On Worldbuilding: Hard Magic Systems

By IYWP Intern Ashton Hooley

One thing that sets fantasy apart from all other genres—at least usually!—is magic; when creating your fantasy world, a magic system will become the most vital aspect. There is a spectrum of magic systems ranging from soft to hard—and we must give credit to Brandon Sanderson for first coining these terms. In this post I will be discussing hard magic systems in depth, and in the next post of this series I will talk about soft magic systems.

So, what is a hard magic system?

Well, in short, a hard magic system is a system governed strictly by any set of rules. 

An example of a hard magic system is Avatar: the Last Airbender, in which we, the audience, knows exactly what can and cannot be bent. These rules are strictly followed throughout the story.

We learn that water can be bent from any source containing water (plants, blood, ice, etc.). And the only exception to a large rule is the Avatar himself, but he doesn’t break the laws of what can be bent, he only breaks how many elements a single person can bend. Avataris a great example of a relatively hard magic system.

Another general thing to focus on when creating a hard magic system is this: limitations are greater than powers. Now, it is important to then split limitations—which is an umbrella term—into three distinct parts. Limitations (what the magic or character is unable to do), weaknesses (these are things that the enemies/villains are able to exploit), and costs (the risks involved with using magic). Since discussing all three aspects would take a lot of time—and words—I’ll focus on limitations and costs.

A common limitation that magic systems use is exhaustion. It is easy to write and just makes sense as a technique; however, I recommend you go beyond exhaustion when designing your magic system because oftentimes the limit of being tired is uninteresting. In some cases though, like Avatar: the Last Airbenderwhere exhaustion comes from the martial arts style of fighting rather than the bending, exhaustion really works well in developing conflict and making fights more interesting. 

While it is generally accepted that all magic systems have limitations like the ones described above, not all have costs. Costs, unlike limitations I would say, come in so many different shapes and sizes. In your magic system, costs are where you can really be unique. 

While limitations and costs are important in all magic systems, what they achieve varies along the hard-soft magic system spectrum. In a hard magic system, costs and limitations make a story and all of its fights much more interesting, and adds a sense of thrill that otherwise may have been absent.

To gloss over the points made in this post, I will discuss each one in relation to my own magic system.

I have been working a long time on the details of my world’s magic system—over 3 years now I believe (understand that building a full and detailed world requires time and patience!)—and it is certainly a hard magic system. My story revolves around “relics” and the elements those relics can summon (both determined by the characters’ deaths). In a fight however, I am not relying on an individual’s power to control their relic and its respective element, rather the strict rules allow me to focus on the group dynamic and strategy (since fights take place in groups of 5). Understandinghow magic works in my world is vital for a reader to be entertained by the importance of group over individual. Exhaustion is a limitation, but is certainly not the only one. Amount of training influences power, relic affinity—how much a relic likes its wielder and cooperates with them—and there is also a constant hindrance to their training that lessens their fighting capabilities. In hard magic systems, these types of limitations work well in making fights entertaining, and also make character development more interesting. It allows a reader to see characters grow. A huge cost to misusing, underusing, or overusing a relic is a damaged relic affinity. A relic might become more apprehensive to fighting, making one useless in battle. However, there are situations where the only way to win a fight is to overuse a relic and its powers, and that’s a risk the characters have to be willing to take.

In my next post I will be discussing soft magic systems.

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