We've got another magic-themed newsletter for you!
In fantasy tabletop RPGs, a magic system defines how your players can interact with the world in extraordinary ways. It sets expectations for what’s possible in your setting and lays the foundation for player agency in your game. If you're homebrewing from scratch, you'll find that conjuring an original magic system is no easy task. Thankfully, most out-of-the-box systems like 5e solve this problem for you. That said, understanding how magic systems work will give you the power to make effective customizations when the opportunity arises.
Maybe you’ve been running a game for a while and want to mix things up, or you have a cool idea that’s not supported by the text. Maybe you want to homebrew your own original setting, or perhaps you’re in a tense scene and don’t want to interrupt it to flip through a rulebook. Whatever your reason, once you start dabbling in homebrewing, you'll have to contend with the challenges of magic system design. There are no hard rules, and it can be difficult to make a coherent system that also fits the expectations of your players. Thankfully, prolific fantasy author Brandon Sanderson has some advice for those who feel up to the task.
Hard and Soft
Brandon Sanderson offers a useful concept for categorizing magic systems, which he calls “Soft” and “Hard” magic. When defining magic in your world, you can choose to keep the nature of your magic vague and mysterious (soft magic), or you can explicitly define the rules and limitations of magic and how they’re applied to solve problems (hard magic).
Both philosophies have pros and cons in the context of TTRPGs. Hard magic systems provide a consistent framework of player agency in the world—They know what amazing things they can do, and when they can do them. On the other hand, hard systems might lose the sense of mysticism and mystery that soft magic can enjoy. With soft magic, there's an ever-present sense of the unknown, which can ensnare you and your players' imaginations. Soft magic applied too liberally and inconsistently, however, can frustrate your players by being too unpredictable or railroad-y.
It’s important to know what your players want from your game. Set expectations ahead of time regarding how your system, setting, or homebrew modifications work so that no one is caught too off-guard. Players that want a by-the-book game might balk at hand-wavy, rule-breaking soft magic. Players that want an immersive theatrical experience might grow impatient if the action is constantly interrupted by pedantic rules-lawyering. There's no wrong way to play—Just make sure you all know what you're playing.
Now, let’s explore these systems further - starting with soft magic.
In a soft magic setting, we generally don’t know the specific cost or consequence of using magic. In this system, it is hard to compare the relative power of two magic users in concrete terms. In literature, this is evident in Lord of the Rings, where otherworldly powers are abundant and rarely explained. We don’t know how Gandalf casts his spells, or by what means the elves forged the Rings. (Maybe this is in the Silmarillion but let's be real...Most of us haven't read that.) This ambiguity best serves a designer who wants to give their world a tone of mysticism, wonder, and uncertainty.
Soft magic’s best advantage is its ability to help create a sense of persistent tension and mystery, and to resolve problems in surprising ways. On the tabletop, soft magic is best employed in systems that place an emphasis on risk, mystery, or horror, and where the rules of magic are not clearly defined. Call of Cthulhu revolves around entities and powers beyond understanding, so it’s served well by a vague and mysterious magic system. In a horror game, immersion is paramount - when you’re being relentlessly chased by deranged cultists, the last thing you want is to be pulled from the moment to consult a rulebook or chart. Games like these, which are more about emotion and spectacle than intricate problem solving, will be best served by a soft magic system.
On the other hand, hard magic is well-understood, consistent, and clearly defined. Both the players and the characters have a clear understanding of how magic works and what the consequences and cost of using magic will be. From literature, take Allomancy in Sanderson’s Mistborn series as an example. The costs and benefits are clearly understood - powers are granted based on the type and quantity of mineral that is metabolized by an Allomancer. This process is consistent and well-defined. On the tabletop, D&D is probably the most prominent example, with hundreds of pages across multiple rulebooks defining various spells and the rules of magic in painstaking detail. Spells cost a certain amount of points, last for a specific amount of time, require specific items or rituals, and can only apply to certain targets.
Knowing the advantages and disadvantages of both, you can now use hard and soft magic in your GM toolkit.
How to Apply These Concepts in Your Game
The concept of Hard vs Soft magic can be applied in your games and inform your philosophy as a GM. Hannah Yang writes in her article for ProWritingAid that Hard and Soft magic, in the context of stories, are defined as follows:
- Solves problems for the protagonists
- Has known rules
- Is used by the main characters
- Causes problems for the protagonists
- Has unknown or ambiguous rules
- Is used by antagonists
We can apply this to TTRPGs, too. “Hard Magic” can be the powers available to your player characters. Players benefit from a set of rules that clearly define the effect, source, and cost of their powers so there’s no confusion or disagreement around what they can or can’t do. Enemies, on the other hand, could get a lot more leeway. So long as it’s in service of the fun of the players, and it doesn’t break the established laws of your world, it’s good to give enemies abilities beyond those of your players. This is where we apply the concept of “Soft Magic” - to create reasonable, surmountable obstacles that obey the laws of your world and provide unique, interesting challenges for your players.
As an example, imagine you’re running a 5e session, and a player encounters a powerful Mind Flayer arcanist. The player feels the monster’s alien consciousness probing through their mind, sifting through their thoughts and memories, all without casting a spell. Combat later breaks out, and the Mind Flayer uses a locked-away secret it learned from the character's backstory in the midst of the action. This provides a feeling of horror and mystery, and provides a unique narrative opportunity for your player, while not bending the rules of the system too much. Bonus points if you weave these mysterious powers into the narrative even more—maybe the party could go on a side-quest to find a telepathy-blocking potion so that they emerge victorious in their second encounter with the Mind Flayer.
If you haven't set expectations with your players, someone might complain that "the Detect Thoughts spell doesn't work like that"! As mentioned before, over-use of soft magic can make it feel like you're taking away player agency. Always use with care in service of the narrative!
Rather than an all-or-nothing binary, consider using aspects of both hard and soft magic in your game. Hard magic should serve as your players’ reference for what they can and can’t accomplish, and Soft magic can be some rule-bending that keeps encounters exciting and unpredictable. Maybe you can even design some ways that the players could use soft magic themselves.
Do you have any examples of applying these principles in your sessions or homebrew rules? We'd love to hear about it via email or Discord.
Until next time!