World Building and Narrative Structure

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how narrative structure, how what kinds of scenes and narrative beats are used to create meaning for the audience, affects and constrains what kind of magic and superpowers a story can have. Obviously, different kinds of stories need different kinds of magic systems. The distinction I want to consider for the moment is between rule-based systems that bring the focus of the story onto the world and society as a whole, and “one person, one power” systems where each individual has their own idiosyncratic power set, which focus on the interactions between characters.

By rule-based systems, I mean magic systems where the rules hold for all users of a magic. What magician A does is basically the same thing as what magician B does, either can explain anything the other does, and you can even take the magic system and give it an encyclopedia entry of it’s own. Think of the ‘Ars Arcanum’ bits and the end of Brandon Sanderson’s books. Because there are many users of the same magic, experimenting with it and finding their own applications for it, these systems pull the narrative focus outward, with the characters being the camera by which the world is revealed to the audience. The question these systems bring up is “how does magic fit into this world, and how is society built around the fact of its existence?”

“One person, one power” systems work like a superhero comic. Each user has their own magic, the magic is never mentioned apart from the user, and if you see the power in an encyclopedia, it’s in the entry of the user. These systems pull the narrative inward, away from the world and towards the characters themselves, and their interactions with each other. These questions don’t make the viewer ask how society deals with magic, but rather, it make them ask, “What do the characters do with their powers?”

The story the author is telling determines how the magic system acts. If the author starts out with a “one person, one power” system but keeps going into the history and cultures of the world, their going to find themselves explaining how the powers interact with each other and how the underlying rules link together. Conversely, a story that starts out by laying out the rules of magic and then goes on to focus on characters interactions, including violent interactions, is going to have an extraordinary number of exceptions to those rules. There are times when these are exactly what the author is going for. Sometimes you want to write a story about how seemingly unrelated phenomena are deeply linked to each other. Sometimes you want to tell a story about the limits of human knowledge and shattering all preconceived limits. But if you know that your medium or publishing house is going to push you to on style or the other, you should be aware of that.

Magical Chromodynamics

It occurred to me recently, while I was considering how humans perceive photons of particular energy levels as having color while also using color as a metaphor for certain qualities of quarks, that there are two ways of dividing things by color. The first is to treat the colors as a spectrum, with the colors smoothly blending into each other and two diametric entities at each end. The other is to treat the colors as a metaphor, with each color serving to denote a discrete phenomenon that may or may not interact with the other colors.

Among magic systems, treating colors as a metaphor is the more common approach. The classes of magic my not interact at all, or they may interact in an arbitrary way. Magic: the Gathering is a paradigmatic example. There are five colors of magic, and they are placed on a wheel of alliances and oppositions. The placements are based more on what kind of people would be associated with those colors in fantasy fiction, and what kind of conflicts are typical between those kinds of people, than anything involving the colors themselves.

Treating the colors like a spectrum is a more interesting proposition, if only because there’s less of a guide. The first idea that comes to mind is that there are two basic powers that lie at each end of the spectrum. For example, change, life, or heat could be at one end, while stability, death, or cold could be at the other. Let us associate change with the red end of the spectrum, and permanence with the blue end.

Red magic, once released, alters what ever it is released upon randomly, except for those things that are fixed in their current state by blue magic. Getting something useful out of magic, then, requires a great deal of skill, first creating a shell of blue magic to confine the red magic to a certain area, then dynamically invoking blue magic as red magic turns whatever it is the magician is working on into what they want, to fix various attributes in place. The colors besides red and blue pop up in the interplay between them, a shimmering field of light within the spell space.

This is a good base for our magic system, but two ‘violations’ come to mind within it. I call these things violation because, while they are conceptually related with change and stability, they are also clearly above the basic functions of red and blue magic. I speak of creation (turning nothing into something) and destruction (turning something into nothing). Unfortunately, these powers are a bit beyond the scope of this essay, being more suitable for a story unto themselves.

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A Seed of a Magic System that Won’t Leave my Mind

I have an idea of a world where the color of a person’s magic determines what kind of machinery they can operate.

Well, I say a color of magic, but really, any way of splitting up magic will do. I’m mostly interested in a world where every bit of machinery requires a particular kind of person to operate. Unfortunately, I don’t really have much beyond that.

I have no idea how to divide the effects into classes. While I have some idea about the classes being associated with colors, that doesn’t really constrain me to anything. I could have two basic effects, one associated with red on one end of the spectrum and blue on the other end of the spectrum, or I could have three, one for each primary color, with the secondaries being combinations of those three.

But I suspect I’m leaning too hard on the color theme. The really interesting thing is that the magic is based on machines, which can be transferred between people, although in a limited fashion in this case. There’s something to be said about theft in this case, or at least, somebody acquiring something they shouldn’t.

Well, I suppose that points toward a main character. But towards their team, or their opponents, I have nothing. I guess I can roll it around in my head further.

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Digital Art: Chart of Effects

Something I made as a counterpoint to [1]. While that piece was about dividing magic up by methods, this one is about dividing magic up by the intended effect. They’re not unrelated – method defines effect, effect implies method. I just find it fascinating to think about how methods and effects can be separated and combined in various ways.

The actual divisions were inspired by the schools of magic from Dungeons & Dragons. I have been mulling around how things were broken up in that system, in particular, how mind control is separated from illusion, and how necromancy and enchantment did end in -tion. I also thought about how ‘abjuration’ was a strange word that I liked. A pity I didn’t wind up using it.

Transmutation, divination, and deception are fairly straightforward classifications, covering directly changing materials and objects, finding things out, and mind control+illusion, respectively. Conjuration covers teleportation and transportation, but not creation of objects. That technically falls under the heading of manifestation, but manifestation is mostly a place to put the evocation effects. The idea is that magic can create things, but only temporarily. So temporarily, in fact, that the wizard is usually better off creating energy that can have an effect in a few seconds before disappearing into the ether.

The last effect class, protection, was a mistake. I was thinking in terms of oppositions, in the same way that divination and deception were natural opposites. I was thinking of an opposite for the blaster mages that use manifestation, but now that I think about it, a more natural counterpart (in as much as the counterparts are natural) to manifestation is conjuration. This means that transformation needs a counterpart, so I now believe that protection – effects that prevent damage – should instead be fixation – effects that prevent change.

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Sketch: A Chart of Methods

Forms of magic can be differentiated from each other by means of source, method, and effect. Of these three, effect is probably the most important, but at the same time, source implies method, and method implies effect. One does not have to haggle for power if the power does not come from a sentient being, and it would be weird to grow claws to stick two things together, after all.

The basic concept of this sketch is the difference between theurgy and thaumaturgy (roughly equivalent to D&D’s divine and arcane magic), and something I read on Wikipedia about a real life occult philosophy the differentiated between summoning a spiritual force inside of you (called invocation) and summoning a spiritual force outside of you (called evocation). Mulling over the concepts in my head, I eventually came upon an idea for an external form of thaumaturgy, based around enchanting objects and letting others use them. It is the burning desire to draw an emblem for this method that left me creating emblems for the other three quadrants.


Splats are groups of people that share superpowers.

The term comes from tabletop RPGs. There was once a company that produced multiple, related games, and each of those games divided player characters in to various groups, in order to give players a guide to building and growing their characters’ abilities. Each game had its own idiosyncratic name for these groups, such as clans, guilds, etc., and eventually, the company produced a series of supplements describing these groups for each game, called things like clanbook, guildbooks, etc. The fans eventually started to refer to these books as splatbooks, after the pronunciation of the wildcard symbol (*) used in computer searches, and the groups they were about as splats. The terms came to be applied to other systems with similar divisions.

Perhaps I should amend my definition of splat. Rather than being groups of people that share superpowers, splats are subdivisions of a group of people that use related forms of magic. Perhaps the easiest example to explain is the various kinds of vampire. One kind of vampire has superstrength, another has shapeshifting, and yet another specializes in hypnosis. However, all three need to ingest blood for their powers to work.

I first noticed the possibilities of splats outside of games in the works of Brandon Sanderson. Part of his highly systematized approach to magic systems involves dividing the various powers up into manageable bits, if only so that not every character can do everything. A pewterarm and a smoker from Mistborn have completely different effects, but they both gain their powers by swallowing bits of metal.

A more complex and less rigorous splat system is the clans from Naruto. The majority of clans in that series have a set of powers that only they can use, but they also have a predisposition to learn certain classes of elemental techniques that they share with other clans. There are also those simple tricks that everyone can learn, but no one seems to specialize in.

The least rigorous for of splats is a system where every person that uses a particular kind of magic can learn everything that magic is capable of, limited only by the time for learning and personal aptitude. The nearest thing I can think of to this system is the space marine chapters from Warhammer 40,000. There is little difference at the chapter level between the capabilities of any two space marines (give or take some acid spitting or instant tanning), but nevertheless, the White Scars specialize in mobility, the Imperial Fists specialize in fortifications, and the Raven Guard specialize in stealth. This seems to largely be a difference in history, culture, and training.

I have not written anything with a splat system. The themes of Occulted do not lend themselves to such clear divisions, but my other works have either been too short or simply too unformed to support them. I feel that I could almost make one from scratch, but as this essay is long enough as is, I think I should leave that for a later date.

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Thoughts on the Aura Field, Part V: On Sorcery

I wrote this series of essays in order to figure out how I wanted ritual spells in Occulted to work. Before I started it, I understood that I want rituals to be a method of manipulating auras that didn’t belong to the caster. Beyond that, however, I had difficulty deciding how to square the basic process with three qualities that I want the rituals to have: that sorcery be flexible, personal, and non-arbitrary.

By flexible, I mean that I wanted sorcery to be a way for an Occ to do things that they were not born capable of. This would explain how someone could gain new superpowers over the course of their life, and allow the characters to do things more complicated that what their powers directly allowed, by trading time and study for ease. However, this conflicted with sorcery being personal.

Personal sorcery means that each exact spell is unique to the caster. Despite the flexibility I want out of sorcery, I’m not entirely comfortable letting the characters leave their inspiration behind entirely for it. That is to say, I want the mummy-girl’s rituals to invoke the Egyptian gods, the vampire-girl’s rituals to require blood, and the Frankenstein-girl’s rituals involve lightning and surgery. However, most systems with personal spells are arbitrary.

What I mean by arbitrary can best be explained by example. In the tabletop role-playing game Mage: the Ascension, mages cast their spells by performing rituals that might only have meaning to them. The actual actions taken during the ritual are, in fact, unnecessary, and it’s only the fact that the mage is unaware of the true nature of reality that makes them seem like they are. While I’m given to understand that there are real-life traditions that only require the ritual to be meaningful to the caster, that’s just not how I want my magic system to work.

I didn’t expect Jessica’s feeding to provide a key. Somewhere along this line, I decided that my vampires needed to drink blood because their aura’s could only affect the aura of blood. Similarly, a ritualist does not make signs and sounds because they are meaningful to her, but because her aura resonates with the aura’s of the signs and sounds. By creating a web of auras, it is possible to create a large variety of effects, despite the fact that they all share the same root. This will provide a framework for ritual spells in Occulted as I move forward, although it seems that the aura field didn’t come up much in an essay named after the concept.

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Thoughts on the Aura Field, Part IV: On the Auras of Things

Aura, in the world of Occulted, is a form of subtle matter that surrounds a person or an object, or suffuse a place. The person or object so surrounded, or the place so suffused, is called the aura’s generator. Aura can be active, and have a visible effect on the world, or inert, in which case the generator gives no sign of being connected to the Occulted world.

When the generator is a living or thinking creature, an active aura responds to the generator’s will, in much the same way a person’s limbs do. However, places and inanimate objects cannot control their auras, although these auras can still have an effect. Instead, the auras of things and places contribute to the aura field of this essay’s title.

There are several qualities I want the aura of things to have. First, I want the characters to be able to affect the inanimate auras. Second, I want the auras to be able to change under certain circumstances. Third, I want to be able to bring in abstract concepts into this. I will also speak of the auras of places and how they connect to the auras of things.

The reason I want characters to be able to affect the auras of inanimate substances has to do with Jessica’s feeding. I need her to have a reason to drink blood regularly. An obvious need blood fills for her is that it’s the only way she can refill her reservoir of magical power. I’m don’t think I need to fill in the details about why it’s only blood that can do this, beyond the substance having a very dense aura. It’s much the same way that sunlight weakens Jessica’s aura. I suppose that instead of characters being able to affect aura, I want auras to interact with each other in ways the depend on the specific auras.

Jessica’s weakness to sunlight brings me to the second quality, of aura’s ability to change. Sunlight weakens Jessica, but moonlight does nothing to her; similarly, moonlight empowers Eric, but sunlight does nothing to him, even though moonlight is just sunlight that happens to have bounced off the moon. Even though out of universe, this simply because I want to copy folklore, in universe, it’s clear that bouncing off the moon changes the photons, or at least their aura. Some of you may notice that this bears similarity to the anthropological concept of contagion.

As for the abstract concepts, it would be better to say that I want symbols to have auras of their own. Draw a symbol in ink, and it has an aura with distinct qualities not present in the aura of the ink. Draw the same symbol in blood, and its aura has qualities associate with the symbol and blood, but not of ink. I’ll leave the exact implications of this to another essay, when I cover sorcery.

Abstract ideas can also explain why different kinds of auras act in similar ways. Both sunlight and crosses suppress a vampire’s power. What do sunlight and crosses have in common? Nothing, except that they are both associated with holiness. We can say that both crosses and sunlight have holy auras, but I suspect that what exactly makes them similar might be beyond the scope of the story.

As for the auras of places, they might be similar to the aura field, in that they are the combination of the auras of every object in the place. But I’ve already decided that ink arrange in one pattern has a different aura from the same ink in a different pattern. Therefore, there’s every reason for a room or area or any other space to have effects of its own, like having a barrier that keeps certain kinds of beings out or contained.

One kind of power that’s ubiquitous among places in the Occulted universe is the creation of additional spaces that normal people can only rarely enter. I will say now that there is no effective limit on the size of natural extra spaces, although artificial ones would be limited by the abilities of the creator. I want there to be entire planes of existence, the Jotunheims and Fairylands, out there, and I don’t want anyone to have created something similar. Or if they have, it was something unheard of.

You may have noticed that the three qualities I want the auras of objects to have all make the auras manipulable. This is because I started this series of essays trying to figure out how I want sorcery to work in my universe. The next and final part will bring it all together, and explain how ritual spellcasting works.

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Thoughts on the Aura Field, Part III: On Monster-forms and Personal Abilities

As Occulted is a story about being caught by surprise by the true nature of the world, I need a way for the strange things in the story to appear as normal. So when sentient, talking monsters (like most of the Occulted were inspired by) appear in the story, they need a way to pass as a normal human. I have referred to the form where the disguise drops as the monster-form.

But as I kept writing, I found a place for characters, like Vanessa, who is inspired by the invisible man, and Miss Karas, who’s inspired by certain kinds of ancient Greek nymphs, that didn’t need a monster-form, and it would be jarring if they had one. Even Jessica, one of my main characters, would have a monster-form that’s little more than bringing out a pair of fangs.

Transformation can be little more than another personal power. The personal powers, the superpowers, the powers that an Occ can use without a ritual – I need a better name for these things, but if I can’t make it stick in my head, it doesn’t matter – the talents of an Occ is determined by the nature of their aura. This extends to everything from transformation to elemental manipulation to mind control.

Alima’s talents might be the strangest. Her aura can turn her body into dust when she is attacked, until she is little more than a heart, which can survive without the rest of her body, and can even let her regenerate if given enough time. This is mostly because I was inspired by mummies when I created her, and all of her powers are connected through that.

Getting away from the monster-form being the true form also allows me to answer a question I’ve had some serious trouble with: how did Alima’s mother carry her to term? Inherent to the concept of the monster school (another part of Occulted’s inspiration) is the idea of parents passing powers to their children. If Alima’s true form is a pile of dust in a humanoid shape, so would her mother, and in which case, where would her womb be?

One last thing I want to talk about is the difference between aura pressure and aura reservoir. Aura pressure is how much energy an Occ uses at a given time, while aura reservoir is how much energy an Occ has available. Picture a sack that needs to be squeezed to power a machine, and you can get a picture of the relationship between reservoir and power.

The original idea of the monster-form was that it was a state in which aura pressure went up greatly. This is most apparent with Eric’s transformation: as moonlight increases, the amount of power in his reservoir also increases, until it’s finally full to bursting and he has to transform. However, as I seem to enjoy writing about characters using their abilities in a clever manner than simply seeing who can punch the hardest, reservoir and pressure a background elements, mostly used to explain why Jessica needs to drink blood.

To explain how that works, however, I need to explain the auras of things. That’s a subject for next time.

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Thoughts on the Aura Field, Part II: On Aura Itself

Aura, in the world of Occulted, is a type of subtle matter that surrounds people and objects, and fills certain places. Aura can be inert, in which case it has no effect and whatever it is associated with acts like anything you’re familiar with, or it can be active, in which case its generator is Occulted. It is that latter category, of course, that this essay is really interested in.

An active aura owned by a person reacts to that person’s will. What effects the aura has on the world changes from person to person. Jessica’s aura gives her super-strength. Vanessa’s let’s her become invisible. Many Occulted, like Eric and Angelica, can physically transform because of their auras.

Perhaps I should note here that when I say ‘will,’ I don’t refer to only to intentional actions. In particular, Eric’s transformation into a beast is linked to the phase of the moon. The idea was that he received some kind of energy from the moon, and when it built up to a certain point, he would have to transform into an uncontrolled state, where he was a danger to everyone around him.

There’s also the strangeness of Alima’s body. Physically, she is little more than a heart surrounded by a body that’s prone to turning to dust under stress, but I want it to be possible for her to live as a human, eating, drinking, even possibly raising a family. In a sense, her powers are a reverse of Eric’s. While his powers allow a human to become an unnatural existence, hers allow an unnatural existence to become a human. Or maybe it should be that her powers are instinctual and defensive, leaving her monster-form nearly helpless (but alive) while most others make them more dangerous.

I need to think about the monster-forms. I only realized that while writing this essay, but they probably deserve one for themselves. However, I’ve also introduced several other concepts that need to be covered; namely, I need to consider the difference between active and inert auras, and to think about the auras of things and places, as well as people. Funny how essays can branch like that.

To get back on track, aura is a form of subtle matter associated with a person, place, or thing. I’ve decided to call the associated person/place/thing the aura’s generator. Everything, or nearly everything, in the world is a generator for an aura, however, most things a person encounters in life has an aura that’s inert, and has no effect. The Occulted are people that have active aura’s, which lets them use their superpowers, including transformation.

From this, it is obvious that different generators have different kinds of auras. Different kinds of aura’s have different attributes. I might be able to make use of this kinds of things as an explanation for the rituals. However, I still need to figure out how inert auras figure into things.

Another thing I want to think about is spirits, beings that are made out of aura. As they would be independent existences instead of having generators, it might be wrong to call them aura. There’s another essay to write.

This essay is a mess. I’ve touched on aura proper and the free-floating stuff I also call aura, and on the difference between active and inert aura. I’m slowly groping my way towards an understanding of Occulted’s magic system. I’m not sure how the ritual spellcasting works, but I think I need to figure out how an Occ’s personal superpowers work first. I think that can be the next part.

I’m sorry about how disjointed this essay wound up being. I didn’t know what I wanted to write about when I started it, and in the actual writing, I wound up figuring out what the other parts of the essay were going to be about. I’m still going to make it available, just so that you can see how I thought of things.

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