This is a continuation of my Specifics of magical symbols and casting series of questions.

In the process of splitting my post up, I noticed my final question got a bit broad. So to specify how magic works in this world:

Magic in this world is omnipresent, yet largely like science in discovery process. It holds no consciousness or purpose, but acts like a program, "seeking" similar patterns. Runes are largely created in the "library" of magic by association.

For instance, a drawn flame in a cave to signify fire, used again and again over countless generations, created the association that this symbol means fire in the "Magical Library" that permeates all existence. In our world, this relates to a Deep Learning AI, except... there's no code, no point, no purpose. It simply, is.

This also opens up the possibility that, either in densely magical areas, gathering of like minds, basically permeating, society-wide philosophies can create deities, manifest purely-magic beings, or infect a town with fervor, inexplicably turning everyone within the region to the same fervor if they aren't strong of will. Ultimately, this component of nature that just is actually could gain sentience, however, due to the nature of the beast, it could never truly claim autonomy over the entirety of magic.

Magic exists regardless of belief in it - however, belief or mass fervor can and often will generate a certain outcome. Say, people feeling hopeless in a ravaged, pillaged, swamp town may always be surrounded by darkness. Sudden, widespread happiness won't make this disappear in an instant, as it is a magical abstract that has built up over the region that will only go away either in time, or if diminished and replaced by a fervor of emotion that would combine or overwrite it.

One caveat, however, is that you couldn't just get a bunch of random people together and say 'draw this over and over again,' as new functions of this "Magic Library" must draw from some sort of mass phenomena, where some emotion is in a state of mass hysteria among a region, or a belief isn't just skin-deep. The stronger and/or more universal a belief and/or symbol is, the wider the scope this magic can be reliably used in.

With this known, what would make it difficult to master the physical concept of manipulating magic?

For instance, a character interacting with something they don't necessarily fully comprehend, but 'intuitively' (or through past experience) understanding how to use a magic function or manipulate a new (relative to the individual) substance?

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    $\begingroup$ Related, if not duplicate: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/19287/… $\endgroup$
    – Vylix
    Aug 24, 2017 at 21:14
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    $\begingroup$ Related: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/46532/… $\endgroup$
    – Vylix
    Aug 24, 2017 at 21:15
  • $\begingroup$ @Vylix I appreciate the resources, and I will add here, that magic exists regardless of belief in it - however, belief or mass fervor can and often will generate a certain outcome. Say, people feeling hopeless in a ravaged, pillaged, swamp town may always be surrounded by darkness. Sudden, widespread happiness won't make this disappear in an instant, as it is a magical abstract that has built up over the region that will only go away either in time, or if diminished and replaced by a fervor of emotion that would combine or overwrite it. Does that make sense? $\endgroup$ Aug 24, 2017 at 21:23
  • $\begingroup$ It may be my poor command of English language, but I cannot understand what you are actually asking. How does your magic system get new entries for the "Magic Library"? ... or why it may be difficult to use such a "Library" for own ends? ... or something else? Answers do not help me unserstand. $\endgroup$
    – ZioByte
    Aug 24, 2017 at 21:54
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    $\begingroup$ @ZioByte For example, the "Magic" senses a repeated use of symbol, thus a new spell is born and associated with that symbol. The "Magic" senses a region is constantly under unhappiness, then it "curses" the region with continued unhappiness. This might help your understanding on the last part, I hope en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spiritual_warfare $\endgroup$
    – Vylix
    Aug 24, 2017 at 22:19

4 Answers 4


Let's relate magic to electricity. I'm an electrical engineer, and the mastery of electricity is no small thing. Most of my peers would agree that it's our privilege to stand on the shoulders of a great many scientists and engineers who have worked like dogs to understand this particular juju and how to manipulate it.

Electricity is omnipresent. It's everywhere. It manifests itself in small ways when we shuffle across a floor and touch our best friend's arm. It manifests itself in large ways when a bolt blows apart a tree. Aspects of electricity can be quickly mastered by children. Other aspects are difficult to master after years of study.

Electronic circuits are akin to runes. A path must be drawn through which electricity must flow. Draw the path improperly, or use the "elements" of the spell (components like resistors, capacitors, inductors, and transistors) improperly and the spell won't work. Use them badly enough and a world of pain will be your companion (don't believe me? Stick a 10uF cap into any electrical socket and watch what happens... BOOM!)

Electricity has specialties. Electromagnetic majors study wave propagation and transmission (think "antenna"). Semiconductor majors study the flow of electricity through various materials (think "music" and, more distantly, "computers"). Powerflow majors study the transmission of massive amounts of electricity (think "power lines"). Magnatism studies lead to motors & generators, etc.

From that perspective, there's a lot that hinder people from "just using magic." As a "power source," there are many schools of study: starting from "basic magic for high school students" to "advanced channeling of energy for distribution within city limits." The real question is how practical are you trying to make this?

What makes you good at electricity magic? Memory, concentration, dedication, and education.

Oh, one last thing. Why don't we teach 7-year-olds about basic electricity? Because they're still of a mind to stick screwdrivers into outlets. Showing them how to do it isn't necessarily a good thing.

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    $\begingroup$ I like the electricity example, very easy to follow and find analogues. For example, sticking a screwdriver into an outlet could probably be translated into accidentaly drawing too much magic energy through a well-transporting link and having no skill nor ability to control its flow, nor effectively bind it into any effect, what results in the energy being happily channeled through one's body to the nearest object that can receive magic easier than surrounding air.. Of course, one needs to somewhat understand the electricity to understand magic.. oh wait.. ;) $\endgroup$ Aug 24, 2017 at 22:50

I'm not completely sure I understand what you want from us, but perhaps this could help, otherwise correct me via comments.

I will repeat in a very abstract way what (I understood about what) you described:

  • You have a Magical System which is emotionless and purposeless.
  • This System, however, senses what happens in the world.
  • This System is capable of making associations and to remember them.
  • When something happens in the world Magic System reacts to this and, if this triggers one of the associations then it reacts "activating", somehow, whatever is associated.
  • Each "activation" reinforces the association.
  • The more precise is the trigger the stronger the "activation".

If this is correct then intrinsic difficulties to bend such system to own purposes are evident:

  • Mage has to understand what are the "associations" (your Library); here we already have sub-difficulties:
    • he cannot directly consult the Library, but has to build his own map of it by experiment.
    • refine triggers he can use to obtain maximum effect.
  • Once he has a reasonable amount of triggers he needs to learn how to compose them in "phrases" (it is nice to know a certain glyph can summon fire, but sometimes he may want to slow roast pork, some others he may want to send a swift fireball to incinerate a foe, things may be different).
  • Finally he has to find a way to express al this in a concise and expressive way.

All in all he has to devise a full language to speak to this magic entity and stimulate it to do what he needs.

Surely not a simple feat.

Even allowing for a long line of Magic researchers building knowledge piece after piece, difficulty is enormous and the search is never-ending because:

  • Magic Entity, being emotionless and purposeless, has no "interest" in communicating, so the burden of conversation is all on mage's shoulders who will have to act as a scientist experimenting and getting "answers" in the form of results (or lack of them).
  • Magic Library is not fixed, but changes adapting to new stimuli, so "reflex reactions" won't always be the same.
  • Magic Library is localized; association true in a certain place are not valid in another.
  • Knowing Library is not enough because, as said, Mage will always want to modify results by merging, in parallel or serially, different entries of Library.

If you want a system difficult to master this surely is!

  • $\begingroup$ This is a great answer, just the kind I was looking for! In hindsight the question is a bit vague, but that's also why I ask it. I want to figure out what concept to narrow down, and the implications. It also greatly helps to read in other people's words ideas that are floating around in my head. I will wait for a bit in case more want to answer, but this I think most directly answers the question I wanted to get at. $\endgroup$ Aug 24, 2017 at 23:49

Actually you just answered your own question from your description on how the magic works.

  1. It needs strong emotion to work.
    The first trigger needs a strong emotion to move the "Magic" to learn the new spell. That's why a new, overpowered spell only born when the heroes are cornered. That's why a true friendship is really strong. That's why a true love starts the necromancy.

  2. Quantity.
    You need to have x number of people for this to work.

  3. Time. There's some sort of momentum build up when the "Magic" is on the move. If a region is famous for the unhappiness for years, it needs the same amount of years to reverse the momentum.

  4. Conviction.
    You can start a belief (then a new spell/symbol), but you must convince others to believe the new symbol (and maybe rationalization behind it). If you can't, then you fail and the symbol won't be recognized by the "Magic".

As a side note, this answer explain a good point in explaining belief system.

People reach to the unknown, and fear it. Thus they pretend to know the unknown by making up stories. They hope for something that's not there. That's why "Magic" exists, to help people manifest their dream.

As an alternative, your system might benefit from allowing the birth of spells freely, but limiting the power by the number of believer and how strong their belief is.

  • $\begingroup$ Oh! You're right, but you put it into much more direct and meaningful language! Thanks again for even more resources. On your last point - that's actually a part of my final question (for today), in a scenario where a character might try to manipulate spell creation for business purposes - the extent and limits of creating/discovering new spells in this world. $\endgroup$ Aug 24, 2017 at 21:44

I'll continue on the "language" theme.

I think the physical practice of magic could be assimilated to calligraphy. As everyone starts with shaky, inaccurate letters. Some people end up with fast and fluid writing, but difficult to read. While others prefer slowly yet precisely drawn letters. And those specific attributes could alter how the magic reacts.

Moreover, calligraphy has some history of high degree of mastery :

  • Japanese calligraphy artists work on some words all their life, perfecting their art so that they would be able to perform an extremely precise drawing in one fast move.
  • Middle-Age Illuminated Manuscripts made whole detailed paintings within the letters of the books they wrote.
  • You could imagine a way to write words with a very simplistic and bland style, but extremely detailed, like an architect's plans. (I don't have an example for this).

Then the specificity of magic would have to be taken into account. Especially if it behaves (like your chosen answer says) kind of like electricity does. A drawing too complex could concentrate too much energy and explode. A word that is drawn too fast could lack power etc. People could be forced to compensate intricate designs with lighter words to dissipate energy, or change its properties after generating it.


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