Hey all,

This last weekend, I had the chance to watch a pair of videos that made some really interesting points regarding magic in fiction. They were Hello Future Me’s videos On Writing: Hard Magic Systems in Fantasy and On Writing: Soft Magic Systems in Fantasy

The general premise of the videos was to break down what makes a rigid and well-defined magic system work, versus what makes a more flowy and ethereal magic system work. A key principle repeated throughout the two videos was Sanderson’s First Law of Magic. “An author’s ability to solve problems with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.” Stated another way, the less well-defined your magic is, the less it can be used to solve problems in the narrative. As a side note to this, magic of any level of mysteriousness can be used to CREATE problems in the narrative with little or no issue.

What made me want to write a blog post on the subject was Hello Future Me’s complaint near the end of the videos that few fictional worlds create a series of magical systems within a single world, all of varying levels of “hardness” and “softness”. Thinking about that, it’s true that there are few, but one glaring example stands out as something that attempts to work a multitude of magical systems into a single universe. It is Dungeons and Dragons (as well as derivative products of D&D).

The wizard is not a sorceror, who is not a warlock, who is not a bard, who is not a druid, who is not a cleric, etc. etc. as deep as the splatbooks go. I see this as admirable. D&D makes a strong effort to incorporate various magical systems that are all meant to simulate vastly different approaches to magic.

All of that said, I believe D&D fails in this effort. This failing, in my opinion, boils down to the core of D&D’s magical system, Vancian Spellcasting. Named for author Jack Vance, Vancian spellcasting uses three basic principles.

1) Every spell is a single, distinct unit of magic with a singular effect.

2) Spells must be prepared before each use.

3) Magicians have a set list of spells which may be prepared.

This is a highly specific set of rules. I.e. all magic in D&D is hard magic. To some extent, this is difficult to break away from. To reference back to Sandersons First Law of Magic: if the magic is not specifically understood, its problem-solving ability must be handicapped to maintain drama and tension in the story. Dungeons and Dragons needs magic that can solve problems for the players, and so, it will always need the magic to fall somewhat on the hard magic side.

However, I have a thought; and that thought is Lasers and Feelings. Lasers and Feelings has a mechanic that is truly wonderful in its simplicity. You have a single stat. If you’re rolling one type of check, you must roll under your score, and if you’re rolling the other type, you must roll over your score. This creates a mathematically simple solution to making a character better at some things, at the sacrifice of other things.

So, we would need a system in which rolling over your score is needed for specific, scholastic spell-use. This would also include literacy, magical knowledge, and analysis of the magical use of others. Specific spells would all be custom made by the players using a point-buy system similar to what Shadowrun uses for custom spells. These would be the more powerful, less versatile spells.

On the other side, a player would need to roll under their score to cast vague, improvised, or other spells like that. These would be less powerful, but more versatile. A prepared college wizard should be a trained combatant, while a wilder should feel more like a magical brawler, employing the magical equivalent of haymakers and dirty tricks.

As players advance, they would be able to move further toward the extremes of the track, allowing them to succeed more often, and with a greater margin of success in their preferred methods, while allowing their neglected skills to atrophy.

So, what do you think of this solution? Do you think that it capture a sense that magic feels like magic for you? How have you house-ruled magic systems in your own games? Let’s chat that out in the comments.

Until the next one, happy gaming, all.