This is a story bone of a sort.
I've been catching up with my Writing Excuses feed. One of the shows I finally listened to (and I think this was from back in November) the writing prompt was to come up with a magical system. And my brain has been cranking on that ever since. So I'd thought I would share some.
For Bladesman, there is a magic system. However magic is very rare, especially on the west coast, and magic is hard. Those kids who show some little magical talent are in for a rough ride if they decide to pursue that course. The plus side, if they survive, is to become exceptionally powerful and quite wealthy. So here is how the magic works. First off, the person needs to show some native talent. Wild ability is very week, akin to bending spoons (only for realz), but not that powerful. If the child (or more likely the child's parents) decide to follow that path it means 12-15 years of training and the application of full body tattoos the old fashion way (a needle on a board that punches ink into the skin). It is a very painful experience which tends to warp the mind of the magician. And then you need to do something to juice up the batteries. Magic is human powered and magicians need a steady source of energy. That energy can be had a few different ways. You can kill people (not with magic, the laws of thermodynamics apply here) which is a very strong form of energy, but the magician needs to be the one that kills the person, and it's very fleeting. Most magicians go for sex magic. For this, they need to be around people having sex, and they soak up the energy pouring off them. What do you get at the end? Well, you join a very elite cadre of enforcers that are paid quite well and you get to bend the (classic) elements to your will. Typically you are bullet proof at that point, and phenomenally tough to kill. The Achilles Heel? The spells are the actual tattoos, you need to recharge the batteries, and iron and steel can negate your powers.
But I've been thinking of other systems.
Like, what if magical use was transferred the way vampirism is transferred? Or maybe like lycanthropy. I like that last one because of what werewolfism stands for within the literature, the release of the pure ego (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is actually a werewolf story). But it's considered a curse, one which society would like to stamp out.
What if magic was something akin to highly addictive drugs, like meth (something is saying that this has been done already, and not just by Robert Jordan). At the start magic is very exhilarating. It provides a feeling of being more alive and triggers the pleasure centers in the brain. However, the more you use it, the more you have to use, the less satisfying the result is. And it's killing you all that time, robbing you of life and health (see, "Faces of Meth" for examples).
What if it's like shamanistic magic. Being a shaman isn't something you choose, it's chosen for you. Typically the proto-shaman experiences a life-threatening event (disease, loss of blood, sever trauma, etc) that results in a near-death event. Because the person has experienced the spirits (passing over and returning), they're seen as the conduit for those spirits to either help, translate, see the future, whatever. In this case, the profession picks you. What if magic users are only those who have "died" and returned? Are there a subset of people trying to enter the profession? What are they willing to do to get there? What happens if they fail?
What if magic was like bipolar disorder? In the manic phase you're able to perform magic, in the depressive phase you can't. If you've ever experienced this (seen it or experienced it yourself) you're already thinking, "That's pretty close to how you feel in the grips of it anyway." Well, yeah. That's kind of the point. For some people who suffer from this, the high points are too good to give up, and they remain untreated. Unfortunately, the down parts tend to take over after a time. What if it was reversed (the magic comes in the down phase)? Or you could use almost any mental disorder here. Would the cure be worth it to the individual? To society as a whole (here, think magic use tied to sociopathy)? Would the individual suffer through the disease to be able to tap into that magic?
I guess most of these end up with the question of if the price of magic is too much to bear? What if to gain magic use you had to lose yourself (family, friends, personal identity)? Remember here, that when Capt. Kirk was given the opportunity to do it all over, to be the captain, to go out and seduce all the green-skined ladies, to have his shirt ripped in every episode, to save the planet, he chose not to (Star Trek Generations).