What’s up, Storytellers? I’m C. R. Rowenson, the magic engineer, and it’s time to talk about magic. If you’re already familiar with the types of magic systems, then you’ve probably wondered, “Which one should I use? Which one is best?”.
That’s exactly what we’re talking about today, but if you haven’t seen the video or read the article on the four universal types of magic systems, the rest of this may not make a ton of sense. I recommend you go check that out now if you haven’t already
But Which Type of Magic Is the Best?
The answer is quite simple because there is no best.
Rational magic is no better than irrational magic and hard magic systems are no better than soft magic systems. There are a variety of attributes that these different types of magic have, and they lend themselves well to different types of stories. It all comes down to the needs of your system and the needs of your story.
Right now we’re seeing a rise in the popularity of hard-rational magic systems. Personally, I think that has to do with Brandon Sanderson himself and the popularity of his systems. I can’t really blame anybody for that; I’m as much a Sanderson fan as anybody. As much as we love them, those aren’t the only types of magic systems that we can put into our stories.
Again, no one type is better than the rest. Let’s look at each of the types of magic and discuss what they are and what they can do for our stories.
The Types of Magic Defined
In the top right, we have hard-rational magic where the majority of the system is displayed or explained, and it has clear rules and patterns. For the rational aspect, the readers can use logic and extrapolation to accurately predict parts of the system they haven’t seen yet.
Now let’s shift over to the irrational side. In a hard- irrational system, the majority of the system is still displayed or explained, but the reader, either through a lack of rules or information, cannot extrapolate or predict unseen portions of the system.
In the bottom left you have soft-irrational magic, where the majority of the system is hidden or unclear and the reader cannot extrapolate or predict unseen portions of the magic system.
Finally, in the bottom right you have soft-rational systems where the majority of the system is hidden or unclear, but the reader can extrapolate and predict portions of the system they haven’t seen yet.
Each of these aspects of your magic system (hard, soft, rational, irrational) all have their own attributes in places where they fit best. Let’s look at those details.
Hard Magic Attributes
You have hard magic when the reader knows or understands most of the system.
Hard Magic Is Easier to Achieve When…
- The protagonist is a magic-user
- The antagonist is a magic-user
- The system is simple
- The magic is old
When your protagonist character is a magic-user that is learning throughout the story or is already knowledgeable about magic. If the antagonist is an extraordinarily powerful magic-user, and the protagonist must work around them and find a weakness to take him down.
When the system is simple with a minimum number of rules, limitations, and magical effects, you can get to a high level of hardness quickly.
The magic has been a part of the world for a long time. The longer it’s been around, the more likely it is that characters understand it, making it easier for you to turn that into a hard system for your readers.
Hard Magic Is the Best Type of Magic for…
- Idea Stories
- Man vs Magical Environment
- Heist stories
Idea stories where you have a specific concept or ability or technology that you really want to explore the implications it would have for the world and the characters.
Any story that’s man versus magical environment is well suited for a hard magic system. In man versus environment, magical or non, humanity has to learn and understand what the environment is doing and why it’s doing that so that they can adapt and survive, which lends itself to hard magic.
Hard magic systems are also terrific for heist stories. A heist is essentially one giant set of problems that need to be solved. If your magic is going to factor into their solution to these problems, it needs to be a harder system.
Other Benefits of Hard Magic
As the storyteller, you can use hard magic to provide satisfactory solutions to plot problems. This is something we’ve discussed at multiple points, but it’s worth reiterating here.
Hard magic can also make the setting feel more explored, fully understood, and familiar to your reader. The more knowledge and understanding that your characters have about the magic, the reader will assume there’s a similar level of knowledge and understanding about the rest of the world, and that can work really well for you.
Hard magic can make your characters seem competent, intelligent, educated, and observant, depending on how they’re interacting with the hard magic. If they’re working to understand all the details and working with the nuances and the rules to achieve specific outcomes, they’re going to look a lot smarter in several ways.
Hard magic can also make your reader feel extremely immersed. Like we said before, with the setting, they feel that if the magic is this well defined, then the world must be as well. By understanding the magic they feel like they understand the world and that, coupled with how that makes the characters seem, can really make your readers feel incredibly smart.
They’ve memorized the system, they understand these things that can be quite esoteric. That’s a really good feeling to have that sense of comprehension for something like this.
Soft Magic Attributes
Returning to what we said earlier, a soft magic system exists when someone knows or understands the minority of a system.
Soft Magic Is Easier to Achieve When…
- The system is large or complex
- The magic is new or forgotten
- The magic mostly for flavor
- The protagonist is not a magic-user
The system is incredibly large or they grow bigger over time. That can be growth over the course of the book or over an entire series.
If the magic is brand new to the world or long forgotten. The lower the level of knowledge and understanding in the world itself, the easier it is to make it a soft magic system for your reader.
Soft magic is easier to use when your magic is more for flavor than for problem-solving. You can use this to drive emphasis on character moments or turning points in the plot without it function as a concrete tool for the characters.
If your protagonist is not a magic-user, is new to the setting, or has no interest in magic. If thoughts and understanding of magic aren’t running around in the protagonist’s head, they will not be showing up for the reader.
Soft Magic Is the Best Type of Magic for…
- Character/Relationship Stories
- Horror Stories
- Portal-Fantasy or New-World Fantasy Stories
Character or relationship stories because. By their nature, relationships are hard to define and kind of ebb and flow. We can use them with tremendous effect to emphasize these important character or relationship moments to augment and improve your story.
Soft magic is also terrific for horror stories. We fear what we don’t know. Throw in a bunch of cool stuff that’s scary and powerful, but we know nothing about and you’re primed for some outstanding horror.
Any kind of new-world or portal-fantasy type stories. In fact, to a certain extent, you have to start with a soft magic system because your character and your reader will be new to the setting.
Other Benefits of Soft Magic
Soft magic systems allow you as the storyteller to figure things out as you go, and it actually provides more opportunities for you to fill plot holes.
If you leave the magic soft and contradictions show up, you can then fill in the gaps with additional information, playing it off more like “Oh well, they just didn’t know that yet,” and that ties in really well with some other stuff you can do. You need to be careful so that it doesn’t feel too contrived, but that is something it allows you to do with your story and your magic.
Soft magic systems can make your setting feel wild, unexplored, wondrous, and mysterious. If the magic is well understood, that implies people understand the environment well. The opposite is true as well. If they don’t understand the magic, that implies that there are pieces of the world that they don’t understand, making it all seem a little strange and potentially dangerous.
Soft magic systems can do several things for your characters, but they often make the characters seem small, outmatched, or foreign in the setting, which isn’t a bad thing. You can really use that to build some good underdog-type scenarios where the character is in over their head but comes out on top, anyway.
Soft magic systems can make your reader feel eager to learn more.
They’ve gotten a bit of a taste of this mystery, of this cool thing, and they want to understand how it works. You can also use it to make your reader feel like an outsider to the setting, similar to just the understanding of the world. The less they understand about the world, the more foreign it’s going to feel, which can also lead to feelings of uncertainty.
Rational Magic Attributes
I define rational magic as being based on or in accordance with reason or logic. That means that your reader can extrapolate and predict pieces of the system without seeing them first.
Rational Magic Is Easier to Achieve When…
- There are consistent themes and patterns
- The rules are more nuanced
- The characters are looking for loopholes
The system has consistent themes and internal patterns. They don’t actually have to be logical patterns. Humans are super good at pattern building; if present a pattern, it will feel rational, even if it’s not true. If you go in with some concrete rules and limitations. And as we’ve talked about before, having a bit of nuance to those will only help you.
When your characters are actively searching for loopholes, hacks, and tricks. If they look at the magic and say, “yeah, I know it can do this, but how far can I take this?” then your characters will actively be engaged in exploring those minute details and finding the underlying structure for the magic.
Rational Magic Is the Best Type of Magic for…
- Science Fiction Stories
- Punk Genres
- General Speculative Fiction
Science fiction stories. Rational magic can make your magic feel scientific, like technology. In fact, that’s one of the best ways to make a technological system is through a rational magic system.
Mysteries. Even if we don’t know everything that can happen, we need to understand what did happen, and it needs to be logical enough that, in theory, the reader can piece it together before it’s shown to them.
Rational magic is also great for the various punk genres or speculative fiction. Anytime you’re looking at “What if?” and running with that idea to extrapolate and branch out, a rational magic system is a fantastic way to go.
Other Benefits of Rational Magic
Having a rational magic system allows you as the storyteller to make your magic feel scientific.
You can use it for interesting twists and even as a cornerstone for your worldbuilding because you’re tying in this logical growth and ripple effect that lets you build on these tiny pieces much further than if you were doing an irrational system.
Rational magic systems can make your setting feel more real, comprehensible, and understandable. You’re really making the setting feels like it has underlying structures.
For your characters, rational magic systems can make them seem cerebral and clever.
Clever is a little different from smart. “Smart” is the ability to absorb and remember information. “Clever” is making use of it. The ones who look at what’s provided to them and find tricksy ways to piece it together and get the outcome that they want. That works fantastic with a rational magic system. In fact, it’s hard to do with an irrational system.
If you’re familiar with TV Tropes, Guile characters are what we’re talking about here.
Heading Rational magic systems can make your reader feel clever right alongside the character.
Because the character is coming up with these clever twists and the reader can follow it, that imparts some of the sense of cleverness to the reader themselves. It can also give them a strong connection to the setting. Don’t overlook the power this gives you.
If you do it right, it can leave them excited to see if any predictions that they have made are right. And if they’ve spent some time daydreaming, and think, “well, what if X can happen? They said Y can happen, so what if X can happen?” and then it does. That is so satisfying.
Irrational Magic Attributes
Heading Irrational magic is defined by a lack of reason or logic chains. Your readers only know something is true when they see that it’s true, and even then they only know it as they see it. They can’t assume that it works any other way.
Irrational Magic Is Easier to Achieve When…
- The effects are widely varied
- The magic is for atmosphere
- Characters never use the magic in new ways
- The protagonist isn’t a magic user
Your magic-users and the magical effects are distinct, desperate, and widely varied. It also works well if your magic is mostly for the atmosphere. In this case, you’re just trying to evoke emotions or a general sense of the situation that doesn’t need an underlying pattern to it.
If your characters never try to use the magic in novel ways. If they’re never experimenting and exploring, the reader has no way of knowing if logic can be applied to the magic or not.
When your protagonist isn’t a magic-user. If they’re not using the magic, they don’t need to worry about the patterns. This isn’t always true, but this is often true.
Irrational Magic Is the Best Type of Magic for…
- Character/Relationship Stories
- Lovecraftian Stories
Character and relationship stories. Remember how it can highlight emotion and relationships between characters? Yup, that’s perfect here.
Lovecraftian settings and horror stories where you’re wanting the characters and the readers way out of their depth. They’re in a place that they don’t understand what’s happening, and there’s no way for them to understand what’s happening.
Humor stories are great here. Things don’t always have to make sense as long as they’re funny.
Other Benefits of Irrational Magic
Irrational systems allow you as the storyteller, a massive amount of flexibility in the content of the magic system. You can build a sense of randomness. It allows you to make every single piece feel unique. You can throw in everything and the kitchen sink into a single magic system because you don’t need to worry about it being connected.
Irrational magic systems can make the setting feel uncharted, inconsistent, or alien. When I’m talking about it feeling “alien”, I’m talking more about incomprehensible Lovecraftian settings. Settings that are so bizarre, we can’t really wrap our heads around it. Oh man, irrational systems are so good for that.
Irrational systems can also make your characters seem more emotionally driven and more unique. Because there are no connections between them, each character feels like they’re their own island of magic and ability. Superhero settings are terrific for this.
If they’re not having to think around these quirks and stuff it’s going to be driven more by how they’re feeling, what it is they’re trying to do, and how strongly they want to do it. At least that’s the tendency.
Irrational magic systems can make the reader feel uncertain of what can happen and a bit in the dark, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You may want exactly that.
It can make them feel strongly attached to their favorite pieces of the system. Just think about it. We all have our favorite superheroes, and in D&D Every player, and even every character, is going to have specific spells that they prefer because of how they approach problems and how they view the world. Irrational magic is great for finding those little niches where your characters and your readers want to sit.
That’s All for Now
So by now, it should be pretty clear that each of these components really lends itself to specific scenarios and specific stories. So depending on your story, you might need a very specific type of magic system.
These kinds of relationships become even stronger as you build limitations into your system. If you’re not sure where to start, be sure to check out my magic-building workbook Restrictions May Apply: Building Limits for Your Magic.
That was a lot of information, but at this point, you should have a pretty good idea of the strengths and weaknesses of the different types of magic systems and how they can augment different types of stories.
So once again, for one last time, I will reiterate that no type of magic is better than the other. It must be well implemented, and it needs to serve the story, but none are inherently better.
Now I have a question for you. I want to know what type of magic system will best suit the current story or game you’re working on right now. So please leave a comment below and let me know. I love hearing how people use this kind of information.
Also, sign up for my mailing list and share this article with other writers. Because if you do that on your own I won’t have to send the electronic gremlins to do it for you ‘cause none of us want that. They make a colossal mess whenever they do anything.
That’s all for now. Stay safe out there and stay awesome. Rowenson out.