The Cost of Magic


I’ve been thinking lately about magic. In fiction, its treatment varies widely, but I feel like there are a few generalizations I can make.

First, I don’t agree with Gita (or Orson Scott Card) that magic must have a price or else be rendered uninteresting. Of course magic should have limitations.

Card’s assertion that magic systems should always be clearly defined as more merit, but I don’t agree with that one either. That’s a post for another time, however. When I think of my favorite portrayals of magic in SFF, I’m not sure any of them always exact a price in the sense Card talks about.

In Earthsea, magic is essentially the knowledge of names. Wizards learn the true names of things, and as no falsehoods can be spoken in the Old Speech, their speech becomes true. If you say it is raining, then it must necessarily rain. I’m sure there are nuances and limits to this (it’s been a while since I read any of the books), but no outright cost that I can recall. As a matter of fact, it was around the time that LeGuin started steering her story towards sociopolitical commentary and decided that the magic of the world is actually limited and wizards are using it all up(!) that Earthsea became a lot duller.

Jack Vance’s Dying Earth was one of the major inspirations for D&D’s spell slot system. While there is some variance from person to person, an individual may only cram a certain amount of spells into his head at one time. When a spell is released, poof – it’s gone until it’s memorized once again!

There also exist a large number of magical artifacts, baubles, and trinkets possessed of varying degrees of power and usefulness.

Once again, we have limitations but no explicit cost.

The Face in the Frost, another direct inspiration for D&D, imagines magic pretty similar in some ways to the Vancian implementation – a slew of enchantments tied to objects and many, often frivolous, spells and items. Though many spells must be memorized, they’re not instantly forgotten like in the Dying Earth, and they often require ingredients or performance of ritual.

Bellairs does hint at some point that a wizard’s repertoire is limited and can be used up, but we don’t get any clear picture of a price that’s being paid.

Looking to Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith and Lovecraft, magic is generally much more mysterious, darker in purpose, and mostly left unexplained. We do encounter things like human sacrifice (a blood cost?), but again there’s no systematic price that we are made aware of.

The magic of Harry Potter, though systemized and limited in all sorts of ways, defines no real consistent cost, either. Potions require ingredients, of course, as do some spells. But most of the magic we see is invoked with faux-Latin and some wand waving.

Now maybe none of these are examples of “good” or “interesting” uses of magic. Clearly I think they are, but maybe FullMetal Alchemist is the pinnacle of wizardry.


And maybe magic in the stories I’ve mentioned actually do require some price always be necessarily paid. Maybe the lure of power is a price. Maybe the opportunity cost of time spent learning certain spells instead of other spells, or of studying swordplay or statecraft or accounting – maybe that’s the cost of magic!


I think one reason I don’t need my magic to have clear and constant cost is that magic is fantastical. It’s not science. Of course a writer must take care not to obliterate the internal consistency of his story, but magic is at its best when it’s ambiguous, wondrous, frightening, and mysterious. It need not be bound by the mundane.

Precisely how many virgins must the Black Seers sacrifice to call down a terrible killing curse upon Conan?

What are the bounds of Gandalf’s powers?

Does Merlin need to sleep 8 hours to recharge his spells?

I’ll tell you where precise limits and consistent costs are good for magic – in games. Players need clear rules for how to play the game, and thus mechanics are created. Want to cast a fireball? Sure, that’ll be 10 MP; or one Level 3 spell slot; or 5 vials of blood and a rock. Enjoy your crisy-fried goblins.







  1. Given that in Robert E. Howard stories (with the exception of N’Longa) the wizards are always evil, I’d say that there is a power corrupts price to magic in Howard’s world. Even N’Longa was a little ambiguous.

    • Yeah, that could be the case. Magic seems more consistently dark and pagan in Howard’s writing, and so it wouldn’t surprise me if in his writings magic were almost always dark and insidiously exacting. But that’s still a far cry from “magic must have clearly defined rules.”

  2. “Magic must have rules” is a statement that has two aspects.

    1. The Story rules of magic: when can magic be used to solve story problems and 2. The World rules of magic: what is the explanation of how magic works in the world.

    As a reader and a writer you always always always need number 1. This rule could be as simple as “Only Gandalf can do magic. But it is only as fantasy readers and writers become more sophisticated that the World rules of magic had to be defined at tighter and tighter levels of granularity to satisfy the audience.

    IMO A cost and a limitation is the same thing. It is the thing that keeps magic from being a law of nature.

    • At a certain point, though, it just becomes a game of semantics, it seems to me. “Only Gandalf can use magic.” Or…”only magic users can use magic.” Until the writer decides to add more magic users…

      • When I first read the Lord of the Rings it struck me how little Gandalf used magic. There might have been some cost we were not aware of it. Of course, LotR’s messages is basically just because you have power doesn’t mean you should use it.

        • Red! Back to your original comment – I think you’re close. I’d say that limitations are a good thing (I’m hesitant to say necessary, because hey, maybe someone’s written something interesting where magic has no limitations) and that cost is a subset of limitation.

          I’d also challenge your word choice in saying that “more sophisticated” readers and writers have grown to demand more granularity. I’m not sure at all that someone who enjoys Sanderson’s granularly-detailed magic system over the unclear and mysterious magic of Tolkien’s work is more sophisticated.

          I think it’s worthwhile for writers and critics to mull this stuff. I just get concerned when it begins to shackle people. And that’s perhaps my biggest problem with Gita’s argument about genre. I don’t think it’s a good things for writers to box themselves into artificial conventions.

          • By “sophisticated” in this sense I just refer to the hand holding that the writer needs to go through to teach the reader about conventions, which in these days is almost none.
            I agree about it being a problem when it’s a shackle and when/if your read my stuff you’ll see that I don’t care about it. I prefer to think of genre conventions as tools that a writer can use or not as they see fit.

  3. I like magic systems and rules, but then, I am a game designer as well as an author and avid reader. Systems and limits, costs and timing (cooldowns in gaming) are all ways to ground magic and tie it to logic and believability. This allows for it to be a part of the story that can be understood more effectively, as we *are* pattern-seeking creatures. It also allows for characters who use magic to grow and learn in more discrete ways, using their creativity and understanding to use old skills in new ways.

    It also prevents magic from being a cop out, a way for the author to just Make Things Happen by authorial fiat instead of making things work within the world’s framework. Magic doesn’t need to be real, but I prefer magic to have some sense to it, even if its logic is only internally consistent instead of tied to, say Newton’s laws of motion.

    That said, magic that is completely off the wall and out of nowhere can still be fun, I just find that I prefer a story where magic is studied and even codified in some way, because it seems more true to what I see in the real world of learned souls, which mages tend to be. Of course, wild magic and weird wielders are certainly an avenue to explore, and letting magic run wild can produce great plots, too. It’s just more prone to arbitrary events and solutions, which are less than satisfactory in my book.

    Speaking to the specific concern of magic requiring costs, in gaming, that’s baked into the systems that allow for game balance, but in fiction, I don’t think it’s necessary unless the story being told is at least in part *about* those costs and how they are paid. Limitations are good, costs can be useful, but I think that arbitrarily saying they are *necessary* is inaccurate and lacking creativity.

  4. A bunch of stuff to respond to.
    1) Yes, the time spent memorizing spells that are gone from your memory *is* a cost. Time is an opportunity cost
    2) Gandalf is, if I may mix the metaphors or something, an NPC. He had a buttload of power, but his main role is to shepherd them through. I think that has been made explicit in some analyses, dunno.
    3) I think you are mixing up a bunch of concepts here. When OSC (and me) talk about magic having a cost, that isn’t a comment on magic in real life, or even divine magic in fiction.

    To expand on 3.
    If your main character can do anything, where is your story?

    Ohnoes! Everything is bad! I have no way to get what I want!

    Oh, wait, yes, I do: Magic!

    Problem solved.
    Problem? Magic. Problem solved.

    That makes for really bad stories. There *must* be some limits, or you you just writing wish fulfillment.

    So you have one of two choices:
    1) only certain people can do magic
    2) magic is difficult, painful, or costly, so only some people choose to do magic

    Even if your choice is #1, you still have to have limitations of *some* sort to heighten the narrative tension.

    Even Superman had Kryptonite.

    Every story needs to have the protagonist encountering obstacles. If magic has no cost, no limits, where are the obstacles?

    Now, what those obstacles are is up to the writer. For Vance, it was limitations on how many spells you could hold in your head, and once you used it, it was gone until you invested the time to memorize it again. For Tolkien, it was limited to specific individuals who had severe limits on what they could practically do with it, or corrupting in nature. Sometimes both.

    So, I mean, I don’t think you’re *wrong*; I think it’s a semantic conflict, where the original concept wasn’t made clear enough.

    • I do agree that magic should have limits to be interesting.

      The cost thing…I’m not sure I agree that you and OSC are saying the same thing (as one another). I mean if you’re going to allow for opportunity cost to enter into that definition, then *everything* has a cost, not just magic. Even if you’re talking about boring old limitless magic (or divine miracle?) and you snap your fingers and smite your enemy instantly…well, there’s an opportunity cost! You could have made him your ally instead! This kind of renders the whole point meaningless.

      • But where’s the cost of blasters in Star Wars?

        That highlights why Clarke’s 3rd rule is wrong. The way the author handles magic or tech makes them distinguishable.

        I mean, he’s not wrong in real life, but that’s the whole point: we’re talking about *fiction*. And for authors, Clarke’s 3rd rule is clearly wrong, and we should ignore it.

        I think the passage copied from Card’s book distorts his point. Or I’ve run farther with it than Card did. It doesn’t have to be a huge, dramatic cost, like cutting off a limb. I think he was just giving one specific example of how just considering the cost of magic can, itself, make a compelling narrative. But not all magic needs that intense of treatment.

        But even when magic is pervasive and accepted, it needs limits and costs. I’ll expand more in a post on the old site.

        • Interestingly, Leigh Brackett, another highly successful SFF writer, subscribed to Clarke’s 3rd Rule (appeal to authority fallacy, I know 😉 ).

          As I commented above to Emily, I worry that this kind of consideration can severely limit writers. Rules and limitations are important (for writers and probably for magic), and as you’ve said before, if you know the rules you can more safely break them. But I’m just not sure I agree that these are indeed the rules. There are just too many successful examples that run counter. I’d say there are various philosophies for writing magic, rather than rules, in this case.

  5. Without jumping into the Twitter shenanigans, here are my thoughts:

    There are a few different ways that magic can be used in the story:

    1) Protagonist can use it

    2) Background of the world

    3) Wise old sages

    While all rules can be broken by the great authors (such as Tolkien), the most important thing is that there is a consistency to the magic. Generally, if it is a rare thing, only used by a wise old sage, there can be less consistency (such as Gandalf).

    However, if the protagonist uses it, there must be rules, even if the author does not give them to the readers. Otherwise, magic becomes a lazy crutch to get out of any situation. *cough* Harry Potter *cough*

    This applies to the cost of magic as well. If the cost of casting a spell is cutting off one finger, that generally means a human wizard can only cast a maximum of 10 spells in their lifetime. However, if magic has a cost, it must be a consistent cost. Unless a wizard has 11 fingers, he or she cannot cast more than 10 spells in their lifetime. Period.

    Magic does not necessarily need a “cost” (like cutting off a finger or sacrificing a virgin to the nameless things that dance in the darkness between the stars), but if it does, it must be consistent.

    • Thanks for weighing in, NJ!

      Interesting; of course no accounting for taste, but I’d call HP absolutely a successful use of magic.

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