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Magic systems have become a major part in fantasy worldbuilding. It is no longer enough to have a few mages in the world, how their magic works and how they interact with the world at large turned into one of the deciding questions. And of course, in such cases, we like to classify things.

First things first, the distinction between hard and soft magic, originated in this article by Brandon Sanderson, is not a classification of magic systems. The point is how magic is used in a story. Brandon’s first law states the reader has to understand enough about the magic in order for a character to use it to solve problems. Magic that is sufficiently discussed beforehand then is called hard. Magic that is more used to introduce mystery and conflict into the story, can remain unexplained and thus soft. Therefore hard and soft is not about how magic works in the fiction, how the characters think it works or what the author has planned beforehand. It’s how magic is presented in the narrative.

Here and now, I will present some observations about how different kinds magic can be distributed within the population of magic users within a setting and how that relates to different kinds of stories.

The first distinction is between powers and techniques. Techniques are magic that you can learn, teach, share, and invent. Powers are abilities you get and that’s pretty much it. You might make them bigger, more efficient or get a handle on them in the first place. But in powered systems gaining new powers is a rare event and something even most powered characters might never do. Whereas in technique based system new techniques might be invented left and right.

The other distinction is between individual, class or universal magic. These can be paired with both techniques and powers and I will therefore discuss the resulting combinations.

Individual Powers (Superheroes): In this scenario, a super acquires on power (or small set of powers) and that’s it. No two supers have exactly the same power. If groupings of powers exist those are usually made up by interested parties based on broad similarties, like Brutes or Fliers, not by any inherent mechanism. In fact there might not be any common denominator between superpowered individuals, though things like Power Nullification powers might exist.

Individual Techniques (Cultivators): In these stories, a cultivator might learn techniques from teachers, but at some point most cultivators will start inventing their own techniques and find their own paths. In fact, introspection and finding out what techniques you want for your personal style is very important in these stories, because once a character is on a path that usually precludes certain other techniques. If characters have very similar techniques this usually means that they have learned from the same teachers, hail from the same clan or sect.

Class Powers (Invested): This is what most of Sanderson’s magic is like, thus the name. Invested gain a each certain type of magic and certain abilities associated with it. There are different types, and while users of a type might differ in their skill level there is not much difference in what they can do in general. For example, if you are a Pewterarm from the Mistborn series, you can make your body tougher and stronger and that’s mostly it. If you are a Tineye you can sharpen your senses etc. If classes get several powers, there might characters who specialize, but each can access their whole class package.

Class Techniques (Attuned): Named for the magic tatoos in Andrew Rowe’s Sufficiently Advanced Magic, this category mostly pops up in stories related to the LitRPG genre, or RPGs in general. Going by the schema, an attuned belongs to a certain class and can learn techniques from it. They can devlop new techniques but only share them with other members of their class. Whereas the path of a cultivator can be lonely, attuned magic lends itself to mixed parties leveling up together. Benders from Avatar are somewhat on the edge between Attuned and Invested.

Universal Powers (Gifted): This setup is mostly is in rather low magic mystery or action stories. If you are gifted, you have one specific gift or set of gifts, and every gifted has essentially some one. A very common candidate is seeing monsters or ghosts, but Sense8 or Jumper also fall into this category.

Universal Techniques (Wizards): This is your typical Harry. Both Potter and Dresden. Wizards can theoretically use every spell there is and make new ones. Sure they might have favorite spells like Dresden is very Kaboom with his magic while his apprentice Carpenter specializes in illusions, she is both his apprentice and Dresden later learns better illusions partly from her. And likewise nothing but time and effort would stop Molly from learning Carlo’s disintegration ray.

Some further observation:

  • Universal types, both wizard and gifted stories, often involve some conflict between mages and non-mages. Whereas other types might not have non-magic people at all.
  • Class types, both attuned and invested, lend themselves to exploring how characters with these powers might fit into society.
  • Indiviual types, both superheroes and cultivators, often revolve around conflicts between mages, while non-magic individuals are mostly on the sidelines.
  • If the story is about an ensemble or party of characters and the magic is technique based, most if not all of those characters will be techique users. On the other hand there are stories set in worlds with technique magic, but none of the protagonists uses it.
  • The split between universal and class can shift with the focus of the story. Like we might see certain Gifted characters in season 1 and then in season 2 a new kind of magic user shows up and we get more of a class scenario.