Types of Magic Part 2:
An Analysis of 7 Popular Magic Systems
Welcome back! Let’s get right to it. No time for delay and funny business; I’ve been drinking green tea all day and I’m FREAKEN PUMPED!!!
That’s all the silly, I promise… for now.
Last time we talked, we discussed the concepts of hard magic versus soft magic and rational magic versus nebulous magic. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, go back and read Types of Magic, Pt 1. Trust me, this post won’t make much sense if you don’t.
This time we’re going to look at several popular systems and explore where they fall on the hard/soft and rational/nebulous scales. I originally wanted to include this in a single post, but at the 4,500 word count I realized I had a problem…
With the length of the post, you jerk! Skyrim isn’t a problem it’s a way of life and I can quit any time I want!
Whatever, let’s get started already.
Soft and Nebulous Magic
That’s right, I went there.
Lord of the Rings likely has the single most analyzed, adored, critiqued, and hated magic system published to date. Fortunately, we’re not here decide if it’s a good or bad system, we just want to know where it falls on the scales and why.
If you’ve read Sanderson’s 1st Law of Magic, my diagnosis of soft magic will come as no surprise to you.
Not sure why that is? No worries. Let’s start with Gandalf and work through it.
Never, at any point, do we really understand what he is capable of. We know he has power because… well because he’s a wizard. There are multiple points where we see brief flashes of his strength, such as in his fight with the Balrog, but we don’t know why he is so powerful or how it works. At least, not in the context of this story.
And this is true for all the magic in the series: The One Ring, the light of Eärendil, the defenses of Rivendell, and even the power of Sauron himself are all a big mystery to us
Following that vein of mystery, there is no way for us to extrapolate further instances of magic without additional information. And even if we dig into the Silmarillion, it’s not easy to understand or apply.
At least, it’s not for me. Maybe for you, you sickeningly intelligent person you.
All things considered, I doubt you’re surprised by Lord of the Rings’ status as a series with a soft and nebulous magic system.
It’s good we’ve got the foundation out of the way because next, I want to talk about another big name in the industry.
Midline Between Hard & Soft and Nebulous
Let’s start with the familiar Hard/Soft scale.
Some parts of the magic we get to see and understand (specific spells, potions, and creatures), and J. K. Rowling does a terrific job displaying and foreshadowing the specifics before using them in the plot. In that sense, some of the system is well understood and explained making for a rather hard system.
But that’s not everything. For every piece of magic explained, there is at least one other that isn’t. There are dozens of potions, charms, monsters, plants, and spells that appear, make an impression, and then vanish into the history of read pages.
Because of all this, the wondrous and often whimsical world of Harry Potter sits in the middle of the Hard/Soft Magic spectrum. Brandon says as much in his essay, and I agree with his analysis.
On the other scale, Harry Potter is one of the more nebulous systems out there. Mythcreants does a great job covering this in their post on How to Create a Rational Magic System, but allow me to summarize.
The reader’s and Harry have to learn about magic the same way, through demonstration and memorization. At no point can we extrapolate beyond what we’re given.
Powerful wizards can create new spells and potions, but it seems entirely based on trial and error. At no point can we say, there’s a spell that does X, so clearly there is a spell that does Y.
We can’t even extrapolate the uses of a spell. Can Harry use Expelliarmus to disarm muggles and police officers, or will it only work for wands? Does Petrificus Totalus work on machines or magical beasts as well as on people?
We don’t know unless Rowling shows us, which is why the magic in Harry Potter sits so far on the nebulous side of things. This doesn’t make it a bad system, it is a terrific system that serves a specific purpose well.
Let’s look at another example
Hard and Rational Magic
It should be no surprise to you that the magic of this series is fairly hard. It is a Brandon Sanderson system after all. Brandon estimates his systems to be roughly 80% hard magic; I think the number is a little higher than that.
The reader’s experience with a magic system is continuously changing as they read a book or series. As a side note, most magic systems, from the reader’s perspective, are harder at the end of a book series than they are at the end of the first book. My point is, in Brandon’s case, I think it would be better to judge the hardness of the magic of what he knows and understand instead of just what he shows to the reader.
In that context, Allomancy could easily be 90% Hard Magic.
On the other scale, you may be shocked to find that Allomancy and Feruchemy are both… Rational Magic Systems!
… Not surprised? Yeah, me neither.
Rational, hard magic is kind of Brandon’s thing. I know it’s what drew me into his stories in the first place. Once he explains the basics of the rules, we are free to analyze and think through the implications and possibilities.
Take Waxillium’s feruchemical ability to increase his weight. In The Bands of Mourning, he has a brief discussion with a woman which verifies that Wax’s momentum (momentum = weight * speed) is maintained even as he adjusts his weight. This means, if he chose, Wax could change his weight while soaring through the air temporarily increasing or decreasing the speed of his flight.
Because both magic systems are rational, we can trust this trick to work as expected.
Again, this analysis of Allomancy and Feruchemy shouldn’t be surprising. Brandon works hard to explain his magic and applies a great deal of thought and structure to its development. But that doesn’t mean all of his systems are in the same place.
Hard and Nebulous Magic
If you haven’t read The Reckoners Trilogy, go do it. It’s a delightful and horrifying YA series where people in our world start gaining superpowers. Unfortunately, the powers only seem to manifest for supervillains.
Pretty sweet, right?
As you can imagine, the magic of the series is quite hard, but it is also far more nebulous than most of his other magic systems.
Each superpowered individual (called Epics), has their own specific set of abilities and rules. Our main character, David Charleston, is a massive nerd that analyzes and memorizes every detail and quirk of their powers as the Reckoners hunt them down. This leads to a system that is far more explored and explained than any of Brandon’s other systems.
But why is it nebulous?
First, it’s actually somewhere closer to the middle of the scale. Second, it’s nebulous because of the randomness involved. What powers each Epic has are unpredictable, and while each power has its own patterns and rational, the system as a whole is far less organized.
But enough about Brandon Sanderson, let’s move on to the next example, this time it’s one we’ve already discussed in Types of Magic, Part 1.
Hard and Nebulous Magic
As we noted before, Spiderman’s powers are limited but clearly understood by both the creators and the readers. He has a handful of things he can do and, for the most part, he doesn’t deviate from those abilities. Therefore, this a fairly hard system.
Honestly, if Spiderman was the only one with powers, this would also be a very rational system. True the powers themselves don’t make the most sense, but they follow certain rules and we can extrapolate upon them to predict a number of different ways they could be used.
And then we add in other heros and villains.
While the individual powers of people make sense and are, mostly, consistent within themselves, there isn’t much in terms of larger patterns and logic. We understand that animals are a common motif in the series, but even that isn’t applied consistently. Who shows up and what powers or quirks they have are totally at the discretion of the creators.
Before I say anything else about the magic, this book is amazing! Patrick Rothfuss has such a beautiful and evocative writing style that some passages made my chest hurt. He’s only published the first two books, but don’t wait for the series to finish before reading his books.
Okay, gushing aside, let’s talk about Patrick’s magic system, or rather, his two magic systems: Sympathy and Naming.
Sympathy: Rational and Hard Magic
Sympathy is, without a doubt, the single most scientific magic system I have read, short of actual science fiction. From the beginning, he outlines different rules and patterns, exploring and demonstrating how they tie in with the scientific principles of the world. This coupling of science and magic creates limitless possible uses of sympathy; I can’t wait to see more in action.
As for the explanation, there is a lot to explain for a system like this. In the first book, we don’t get the entire picture. We can’t, it’s just not possible. But from word one, it is clear that Patrick understands everything and intends to show it to us. Regardless of what we have seen so far, this makes sympathy a very hard magic system indeed.
Naming: Nebulous and Soft
This is pretty easy to identify next to the rational and thoroughly explained system of sympathy. We know naming exists, but we have no real concept of what it can do or how it can work. There is no pattern for us to fall back on beyond some vague folktales delivered in the narrative. With no information and no patterns to follow, we have to wait for Patrick to tell us what it is and what it can do.
Okay, okay, okay. I know you’ve been here a long time and you’re itching to get back to the bloody pastime of your choosing. There is just one more example I want to discuss.
Soft but Rational Magic
This was a very interesting system to explore and define; I kept changing my analysis over and over again until I finally settled on the following.
The magic in Dresden Files is a slightly soft magic system. Initially, I thought it sat in the middle of the spectrum next to Harry Potter. There are plenty of pieces that go unexplained, making it softer, but all the pieces necessary to the plot are thoroughly discussed and foreshadowed, making it harder. If I were going off Brandon’s definition alone, then The Dresden Files would seem slightly harder than Harry Potter.
But we’re not. We’re going by my definitions.
Again, I view a systems position on the hard/soft spectrum to be directly correlated to the percentage of the system that is explained. And that changes things.
Jim Butcher does a terrific job showing us the relevant pieces before the become important, he also goes to great lengths to show how much we don’t know. And not just us, the characters too. He makes it clear that there is a vast universe, and a universe beyond the universe, of which we only see and understand a tiny sliver. Which makes all the difference.
This is still fairly mid-line, as far as soft systems are concerned, but I think the magic of The Dresden Files is definitely on the soft side of the spectrum.
But if it’s soft, how can it be rational? Aren’t those opposites?
While Jim makes it very clear how little we know about the world, he also establishes patterns and precedents in it as well. The magic used by the main character is consistent with itself. If we see the magic interacting with the world in a specific way, we can take that idea and run with it any number of ways. More importantly, we can trust that Jim will do or has done the same.
More to the point, we see a pattern to the overall universe. If legends of some supernatural power or creature exist, then it’s probably in Jim’s universe somewhere. We don’t know exactly what they look like, how they function, how closely they will match the mythology, or when they will appear, but we can trust that they are there… somewhere… waiting.
Alright, I’ve gone on with the examples long enough. Let’s go ahead and wrap this sucker up and… Oh, wait.
Some Final, Important Notes.
There are a couple things I need to make clear before I sign off for the day.
First, a system’s location on the scales of hard/soft and rational/nebulous are not an indication of the quality of magic or how realistic it is. The scales are a way to help you analyze other peoples magic and help you build your own, and nothing more. What makes a system good or bad is its creation and implementation, not it’s characteristics. I hope that the variety of examples has made that clear.
Second, a system’s position on the scales is a matter of perspective. I mentioned that a magic’s position for the author and for the reader are going to be different. Well, the position from person to person may be different as well. I said The Dresden Files was Soft and Rational; you may disagree. Also, a systems position may change with time over a series.
I would like to point out, however, that it is harder to have a system that is hard for the reader without it first being hard for the author.
Finally, these scales are tools, not a mandate from god… Though I’m flattered you would make the comparison. This is here to help, not to tie us down with painful restrictions. Take what works and drop the rest though I promise you I will be using it for the foreseeable future.
That’s all for now
And that’s it. Even cutting the topic in half, these two posts turned out waaaaaaaay longer than I anticipated, but it seemed best to cover it as quickly as possible rather than stringing it out over months.
With the knowledge gained in Types of Magic, Pt 1 and the wisdom gleaned from examples here in part 2, you’re ready to set the world on fire… just not literally… turns out people frown on that.
Instead of igniting buildings, why not ignite creativity and share this information with someone else that loves magic systems, or at the very least, someone you want to torment with my word-things? Oh and be sure to stick around and learn How to Build a Marvelous Magic System.
Thanks again for stopping by, and I’ll see you again soon.