Sanderson's laws of magic and RPG

Continuing the discussion from Your current RPG campaigns:

À propos, here is an e-mail that I sent to the Sages of High Wycombe back when I was a valued listener to Improvised Radio Theatre With Dice. They discussed some of the issues arising in the podcast, but I am aware that some of us now aren’t listeners.


I never heard of Sanderson’s laws of magic before ! Thank you for sharing, this is really interesting.


I think Sanderson’s law might hold up well for RPGs, not so much for storytelling. Some great stories have been written around the concept of vaguely defined magic that only gives the reader hints as to its limits.

Right now I have some of the short stories of Kelly Link in mind - the stories are frequently about relationships, and the magic is not there to provide resolution or advance a plot.

1 Like

I really agree with the second point. Experimentation and limitations are what make things challenging.

1 Like

To me a major activity in RPGs is problem-solving. Here is this situation we don’t like: how are we going to alter it?

Obviously one answer to that is “hit it with swords and fireballs”. But what if they have better swords and fireballs? How can you put together the tools you have in an innovative way in order to overcome a disadvantage in raw force?

That needs a maker viewpoint, one that can engage with the campaign’s impossibilities (spells, FTL drives, whatever) and build things out of them – and thus as a GM I have ended up building complex structures of impossibilities, as it might be a comprehensive theory of how FTL drives work or how magical energy relates to the structure of the universe, so that when the PCs try experimenting I can fairly quickly work out what the result will be because it works in a reasonably consistent way.

This saves me from having to anticipate every possible idea the players will come up with, while still giving them lots of things to discover.


I’m enjoying that my throwaway comment on the additional complexity of modern or futuristic worlds for GMs on the other thread has spawned an entirely different and fascinating discussion.

I have been a very prolific lurker this week since joining from SUSD! Thanks to everyone!


Well, Sanderson’s First Law only discusses the ability of magic to resolve a plot, so that might not be a counterexample.

1 Like

It doesn’t just apply to situations where the nature of the world is unknown. I can never figure out who dunnit in a mystery, and so I don’t even try to play the game of “can you figure it out before the hero does?” (a peculiarly gamist variant of fiction!). But I have read Sayers’s Wimsey stories with pleasure, over and over, because I enjoy the character interactions tremendously and because I trust that Sayers is playing fair with me. (Though there was the one that turned on air embolism . . . an actual point of scientific knowledge!)

Many years ago, I read part of Shogun, as far as the big sea battle, where I lost readerly momentum, because I didn’t understand what had happened. Thinking about it afterward, I realized that I hadn’t understood what had happened in Horatio Hornblower’s sea battles, either . . . but Forester had succeeded in making me believe that the course of the battle made sense, where Clavell hadn’t.

Was that The Nine Tailors? That’s the only one of Sayers’ books that I’ve read, because I used to be keen on change ringing, and it was very detailed on that subject!

No, it was Unnatural Death, which also turns on a fine legal point. (Which I boggled my introduction-to-law class by knowing about, when the subject of intestacy came up.)

I enjoy playing the mystery game (as will be very obvious if you read the book reviews on my blog) but I am a demanding reader and I also want interesting people. This is why I haven’t yet reread Christie as I recently have Sayers, Marsh and Allingham; I find her people generally less convincing. (And writers like John Dickson Carr leave me cold.) Further, while I’m happy to do the puzzles about who could have been where when, I find more interesting the parts that say “all right, at this stage any of these several people could have done it, but what possible motivation do they have?”.

IMO, the laws can be applied to whatever “system” in that world the plot revolves around–obviously there are stories that can do without such a system but in my experience genre long-form rarely goes without. This can be technology as in many SF novels, this can be social structures or economics in fantasy, relationships in romance, clues in mystery as a few examples. The laws posit that the “system” should be consistent, needs to have limits and the reader needs to be given a chance to understand it preferably without pages of infodumps, not a law of Sanderson just a reader tired of bad infodumps.

I think the purpose of the “laws” is to warn writers that a “broken” system can really ruin a story. Fantasy novels where the protagonists or baddies can magic just whatever needs to be done at that point in the story just aren’t interesting to read. SF novels that always have a gizmo at hand to solve a particular problem right that moment, don’t provide enough food for thought.

1 Like

No, it was another book, which RogerBW has identified correctly.

1 Like

I think of those things as the substance of much realistic fiction (Pride and Prejudice, for example, is all about how economic constraints shape courtship). But I rather feel that fantasy is about escape from social structure and economics. Bilbo Baggins leaves his comfortably bourgeois life and enters the world of saga; the Pevensie children leave war-torn England and become kings and queens of Narnia; Sabriel Abhorsen leaves her boarding school and takes up her father’s war against the restless dead . . .


Well, it can be. (I know that you don’t need a lesson on portal fantasy.)

But post-D&D fantasy, particularly if it can rely on the reader’s prior knowledge to do much of the heavy lifting of establishing a different world, can effectively dump large parts of the traditional character arc and start off later in the story, with characters who’ve already been adventurers for a bit and are reasonably able to look after themselves. The protagonists effectively become iconic characters, for whom this story is just one in a long series of adventures none of which will change them very much.

(And I say “post-D&D fantasy”, but Conan does this too; it may even be the best-known example of it.)

On one hand, that’s true. But on the other hand, social structure and economics still aren’t as central to those self-contained worlds as they are to ours. Magic and the supernatural give the protagonists, or (as in Conan’s case) their adversaries, a form of agency that doesn’t depend on such resources.

Or, going back to much older stories, realistically it takes a village to support a knight. But King Arthur’s knights go out on long quests with no visible support systems or logistics, achieving great things by their strength in battle and their devotion to chivalry. Conan’s superb fighting skills are kind of an update of this trope. Being a barbarian and a lone wanderer, Conan is something of a counterexample to the idea that fantasy is about social structure and economics.

This is where Pendragon throws me slightly: one the one hand you have these Passion and Trait mechanics that push you into acting like characters in the Morte, but on the other hand there’s effectively a whole estate management minigame in there, which all right is largely a motivation for PCs to get competent wives, but it’s not at all Morte-like to care about such things at all.


I’ve got one example for the economics thing at least–since I brought it up. Just one. So if you want to wrap your head around numbers try reading The Traitor Baru Cormorant. The protagonist is an accountant and their talent with numbers is what drives the whole story. It’s experimental and wild and I am not sure I like the sequel or that I’ll ever read the third book but the first was definitely worth reading (always IMO obviously).

Anyhow, I just wanted to say, how Sanderson’s laws can apply to a much broader range of systems than “just” magic and that systems can cross genre boundaries as well.

I don’t think a system (of magic or other) is needed for a good story but the longer a work, the more likely I think it is that we’ll find one or several even if the author never planned it out as a system.


I read it when it first came out. It was interesting, as a work that showed modernization efforts that seemed to reflect, on one hand, the French Revolution, and on the other, the unification of China under Qin Shihuangdi, owing nothing to the English Enlightenment that was the subject of Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. But on the other it was almost an anti-fantasy, offering a tale of sustained horror with no prospect of escape (or recovery or consolation, Tolkien’s other elements of fantasy). Or almost no prospect; it does show us the heroic acceptance of death by the woman Baru loves, and the possibility that this will enable Baru to go on and destroy the Evil Empire in a sequel.

But it’s the same kind of turn to grimness and brutality that superheroes took with The Dark Knight and Watchmen and that has since become a cliché of its own (if I never read another story about the rape of a superheroine it will be too soon). And it seems to me to be just as subversive of the genre’s primary form.

1 Like