Hard and Soft Magic Systems

I’ve been doing research lately about magic systems to help with my worldbuilding because I suck at putting pen to paper (Duh, Marshmallow! It’s in the title!). I’ve found some resources that may help you all as well on my search. A list has been compiled under detail tags if you experienced world-builders want to skip!

As for the rest of you, if you don’t know what a hard or soft magic system is…here’s a hopefully not so confusing explanation!

Note: I’m going to emphasize that even though the term is “magic” systems it doesn’t necessarily have to be wizards slinging spells at one another until their mana runs out. As long as it’s an ability that characters can take advantage of, it counts as “magic”.

  • A hard magic system has clearly defined rules and limitations. Most importantly, the magic (or really the rules) is explained to the reader. There’s a focus on how characters use the magic during situations as opposed to the “spectacle and pizzazz of using magic” if that makes sense? An example would be Fullmetal Alchemist and the law of equivalent exchange.
  • A soft magic system doesn’t have defined rules or limitations. This system is mainly used to give a sense of wonder to magic. Think of Alice in Wonderland. It’s never explained how Alice grows as a result of eating the cake. She just…does, haha.

Honestly there’s a place for both magic systems (there are even hybrid systems that uses both!) . One isn’t superior over the other like what I see being argued sometimes. :thinking: But of course it’s definitely up to you on what you choose for your world!

Resources

Links for videos

I’m sure that the Youtube channel, Hello Future Me, has been mentioned around the forums before. I’ve only watched a few videos from their On Writing playlist but their videos on magic systems are a standout so far. Their Hard Magic Systems video is the most popular and for good reason.

Less analyzing for the next video by Chris Fox, How Does Your Magic System Work?. Instead he asks questions + gives examples from other media to help develop your world! I do recommend his channel by the way, he’s helpful. :+1:

This next video uses Brandon Sanderson’s Three Laws of Magic and his essays. It helps you categorize which magic system yours fall under (adds learned + innate to the hard and soft categories). Many examples too… Categorizing and Designing Magic

Extras like worksheets

If you like answering questions with paper and pen (or copy onto a google document like I do heh), here is a worksheet to help out! No you don’t need to answer it all (I won’t tell if you won’t :wink:). The website also has worksheets for worldbuilding in general, not just magic systems. A little remedy for when you don’t know where to go next!

I’ll keep updating this post as I find other helpful resources for this particular topic. :+1: Do share resources you use as well if you like!

So questions to help spark some discussion…
Oh and don’t feel like you need to answer it all. Answer what you like.

  1. Do you prefer hard or soft magic systems in IF games?
  2. Readers, do you enjoy reading one over the other or a hybrid of the two? Doesn’t need to be IF related.
  3. Writers, do you prefer writing with more rules to your magic system or keep it vague? Doesn’t need to be IF related.
  4. What works have your favourite magic system? Names of books, IFs, games, etc. And why?
  5. If you’re working on a WIP, book, game, whatever, tell us which system you’re using. Oh and the details too if you’re willing! (Yes, I know this isn’t a question) :laughing:
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  1. I was just about to ask if you got this from Hello Future Me :sweat_smile:

  2. Personally I don’t have a personal preference between the two, If the system integrates well with the world that the author is creating and it makes sense then I’m happy.

  3. I think a hard system is beneficial to have if you want to keep characters grounded and enforce possible life threatening consequences to make magic a dangerous tool. However, I think it also requires you to be creative in your rules and limitations for it to make sense. Which isn’t a bad thing but it certainly requires you to focus more on world building.

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@Marshmallow – excellent topic.

It depends – the world building and its consistency as discussed here controls which I prefer:

Whichever systems are chosen, as long as the author is double checking their continuity then it will work.

The infamous failing of Skyrim’s magic system to make sense if a person with offensive magic is thrown in jail is all the more glaring, because for the most part, they do a wonderful job of keeping their continuity intact.

Katherine Kurt’s Deryni historical fantasy writing is my all-time favorite implementation.

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Her world-building is very complete, given her setting, source material and subject material. She built a system which makes sense from a 10th century England perspective, then wrote it in modern day terms and framed it in concepts of our times.

Very few authors, even award-winning authors, have her ability to execute a magic system as she has, book after book.

I suggest anyone, needing a role model to follow, look into these books further.

The system I am building currently in my most “magical” project is a “hard system” that is explained and viewed through the characters’ eyes in a “soft system” manner. It is inspired by Kurtz.

The system I am writing about that is based in a Victorian Age type of world is explained in a pseudo - hard manner … much like the science of the day was. A Victorian person was more likely to see Séances performed and attribute what happened by “soft magic” terms, even as they were attempting to use the scientific methodology to test their world… this is inspired by the writers of the era.

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Is there ever a discussion about magic systems without a mention of this channel? :laughing: But have a high five (or do you like cookies?) for knowing where I got the idea for the topic from.

:thinking: Good point about the hard system benefits. So thinking about how this system helps keeps things grounded… I suppose it works better for more realistic stories? It’s also a double edged sword in a way… Can see potential pitfalls for new writers (juggling everything is making me sweat just thinking about it with this system) with more elements to think about. Then again if you’re a natural world builder it’ll come easier I’m sure.

Ohhh I haven’t actually read that thread, Eiwynn. So consistency with continuity (don’t fail your own rules) is important. Got it. :+1:

Haven’t played Skyrim (…I can see the collective gasps all around the room already) so I wasn’t aware of that event. :thinking: That really is a big no-no though. Immersion breaking for sure.

I need to read that book. :eyes: Placed in the huge list of books to read sometime in this life… :laughing:

Thanks for sharing the details of your system too! That’s…actually really interesting when you lay it out like that. Victorian era is definitely a good era to pick for a hybrid sort of system. :thinking: And this reminds me that I really need to read Kurtz’s novel… :laughing:

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Yeah added Katherine Kurt’s Deryni to reading list too. ^^’’

I know that Brandon Sanderson in his lectures speaks of magic systems as he in every book he writes make them very different.

Would suggest to watch them all and take notes.

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I definitely prefer hard magic system. I like it when I know whats going on rather than just see a bunch of fireworks trying to catch my attention. I also don’t like it when the author pulls a fast one over the audience because their magic system isn’t very well explained.

As for my favorite implementation of it, I’d say the anime Hunter x Hunter’s Nen takes the cake. Out of all the books I’ve read, games I’ve played, film/tv show/other animes I’ve watched, Nen is most complex magic system so far.

One of the things I love about Nen is the fact that knowledge of how your enemy’s power works is an invaluable asset to have. So, most of the time, you’ll see people trying to outsmart each other rather than just going in headfirst into a fight without any plan. It still happen sometimes, but its a lot less than most were expecting.

Now, I’m gonna bail while my reply is still short or else this will become an essay on how genius Nen really is. There are already hours worth of videos on youtube explaining this.

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I just realized after reading this thread… I’ve never actually given thought to this sort of detail before lol. And now I’m curious, so I’ve stepped out of the shadows and stopped lurking.

Normally when I read, I think my brain is just doing a quick check to see if the magic makes basic sense and flows with the story. So, if magic is tied to lore and history within a world but not necessarily explained in the sense of how it works… is that considered a soft system?

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Definitely something to watch out for when a soft magic system is being designed and in the planning stages. Deus ex machinas isn’t a good thing nowadays for sure. :thinking:

I’ve heard of Hunter x Hunter many times in these discussions haha and it seems like the love is very warranted! Love fights that require thinking. Was interested in watching the anime before but now it’s a must. Or manga…? Hmm…

Somewhat belated welcome to the forum! :tada: Hope you enjoy your stay here! I’m glad that the topic gave you another perspective. That’s the ultimate goal of any informative topic. At least for me. :laughing:

Yes, I would consider this a soft system. Since the emphasis for hard systems is with its magic mechanics, usually for soft systems there will be a need to focus on other areas. Not to make up for the fact that there’s no mechanics, but because there’s a different focus for the story. :+1:

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1. Do you prefer hard or soft magic systems in IF games?

No preference. It depends on how the author executes how magic operates in whatever world they’re building and if they stick to what they set up in the beginning of the IF.

2. Readers, do you enjoy reading one over the other or a hybrid of the two? Doesn’t need to be IF related.

Again, no preference. As long as the author picks one or a hybrid combination and then sticks to that throughout the piece of writing, then I don’t mind.

3. Writers, do you prefer writing with more rules to your magic system or keep it vague? Doesn’t need to be IF related.

I like hard rules because it forces me to think outside the box for scenarios. Plus, it’s fun to explore the world with clearly defined rules of magic.

4. What works have your favourite magic system? Names of books, IFs, games, etc. And why?

I think maybe Dragon Age Origins and Dragon Age II have had my favorite magic systems for hard major. Dishonored also has a ‘magic’ system that works pretty well. Both of them are clear cut but that’s because they’re both designed to be ‘hard magic’ since players can’t really play a video game in a ‘soft magic’ system.

5. If you’re working on a WIP, book, game, whatever, tell us which system you’re using. Oh and the details too if you’re willing!

Haven’t picked it up in a while, but I’ve been tossing a hard magic system over and over again in my head for a while now. It’s a bit of a hybrid considering the lore behind the MC, but most other characters have to obey the ‘hard magic’ rules set in place.

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Thanks for the welcome :blush:

Thank you, I think I understand better now. It’s also good to think about the next time I write something with magic in it. That being said, I don’t know if I have a strong preference for either. For me, it’s more about how it’s executed.

Magic rules made up on the fly can lead to really inconsistent storytelling. Same with when a character can suddenly use magic “just because”. It tends to pull me out of immersion when that happens.

On the other hand, I’ve gotten into stories and games where they flesh out a really detailed system— but overemphasize said details. Usually through long info dumps or sudden stops in the narrative to explain. I appreciate world building, but I can admit that I don’t absorb most of it if it’s presented this way. :expressionless: I feel like “show don’t tell” becomes crucial in this case.

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I prefer a soft magic system. I don’t care how the magic works, or laws of magical thermodynamics, I care what we can do with it, what choices it creates. What kind of person does it enable me to be?

But I personally prefer less gamey IF when possible. I want to be immersed in the world, not in tracking every +2 skill increase or working out how to rules lawyer the magic system. Pointless detail bores me.

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Hard magic systems anyday. They add a depth to the world which is not possible with soft magic systems. Magic systems without rules tend to cause a lot of plot holes which can’t be explained beyond ‘Magic did it’.

Further, having a set of rules can really lead to innovation in application. For example, you might be forced to think about where this magic may be feasibly applied and what rules may deter it from being so. This detail is seldom found in soft magic worlds.

Best books are stormlight archives and mistborn.

I wouldn’t discount soft magic systems as being inherently doomed to provide lesser depth to the world than the hard counter-part, and they do have rules. The approach that they don’t is what often leads to unintended consequences.
I don’t believe it’s been mentioned yet, but Shadiversity made a video on that on YT titled " MAGIC in fantasy, soft magic vs hard magic: FANTASY RE-ARMED" which I encourage everyone to watch, as he gives on opinion slightly differing from:

Personaly I don’t have a preference for magic system, as long as it’s understandable in it’s use. :wink:

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Oh man i love magic! Rn one of my favorite book’s the choice of magic by Michael G. Manning has a great example of a hard magic system. Wizards are at the bottom thry have to do alot of the grunt work and if they use to much of their magic to fast they die. But the sorcerers use elementals to fule their back without risk able to do alot that wizards can’t. But they have to lear runes to create the spells and the fuel that with magic(or alchemy, enchanting, enhancing). Theirs alot more to go with it uou just have to read it😁.

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  1. Responding to the non-question: My own WIP. I am working on a WIP titled, Slay the Dragon King (or Not), though I am considering changing the title to Save Rushea (or Not), but I am not sure: btw, any thoughts?

Anyway, I want to do a hybrid for my game. For example, wizards will use more of a hard-magic style that they learn from their academic studies while sorcerers will have more of a soft-magic style. I have a few ideas about how to make the soft system work. For example, a sorcerer might think about their intention and then they use their ability to make it happen, but it might not happen the way they think it will happen, but at least it might have an effect that aligns, or somewhat aligns, with their intention. Does that sound like a soft-magic system to you guys? Does that sound like an interesting idea or a magic-system you might enjoy?

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Put me down as well for liking both, done well – either separately or together.

I enjoy Sanderson’s detailed systems (though I’m pretty sceptical of his attempts to roll them into a metasystem covering all his books–too much post facto fudgery there for me). I always liked Master of the Five Magics, too – one of the classic US pulp fantasy novels of rules-based hard magic, an influence on not a few American fantasy writers of my generation.

But I also enjoy the mythopoeic magic that can’t be controlled or systematized – the powers of a world beyond our ken interacting with our mundane little lives. This is more vulnerable to plot holes, but that doesn’t have to spoil it. Another classic that I just finished reading my sons, Alan Garner’s Elidor, is a great example of this style.

And I enjoy combinations, where the “shallows” of hard magic that can be grasped and spelled out in detail suddenly deepen into magic that can only be “soft” because it’s beyond description or comprehension. Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence has done this well a few times now. But sci fi also offers a lot of examples. Iain Banks tried to do it several times in his Culture novels, with varying degrees of success (Excession didn’t work for me, but it did for a lot of people.) And as “hard” an author as Liu Cixin repeatedly hits points where his books are essentially running on soft magic, because we’ve gone so far into the realms of higher-dimensional cosmos-shaping (and wrecking) entities. He’s taken us past the point of rules and systems, and it’s as jaw-dropping as some of the best mythic soft magic fantasy.

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Can’t tell what system that’ll fit into, but for something enjoyable, I recommend to stick-fast on one system.

If wizards have studied magic, catalogized them, and do them methodically, it’ll be best if you go hard magic. The sorcerers would be then akin to amateur practitioners where they do magic because “I did it once.” They do it again, but something is different so the effect is too.

But then all that depends on what kind of story you have. Hard magic fits for all the action-based shenanigans where every punch, every cough, and every breath is intentionally calculated and done. Soft magic fits for the fantastical spectacle that emphasizes mystery, grandiose, or awe/fear.

Easy example would be the Witcher universe, where witcher sign is pseudo hard in that sense (aard = air, igni = fire, etc.), but you can break someone’s curse by sleeping inside a coffin in a tomb for a week (fantastical-mystery). Avatar Korra on the other hand, while pretty rigid with its bending, the bits about the world creation, ancient ones, Raava v. Vatu and so forth are soft at its best.

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I was kind of thinking in the same line as how you are mentioning it. Thanks for helping me clarify it better for me. That’s going to help.

I know I’m a couple months late to the party, but these tools are fantastic! Thanks!