Common Magic System Pros and Cons: Elemental Magic

06 Nov

Last post I wrote about the top ten ways to make me put your book back on the shelf. Or hit the back button—but that’s a whole other issue. Now we’re going to talk about common systems of magic and how they work or don’t work depending on how you use them.

First up is elemental magic, one of the most commonly used systems in fantasy, and also one of the most “simple”. It’s just throwing around the four five classical elements, right? Or three or seven, but the most common form uses five: Fire, Water, Wind, Earth, Spirit. I’ve listed them in order of perceived “coolosity” for when “cool” just doesn’t cut it which I define as “a scale running from ‘common amongst protagonists’ to ‘what kind of lame power is heart anyway?’”

You can’t deny fire is the coolest. Balefire, Balrogs, Firestorm, red-haired golden-eyed, fire-wielding necromancers… I’m sure I could name examples all night long and well past noon. And, of course, being its arch nemesis, water gets plenty of stage time as well. Frothing foaming river stallions, weather-magic, majestic water-falls and sacred ponds, rivers, and lakes. Wind gets in on the fun as well. At least, until you put a bullet through the mage. But since when has earth magic played the central role in a story? Why are people so afraid of earthquakes and mudslides? Maybe you get a few walking trees, or land-bonded kings, but fire is just that much flashier, I guess.

So, pros:

  1. Simple concept, easy to divide up and you can have the Five Man Band if you throw in a little “Spirit”.
  2. Easy conflict: Earth vs. Wind Fire vs. Water.
  3. Lots of Earth systems to draw inspiration from: Greek, Chinese, Arabic
  4. Combine elemental powers to get any damn effect you want. I’m looking at you, Mr. Jordan. Well, I would if he wasn’t RIP. I guess that means I’m looking at you, Mr. Sanderson. Not that you can help it much, but I need someone to point at.
  5. See Con # 1: Fertile ground for clever twists. Think about it.


  1. How the hell do you put a price tag on it? Fatigue? Magical energy? Sympathy? Who knows.
  2. Gets cliché, and fast. If I see one more fire/water mage battle, I might have to gouge my eyes out.
  3. Never has even distribution between elements.
  4. Sexism: WoT again.
  5. Lame symbolism. Frisky fire mages are so last decade. And fiery fire mages. And fierce fire mages. And “cool-headed” water mages. And “flighty” wind elementals. And stolid earth mages—well, you know there would be if anyone actually used earth mages. (Don’t lie to yourself.) Mix it up people.

Please, somebody, come up with a fresh treatment. Use the Chinese system more. It’s better than another round of fire beats water beats fire beats everything else. And, last minute thought: alchemy is out. Just as cliché as straight elemental magic.

So, in the spirit of Limyaael, ways to make readers Atsiko like your elemental magic:

  1. Give some other elements besides fire and water the spot-light. Earth could be even more devastating against armies than fire. Wind could defend your coast kamikaze style. Or, you could do that thing that wind mages never think to do: suffocate the bastards.
  2. Give your system more than the old foursome. Wood and metal are both elements from the Chinese version of the system. I’d think rock and ice and sand could be culturally important to many peoples. Widen your scope. Be creative.
  3. But not “spirit”. Just don’t. How the heck is that even an “element”? Is the physical world made up of it? Not usually. Does it have a specific arena in which to work? No, it’s an excuse for whatever the hell the author wants. Set some limits and stick to ‘em, dang it.
  4. Integrate your system into the world. You know, this would be a great way to have a creative cost. Mess with the wind to make for fair-weather sailing? Hurricane nails important port town down the coast. Burn the enemy army up, well fine, but the forest they were hiding in is on fire. Or have a grassfire. Those are always fun. This isn’t hard, guys—it’s fun.
  5. Give me more deals between mages and elementals. Not Final Fantasy pacts, but a fair trade off. Maybe they want pretty flowers, or protection for their little pond. Or just a very-likely-to-be-called-in-at-a-crappy-time-for-the-hero favor. But make it some sort of price, not a freebie because your hero is so awesome.
  6. Find an appropriate cost. Sorry Tamora Pierce. Blood is interesting, but it doesn’t count as appropriate. (To be fair, her system isn’t strictly elemental.) Loved Pat Rothfuss’s method, though I think he could have at least thrown in some brain damage.
  7. Last one for now: Throw in some cool associations or symbolism. The Sun represents Fire. Boring. And planets don’t count either. I’ve always fancied flowers, or a musical instrument as an interesting association. Or maybe bone or blood or tears. Sort of like the Humours, but less body-fluidy. A little.

Okay, I’m done complaining. I really love elemental magic, if it’s a new portrayal. Shoot, I write a lot of stories with some form of it. But I’m tired of the same old same old. You don’t even really have to original—just be creative. And be sure to give me credit for the idea check yourself against what’s been written. Maybe it isn’t completely original—or maybe it is—but if it’s uncommon, it can still give your story a fresh feel.


Posted by on November 6, 2009 in atsiko, Fantasy/Sci-fi, How To, Ideas, Magic, Writing


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20 responses to “Common Magic System Pros and Cons: Elemental Magic

  1. ralfast

    November 6, 2009 at 2:34 PM

    Fiery red headed fire mage….

    Guilty as charge.

    Wind magic in my books gives you superspeed, super agility, super hearing (and smell) oh and the ability to call down lighting on someone arse. Also makes for super anime jumps and soft landings from 60 stories up. Cool, eh?

    Of course the water magi mother isn’t as tranquil as she appears to be, I mean have ever seen a hurricane? Or a Tsunami? Yeah, exactly.

    Earth gives a certain grandmother eternal life and the ability to bring down a mountain on top of a hellmouth, I think that counts as not lame.

    Oh as for costs, fire mage is looking to control her powers, because if they get out of control, they will literally consume her. Poof!

    Then again, it is a first draft so I’ll get back to you with the changes.

  2. Jonathan Danz

    November 16, 2009 at 5:38 PM

    Thanks for your series of posts on magic in fantasy. What you present is a nice way to get the wheels turning. Weaving a tale with plausible magic ain’t no easy thing.

  3. Heather

    November 20, 2009 at 6:05 PM

    Well, as someone working with the elementals themselves this time around, I found this really interesting. Looking over your points…

    1. I have the first covered in stories. My main character for NaNo is a metal elemental and the secondary main is a wind elemental. The wind elemental comes back with a flame elemental and a light elemental in a later story.

    2. I did go with the traditional Greek elements, with the addition of aether, but I broke them down into three aspects each, to sort of balance them a bit more. It gave me more different types of elementals to play with – I’ve got fifteen, to be exact.

    3. Since I mentioned aether (not heart). Some Greek philosopher came up with aether (I want to say it was Aristole?). From what I understood, it’s basically equivalent to void in other elemental systems. Yeah, my aether elementals are light, darkness (not evil) and time – nothing to do with anyone’s emotions there. They’re just the non-tangible things that keep the world going.

    4. I’ve been trying to think about how to integrate them into my world. I actually wrote one scene wherein the flame elemental (you know I had to have one, he’s just not a main for the NaNo) sets a forest on fire in order to kill a bunch of giant spiders. Not only to the characters have to beat feet so they aren’t killed in the blaze, if I ever write the complete tale, they’re going to have to find a way to get the fire under control so that it doesn’t destroy their homes.

    5. I’m in process of brainstorming a story that has one of my elementals summoned by a mage. Let’s just say that after the elemental gets over the initial shock of being given a physical body and basically enslaved by a nasty little mage, he’s going to be most uncooperative. That mage will wish he had studied accounting instead of magic.

    6. I’m not familiar with Pat Rothfuss. What would you say is an appropriate cost to performing magic? I mean, my elementals have actual physical costs for overusing their power – besides fatigue. My wind elemental has a chronic breathing problem from it. My flame elemental is risking blindness.

    7. I’ve got different animals/mythical beasts associated with each element. Like, cats are flame elementals, foxes are light elementals (usually… one of my light elementals is a dragon), dragons are usually ice or water elementals, etc. My flame elemental also isn’t red haired or fiery – he’s a cheerful, if sometimes snarky, character with dark brown hair. My wind elemental isn’t flighty at all. In fact, he’s one of the more stable characters and totally reliable.

    Anyway, you’ve given me a lot of food for thought, so thanks for that.

  4. atsiko

    November 20, 2009 at 6:20 PM

    Great response, Heather. Actually, the fifth Classical Element was “Quintessence”, what the heavenly bodies were made of. I don’t know of a specific connection to “void”.

    On point six, those are some very lovely costs. Of course, how they are worked into the story is most important, but on paper they look good.

  5. Dan Straka

    December 2, 2009 at 4:08 AM

    Admittedly I have a bias on this issue because I’ve play sooo many RPGs in my time. So call me a bit jaded and take my comment with some salt.

    I think one of the greatest pit falls of the 4 elements magic system is that, at it’s heart, it is often a rocks – paper – scissors system. Not always the case but some works take the path well trodden. This system maybe ideal of a manga or anime which often has many many characters and tons of fight scenes, it’s an easy way of doing a bit balancing act, but it has a sort of predestination to it that I feel squishes out some of the emotion.

  6. atsiko

    December 2, 2009 at 4:14 AM

    Yeah, that’s the rub for a lot of systems. The pity is that it doesn’t have to be that way. Even just considering some of the generic powers rpg and manganime characters usually get, you could turn table on a rock-paper-scissors game. Looking at the even wider implementaion in fiction, you’d imagine people would come up with more nuanced systems. Not sure why they don’t. Well, Jordan did, to an extent, but his system wasn’t really elemental in the first place.

  7. Dan Straka

    December 2, 2009 at 4:35 AM

    Agreed it doesn’t have to be that way, but since so many have, I tend to automatically shy away from it when designing systems.

    Another system I’ve been playing with is, I don’t have a snappy name for it so I’ll call it “case by case” magic.

    That is, I never explain or introduce a universal magic system or rule, but rather each character has their own brand of magic unique to them, that they struggle to understand and master. This approach feels more natural to me in some ways, since the reader can related to leaning a particular skill. There are no power meters, just the character’s abilities and will power to see it through. Also this works for the themes of the WIP where I used it, a somewhat sword & sorcery style tale in that it focused on individual troubles, rather than the end of the world deal.

  8. atsiko

    December 2, 2009 at 4:59 AM

    The story I failed to win NaNo with has something like that. At least one major part of the magic system is unexplained abilities, each with their own set of rules. Some have thematic implications, some don’t.

    I guess X-men and such would fall under this label. Maybe the manganime Gakuen Alice as well. I’m sure there are plenty of other examples. It’s one possible way to go, certainly.

    I used an elemental system for one of my unfinished projects. It was very integrated into the world, and I tried to avoid rock-paper-scissors mechanics. Of course, the meta-system behind it allows for other less clear cut systems, and I threw those in with it.

    I can think of only one pure elemental system I’ve used. Your standard four elements, and with some religious and social associations. Parts gel with real-world and fictional commonalities, but parts I created from scratch. Water and fire are purifying, and wind is wild and un-civilized, for example. Not the usual fire-water match up, or the less common earth-wind either. Those are not only cliche, but they are often polarizing. An example is Laura Resnick’s “In Legend Born” where fire and water are opposed for no real reason. The fire folks are generally scene as the good guys, and the water folks are theiving assassins. Okay book outside of that, though.

  9. Ulises Busquet

    June 22, 2015 at 1:37 PM

    I was thinking about the magic system for a video game I was planning for (once I figure out how to code), and I found this site. I read your articles (even though this one talked about how to improve the magic system in a book), and I approve most of your way of thinking. For example, I have about 21 different elements. Some are (other than the basic four, not in order) metal, sound, dimension, lightning, ice, life, death… these are currently a few, but I may change them. All of my elements have something to do with my checklist so they can end up being an element on my list. I also thought up of improved symbols for each element, taking the basic symbols and bending them around to give them a unique look, and gave most an association to a type of energy (fire to heat). However, I need help on two elements: ritual and spirit. I feel like I should either replace them or edit them with something similar. Note that the element system I made shows that each element has similar elements: fire is similar to the tech element. So, I need an element similar to wind and earth to replace them.
    (Note I like the Japanese style of fantasy, mind the other people looking at this site liking European/mideval style fantasy.)

  10. Aaron Christiansen

    July 30, 2016 at 5:19 AM

    The human body is composed of 50%-75% water. So what happens if your lowly water mage simply casts a “purify water” type spell on a person? Maybe that earth mage can control the iron content in her opponent’s blood. Maybe the air mage simply increases the level of nitrogen in the blood, causing the bends in his foe. Maybe the fire mage realizes that his spells drain heat from a large area to concentrate on increasing heat in a small area. So he figures the reverse – how to suck all the heat from a small area and dissipate it over a large area – causing the cell walls in the monster’s brain to explode when they’re suddenly reduced to freezing point while melting the snow in the surrounding meadow…

    Cost? Maybe every act of magic drains energy from the sun. So the caster pays no price, but everyone knows that every act of magic is slowly dooming the entire solar system. And maybe, just maybe, some cult starts up that believes all that energy can be returned to the sun by sacrificing the magic users.

    • atsiko

      August 11, 2016 at 3:39 AM

      Yep. That’s an interesting suggestion, though the time-scale for paying the price might be a bit long, and I’m curious how they figured out the cost.

      I’m also a big fan of things like your examples of how to rethink the traditional elements based on science or just common sense that often is forgone in favor of cool splashy effects like tsunamis and hurricanes and fireballs. Surely it costs less to microwave your opponents brain than hit them with a giant ball of flaming air.

  11. Poopoop

    August 16, 2016 at 6:01 AM

    Fire-Wielding necromancers? He does know that necromancers are wielders of death magic, right? Necrophilia? Necrotic skin?
    Pyromancy is fire magic. Aquamancy is water magic. Necromancy is death magic.
    Learn Latin.

    • atsiko

      August 18, 2016 at 6:41 AM

      Well, you’re partially right. “-mancy” is a suffix referring to divination as opposed to magic in general, and while we probably got the suffix from Latin through French, the original root was borrowed by the Romans from the Greek, a derived suffix from a noun meaning soothsayer.

      So pyromancy is divination by fire, necromancy contacts the dead, aquamancy would be seeing the future in water. Though, rather than visions, it was the behavior of the source of knowledge that was analyzed, such as patterns of bird flight or in the intestines of animals.

      Necromancy and Pyromancy are the main modern uses of the root, and they’ve strayed quite far from it, becoming power over death and power over fire rather than just a means to divine the future from them.

      Also, the book is by Laura Resnick, so “he” is the wrong pronoun. And the connection between the two is explained more in the book, as necromancy is much closer to the original meaning.

  12. Anonymous

    February 6, 2017 at 4:01 PM

    So you are a fan of Limyaael, yes? How do you feel about “Elemental Magic for GURPS”? It’s an old article on the Steve Jackson Games website which outlines a rather unique perspective of elemental magic. The five elements of the Greek philosophers are used, but in addition to the standard physical component each element has a spiritual component. Earth is used for healing and farming, Water is used for manipulating souls and speaking with the dead, Fire is used to inspire artist pursuits, and Air is used for intelligence and knowledge. Ether, oddly enough, relates to time, space and planar travel. The physical components are also different: fire magic manipulates darkness a la A Song of Ice and Fire, among other things.

    • atsiko

      February 6, 2017 at 9:49 PM

      Not a new set of concepts, but I would be perfectly happy reading a story or playing a game with these elements.

      • Anonymous

        April 14, 2017 at 8:06 AM

        Hey again after two months! So I was thinking about how to write a story with that sort flexible elemental magic that defies the mage stereotypes or at least recycles them in original ways.

        For example, the flighty wind mage is a genius mechanic, the earth mage is a werewolf, the fire mage is a sensitive artist.

      • atsiko

        April 14, 2017 at 8:31 AM

        I’m all in favor of this idea. Althoughwe have some powerful common metaphors that the elements are involved in, there are plenty of other connections between them and various other ideas that could be used to give a unique twist to elemental magic.

        As long as there’s a thematic consistency, there’s a lot of unused metaphorical room to stretch the elemental archetypes. (I bring up thematical consistency because one of the most powerful attributes of magic in fantasy is its ability to incorporate the narrative themes of a story to create both a strong emotional arc and a suspension of disbelief for the results of using the magic.)

      • Anonymous

        April 15, 2017 at 12:08 PM

        Yeah, the thematic expansion is neglected. Did you read the article? It is @

        The elemental magic system has huge room for expansion. Earth magic creating tribes of beast men and hordes of chimerical monsters, air magic used to write blueprints for incongruous technologically advanced societies powered by lightning and all sorts of telepath shenanigans, water magic used to summon the dead and construct things out of ectoplasm and perform surgery on souls, fire magic used to inspire artists and create mirages and construct things out of impossible solid shadow, ether magic being used to fold space and time as building materials, etc.

        The best part is that you could make predictions about capabilities based on each element’s spheres of influence.


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