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Brandon Sanderson is known as the Magic System Guy and rightly so. But what exactly makes a magic system Sandersonian? The three laws certainly, but those are rather abstract and and are more guidelines for good writing and exposition in general. In my classification of magic users, I have already defined Sanderson’s typical approach as class-based powers: there are different types of users and each type has one or two magic gifts and doesn’t get more. But again, that fits Avatar: The Last Airbender just as well. So what makes that special something in Mistborn, Warbreaker (free to read), Elantris, Sixth of Dusk or Stormlight Archives etc.?

I will now uncover the not so secret recipe.

  1. Pick one or more materials or prequisites used in performing magic, like metals, glowing crystals, craft, sickness, birds. These can be very common everyday things.
  2. Optionally pick a requirement to become a magic user, like swearing oaths to a spirit, or receiving other people’s souls willingly given. These are usually somewhat metaphysical. Magic bloodlines work too.
  3. Optionally split magic users into different subtypes either by their specific material or method or by the specifics of their gaining magic. That is, mistings use only a certain metal, while Surgebinders swear specific oaths, but use all the same glowing crystals.
  4. Assign magic powers that are not usually associated with the materials or methods used. This is very important and leads to the magic appearing new and interesting. Like draining colors allows for animating non-living materials. Or eating tin sharpens your senses. Or swearing to remember the dead allows for skating. You don’t even have to employ especially unusual powers, as long as there is no obvious connection between the ingredient and the effect. This is the secret. Connect an ingredient and effect with no obvious connection.
  5. Optionally create another magic system, somehow mirroring the first. Like Ferruchemy uses the same metals as Allomancy in Mistborn, but in a different way. Or the Voidlight offers similarly themed powers to Surgebinding through allegiance to Odium in the Stormlight Archives.

Let’s do this. My first idea was to have some blue skinned mystics. Which for some reason is common in fantasy worlds.

Of course it’s not problem to have people with blue skin in the Rebellion setting. A god did it. But let’s perform the list. What might be an ordinary thing our mystics might use? I chose flower blossoms. They might not only be blue. You get blue, when you use blue blossoms. We can use all the colors. So these people rub flower blossoms on their skin and take up the color that way. They likely shave too, to have more surface area.

Step 2. We need some mythical thing to make them able to do the flower rub. I have already talked about the Earth Mother in an earlier post, so let’s make that here people. They eat a very rare kind of fruit and it makes them Flower Mystics.

Step 3. Let’s split them. That’s easy. Flowers come in many colors. So our Mystics can have an affinity for certain colors. It can be a soft split. Any Painted Mystic can in theory use any color but they have some colors they process better. This allows for mono-colored mystics, who likely perform duties in a monastery, or more blotchy ones, who lead a more itinerant life, so they need to be flexible.

Step 4. One power per color.

  • Blue: Soothes pain and inflamations. I’m pretty sure I want to make healing magic rare in the setting, so this is a very good thing already and can give the Mystics a lot of soft power.
  • Red: Causes pain. I assume that in order to deliver their power our Mystics must make contact with the target. So if they want to weaponize their powers they likely train unarmed martial arts.
  • Yellow: Makes peope awake and ready. A small touch and you’ve had a good nights sleep. Don’t overdo it though.
  • Purple: Puts people under, gives them visions. Those visions can of course serve as way to convey plot points.
  • White: So all the powers work on people. There is no use for white blossoms. That’s what initiates are told. They are even invited to try white on one another to prove it’s useless. That’s the official line. You can use it raise corpses, though, and have them do your bidding.

Using the power slowly drains the color until they need another rub. If you have good affinity, it takes longer till you need a refill.

Step 5. So we have those Mystics. They have a number of monasteries where they plant the flowers they process as well as the magical pear bushes that allow them to initiate more Mystics. What about the people outside the monasteries? Let’s give them some magic too. We can mirror the colors somewhat to do that.

So let’s say you can tie a colored thread around an object and speak a prayer to the Mother and voila, magic. No mythical initation needed. This is democratic magic. Split is the same as for the Mystics.

  • Blue: Tieing blue thread takes away attention. Hunters wrap their spears in blue to stalk their prey. People tie their valubles in blue, so thieves will not find them.
  • Red: Makes an object easier to light on fire. People are very careful about using red thread and certainly don’t use it in their everyday clothing. It is vastly useful in absence of modern matches though.
  • Purple: Grab attention. Speaker platforms and stages are wrapped in purple. Speactators will report the message being clearer and the play more vivid.
  • Yellow: Make perishable goods more lasting. People in the Mother’s Lands can enjoy fresh fruit longer.
  • White: Keeps ghosts and bad magic away. There must be a reason to ask about white flowers after all.

Again the the thread disclolors when it is used. The more attention a blue thread has to avert the faster it will be used up.

For the Rebellion setting we need something else though. Some background about the Mother and reason Threaded prayers aren’t used everywhere. The Mother was among the first gods who gave up on a coporeal body. Long before the Rebellion forced most of the remaining gods away. She invested herself into the ground where her favorite people lived, giving the mystical pear bushes and the promise to look after them when they kept her prayers.