Sometimes magic systems fail. Instead of wonder they cause confusion. Instead of building conflict they create plot holes. And instead of deepening our characters’ struggles they enable the dreaded deus ex machina. But we can avoid these issues by turning to a classic, well defined system.
It’s a trope to streamline spells. Let’s reboot Elemental Magic.
Mastery of the Elemental Arts
Most magic systems deliver the wonder. Fireballs, incantations, glowing wands and old people full of wisdom help to build a sense of mystery and power over the impossible. The arcane arts break that impossible boundary and open the door to magic without limits.
So why can’t they solve the plot already?
Magic sometimes does too much. But an elemental magic system tosses out mastery of the arcane arts, whatever that means, in favor of an elemental throughline. Earth, fire, wind and water – once believed by alchemists to lead us to the elixir of life – have always felt like magic. And in an elemental system, each of those elements, and often others, becomes a magic system of its own.
But alchemy wasn’t about magic. Alchemy, with its elements, behaved like science.
And so do elemental magic systems.
Fire behaves in a way that we understand. It burns, destroys, shoots out smoke, spreads on its own, and is doused by water. Magic based on an element like fire is a magic based mostly on physics.
What can’t fire magic do? Anything else.
But who can feel the wonder when the magic is so well defined?
So for the Twelve Trappings of Magic, the loose beginnings of our elemental system, we’ll focus on bringing the wonder back into the elements and their thematic throughline. And we’ll start by looking under the hood of our elemental engine.
Mustering the Elemental Roll Call
Fire. Wind. Heart. Void. Clay. Normal. The traditional four elements are only the beginning of what an elemental system has to work with. Almost any substance that readers will recognize can be used as a basis for the system. While most magic systems keep to a roster of about four to eight elements, there are others which open the door for every new character to have a unique elemental gimmick.
Anyone who’s well-read, has seen the Last Airbender, or watches a bit of anime, will know that by now the main elements have been well tread, while more unique elements often come up short by comparison. Adding a touch of complexity to our system will be important for adding an element of freshness and surprise, elements which are important to a novel, if not themselves magical.
For the Twelve Trappings of Magic, let’s look less at the list of elements we’re selecting as writers and instead look at whether it might be something within the setting creating that list. Let’s see what happens if we install even a simple magic system and a rationale hidden underneath our elements.
In the great past of our fantasy world, the invisible arcane dusts sat like mud splattered across the lands, sea and air. They were dirtied, heavy and useless, weighed down by the elements they had been trapped inside. But as nations rose and fell, new minds emerged to discover and study the arcane dusts, leading them to create the great Telpan Beacon as a way to purify and harness the arcane.
Sorcerers bound to the Telpan Beacon could wield a pure mystical force that could accomplish almost any task, from moving objects to teleportation and feats too numerous to count. In order to share their magic discoveries with the world they bound the Telpan Beacon to a series of Crystal Stars, each a satellite beacon in the sky that could be tapped into for magic by those in the lands below it.
Just twenty years before any story takes place, the Telpan Beacon was destroyed, and the Crystal Stars plunged from the sky into the lands below. But each Crystal Star had a secondary purpose, filtering the last trace of a specific element from the arcane dusts passing through it. Without the Telpan Beacon to run the system, the damaged Crystal Stars have been corrupted by the elements once filtered within them. And those connected to a Crystal Star now find their magic, once pure, to be heavied by the element polluting it from within.
And thus, with a setting of pure magic force now polluted by the elements, the name of our system changes to the Elemental Traps of Magic.
But are those elemental traps a corruption or a blessing? How do the different nations, some that were thriving and some that were impoverished, some that were unified and some that were divided, some that were putting their magics into war or agriculture or architecture, now adapt to whatever element they find themselves paired with?
And of course, what was it that destroyed the Telpan Beacon, and how will it continue to challenge the fate of these nations?
For the rest of this Trope Reboot, we’ll focus on developing the world for just three of these elements: Fire, Ice, and to go a little out there, Emotion. We’ll also look for ways the stories created by these elements might contribute to the world’s larger plotline.
Elementech and the Philosophy of Magic
There’s an advantage for writers who use an elemental system. An elemental system works a bit like science, and writers get to use the elements a bit like technology. In the world of the Last Airbender we see fire used to run coal engines, a fortress built out of ice, and a city’s postal service run on earthwork slides. Exploring the different ways that elements can be used helps to deepen the setting.
But with our system, the Elemental Traps of Magic, we have two sides of a coin to consider. For any person, item, building or creature that uses magic, we have to consider how it was using magic before the Crystal Star fell, and how it’s using that magic now that it’s bound to an element. A lot of places will have become odd magical ruins, while some things will have been roughly adapted to a new purpose, and others built fresh to take advantage of the Age of Elements.
And with the chosen element so ingrained into the everyday life of a culture, it’s typical with an elemental magic system for characters to have worldviews that in some way reflect their element. Water is soothing and peaceful, or else represents the rhythmic flow back and forth with the tides, or else covers everything in sadness as the skies weep rain. But with pure magic trapped in the elements in our setting, we can explore very different attitudes towards these elements.
So let’s take a closer look at how this happens in the lands of fire, ice, and emotion.
The Great Fireball Apocalypse
Fire as an element is unruly and aggressive, and it destroys what it touches. Magic that suddenly becomes trapped in fire becomes a raging, destructive inferno. We want to use that dramatic inferno to have a powerful impact on our story and create as many feels as possible for our readers. We want the nation destroyed by fire to be an important one: The magical capitol that first created the Telpan Beacon.
Twenty years ago the nation of Kerolas stood as a magical research and trading hub of the world, established around their creation, the Telpan Beacon. With great libraries, arcane institutes, the centers of magical research in farming, irrigation, and construction, they were flush with magical wealth, supporting the well being of the world. But when in the dark of night the Telpan Beacon was cut through by unknown forces, and the first Crystal Star fell from the sky, all of that magical power turned to flames, and their nation into smoke and ash. The nation of Kerolas erupted into a raging inferno as magical lighting, magical cooling, magical train rails and flowers and herd animals began leaking fire and destruction. Even sorcerers doing magic ended up burning themselves and others nearby. For survivors of the magic capitol of the world, refugees fleeing through the world, magic means death.
With the capitol of magic now a wasteland of perpetual flames, filled with animals powered by fire, crisscrossed with fiery train tracks, spotted with burning buildings, how much has been lost forever? Who destroyed the Telpan Beacon, what element did they end up with, and was this the world they wanted to create?
A Prison of Frost
Ice magic is known for its beauty, its grandeur, its strength, and its isolation. Ice magic makes things, from giant walls, to mountain palaces, to frosty little minions. Rather than explore a new facet of this well tread element, let’s lean into it as the perfect set up for a prison, and the refuge of a villain, by creating an impenetrable fortress manned by an army of frost monsters, with evidence pointing to them as the ones who destroyed the Telpan Beacon.
The great citadel of Melthick was known as the impenetrable, undefeated army fortress of the world. With towering walls stabilized by magic, with soldiers wielding steel reinforced in their construction by enchanted forges, with a careful and disciplined royal family, its people lived in security and prosperity, immune to the petty squabbles that existed between most kingdoms. But when its Crystal Star fell from the sky, all of that military power turned to frost and ice. And its young prince, an exiled sorcerer with a heart of petty icy rage, was well prepared to take advantage of the turmoil. He shattered his royal family, turned the security of the fortress walls into a prison of ice, and dominated a people defended only by an army of statues, soldiers frozen dead by their armor. But his sudden rise to power, and the speed at which he created monsters of ice, led to rumors around the world that he was too prepared for the chaos, and that he may have been involved in creating it.
In this Trope Reboot we don’t have time to do more than hint at the development of the conspiracy that trapped the magics of the world, or the heroes and villains who will fight it out. But the prison citadel of Melthink offers the unnamed heroes of our story two things: A lead on who destroyed the Telpan Beacon, and frost magic, a weapon that can be used in reclaiming the inferno that is Kerolas. But with the secrets of the Telpan Beacon so completely lost, is there any hope of ending the magical damage of the world?
A Refuge in the Mountains
If you’re alone in a dark quiet room and find yourself suddenly, irrationally afraid, what do you imagine first? That something lurks behind you? That a loved one is in trouble? That you’ve left the oven on? Unlike the flash and flair of our typical magic, the goal of using raw emotion as an element is to force an exploration of the characters. How is feeling a surge of joy, or rage, or sorrow, or disgust, going differ for each character? We want to use this element to create a journey that pushes on the psyche of the characters we would create.
And for the loose plot we’re introducing, it’s time to do something different with this element’s Crystal Star. A magical beacon that fell to the ground, in a land we want to make the characters to journey through, sounds like a solid MacGuffin.
Above the mountains of Therapath a Crystal Star plunged from the sky and fell twenty feet into the peak of the mountain below it, the only Crystal Star to survive intact, retaining its fully functioning magical records. The Therapath Mountains were filled with watch towers and lit up trails and bridges, fueled by a toll-driven economy with sorcerer guides helping travelers pass safely through its otherwise deadly heights. All of these magical installations now emit calm, joy, sorrow, fear, rage or disgust, a deluge of cathartic emotion upon the one entering it. A tower more frightful than a haunted mansion, a bridge crossing whose only challenge is enduring a weeping sorrowful catharsis, and a paradise of perpetual joy on the mountain peak, all await Therapath’s travelers in the Age of Elements. But with their Crystal Star intact, the lost magical secrets of the world are written out for them, but useless, unless those possessing it are willing to send away their Crystal Star and sacrifice their emotional paradise for the chance of returning to a better world for everyone.
A journey through the Therapath Mountains becomes one of emotional discovery. But a chase between the heroes and the villains through emotional hotspots now becomes one of trickery and manipulation as characters use raw terror and joy against each other to learn about their enemies, as weapons in battle, or to make a point about switching sides. And the people of Therapath, using magic to feel perpetual joy, capable of defending themselves by using it to put a person in uncontrollable terror, are now asked to make a sacrifice for the world, if they’re not too wrapped up in their own bliss to care about that world.
Do Something Creative
In a world destroyed through its flaming capitol, threatened by the armies of ice, and taunted by a journey of emotion, we have hardly begun to explore the power of the elements. A once impoverished nation fumbling to adapt to its wealth of plantlife, a great kingdom now hiding itself in the earth, an isolated sea spa archipelago haunted by decaying flesh, a navy using the winds and a stolen Crystal Star to harass the world as pirates, the small city with a single sorcerer using water to keep the world off its doorstep – what other surprises can our elemental system have in store?
We turn to elemental magic to streamline our spell system with rules that both writers and readers will quickly grasp. But while the people and cultures of any world are as mysterious as the arcane, the elements are usually as methodical and predictable as science.
So let’s do something creative and give the elements the mystery of magic.
What are your favorite parts of some of the elemental magic systems you’ve seen?
What are some more unusual elements that can bring depth to a magic system?
Most importantly, what trope would you like us to reboot next? Let us know in the comments below.
About the Trope Reboot Series:
Anything can happen in a fantasy novel, but we don’t expect it to. Readers like familiar ideas, and writers want to build on the inspiration offered by others. Historic backdrops. Mythological creatures. Fanatic philosophies. Magic. Let’s do more with what we have to push our creative limits.
The Trope Reboot series tries to find creative ways to remake old fantasy tropes. All ideas presented in this series may be used freely. To nominate a trope to be rebooted in this series, post your nomination in the comments section below.