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.
here you go pic.twitter.com/wG85Tuof8n
— Jesse Abraham Lucas (@JesseLucasSaga) November 27, 2018
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.