Magic Systems: Soft Versus Hard

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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!

Tales From The Golden Fleece Inn

“Stupid,” Sarah mumbled to herself as she trudged along. “That was stupid.”

She shouldn’t have gotten involved, should have done a better job of hiding those papers. Now all her accounts were gone, and she was alone and cold. She touched her hand gingerly to the side of her face. It was still tender. Would it bruise? Probably.

Where was she?

She looked around. She had taken off running from her apartment and how she was on a street she didn’t recognize, and she was severely underdressed for the weather. Her watch said it was nearly midnight…

This is the first story in a series set in The Golden Fleece Inn, an ancient establishment located outside of the material plane. Continue reading on Wattpad.

The Golden Fleece Inn

First established in Rome during the reign of Augustus. For nearly two thousands years the Golden Fleece Inn has been a nexus of the supernatural community.

Located deep within the Infinite Staircase, the Inn does not actually exist on Earth, allowing Patrius to remodel every few centuries without regard for building codes or the laws of physics. There are six locations where the Inn can be accessed directly from Earth. Each of these appears as a rundown establishment at the end of an alleyway or a dilapidated part of town and is heavily warded by Patrius to make accidental discovery by mortals unlikely.

The six cities on Earth from which the Inn can be located are Rome, Istanbul, London, Kyoto, New York City, and Jerusalem. No matter which door a visitor enters through they all find themselves at the front door to the Inn next to the bouncer. Each city then has its own exit door somewhere in the Inn, while the front door also serves as the exit to the Impossible Staircase. The Inn is also accessible via a short journey through the Impossible Staircase from St. Petersburg, Baghdad, Chicago, Cairo, and Mexico City.

Some guests would prefer that the Inn accept currency other than silver denarius. The Stiltskin Trust Co moneylender in the corner is normally happy to exchange currencies, but often attempts to trick customers into making other bargains.

Both the owner of the Inn and its staff are notably eccentric and have a strong desire to look after the wellbeing of the Inn’s guests.

Patrius – a human sorcerer of indeterminant age. Patrius appears as a middle aged man with slightly greying hair and is usually wearing a purple button-down shirt. He is an extremely powerful sorcerer who uses earth magic to extend his own life. Most of his time is spent sitting in his alcove where he can listen in on conversations. If a guest attracts his interest he will normally invite them to sit with him where he will ask about them about themselves and make occasional notes in his guest book. In the early days of the Inn he was known to disappear for years at a time without explanation. Nowadays his absences have grown much rarer and last for a few days at most.

Ted – the hulky, shirtless, tattooed bouncer sitting in the broken recliner is a troll named Ted. He takes the Inn’s no fighting rule very seriously and doesn’t care about much else. A few years ago someone introduced him to Chinese food and became addicted. Now regulars often bring him offerings of egg rolls and lo mein. Ted is almost never seen without his trusty silver battle axe which stands almost as tall as he does.

Gib and Gob – the kitchens are run by a pair of scaly green imps named Gib and Gob. No one actually knows which one is which. Regulars insist that their cooking is second to none, and they are right as long as the two have had a few years to practice their new recipes.

Dan – A tall and skinny young demon with four arms and horns growing from his forehead. Dan tends the bar and is an amazingly talented mixologist. His true passion however is for coffee and he has several customs blends that he makes for guests.

Bog/Boggie – the Inn’s resident boggart who takes care of the housekeeping and serves as a messenger for Patrius. It takes the shape of a large cat with a silver collar around its neck and a chain that drags along the floor. When it’s not busy it can be found sleeping in front of the fire in Patrius’s alcove.

The staff are exceptionally loyal to Patrius and the Inn, but the place wouldn’t be the same without its regulars.

Nathan – an NYU graduate student studying creative writing and folklore. Nathan is not magical in least but wandered in by accident on day. He’s been coming to the Inn ever since and it has become his favorite study spot.

The Captain – an old mariner who always smells like fish and wont stop talking about the time he wrestled a polar bear. He appears to be some kind of ocean demigod but has never revealed who his parents are.

Doug – the president of the NYC chapter of the Black Dog Motercycle Club. He and his pack come nearly every night.

Arito Taisho – a shinto priest and talented psychic. He comes to the Inn regularly to play cards with Doug and the rest of the pack.

Belesunnu – a middle eastern woman of few words. She has a talent for wind and earth magic and mostly likes to challenge over-confident men to games of darts or archery contests.

Gerark – an elderly bugbear who works for Stiltskin Trust Co. He sits in the corner most days with his magic circle, ready to exchange currencies and seal magical contracts.

Jasmine/James – a shapeshifting succubus/inccubus who runs a small escort business. They have helped people hide more than a few skeletons and is generally the one to go to for information about the current state of the supernatural. They are often seen smoking with Patrius in his alcove, drinking with Nathan, or giving Dan feedback on his newest coffee blend.

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Twenty Questions to Ask About Your Fictional Country

Okay so maybe it’s more like forty-ish. It’s hard to design a country from scratch. Many authors have to design at least several. If you’re sitting in front of a blank page scratching your head, this list is for you.

1. What is the climate like?

Us humans are pretty adaptable. We make otherwise hostile environments work for us by tailoring our clothes, our diet, and our homes to the local climate. Even ceremonial or luxury objects are descended from very practical pieces of technology.

2. Is it landlocked, coastal, or an island?

There’s a reason that most population centers are near a body of water. Water is literally life. It hydrates us, harbors fish and seaweed, and lets us move faster and easier than we can on land.

3. What resources are present?

Natural resources provide the foundation for an advanced economy. Without a strong foundation, the people of this country might be dependent on foreign supply lines.

4. What is the terrain like?

Is it wide and flat? Or rugged and mountainous? The easier it is to travel and communicate the easier it will be for a central government to exert control.

5. Are there any natural barriers that would impede movement?

Does an ocean or mountain range protect the country from invasion? Do its rocky shores make a harbor difficult to build?

6. Where are the sources of water?

Is it everywhere or nowhere? Who controls the potable water?

7. How many languages and ethnic groups are present?

Do the people see themselves as part of a single whole or are they just temporarily united for the next few decades or the next century?

8. Have any of these people been recently displaced?

Have these displaced persons been accepted by their new community?

9. How is society organized?

Who has all the money? Who does the populace listen to?

10. What form of government is there?

Is it a new democracy? An ancient autocracy? Something in between?

11. Do the people look favorably on the government?

If someone were to start a revolt how many would be likely to support them?

12. What religions are practiced?

Possible flavors include monotheistic, polytheistic, animistic, ancestor worship.

13. Is there a state religion?

Does that state religion tolerate competitors?

14. Who are the country’s neighbors?

And if there are neighbors, do they get along? Are they part of a regional coalition or trade zone?

15. Is this country more powerful than its neighbors?

Is someone preparing for a war of aggression? Does the populace fear an invasion in the near future? Has revolution in a neighboring country put the ruling class on edge?

16. What are the country’s major industries?

Does the government feel that it needs to prop up these industries? Are any of these industries owned by the state?

17. Is the country dependent on its neighbors for any important resources?

Can these resources be used as a form of indirect control? Do the people feel that they are paying fair prices for these imports?

18. Does the country have any colonies abroad?

Who owns these colonies? Are they ruled directly? Are people born in the colonies citizens? What languages do they speak?

19. Are any parts of the country’s territory contested by its neighbors?

How long has this territory been contested? Do the people living there have family on both sides of the border?

20. Does this country have any historic rivalries?

Populations can have rivals just like people. Is the rivalry over religious differences? An ancient betrayal? Are the royal houses related?

The Best Things About Bending

Elemental magic is hard to do right. The four classical elements are so ingrained in us that we all are likely to add elemental worldbuilding into our first settings, but it’s hard to do well. The four elements have been done so much that it’s hard to be original. It’s hard to make elemental magic feel like it’s really a part of the world and not just a later add on.

Yet the elements are so pervasive that the internet is full of people showing off their elemental magics systems where they very creatively include their own elements like shadow, mud, or even magma.

There is nothing wrong with making an elemental magic system. It comes naturally to us for a reason. But if you want to your elemental magic to work it’s going to take a lot of effort.

Of the very limited selection of examples I have been exposed too I have only seen two instances of elemental magic done well; Codex Alera by Jim Butcher, and Avatar the Last Airbender.

Unlike Avatar, Codex Alera has six elements, not four. Each element has it’s uses, but some elements are clearly more useful that others. To be fair, the characters are at war for just about the entire series and for obvious reasons the characters are most interest in the elements that help them to kill the enemy. In Avatar the elements have a place in daily life and each can easily contend with the other. As much as I love Codex Alera, the world of Avatar just feels more alive.

Physicality

This is something that can really only be done in a visual medium, but Avatar does it so well. Not only is each of the four based in a different marital art, different styles have their own variations.

For me the most obvious example of this are the pro-benders. Their quick jabs and evasions evoke images of professional boxers, and the bending they do reflects that. They’re all about quick attacks and evasions and it shows. Against a real fighter not constrained by the rules of the ring they quickly fall short. There movements are of peoples trained to do one thing well rather than master their element.

What’s the best thing about this? For me it’s that practice gets results. In most fantasy it can be hard to show characters getting better with magic. In Avatar their magic is so tightly linked to their movements and thinking that it’s almost impossible not to. A bender’s philosophy and mindset impact their bending in a very visible way.

Balance

Elemental magic is so common that it’s hard not to have prejudices.

Earth, Water, Air, Fire. Which would you choose? Which is the best?

In fantasy that has a four element system we don’t always get an equal view of each element. Everyone expects fire to be aggression or water to be healing. Avatar may not give every element the same amount of screen time, but they each have the same amount of potential. Every element is shown to have its own limitations and strengths but none is ever made to look weaker than the others.

In fact the best benders, like Iroh, take the time to learn from the other elements and see what practices they can incorporate into their own art.

Incorporation

Each of the four nations is inseparable from their element.

Too often in fantasy, magic is treated as something separate from the rest of society. In the Avatar universe magic is inseparable from the larger society. The trains and mail in Omashu are moved by earth benders. The builds in the Norther Water Tribe are clearly built with the help of water benders, and the the Fire Nation could not have had its industrial base without the fire benders to power the furnaces.

This arrangement brings obvious inequalities to mind. What can a normal person do when bending is so prevalent?

It’s an important question to ask and one that doesn’t get enough attention in the Legend of Korra. What do non-benders get?

Even so, the prevalence of bending in these societies becomes even more important. What happens when technology progresses? What happens when the non-benders no longer need the benders? While not fully addressed in The Legend of Korra, it’s still an interesting question that fantasy should address. What does magic do when it can’t hide?

Conclusion

Avatar the Last Airbender is an amazing series. I’ve loved it since I first saw the pilot in a hotel room when I was ten. Any time I thought I might want to make an elemental magic system I’ve turned to the wiki and realized that I simply couldn’t beat it.

It’s not the magic, or setting, it’s how real everything feels. The entire world is infused with the love of its creators and speaks to the wonders that can be achieved by a few dedicated worldbuilders.

What I most love about Avatar is that the otherwise cliché elemental magic can be innovative in the right context. Any magic, any idea, can feel real in the right setting. It speaks to the strength of good worldbuilding and it has been in my mind ever since I saw the first episode.

Really though, the best part of Avatar is that the magic doesn’t feel like magic. It just feels like a part of the world.

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Worldbuilding: Sparrows

A few weeks ago I made a post about Flicker Lamps. Magical communication devices used in the early days of exploration in my Sprawling Iron series. While they became an essential part of managing large empires they were hard to mass produce and had several properties that made security difficult. Furthermore, the could only be given to specific individuals and could not be distributed by governors as needed.

This limitation proved to be especially inconvienient when it became more important to be able to communicate with agents sent to unexplored lands or diplomats dispatched to negotiate with local governments. Eventually, sorcerers devised a new means to rapidly communicate over long distances. Sparrows.

These ceramic birds are small enough to fit in the palm of a person’s hand and infused with a minor air spirit capable of animating the clay and providing it the power of flight. A person wishing to send a message via sparrow must first hold an image of the intended recipient in their mind as well as their general location. Once they do this the sparrow will animate and the user can speak their message allowed. After the sparrow hears the message it will take flight and attempt to find the intended recipient, once it does it will repeat the spoken message and be ready to used again. In some cases, written messages and maps may also be tied to small loops on the bottom of the construct.

Sparrows are small enough that ships, armies, and individuals can carry many of them and allow regular reports to made. But they do come with some limitations.

  1. Distance – sparrows have a limited range, typically not more than a few hundred kilometers. For longer messages they are typically sent to a central administrative hub the possess a flicker lamp or telegraph office capable of passing on the message.
  2. Recipient Identity and Location – the sender must know the recipient and their general location. If either of these are incorrect the sparrow will not be able to deliver its message and will not give its message to anyone else.
  3. Message Erasure – once the message has been repeated there is no way to get the sparrow to repeat it. Recipients must be sure that they are paying attention and hope that they are in a quiet place.

To get around these limitations, many governors and administrators have at least one person on staff tasked with receiving sparrows and accurately transcribing these messages. Oftentimes they are given special quarters and offices in secluded areas to ensure that they have access to a quiet environment and are relatively free from intrusion. These sparrow handlers are often targets of bribes and even assassinations as eliminating or compromising them can disable an enemy’s communication network.

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Worldbuilding: Flicker Lamps

Now I just need to assign meaning to the trinkets on the bookshelf…

When the nations of Oliad and Danacia began to realize their imperial ambitions they were faced with a challenge that they had never confronted before. As their colonial holdings expanded they were faced with the question of how their central authorities could quickly send directives to their scattered generals, admirals, and imperial governors. This was in the time before the invention of Sparrows and the telegraph, and neither kingdom had access to the Soul Stones used by older empires.

The solution that both nations settled on were the Flicker Lamps. These devices were made by taking a fire spirit and splitting it into many parts. Each part could then be sealed in a glass lamp and sent overseas to important governors and military commanders with at least one remaining in the homeland.

An individual with the proper training could then operate the lamp by causing it to flicker in coded patterns that would then be repeated by every other lamp in the set. This allowed messages to be quickly sent across great distances.

There were drawbacks however. The first being that they were expensive to make and required at least some sorcerous training to operate. Because of this they were typically only issues to important governors and high ranking military commanders who were responsible for passing messages on through more conventional channels.

There was also no way to send a message to just one lantern in a set. A message intended for just one person would be sent to all connected lanterns. Every set of lanterns was expensive to make and traveling with multiple lanterns, especially while on campaign was difficult. To address this most nations using these lamps created special codes that would be known only to certain lamp holders. This was not a perfect system and often led to information leaks when outdated codes were used, but it worked well enough for most communications.

With the later invention of the telegraph and Sparrows these lanterns fell out of use. But they are still kept as museum pieces and curiosities, and sometimes still employed by enthusiasts and secret societies.

This is the first bit of worldbuilding that I’ve posted in awhile. Don’t worry! I plan to post more in the coming weeks. Check out this link here if you want to see what else I’m up to. You can also follow me on twitter @expyblog!

Making Magic

There are a lot of ways to design a magic system, but to me the biggest decision to make has been Hard vs Soft. Should it have clearly defined rules and spells, or should everything be a little looser?

In general I’ve gone with the later, influenced by books the the Farsala Trilogy and the Sea of Trolls that I read while I was in middle school. I really like the idea of magic that consisted of some sort of hyperawareness of the environment and an ability to tell it what to do.

Because of this most of the settings I’ve made over the years have some sort of soft magic system with some animistic qualities thrown in. The problem? I’ve made them all the same. I’ve set aside a lot of projects over the years and I think it’s because I lost interest in them, because I kept making worlds with the same elements over and over again.

I also think that the stories I intend to tell in these settings end up suffering because of this. Too often the only cost to magic that I impose is feeling tired. That’s not really much of a cost. Why don’t I make it first born children or lost limbs, or beetles? There are a lot of possibilities that I have been largely ignoring.

So it’s time to switch to making systems that are a bit harder, something with more rules. As I’ve thought about it more I have realized that part of the problem is laziness on my part. The magic should make sense in the setting and add something to the story, and I’ve honestly run out of things to impose on the system I keep using again and again, but I also don’t want to take the time to define the costs and limits of the system. So I am making a very late news years resolution and I’m going to try some new things with my worldbuilding.

I’m thinking of starting with a little vancian magic first.

Top Five Magic Systems

For me the best part about the fantasy genre is the magic. I love reading a book with a well-designed system, one that’s believable and is full of possibilities, and by possibilities I don’t just mean those shown on the screen. In my mind a good magic systems should also be one where the audience can imagine new uses not seen “on screen” based on the mechanics they are shown.

1. Codex Alera

It’s hard to beat the appeal of a simple elemental magic system, but it’s very easy to ruin one. In the Codex Alera series Jim Butcher manages to make an elemental magic system that feels natural, is incorporated into the society seen in the books, and doesn’t fall victim to its creators desire for originality. Instead of the normal four elements, this systems has six, making it more closely resemble the chinese elemental system instead of the greek. For each of these elements there is a countless number of nature spirits called ‘furies’ of varying degrees of strength. Most human characters can manipulate all six elements to some degree, but are only particularly skilled with one or two. High Lords, the nobility of the setting, are distinguished by their power over all six.

I love this system because it is intuitive and because it has been completely integrated with Aleran society. Social status and political power are linked to a person’s magical talents and the power of furies is used in place of many technologies that we enjoy in the real world. This integration is so complete that characters have difficulty imagining ways to accomplish tasks without the use of their furies, putting characters who lack a connection to furies at a severe disadvantage in Aleran society.

The differences we see in urban versus rural perceptions of magic is another facet of this system that I really enjoy. Rural inhabits more readily anthropomorphize their furies by assigning them names and personalities, whereas urban residents are more likely to see their furies as merely useful tools. In my mind different interpretations of the same system lends a does or realism to the setting. Real people have differing thoughts and approach the same situations in different ways, and this is nice to see mirrored in a fantasy setting.

2. Full Metal Alchemist

FMA’s alchemical magic, with its strict rules of equivalent exchange and lip-service to scientific principles, is a perfect system for science-enthusiasts. It’s a system with clearly defines rules and ways to break them, which is important in any high fantasy setting and keeps hand-waving to a minimum. Most importantly, it is a system where the costs are clearly shown; an important consideration in high fantasy settings.

Most of the examples of alchemy we see in the series consists of reshaping matter, but we see from the more specialized alchemists practiced by characters like Mustang and Kimblee that much more is possible. From alchestry’s practitioners in Xing we learn that this is another system that is also open to some interpretation.

Unfortunately we don’t get to see many alchemists outside of the military, but from Shou Tucker’s home and the brief glimpses of civilian alchemists attempting to repair damaged buildings we see a little of what every day life is like for an alchemist who has not been completely absorbed by the military. From the reaction of Leto cultists in Reole and the distrust for alchemy held by the Ishvalens we see that the practice of this magic is not as wide spread as the other systems listed here, but admonishments from characters who believe that alchemists should work for the people and the prominent role given to alchemists in Amestris’ military shows the importance of magic to the rest of the setting.

3. Wizard of Earthsea

The magic of true names that Ursula K. Le Guin shows us in Earthsea is a bit more philosophical than the other systems I’ve chosen to include. In this system words have power and people jealously guard their true names. Names are power in this setting, and fully trained wizards dedicate years to learning the true names of everything around them. The consequences of having this power come up several times. The balance of the world puts an inherent limit on what a wizard can do. Many spells are in fact illusions because creating something from nothing would upset the world’s equilibrium.

With the exception of the Kargish lands, magic is thoroughly integrated into the society of Earthsea. Practitioners of magic range from hedge witches, to weather control wizards on ships, to royal advisers. In the first book we are shown the importance of magic when Olgion, a sorcerer, is present for Ged’s naming.

4. Powder Mage

Brian McClellan created multiple magic systems for his Powder Mage series. Normally I am hesitant to embrace a setting with multiple distinct types of magic but these books are the exception. Privileged, Power Mages, and Blood Mages are all relatively rare and we get the sense that magic has changed over time. This sense of evolving magic makes a great fit for the themes of revolution and change often seen in gunpowder fantasy. The practitioners I’m most interested in here are Knacked; people with a single magical talent that can be anything from never needing to sleep to making crops grow in just minutes.

According to the author the Privileged make up a pseudo-aristocracy within the setting, and Powder Mages have obvious military applications, but the Knacked have the biggest influence on the every day. Knacked abilities can make a person rich, and because both men and women are equally likely to find themselves possessing magical talents the sexes are shown to have equal opportunities available to them. We regularly see female heads of state, generals, and soldiers, all of which would be rare in many other settings.

Most importantly for this list, the powers of the knacked best fit my preference for magic that is integrated into every day life. With abilities ranging from mundane to extraordinary the knacked fit into a wide range of niches whereas this setting’s other practitioners are mostly shown employed as either super soldiers or living artillery.

5. Dungeons and Dragons

On first glance this is the most rigid system that I am listing here. Each spell has specific guidelines for who can use it, what it costs, and what it does. The systems also requires players to prepare their spells ahead of time. At first this need for planning and preparation might seem limiting compared to looser systems where spells can be made up on the fly, but D&D players are (in)famous for reading the fine print and coming up with new and creative uses that stretch the limits of what is actually allowed. Go on any D&D forum and you will find users sharing and debating uses for popular spells like Prestidigitation and Thaumatugy. That this system can be interpreted so differently depending on play styles is one of this system’s strengths.

Just how integrated magic is with the rest of the setting will depend on the setting and your group’s DM. Even so, the need for spell components and the utilitarian applications of many spells allows DMs to create settings with entire magical economies with spellslingers on every corner if it suits their campaign.