Worldbuilding pt. 06: magic

Worldbuilding pt. 06: magic

· Caio Lente · #d&d  #worldbuilding 

After my last post’s overview of Unarian history, it’s finally time to talk about the setting’s magic system. Normally this would have been one of the first steps of the worldbuilding process, but, since the Branching was Unaria’s biggest and most defining event, I chose to sort it out before working on the magic system. Speaking of which, let’s start our deep dive…

Realistic magic

My goal here is to create a generic magic system that works with traditional fantasy TTRPGs, but with some nice twists that can create narrative drama. I also want it to feel somewhat consistent, even realistic1.

For example, I want it to justify (at least a little bit) why Humans don’t have any magical powers; it’s always bothered me that Humans are usually the main characters of fantasy fiction, but they’re always the most boring ones. I know this is because we don’t have magical powers in the real world, but I want there to be an in-world reason for this2.

In the same vein, there has to be a reason why people were able to forge magic weapons in the olden days and, currently, adventurers have to sacrifice their lives exploring dark, monster infested dungeons in order to get any kind of magic item.

To square these circles, my plan is to take inspiration from thermodynamics and genetics. The second law of thermodynamics teaches us that, in a closed system, entropy never decresces; if space expands, energy diffuses and becomes more spread out, more sparse. And geneticists have observed that the Y chromosome has shrank in size with every new generation for millions of years.

Making it mine

Think of magic in Unaria as a substance that permeates all aspects of creation: everything has at least a little bit of magic that can be manipulated by a sufficiently powerful caster.

Primal spells, for example, tap into magic from plants and other parts of nature. Divine spells, on the other hand, tap into magic from the gods themselves. Finally, arcane spells tap into the magic of the their components and usually require a lot of study to be mastered.

Sapient creatures, however, already came into the world dripping in magic. Without ever having to learn how to cast a spell, this innate magic of the eight original species fueled their passive magical qualities: Golems had stone skin, Fey could make trees talk, Undying (humanity’s ancestors) could communicate telepathically, etc.

The problem with innate magic is that, as mortals reproduce and multiply, it gets spread out and they become less powerful, diminished versions of themselves. Humans, because they are the one who reproduce the fastest, completely lost their magic over time, while the other species retained at least a few of their original powers. Even Halflings, who also descended from Undying, separated evolutionarily early enough from Humans as to keep some of their powers3!

The most dramatic exception to this rule are Dragons, who are still very magical. Since they live for so long, Dragons realized that reproduction was weakening their species. Since many Dragons are greedy and power-hungry, they stopped reproducing sexually and started spontaneously reincarnating instead. The Dragons who kept sexually reproducing diminished in magic and became Wyverns, Dragonborn, and Kobolds; the rest essentially became living fossils, maintaining the levels of power that their species had.

There are also ways of absorbing magic from other living creatures, but these are usually vile rituals reserved for BBEGs. A lich, for example, can get more magic to feed its immortality by consuming mortal souls. Anthropophagy rites from real Earth’s past (where one might consume the meat of a great warrior in order to get their strength) would also work in Unaria.

One event that changed all of the rules was the Branching. The world split in three, which diffused magic equally among the planes (Feywild, Shadowfell, and Unaria). This not only reduced innate magic, but overall available magic. After the Branching, it became significantly harder to create magic weapons, cast higher level spells, etc.

Now that we understand better how magic works in Unaria, we can move on and explore another aspect of the universe that I still have to explain: the planes.

  1. Technically the word is “verisimilitudinous”, but you’re not my mom. ↩︎

  2. I have already established that humanity’s ancestors, the Undying, did in fact have psionic powers. So my magic system has to explain why Humans lost those powers and why the other major species kept theirs. ↩︎

  3. If the Undying were psionic, why aren’t Halflings also psionic? The answer is that one’s innate magic isn’t really tied to their ancestry; it is more nurture than nature. An Elf raised by Dwarves, for example, can have dwarven powers. ↩︎