Magical Mondays: Sanderson’s Third Law   1 comment

For this week’s episode of Magical Monday’s, I want to talk a bit about Sanderson’s Third Law.    For those of you unfamiliar with him, Brandon Sanderson is an acclaimed author of fantasy novels such as Mistborn and Elantris.  You may also know him as the one that was chosen to conclude Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.  I’m a woefully under-read fantasy fan, I fear, and as such my familiarity with his actual novels is slim.  However, what I DO follow is a podcast called Writing Excuses where he, along with Mary Robinette Kowal, Howard Tayler, and Dan Wells (and often a number of awesome special guests) talk about topics of interest to writers.  Sanderson’s Third Law (in addition to the First and Second laws) is a rule that Sanderson noticed he followed in his stories, and one that he refined over the years to tighten up his worldbuilding.  In addition to his own post on the law, I recommend checking out the Writing Excuses episode where they talk about the Third Law (and all of them, really.  They’re good laws, even if “law” might not strictly be the best word for them.)

The Law effectively says that a thorough and deep understanding of a single type of magic is greater than the creation of many different kinds of magic.  Or, as Brandon said on his own website, “Expand what you already have before you add something new.”  Once you have an understanding of exactly how one kind of magic works, it’s good to expand upon that rather than working out an all new magic system for a different power or effect.

Anyway, what’s this mean for you as a GM or a player of tabletop roleplaying games?  Gaming and writing intersect in a lot of areas.  The biggest gaming convention in North America, Gen-Con, is also home to a very lively writer’s symposium (in fact, Writing Excuses has even recorded some episodes there in years where a large enough number of the Writing Excuses gang has been about.)  For the GM looking to make the world more interesting and the magic more flavorful, I think that Sanderson’s Third Law is a good place to start.  As a player or as a GM, this can work for you.

As a player, this ties into what I said way back about Making Your Origin Story.  Is your wizard primarily a necromancer? Why not find a way to describe all of your spells through necromancy, even those that don’t belong to that school?  Is there a sort of death that your necromancer prefers?  What if everything a necromancer does comes not from “Death” in general, but a specific kind of death?  Imagine a necromancer whose every ability somehow ties to things freezing to death, burning to death, starving to death, aging to death, or even one who sees death as the final and first stage of a life cycle?  Technically the rules of most gaming systems I know don’t tell us that the corpses of necromancers ever sprout bouquets of flowers, but as a GM I might grant that kind of odd, quirky request to a player if it fit their character’s theme.  Similarly, if I was a GM trying to work out an individual spellcaster’s abilities, an assassin mage with victims who always develop roses where their hearts used to be wouldn’t alter anything mechanically, but it would definitely change how the players interacted with this figure.

As a GM, it’s a bit trickier.  I’ve already pointed out one way that you can use Sanderson’s Third Law when fleshing out a character, but a GM’s use of this might, at times, feel hypocritical in some systems.  A game with a more or less developed history for its magical abilities, like World of Darkness, probably wouldn’t encounter this problem as much as a world like Dungeons and Dragons where the magic is abundant.  Vancian Magic is almost the antithesis to this rule.  A spell called Brandon’s Amazing Shoe Shiner under the Vancian system usually acts as its own kind of thing; the spell is almost a spell system unto itself wherein the shoe is shined (amazingly, in fact) but the spell really has no other effect or purpose.  This is the nature of Vancian Magic and, to an extent, the nature of magic systems in roleplaying games.

D&D magic systems are even worse because it’s implied that wizards may actually be harnessing dozens of different sorts of magic.  The spell Telekinesis actually grants a wizard psychic abilities, and the Power Word spells are later confirmed to be places where the wizards have figured out elements of Truespeak, the magic of Truenamers.  Wizards in D&D are walking, talking violations of this law already.  Sorcerers are a bit better since it’s at least suggested that their abilities all come from magical lineages, but at the end of the day their spells function the same way.  I have two basic suggestions for GMs facing this issue.

One: Shift the focus to the Presence and Incantation, rather than the Unusual Effect.  This is a line that might make more sense to Zork players, a setting where magic was defined as having three basic stages: Presence, Incantation, and Unusual Effect.  Basically, you need some sort of Presence (or source or origin or whatever) for your magic, you need an Incantation or procedure for manipulating that presence, and then you receive an Unusual Effect.  D&D magic is all about the Unusual Effect, but the lore can be increased through careful application of the other two elements in play.  I have a homebrew prestige class called The Pyromancer (original, no?) that defines itself not by having more fire than other casters (though it does) or hotter magic than other casters (though it usually does).  Rather, the Pyromancer defines itself by the different types of magic on display.  Dragon fire is different from Hell fire is different from dwarven forge fire is different from elemental fire is different from empyrean fire is different from alchemical fire is different from camp fires.  The Pyromancer learns how to manipulate fire from all these different sources (or Presences) and as such is able to generate slightly different effects through similar incantations.  In this case, the “magic system” isn’t a different effect, it’s learning different methods of reaching the same effect.  And if one effect can be counterspelled or planned for, then the pyromancer has yet another method of casting fireball that you’ve probably not seen before.

Two: Go for prestige.  I’m referring, of course to prestige classes, but I’m thinking more conceptually than directly.  Determining how the magic users in one area differ from another may be as simple as taking a preexisting idea and, as Sanderson suggests, finding a different application for it.  I use an image from Avatar: The Last Airbender because this cartoon’s magic system is a perfect example.  SPOILERS AHEAD!  But very mild ones.  Avatar has one basic form of magic, Bending, which has four acknowledged subtypes: Air Bending, Water Bending, Earth Bending and Fire Bending.  No surprises there, right?  As the series progresses, however, you learn that there are other, sometimes terrifying, uses for highly specialized versions of each of these.

Seriously, watch that show and look at every introduction of a new form of bending.  It’s almost always scary for the main characters (with a few significant and notable exceptions).  One of the best examples came early on in the form of Plant Bending, a type of Water Bending that controls the water within plants themselves to move them.  The Plant Benders represent the Avatar world’s equivalent of a prestige class; they can water bend like normal, sure, but most of their focus is on manipulating plants.

There’s a much more subtle one, though, which has nothing to do with changing the actual substance being bent, however…

Dai Li Agents.  You don’t think about it at first, but the Dai Li represent a subtle, and important, shift in how the viewer thinks about Earth Bending.  Before, Earth Bending is depicted almost entirely as an act of brute force.  The Dai Li demonstrate a form of Earth Bending that relies upon subtlety and finesse, though, giving them an entirely different form of attacking.  With gloves of stone that can launch from their hands and be manipulated at a distance to incapacitate opponents, viewers were treated to another surprising shift where Earth Benders stopped being the hulking brutes and instead became lightning bruisers who could match the fast-flowing water and air bending for speed and subtlety with far more stamina.

My suggestion for filling in the magic system of a world (or part of a world, even) is to follow this track.  Figure out a single idea or concept that can fuel the wizardry or sorcery of a region, and then come up with all the possible permutations of it.  Your players may enjoy it enough to pursue these new magical paths for themselves.

That’s all for this week’s Magical Mondays.  Go homebrew something awesome, and I’ll see you next week!


Posted July 21, 2014 by John Little in Gaming, Magical Mondays, writing

One response to “Magical Mondays: Sanderson’s Third Law

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  1. Pingback: Magical Mondays: The Flavor Of Dragons | Crater Labs, Inc.

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