This is more questions about what you want to do with your setting and
story. Magic is a lot like the politics of your world; it needs to exist in
service of what you’re trying to say.
So, the first question would be, why is there even magic in your setting?
You can write an entirely functional fantasy setting without magic. And, if
it serves no purpose, adding a magical system in, “because it’s supposed
to be there,” can potentially cause havoc for your story and worry open
new plot holes. After all, a heroic sacrifice looses a lot of its poignancy
when you can just reverse it with five thousand gold worth of diamonds, and a
mid level cleric.
If the magic exists for a reason, then that will start to answer some of
your questions. For example, if you’re wanting to do an ecological commentary,
then applying a physical cost for your spells makes sense. Or if you want characters
digging through ancient ruins that are still loaded with mystical traps from
another era. But, if you want ascetic nomads to be practicing magic as part of
their journey towards enlightenment, then physical components make less sense.
Also, that’s not ironclad. D&D’s Dark Sun setting had a heavy ecological
theme, with mostly mental spellcraft. It also had a distinction between arcane
magic, which depleted the world, and psionic abilities which didn’t.
Generally speaking, I’d discourage having separate magical rules for
individual characters. Just balancing multiple magical systems against each
other to keep some kind of sanity in your setting can be a nightmare. Of
course; I say this right after citing D&D, which, depending on how you
count, uses four or five different magical systems.
That said, if there’s a compelling reason one of your characters operates
under distinct rules from the rest, that will dictate their limits. The obvious
example is, if your magic is legalistic and has sharp boundaries. It’s possible
your characters can step outside those, under the right circumstances. The
example from Tolkein that comes to mind is that “no man” could kill the Witch
King of Angmar (the leader of the Ringwraiths). But, that protection didn’t
help when Eowyn shanked him. (Technically, in the novel, the term is “No living
man may hinder me,” which sounds more like a boast, but the idea is still
You could easily end up with prohibitions that prevent some group like
“mortals”, “humans”, or any other group from accessing kinds of spells, that
could still be sidestepped simply by having a character who isn’t human,
mortal, or whatever. The danger is you’re creating a character who is “special”
simply for the purpose of being awesome. But, if there’s a legitimate reason
for one of your characters to have access to some restricted field of magic,
it’s certainly an option.
And, yes, having something to say about “special” wish fulfillment
characters can be a legitimate reason, just tread carefully, if that’s the case.
There’s no right answer to how magic should impact day to day life. Again,
this is one of these setting building questions. There’s nothing inherently
wrong with Warhammer’s approach to
magic as a rare and fundamentally dangerous thing that has the potential to go
horribly wrong without warning, or with Exalted’s
First Age, where magic is basically a substitute for highly advanced
The more widespread magic is in your setting, the more people will view it
like technology. If it’s familiar and predictable, then they’ll understand it
(at least as part of their world, not at a technical level.) The more
restricted and rare magic is, the more they’ll fear and misunderstand it.
If you have a setting where magic is rare and misunderstood, you can easily
end up with a situation where you have characters who do “break the rules” with
magic. They aren’t, really, but your characters have an imperfect or limited
understanding of what is actually possible.
Conversely, if you have a setting where everyone has a magical analog to a
cell phone in their pocket, having a character who can do something that’s
“impossible” with magic is a lot less likely.
Your choice on where you land with this will be determined by what you want
to say. If you’re talking about magic as a surrogate for something else then
that will inform what you need to think about. A setting where you’re using
magic as a venue to talk about transhumanism it will look completely different
from one where you’re focused on state surveillance, and using scrying and augury
to talk about that.
The thing I’m going to stress is, magic needs to exist in service of your
story and the setting you’re trying to create. Normally, I’d say your setting
also needs to exist in service to your story, but there are a few exceptions to
For recommendations, I’d start with looking at games that focus on how magic
interacts with the world, rather than just fining ones with iron clad rules.
Mage: The Ascension from White
Wolf is probably one of the best basic toyboxes for unlimited mages. Characters
who simply reshape the world as they see fit, with the cost that if they push
too far, they’ll be slapped down by the world. You can ignore the part where
the setting is technically urban fantasy, if you want. It’s also a good example
of characters with multiple conflicting magical systems trying to understand
one another’s powers. Though, this is more apparent if you’re familiar with the
other games in the setting.
Exalted, also from White Wolf, is
a high fantasy setting that leans into pseudo-anime territory. There’s some
interesting world building, and delineation between different kinds of magic.
If you really want to write a story about a super-special-snowflake of doom,
take a look at this. There’s some good recommendations for how people would
actually respond to people randomly getting superpowers.
Shadowrun probably sounds like a
weird choice, but almost any iteration of this (except the Xbox 360 title) should
offer some things to think about. The basic premise is that magic returned to a
cyberpunk setting and upset everything. If you’re setting your story around a
magical renaissance, this will give you some interesting things to pick
through. (Quick Note: I’m linking Second Edition because of its price, not because it’s better than the later editions.)
Dungeons and Dragons has a few
settings that do some interesting things with magic. I’m a little hesitant to
flat out recommend it, because of the amount of reading required to get
conversant in the systems. But, dig up a wiki entry on Dark Sun and Eberron if
you want to see some settings to poke for ideas.
Similarly, reading up on Warhammer
and Warhammer 40k’s mages and psykers
(respectively) might not be a bad idea. Also, read up on Chaos and The Warp
while you’re there, since that’s fundamental information for how magic
functions in those settings.
Robert E. Howard’s Conan original
short stories are one of those things you really should read. As with H.P.
Lovecraft, there’s some stuff that’s going to be a bit off key to a modern
reader, but Howard’s efficiency of language is something you need to see. He
presents magic as an unknowable horror that corrupts anyone who tries to wield
it. So, if you’re working with a setting where magic is poorly understood, his
work is worth your time.
If you want to blend some urban fantasy elements into a classic historical
setting, I’d strongly recommend you take a look at Fritz Lieber’s Fafhrd and The Gray Mouser novels. If
you want, Dark Horse reprinted a comic adaptation of a few of the short
stories with amazing art from Mike Mignola a few years ago. The comic is also,
probably, the most painless entry point to the characters.
Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher novels
are fairly subtle about the consequences of magic… well, sometimes. Sapkowski
is an author who has a lot to say, and it shows in his world building, and his
world’s magical systems.