• Welcome to the Fantasy Writing Forums. Register Now to join us!

Complete systems of the supernatural


When it comes to creating the setting for fantasy works, there is usually a lot of talk about Magic Systems. But while I was doing some refining on my setting I made the realization that, at least for the case of worlds meant to feel wondrous and magical, this field is really a lot larger then just the rules for the casting of spells.

I think the reason magic systems are discussed so much is because they are easy. When you design magic systems you can basically work through a checklist of popular options and in the end it comes down to clear rules. This also makes the process easy to explain to novices, which I think is why there are so many articles and panels about it.

But casting spells is only one part of a larger picture. The supernatural is often a much wider field. There are also the different realms of existence. Creatures native to these realms and magical beings inhabiting the world of mortals. This also includes the field of religion and the system underlying the nature of souls and an afterlife. Which often also uncludes the nature of the undead. Which in many cases can also be created by magic spells.

These things are frequently treated as different elements of a setting, but each of them conects to many or even all of the others. I might have different priorities with this than most people (I almost certainly do) but I think that all these things should be created simultaneously and as a single thing. Not separate pieces that are tied together once they are all completed.

I am interested in hearing other people's thought about this.


Myth Weaver
Yeah, my magic system is complex and involves many things... religion being a primary factor. And every culture sees things differently... and in many cases experience things differently because of their ties to different gods. I know the behind the scenes reality, but none of the POV characters (and therefore no readers) do. It'll be fun because I can write one trilogy with one world view, and then another that feels very different, and keep readers wondering.

The undead follow specific rules... and there's still a debate in my head whether classic vampirism could even exist... but, I don't need to know the answer LOL. Something resembling it could.

Heck, if I turned the world into an RPG I'd have a whole book on enchanting gems.


I think the obsession with magic systems among amateur fantasy writers is a carry over from video games and tabletop RPGs. I find that this idea of creating a "system" for the mystical extends past magic and into things like cosmology.
When creating a setting, you have a choice ever step of the way on where things fall on the mystical to mechanical spectrum. Most writers, I find, tend to favor the mechanical. I think this comes from trend that fantasy writers tend to be nerds who like video games and obsessing over the logistics of a story/setting.

So, those are my thoughts on the subject.

With my "Her Law" setting, things are built more around themes and symbols. So, for example, the numerology of my setting is based around multiples of four so the magic system includes twelve types of spells that a clustered into three groups of four. There are also 12 races, 8 gods, 4 cosmological forces, 8 elements of nature, 8 mountains of cultural/historical significance, 4 branches of government in one nation, 16 knightly orders in another nation and so on and so forth. But it all ties together through the common themes/motifs which permeates throughout the setting.
I'm thinking this is an example of a magic system that's more on the "mystical" side of the spectrum rather than the mechanical.

If I had the opportunity to write an article for this website, I would want to go more in-depth on my "mystical-mechanical spectrum" thing.


Myth Weaver
There is certainly some geeking going on in magic system creation, but once beyond the “cool” phase, the bigger issue is internal consistency. Some of that is a chicken and egg question, heh heh. But to really be a full-fledged system it needs an underlying logic I always found lacking in old school RPGs.

One of the fun things for me was when I discovered there is something that magic can’t do: let you read a foreign language. Now, you could summon (potentially) the spirit of someone who can read the language, but other than that? Nope. Which turns out to be very useful, can’t make things to easy for the characters, heh heh.


Myth Weaver
Worth pointing out: real world supernatural phenomena - from spells to arcane beasts to perceptions of the afterworld - varied widely from culture to culture. There were also major unresolved contradictions within given cultures. Minor example from Judaism: Was Satan God's loyal servant - or a renegade? At different times he plays both roles.


toujours gai, archie
The supernatural would also include supernatural animals and plants. Supernatural phenomena hardly ever appear in fantasy but are common in real Earth--armies in the sky, double suns or moons, statues that bleed, phantasms in swamps. Not to mention a host of night creatures, pale riders, and the like. All of these fit into a larger cosmology, at least in every culture I know about.

Lots of room there for adding depth and mystery and menace.
These things are frequently treated as different elements of a setting, but each of them conects to many or even all of the others. I might have different priorities with this than most people (I almost certainly do) but I think that all these things should be created simultaneously and as a single thing. Not separate pieces that are tied together once they are all completed.

I've never given this much thought before, so thanks for stirring my brain.

It seems the two most common interminglings of magic and the supernatural in fantasy are a) demonology, especially summoning them, and b) "drawing" magic from another realm, dimension, Hell, whatever.

I'm a fairly huge fan of Brandon Sanderson's take on magic. There are basically two types of magic, rules-based and ... forgot the term he used, but it's a kind of ad hoc, unexplained sort. We're very familiar with rules-based magic systems because they are in vogue. But once-upon-a-time, the other sort was more common. Think Gandalf. How does his magic work? What can he or can't he do? It's all rather vague.

There are benefits for using either and reasons, perhaps, to choose one sort or the other for a story. I won't go into all that. But the cool thing is that the ad hoc or unexplained sort tends to be more mysterious by nature and can lend itself rather well to horror, dark fantasy, and, I'm guessing, the supernatural realm. Is there some sort of overlap? Possibly.

I'm currently working on one (or maybe two) stories that are dark fantasy, and the magic in them is not rules-based. I hadn't given much thought to supernatural elements like ghosts, demons, angels, whatever, although some of the effects of magic, being unexplained, do have a sort of supernatural feel.


Fiery Keeper of the Hat
I just finished most of the worldbuilding phase for my Smughitter story. The two main characters are both Sprites, their homeland was destroyed, and while he wants to curse people in order to raise enough magic to bring it back, she is a sprite cop tasked by the city to stop his trail of victims.

I needed to figure out exactly what all that means. Everything is different when your main characters are 8 inches tall, and I wanted to fully embrace this notion that there's a whole world of fantasy at the 8-inch level. What is their magic like? And their homeland? What else is 8-inches tall, and where did this world of creatures come from? Do sprites have magic items? Artifacts? Can their magic be saved and stored and stolen? How do they fight? - when they fight with people? Or other sprites? Or how do people fight sprites? What's a monster to a sprite? What's an undead sprite like? As a cop, what else in the "sprite world" does she have to deal with?

Here's a few of those answers:

There's a world of creatures 8 inches tall because they're all one species: A fairy can be born as a Hob (that is, unique) or into one of the Vaki (groups), such as Sprites or the mermaid-like Asrai. One of the MCs has an ex who is an Asrai. A pair of Yumboes (a Vaki based on little people myths from Africa) appear as pilgrims. People pay a Baniégh named Brena to do their laundry because she can smell the death on the clothes of people who will die soon and warn them. A Hob named Lyerg likes to start brawls in Gan Kena's bar because a fairy treaty keeps him from killing people in duels. People come from all over the world to give gifts to Mera the snake-legged Melusine who lives in the well because she has the power to heal dental problems. And so on. They're all one race. And this is the world my pair of sprites live in.

All of these creatures have the ability to enchant charms that are connected to them. They can also draw magic through their connection to the fairy realm in a pinch, or humiliate someone to create a magical dust that they can use their for their own purposes. Then there are the four treasures of Falina Cairn, artifacts bestowed onto their little kingdom by some one of the courts of the fairy realm, one of which was unfortunately used to destroy their kingdom.

And their kingdom was destroyed because all of these fairies serve a special role in defending the planet they live upon - by creating a bit of mischief in the world, they offset the "order" that humans create, which would otherwise attract the attention of old dark powers from the far reaches of the cosmos. And a Dark Cohort seeks to destroy that protection.

But I couldn't create any of this if I only focused on what kind of spells they cast. The magic in this setting runs far deeper than that, and has to seep into everything these characters touch.


I'm a fairly huge fan of Brandon Sanderson's take on magic. There are basically two types of magic, rules-based and ... forgot the term he used, but it's a kind of ad hoc, unexplained sort.

I believe the usual terms are "hard magic" and "soft magic," respectively.

A pretty basic rule in my setting is that mortals can't control magic, only borrow it. So consequentially I don't put much concern on a "magic system." The broader supernatural world is far more important, "mages" are just people who have managed to tap into it a bit. The difference could be seen as, I suppose, the difference between having a pet lion and just knowing where and how to bait one.

The supernatural is just an extension of the natural in my world - not too overt, basically on the logic that a sentient fire doing what comes naturally is indistinguishable from a non-sentient fire - but omnipresent, observable mostly where things deviate from the norm. This is why the supernatural is widely feared as well; it's a symptom of disharmony, almost by definition. If everything was going smoothly, then you wouldn't notice anything unusual. Of course, in the immortal words of one Malcolm Reynolds: "Things don't go smooth."
I also miss that sense of wonder, mystery, and otherworldly when it comes to magic or the supernatural in fantasy stories.
In my WIP world I'm hoping to create a magic and supernatural world that will feel more otherworldly and mysterious.

So, there's to types of 'magic' in my world. The New form is Arcane which powers a lot of items, machinery, etc... It's magitek. But I'm also trying to create mages that can use Arcane as a traditional magic system. (combat, utility, etc...) I haven't really figured much out yet. But I know I want Arcane magic to be more dangerous but still grants people results. Which in turn convinces them to stay invested in this new type of magic over the old one. So it's almost like a science now.

The Old ways are more spiritual. It's about performing rituals to communicate with spirits of both/either the natural world (nature spirits and elementals) or spirits of the dead. I kind of want to follow the system that traditional real life shamans have. They believe there's an 'upper world' and a 'lower world'. 2 spiritual realms of different 'qualities' but not necessarily good or evil. But this type of magic is slowly being forgotten and has had some bad reputation over the centuries due to that not all spirits have good intentions. So how it works is that if someone wants to perform a ritual to ask something of a spirit, the success of their spells and rituals all depends on the willingness of the spirits co-operating with you. And if they do, then it depends what 'their' intentions are. Cause like real life paranormal myths, some spirits pretend to be good when they're really evil. Etc...

But as I said, I haven't fully fleshed it out yet. x-x But i'm hoping to create a similar effect as in real life with science vs. paranormal.


toujours gai, archie
Looking again at the subject line, I'm compelled to ask: what constitutes a "complete" system? How would an author, undertaking a new novel and desiring to have a complete system of the supernatural, measure success? The converse can also be asked: how would you recognize an incomplete system?