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Are limitations important in a magic system?

Discussion in 'World Building' started by C. R. Rowenson, Oct 15, 2019.

  1. C. R. Rowenson

    C. R. Rowenson Scribe

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    Personally, I think limitations they're essential to building a quality magic system (I wrote an entire blog post on the topic, for crying out loud), but I wanted to hear some other thoughts on the matter.
    Does anyone disagree? How come?
    I legitimately would like to hear some other stances on the matter (as long as everyone stays respectful)
     
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  2. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    I put a lot of pressure on my magic systems, not just in terms of limits, but also in what I demand from them. The idea behind my current setting, Smughitter, is that we're looking at sprites and seelie magics, but in your typical D&D-type high fantasy world. Seelie magic is one of as-many-as twenty magic systems running through the world, filling out different roles in the setting. But each system has to feel like it's as robust behind the scenes as the seelie magic system is shown to be. That is: Each system has races, monsters, abilities, artifacts, craftable items, their otherworldly "source," and so on.

    Just for example, the Seelie otherworld is a parallel hollow world accessed through gates that are underground or under the sea. The orcish otherworld is a vast barren plain where the immortals live in lonely war camps and open the gates to their world in desolate battlefields. The magic and mystery of each one has to be very different.
     
  3. Firefly

    Firefly Troubadour

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    I do think limitations are important, but I wish sometimes we were a little more clear about why. I used to interpret "magic should have limitations" as "your magic shouldn't be too powerful because it will break the plot", which caused me to close off a lot of potential ideas for how my stories could go before I even explored those ideas--which were oftentimes the coolest ones. Whether the magic might be too powerful isn't something you should never consider, but with the help of good editing and a little suspension of disbelief you can push things a lot further than you might initially think you can.

    In my opinion, limitations should be less about taking the same idea you originally had and watering it down and more about narrowing the focus. I see a lot of broad, all-encompassing magic systems that blend together and aren't very distinctive because they basically allow the characters to do anything. A lot of times, there are complicated, mechanical rules behind it, but I find that's rarely enough to make these systems interesting. A narrower system allows the writer to dig deeper, and it allows the characters to be more creative with their powers instead of just going for the most obvious solution.

    It's really less of a matter of limiting things as it is choosing what you want to explore and getting rid of other options so they don't distract or muddy the waters.
     
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  4. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    I wanted to add on that, FireflyFirefly. I've given my sprites a bundle of different powers. They do jinxes which are spells based around luck, as well as have mind-altering dusts, fairy fire that can burn or transform things, the ability to charm items to do little magical things (or big ones if there's a bargain), and then there's three big curses that they can do. Also they're tiny. And fly.

    It's a weird little bundle. I like that about it, a lot, to the point where I think about other magic systems on my 20-someodd list and think they're too narrow, in a way that feels cliche. Dwarves have runes, the magical language of metals, and runes do lots of different things to metal, but is a "more powerful" rune really going to make runes feel like a robust system or is it going to make runes feel like a cosmetic veil over your typical do-anything wizard? I don't know where that line is. I could lay out six different metals and suggest that they lend themselves to runes of a certain type, but now we're just back to a wizard with six schools of magic. The path is too laid out. There's no quirks to it. It needs quirks.
     
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  5. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

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    I think limitations on magic are essential if you are going to have any sort of tension in a tale.
    If all Gandalf had to click his fingers and translocate the Ring to just above the lava in Mount Doom, LotR would have been a really short book.
    What I think is more important on limits on the power of magic, are the limits put on it use.
    I like to build in [call it moral or ethical if you want] limits on how to use magic. There should be things you learn not to do with magi as well as what you can do.
    There is a bit in one of the Eddings books where Belgarath explains to the young Garion [as he is then?] that you could turn a mountain upside down, but why would you want to? With magic, you can bring someone back from the dead, but if they were stabbed, they would still be stabbed [and dieing]. Eddings also uses this to explain why magic is so rare... Most people's experience on their personal magic is their anger to destroy something, and the magic [/universe/the gods call it what you will] won't allow something to be un-created so the want and affect, reflects on them and destroys the caster.
    I think it is a nice McGuffin.
     
  6. Night Gardener

    Night Gardener Sage

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    Great responses so far!

    Ok, I'm digging deep into my inner nerd here, so brace yourself: I'm siphoning you, gentle Scribes, into the fictional world of Star Trek. I promise, it will make sense. Well, it makes sense to me and you'll just have to read through it and hope for the best.

    Philosophically, magic should probably have some limitations. That is what makes magic "magic". Otherwise, you're getting into the dimensions of Divine or unfiltered Cosmic Power. If your work is about the unfathomable powers of truly limitless God characters, then you're probably not really dealing with magic or magic systems anymore.

    I'll put it this way: in a fight between a staggering amped-up wizard or sorcerer, vs. Q from Star Trek Next Generation, my money will *always* be on Q. Because Q is as close to a truly limitless 'being' as I've come across in fiction in recent memory. I would argue, this is because the concept of this character flirts with a truly god-like being and not a humanized pantheon of gods that have 'forms' and limitations, and can be defeated or subdued in some fashion by man, magic, or other gods in the said pantheon (looking at you, Marvel and DC universe.)

    Q can instantaneously create, destroy AND void matter, alter time and space, impose his will on other creatures, kill (and presumably resurrect ) at will, teleport, levitate, (read minds?), move freely between dimensions, create dimensions, is omniscient, omnipresent, formless, and could negate (mortalize) himself, etc. I'm not exactly sure I could add much more to the skillset, but that all quantifies as god-like IMO. Most gods in fiction and mythology don't even come close to these abilities, and have weaknesses to be exploited. Q had an ego, got bored and contemptuous...and had a sadistic streak. Your only hope was that you could amuse him enough that he'd elect to leave you alone. The Q collective appeared to be equally matched among the other beings in the collective, or arguably, were facets of one singular being.

    Now, is Q actually God, as in (for the purposes of this conversation) the Creator of the Universe? Are there beings even more powerful than the Q collective? How many steps between the Q and God, if Q are not Gods themselves? In one episode, Q wanted to become mortal so he could attempt killing himself, because he just wanted to *do* something different. An interdimensional being desired a permanent finite experience, so theoretically the show implied there was an 'after life' experience or nothingness that the Q couldn't experience naturally; which made me think the Q were not the ultimate supreme beings in the Universe... and, the fact that the Q also had no apparent purpose or responsibilities to the function or design of the STNG universe, and were essentially these limitless but idle beings moping around was also an intellectual rabbit hole, but I digress. STNG writers skirted the edges of these deep-thought questions, but it always got me thinking. A lot. I could probably develop an entire blog series just from the kinds of questions that singular character creates in my mind.

    To the point of the OP's question: For me, the character of Q was a good example of when a "magic system" stops, and a truly unfathomable power begins. If you aren't wanting to write about powers and abilities that us mere mortals can barely wrap our heads around, then you're probably going to try and reign-in to a much more understandable magic system for your characters to operate in and for readers to accept. At some base level, magic is about subverting and control over natural orders/ laws and energies of the Universe. Bending, maybe breaking on occassion. Maybe abuses threaten to unravel the user or the balances of the Universe. But the immediate implications are, that the magic system exists *within* an already existing system of conditions that the magic merely hopes to manipulate. It's like sitting in a studio, trying to rework a lump of clay to be what you want. Without the studio and clay already existing, there is nothing to manipulate, and all the techniques and tools and kilns (magic) are rendered meaningless without the original lump of clay to work on. Now, as authors, we get to decide just "what" is that lump of clay, and what "is" the studio. Otherwise, we're going back to the rather mind-boggling parameters (ha!) of a limitless Q-like universe.

    On the practical side, magic systems have limits so it can't solve ALL of the problems or conflict in the book. If Q had to get the One Ring back to the fires of Mount Doom, he could just snap his fingers and be done with it. He could decide to negate the very magic Sauron used to forge the ring, rendering it a useless trinket. Or, he could *just as easily* go back in time and bitch-slap Melkor so he wouldn't sing disharmony into creation and rather effortlessly alter the fabric of the space-time continuum.

    As fascinating as Q is, the fact that he is so limitless in his ubiquitous powers would make for some serious writing challenges. This character could literally do anything to anywhere, anytime, and anybody. And, basically, the creative work-around for this is for Q to impose some artificial limitations on himself, just to function with the other characters and be intellectually approachable for viewers in a 40 minute episode.

    So, that is my long-form answer as to why magic and magic systems end up with some limitations, or rules, etc. The default tends to swing towards you end up writing about intellectually terrifying god-beings instead of wizards and sorcerers and such. Having no limits can seem ex machina, or out of the blue, or worse-- written for the convenience of the of the plot when the author painted themself into a corner. Setting limitations sets up genuine challenges to the author to figure out as they write. If you create a magic system with no real challenges, it's going to be a very different kind of story.
     
  7. Yora

    Yora Inkling

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    The limitations ARE the system.

    Having the ability to do anything you want does not make for stories. Good stories are about finding ways to get the most out of what is available to you. When everything is available to you, there can't be any tension or conflict.
     
  8. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    So now I'm wondering, what are the limitations of chemistry? Or biology or physics or any other "scientific" system. I mean, you can't have a chemistry that can do *anything*.

    I'm having trouble picturing what this business of limits means in practical terms but also in more philosophical terms. The examples given are always reductions to the absurd--you can't have magic that has no limits. Sure, ok. How about one limit? Two limits? Which gets us to the question of what the heck is a limit anyway.

    To put this another way, I'm not seeing how to make practical use of this matter of limits. Does the reader even need to know? If the mage in the story says "I can't do that" and the writer has set this up properly, there doesn't really need to be a system behind to explain and justify that. What were the limits of Gandalf's power? Of Sauron's? They could do some things, couldn't do others, and maybe wouldn't do still others. None of it is explained, but all of it is believed (by this reader, anyway). I think this is the case for many fantasy stories.

    Also, one runs the risk of having the limits looks as arbitrary as the powers, so that's something to watch for, if you're going along that road.
     
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  9. I think if there's one area of their writing that more authors should workshop (among readers, friends, etc) it's their magic system.

    I've known several authors who have spoken about how they thought they had a system all worked out, then gave the story or even just a synopsis of the magic system to a group of people (and in one instance a group of teenage D& D players) and in ten minutes they had been shown a dozen holes in the logic. The second we think we have it all figured out, you can bet we don't. Other eyes are important. :)

    For me it's not just about limits, rules, hierarchy etc but the mundane, every day way magic may affect life in the world you are writing in. Holly Black's Curseworkers series has one of the best systems I have ever encountered. You can start with the fact that, since Curseworkers could be anyone and curses are transferred by touch, everyone in the world wears gloves. That's brilliant. It's a small detail that shows, quite well, how widespread magic might alter the behaviors of an entire society. Like when there are high pollen or pollution warnings in our world and you suddenly notice folks walking around with surgical masks in public. Yet that's the first series I have read that introduces such a small but telling change in a society because of the magic. We all love to create the ohh and ahh moments of our systems but I really look for the details, the small things, to show that someone has thought it all the way through.

    To not do so today as a writer, for me, is akin to changing the relationship between characters over the course of a book. First they were sisters, now they're cousins, now they're sisters again. It's a hole. It shouldn't be there. It needs to be thought out as much as any other part of a book..
     
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  10. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    Okay, here's the elephant right in front of your face, heh.

    You could have a character like this for the express purpose of exploring all these questions. You are fascinated and could develop an entire blog series; well, doesn't that suggest that some readers might be as fascinated as you are by such a character? What are the implications? The ramifications? If anything can happen...WHAT'S GOING TO HAPPEN?!?!

    Then too, said character might have these exact questions. "I can do anything. Now what."

    With such a character, you can amp up the problem of Buridan's ass, except with an infinite number of stacks of hay and pails of water equidistant from said character. (Presumably distance isn't an issue for him; so they are by definition equidistant from him. And I'm ignoring the fact that he can summon them all to him at once, heh. It's a metaphor!)

    I suspect a tale with this sort of MC will be about other things than the magic. Deep character studies, for instance of human society via the people he encounters, or else the general human condition using him as a lens as he struggles with making choices, his own desires, basically his psychology. (Funny paradox: He's quite human in this respect, which means we are a lot like that godly figure. Minus a few things. At least, this could be one aspect of the tale.) Maybe the story would instead be an exploration of our world, mortality, etc., through this lens. Maybe it would be a tale exploring various philosophies or ideas or moral and ethical systems. Basically, it's not a tale about destroying a ring to defeat a Very Bad Guy. (Although, that could be a sort of veneer, or kinda happening in the background. But this MC would need to be struggling with other things—most likely within—and this struggle would be why the reader reads.)

    Those considerations are for an MC of this sort. But what about a secondary character, or non-POV character? Then, you could still have your LOTR ripoff, heh (so to speak), but give the added dimension of exploring your MCs' relationship to such an unfathomable being while forcing them to dig deeper and work harder.
     
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  11. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    I watched a video on YouTube of a class Sanderson was teaching in which he explored his Three Laws of Magic.

    One of the revelations, for me at least, was the idea that the story is about the limitations. It's not about the powers and things that can be done. No, it's about the limits.

    It was a fascinating lecture. Here it is. At around the 26 minute mark, he begins discussing limits (or flaws):


    "Flaws are more interesting than powers themselves."
     
  12. Riva

    Riva Dreamer

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    Nothing more to be said, in my opinion.
     
  13. Yora

    Yora Inkling

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    It really comes down to Sanderson's First Law: "The ability to solve problems with magic in a satisfying way is proportional to how well the audience understands how magic works."
    If you don't explain to the audience how magic works, what it can do, and what it can't do, every time a character solves a problem with magic becomes a Deus Ex Machina. A great deal of storytelling is characters solving problems and overcoming obstacles, and a major part of enjoying a story is to see how characters overcome their problems and appreciate the way they did it. When you never explain what magic can and can't do, you can never appreciate the magical solutions the characters come up with, because you know the author can just make up anything convenient at any time. And in that situation there really is not much tension. It doesn't matter how hard things look for the characters. If they succeed or fails depends exclusively on what the author feels in that moment, because with unlimited magic, and magical solution does not need to be based or be consistent with anything that came before.
     
  14. Queshire

    Queshire Auror

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    SAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAANDERSON!!!!! >=0

    This topic. This topic right here. I have opinions on it.

    Naturally any well developed magic system will naturally have either implicit or explicit limitations, but in my personal experience when most authors bring up limitations they are overly focused on hard limitations. I kinda blame Sanderson for this. Oh, don't get me wrong, I fully respect any author that has the level of success he has had. He's one of, if not the, leading voices when it comes to developing magic systems. His laws of magic, or something rather close to them, serves as one of the most common form of advice for magic systems.

    The dude writes rather hard magic systems though, and a lot of time I see people talking about similarly hard limitations to magic when they talk limitations. That's not always to their benefit.

    As Firefly says, it winds up being a lot of complicated, mechanical rules. I would further reframe what Firefly said about narrowing the focus as saying that magic systems should have a theme and limitations should naturally flow from that.

    Gandalf's limit was a soft limit. He and the other wizards are the same sort of being as Sauron, but a quick look at the Lord of the Rings wiki says that their bosses forbid them from matching him power for power. Uhhhh.... I don't know if he could actually trans-locate the ring, but the dude's basically the local equivalent to an angel in human flesh.

    Similiarly, for what Q lacks in hard limits he still has soft limits. Otherwise the Star Trek crew wouldn't have beat him in the show to begin with. Remember guys, a victory by Social Fu is still a victory.

    Similarly, even if a character is unlimited in one area they might not be as strong in another way. Are you writing Superman? Not every foe needs to be Darkseid or Doomsday. If he has unlimited strength then turn the tables and hit him in the feels. Heck, Lex Luthor is a good example of this. Sure, sometimes he'll hop into his kyptonite powered super suit and go mano-a-mano, but his strengths are in his intellect and connections instead of physical strength. Having your powers be ill suited to the task at hand is another soft limit, though of course your audience will probably get annoyed if you don't let Supes loose now and again.

    Finally, consider Harry Potter. There's implications of how the magic works. Wand, precise movements, precise incantations, etc and so on. We never learn the underlying mechanics behind the magic, but there's still enough to suggest that there is a system with limits. There is, of course, the question of whether or not it's the magic itself that solves the problems. When going after the Philosopher's Stone does Hermoine saving Ron from that plant thing speak more to her magic or her studious nature?

    As authors we have a certain amount of wiggle room with our craft. By giving the idea of limits we can give the idea that there's much more to a system than the readers see on the page, but on the other hand, with the more hard limitations put on something the harder it is to break those rules for the story / the more glaring any logical inconsistency becomes.

    Of course, that's not to knock hard magic systems completely. There's more than enough room for stories with them. Sanderson's proof of that, but like with any other writing law it's really more of a guideline.
     
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  15. Night Gardener

    Night Gardener Sage

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    100 points for use of "Social Fu" :ROFLMAO:
     
  16. Yora

    Yora Inkling

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    Sanderson's Law goes both ways. If you invert it, it says that the less the rules of magic are explained to the reader, the less magic is suited to solve problems for the characters in satisfying ways.
    The Lord of the Rings is an excelent example of this. The book explains almost nothing about the way magic works, but magic is almost never used to solve problems. Gandalf seals a door in Moria with magic, but it only slows the Balrog down for a few moments. It doesn't get them rid of it. When Gandalf destroys the bridge, it gets the Balrog off the others' backs, but they still have to run away from the orcs and they also lose Gandalf. Galadriel's light scares the spider, but it still gets Frodo who then has to be saved from the orcs. Galadriel's mirror and the Palantir can see across space and time, but the characters all understand that they can't use any of what they see. And there's of course the ring, which is incredibly powerful but none of the heroes can actually use it as a weapon.
    Magic does come very handy and saves characters from getting killed on the spot several times, but it's never the solution to the real problems they are facing. And it's also satisfying.

    The one thing it does advise against are Deus Ex Machinas where unexplained magic solves the plot. It's not a satisfying way to have problems solved for the characters.
     
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  17. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    In the video I posted, Sanderson actually says pretty much exactly this.

    He also gave the economic "limitation" of the spice in Dune as an example he's always loved. That's not a "hard limit" to use your terminology.

    Sanderson has also often spoken about soft magic systems, and how having no rules for magic can be perfect for a story. There are strengths there, too.

    So I wonder if your target might be Orson Scott Card instead, who in How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy had a section on rules and said this:

    "With magic, you must be very clear about the rules. First, you don't want your readers to think that anything can happen. Second, the more carefully you work out the rules, the more you know about the limitations on magic, the more possibilities you open up in the story....The price of magic might be the loss of parts from the human body."

    He goes on from there by giving many examples to spin the whole lose-a-body-part limitation. I remember when I first read the book—it was before I knew anything about Sanderson's ideas—my mind always turned to hard limits afterward. Because that's how Orson Scott Card presented the idea. He put that little section on magic—subtitled "The Rules of Magic"—at the end of a much, much larger section discussing the rules of science fiction technologies, and I wonder whether this influenced his approach discussing magic here. I.e., a la skip.knoxskip.knox's comments about biology and chemistry. [Edit: I mean, science has hard limits, heh. And maybe sci-fi stories, no matter the amount of handwavium, need at least to have the appearance of having hard limits.]

    Sanderson does tend to think in terms of types of hard limits; but he's not such a dogmatist, heh. I wonder whether critics of his ideas re: Laws of Magic simply haven't delved deeply into them. (Of note: He's also said that these "laws" apply to other areas of storytelling besides magic. He just happened to solidify or refine these laws by thinking mostly about magic systems, at first.)
     
    Last edited: Oct 16, 2019
  18. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    I think some of this debate is mostly about perspective. Sanderson clearly works with hard magic systems, and his comments are coming from that perspective. When he talks about soft magic it's always a disclaimer, yes that can work, but so far as I can tell he doesn't have any "laws" for it, or anything significantly concrete to say about it. His comments don't need to be refuted and debated, IMO, but you've got to take them with his perspective in mind. If you're writing with soft magic his comments don't have a whole lot to offer.

    For myself, I suppose I'm working with hard magic, but there's always an opening for "bigger more awesome things." I talked in a previous post about what my sprites can do, but seelie magic shows in other areas, like in the "treasures of Falina Cairn," artifacts of great power that were gifted to them by the immortals in the otherworld. And there are other seelie races for whom the magic works differently. And the true villains who abuse all the rules. The heroes have clear hard magic limits. But the world won't feel anywhere near so limited.

    So, uhh.... I guess I also lean hard magic, but it's more like I have many, many hard-magic systems running parallel to each other even within the "seelie magic" title. And I'm also not crazy about Sanderson's laws. I find them limiting in the scope of their usefulness. Good advice doesn't come in laws, in my experience.
     
  19. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    I figure I may as well go into something more concrete.

    The quote above is Sanderson's first law. I have no arguments with it. It's fair enough. Maybe there's exceptions but not so many and I don't need to overthink it. But focusing on this law is also shaping the way we think about magic to begin with. Magic solves problems. Like a tool. So you need to understand your tools. That assumption about how we use magic, that's where his advice is deceptively limiting. That's where he begins to lead us down this road of copycat complexity and rulesmanship. The technical side.

    I don't think of falling asleep at night as a tool. When my sprites sleep they shape change, usually into a flower or bush, but sometimes into objects like a broom or hat. Changing their sleepchange appearance takes a lot of magic and leaves them feeling weak for a few days. It's not really a problem solver. It's not a "tool." It's part of them. It's natural. It's who they are. They're weird little magical creatures. They didn't "study" specific spells as tools to solve problems. So Sanderson's laws don't mean squat here.
     
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  20. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I like DevorDevor's examples. I also like older stories about magic. The witch in the woods can do certain things. The question of what she cannot do just never comes up in the story because it isn't relevant. In another story, magic turns a prince into a toad. I don't need to know about the "magic system" in order to believe.

    Now, if a limitation to the magic happens to come up, is a plot point, then yeah sure, let's hear the explanation.

    Also, limits aren't the same as costs. A battlemage might be able to cast a fireball only up to a certain size or duration. A person could invent any number of explanations as to why, or could just let it stand as a fact-of-this-world. There might or might not be a cost associated. Maybe no cost, maybe the mage gets tired, or maybe the mage turns into a frog for a week if he pushes too hard. Does this mean all magic systems must have both limits and costs?

    Finally, I don't find "soft magic" to be a particularly useful phrase. There are magic systems and that's fine. Can even be fun. This is what is usually called "hard magic". It's opposite, though, isn't soft; it isn't a system at all. It's just magic that goes unexplained. A system that isn't a system isn't a system. (also, is not is not not is and is not is not not is not, for those of you keeping score at home <g>)
     
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