For the Gigaia supplement for Superfantasy, I briefly wrote a thing about wizards, and how they use “astral clockwork”. I want to generalize this out into a system of magic anyone can use.

You can get the Gigaia supplement for free, but just in case, here’s the relevant text:

Wizardry is the construction of “astral clockwork” into phantasmal artifacts called “spells”. Wizards use these spells to channel GP into a variety of effects. The theme of this power is “codifying the course of cosmic energy”, and it works by laying down rules by which the wielder can affect reality.

Wizards all need GP to power their magic, but can get it from a variety of sources: the terrain around them, reserves held in items like staves or gemstones, celestial concurrences such as an eclipse, and so on. Some wizards can sacrifice their own blood or life to power a spell, while others frown on such self-destructive practice.

In this context, “GP” means “Gaia Power”, but you can read it as “mana”, “magical energy”, “essence”, or any other fundamental magical energy exists in your world.

The idea here is that there’s another reality, the “astral plane” or the “spirit world”, or something along those lines. In that reality, wizards use this magical energy to construct that reality’s version of machines - “astral clockwork”. With these machines, they can interface with our reality to manipulate the elements, affect the mind or body, and other traditional things magic can do.

What kind of magic system does this give us?

Spellbooks exist and are important. A wizard’s spellbook is essentially a notebook on astral mechanics. It includes the principles of energy the wizard has learned, along with schematics they’ve designed or studied.

Wizards can prepare spells. A wizard could have some amount of astral clockwork hanging off of them in some sense, like equipment they carry. Wizards can do long ritual magic to wield any spell they’ve learned, but if the wizard has already assembled the astral clockwork to enact a spell, they can just activate it right then and there. The specific spell might take extra time, of course. At this point, you get to decide what limits there are on prepared spells, and whether wizards must do other things (e.g. get runic tattoos, embed gemstones in a staff) to use such readied spells.

Wizards can achieve mastery through hard work and study. More complex astral clockwork can achieve more complex effects. The better you are at building with it, the more powerful your wizardry.

Wizards can be ranked by both power and technique. If you’re good at channeling energy but bad at building spells, you’ll have a lot of oomph but lack sophistication. If your ability to channel energy into your devices is lacking, but you’ve compensated for that somehow, you can be effective.

Even novice wizards can get access to powerful or rare spells. After all, spells are basically equipment that only wizards have access to. An apprentice might be taught their master’s secret mega-spell, and be given a working version of it. Later on, they might learn enough about it to make their own, or make it better.

Wizards might be able to study or disrupt each other’s work. If you can see the astral clockwork that went into a given spell, you might divine its intent, the same way a plumber can figure out how a system of pipes carries water. Whether you can actively mess with another wizard’s spells is a question for a world-builder, but there may still be ways to jam up the pipes as someone else is casting something. For that matter, there may be very sophisticated anti-magic spells, or even spells specifically designed to counter other spells.

Magical limits can be entirely arbitrary. If there’s limits on how the physical and astral realms can interact, then you can put certain types of magic entirely off limits. You can also define certain caster types that can do things wizards can’t - for example, maybe priests’ spells don’t exist on the astral plane at all, and can do things like heal the sick or raise the dead. This kind of decision comes down to whether you want to democratize magic in your world, or whether you want to have distinct domains where magic operates.

Let’s create an example. In a roleplaying game, you might not need to work out these details, but if you’re telling a story - for example, if you’re the wizard’s player and enjoy this kind of fiction - then it matters.

Say that a wizard wants to create rain. She’s got some pre-built clockwork to work with: condensing water vapor in the atmosphere (which she uses in her ice magic), a simple replicator (a generic wizard’s tool to spread another component over a big area), and an energy conduit (another generic tool, to draw magical power from some outside source).

She realizes that creating rain has to be done over a large area to be effective, and that this will consume a lot of energy. She studies under another wizard, who teaches her how to siphon energy from the land, and who cautions her not to misuse this power - drawing on the land’s natural energy too much can corrupt it, and that’s exactly what she doesn’t use.

She connects the land siphon to the energy conduit, then to the condenser. She packages all this up inside the replicator, and dials it out to a few acres in size. This is now effectively a magical machine - it draws energy from the land below, and condenses water vapor into clouds and rain above.

In roleplaying terms, the wizard might make a skill check to create a new rain spell. Her player might claim bonuses from having some existing tools to work with, plus the help of an advisor. The outcome would be a spell which she can then cast. If a game revolved around such wizards, it might have actual cards or tokens that represent the ingredients of a spell - and spells might be connected together to make bigger, more impressive spells!

Our wizard can get more sophisticated. Later on, she might find ways to draw on sunlight to help power the spell, or control the rain so it only covers crops and farmland in need of it, or many other refinements. In a game, these can manifest as advances, or power stunts, or whatever a particular system has that lets a character do more impressive things.