I hope this isn't too broad, but the idea is to apply this into a manageable game system - however, I want it to be believable. This is superseding the idea of "belief" makes magic, magic is a physical thing in the universe that exists regardless of belief and cares not of intention or morality. Theoretically, one could accidentally stumble upon new magic.

The overall setting would be that of a high-fantasy world, with ancient technology mixed in (like our modern) that comes from an unknown period. While it would be easy to say "this does x magic because that's what they're trained in", but I find myself thinking what makes magic manifest, and then hard to master?

My thought process is somewhere along the idea that, starting out simple, a single rune would be drawn with a finger. upon further mastery, a user could combine all sorts of magical arts, from spoken Words of Power, to channeling their "energy" into runes/weapons/objects.

But specifically:

What makes spoken magic difficult? It couldn't be hard to just repeat a simple phrase, so how could it become a skill to master?

Related questions

I split the original question into a series of specific questions. Please also see:

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    $\begingroup$ Even with something as simple as speaking a foreign language, it is hard "to just repeat a simple phrase" until you are sufficiently advanced. What if you are required to repeat it perfectly and without a hint of accent? $\endgroup$
    – Headcrab
    Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 2:59

20 Answers 20


What makes spoken magic difficult?

The length.
A spell requires a specific incantation. More complex spell has more complex magical phrases. That's why summoning a meteor requires a full 30 minute speech. Anyone can do it, if they can remember the exact phrases on a full 10 pages.

Timing. You need to say the phrase in under x seconds. For a very complex spell, you may need to say it on exact x seconds. That's why Musica kingdom handles difficult spells better than other kingdom.

Pronunciation. It's hard to learn only from literature, as the language contains many homographs.

Tonal Language. The magic language might be a Tonal Language. Same words in different tone has different meaning.

  • $\begingroup$ not to mention the fact for the entire 30 minutes you need to be drawing intricate runes in the air with your hands and if you get an angle on one of the lines slightly wrong it spoils the spell $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 20:20
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    $\begingroup$ I would add to this... rhythm and precision... one misspoken or off-beat word could cause the spell to be inert (or catastrophic if very unlucky). $\endgroup$
    – Phil M
    Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 0:08
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    $\begingroup$ Meteor Strike takes only 9 pages of spellbook.giantitp.com/comics/oots0306.html $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 1:45
  • $\begingroup$ Because midichlorians! Sorry, I just couldn't resist. ;) $\endgroup$
    – JVC
    Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 20:03
  • $\begingroup$ This answer reminds me of how Jack Vance's magic worked in his dying earth stories $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 25, 2022 at 18:25

Well, youngling, to explain why that is, is easy, yeh, but to understand is hard. To master it, impossible for you, so listen closely, yeh, because I will not repeat it.

Magic works on the Ether Plane, which permeates everything. Yeh, everything. No, stop looking, it's not visible, dummy. There's always magic, everywhere, yeh, and everything we do influences it, and is influenced by it, but to make it visibly and palpably manifest in the Sullied Plane, yeh, the Ether has to be manipulated into Interference.

Everything has to add up in the right way. Sometimes the Ether will do that on its own, and nobody knows why. Yes, yes, maybe it's the gods. But listen now. The Enlightened have learned through the eons, yeh, how to influence the Ether into Interference. The Masters of the Enlightened are extremely powerful, because the Interference they may achieve is perfect. All the laymen and the novices think there's tricks, but there isn't, yeh, because the less perfect you construct the Interference, the more it resembles just the regular noise and chaos in the Ether, yielding nothing on the Sullied Plane, or child's plays' tricks at best.

The easiest way would be to draw ancient runes with pigment made from the shells of a million, yeh, Whisper Bugs. Wait, it's not simple to draw runes, but of all the ways to reach Interference, the runes are the easiest to get right, because it's about getting the geometry right, with the strokes applied in the correct order and on the right timing, pushing the Ether, caressing it with the pigment, to yield to the idea of Interference. There's books that you can study in detail, and their parchment is very patient, yeh, very, so you get the most stoic of all teachers in them, and unlimited tries -- if you can afford the pigment.


Then there's the Spoken Word. Like I said, yeh, the Ether influences everything, and everything influences the Ether. For most words uttered on the Sullied Plane, the Ether just moves away from it, yeh, disgusted. But sometimes, it seems to get curious, and lets itself push to Interference, when the right formulas are recited in just the right way, yeh, with perfect timing. Get the tones wrong, the ordering, yeh, or speak to loud or to weak, and all you get is noise and chaos in both Planes. Now you don't need Whisper Bugs to try this, yeh, but to get the incantations right, a Master would have to teach you. Again. And again, yeh. And if you lack the talent, they'll quickly, yeh, grow frustrated to speak magic before you again and again. The Masters have learned ages ago that only one Sullied, yeh, in each generation develops the talent to truly replicate the utterings or -even rarer- find new things to say, so they'll not even bother to begin teaching most of them who seek their wisdom. Least of which would be you, yeh.

So now you know, but you don't know. Run, look for your mother. She's taking way too long with the wine, yeh.


You can answer all questions about magic once you realize that magic is just plain programming.

Now, magic incantations are your REPL. They can be easy or difficult, they can be written, told or drawn (gestures in the air). It all depends on the programs you have access to!

So you will spend nights preparing spells (programs, hopefully powerful and smart programs), and make them easy to invoke with a simple command language (using various modality, so that you can invoke them as conspicuously or inconspicuously as the situations require).

And the difficulty lies in there: as a good programmer^W magician, you are able to write new programs^W spells on the spot. But you can make typoes, or small mistake, overlooking some detail (programming on the spot, under pressure, is not the same as programming and debugging nightfuls).

The only thing we're missing to implement full magic with our current technology, is some nanobots to be able to manipulate the matter around us quickly and inconspicuously. And of course, our iOS or Android devices are not programmable by the user (they're not magicians!), so they cannot use them as their own magic sticks, but have to use the canned magic we provide them.

You could think that a good NLP system hooked with some AI would solve all those UI problems. Well, try to use Siri or its competitor some time! ah! https://youtu.be/KeBYsOlwWwk?t=92

And seriously, you can take all the occurence of magic in traditional tales and analyse them as programming and computing technology (plus nanobots which unfortunately are still vaporware for the moment, but most magic doesn't even rely on nanobots).

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    $\begingroup$ Actually many people think that "Programming is the closest thing we have to magic". So a +1 $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 2:22
  • $\begingroup$ Rick Cook wrote a whole series based on this idea in the 80s.... $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 25, 2022 at 19:22

What makes spoken magic difficult?[...] how could it become a skill to master?

You could base the spells on an ancient language that has many variations and depending on how you make up your sentences, the result would be very different. The variations might be located in the pronunciation, context (words applying differently depending on the environment for instance), a large vocabulary (that would require time to master) and maybe simply having the good phrasing.

To explain myself, take a look at Latin : I'm sure it takes time to learn it, even more to master it and know all the subtleties.

Air-Drawn magic to call upon elements. Would it be something that could be combined like a written language - would there be cursive or other variations in writing ?

Eventually, rune construction could be based on that too. They could draw a first symbol and then add up stuff, building up the spell as they draw. For instance to make a Fireball it could be possible to draw the symbol of a flame (which could be anything in that old language),then a circle around it and cross it to throw it out / Or you could start with a ball, lighting it on fire and then throw it - then it's up to you to decide if a method is more powerful/ Time saving / Energy saving / etc.

Extending on that, how would a simple Rune or Symbol actually translate into a certain action or elemental manifestation? [...]

Well I've been a bit premature on the last question but it would be possible that since the magician is casting the symbols it is also linked in some way with his spirit.

Hope I'm helping you out a little.

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    $\begingroup$ This definitely helps, you've gotten me thinking and extending on: If magic is similar to a program, simply trying to find a pattern among an environment, perhaps it executes an action based on "certainty" that the spoken word/written rune is what it looks like. Extending on your spoken dialect, those who most closely speak like the original language could have strong Impact in their speech, opening up a lot of doors for magic-enhanced speech and charisma. Also I LOVE your thoughts on, say, a circle around a symbol making it thrown. Thanks for the thoughts! $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 24, 2017 at 19:21
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    $\begingroup$ Even makes me think... one could "throw" surface runes. Perhaps, encase a series of runes in the rune for engraving, and encase all of that into a circle, which would throw the engrave-enable runes, and once it reaches a surface it would engrave it... This sounds a lot like just programming if-then statements, Thanks for your insight! This has helped me grasp what magic means in my world! $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 24, 2017 at 19:25
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    $\begingroup$ Like building up a program with functions, that has parameters... And if the magician don't know the library, he might not know how to use them ! Great concept ! $\endgroup$
    – CageyCat
    Commented Aug 24, 2017 at 19:29
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    $\begingroup$ The question has been updated. $\endgroup$
    – Vylix
    Commented Aug 24, 2017 at 20:37
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    $\begingroup$ Also imagine if you had to be textbook perfect with the language without a trace of accent or else it doesn't work. make it a logographic writing system for greater difficulty. If you don't just have to speak the language but speak it perfectly it makes it far more difficult. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 0:09

Flex your brain muscles

Humans have brains that evolved to do some thing well, like pattern recognition , and other things not so well, like risk assessment.

Make your magic system use a piece of the brain that it just isn't good at, making your user devote greater amounts of resources to continue the practice.

This is your system so you can hand wave an area your humans are poor at understanding and claim your magic requires that they do it. This also gives you the opportunity to explain why another race or species would be good at your magic.

  • $\begingroup$ This also provides a good tie-in to genetic influences: some families find it really easy to learn $school magic ... $\endgroup$
    – o11c
    Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 21:02

It is quite difficult for native english speakers to pronounce the german 'ch', like in 'ich'; same for french speakers to pronounce the english 'h', like in 'hear'; or the spanish 'r' like in 'roto'.
Just collect a dozen of those, and it takes weeks to months of training to pronounce even a short sentence so it sounds correct (=indistinguishable from native speakers) - some people never master it in their whole life.

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    $\begingroup$ This ability to pronounce (or not) sounds from different languages is about what you hear (or don't) during a critical period in infancy. In a world where magic is common this explanation might hold for non-magical families, but children growing up in a magical household would be able to pronounce all the requisite sounds flawlessly $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 5, 2017 at 12:09

Magic is intoxicating. This is why so many people want to do it and so many people are so bad at it.

Each syllable of a spell has an additive, and (most importantly) immediate effect. The longer the spell, the drunker you get, and the more likely you are to slur or otherwise fumble later syllables of the spell. Usually when this happens, the spell just fizzles, although the hangovers are very bad. Sometimes however, something happens, but not what the spell caster intended. Some people have even blown themselves up.

Note that the effect only happens when the spells are voiced. Saying them in your head to memorize them has no effect. So most people know several spells perfectly well, but can't manage to pull them off.

Like practiced drunks, practiced magicians can overcome the effect, but even they struggle with very long spells.


Understanding the Science behind

For example you wish to make a little rock:

  • You need to understand from what material and how this behave and form at atomic level
  • What keeps them together, if it needs a special temperature or some impurity to hold together
  • If it needs extra presion, or the amount of time it would require to take a specific form naturally.

All that information could be learned, but with more complicated actions or things, it would become incredible harder, near to imposible for normal people.

Sorry for some IT example but it would be like bringing a new Virtual Machine to your environment. Making it interact with everything around it like has always being there take real experience and knowledge, just like magic. :)

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    $\begingroup$ Ahhhh, Virtual machine makes a ton of sense to me! I'm a programmer myself, hence my attempt to relate magic to a program passively looking for a pattern (i.e. autocorrect). Thanks for putting the science into perspective - someone who knows what they're doing would know the shortcuts and required materials/environments/combinations to build it already, and just commit their knowledge from memory. Thanks! $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 24, 2017 at 19:15
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    $\begingroup$ @MackenzieFritschle glad that I could help you! $\endgroup$
    – Tridam
    Commented Aug 24, 2017 at 19:26
  • $\begingroup$ Don't feel the need to remove this just yet, but I have updated my question, and will continue making more whenever SE lets me, would you like to break up your answer and post the other segments into my new threads? The next one I am making will be pertaining to the stuff in your answer, if you could move it to that question once it is up! I'll notify you via comment. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 24, 2017 at 20:47
  • $\begingroup$ I have updated with the latest link, which I believe is a better place for your answer! If you could, remove it from here and place it there? $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 24, 2017 at 21:11

There are a number of ways to make magic difficult to perform.

  1. For spoken magic CageyCat has already covered having a very complex language that is required. I'd suggest a second or alternative method is that used by Ursula Le Guin in the Earthsea books, which is that all objects (and people) have a secret name that you need to know to be able to work magic on them or with them. These words would need to be learned through a variety of means and passed down (jealously) from master to apprentice. This could mean that all but the most basic actions require words not yet learnt to perform, limiting magic to a set of actions.

  2. Another limiting factor could be willpower. You speak the right words but you still need to be able to provide the power for the spell yourself. This requires training and practise, so any novice who picks up the spell for destroying a city can read it, but not imbue it with the power required to cast it.

  3. Make failing a spell costly. As in do it right or you risk killing yourself (and maybe everyone around you), many magic systems do this (Warhammer Fantasy comes to mind, where miscasts can summon demons to kill you) and it means while mages and wizards are very powerful they are also walking a fine line between wielding that power correctly and death.

  • $\begingroup$ Hi! I have updated my question, and will continue making more whenever SE lets me, would you like to break up your answer and post the other segments into my new threads? (more coming up) $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 24, 2017 at 20:45
  • $\begingroup$ @MackenzieFritschle Yeah, no problem $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 24, 2017 at 20:51

You may have something similar to what I proposed for air-signs (uniformity is a good thing!): uttered magic is a specific phrase in an arcane and not easy to master language.

You can learn the sounds by heart, but it will sound false as when someone tries to read a phrase in a language he does not really understand.

In that case spell might still work (barring major pronunciation mistakes), but it wouldn't have the power of the same phrase read aloud by a professional actor (magician) mother tongue in the "true speech" (or whatever you want to call it).

Between two extremes there are all variation in fluidity, accent rhythm, cadence, accent, etc.

You can have has many variations and as many difficulty levels as you need/please.


It is much more dangerous

One slip of the tounge and if your pronunciation isn't perfect, the spell doesn't work the way you want it. You could accidentally use the wrong parameters, the wrong spell, or even the wrong target. Your firebolt could end up hitting you instead. You could teleport yourself into a wall. You could accidentally use an unknown spell on yourself with no known cure, or a spell with no or difficult cure.


I'm not sure if I got the question, but I'll try give a good answer anyway. Sorry about my bad english, I an trying to do my best here.

Quantum Field

Magic is usually defined as a way to manipulate the laws of the universe(or smartly use them) as far as I know, this is not so different from science.

So you can use the Quantum field theory to build a some “Magic Field” theory. And make things predictable for the player for he feels like is mastering magic.

In short the quantum Field theory tells that every point on space has some special properties, separated by fields(you can think in this as layers for simplicity), each field is the home of some type of elementary particle which like properties, can have a numeric “particleness” of its kind such as the electron particle field where an electron is just a location with a high value of “electoness”.

Is there a way more fields, each one can interact with other and give complex behaviors.

You can find out more on Wikipedia.

Adaptation to magic

So if we change some stuff like give new fancy names it can give us a great magic system Since the electron is already related to electricity, we can name it as lightning element.

The magnetic field(where is home of the photon) is tightly related to the electron field, and makes sense for the player because lightnings makes bright light, but the reverse may still works so light element can make lightning element, it will make even more easy for the player discover that relation(but not to master).

And even is all other particle fields to play like quarks that are elementary like the electron but can join together to form other types of particles like protons and neutrons.

Protons and neutrons are hardron types which has much mass that come not from its quarks but by all the enormous energy needed to hold these particles together, so we can call then the heavy element.

Joining the heavy element with the lightning element we get atoms(usual matter!), and the player can break the matter to get these with some kind of tool, spending knowledge points, this make some kind of reverse alchemy game.

Of course, you can make many other elements, it is just imagination

Make it hard: spelling system

Now the easy stuff is done, we need to make it difficult, if the game will be based on hand drawn spelling system, we make symbols!

First step is to divide the screen in a grid and assign an element maybe two to each cell.enter image description here

Then add overlapping areas for connecting the regions. enter image description here

As the player draws on the screen, passing between regions, it generates patterns that can be translated to a spelling.enter image description here

You can also add as many levels of symbols you want, making even more complex to the player, because only the order of the areas matter you can design complex symbols just by order of elements, with diferent meanings.
The player may many times pass the finger over an different area and conjugates a completely different spelling or fail. It can be fun. enter image description here

At least that's my idea.

  • $\begingroup$ This is an incredibly interesting take; and answers some related questions I've been coming up with answers for in regards to an actual, fun/intuitive game mechanics. The visual aids definitely help, too! So basically, You're saying for complexity, it could be interpreted per-layer of a drawing? say, the first layer is that near-diamond, the second is the line through, and combine those? Or are you thinking just looking at the overall image after drawn? $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 13:41
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    $\begingroup$ @MackenzieFritschle Actually I'm looking not for the overall image but for the overall order of drawing, Adding a meaning to each circle and square, when the player slides the finger on the screen, the app only will record their areas in the respective order, and it can be interpreted as a code. On the start the user may think that only the shape matter(if you don't draw the grid on screen), after with a bit of experience it will get the order system. You can also add a Book with some example of symbols but not how their works, the player will just copy the shape, start and end of the lines. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 14:19

I get it you want something solid, to weave your fantasy into. I'll start with a deep seated belief of my own. That is; when someone communicates it isn't just logical stuffs that are passed along but also the emotional state in which they were created. To understand what someone is communicating requires assuming their frame of mind. Words then induct a state of being. This is similar to "the medium is the message", while that is true, the first medium is the person who is disseminating.

Since we are talking about magic then we can super charge this idea into enchantment type magic: beguiling words, induce laughter so hard it becomes a weapon, inspire awe, and create illusions.

While words, language, really any form of expression can create a change in others they can also create a change in yourself. Keeping a diary clarifies thoughts, also prayer does the same; expressing your thoughts in words or writing crystallises them a bit better than if they are not spoken. So this reinforcement can be used to release your inner potential, if we want to go far fetched you can tap into all the electrical energy in your body like an electric eel and increase the voltage to the point you can fire it off your person, or become super strong, whatever.

A fun thing to do then is realise the following, not everyone learns the same, people can bring on a state of being though dance (being more tactile learners), some are auditory, some are visual. This would mean different schools of magic could be centred around not just "powers" but how people learn them, a certain school might be known for it's fire magic, but that is because a tactile learner mastered that and they can't share, or adapt it to another style. The people in that school know what was passed on and developed by their masters and they could share with similar schools but find it hard to work with people who do things very differently.

I like this system for a few reasons: 1) because anything goes, schools can do whatever you want based on the ability to induct a state of being that harmonies with the magical field. If you went with some four elements system (or any mix and match system), then you get headaches about what makes sense and it might become a restriction in your story telling. This way any school can do anything you want them to. 2) Explaining it this way mixes magic with a bit of psionic/mentalist feel (dune, foundation series) and would synergize well with your possible inclusion of advanced science.

If magic is created though a sort of mental resonance brought on be altering ones state of being (possibly though a succession of such changes) then it would be a very difficult thing to communicate, this brings up personality types (Myers Brigs); another belief of mine is that the greater the difference in personality types the greater the difficulty in communication. This is straight forward; as the personality types (as least in the Myers-Briggs) are about preference, the test uses a bunch of vocabulary (discriminators) that tend to put you on one side or the other for four different scales; that really isn't important the important part is that people who identify strongly on one side of the scales has a harder time trying to understand someone on the other side the more polar the difference the more difficult. The more difference in these dimensions the harder it is for people to see eye to eye. As put above, regarding communication only really being understandable if you assume the state of the person communicating; it is very difficult for these people to assume the view point of the other, and because of ideals (people who are more polar tend it idealise things that draw them more towards that pole [Extroversion vs Introversion is one pole] then they reject the others view.

So simply, types of magical induction can be defined using human learning styles, but then broken down again based on personality types making for very narrow schools where even if you really wanted to learn, not just anyone could wrap their heads around their way of doing things.

One final note. It isn't what you asked for, but I like "belief being magic". After all computers are so cool, they take tiny electrical impulses and we can move giant robot arms... it's all about leverage. Magic is the ultimate leverage, it's generally taking the thoughts in our minds and breathing them into reality, we are already getting to the point where computers can do this reading brain waves. We have moved from punch cards (physical input), to keyboards (still no screen!), monitors, now voice recognition on our phones, and imagine thought based operating systems, 3D modelling software will be so easy to use!

The next step, if you really want a physical basis... combining all the above... air born nanites born of an advanced ancient civilisation; which form an invisible but omnipresent quantum computing net and are capable of reforming reality are responsible as the underlying driver making everything have a physical basis. They monitor for subtle changes in the EM field brought on by controlling thought and state of being.

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    $\begingroup$ Oh one more pro, this system explains why gnomes who have developed the first phonographs do not now utterly dominate your world. If all you needed was a spoken word an you have science, wouldn't you just cast all your spells using your MP3 player? $\endgroup$
    – Quaternion
    Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 1:27

I always thought of the "Verbal" part of spell-casting to be like a template. The spell itself is a manipulation of energy by some innate ability of the spell-caster, and the "shape" of that spell would be determined by the mind itself. The verbal part of the spell would simply be a way to focus your mind into the specific pattern required to shape the "mana" or "spell energy" into the desired effect.

Since many spells can be very complex in their abstract concepts (such as to say, heal a broken bone), it would require a very complex language that helps guide your mind to create the proper effect. Runes might also be much more complex than a standard writing system because they would need many subtle variations designed to codify the words and patterns of the "template" of the spell.

So although the language would be very complex, it's not necessarily just that the words are hard to say or pronounce over and over correctly, it's also a function of how well you can use that phrase to form the template in your mind, which might take considerable practice.

This could also be used to explain spell-casting systems where advanced practitioners no longer need magic words, phrases or incantations. The pattern can be seen so clearly in their mind, they no longer need words to express that pattern and create the spell effect.


Since you liked the "Magic Programming" concept, the explanation can also be in the support.

When the spell is written, it can expect for some element to be present to "start". Be it the parchment it is written on, or something more complex (parchment + precious pearl + blood of a virgin...).

Thoses materials are then used by the spell, to take the fireball example, the spell morph the parchment into a fireball, that start to propel itself and burn once thrown.

However, in verbal spell, you have to adapt your spell on the fly to your environment, or combine multiples spells to recreate the environment neccessary. So to create a fireball, the spell would look almost nothing like the runes on the parchment, because you would be casting a spell to create the support in your hand, the spell to transform this support into the fireball, and the spell to "activate" the fireball altogether.

If you want to make peoples flee verbal magic even more, you could make mistakes in the spell dangerous, so for example, the spell to create the fireball support is really easy to mess up, and create a explosion, or a venomous snake, instead.

To compare with real programming, it would be like using known command in known environment, or making all your project directly into the interpreter, without possibility to come back, and no debugging help.


I think that you should start with basic mechanics of the magic in your world. By defining the mechanisms behind the magic and the rules that govern it you will be able to adjust difficulty levels and create suitable obstacles in achieving a status of an Archmage.

I think these are the questions worth asking:

1. What is magic? (form)

This is a fundamental question. Is it akin to matter? Or rather a force like gravity or electromagnetic force? Does one need a physical contact or a physical manipulation (besides vocalising) to be able to use magic?

So, if magic is a type of matter, you can simply limit its quantity. Those who can collect more magic (mana :) ) are capable of greater spells. If magic is a force then you can think of a type of force and different problems associated with their practical use.

These, of course, are not the only possibilities. Just some examples.

2. The source of magic

Basically, it is where the magic comes from. Does it have a particular source? For example, magic is generated by a mage. Then, the more magic a mage can generate the more powerful they are. Magic output can depend on food, meditation, DNA, and so on.

Maybe the source of magic is established by some higher beings, i.e. divine magic. In this case, the limitations can be associated with either the establishers themselves (a mage has to have a good relationship with the higher power in order to perform spells) or the access to the Source (higher beings have used a complicated language and the Source responds only to it; the Source can be accessed only in a particular mind state; etc.).

Your world might not have a single source of magic, which then will be somehow dispersed. However, this dispersion can be uniform (and here we have a problem of concentrating the magic to drive a spell) or not (something like the places of concentration of power, power lines, etc.; hence the problem would revolve around a distance from those places or lines of power).

3. Nature vs nurture

Who is capable of learning and performing magic? Does one have to have some innate ability or blood and sweat can get them there?

If you resort to nature, you can easily control the number of mages by manipulating a distribution of right genes in your population. You can also limit magic abilities to certain blood lines or birth conditions.

If you decide that everyone willing to learn can become a mage, you can adjust the learning curve to make it easier or harder to obtain power. You can also play with the availability of this knowledge. Some families can have heavily guarded spellbooks that only the older sons or daughters can access. Your heroes can be on a quest for some lost books.

4. The usage mechanics

How exactly the spell works?

Does a mage channel the magic through their body (stamina, physical endurance, pain tolerance, etc. can come into play) or their mind (important factors here would be willpower, attention spans, logical abilities, intelligence, self-control, mental stability, etc.)? In this case, a mage functions as a conduit. They can be damaged by tapping into too much magic. They can burn out. They might risk their physical and emotional integrity every time they perform a spell.

Another possibility is a mage as a catalyst. It can be an interesting scenario since it allows for some fun limitations. For example, aptitude for magic can function as catalyst quantity — the higher the aptitude the faster and stronger spells can be performed. Since catalysts only speed up and facilitate natural reactions the spells can be limited to natural for your universe processes and changes. E.g. magic can cure cancer (because it is a natural process) but it cannot regenerate amputated arm (because humans do not regenerate limbs).

The next approach is to use a spell (or a ritual associated with it) to focus magic. In this case, you can play with the difficulty of rituals and levels of precision required for a spell to produce a desired effect.

A spell can also be an activation mechanism, i.e. all the magic needed is already there, but one needs a correct trigger to start a chain reaction. A mage would have to know what triggers what, what is the critical point, and how to contain the spell. The idea of the chain reaction opens enormous plot possibilities. Things can easily go off the rails. There is always a chance of unexpected consequences due to mutations during the chain reaction.

5. Rituals

What is the true significance of the rituals?

For example, in case of incantation-based magic do the words truly matter? Can it be that the spells consisting of words are just a vehicle for creating a certain melody or a certain consequence of sounds? How important is understanding of a language used for spells? Can someone just learn by heart the pronunciation of a spell without understanding the meaning?

Are the rituals set in stone or they are more flexible. It makes for a very different dynamics if a mage can improvise on a spot.

6. Spell "aftermath"

What happens to magic after a spell? Does it dissipate? Can it be infused into a material object? Does the law of conservation of energy apply to magic?

What if magic charges an object of a spell? Then depending on magic mechanics, future spells can be easier or harder to perform. Mages can keep those objects due to advantages they have. Alternatively, mages have to be very selective about magic applications because they might not be able to affect an object again.

If an object can be given magical qualities what kind of qualities those are? And who can take advantage of that object? Can mages mage items for non-mages? Or all magic is limited only to people with corresponding abilities?

This is not a straightforward answer to your question, but I still hope it is helpful.


Spoken magic might require speaking words composed of individual sounds, but there is no guarantee that the composition of these sounds will follow general composition rules of any human language.

So, while everyone can pronounce a basic 4-letter spell word like:


not everyone can effortlessly1 pronounce an advanced 20-letter spell word like:


And saying that reliably and quickly, while a somewhat miffed fellow with a zweihander is charging at you, would take some practice and hard memorisation.

1 Or at all - at least judging by reactions of my acquintances whenever I read consonant clusters like this one.


How about the required level of precision?

When drawing runes, you can use tools to assist. Potentially you can undo and redraw mistakes. Potentially you can draw them larger so that the variance caused by that little tremor in your hand is just background noise.

When speaking them however, you have no way to correct any mistakes you make, and while you can maybe slow down and take longer, time is the only dimension in which you can stretch things. So you'd better get it right the first time.

And that's more difficult than one might think. How many vocalists can hit specific notes precisely and consistently without resorting to autotune? Regular, sloppy human speech doesn't require a lot of precision, but a vocal magician needs voice control that would be the envy of any opera singer.


It's like a phone tree ... in an alien language.

The creators of the MagicTree are as different from humans as humans from a crow... squirrel... triggerfish... octopus hybrid. To speak their language with the right intonation would be quite a feat! And their MagicTree system is asking you to select 1 for healing, 2 for incineration, 3 for the technical service department. It would be hopeless except, the same way as the barking of your dog might direct the bank phone tree to convert all your assets to Bitcoin and send them to the last wallet that spammed your cell phone, the MagicTree system occasionally gets ... confused. It's customer service, after all.

So you know some combination of whistles, gargles and howls that can get certain spells done, usually. Problem is, the system might misread you, and it keeps track of customers having trouble navigating the system. It's designed to help. So after two rounds of saying "I had some trouble understanding that last response", there you are on 24-hour hold, waiting for the next available customer representative. Who is currently writhing on a firespike at the bottom of an alien sea in a black hole a trillion years from nearest hope of assistance. You might get through to an unemployment office faster.

Luckily, the system has a glitch (full mailbox, upload failed) and resets every 24 hours. Yay, more spell points!

Just whatever you do, oblige two crucial practices. (1) No matter what, do not agree to read the Terms and Conditions - you'll end up as one of those suddenly white-haired things tearing their eyes out while muttering incomprehensibly of nameless horrors that await us. And (2) Never, EVER, but never cast the spell that lets you hear the Muzak.


While belief is a popular source of magic, probably more common is mental focus - the ability to concentrate on the outcome of the magic.

Two mages say the words for a fireball spell perfectly, and yet one fizzles and flops on the floor 3 feet away while the second is the size of a basketball and soars across the field. The difference? The focus/concentration on the outcome... the ability to force what is visualized in the mind to become real in our world.

There are many example worlds with which phrases and glyphs are there to help the mage but they are not actually required (much like a recipe to provide stability and consistency)... but its really the concentration that is the fuel source for magic.


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