Magic systems within The Stormlight Archive include fabrial science, Surgebinding, Voidbinding, and the Old Magic. Gemstones and Stormlight contribute significantly to the functioning of fabrial science and Surgebinding.
Each of these magics (other than the older non-spren fabrials) rely on spren for their efficacy, including the Old Magic. The three systems all use the same powers of creation in some fashion. They differ from one another only in how each system gives access to and expresses the powers. The Old Magic, in contrast, seems to use only a few of the powers of creation - if any - which differentiates it from the other systems.
Brandon has said that the powers of creation are simply tools. However, the means by which one gains powers (i.e., Ruin stealing, Preservation gifting) are related to the Shards, but not to the powers themselves.
There are two broad types of fabrials – the modern fabrials mentioned in the Ars Arcanum and ancient fabrials that seem not to rely on spren at all. There are two examples of ancient fabrials: those that enable Soulcasting and Regrowth (the Transformation and Progression Surges). It isn't yet known whether the magic system of fabrials includes both modern and ancient fabrials or one or the other. Brandon has said that ... "Fabrials can replicate all of the Surgebinding abilities."
Arguably, the Honorblades themselves are non-spren fabrials that grant the ten Surges. The Oathgates are another ancient fabrial, but they require a living Shardblade – a spren; these may be more akin to modern fabrials, but maybe not. All fabrials of whatever kind require Stormlight to operate.
The Ars Arcanum author, Khriss, is " ... more and more convinced that [modern fabrial creation] requires forced enslavement of transformative cognitive entities, known as spren to the local communities." (Khriss confirms that spren are comprised of Cognitive Investiture. Modern fabrials lock the spren into specific types of gems. The color, cut and size of the gems appear responsible for attracting the spren, each ... its imprisonment, the amount and wavelength of Stormlight to which each spren gains access, and/or the type of magical output the fabrial creates.
Khriss categorizes fabrials into five groups:
- Altering (Augmenters and Diminishers)
- Pairing (Conjoiners and Reversers)
Fabrials " ... appear to be the work of dedicated scientists, as opposed to the more mystical Surgebindings once performed by the Knights Radiant." While Khriss seems to write the Ars Arcanum contemporaneously with the events of Words of Radiance, she knows of the Jah Keved Half-Shards, a recent development. (She seems ignorant of the re-emergence of the Knights Radiant.)
The two distinguishing features of modern fabrials are the use of gemstones to capture spren and the reliance on merely sentient spren. Surgebinding uses the more heavily invested sapient "Radiantspren" for its magic. Altering fabrials, for example, seem to work best with forces, emotions or sensations, like heat, pain or wind. Sentient spren have access to the Surges too: windspren, for example, can use the Surge of Adhesion to trip people.
Honor's mandate is to bind, as expressed by Syl. Honor’s Investiture creates the Nahel bond. But bonded spren are a mix of Honor’s and Cultivation's Investiture. The two exceptions are the spren of the Bondsmiths (i.e., the Stormfather, Honor’s Cognitive Shadow comprised of pure Honor Investiture); and Truthwatchers’ spren (pure Cultivation Investiture, though connected to each their Knight Radiant's spiritweb by Honor’s Nahel bond).
According to the Ars Arcanum, there are ten levels of Voidbinding, similar to the ten levels of Surgebinding. However, it is unknown if the ten levels of Voidbinding are associated with the ten numbers and Essences like the ten levels of Surgebinding are.
Little is known about the Old Magic, other than by those who seek it; those who travel west to the Nightwatcher, who is widely believed to be a kind of super-spren, similarly as the Stormfather is.
The Old Magic does require a certain trigger for the magic to be accessed. In this case, it is the rewriting of a person's spiritweb that allows for the change.
Q&A with BrandonEdit
Q: How many magic systems are in The Stormlight Archives, and how many of them [have been seen]?
A: I would say the only major one you haven’t seen is Voidbinding. It depends on how you count them. I count fabrials as one, Surgebinding as one, and Voidbinding as one. And then the Old Magic is kind of its own weird thing.