The (Real) Cost of Magic Part 1

08 Dec

You may have guessed this quite a while ago, but one of my favorite things in fantasy fiction is the magic.  And I don’t just mean I think magic is cool.  I love to study the way magic is constructed and used in fiction, and I think I’ve learned a lot of useful things by doing so.  One thing that I keep coming back to is the idea of a cost for magic.

Everything has a cost.  You pay in calories to stay alive, you pay money to get things you want, and you pay in fuel to keep a fire going.  The cost of most things is pretty clear.  But the cost of magic is different.  Because magic breaks the laws of the real world by definition, the cost for using it is only limited by the imagination of the writer who creates the system.  I’ve seen almost everything used to pay for magic: blood, energy, sanity, physical objects, sacrifice…  Another common cost is time spent in gaining knowledge and preparing spells.

All of these can be effective or ineffective costs for magic.  And by effective, I mean that readers accept them as reasonable repayment for breaking the rules of our world.  Before I get to my main point, I think it’s a good idea to look at why these various things might be considered effective costs.  For this  post, we’ll stick with the oft-used and well-accepted “magic makes you tired” magic system:

The costs of a great many things in the real world are paid in energy.  Shoot a bow?  It takes energy to draw and hold that bow before release.  By a very simple process of transference, that energy is also what kills the poor creature that you’re aiming at.  Same is true for starting a fire, whether you strike a match or rub sticks together. 

So why wouldn’t this be an effective cost for magic?  Well, it often is.  But reasons why a reader might not find this form of magic attractive are many–we’ll deal with two, for now:

1.  It’s often not at all clear how this energy is used to create the spells effect.  Pulling back the bow string creates tension in the bow, which is resolved when the ends snap back into place upon release.  This pulls the string forward, pushing the arrow away at a good clip.  Makes perfect sense, right?  This use of a tool is what allows us to get a projectile moving at a much greater speed than we could with our bare hands.

But what about with magic?  How do we convert the energy in our muscles into a giant fireball?  In reality, we can’t.  But let’s say that we decide it takes as much energy to create a fireball as it does to shoot an arrow.  That’s quite a few fireballs, and since fireballs are generally portrayed as stronger than arrows, we’re getting quite a bit more bang for our calorie.  Which is fine; mages are often considered to be more powerful than your average person, so more efficient use of their energy is not a big leap.

But what about for bigger spells?  Mages are often shown to have the power to level cities with a single word.  No matter how efficient our fictitious conversion of energy, it’s rather much to say destroying a city of 10,000 should be as easy for a mage as killing one man is for an archer.  And, it’s not even possible for one man to hit 10,000 targets with 10,000 arrows in the time it takes our mage hero to level a city (or a region).  So now we’re in a bit of trouble.  Our energy example doesn’t have a simple explanation for our city-busting protagonist.

Unless perhaps we decide that a mage can kill 100 men with his magic as easily as an archer kills one with his arrow(whichitself  is not as easy as it would seem).  Or, maybe magic is a much more efficient tool than a bow.  Combine that with it’s utility in the great many areas in which it is usually shown to be useful, we’ve got a fairly ridiculous tool on our hands.  A bow is made for one thing, to hurl arrows at targets as fast as possible.  Yes, it’s much better at it than a human arm, but that arm can do a great many more things than just hurl an arrow.  Jack of all trades and whatnot.  So why should magic be so priviliged?  Casting fireballs, healing wounds, calling lightning, bringing rain, telling the future…  The list goes on forever.

At this point, we might add one of the other common hobbles on magic, a limit.  Perhaps magic only has a few areas in which it can function: scrying, weather magic, calling fire.  But right now we’re talking about cost.  There are magic systems that allow a mage to do all the things I’ve listed and more, so there should be a way to use costs to make such a system reasonable.  Clearly, paying with physical energy cannot handle this task on its own.  At least, not without a lot of contortions and outside limitations.

2.  Now, there are still other reasons why physical energy is not always an effective cost for magic.  One can do great things, and even if they become exhausted, why, all they need is a bite of food and a bit of rest, and they’re ready to do it again.  All it takes to level a city is an apple?  I find it hard to countenence.  What was the creator of this system thinking?

If we were making a trading card game or an rpg, that could be fine.  Once the game–or even just the battle– is done, everything can be reset, both the energy paid and also the damage done with it.  But every action in a story has consequences that last until the story is finished–or at least they should.  Reseting after one battle destroys the point of that scene; the hero is no further along in the story.  The consequence of a magical battle doesn’t have to result from magic, but if it does, being tired for a day and nothing else doesn’t cut it.  Even suffering great pain means nothing if it goes away and never bothers the mage again.  If the result of a scene is benefit to the characters, they need to have paid a fair price for it, and if the result is that they are hurt, it must be a hurt that can continue to affect their progress as the story moves forward.  Every scene needs to have that effect (or those effects), and in a fantasy, magic has a very good chance of being the cause.  So, it’s important to consider how your magic system might be able to incorporate that purpose.

None of that is to say that a form of magic which is paid for in physical energy cannot generate the long-lasting effects a good story requires.  If your character is bone-tired from hurling magical acid the day before, they may miss the signs of their pursuers, or not have the energy to save the peasant girl in the next village when she is captured by slavers. 

But there is a difference between a direct cost that hits hard now, and an indirect cost that hits hard later.  Depending on the story and its themes, it’s possible to lean more toward one than the other.  Perhaps that is the risk of using magic: you can do more now, but you don’t know if that will be worth the suffering you will undergo later, because you are no longer capable of doing anything.  You might gain twice as much money in the short term, but in the long run, you will end up with less than if you had been satisfied the first time.  But in general you will need a combination of short-term and long-term costs.

Most mages who pay for their magic with physical energy are seem to be able to achieve a great deal before the cost becomes even close to endangering their overall position in the plot.  Personally, I feel this is a bug rather than a feature.  Does anyone have some ways in which magic based around physical energy could still be effective in the eyes of a reader?


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11 responses to “The (Real) Cost of Magic Part 1

  1. Ian

    December 8, 2010 at 5:32 AM

    I think a good example of a place where this sort of cost works is the Wheel of Time series. Channeling the One Power doesn’t drain or cost the channeler anything beyond the relatively small exertion required to control and hold on to the Source. This mainly ends up turning the cost of the magic system into a logistics cost: if you have channelers in your army, for instance, they’re not a weapon that can be exercised freely, but must be spent carefully so as to not wear them out too quickly. Of course, the male half of the source does carry the kind of cost you’re advocating for (progressive madness for the user) but since the female half doesn’t have any such limitation I think it qualifies.

    And you know what? I think it works, so long as the consequences of this minimal cost on the world are carefully considered. For instance, the later Wheel of Time books introduce “gateways” which allow instantaneous transit between two points, with the only real cost being that channelers will quickly tire holding one open. This is indeed a ridiculously powerful tool given to the protagonists and their enemies… but the book recognizes this and explores all the possibilities it opens up. Supplies, dignitaries, merchants, and armies all use the gateways, and their introduction basically rewrites the rules of warfare for the setting.

    Ultimately, the magic, despite being cheap and powerful, is consistent and the world-wide consequences of that power are fully considered, and fuel conflict in their own way without having their cost be the source for that conflict. After all, if a magic user can level a city with minimal effort, mages are not going to be favourably looked upon by the inhabitants of cities! The mages might be hunted down and killed, heavily regulated, or perhaps people simply no longer build cities and spread themselves out in the countryside to make them harder to wipe out.

    So, despite not having any real thematic cost to them, these systems can work just fine if they’re woven into the worldbuilding intelligently. This is part of why I tend to think that fantasy and sci-fi are more similar than they are different… the kinds of powerful magic you describe as ridiculously powerful are equivalent to powerful sci-fi favourites like nanobots (or, hell, the INTERNET.) The interesting aspects of the stories aren’t the costs and limitations of the magic system… those are just the parameters the writer has set. What’s interesting is the exploration of the “what ifs”. Okay, WHAT IF a mage can level a city and incur almost no cost to himself? WHAT IF being a magic user essentially made you a godlike, unstoppable force of nature? How would this effect the world you live in?

    • atsiko

      December 8, 2010 at 4:29 PM

      Heh. Good argument. Wheel of time does reasonably well with a physical energy magic system. Partially becausse each battle is fairly risky in and of itself.

  2. Sevvy

    December 8, 2010 at 11:49 PM

    I’m glad you did this post, because I’m working on a story now that uses a magic system like this. I’m taking a physics/chemistry sort of perspective on magic, where spells could be looked at in terms of their potential or kinetic energies. I’m still exploring it and working the kinks out, but I was worried about the cost of the magic, which really is a drain on the body. The affects on the body depend on the magic being used, but it can range from feeling little at all to going into cardiac arrest or stroking. For this reason, if something can be done without magic, it usually is. Hopefully I don’t run into the “why don’t they just eat some breakfast?” problem. Great post!

    • atsiko

      December 9, 2010 at 1:24 AM

      Glad you liked it. There are certainly physical costs besides energy that work beautifully. Heart-attacks and brain bleeds are two I’ve seen and enjoyed before.

    • Estraven

      August 22, 2011 at 12:52 PM

      Just don’t do what Christopher Paolini does in his Inheritance cycle, namely confusing different usages of converting potential to kinetic energy. At one point, for example, Eragon goes down a cliff face by floating in the open air from edge to edge – and the energy cost, he says, is the same as if he had walked down a path. This completely ignores the fact that keeping something suspended in midair would be a much different amount than walking down (opposing gravity vs. hiking down some switchbacks). And how much energy would be expended to bend light rays around oneself, as Eragon does later? Just be careful, and make sure you describe things as the magic users would describe them (not modern physicists, unless the magicians ARE physicists or modern students thereof 🙂 ).

  3. Moridin

    April 6, 2011 at 8:06 PM

    Finally, decent articles on magic. Well, one version of a physical energy cost I’ve come up with involves the user’s body shriveling and decaying depending on how much energy they’ve used. Irreversible, or at least inefficient to do so, as fixing the decay would impose an equal amount of decay on the healer.

  4. magicscholar

    April 24, 2016 at 1:21 AM

    There’s The Libriomancer by H.C. Hines. in his books there is a calorie cost plus a nauseous effect. So the more you use magic the less energy you will have for later. Because they can’t recover it by eating.

  5. Aaron Christiansen

    July 30, 2016 at 3:51 AM

    I understand the idea behind having a cost to magic. It keeps the writer from simply using magic to get the protagonist out of every scrape. But think of magic as comparable to electricity – that is, a form of energy which can be controlled and directed to attain a specific result. That result (in terms of electricity) might be lighting a room, using a blender to make a smoothie, or killing someone using an electric chair. In all cases, the “cost” of using electricity is paying your power bill at the end of the month, Would it make sense to say the warden of a prison has to lose years of his life in order to pull the switch on the chair? Should a person be granted a migraine headache in return for making a delicious smoothie?

    Magic is a stand-in for technology. It should not be expected to come with any more of a cost than equivalent technology would. Just as a good writer of science fiction uses futuristic technology as a tool, rather than a crutch, so should a good writer of fantasy be able to use magic.

    I think a really good example is the Harry Potter world. Magic is a replacement for everyday muggle technology. There is no price for using magic, yet magic isn’t used to conveniently solve every problem. If it were, then Dumbledore could have simply used the time turner to go back in time and prevent Tom Riddle from being conceived. What keeps Rowling’s wizards and witches from using magic to solve every “problem” is not headaches or having to sacrifice something, it is simple morals.

    Perhaps magic is nothing more than the science of using dark energy/dark matter. Rather than limit your wizards with a physical price they pay for using magic, set magic to its own laws, along the same lines as the laws of physics. Is there really a difference between a fireball spell and a molotov cocktail to those on the receiving end?

  6. Aaron Christiansen

    July 30, 2016 at 4:29 AM

    What is the difference between a mage who can level a city with a spell and a soldier who can level a city by pushing a button? What cost to the soldier for pushing the button? Is he fatigued? Does his body consume itself? I suppose, if he has a conscience, it may haunt him that, in pushing the button, he murdered tens of thousands of people. Or he may justify it as patriotism, survival or whatever. Of course, the soldier hasn’t spent years of time accumulating the knowledge and ingredients necessary to construct the missile and launching system. He simply has to push the button.

    My point being, if magic is to fantasy what technology is to science fiction, then treat magic as technology. Just don’t paint your protagonist into a corner that requires a deus ex machina to survive. In short, if the idea of a wizard who can level a city without paying some huge personal price is abhorrent, then don’t have magic capable of leveling a city. As a reader, magic becomes “real” to me when it operates under some sort of order, just as gravity, electro-magnetism, and the greater and lesser nuclear forces all operate according to specific principles that allow the universe to exist as it does.

    Example: A fireball is a ball of super-heated gas. It emits a LOT of heat. The reason mages don’t cast fireballs is that it tends to give them third degree burns. The reason a mage doesn’t cast earthquake spells is that, as the caster, he is the epicenter. The reason your mage can’t bring the fallen hero back to life is “Dammit Jim, I’m a mage, not a doctor.” He simply has no clue how the body works because he’s spent his academic career acquiring the knowledge to cast fireballs and had no time to devote to biology. If you work your magic system as another sort of science, there will automatically be limitations to what your magic using characters are capable of due to lack of expertise.

  7. atsiko

    August 11, 2016 at 3:35 AM

    First, I disagree that magic is merely stand-in for technology. What magic is really depends on the goals of the author or the design of the world. Technology can function much the same way, and does in some areas, but it’s certainly less explicitly merged with symbolism than magic in most appearances, for example.

    Also, you have a very simplistic idea of the “cost” of technology, to my mind. In fact, that soldier pushing a button is backed up by scientists, engineers, and millions of dollars of technology to build the bomb or whatever that levels the city. The materials for that bomb themselves rely on a huge infrastructure that finds, collects, and processes those materials, which in turn rely on a societal structure and a society based on that structure that involves millions of people. So I would argue that the “cost” of lighting your house is far more than just a few bucks at the end of the month, and even just that currency relies on thousands of years of history, a complex economic system, and a host of other structures to support it. Those dollars seem small, but you’re giving up a huge portion of your labor to support the government that can regulate that service, the workers who install the power lines to transport the electricity, etc.

    Magic, on the other hand, is most often, if not most elegantly, portrayed as a much more personal use of resources, and in many cases, requires very little to no infrastructure to generate its effects, except perhaps a limited (or not so limited) system for passing down knowledge.

    I love systems with some effects similar to the ones you are describing, but they’re just one kind of system, and certainly not the only good one. A physical penalty system done well can be equally engaging, even if it’s just migraines or whatever. And do consider that say, a headache or a loss of stamina is pretty consistent with the use of our own bodies to achieve change in the world. The cost of making it to the next town by tomorrow may be me staying up all night and having the father of all muscle soreness tomorrow.

    The point of the style of cost of magic you are critiquing is not only to keep the character from engaging in deus ex machina, but also to force them to make a choice: the warden you describe has to decide, based on his character, goals, resources, etc, whether executing that prisoner is truly worth the cost. A mage in a direct cost magic system might have to decide whether achieving their goal is worth the cost. Perhaps they can save that village at the cost of their life. Or maybe, they can spread that cost among the villagers, including those who would have survived anyway. Seems like a pretty decent use of a moral cost to me.

    This post covers one limited set of perspectives on the creation of magic systems that I was exploring at the time, and is by no means intended to be the end-all of thought on magic system construction.


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