Worlds of Design: The Rules of Magic

Hard magic systems have clear rules about how they work; they are predictable. Soft magic has no clear “system” and tends to lack any kind of connection between one spell and another—more or less random, certainly chaotic.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

There are only patterns, patterns on top of patterns, patterns that affect other patterns. Patterns hidden by patterns. Patterns within patterns. If you watch close, history does nothing but repeat itself. What we call chaos is just patterns we haven't recognized. What we call random is just patterns we can't decipher. What we can't understand we call nonsense.”—Chuck Palahniuk

Types of Magic​

I only learned a few years ago, while talking with a friend, about the terms “hard” and “soft” magic systems. I knew the idea, of course. You could say that hard systems emphasize the natural and the known, while soft systems emphasize the supernatural and the mysterious/fantastical. But I don’t think that is always true, just a strong tendency.

I recall well-known sci-fi and fantasy author Brandon Sanderson sharing at a Gen Con panel that a fiction writer can’t use the magic system as an important part of the plot unless that magic system has clear rules—in effect, a hard magic system. He evidently enjoys devising such systems.

Hard Magic Systems in Your Campaign​

If you’re going to have a magic system in a game then the rules must be known (to the GM, at least) in order for the players to play. Magic systems in games tend naturally toward the “hard” side because the system has to be codified and explained in the rules. But they don’t necessarily need to be predictable. There can be chaotically random elements.

“Wild” spell casters is a soft system more or less. If you’re not familiar with wild spell casters, after you cast a spell, you roll on a table to see what actually happens. An extreme example of this would be the wand of wonder or wild mages from Dungeons & Dragons. When the wild caster is low-level and casts a high-level spell then it’s likely to really go wrong, while if a high level wild one casts a low-level spell it’s much more likely to behave itself.

World builders are going to tend toward hard systems, I think, assuming they record the results of their world-building rather than keep it all in their head.

Soft Magic Systems in Your Campaign​

For novelists and movie makers, a soft magic system is clearly more useful than hard because you can make it do anything you want to suit the current situation. (I’m especially reminded of Glen Cook’s classic “Black Company” series, where magic is often used.) Moreover, you’re quite unlikely to see a hard system in a movie because there’s not time for exposition in the movie to explain how the system works.

If you want a soft system in a D&D-style game, what can you do beyond something like the wand of wonder dice table with modifications for caster power and spell difficulty? One key is unpredictability. Maybe the addition of a deck of cards of side effects could help.

Perhaps the best way to use a soft system are story-based games, where spellcasting rules are less codified. Alternately, the GM could create their own magic system and reveal how the system works in-game with checks and die rolls. That’s a lot of prework and requires no small amount of GM planning and player buy-in to the concept beforehand.

Your turn: What soft systems of magic have you used in your campaign?
 

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

CapnZapp

Legend
The reason "hard magic" is used by game publishers like WotC is because they are popular among gamers - they allow players to master systems, and they allow characters to make predictably clever choices.

However, it basically turns magic from wonder to tool. Predictability is scientific: cause and effect; do-this get-that.

Magic should not be like that - magic should always retain a degree of unpredictability and danger.

But some proponents of soft(ish) magic systems forget one key difference between a role-playing game and movies/literature - while the magic system can - inside the world - well be described as "soft" (unpredictable, governed by few rules) the actual application is not - the writer always chooses an effect that is favorable to the story!

This is why I feel the categorization isn't as useful as this article makes it out to be.

Every rpg player wants to feel useful and in control. You can't do that if your Fireball is as likely to land on your foes as on your friends. Or if you're as likely to produce a brightly-colored flower as you are to provide desperately needed healing.

It would be more worthwhile, I think, to focus on two types of hard magic systems (in interactive games like ttrpgs):
a) systems where the character is in control (say D&D - Efzaban casts Magic Missile and arrows of force kill the goblins with unerring precision, every time)
b) systems where the player (or I guess the DM) is in control (Efzaban might invoke chaotic, uncontrolled, random, magics, but the player still gets to choose an effect that helps out the group or trusts the DM to provide one)
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
If you want a soft system in a D&D-style game, what can you do beyond something like the wand of wonder dice table with modifications for caster power and spell difficulty? One key is unpredictability. Maybe the addition of a deck of cards of side effects could help.
One thing to try would be, as GM, creating hidden house rules that affect the hard system that PCs use. For example, a house rule might be "magic comes from the earth, so a caster's feet must be rooted for a minute before casting a spell." Then the GM could drop hints, or require rolls, to indicate to the player how well that caster's next spell would execute. . .

"The field around you felt strong moments ago, but right now, you barely feel the tingle in your fingertips."

Viola, hardsoft magic.

Closer to @CapnZapp 's point (?), magic that has hard rules but is player-defined in-game creates mystery for everyone but the spellcaster. Suppose a spell description says

. . . magic-user's choice of vermin appear and cause d4 physical damage to each target in close range.
The spell's effect is defined, rules-wise, but the player chooses vermin type, method of damaging, targets, and where/how far the spell occurs.
 

schneeland

Adventurer
Similar to @CapnZapp, I'm not sure if "hard" and "soft" is really helping a lot when thinking about magic systems for TTRPGs, at least not as the single axis of design. Based on games I played or read, I would intuitively think about the following dimensions:
  1. Fixed effect vs. flexible framework: where in D&D the spell effect is basically fixed (with some creative uses allowed depending on the GM), other games like Ars Magica offer flexible frameworks to create magical effects
  2. Codified rule/effect vs. ad hoc negotiation: while larger, traditional games often have most of the effect fixed in the rules (even if that includes some randomness), other games allow provide just rough guidelines on what magic can achieve and leave the rest to agreement at the table (e.g. in Barbarians of Lemuria spells are judged by how easy the effect would be to achieve without magic)
  3. Risk&reward vs. fixed resource cost: e.g. in Shadowrun you suffer an amount of damage (drain) based on the force level of your spell, so you might take out more enemies with a more powerful spell, but also yourself; with spell slot or spell point systems you basically always get your spell out (though an opponent might resist the effect) at a fixed cost. In some systems, the risk/cost might also come in the form of corruptive effects (e.g. Symbaroum) or spell fumbles (e.g. DCC, Forbidden Lands)
From personal experience I can say that a game where we player's basically knew nothing about how magic worked, did not go well. Basically it left us very directionless and we stopped the campaign after the first arc.

I do agree, though, that magic systems with fixed & codified effects coming at fixed resource costs like the one featured in D&D, definitely do not feel very magical and really more like a big set of (more or less) reliable tools. For that reason, I personally prefer magic in the games mentioned above.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
One of my favorite “hard/soft” takes on magic is created by using a HERO System Variable Power Pool. The character has a set-aside reserve of power that defines the magnitude of effects that can be created, but the details of what happens with the pool are defined in the moment of use.

Add in limitations like “Requires a Magic skill roll” (typically 8+, 11+, etc.) or “Fails on roll of 8-/11-, etc.” can give you randomness.

Other limitations or advantages could help you mimic classic variables of magic- “Doesn’t work vs Silver/cold iron/holy symbols”, for instance.
 

CapnZapp

Legend
Similar to @CapnZapp, I'm not sure if "hard" and "soft" is really helping a lot when thinking about magic systems for TTRPGs, at least not as the single axis of design. Based on games I played or read, I would intuitively think about the following dimensions:
  1. Fixed effect vs. flexible framework: where in D&D the spell effect is basically fixed (with some creative uses allowed depending on the GM), other games like Ars Magica offer flexible frameworks to create magical effects
  2. Codified rule/effect vs. ad hoc negotiation: while larger, traditional games often have most of the effect fixed in the rules (even if that includes some randomness), other games allow provide just rough guidelines on what magic can achieve and leave the rest to agreement at the table (e.g. in Barbarians of Lemuria spells are judged by how easy the effect would be to achieve without magic)
  3. Risk&reward vs. fixed resource cost: e.g. in Shadowrun you suffer an amount of damage (drain) based on the force level of your spell, so you might take out more enemies with a more powerful spell, but also yourself; with spell slot or spell point systems you basically always get your spell out (though an opponent might resist the effect) at a fixed cost. In some systems, the risk/cost might also come in the form of corruptive effects (e.g. Symbaroum) or spell fumbles (e.g. DCC, Forbidden Lands)
From personal experience I can say that a game where we player's basically knew nothing about how magic worked, did not go well. Basically it left us very directionless and we stopped the campaign after the first arc.

I do agree, though, that magic systems with fixed & codified effects coming at fixed resource costs like the one featured in D&D, definitely do not feel very magical and really more like a big set of (more or less) reliable tools. For that reason, I personally prefer magic in the games mentioned above.
Well, we need to analyze the drawbacks as well to understand why the seemingly dry and boring spell systems of D&D remain popular. I mean, just concluding "D&D doesn't feel magical, I don't get why people don't play XYZ instead" isn't really a complete understanding.

One problem with games without rigid limits and stipulations is that the experience of negotiating a reasonable magical effect (reasonable not just within the game world logic, but also reasonable in terms of not unbalanced/overpowered/cheesy/spotlight-hogging when the session is viewed as a game where everyone at the table supposedly gets their chance to shine) might feel fresh at first, but soon you will realize you have just exchanged written rules for unwritten rules.

Instead of playing an edition of Dungeons & Dragons or My Little Pony or whatever, you're now playing Bob the GM or Sue the Keeper. It's altogether far too easy to settle into a groove of what works (what Bob or Sue likes, agrees to, or finds reasonable). It will of course be better than written rules when Bob is a great GM. But it will more often than not result in Sue forgetting to give everybody a fair deal, or Sue letting the most talkative player dominate with his spells, or something else. In short, there's a reason we invented game rules. "Not using rules" just isn't the brilliant new invention proponents sometimes tries to sell it as...

Next, games with "risk" as cost. Besides the examples already mentioned, you have Warhammer's "be seen using magic and you might end up getting burned as a Witch". The problem here is: are you meant to use your magic or not? If magic is the supposed tool the character needs to get by in life, then the player will want to use that tool. Trying to warn him off just isn't sincere. Again, in literature it can work very well to give the protagonist abilities that really are just curses. But ttrpgs are not literature. It's the player, not the script-writer, who is supposed to make decisions!

I much prefer systems where the designers already acknowledge from the start the point of a Wizard character is to cast spells, and then avoids adding systems that might get the character killed simply because it uses the abilities it has been given. (Also see the "it sucks to play a Wizard out of spells resorting to slinging stones so we gave the class cantrips" discussion. A good idea in general just unfortunately taken too far with infinite cantrips).

Again, the problem is trying to solve a player-facing problem using character-facing solutions.

The problem isn't the character using endless magic to dominate play. Mighty wizards obliterating the monstrous hordes is a staple of the genre. The problem is the player using endless magic to dominate play, because the other players feel useless. Again, an out-of-world problem should be solved with an out-of-world solution. Vancian spell slots is perhaps the crudest and simplest such solution. (Also see "mana points" etc) This doesn't mean those solutions are perfect. For one thing, there's no unpredictability. (Also, Vancian slots are stupendously baffling ;) ) But they have the advantage over "use the cool stuff we give you and you might end up one a pyre" solutions.

If you like, consider this post playing the devil's advocate. I just want to nuance the discussion, making it easier to understand why people settle for the supposedly boring and inferior magic systems, and, to really make my point: make it easier to understand what you need to still provide in your supposed "soft" magic system to sell it to actual roleplayers and not just those unfortunate souls that confuse gamesmastering for recounting their personal novellas, where the player characters are just props with limited agency in the GM's dream narrative.
 

schneeland

Adventurer
@CapnZapp Maybe that wasn't sufficiently clear, but that last statement was not an assessment that such magic systems are generally/objectively bland - fixed&codified effect+fixed costs has its advantages, and even though I personally don't like it too much, there are apparently enough people who enjoy or at least don't hate it.

For the rest, it seems a bit like you are rejecting the idea of the design axes based on preference for that specific design, moving mostly back to the hard-soft dichotomy, but then reject the idea of soft magic systems in general. So not sure how to follow up from there. Maybe we just disagree too much on the usefulness of design axes as a tool for designing RPG systems.
 
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GMMichael

Guide of Modos
Well, we need to analyze the drawbacks as well to understand why the seemingly dry and boring spell systems of D&D remain popular.
Um, perhaps it's because they're dry and boring?
I much prefer systems where the designers already acknowledge from the start the point of a Wizard character is to cast spells, and then avoids adding systems that might get the character killed simply because it uses the abilities it has been given. (Also see the "it sucks to play a Wizard out of spells resorting to slinging stones so we gave the class cantrips" discussion. A good idea in general just unfortunately taken too far with infinite cantrips).
Threatening death seems like a pretty good way to make magic feel...forbidden. It's not like the threat of death doesn't get great mileage elsewhere in RPGs (see bulky combat chapters and manuals full of angry monsters).

Infinite cantrips is something else, though. I'm pretty sure not even Harry Potter can cast a cantrip every minute for eight hours straight. His mouth would go dry from all the cheesy latin-esque magic words. Why can't wizards just use swords? I mean: Gandalf.
The problem isn't the character using endless magic to dominate play. Mighty wizards obliterating the monstrous hordes is a staple of the genre. The problem is the player using endless magic to dominate play, because the other players feel useless. Again, an out-of-world problem should be solved with an out-of-world solution. Vancian spell slots is perhaps the crudest and simplest such solution. (Also see "mana points" etc) . . .
This still seems like a character problem. My barbarian would walk off the battlefield pretty quick - headed for the nearest mead source - if the party wizard revealed that he could obliterate the monstrous horde . . . but anyway. The mana points system that you equate to Vancian slots is actually good way to make a "soft" magic system respectful of player-spotlight. If you have 10 mana points, and your spells each have a fixed cost, sure, you can cast two fireballs, a bless, and a Well At Least I Have One Mana Point useless spell. If you have 10 mana points, and your spells use a variable amount of points, you can definitely cast your fireball and WALIHOMP, but the rest is a mystery - soft.
 

CapnZapp

Legend
Um, perhaps it's because they're dry and boring?
No comment :(

Threatening death seems like a pretty good way to make magic feel...forbidden. It's not like the threat of death doesn't get great mileage elsewhere in RPGs (see bulky combat chapters and manuals full of angry monsters).
Again, having all-powerful Wizards need not be a problem in-world (especially in film or literature). The problem at hand is instead an out-of-world problem: that endless spellcasting steals too much spotlight for the Wizard player from the other players (aka the Wizard is "overpowered").

But "making magic feel forbidden" is an in-world problem, and "threatening death" is an in-world solution. We're not threatening the players' lives, we're threatening their characters' lives.

This is a discussion on how to improve game design. The ability to keep in-game and out-of-games issues separate, and being able to identify mismatched problem-solution pairs are skills that leads to better game design.

tl;dr: Good game design solves out-of-world problems with out-of-world solutions.
 

talien

Community Supporter
I'm reminded of Mage and Fantasy Hero, both systems in which the player "built" their spells instead of choosing from a list.

Thing was, you then just used those formulas repeatedly to cast spells, because I couldn't (and didn't want to) slow the game down by coming up with a spell on the fly.

When I introduced the basics of Mage spellcasting to a new player, she was overwhelmed by the possibilities and just settled on whatever I suggested. Soft systems work much better in novels because the author is controlling everything, and the spell suits the situation. In a game, there are many other factors determining what makes spellcasting "fun" and they're constrained by meta factors like the time it takes to decide on a spell, determine its effects, etc.

I do love the concept, but in practice I think it takes a group that buys into the system, including non-caster players being patient with the casters.
 

I'm reminded of Mage and Fantasy Hero, both systems in which the player "built" their spells instead of choosing from a list.

Thing was, you then just used those formulas repeatedly to cast spells, because I couldn't (and didn't want to) slow the game down by coming up with a spell on the fly.

When I introduced the basics of Mage spellcasting to a new player, she was overwhelmed by the possibilities and just settled on whatever I suggested. Soft systems work much better in novels because the author is controlling everything, and the spell suits the situation. In a game, there are many other factors determining what makes spellcasting "fun" and they're constrained by meta factors like the time it takes to decide on a spell, determine its effects, etc.

I do love the concept, but in practice I think it takes a group that buys into the system, including non-caster players being patient with the casters.
I initially thought of Mage the Ascension as the premier example of a soft magic system, along with ars magica. A clever player can get away with all kinds of weird things and abusive exploits, but those games don't have to worry about magic stealing the spotlight because literally everyone is using magic. In my mind that's a confirmation that the softer the magic system the more likely it is that magic will eclipse any non magical player abilities.
 

I initially thought of Mage the Ascension as the premier example of a soft magic system, along with ars magica. A clever player can get away with all kinds of weird things and abusive exploits, but those games don't have to worry about magic stealing the spotlight because literally everyone is using magic. In my mind that's a confirmation that the softer the magic system the more likely it is that magic will eclipse any non magical player abilities.

One aspect to why D&D magic is popular for it's pseudo-generic-ness is because it simply works enough for GMs who are running game worlds that also fairly generic High Fantasy. The genre itself is like what we do with zombies, vampires and jump gates - you spend more time telling the audience how your version is different because everyone knows what you're already talking about.

i.e., "The elves live on this part of the map, the dwarves live here; Yes there is magic and, yes Bob, you can play your elven ranger. Now roll 4d6, pick the highest." This is a solid part of the customer base.

Also as a GM, spell slots and such are easy to predict and provide limits that make encounter building a tad easier.

But as a player, D&D magic has always disappointed me. Every edition we see house or even official optional rules how ley line magic or using magical animal/mineral/plant parts can impact spell levels or spell slots to make magic an invested part of the setting. Yet they never catch on like Monks, dual wielding Rangers.
 

CapnZapp

Legend
Soft systems work much better in novels because the author is controlling everything, and the spell suits the situation.
I would focus on how soft systems (i.e. "no rules") work much better in novels because there just are no balance concerns.

The point remains: you just can't use the "rules" for scriptwriting when designing a communal experience like a ttrpg. It's a different thing, it has different needs.
 

steeldragons

Steeliest of the dragons
Epic
I use a combo of what, apparently, are termed "hard" and "soft" magic.

The soft part -if I'm getting this- is generally about the in-game descriptions -visuals, sensations, and such. For arcane casters, I generally let the players choose their preferred visuals. Magic Missile creates shards of magic/arcane energy which may be visually very strictly arrows/darts or more vaguely arrow shaped or just plain "bolts" of raw energy. Color is up to player's preference (though is consistent when that caster uses the spell). Does it matter, in game, if when you cast Fireball it is a glowy orange/yellow/red flame? Or can it be green or blue or violet? Sure. Enjoy.

For divine casters, I tend to play a more narrative role - the magic/spell being "granted" by the cleric's deity (in my campaign world pantheon). So things like Spiritual Weapon and Hold Person tend to manifest differently for different clerics. The cleric of the god of smiths? Sure, her Spiritual Weapon is the traditional shaped like a hammer of radiant energy. The halfling goddess of the hearth? That spirit weapon is going to be a cudgel-like bough with pinecones (her holy symbol) at the end. The evil clerics of the goddess of disease and undeath? Entropic "force" shaped like skulls awash in putrid green energies. And so forth. Casting certain higher level spells of the goddess of life & healing, whose symbol is a budding rose, a waft of the scent of roses fills the area. The clerics of the goddess of the sea revel in the sounds (rumbling or thundrous) of crashing waves or a breeze of salty sea air when they invoke their goddess' power. And so forth.

My magic system, if I am understanding the "hard" side of things properly, includes not using 7-9th level spells as a typical spell progression. When you get to that level of power, things get difficult. The fueling of the energies and command of magic required for such lasting reality altering (and/or reality making) effects is no small feat. I refer to them as the "transcendent" spell tiers and/or "trans-tier or inter-tier" spells. "TM" me. :D

That is, when the spell progression table says you get 1 7th level spell. Per usual, that's the number of slots you have for that level of spells for the day. A bit more "hard," that is the number of spells of that level you can cast that day. That's all. It's not really a slot, unto itself, simply a casting limit.

In order to cast it, instead of just 'using my 7th level slot to cast my 7th level spell," you have to "add up" your 5th or lower level slots to generate 7 "tiers" of magic.

That is, you need to use your lower level slots to fuel the highest levels (7-8-9) of magic. So, you can burn a 3rd + 4th level spell slot and get to use your 7th level spell. That's not generally the way it goes (or necessarily advisable), but in a pinch/emergency situations, certain tough choices need be made. More often, it is burning up your 1st and 2nd level slots to get where you want. So in the above example of a 7th level spell - you'd use three 2nd slots (6) and a 1st (1), or two 2nd slots (4) and three 1st (3), however you get there, you need to add up to 7 to use that 7th level slot.

Not only does this keep the mages from becoming tooooo uber-over-all-powerful. But also gives reason for players to pay attention and use their lower level slots which, ime, when you get to higher level adventures tend to be lost/forgotten/unused...because the threats they're facing, by and large, aren't really going to be effected by 1st, 2nd, in some cases 3rd level spells. Blanket magic resistances. Damage-type immunities. Just plain number of HP/HD. There are plenty of reasons for this. It's not a player's fault, certainly. The system just makes those lower level spells less and less useful for their masters. This, I feel, gives them some new "life." And makes those highest levels of magic really feel "big" and mysterious and difficult. There's a "cost" to their use...if you need to dip into your "transcendent" magics then chances are, things are getting dire.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I'm reminded of Mage and Fantasy Hero, both systems in which the player "built" their spells instead of choosing from a list.

Thing was, you then just used those formulas repeatedly to cast spells, because I couldn't (and didn't want to) slow the game down by coming up with a spell on the fly.

I was wondering when someone would mention Mage.

Mage had the benefit of some hard elements - characters inevitably had specific effects they called on repeatedly (the game called them "Rotes", as the caster knew them by rote). However, whenever presented with a new problem that couldn't be solved by a rote application, you could build something new.

There was also the element of "paradigm" for individual characters. While there were general rules that covered all casters, individual people had different approaches to magic, and believed different things about how it operated, and that could matter in game. For a person who works Spacial magic on the basis of how telecommunications makes the world a smaller place, reaching out to any place with a computer or smartphone might be easiest. Meanwhile, someone who works with the magic of true names might find it easiest to walk off Main Street in one town, and onto Main Street in another town, without crossing the intervening space, and so on.
 

aramis erak

Legend
Ars Magica, just like it's offspring, Mage, has both rote ("formulaic") and on-the-fly ("spontaneous") magics...

I've run Ars, and found that many players don't cope with the actual limits it has - there are a huge number of benchmarks, and they don't make sense to everyone. Plus, spontaneous magic is much harder.So it's often that players stick to their formulaict

In Barony/Arabian Sea Tales, magic is very "soft." It wasn't a huge issue for the players... but they also kept it very thematic, because they were very comfortable with improv. (Everyone in that group was an experienced and competent GM; it makes a big difference, IME.)

In Hero, it was no issue - players came up with spells they wanted, most of which were variations on D&D magic. (I used the Mystic Masters multipower approach.) No spontaneous, but doing such is possible... lots of players talked about gadget pool as magic, but none have used it in my campaigns.

In DL5A, it was a problem for some, not for others - the mechanics are straightforward, build it on the fly, spontaneous at little penalty... but not directly linked to AD&D magic, and that was the issue for my players last I ran a campaign of it. They saw DragonLance and expected AD&D magic.

Pendragon, like DL5A, it's build on the fly from a short list... but the penalties for magic on the fly are severe... even life-ending. Worse, even prepared magic is slow, so players are reluctant to play it. Tho', done right, it can be incredibly potent, and the few who have played casters have enjoyed doing so, because it laser focuses them on the key problem of the adventure as their magical target.
 

zircher

Explorer
Fate as a game system is favorable to soft magic since most skills/approaches can be used offensively, defensively, and most importantly, to create useful advantages based on the current situation.

If I were to write up one house rule for a traditional RPG magic system, I would have the wizards use energy. Not mana points, but ambient energy (easily drained, slow to recharge), stored energy (portable, but quickly depleted), and life energy (your own life force or human sacrifice via ritual.) That easily spills over into world building with ley lines intersections being the favorite spot for wizard towers, magical dead zones, evil temples, and the reason why most wizards do not mingle (limited energy available.)

[edit]

Oh, I would give mages an innate ability to have a feel for the amount of energy available, kind of like a fuzzier version of detect magic with a limited range (touch?)
 

77IM

Explorer!!!
Supporter
In the actual Middle Ages, everyone* was convinced that magic was real, monsters were real and lurked around every corner, etc. BUT, they didn't know precisely how these things worked. Magic was incredibly mysterious because the people didn't have easy access to it -- they couldn't figure out its rules because they lacked test subjects. E.g., if the ordinarily rational and trustworthy Uncle Wyfrich swears up and down that he saw the goblins marching through the graveyard, maybe he did, but nobody's able to reproduce this scenario to experimentally verify the properties of such goblins. Instead, people came up with all kinds of superstitions and weird stories about supernatural creatures. Often these stories conflicted. E.g., should you hang the horseshoe toe-up or toe-down? (google it)

To me, this "half-undstanding" is the essense of soft magic. For magic to be soft, you have to kinda know how it works, and but not quite all the way. If it's totally predictable, it's not magic, it's science; but if it's totally random, it's also not magic, it just a thing that happened.

Now, in the real Middle Ages, the reason people didn't have easy access to magic to study it and understand its rules, is because it didn't actually exist.** So if you want soft magic in D&D, you need an in-setting reason for people to not have easy access to magic. But the PCs do have easy access to magic; every single class is either a spellcaster or has at least one subclass in the PHB that does explicitly magical things. Furthermore, the players need to study it and understand its rules, in order to play the game. This leads me to a couple of ideas for implementing soft magic.

1) The ordinary people don't have easy access to magic, so the setting is full of superstition and misinformation. But the PCs are "in the know" and understand how things actually work. This is one of the reasons village innkeepers are always offering adventurers 50 gp each to go route some goblins: the PCs are much more likely to know what sort of strange powers the goblins have, and know how to counter them. Of course goblins don't have very many strange powers but the villagers don't know that.

A low-magic setting would satisfy this criteria but I also think you could do it in a medium- or high-magic setting if the magic were mostly hidden from the public at large. For example in a "Points of Light" setting most of the magic might exist in the wilderness between the points.

2) The players and PCs understand the rules of magic as laid out in the PHB, but that's not the whole picture: magic has very subtle and/or long-term side effects. Think about how much you, personally, understand about modern technology, and then think about all the problems that using technology has caused you. The use of spells, magic items, etc. could affect the PCs in ways far beyond the game-mechanics. Maybe supernatural forces grow angry with the PCs, or covet their items. Maybe a particular spell becomes addictive, or slowly alters the caster's personality or outlook with each casting, so that by mid-levels the evoker wizard has become a straight-up pyromaniac. Maybe a feature that seems helpful eventually becomes a curse; like a ring of warmth that makes you feel uncomfortable while in hot environments, or using Wild Shape too much makes you forget how to interact with people.

This approach sort of mixes hard-magic at the scene/encounter/obstacle level, with soft-magic at the story/plot level. The players and PCs can't scientifically study the plot-level side-effects of magic because these effects emerge so slowly over time, but they can make some good educated guesses, especially after they've been hit with a side-effect or two.

3) The players and PCs understand the rules of magic as laid out in the PHB, but that's not the whole picture: There's "big magic" that is very flexible, but also risky, but also requires considerable effort to pull off. All of the "rituals" that villains are always conducting in D&D are big magic. When you explore a dungeon full of strange magical effects created by a mad wizard, he used big magic to do it.

The big magic is soft magic. The PCs can't analyze it thoroughly because it's too big: performing such rituals requires a lot of time and money, so nobody does it twice just to see if it turns out the same way a second time.

* Disclaimer: Actually, there were lots of skeptics back then who didn't believe in the supernatural, or who at least believed it was rare and distant (e.g. the work of the gods). And, attitudes about this stuff varied wildly between different times and places. I'm presenting here a sort of pop-culture caricature of the Middle Ages instead of something super accurate because a) it makes my point more easily and b) this inaccurate romanticized view informs the pseudo-Medieval cultures portrayed in D&D settings.

** Disclaimer 2: Let us assume for the sake of argument a purely scientific reality since that's the world-view that most D&D players bring to the table.
 

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