Magic systems: Do we need medium magic?

I love magic. It’s . . . well, magical. I grew up with a fascination for wizards and sorcerers. Wanda Maximoff (not the movie version) was one of my childhood idols. I suppose this led to my love for the nitty-gritty of magic systems when I turned my hand to worldbuilding.

Last week I discussed starting your magic system. This week, lets get into some terminology.

Brandon Sanderson is something of the guru of magic systems in fantasy these days. His Three Laws of Magic are an interesting take on the problem of magic in fantasy literature, often quoted as a solution to the many problems authors and gamemasters face when writing about magic. Alongside the Three Laws, Sanderson also originated the idea of Hard Magic and Soft Magic as the standard terminology when it comes to magic systems.

Magic can be a conundrum. You could argue that magic is the essential feature to call something fantasy. Yet that reliance on it comes with pitfalls. If you’ve spent any time around Dungeons and Dragons, you’ll know just how many ways its magic system can be broken, both by manipulating its own system and by applying real world logic.

Go to far, and you will lose the feel you want. That medieval fantasy world of yours might logically become a magitech metropolis. Sure, this can lead to interesting paths – which is something I’ll write a post about in the future.

But what if that isn’t what you’re aiming for? You need your magic to work with the setting you have in mind. The balance we all want to achieve is keeping a magic system both interesting and useful to the narrative. This can be harder than it sounds.

Sanderson classifies magic into two types.

Hard Magic

A system wherein rules have been explicitly described by the author, remain consistent, and act somewhat as if they were a scientific force. Examples of this are the works of Sanderson himself and Dungeons and Dragons, or my personal favourite, Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate.

Soft Magic

Magic wherein rules are rarely or never defined, magic is vague and can do potentially anything at the authors behest. For example, J.R.R Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings.

This is where my problem comes in. Personally, I feel this classification is just a step too simple.

Systems such as Dark Souls and Harry Potter fall into a spot in between, the Goldilocks zone of magic systems. Harry Potter gives rules, but they aren’t comprehensive. Magic is both vague and can potentially do anything, but we also have limitations. We know that to summon an object to you you must use Accio. We know that spells generally use words, which require a ward and need to be pronounced clearly. These provide the limitations the characters follow. In one case, the motivation for a major plot point.

We don’t know why they use these words, and seemingly there are exceptions to these rules.

Dark Souls has a similar situation. We know how to use magic, we know certain rules about it. Since this is a game with magic mechanics, we have access to certain objective properties of the magic of Dark Souls. But we do not know why. Only how.

That is why I feel that magic building might need a third definition.

Medium Magic

Medium magic falls in the middle. It may have some rules, but they may not always be consistent, they may not cover all scenarios, and magic is still unknown and potentially flexible to the authors demands. Such as the situations above in Dark Souls and Harry Potter.

Perhaps the best solution would be to consider magic as a spectrum, with Hard and Soft magic at either end, but labels are so infernally helpful when discussing any area of worldbuilding.

Header image: Glaucus and Scylla, Salvator Rosa, c. 1661. Public domain.

2 thoughts on “Magic systems: Do we need medium magic?

  1. So far, I’ve only used “soft” magic in the stories I have written. The important thing for me is that it does what the story requires it to do. I understand why some people advocate for “hard” magic, but I find imposing rules on something that doesn’t abide by natural laws by definition to be an exercise in frustration.

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