Worst magic system?

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Mattpwriter

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What, in your opinion, is the worst magic system in any piece of fiction you know of and why?

For me, it's Harry Potter's magic system due to the fact that it has no consistent rules.
 

amergina

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Hmm.

*puts mod hat on*

I would greatly prefer this thread be about what makes a good magic system and where some systems fall down, and how much you actually need to show of your magic system.

Please remember to respect your fellow authors when you criticize their works! :)

*takes mod hat off*
 
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TulipMama

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I am in the position of agreeing with Amerigina, saying you're looking for the 'worst' of something has inherently negative connotations and also as asking what the 'best' of anything is.

To take your example of the Harry Potter magic system: You say it's 'bad' because it doesn't have any clear rules or sense of consistency. I agree that it's most definitely a 'soft' magic system where rules are... ticklish at best, but that doesn't make it necessarily bad. The Lord of the Rings has a soft magic system where the rules are never really written in stone, but to defame LOTR is to invoke the your own doom.

What is 'good' or 'bad' depends on what you're looking for in a magic system.

If you want a story that has a hard magic system, then you'll look for rules, strong ones, that are followed rigourously. Mistborn by Brian Sanderson (so I'm told, I haven't read the series in totality yet) has a very hard magic system. The times the system surprise us is because some new caveat to the rules is discovered, not because the rules are ignored or broken. I personally adore that kind of thing. Same with Libriomancer and, to a lesser extent, Dresden files (which I think is a softer 'hard' system). There's also bad hard magic systems when the author spends too much time gushing over the hows and whys of their beautiful rule based creation to the detriment of the story <- something I'm battling with in my own work -.-

Soft magic systems though can be used VERY well without delving into the nuts and bolts of the system. In the case of HP, they use magic to solve almost all of their problems, but because EVERYBODY can fling spells around, it doesn't automatically fix everything. You don't need to know the exact limit of the system because the narrative is the more important part, and the magic is just a device the characters use, not a focus of the story.

I'd invite you to watch a youtuber I enjoy who covers this topic very well: "Hello future me" has a lot of very interesting content, but if you look up his video on soft and hard magic systems you're in for a treat.

My favourite magic system is Bending from Avatar: The last Airbender

Probably my least favourite is... hmm, I can't remember the title, the author spoiled the book with a really self-centered MC and I couldn't get over it. Oh well.

Sincerely;


Tulip Mama
 

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I don't know that I've read many "bad" magic systems — mostly just well-worn and unoriginal ones (which I'm "guilty" of using myself because sometimes a thing works well enough to be repurposed many times over). I do agree it can be frustrating as a reader when the established rules of magic contradict themselves in ways that undermine the verisimilitude of a world or the themes of the work.

I remember the Thomas Covenant Chronicles (which I feel like are fair game to be picked on at this point, 50 years later) having a massive unexplained change in the nature of magic around the second or third book which dramatically undermined core story moments and character choices of the first book...though it's been well over a decade since I read that trilogy, and I can't quite recall the specifics.

Brandon Sanderson has a wonderful lecture on magic systems and consistency, whether the system is "soft" on rules or "hard," what the benefits of well-explained scientific magic vs. vague mystical magic are from a plot perspective, the importance of consequences etc.
I think it's this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W1afbpM80b0

He talks about how one of his own regrets was the sudden unexplained breaking of an established rule of magic during the climax of Mistborn: The Final Empire because he didn't foreshadow it or provide (to his mind) adequate explanation until later books. The funny thing is, I don't remember that particular rule-breaking bothering me much at the time when I read Mistborn.
 
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Roxxsmom

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I think inconsistency is a frequent problem in magic systems, especially since fantasy writers tend to go for long series, and the needs of the story may "outgrow" the original magical rules.

It bugged me in the HP books that one of the cardinal rules was you couldn't (truly) bring someone back to life once they were dead, yet you could turn a teapot into a perfectly good turtle or a pincushion into a hedgehog that felt pain (there was also that thing where no one seemed to care in the magical world about torturing and killing animals as spell practice, even though the contemporary muggle world--where no one can actually talk to or turn into an animal--had/has pretty strict rules in place about when and how one can use animals for educational and research purposes, and even rules for treatment of food animals are getting stricter), or a teacup into a hamster that was real enough to be a child's pet after. Surely if you can take inanimate matter and organize it's molecular structure into a living, metabolizing, feeling creature that behaves normally for one of its kind (so it presumably has a all the thoughts and feelings and memories it should possess as an adult member of its species) and presumably has a soul and all that given that souls are presumed real in that universe, reanimating a corpse would be a simple matter. Also, how is it no one ever thought to turn something inanimate into a human? Humans are animals, after all, and they are not fundamentally more complex on a cellular level than any other creature (and even if human memory and intellect are harder to create from scratch, some evil mage with a god complex wouldn't mind producing a human, even if that person turned out to have the mind of a baby).

I wouldn't call the magical system "terrible," though. Some of it was quite clever and whimsical, and the HP books were written for kids. She did have limitations and risks built in as well. Still, some things did go unexplained, such as how Harry could use his wand to read his spellbooks under the covers at night when at the Durselys', yet the underage magic folks were able to detect a levitating pudding. I'm sure there are HP fan forums somewhere where people discuss these things at great length and posit potential explanations.

I agree that Brandon Sanderson's explanation of magic systems and the "hardness" or softness" of their rules is a good one.

In general, the more the plot relies on the application and use of magic by the main character(s), the more important it is for the rules to have a certain amount of transparency. In books like LoTR, where the protagonists were non magical, and magic was either an obstacle to overcome (when wielded by antagonists), or an occasional thing used by very powerful characters but not understood by the protagonists, more opacity of the rules works just fine.

I'll admit to a bias towards magic systems where the magic itself is more limited, and its power and utility stem from very specific ways in which it can be wielded. Stories set in worlds where magic percolates every single aspect of life can be fun, but I find it hard to take all the "ripple effects" into account and imagine what such a culture would really be like, so if the story needs the world to be somewhat like ours in terms of how most people live their lives, then having spells for every trivial purpose doesn't work all that well.
 
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Brightdreamer

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+1 on avoiding "good" or "bad" broad-brush labels. Also +1 on inconsistency being a killer, even in a soft magic system. For instance, if you establish that magic doesn't work at night, you show that magic doesn't work at night (and it's not just something young mages are told by older wizards with agendas), and then at the end your MC solves the climax by working magic at midnight because plot convenience, that's death to suspension of disbelief. (Note that there's a difference between "magic is very elusive and unpredictable" and "here's this hard-and-fast Rule I'm establishing, now totally forget that because there's this cool thing I want to do"...)
 
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ChaseJxyz

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I've noticed that a lot of people cite Brandon Sanderson's video lectures, and I also notice that they sometimes feel that that a system can ONLY be hard OR soft, and you need a million concrete, specific rules for your hard magic system (like actually calculating how much "mana" a spell costs and how much mana your characters regen over time. Unless you're making a video game, you do not need to do this). It's similar to how people see advice like "don't use adverbs" and take it 100%. I also have seen a lot of people do anything possible to create a 100% unique, original magic system that's like nothing else that ever existed. You don't need to do that. Things based on the four elements have been done for ages, what Avatar did to make it compelling was mixing the different styles of martial arts and how the elements affected the cultures of the different nations (and their world views, morals etc). I just get kinda salty when I see people hamstringing their creativity because they feel like they NEED to follow rules that Someone Online made up, because if they don't they will never become the next Game of Thrones.

Magic is a way to solve problems (or create them). Your magic system is going to look not that good if every problem is immediately solved with magic that comes at no cost to the user. Could Gandalf have gotten the eagles to take the hobbits to Mordor? I mean, maybe, but then that kind of defeats the whole purpose of the story. We can't appreciate how dangerous the bad guys are or have time for characters to develop relationships. It's more interesting to see people solve problems creatively. Once during a dnd session we went into a room and there was a lot of really high-level monsters in there. So I had us just nope right out there and use [shape stone] to close the door. We did the overnight rest right there in the hall to regain spell slots/whatever and by the morning the monsters had all suffocated. The DM was a little annoyed that we skipped the fight but I got bonus XP for creativity.

You can also replace "magic" with any sort of skill that the average person doesn't know/understand. Computers, for example. I hacked into the NSA while sitting at a Starbucks and I got the nuclear launch codes. Recreational/illict drugs are another (looking at you, SVU, that's not how DMT works). Jurassic Park's tech is essentially magic since DNA doesn't work that way, but it has its own internally consistent rules and it aligns with people's expectations of how DNA/cloning (and dinosaurs) work; anything that doesn't is explained (they're not feathery because frog DNA), the cartoon in the movie did a great job communicating what the viewer needs to know. You can also just fully embrace things being ridiculous. 1995's Hackers is very "that's not how computers work" but it's so earnest​ in its ridiculousness that it's fun to watch. A story with ridiculous magic can work if it fits the tone.
 

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Agreed. Magic systems (for me) live or die on how well they tie into the narrative. How well they support the themes, the tone, and just the type of story the author wants to tell. Consistency is important imho, and I've definitely side-eyed stories that didn't use the tools they'd established well enough for my personal tastes (characters forgetting they have a power or tool for plot convenience is one of my biggest pet peeves across genres) but really, if it serves the story I think any rule can be broken.

Dresden Files is a fun example because I actually think it's more like a pile of different magic systems for the author to play with (or discard) as he wants. Like a wizard operates with totally different rules and limits than a Knight of the Cross. Vampires have three different sub classes with totally different rules. One trick I love is that while the heroes tensd to have fairly defined power sets, the villains don't. Harry has his arsenal of fireball/force push/shield/really big stick, but the people he's fighting are often centuries older, inhuman abominations, or both. They're "unknowableness" is part of what makes them threatening even as the heroes get more powerful. I think it works great for building suspense and addressing the "well why can't you just magic away the problem?" question. Sorry, fireball doesn't work on *this* vampire because something something ancient magic, better get clever!
 

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I like the magic system in Lawrence Watt-Evans's Ethshar novels because each different kind of magic has built-in requirements and limitations.

Wizards are extremely powerful, but they need spell components, some of which are difficult or expensive to obtain. Warlocks are likewise very powerful, capable of telekinesis, flight, and so on. They don't need spell components because they draw their power from a mysterious source in the far north, and the more they use it, the stronger they get. But once they cross a certain threshold in terms of power, the source summons them to itself, and they're never seen again. And so on. I always enjoy reading a Watt-Evans novel because I know the rules are in place and the characters will have to work within them.
 

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Hmm.

*puts mod hat on*

I would greatly prefer this thread be about what makes a good magic system and where some systems fall down, and how much you actually need to show of your magic system.

Please remember to respect your fellow authors when you criticize their works! :)

*takes mod hat off*

1: So, moderators are just allowed to completely change the whole point of a thread? That makes it seem like the moderators are the only posters with any actual agency.

2: I created this thread to get people thinking about how easy it is to make a magic system seem pointless and confusing, so that writers creating magic systems who see this realize why they really need to think about how their systems work. Trust me, when a magic system breaks its rules or has no rules, people are not going to enjoy it. Look at what happened with midichlorians in Star Wars if you want a good example.
 

amergina

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1: So, moderators are just allowed to completely change the whole point of a thread? That makes it seem like the moderators are the only posters with any actual agency.

Oh my goodness!

First, no one poster "owns" a post or thread. Except perhaps, MacAllister, since she owns the whole forum.

Moderators are here to respond to issues that they see and also to respond to reported posts. Your post was reported to me. I could have simply locked it, and honestly, my first thought was to do that. I've seen, in more than a decade on these forums, how posts like your original post go awry very quickly. It's my job to make sure threads don't go off into the weeds of not respecting your fellow authors (or to lock them when they do).

I don't step in very often. If you feel I've been too heavy-handed, please PM AW Admin and MacAllister and let them know.

I suggested a redirection to discuss the craft behind magic systems, and I think the discussion that occurred was really quite interesting and useful. I'm not sure your original premise holds up, anyway. While I have no love of JKR as a person (hi, I'm trans), millions upon millions of readers were captivated by her books, including the magic system, which kind of negates what you're saying in your second point. If the magic system in HP was the absolutely WORST of all time, and readers didn't enjoy it, uh... I want to fail at creating a magic system like JKR did.

2: I created this thread to get people thinking about how easy it is to make a magic system seem pointless and confusing, so that writers creating magic systems who see this realize why they really need to think about how their systems work. Trust me, when a magic system breaks its rules or has no rules, people are not going to enjoy it. Look at what happened with midichlorians in Star Wars if you want a good example.

Except your post didn't do that, at all. :Shrug: Where are your examples? How was the magic system in HP pointless and confusing? How did that break a reader's suspension of disbelief?

I'd even argue that your Star Wars example is kind of the antithesis of your thesis...

The original concept of the Force was very amorphous and mystical and not concrete at all. Confusing, even. I mean, the Force is created by life, it moves through livings things and binds the galaxy together? How does that actually work? Eh, who cares! The original trilogy worked fine with that being the magic system! People loved it!

When the concept of midichlorians was introduced, it tried to define how the Force worked, imposing a system that wasn't there before in a clunky retrofit, thus making something mystical into something scientific. That was what cheesed Star Wars fans off.
 

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Well said! I also have no love for any TERFs, but I did grow up loving HP and it's shall we say...informal magic. Same with Star Wars! Heck I was thinking about Jojo's Bizarre Adventure (anime nerd hat on!) and that series has a magic system that makes HP look like hard science. It's a mess of inconsistency, New Powers as the Plot Demands, and general malarkey, buy it's been running for decades and the artist was in the Louvre! If that's failure, sign me up!!

I apologise if this is too off topic (happy to remove if so) but I actually do find it interesting to interrogate *why* we think about designing magic systems so deeply when it seems a majority of readers don't seem to care either way. There's certainly a subset that cares a lot, but even many dedicated fantasy readers I know don't obsess over magical constancy. I wonder if it's a control thing for us writers? If designing the magic is quantifiable, then we can make it *objectively* good. So much of novel writing is subjective and fuzzy. You can't design a system for character likeability or compelling stakes (the things readers really seem to care about), but magic? You can have rules and charts for days. Maybe I'm totally off in left field, and I certainly love discussing magic systems and why they do/don't work. I just think there should be a bit of perspective.
 

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JoJo's Bizarre Adventure even did the midichlorians thing, saying that very small living* things inside of you give you your magic powers, and that never seems to come up in discussions or said that it was a bad thing. The "magic system" in JJBA is so compelling because people use their powers in creative ways, because the mangaka knows that you just can't solve problems by being physically stronger than the other people (in his How To Draw Manga book, which is more about storytelling than visual art itself, he discusses a lot of the common problems shonen manga runs into, which is mostly "I must be even more powerful than the last bad guy" and punching harder than the other guy isn't all that interesting).

And you make a good point. But we also probably all have a list somewhere of how tall our characters are or their birth dates or things like that, which will never come up in the novel. Why? Maybe it gives us a more complete picture of what the world is like, it gives us a framework of what a character might do when we throw them into a situation. I like "organic pantsing" like that; it's also the root of a lot of fanfiction, which is a good place to practice that way of thinking/writing. Like what if we actually found out who that guy was who helped get Tomoko's car unstuck from the snow? Or how would have Killer Queen's time rewinding shennigans have to go in order for Josuke to get sent back in time to save himself? It seems like a thing that the "magic system" can have happen, and it's something we can picture the characters doing since they're so three-dimensional. The fact that Jotaro's favorite movie is Never Cry Wolf never comes up in the story but it totally fits what we know about him from the text; Araki put in all that thought to make a complex character and it shows!


*I know a virus technically isn't alive, but I like to think of midichlorians as an organelle that's in all living cells, so they're technically not alive either, so shhhhh
 

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What, in your opinion, is the worst magic system in any piece of fiction you know of and why?

For me, it's Harry Potter's magic system due to the fact that it has no consistent rules.

Wow, I'm glad you opened with that, because it was my first thought. It's got that very unsophisticated sense of "magic is stuff that happens when you wave a wand and say these words, because whatever"; it's hardly the only story that is guilty of that, of course, but the flaws are made all the more apparent by the fact that they spend so much of the story studying magical theory, and the theory remains "wave a wand and say these words".
 

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I've noticed that a lot of people cite Brandon Sanderson's video lectures, and I also notice that they sometimes feel that that a system can ONLY be hard OR soft, and you need a million concrete, specific rules for your hard magic system (like actually calculating how much "mana" a spell costs and how much mana your characters regen over time. Unless you're making a video game, you do not need to do this). It's similar to how people see advice like "don't use adverbs" and take it 100%. I also have seen a lot of people do anything possible to create a 100% unique, original magic system that's like nothing else that ever existed. You don't need to do that. Things based on the four elements have been done for ages, what Avatar did to make it compelling was mixing the different styles of martial arts and how the elements affected the cultures of the different nations (and their world views, morals etc). I just get kinda salty when I see people hamstringing their creativity because they feel like they NEED to follow rules that Someone Online made up, because if they don't they will never become the next Game of Thrones.

I don't know where people get these from since both are concepts Sanderson pushes against pretty strongly in the lecture. He talks quite a bit about the strengths of hard and soft systems respectively, and spends a whole long sequence on why mixing the two in the same work can be so effective.

He points to LOTR specifically as a good example of using both a well-defined magic and unknowable magic together to achieve specific narrative ends. You have the One Ring with its very concrete and specific powers of conferring invisibility and gradual longevity at the cost of obsession and spiritual corruption — though we learn that in Sauron's hands the Ring has all sorts of unknown and immensely catastrophic potential to influence and dominate the world (even if we never really see how). The Ring provides both a predictable and convenient magical tool for Frodo to escape dangerous situations at a specific personal cost — the reader can always anticipate this, which provides a ready source of narrative tension and regular payoff — while also standing in as the critical plot object and a whole bunch of metaphors for big real world ideas.

And then you have Gandalf's wizardly magic + the Valar's divine intervention, which are extremely soft and mysterious and undefined enough to do whatever the plot needs them to do at any given point. There are no rules and no hard boundaries except what we infer by the end. Besides the plot convenience, this allows Gandalf to serve as the ultimate reminder of how small and powerless the hobbits are compared to the great powers of Middle Earth; they're literally sitting around the fire blowing smoke rings with one of them. It provides mystery and scale and emphasizes a core theme of the story all at once.

So yeah, I also have no idea how folks listen to Sanderson talk and come away with the idea anyone has to do things the way he does it. He'll be the first person to emphasize at every point there are no real rules here, just authorial tools to use at our convenience. He repeats this so much in lectures that "of course, there are no rules here" and "your mileage may vary" are practically running memes in his youtube comments.

I'm guessing the folks who take the hardline "magic's gotta be science" attitude out of Sanderson have never actually listened to his lectures at all. They probably just read Mistborn, loved it, and decided every book ought to be that way because people often have a tendency to conflate confirmation of their personal tastes with universal laws.
 
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I think many people tend to filter any advice given though their preexisting biases, and there seems to be a huge tendency for folks to "min/max" these days. An author at a conference, or in a book or blog entry, mentions the risks of using too many adjectives and suggests writers use stronger verbs when possible, and people come away with the assumption that a good writer should never use adjectives and that clever use of adjectives can't be part of an engaging voice (and so on). Hence many assume Sanderson stated that magic systems must be "all hard" or "all soft" when he never did.

A magic system is good if it serves its story, but readers don't all like the same kinds of stories.
 
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I think "worst" depends on personal preference. Harry Potter relies on a soft magic system used for Rowling's convenience while Avatar The Last Airbender has a hard magic system where it's made clear what the limit of the magic is.

I think the biggest and most important question one can have about magic systems is "can you write your way around it?" as in can you create a compelling world and tell a compelling story without having to rely too much on the system you've created?
 

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1: So, moderators are just allowed to completely change the whole point of a thread? That makes it seem like the moderators are the only posters with any actual agency.
Nope. Anyone can do that. Watch me.
 
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After watching that panel video, I learned a word: numinous, as in “the magic system was numinous”. New word, yay! Had to pause the video and look it up.

Wikipedia tells me numinous is a term derived from the Latin numen, meaning "arousing spiritual or religious emotion; mysterious or awe-inspiring." Some panel members also refer to numinous magic as “poetic magic”, versus “hard magic”.

Glad I watched it.
 
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Gandalf is supposed to be magiic, right?
Thats a complaint in the form of a question.

I don’t mind soft magic systems, but it bugs me when someone is supposed to be a great wizard and they can’t even do fire balls or heal people, etc. If he can, he isn’t and instead he’s fighting with swords.

I wonder if Tolkien was on the fence with it, thinking of the kind of wizardry described in the Viking sagas. Which is about what Gandalf seems to have. It was early days in fantasy, but for comparison, Lewis’ Narnia has a lot more magic. Both soft, that’s fine with me.
 

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Gandalf is supposed to be magiic, right?

And clever. If he was able to get the giant eagles to bring the hobbits back from Mordor to elftland or wherever, why didn't he think to have an eagle fly Frodo to Mt Doom in the first place instead of slogging through snowdrifts and caves and deserts and whatnot.
Sorry that was supposed to be my reply, not a quote. Weird stuff keeps happening when I try to quote and reply using Brave on my tablet :(
 

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