D&D Magic as Hard Magic

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I was watching skipping around YouTube through various constructed language videos when I found a video about hard magic systems. For those that may not know (like I didn't until I saw the video), classification of magic systems as hard and soft comes from Brandon Sanderson. Hard magic systems tend to have well-defined rules and logical consequences. The video uses alchemy from Full Metal Alchemist to make this point.

The main points of the video state that a hard magic system has four properties in varying degrees:

  1. Predictability
  2. Limitations
  3. Weaknesses
  4. Cost

In some ways, these properties can make a magic system look more like a science in that if I follow the rules, I will get the magic effect I want every time. However, if a magician follows the rules without understanding limitations or cost, the door opens for an unpredictable effect.

I bring this up because I think it is an interesting way to describe the various magic system in the Samoora Sea setting. Magic is not universal as it is in D&D. Every region has a form of magic, each with its own rules. Part of the idea behind the setting is that characters, through exploration and promotion of inter-region trade, blaze their own path to practicing magic, taking pieces that they learn along the way. A magic-using character will begin in one tradition but learn one or more different tidbits along the way.

In this series, I will talk about the four properties of the following magic systems in Samoora with the primary region in parentheses:

  • Rune Magic (Porta Nile)
  • Blood Thieves (Vinakrah)
  • The Dragon Path (Nagelor)
  • Gate Magic (Helica)
  • Five Salts (Gaerleon)
  • Cult of Hot Iron (Camalanth)
  • Powers of the Emissary (entire region)
  • Divine Magic of the Hedenciad (mainland areas)
  • Paths of the Wolf Clan (everywhere)

The last three are easier to describe as they are more akin to traditional divine magic in D&D. The others vary widely in their connections to traditional D&D style magic.

Before starting with Rune Magic, Let me define magic as written in Swords & Wizardry (rules as written) using the four properties of a hard magic system. The Samoora Sea setting will be written for S&W making the standard system a good place to start.

Limitations of Arcane Magic

As written in Swords & Wizardry, arcane spells are memorized formulae, gestures, and incantations meticulously recorded in books of magic. This means the first limitation is that spells must be written. All spells come from some wizard writing it down. The second is that spells must be memorized.  It's not that new spells can't be crafted, but that crafting one requires research, experimentation, and a meticulously written recipe.

Furthermore, it is written that a Magic-User can only hold a certain quantity of magical power in mental, memorized reserve to be released later in the form of a spell. In the game, the finite number of spells that can be memorized are measured in spell slots.

Beyond spells are other ways of using magic, such as creating a golem. Like a spell, though, creating a specific type of golem is still a documented process. Although creating a golem requires no memorization, it still requires some rare book or be the product of a magic-user's research.

For the sake of space, I won't go too much into creating various magic items like potions, magic swords, and rings except to say that those items traditionally require research, though rules-as-written say that the creation of such items is up to the referee. One thing that is stated, however, is that there are marvelous magic devices that have no written instructions. Those marvelous devices though are described as lost arts that a magic-user may never be able to reproduce.

Scrolls also have a small set of limitation described like this: with the exception of Protection scrolls, which can be used by any character class, scrolls can only be used by a character class that can cast the appropriate type of spell. Rangers and Thieves are exceptions to this rule at higher levels.

In short, arcane spells are meticulously written recipes. They must be memorized to be used and a wizard is limited in the number of spells he/she/they can memorize. The use of magic beyond spell use is still limited to a written recipe. Magic swords, golems, potions, etc, require a set of instructions to be created. Scrolls have further limitations in their use; a scroll can only be used by spellcasters that could normally use the spell without the scroll. There are more limitations that could be listed, like armor usage and lack of healing magic, but these cover the major limitations of arcane magic in S&W.

Limitations of Divine Magic

Although Divine Magic is described differently, it basically works the same way. It is not as limited to a written recipe as a Cleric may be provided spells by visions and revelations from their primary force. The two smaller differences are that Cleric can wear armor while casting spells and the focus of divine spells are more centered around healing wounds, diseases, or mental conditions.

Predictability

This one is short. Basically, any spell, arcane or divine, always works within the limitations listed above. A magic-user memorizes a spell, it will work as described when cast. A cleric meditates for spells, it will work when cast. There is no doubt that the formulae (arcane magic) or gift of a god (divine magic) will work.

The only unpredictability for a spell comes when a creature is immune or resistant to magic. The spell worked, but the only reason it did not work as expected is that the target shrugged it off. Characters resist through the use of a saving throw, creatures may have an immunity to certain types of magic or a limited chance of immunity to all magic.

Weaknesses

It's difficult to find any real weaknesses in magic. If a character has access to it, it works. Using magic doesn't necessarily put the spellcaster at some kind of disadvantage. It's true that there is a limit to the number and power of spells used daily, but there is no problem with hitting that limit. It doesn't cost sanity, health, or even physical scars. Magic is like a battery: once it is out of power, it needs to be recharged. It stinks not to have magic around, but it's simply a matter of time until it can be used again.

Costs

Speaking of time, the biggest cost for using magic in S&W is time. There is a daily cost to 'reload' the spells for use. For a new magic recipe, there is a cost in time to research it, though the specifics are left up to the referee. It takes time to gain access to more powerful spells. Humans have more potentials to use magic, but the lifespan of a human is limited. Interestingly enough, this cost has worked into the lore of D&D through the idea of liches. A lich finds a way to prolong their life to be able to continue to research magic. Still, the price for transforming into a lich is quite high, it exchanges the cost in time with the cost of isolation.

Next Steps

I'm over 1200 words, so I'll wrap up. I hope to give a similar treatment to all magic systems in my Samoora setting starting with Rune Magic.

Reorganization in Progress

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I was running out of space on Google Drive, so I am in the process of moving any files linked to my Google Drive to Dropbox. I have a professional account there with more space than I will ever need.

The link checker is working through all the broken links now, so I hope to have them all fixed by the evening of December 3rd.

Meanwhile, I took some time this week to work on Pro Action Football again. Someone reached out to me about how I was redesigning Statis-Pro Football cards, so I am more than happen to go through my process. I will say, though, that because it relies on play-by-play data, I still need to work out a process for older teams. I have play-by-play data going back to 2003.

On the RPG front, a former co-worker of mine from Nevermet Press asked about forming a creative collective on MeWe. The scope would be different than NMP: I think we'd work on free stuff for now. There have been many volunteers, so I hope we can start making crazy things soon.

Next post should be the follow-up to introducing my setting, the Samoora Sea.