny clue and seizes upon it.

  • $\begingroup$ I like that you hashed the point about tutors about further than anyone else here. Especially the part about the tutor observing their students to detect something the students themselves didn't notice. It doesn't require knowing how exactly their magic works and yet is helpful. Have a cookie! $\endgroup$ – Xonok Jul 19 '17 at 17:22
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    $\begingroup$ Though I upvoted an other answer(s) as well, I wish this answer had more votes. $\endgroup$ – Joshua Drake Jul 20 '17 at 15:57
  • $\begingroup$ Terry Pratchett treats magic as what we would call theoretical physics here on Roundworld... right down to liberal use of the word "quantum", and phrases like "the trousers of time"... $\endgroup$ – ivanivan Jul 21 '17 at 2:17

Why is there a picture here of a monkey moving a Robotic Arm? Read to find out!

enter image description here

The study is not so much of magic, but of the student by the teachers

The Wheel Group of powerful witches and warlocks is a conservative bunch (in the sense that they are stingy with the energy used by the nanite network, and in that they wish to maintain the Earth's geological, geographical, political and social status-quo -- i.e. like the continents to stay where they are and so forth).

They cannot afford loose cannons, users who would act recklessly or attempt massive magical effects for no good reason. Therefore candidates are quickly identified and placed under careful observation, whereby exhibiting personality traits like megalomania, impulsivity, quick to anger and such will either disqualify a candidate altogether (a usually lethal cleansing process), or severely limit their nanite network privilege levels.

Having dedicated study areas also ensures that effects (fires, highly energetic discharges, spatio-temporal warpings and the like) are caused under the observation of higher-privilege users who can usually control and turn off accidental reverberating chain reactions, making the learning process safer for students and physical reality alike.

Since the neural firing patterns are unique to each individual, trainees are assigned to teachers who have similar subjective control experiences, but the experience is rarely if ever directly translatable. A good teacher looks for the correlates of better effect triggers and helps the trainee tune that particular state, but there are no textbooks or classical exercises to speak of, and great care must be taken, as effects can be unpredictable.

The mage must grow unto their power, aka train their neural net to interact with the lace to produce desired effect, much like the monkey in the image above getting the treat.

A bit of context for the answer

The reasoning here is simple (well, as magic systems go). It is 1000 years later, and mankind has seen the horrors of the Greater Abomination Wars, when sentient AIs wielding nanotech ruined much of the technological civilization on Earth before being put down. Various artifacts, including the ever-pervasive cloud of self-replicating nanites are actually still very much part of the Earth's ecosystem, still powered by the massive energy drive that the late Em civilization had built in the outer surface of the sun.

The Returned Buffetti and Lasting Muskian lineages (thought to be descendants of powerful men in the Abomination Crisis age, although records were long lost) have the embedded genetic markers that, when detected in a new-born, cause the controller nanites to attach to pre-designated portions of their neo-cortex. Over the centuries since, there seems to have been some degree of both genetic drift in the markers and some replication-error-induced random walk in the core nanite programming (the net effect is a partial match causing a malformed hard to control lace to form, or more worrisome laces that don't respond well to Wheel control algorithms).

Subjectively, the Muskians and Buffetti witches and warlocks grow up hearing voices, and causing small random effects, as the nanite system begins to interact with their wetware (human neural net). The wiring pattern is too complex to be completely described in the nanite programming, so, just like the wiring of the natural human brain, a chaotic-fractal pattern is used instead, causing each wiring diagram to be effectively unique, except in the broad outlines.

At some point (usually by the age of 8) the integration is physically complete and waiting for the activation key and wheel rank assignment to penetrate conscious awareness. Post-activation and privilege level setting, objective effects in reality are triggered by firing patterns from the individual.

The nature of the subjective firing experience varies dramatically. Descriptions of it range from "solving differential equations in one's head", to "dancing patterns in my second body", "having sex with a luminous entity", "picking symbols from a lit-up canvas in my head", with the difficulty of the interactions corresponding to different ability levels by each witch and warlock.

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    $\begingroup$ Your response actually touched on the source of my magic. It is indeed high technology. In my backstory that I don't include in the book I have a generic outline of past events. In essence, there was a high-tech civilization where the tech was way beyond human comprehension. At some point that civilization fell, paving the way for a "magical" world tens of millennia later. In the magical world, no one knows the background of "magic" anymore, but some people still have capability to control it. This stuff is more important for me than the reader though, as I don't plan to reveal it in canon. $\endgroup$ – Xonok Jul 19 '17 at 17:29
  • $\begingroup$ Do you mean “witch” and “warlock” in the denotations popularized by Harry Potter, or in the older nomenclatures? $\endgroup$ – can-ned_food Jul 19 '17 at 20:41
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    $\begingroup$ Have you read "Ra" by Sam Hughes (it's free online)? or "Equal Rites" by Terry Pratchett? Your world has some similarities to each -- and some key differences. $\endgroup$ – Snowbody Jul 19 '17 at 21:58
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    $\begingroup$ @Draconis - wow, the Wheel Group was a good one. Literal jawdrop for a Linux user. Thanks for pointing this out :) $\endgroup$ – Pabru Jul 20 '17 at 0:58
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    $\begingroup$ @Pabru If you haven't already, you really have to read "Ra". It's filled with things like that: for example, magic was discovered on January 1, 1970. qntm.org/ra $\endgroup$ – Draconis Jul 20 '17 at 1:10

So in my works that use magic, magic functions similar to how you're describing... all kinds of systems are functional and there are few hard rules to it. It's been my experience that magic functions in one of two ways: Magic is Physics/Math... it has lots of rules and procedures developed over years of explortation. That which is possible is and that which is not possible is never possible. Your system is the other type, Magic is Biology: There are rules that work, except there is almost always some kind of exception to that rule (the one of my favorites is that all animal cells do not have Chloroplasts... except Cyanobacteria, which is classified (or was) as an animal, but primary enegy source was Chlorophyll).

In the former system, there are books that describe precise form, movement, formula, and technique to invoke the spell... and if done correctly, the spell happens. In the latter, the technique and formual are not important, but the mindset is. Essentially, for this one, it's teaching "think outside the box".

In my own personal system, Magic is derived from systems like Mathmatical Proofs and legal loopholes, rather than a set spell that works. This is because Magic is the powerful belief that the world works on a certain logic. It actually, comes out in planning at some point, that the hardests of sciences are also magic in and of themselves... Physics, Chemistry, and Math are the most commonly accepted maths... many a good wizard are actually the worlds best scientists... they just don't call it magic.

Essentially, what would be magic in this system is the ability to "Reject your Reality and substitute your own." I answered a similar question yesterday about this, but I use the example of making a free-standing door that is in the middle of a field can open to a room unseen, even if you can completely walk around the door. Here, the wizard relied on the nature of what a door is: A passage through an otherwise impassible barrier, and works out that just because there is no barrier that he can precieve with his senses, it does not mean that the door is not passing through a barrier that exists beyond his senses. Either there is an illusion, or the door opens in a direction that is not 4 Dimensional in space-time. Thus, by accepting that the door must always function as an opening in a barrier, he can use it to open to a barrier he cannot percieve through normal senses. Meanwhile, your muggle is a practitionare of physics and so entrenched in that system, that the thought of a door fuctioning that way is absurd and the door will never work like that for him.

Similarly, in this system, breaking a spell relies on understanding the logic of the Mage behind it and exploiting that logic to find a loophole. In fact, a truly logical magic is impossible because the whole system operates on magic logic... thus, if a mage can "prove" his spell is possible, the quickest counter is to "prove" a condition that is impossible. Simpler spells require less of a leap in logic than complex spells, and thus are a bit harder to counter directly, but do less damage. A complex spell might be highly dangerous to those affected, but also are filled with holes that are just waiting to be abused.

This makes the system less about genetics and destiny and more about mindset and imagination. Anyone can be a Mage does not mean it's easy to learn this mindset. But it also doesn't limit some of the best Wizards having science backgrounds.

Teaching such a system would look more like a law school: Law schools don't teach laws, which are subject to change by legislatures and judges, but law theory and logic. After you get that degree and pass the bar, your employer will teach you more practical aplications (such as court room procedures and laws related to their practice). Like your magic system, there are few rules that can't be loopholed if you have a good mage/lawyer... but what makes a mage/lawyer isn't so much knowing the system, but knowing the system well enough to get away with it. It's been said "Good Lawyers know the Law. Great Lawyers know the Judge". Any lawyer can file a motion to dismiss evidence... but the lawyer that figures out the judge trying the case is more receptive to the defendant after his lunch recess is going to get paid better because he can be more successful. It's not illegal... it's barely even an ethical concern... but a happy/grumpy judge is not something that many lay people are aware of.

This still allows for big tomes of magical knowledge. Merlin might have been a great Wizard and came up with many powerful spells, but to truly be powerful when dealing with Merlin's spells, you need to understand the way Merlin thought. It's not so much here is how Merlin's spell works but here's WHY Merlin's spell works.

Some courses to consider:

  • Logic (You cannot reject logic if you do not understand how it operates) and Magic Logic (may take the form of "Wax on Wax off, Daniel-San" and "Try not. Do or Do Not, there is no Try" and "There is No Spoon" sage like non-sense babble... it's primary purpose is to teach people how to unlearn things.).
  • Spells, Basic, Intermediate, Advanced (teaches some common spells, their logics, their flaws, and their counters. Higher classes up the complexities and the ability to integrate two logicals that should not work together).
  • Geometry (mostly taught because it's proof heavy).
  • "Traditional" Magic School courses. A Defense against the Dark Arts might deal with certain malicious theories. If magical flora and fauna exist in your world, they must have their own magic logic too them... since they are not nessearily self aware, these logics might be as hard for the life form to reject.). Transfiguration would focus on accepting the fuidity of the phsycial form (if you're rejecting physics, than that means that which is physical is not subject to pesky things like conservation of matter/energy but keeping the mind intact is difficult.).
  • Specialization would probably take the form of an apprenticeship to an accomplished master... these could probably take the form of the Master first recognizing the pupils propensity for creative logic that is like the Master's own, sponsering his pupil's classroom education, then apprenticing the pupil in order to teach the pupil his own school of magic and allowing the pupil to develop a unique magic unto the pupil.


So I didn't mean this to act as a counter to your system. I agree it works well with yours. My point is in writing a magic system, there are one of two ways. The physics one describes something like Harry Potter, where magic works because of a defined system of rules. Understanding how magic works is not necessary to the story as it's about using tools for good and evil purposes (or more right and easy as conflicting ideas).

Your system I would liken more to Avatar: The Last Airbender. What makes a bender verses a non-bender is never explained, but benders are clearly shown to need certain mindsets to use their skills. No one style is shown to be superior and the series puts great emphasis on both fundamental perception of how a skill works, greater understanding of your own school allowing for more specialized skills (the sub-bending styles), and understanding different schools allowing out of the box thinking to develop new skills. For example, the user is shown that Waterbending incorperates water as either ice or liquid water. So when we're introduced to the idea of pulling warter from the air, the viewer can see the logical flow. By showing that waterbending works on pushing and pulling the water, we can later accept that it can be pushed and pulled from a closed system, such as a vine, which allows us to accept plantbending. And by accepting that water can be bent without being seen inside of a closed system AND that water can be used to heal the body, we're able to accept the concept of Bloodbending. Likewise, we are given logical progression of "Earthbending was developed by mimicking blind badger-moles" to "An Earthbender can use the earth to see by the vibrations" to "An Earthbender who by vibrations in solid materials can see impurities in metal, allowing her to accomplish the previously impossible techinique of bending metal." There is also examples where Aang has to master a techinque by defying a much more ingrained idea, and Korra incorperating a new concept in order to master an old concept she had difficulty understanding. In order to understand these accomplishments and why they are significant, you have to understand how the system works to some degree of physics. The show has demonstrated numerous times that no one bending school is inherintly superior (or even lacking in a bending school) but rather that it was the skill, cleverness, and technique of the individuals that won out. As codified in the Episode "Sokka's Master" Sokka wasn't selected to be taught because he knew all about sword fighting like all the other potential pupils that sought the titular master, but rather he was selected because he was able to admit he knew enough to know he knew nothing about it, which proved to the master that Sokka would be more receptive to his teachings specifically because Sokka was aware of his limitations in the field.

For this style of magic, again, it's not about memorizing and regurgitating a spell, but teaching mindsets that can make you open to the possibilties of magic. Your lessons should give the pupil, and thus audience, an insite into a new way of thinking.

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    $\begingroup$ As I understand it, you go to great depth about how your system works precisely because it's the opposite of my own in some ways. The intention being that by seeing the opposite, I can better define my own system. Although you said you use an opposing kind of magic, I don't actually see it as conflicting. It's just that the implementation in my system can vary widely, somewhat like how computers need drivers to function. I imagine some schools do teach a logic-based kind of magic, essentially focusing on creating "drivers", so spells could be designed for a specific kind of logic. $\endgroup$ – Xonok Jul 19 '17 at 14:22
  • $\begingroup$ Well, muggles as such do no exist in my system, because anyone can theoretically use magic. There is no known impediment to learning magic, other than flat out being too stupid to use your mind. The difficulty in getting started is more about the lack of direction, because before you have learned at least some magic it is incredibly hard to determine how your magic works. Thus, trying to teach it would be like taking pot shots at a flea from long range. Very few who are dedicated are unable to learn magic, but the complexity can shoo away many. $\endgroup$ – Xonok Jul 19 '17 at 14:47
  • $\begingroup$ Edit to clarify... we are operating on a very similar system then. I'm just speaking form a storyteller perspective without offering examples. I guess at heart, these questions are an example of the system in action... It's hard to conceptualize a magical school with this system, because so many schools (especially in America) rely on regugitating formula, not asking a deeper question. Boiled down, a magic school in this system will teach "How to think" not "what to do", which is a difficult lesson and hard to wrap into a class room. But not impossible. I'd also suggest small classes. $\endgroup$ – hszmv Jul 19 '17 at 15:19
  • $\begingroup$ Whoa — Harry Potter magic is systemically rules–based? I mean, maybe you could make rules to fit the whole system, but I doubt even JKR did that. She avowed any concern with whether the magic in her stories could even possibly exist, so I take from that a confirmation that the apparent arbitrariness is there because she made it that way. Of course, there are many who know those stories better than I. I yet upvote your answer, but — heh. $\endgroup$ – can-ned_food Jul 20 '17 at 18:21
  • $\begingroup$ @can-ned_food Rowling has said that she never made rules for how magic works beyond what is required and what can and cannot be done because it wasn't necessary to the plot. That doesn't mean it doesn't have some mechanism behind it... just that its not necessary to know to read the story. For a book about living in a magic school, we are rarely treated to a magic lesson (when we are, it's normally potions, which is little different than chemistry or cooking). What little we see is formula of some kind and revolves around doing the formula correctly (It's pronounced Wingardian LEVI-osa). $\endgroup$ – hszmv Jul 20 '17 at 19:00

Yes, the majority of what the magic schools teaches is just theory and memorization, but every great school has at least one teacher who knows mind magic. Mind magic is a subtle and delicate craft which allows the caster to merge two or more minds into a communal psychic conversation.

The mind mage creates the conversation then invites in a group of students and at least one other teacher, who will act as the presenter during the lesson. That other teacher then slowly moves through the mental process of casting the subject spell. All the other conversation attendees can "see" how the presenter's mind is working and can feel the magical energies being channeled through it. As the subject spell is cast, each student learns how it "feels" to cast it, and thereby has a much greater chance of being able to cast it back in the real world.

The greatest among the mind mages can even narrate during the experience, pointing out specific subtleties of the casting, allowing the presenter to concentrate solely on the spell.

In non-teaching environments, mind mages are even more valuable. A regular trained mage can cast a fire ball which can ignite a wooden barracade, but a mind mage can unite the efforts of a dozen or more trained mages such that they can work in perfect synchronization. Together, they can cast a fire ball which can incinerate a stone castle.

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    $\begingroup$ Now that is a way I didn't consider at all. I even have a mage that can do that, so this way of using her magic comes as an especially big surprise. If a mage were to witness someone else's mental processes it wouldn't immediately tell them how to cast the same spell, because each mage is different, but I imagine it could be useful as a learning aid. Awesome suggestion. $\endgroup$ – Xonok Jul 19 '17 at 14:02
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    $\begingroup$ Since your magic works differently within the mind of each caster, you might want multiple presenter/teacher mages within the psychic conversation. They could each demonstrate the same spell in their own unique way, allowing the students to see the differences and choose a favorite from among the the demonstrated techniques. This would also allow for an underdog character whose mind doesn't work like any of the available teachers and who therefore doesn't seem as talented as the rest of their class, but whose potential exceeds them all, once the right teacher joins the school. $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Jul 19 '17 at 14:13
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    $\begingroup$ And having multiple teachers demonstrate the same thing also allows comparing them. If you can see the same thing done in multiple ways, you have a better chance of seeing the true logic behind it. I like that idea. $\endgroup$ – Xonok Jul 19 '17 at 14:36

You operate on whatever level of abstraction is predictable.

Consider a historical analogy:

Alchemists realized that you could combine different substances to get certain effects, and studied what combinations produced what effects. There was a fair amount of mysticism involved, but the good ones performed experiments and recorded the data that eventually allowed the development of...

Chemistry broke down the molecules into their component elements and determined what properties caused certain elements to bond with others. A critical component in molecular bonds is the number of electrons in the outer orbital, and in turn the number of electrons that can exist in each orbital and the order in which they are filled. The observed patterns also allowed the construction of periodic tables in the 18th and 19th centuries that predicted the discovery of yet-undiscovered elements that would explain gaps in the patterns. Chemists could accurately state the nuclear and electron structure of each element, but couldn't explain why they worked that way until...

Quantum Mechanics gave us the Pauli Exclusion Principle, in which the orbitals are explained as being due to the inability for two electrons to exist in both the same location and same quantized energy states. This is (to first approximation) the root cause of just about everything relating to molecular bonding, which is in turn the cause of chemical reactions.

The Pauli Exclusion Principle was discovered in 1925. There are records of alchemical experiments going back as far as 300 BCE. At that point in time, the underlying principles were so far beyond the science of the time that they may as well have been magic. So they instead looked at higher and higher abstraction levels until they got to something they could reason about and make predictions about. You teach at that level, and perform research at a level just a little bit lower.

  • $\begingroup$ Nice progression. A note which seems to me pertinent: Remember that there were two classes of alchemy: transcendental — seeking the transmutation of the soul through understanding the alchemical mechanisms — and practical — seeking to transmute baser metals, like iron, to gold. Ahem. Also, as someone I knew once said, transmutation was indeed later discovered — but it required nuclear reägents, not chemical ones. $\endgroup$ – can-ned_food Jul 20 '17 at 3:51
  • $\begingroup$ @can-ned_food I find it amusing that in an answer where I briefly discuss quantum mechanics, I get called out for oversimplifying the alchemy. :-) $\endgroup$ – Ray Jul 20 '17 at 20:58
  • $\begingroup$ Seems like a reasonable way. I imagine different schools of thought will exist that each try to understand magic through their own ways. However, their teachings will not be possible to standardize, because their different methods produce different results and appear to have different logic. Just like how Alchemy competed with other disciplines of the time and it wasn't obvious how they would fit together. Essentially, instead of going from learning the mechanics, which I denied in the question, you propose starting from the other side and working back to whatever level of abstraction works. $\endgroup$ – Xonok Jul 25 '17 at 6:42

The Anime Fairy Tail has Guilds that Wizards of pretty much any age can join. I think you'd want something similar, a sort of dojo that tries to guide each Witch / Wizard and help them hone their own innate abilities and use of magic, rather than a traditional "school" that teaches everyone the same set curriculum.

"Teach the child, not the subject", as they say.

  • $\begingroup$ I have watched quite a lot of Fairy Tail and that was actually a great inspiration. I didn't like how arbitrary magic in Fairy Tail was, but the general idea and some applications were very useful. If I hadn't watched Fairy Tail, this would certainly be a good suggestion, so I'll mark it as useful. $\endgroup$ – Xonok Jul 19 '17 at 14:10

This kind of sounds like faith

We have, in our world, theological schools where religion is studied academically. However, you can't teach faith. You can teach the religion, the tenets, the symbols, practices and so forth, but you cannot teach faith in them. You cannot academically convince someone to believe that something is real and powerful and meaningful; they have to come to it on their own.

In the same way, your magic-users will study magic academically - practices, rituals, symbolism, and application - but the magic will come from within. This isn't something taught in the classroom, but rather manifests between the classes. It will come from conversing with other students of different backgrounds and experiences, seeking help from mentors and teachers, and finding meaning in one's own experiences. Academics will help guide them there, but exposure to the collective wisdom of the school will allow them to internalize it.

In this way, your "trigger" (for lack of a better term) will be something akin to a faithful person's conviction - that unshakeable certainty of the truth of their beliefs. Also like the conviction of the faithful, the deep-rooted magic within a person will stem from feelings and experiences unique to each person.

In summary, you don't teach these students, objectively, to feel their magic. You teach them the "academic" part of magical study and allow them space and guidance to find their magic within themselves.

  • $\begingroup$ Faith is indeed quite similar. I don't know as much about other faiths, but among christians I have seen some great mental feats that they couldn't have achieved without the structuring and discipline their faith gave. Yet, this is exactly the part of christianity that is least noticeable. In a sense, any mental discipline works like that. You can't really teach someone how to be a better person, unless they work with you. $\endgroup$ – Xonok Jul 25 '17 at 6:45

First, I would recommend that you redefine the distinction between ‘science’ and ‘magic’.

Simply because something has a logical framework doesn't mean that it can't be mysterious. If some pattern requires a total observation of 2 miles to perceive a tessellating unit, but you can only perceive half a mile at all — and 20 yards at any moment, — then you'll never see the whole pattern.
You may know how it works, but your characters and viewers | readers | actors do not.

Maybe, quite simply, your people don't have access to the techniques required to adequately study the so–called magicks. So, though to others it would be understood as science, to those people it will never be known well enough.
Add to that wars and cabals and cabale, and you get something mysterious.
Of course, if your purpose is to convey awe to your audience, then having only the people in your world see as wondrous those magical explosions or flashes doesn't cut the mustard (whatever that phrase means). So, don't make it like anything that your audience would see as recognizable: Using nanites — as another answer suggested — or alien chemical elements or bizarre, outré colours out of space should be adequate.
Keep in mind, of course, that fireballs and lightning from fingertips, if not properly contrasted with the more mundane things in your world, will appear cliché to your audience regardless of the difficulty at duplicating such things in our world. Almost everyone has been exposed to Force powers or magic fireballs.
Bottom line: Don't make it ironic nor contrite.

Furthermore, I would cite examples like Tesla and Greek Fire and the more practical forms of alchemy. Those are things which seemed bizarre and wondrous at one time, but now are taken for granted. Well, except for some of Tesla's accomplishments, which have not yet been explained.

Another possible system, and rather similar, is to base the success or results of your magic on the whims of deities or demi-urges; the latter would be preferable if including the personalities and attentions of deities would be too much for your story as a small subset of its greater world, but you can tweak just how attentive and responsive are your deities.
Certain rituals could possibly attract the attentions of certain deities — or maybe not, if the deities are in an unpredictable mood or are not paying attention at the time.

I've posted similar thoughts and considerations here:

Additional reading, if you like.


I think your question is a bit too blurry for a useful answer.

You did not say if there is any kind of effort, or mastery over your body/mind, or discipline required to cast spells (if the individual can). What i mean is :

If it is literally simply 'imagine what you want and it pops right up', it's useless to be taught, in the same way it's useless to follow a course to learn how to walk: it is basic enough to be taught by people who are not pros (you pretty much just have to learn the 'meditation' process, and the rest is up to your imagination. If casting spells requires you to concentrate, say, to cast bigger spells you need discipline and mastery over what you want, then there is a point in teaching it: you could imagine schools that discipline you, teachers who are expert in materializing what you want ... It is useful to be taught if it is complicated (or if it can become dangerous very easily).

Just like economics or psychology, you need to have a feeling, or knowledge that comes with time, but there are still basics about how humans react in general, how they behave in front of a problem: they study what is around this, and not the core process.

EDIT : after further development, i believe i can now give you an answer.

To get some kind of WoW-kind magic, you can take ideas out of a lot of fantasy works.

Magic asks you for energy, and skill. Your schools can be very practical (very Harry Potter-like) :

To put it simply, they just go in rooms where they cast spells, to train, and mixed with sports, combat, and mental exercises to increasy their stamina and mental capabilities

Non-practical teaching should therefore be near-inexistant, given the theory is pretty easy : you want to do something, and it happens.

This way you create very endurant magicians, combined with great mental strength and focus. The more endurant/focused they are, the better they cast.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Having magic like that would go so deep into handwavium that it would invalidate the original question. Clarified. Responding directly to this post, magic is vastly affected by the skill of the user, but most mages are somewhere near the average(as with any skill). As such, teaching is useful if you can manage to do it somehow. There would be no point in the original question if that weren't the case. $\endgroup$ – Xonok Jul 19 '17 at 12:10
  • $\begingroup$ Here is where i find it blurry : what skills do you talk about ? Do they have to have a clear image of what they want to do ? Do they have to be very concentrated ? Does it drains some of their strength/is it tiresome ? $\endgroup$ – General Baguettson Jul 19 '17 at 13:12
  • $\begingroup$ It's the classical fireball-flinging kind of magic. Think of World of Warcraft. Different kinds of mages exist; some able to morph themselves, some good at support, some with high offensive power. The type of a mage largely depends on what they have bothered to learn. As an example, my main character can create lightning from his hands, shoot fireballs, set himself on fire without taking damage, etc. To cast spells they don't need to imagine what they are doing. I'll change the main post, not enough space here. $\endgroup$ – Xonok Jul 19 '17 at 13:27

Rote memorization is a sign of a bad teacher most of the time, especially when teaching a skill and not just information. You are trying to teach a skill. You might look at more modern teaching methods. Your problem does not seem all that different than teaching any complex skill. Art might be a good place to start, very subjective, but it can still be taught. Things like differential learning and problem based learning should apply well.

For example I cannot tell you exactly how to to write a good essay there are just too many variables, but I do know what a good one looks like, and I can help you identify and solve problems, I can warn you about common pitfalls,I can do demonstrations, I can even present you with problems you will have to overcome in your own way. Human brains share many commonalities so teaching a skill will still have commonalities that can be taught.


This type of magic sounds remarkably similar to the Old World of Darkness game, Mage the Ascension.

Mages are reality warpers, but none of them get it. They are extremely divided on how magic works. Some groups of them think its God answering their prays, some think they are exploiting the matrix and everything in between. Teaching kinda works but its mostly guidelines to and learning when to duck and run.

All their practices work, because they think they should work...ish. Magic is as tricky in the system as reality warping aught to be, given a moments thought.

  • $\begingroup$ I've actually encountered this system, but to me it was too arbitrary. Having things works simply because you wish them to would not engage me as a reader, so I choose to have my magic make more sense than that, instead of fundamentally changing reality to light a candle. $\endgroup$ – Xonok Jul 25 '17 at 7:11

It does not sound difficult.

You could think of magic as some difficult sportive discipline, like contortionism: it exists, it works.. not everyone will be able to do it. Some people may be able to do something, but only few people are able to do really complicated things, and it takes them effort. And there can be many other examples of things that work like this in our world. Even just being able to sing well works like that, to an extent.

Or, for more randomness, you could think of something more like Discworld. There is magic, there are school of magic.. but most of the time the magic seems to have a life on its own, and not really follow rules.

  • $\begingroup$ That is at its core how magic in my world is, but you don't really explain the how's and why's of learning or teaching it. $\endgroup$ – Xonok Jul 25 '17 at 7:08

Borrowing from Serban Tanasa 's answer, how about you let the magic choose the users? A pre-programmed cloud of nanites that requires a specific set of neurological makeup or DNA sequence or other biological identifier. Maybe it's a symbiosis where the nanites flourish in a specific host. Perhaps a certain mental makeup (e.g. person who've seen a lot of hardship) is favorable to them. They attach to the specific "chosen one"'s brain and work their, ahem, magic.

This can make magic and its forms part hereditary. Maybe using the magic eats away at a person's sanity (brain) and only some are capable of withstanding it. Build up a prophecy about an offspring of that ancient great king that will save the land with the celestial power and you're all set.

  • $\begingroup$ That is scarily close to what magic really is in my setting. But no one knows what it is and the hereditary part was assimilated so much time ago that the majority of people have it, so it's not considered special. The few people that don't have this would be considered defective, if the reason was known. $\endgroup$ – Xonok Jul 25 '17 at 7:05
  • $\begingroup$ If I read you right, you're looking to keep magic (or science, or reoccurring phenomena) mystical, a romanticized idea of power and mysticism. You just need to keep much of the explanations hidden from the characters but not necessarily from the readers. Drop hints of how the magic is really effected by/effecting life, like a catalyst or triggers (e.g proximity to a radioactive green glowing stone) that to the characters seem mystic, but the readers get that these have to do with cause and effect = science. Consider that science can be seen as magical, in our great unknown of a multiverse :-) $\endgroup$ – Nahshon paz Jul 25 '17 at 14:06

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