Magic Items Revisited (pt. 1)

I thought I’d expand on and spin off some earlier discussions of magical devices.  This turned into five sections that were all too short for individual posts, so here are the first three:


Magic items are a big topic in the fantasy and urban fantasy genres. As readers, we often want to see them appear in a story. As writers and worldbuilders, the urge to play with the Golden Fleece, Excalibur, the Philosopher’s Stone, flying broomsticks, magic staves, and cloaks and rings of invisibility can be difficult to ignore or resist.

But, magic items raise some important questions about the fictional world. Should such items exist? Can they exist, based on how the magic system works? How are they made? How strong should they be? How common are they? How long can they be used? Are they unique, mass produced, or a mix of both?

The answer to each question depends heavily on the intended use of the items, their effects on society, the feel of the setting, the feel of magic, and the world creator’s own sense of wonder. The last is, perhaps, the most subjective and variable. For instance, Tolkien’s magic items are rare and often powerful but they can evoke the same sense of wonder as Rowling’s magic items are everywhere world, just in different ways.

Assuming that magic items exist in the world, continue. If not, then the rest is irrelevant.


The power of magic items is of immense importance when we consider adding them to a setting. Generally speaking, the more powerful the magic items, the greater effect they can or will have on the world. They will probably also be less common or harder to make. Weaker items typically have less effect on the world, unless they are available and used in quantity. Careful thought into the strength of such objects is important, especially if anyone can acquire and activate them, as opposed to only being useful to a limited range of people (say, virgin Aztec males over the age of 40).

Sometimes the natural limits of magic restrict the strength of magic devices. Or the processes necessary to create magic items restrict their power level. In other cases, cultural laws can be used in-world to artificially limit the strength of magic items—ex. Steven Brust and Morganti weapons, J.K. Rowling and time turners.

A good example of varied strength comes from a comparison of Tolkien and Robert Asprin. Tolkien’s rings are world changing devices (literally), held by some of the most powerful beings in Middle-Earth (Elrond, Galadriel, Gandalf, the Ringwraiths, and Sauron). On the other end of the spectrum, Asprin’s d-hoppers are commonly available devices and a cornerstone of the multiversal economy.


Closely associated with the power level of magic devices is their availability. Are they rare and treasured (regardless of strength) or a dime a dozen? It is also entirely possible for a world to have both, some rare and powerful artifacts alongside hundreds of cheap and weak common items.

 Availability can influence and affect both how the items change or shape society and the wonder or utility of magic items in the setting. In Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar and Naomi Novik’s Polnya, items are rare and expensive, hoarded and doled out sparingly. In Rowling’s London, they’re household items. In Rick Riordan’s Camp Half-Blood, nearly everyone has at least one or two unique magic devices of at least moderate strength, whether this is Percy’s Riptide (sword-pen), Chiron’s concealing wheelchair, or Leo Valdez’s magic tool belt and Festus the Bronze Dragon.

If magic items are common, they can be used to create an entire economy in the world and affect daily life. These can include cleaning potions, magical light sources, and flying broomsticks. On the other end, if magic devices are rare, they become the stuff of legends and the goal of quests.

Magic Series—Magic School!: Learning the Thaumaturgical Arts

Once we have magic established in a setting, how does one learn to use it?

 Good question, and on upon which there has been a ton of ink spilled.

 Our historical examples provide a variety of options that are expanded with modern fiction. Over all, they appear, I think, to mimic or mirror contemporary views of general education for the most part.

Lone tutelage was commonly expressed in ancient and medieval sources. The case of the master-apprentice relationship that runs from Chiron and <insert Greek hero> through Merlin and Nimue of the Arthurian legends. In this set up, either the apprentice seeks out the master who is hidden somewhere, often a hermit, or the master seeks out the apprentice, often secretly watching while in disguise as the apprentice grows. In more recent form, this is played out in the original Star Wars trilogy as Kenobi effectively watches over Luke before revealing Luke’s magical lineage, then Luke seeks out the hermit master (Yoda) to continue his training.

 Throughout the early modern period, aka the Renaissance, many held the belief that magic was learned through paranormal tutelage. Referencing Jean Bodin, Kramer & Sprenger (Malleus Maleficarum), and most of the other witch and werewolf hunting sources of the 15th through 19th centuries, magic was learned at the feet of the Devil, or one of Lucifer’s demons. Some other sources speak of genii (of Roman origin; akin to the genius loci) or spirits of the dead visible solely to the magician who provide instruction. These figures sometimes also act as familiars.

 In some of the early modern sources, the paranormal tutor introduces the prospective magician to a coven of other magicians, usually witches. This becomes a form of the secret society. Magic instruction via secret society is, I think, a relatively modern idea beginning around the 15th or 16th centuries. More famously, it continues into the semi-secret occult societies of the 18th and 19th centuries including the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (1888) and a host of others. Magical instruction is generally tied to advancement within the mysteries of the society in these situations (this works well with certain RPG systems that use level-based spell casting, like D&D).

 Both the RPG industry, some novels, and some historical sources do incorporate religious based magical instruction. One that comes to mind in particular is Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni series in which magic instruction is tied to status within a religious organization (if I recall correctly). This, I think, comes out of the old medieval schools that taught theology, law, medicine, philosophy, history, languages, but were the province of the Church. The only way to receive a certain level of education was to become, on paper at least, a cleric of the Church in Rome. Often, these students wouldn’t become full priests or monks, but would hold a lesser standing in the Church.

 Finally, we have schools of magic, which seem to be a modern invention. There may, arguably, be an exception with the stories of Scholomance—a school of dark magic in Eastern Europe. However, the majority come from modern fiction, whether Rowling’s Hogwarts or Charmed’s imaginatively named Magic School. Obviously, the school set up has become popular among children’s and YA authors to connect with their readership. It is even fairly common in adult fiction, from Ilona Andrews (Kate Daniels series) & Devon Monk (Allie Beckstrom series) to Jodi Lyn Nye (Applied Mythology) as well as video games (Wizard 101, Warcraft), comics, and other genres.

Magic Series—Tools of the Trade, or Not

Look around at “how to write fantasy” blogs, sites, books, and articles and you’ll likely find a lot of people who say that magic requires limits. I suspect this is true, to a great extent, in most writers’ hands. Occasionally a great writer comes along who can portray unlimited, anything goes magic without sacrificing plot—all too often such magic becomes a deus ex machina to get the writer out of the proverbial corner (s)he’s painted into. Some have argued that Tolkien, for instance, had no limits on magic—a claim I will definitely contest for a variety of reasons—but virtually every fantasy world has some restriction on magic.

 One of the easiest and more common limitations is to require the use of props or tools.

 This is also a common historical approach to magic, as noted by Richard Kieckhefer and, to a lesser though more systematic extent, Isaac Bonewits.

 What do we mean by props and tools?

 For my purposes, I think not only in terms of material tools, but also actions and practices. Common props in both fictional and historical conceptions of magic include (obviously not a complete list):

 Animals—common historically among the Romans and Celts as sacrifices for divination

Cauldron (or laboratory)—for alchemy and other elixir/potion making, or scrying

Chants—use of magic words, whether chanted or spoken, to produce spells

Circle—the classic magic circle to contain summoned beings or magic

Crystals—both New Agey and historical for channeling magic energy

Dancing—common historically for magic and religious channeling, ex. Sufis

Dolls—old historical focus for magic, ex. Voodoo and kachina dolls

Drums (or other musical instruments)—music has always been potent in magic for focus or emotion control

Familiars—common in historical views of witchcraft, also present in Steven Brust’s Dragaera for witches

Herbs—historically part of both alchemy and traditional medicine and protective magics

Holy Symbols—obviously part of Christian exorcism, integral component of D&D/Pathfinder

Incense—historically part of several magic traditions, either to sharpen focus or produce a mood

Knife (or Athame for the Wiccans)—symbolic severing or use in sacrifices, special materials used for other purposes

Martial Arts—important in some Eastern magics, like Taoist, for focus and control of body and mind before magic; in fiction, see wuxia stories

Meditation—common historical means of achieving focus necessary for some magic traditions

Purification—historically part of both exorcisms and religious magical traditions, ex. Shinto

Relics—throughout history religious relics have been said to possess magical powers

Rituals—whether hand/wand waving gestures (Harry Potter) or full on 20+ minute rites

Seal of Solomon—said to be able to contain and command djinn, demons, and other spirits

Staff (or wand)—often a focus device historically or in fiction, sometimes channels or contains magical energy for the spellcaster

Star Charts—obvious usage in astrology and some of the more hermetic/Kabbalistic magics

Talisman—usually a focus device, possibly a protective device in some cases whether an amulet, ring or other item

Magic Systems: A Sample of Mine

Per a request, or comment, earlier in the week, I thought I’d write up a brief (very brief) overview of magic systems I’m using in three settings currently.

The first two are worlds used in a work of fiction in progress (about 23k words so far).

Tower Earth

 Magic in this urban fantasy setting requires active genetic talent to learn and use.

 Magic as a whole is divided into two classes: Low and High magics.

 Low magics can be learned by any mage at any time. They simply require study and training. They use small amounts of magical power and produce correspondingly minor effects. The low magics are:

 · Waerlomancy (warlock)—works with spirits of nature and the dead; includes binding spirits

· Witchcraft (witch)—works with ad hoc rituals made up on the spot based on materials on hand and feeling for the “right” words/use

· Wizardry (wizard)—works with clear, established rituals in a tried-and-true method without deviation

 The high magics require special training and use a greater degree of magical power. Likewise, they produce more powerful effects. The high magics are:

 · Sorcery—the gateway to other high magics; simply requires visualization, and a staff which acts like a capacitor for magical energy

· Alchemy—creation of elixirs and materials; important for ability to create magical items

· Gem Lore (Lithomancy)—use of magic inherent in gemstones; important for ability to create magical items

· Rune Lore (Cryptomancy)—use of sigils (signs, symbols, runes, glyphs) to access magic; important for ability to create magical items; tattoo magic is an obscure, rarely practiced, variation

· Blood Magic—use of blood sacrifices to generate large amounts of magical energy to fuel big spells or reinforce spells

· Sex Magic—use of sex to generate large amounts of magical energy to fuel big spells or reinforce spells


Post-Magicpocalypse Earth (PME)

 Magic in this post-apocalyptic Earth is somewhat related to Tower Earth, but not too closely. The worlds are connected, but only tangentially.

 Magic in PME is something anyone can learn, no talent or genes are necessary. Moreover, all species can learn magic, in theory.

There are five known magics (with rumors that the wildlings, a non-human species, may know two others):

 · Alchemy—as Tower Earth, but with the variation of Brewing (mostly used by centaurs)

· Elementalism—the flashiest of magics, control of the elements; often used to power technomagic (such as it is), also useful for weather control

· Mysticism—a magic based on meditation and self-discipline, perhaps the most difficult of magics; Wuxia-like effects

· Necromancy—works with the spirits of the dead (no nature spirits), much like Tower Earth’s waerlomancy

· Sorcery—PME’s name for cryptomancy; the sigils must be at least 1 square inch and must be drawn and named to use, though


The Triphase Worlds

 This is a build in progress that may turn into something or not. I haven’t done a build this ambitious in a while. Basically, there are three worlds more or else existing in the same space but off-kilter from each other—one a traditional fantasy world, one an urban fantasy Earth, and one a sci-fi/fantasy world.

All three worlds have the same system of magic, because of their closeness.

 Magic in the Triphase Worlds requires genetic talent and training to use. The primary energy source for magic is ley lines that crisscross each world. However, if necessary, a mage with the right training can use blood magic, sex magic, or necromancy to acquire energy—whether a large amount in the first two cases, or power if no line is in range in all three (destroying a spirit, for necromancy).

 Props are needed to channel and focus the power and spells, but the exact prop is specific to the mage. E.g. one mage may use a staff, another a ring, a third may chant (this is not chosen by the mage, which prop works is discovered by the mage during training).

 The three non-ley line power sources affect the auras and abilities of any magic item created using them.

 In addition to standard magic, there are talents. These are special abilities that are relatively common among mages and uncommon to rare among non-mages. They range from minor effects like dark sight (ability to see even in complete darkness) to oracular ability (uncontrolled future sight).

 Three of the other species, one of which is known on all worlds and the rest of which are hidden on at least two, have their own magics ranging from elemental control to glamour (light & sound manipulation).

 There are also at least two hidden magics that even the mages don’t know exist (and won’t be detailed here).

Magic Series—I Can Spell, Can You?: Who Can Do It?

This will probably be the shortest post in this series.

A key question for any fantasy world, regardless of sub-genre, is who can learn or perform magic?

 There are myriad approaches to answering the question, many of which mix a couple answers simultaneously. But, I think the answers can be boiled down to three possibilities:

 1) Magic use is genetic among the world’s primary species (usually humans).

Mages are those who inherit the talent from their parents. Their parents may or may not be mages themselves, as with all genetics it is possible for latent traits to skip a generation or two. This is the wizard/witch magic of Harry Potter, Eragon, and a lot of current urban fantasy. Study is usually required, to control the talent, but without the talent the magic doesn’t work.

2) Anyone can learn magic if they simply study hard enough or are initiated properly.

 Magic is simply a matter of being initiated into the right mysteries or studying the right subject(s) in school. Anyone can potentially become a mage. This is a more historical magic, particularly according to 15th to 18th century European and American writings on witchcraft—there involving a pact with a devil—or records regarding astrology, alchemy, and related magics in the same era—most of the magicians were educated men who learned “occult arts” while they were learning philosophy, medicine, and law. The important part is that no special, genetic, talent is needed to learn.

 3) Every species has its own kind of magic.

 A more involved worldbuild, but one that has significant use in the genre, is one in which every species possesses its own variety of magic. In these cases, magic may still be learnable or innate depending on the species. Middle Earth is a great example, in which the elves had their own magic, the Istari had their own, and other species had theirs. Likewise, Michael Moorcock’s Melniboné can be included as different species have access to different magics—Melnibonéans versus humans—due to ancient pacts with Law, Chaos, and elemental beings. Or White Wolf’s World of Darkness line—mage magic is different from shapeshifter magic is different from fae magic is different from vampiric magic.

 Based on a long time reading in the genre, those are the three broad approaches that come to mind as I consider this topic. Whether there are others, well, I’m sure there might be and I’d be happy to hear about them because as much as I’ve read in the genre, there’s probably 10x as much that I haven’t been able to get to.

Magic Series—Types & Varieties

One thing I’ve been considering with worldbuilding, specifically regarding magic, is the various broad types or varieties of magic. I’ve been primarily thinking in a historical perspective, but to some degree purely fictitious as well. The following is off the top of my head, so is clearly not a comprehensive collection by any means. It is simply my attempt to categorize or classify different types of magic sources in fairly broad terms.

 I will try to avoid certain words commonly associated with magic—ex. sorcery, witchcraft, wizardry—because they are very imprecise and are often used both interchangeably and for a variety of different magics.

 Ad Hoc

My general terminology for magics that use rituals made up on the spot. In these cases, often the rituals are never the same twice as they are based on what the mage feels is right at the time. Terry Pratchett’s witches are a good fiction example, particularly the witches as depicted in the Aching books.


Historically, alchemy is a mix of mysticism, natural philosophy, and early scientific testing. For these purposes, I include any magic that gets its power from mixing ingredients to produce elixirs—whether potions, pills, or unguents—or chemistry, metallurgy, or related magical products. This can take the form of the laboratory (whether “traditional” magic lab or modern), the herbalist working in a hut or open fire, or the brewer/vintner mixing special ingredients into beers and wines to make magic drinks.


Historically, the study of the stars and planets to determine the future and predict the fates of individuals. Usually found the same way in fiction. One of the most famous astrologers in history was Dr. John Dee of England; and the practice was banned in England during Elizabeth I’s reign due to the succession question, predicting the queen’s death was a capital offense.

 Blood Magic

Quite possibly one of the earliest forms of magic in history, blood and magic have been associated for millennia. According to some, blood can provide energy to fuel spells; to others, it can be used to control the person it came from. To many cultures it was believed to be one of the most potent forms of magic.

 Chi (or Ki)

The power of chi is the foundation of all wuxia stories and movies. This internal energy is, in the stories, most often harnessed through martial practice. Control of the body coming from martial arts leads to control of the mind and the inner energy. This is most famously channeled to great physical feats—strength, leaps, even a form of flight—or healing.


In some cases, the source of magic is the gods. Divine magic often relies on maintaining the deity’s or deities’ mandates and goodwill. Falling out of favor with the divine leads to removal of magical power. Some uses limit divine magic to healing, other uses restrict the mage to spells associated with the god’s areas of influence.


According to many traditions, there is magic inherent in the elements. Traditionally these are air, earth, fire, and water in the west and Hinduism; earth, fire, metal, water, wood in much of Asia. Often a sample of the element is necessary to invoke the magic, but not always.

 Gem Magic

Based on the idea that gemstones possess magical potential, this category of magic draws power and spells from the stones. Each stone is held to have different properties and associations that it can be used for, ex. amethysts as protection from poison. Often, I refer to this group as lithomancy. It appears regularly in history in many cultures as well as in fiction, MZB’s Darkover books have a variation, for instance.


I use the term hermetic here both in reference to its use in history (the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn) and because of a background with White Wolf’s Mage: the Ascension. This type of magic emphasizes ritual, specifically exact, repeated ritual. In a way, I suppose it is akin to alchemy in that it is relatively scientific with the idea that performing the same ritual, speaking the same words, moving the same way will produce the same magical result every time. It’s the opposite of Ad Hoc magic in its exactitude. Often it involves the “Laws of Magic” idea, ex. Law of Contagion, Law of Similarity, etc.


Magic for fans of spreadsheets and flow charts. The Kabbalistic view of magic involves potentially hundreds of variables including the position of stars, the sun, phase of the moon, locations of metaphysical planes, associations of magical materials with said planes or the subject or the caster, proper words, and proper ritual. There’s a very good systematization of this magic in the old third edition GURPS Cabal book, spreadsheets not included.

Ley Line

Magic that draws on ley lines, which I sometimes refer to as geomancy, for power. This is, obviously, a fairly common magic view in history and the modern world as it still has adherents. Power is drawn from the lines, and greater power from nodes (the places where lines cross; the more lines, the more power). Some believe ley lines are an element of dowsing, among a variety of other things. A variation is used by Robert Asprin in the M.Y.T.H. Inc. series.


Psychic magic draws on internal, mental energy to fuel magic. We commonly associate this with divination, fortune telling, clairvoyance, telekinesis, psychometry, precognition, scrying, and related abilities. As we can tell in many places, psychic magic appears often in history and the modern world, psychics and mentalists were a dime a dozen at one time and are still moderately popular for entertainment purposes.

 Sex Magic

Alongside blood magic, sex magic is perhaps one of the oldest in the world. Associations of sex and magic go back millennia and can be found in Tantric beliefs (famously) as well as Mesopotamian beliefs and branches of Taoism, Paganism, and Buddhism at the very least. Even some more esoteric branches of Christianity, particularly Gnostic Christianity, have embraced the concept. In modern fiction, it is often used to fuel other spells, initiate scrying and divination, or create magical bonds between individuals.

 Sigil (or Word) Magic

Another very old magic, the idea that words and symbols have magical powers is ancient. We have records of spells and curses from ancient Greece and Rome, for instance, that are still extant and symbols in Celtic sites that seem to have magical purpose along with Norse and Saxon rune magic. Perhaps the four most common uses are varieties of blessings, curses, protection, and reading the future. I also include tattoo magic, inscribing magical sigils/words on the body, in this broad category.

 Spirit (or Ghost) Magic

Magic that involves natural spirits or spirits of the dead would fall into this category. I include both necromancy—attempts to contact, acquire information from, and protection from the dead—and shamanism—attempts to call upon natural spirits to bless, curse, or heal—in this group. Modern conceptions of necromancy—raising the dead, creating undead hordes—would also be included. Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy is a great fictional example of this magic, as is Book 11 of the Odyssey in which Odysseus calls upon the spirits of the dead for information.

 Tree Magic

In the Western world, tree magic is most closely associated with the Celts. They held the view that various kinds of trees, and other plants (ex. ivy), held magical properties. Use of the specific plant could bring about magical effects associated with the plant(s) involved, much like gem magic using plants instead. The Celts also used symbols that represented the trees in some cases. I have seen some things that associate tree magic with the Romany as well, but I haven’t been able to confirm this as yet.

Edit (8 July 2016)
Forgot Music Magic, but thinking it could be considered an effect or variation on Ad Hoc or Hermetic, depending on how it is used.

Magic Series—Mythic, Legendary, Historical, Folkloric

After thinking a bit, I’ve decided to do a five part (at this time) series of posts regarding different aspects and thoughts on magic. In part, this was inspired by recently reading Qiguang Zhao’s work on dragons and partially because I’ve been looking for a fairly comprehensive source on types or varieties of magic and haven’t been able to find what I’m looking for. So, I’ll create one.

 In Zhao’s A Study of Dragons, East and West, he divided Eastern dragons into four categories, including mythic, legendary, and folkloric. This got me thinking about a similar breakdown for magic.

 For this post, I’ll classify approaches to magic as: mythological (including theological), legendary, historical, folkloric, and fictive (e.g. modern fiction).


Most mythological and theological magic is about divinities. That is, the magic originates with divine beings. Given that myths themselves are focused on divine beings, this makes a certain sense. Zeus brings his siblings back from being eaten by slaying his father, hurls lightning bolts, and changes his form as desired—into a bull, sunshine, the appearance of a mortal. Odin gives up his eye to learn the runes and their related magic. Freyr oversees the seiðr, often healing magic. Monkey King changes size and form, cloudwalks, and a whole host of other powers. Christ changes water to wine, walks on water, and self-resurrects. Most of the Greek & Roman gods change the forms of mortals, ex. Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

 Included here are the magic devices, usually loaned to mortals. These almost always originate with the gods. Hephestus creates most of the magic items used by the other gods, demigods, and mortals of Greek myth. All the great magic devices in Celtic culture are owned by the gods.

 This can also include the monstrous magic, such as Medusa and the Chinese demons.


In the legends, magic is most often used as plot devices. I’m thinking of Merlin and the Arthurian legends in general here, mostly because of my own background of knowledge. Often, legendary magic is considered negative or evil when used as spells—ex. Morgaine or Spenser’s Archimago. However, it becomes positive when it appears as devices and other items that help the hero—ex. Excalibur, Yvain’s ring of invisibility (Chretien de Troyes). But, there are exceptions to both, such as Merlin and Sigurd, whose ring is cursed to bring about his downfall but who is also magically able to understand the speech of animals (after accidentally eating dragon blood).


I think in many ways the historical perspective is more focused on practicality. This is a classification I use for how people in the past believed magic worked. Included here are alchemists, astrologers, werewolves, and witches. This is the creation of elixirs, including the elixir of life, rune magic, and shapeshifting. It is the magic of potions to cure afflictions, curses against one’s enemies, blessings upon one’s children or herds, protections from malign magics (ex. horseshoes), and human to animal shape-changing. It is the realm of Celtic ogham (tree associated) magic and entrail reading divination, Chinese I-Ching and Feng Shui and spirit magic, Roman written magics (ex. curses, of which many are extant), Greek divinations and oracles, and Aztec blood sacrifice and nahuatl shape-shifting.


This is the magic of fairy tale and folklore. It often works in a fashion similar to historical and also often comes from witches or supernatural non-human creatures (ex. goblins, fae, brownies). This magic typically violates the laws of reality, relates to the acquisition of wealth (which may vanish in the sun), and deceive. This magic is most concerned with the physics and rules of the story, in fact it does follow a certain logic and conform to certain rules—Rumpelstiltskin’s binding magical deal, the Law of Threes, the trade of a good deed for a wish. This is the magic of Jack’s gold egg laying goose and magic harp. This is the magic of Rapunzel’s witch.


In modern fantasy, magic tends to be systematic. Orson Scott Card, for instance, even goes so far as to state that the most important part of fantasy worldbuilding is understanding the laws, the rules, the system of magic. Many magic systems used in modern fiction are based on myth, legend, history, or folklore, or all of them. Generally, though, they are translated through the lens of the scientific era that classifies, systematizes, and attempts to understand the underlying rules. J.K. Rowling—with her focus on wands, gestures, and magic words—is a good example in which certain forms are required and all spells are classified into certain categories, at least for educational purposes. Steven Brust does this, differently, as well in that Dragaera has sorcery (manipulation of chaos energy, amorphia, though the Orb), witchcraft (a form of psychic energy), and psychics. Jim Butcher pulls this form, applied to a variety of legendary (fae courts), mythic, and historic (wizards) forms of magic.