It finally seems to have died down a bit, but for a while there, absolutely everyone was obsessed with Brandon Sanderson style magic systems. I don’t just mean that they liked Brandon Sanderson’s work, but also that naturally there were tons of amateur imitators who were all really, really bad. And magic systems got framed in Sanderson-grade hard magic or Tolkien-style where it was basically just a mood, and no one seemed to be able to conceive of anything in between.
As usual, I’m like three years late to this party, but the different levels of hardness you can have in a magic system has been on my mind lately. People have accepted for a long time now that you can have harder or softer magic systems, but the idea that it’s a spectrum rather than a binary switch between Tolkien and Sanderson still doesn’t seem to have especially taken hold.
For the sake of thoroughness, let’s go ahead and define Sanderson hard magic as a system where magic users have specific powers that interact with the laws of physics in some kind of well-defined way, like being able to alter the direction their gravity is pulled or being able to repulse and/or attract themselves from a certain kind of metal or whatever.
Going one step further down, though, we have Avatar bending, a magic system where there are one or a small handful of magic disciplines each with a flexible but strongly themed powerset. A waterbender can learn to bend ice or plants or blood, but there’s only four kinds of bending and they’re each pretty narrowly focused. It was the lack of any attention paid to this kind of magic system that got me thinking about the spectrum in general. So far as ease of creation versus satisfaction in execution goes, this is the sweet spot for me. It’s not especially hard to come up with a small list of strong themes for your magic system, and then you can extrapolate creative uses from there.
Further down from there is D&D spells, in which magic is an arbitrary list of spells that you can learn how to cast. There is no greater framework the spells have to fit into, and it’s perfectly typical for a wizard to have a totally unrelated Frankenstein of a spellbook. Knowing what one spell does gives you absolutely no information on what any other spell could do, nor on what other spells the wizard who cast it might know or be capable of.
Harry Potter uses this system, too. This system tends towards the dull. Harry Potter made it work by having an incessant stream of new spells and magic items that were all really cool and then asking the audience to quietly ignore the fact that there were a handful of boring-but-practical spells like stupefy and the granddaddy of all boring put practical Harry Potter spells, avada kadavra, which rendered other combat spells obsolete. The audience was generally willing to do this, because watching Dumbledore and Voldemort have a sweet wizard fight with animated statues and stuff was cooler than just watching them shoot the dodge-or-lose spells at each other like they were two dudes with particularly slow handguns. It’s much harder for your characters to use this system creatively, because it has a finite list of specific spells (even if the spell list is theoretically infinite, in practice it is limited to whatever amount of spells you can actually introduce in your setup, otherwise it’s deus ex machina), all of which do exactly one thing. They unlock a door, or let you fly, or blow up a 20′ radius within 120′ of your location. Instead, the creativity has to come purely from the spells that are in the world. This worked out great for Harry Potter, but the star of that series wasn’t the eponymous wizard, but rather the world of magic he inhabited.
Nearing the soft end, we have X-Men powers. Whereas D&D spells represent a library of powers that everyone has more-or-less equal access to, meaning that every spell added to your heroes’ book is potentially available to your villains and vice-versa, X-Men doesn’t even have that limitation. Not only are the powers arbitrary and unbounded by any kind of greater framework, they’re also unique or nearly-unique to their specific users. Not only does Wolverine’s healing factor tell us nothing about what other powers he might have, it also gives us no reason to believe that Mystique or Cyclops might also have a healing factor.
Then at the soft end we have Tolkienian magic, where everything is vague and magic could do almost anything but in practice will do almost nothing. Although Tolkien does have a handful of D&D-style magic items that have specific, arbitrary uses not tied to any greater theme, for the most part magic is a mood, a force of nature. In Tolkienian magic, magic is so poorly understood that knowing about Gandalf’s ability to blow smoke into the shape of a boat not only tells us nothing about what other abilities he might have from that moment, but even by the end of the book we don’t have any reason to believe we’ve seen him exhaust his magical powers. Wolverine’s healing factor, adamantium skeleton, and snikt claws are all totally unrelated powers, but by the end of an X-Men story we know that he has those powers specifically and no more. By the end of Lord of the Rings we still have no idea whether or not Gandalf could’ve hurled a fireball if he really wanted to (he definitely has broadly fire-themed powers in general!), nor whether or not he had steady access to the powers he did demonstrate or if magic had to be in the right mood, or what.