Everyone wants to be a wizard, right? You know, the squishy caster who cowers at the back of the party and throws fireballs through every open door?
Magic is at the heart of the fantasy genre, so it’s no surprise that writers and worldbuilders spent a lot of time designing their magic systems. It’s hard.
Designing a magic system is all about finding a balance between power and plot. The magic should empower characters and in some cases it may even resolve conflicts, or cause them.
The hardest part of designing a magic system is making it feel like it’s an integral part of the world. Magic is more than just a tool, in a world where magic exists it would become an integral part of religion, culture, maybe even science.
There are many, many varieties of magic you could make for your world. But one of the first things you should decide is whether you want a soft magic system or a hard magic system.
Soft Magic Systems
Soft magic is, well, magical. Soft magic systems have few defined rules and may not have formal spells. A practitioner of soft magic might be Gandalf for example. We know Gandalf is incredibly powerful, but we don’t really know what his limits are. Much of this is because he uses magic rarely, but you get the idea.
A soft magic system might draw power from creativity, psychic energy, or feelings. The limits of the caster may be defined by their physical or mental stamina. Soft magic systems are best for settings where the magic may be rare. In order to preserve the suspension of disbelief, a small number of practitioners who appear rarely or use their power sparingly. Otherwise the magic becomes a crutch and the audience will begin to lose interest.
Hard Magic Systems
Hard magic is hard because it has hard, defined rules. You could think of these magic systems as a bunch of “if then statements.” For example, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn features practitioners who know that if they consume x metal they will gain y power.
Hard magic systems are great for settings where magic is common and will be used frequently. Set rules let your audience know what to expect, but they don’t have to be boring. Let’s say you magic has five core rules and each of these rules is used by most characters in just one way. This doesn’t mean your characters are limited to just five spells. New uses for magic can be interest by new combinations or applications of these five rules.
Which One Is Better?
I tend to prefer soft magic systems myself. I’m a big fan of The Force and of the magic of the Farsala Trilogy. But that doesn’t mean soft magic systems are the best. Hard magic can also be incredibly interesting. Just because magic has defined rules does not mean that it can’t be “mystical.” Rules don’t have to be explicitely shown to your audience. If your magic is consistent your audience will begin to pickup on what the rules are. In this case the rules are more for your own use to make sure that you do not get carried out.
In the end, whether you should go with a hard or soft system depends on your story and your story’s needs. How common do you want magic to be? How powerful? Who uses it? What is it good for?
What’s the best magic system you’ve seen? What was so great about it? Let me know in the comments below!