Fair Play Fantasy and Why Some People Enjoy Magic Systems

First, quick updates.

I’m at about 90% completion on the first draft of Defying Destiny, the third War of Broken Mirrors book. Virtually everything else is on hold in the meantime.

Once the first draft of that is done, I plan on tinkering with some other pieces while I’m in the midst of editing it and beta readers are reviewing it, then getting back to Arcane Ascension 3 and Weapons and Wielders 2 when the book is finished and released.

Now, for something completely different.

I wrote the section below for a post over on /r/fantasy, but I figured I’d repost it here, since I know some of my readers might find it interesting.


This is going to be something that is already very obvious to some readers, so forgive me, but it’s something I wanted to get down into writing.

The “hard magic” vs. “soft magic” discussion comes up regularly both here and in other fantasy discussions, and I wanted to bring up an element of it it that I consider to be important to me as both a reader and a writer – “fair play”.

In the mystery genre, there’s a subcategory or style that’s sometimes referred to as a Fair Play Mystery or Fair Play Whodunnit. A simplified version of this concept is that all of the major elements of the mystery are presented to the reader in advance, so that theoretically the reader can solve the mystery alongside the protagonists.

This is an essential part of the experience of the mystery for some of the people who read it. It enhances the enjoyment of the story for some to be able to say, “I figured it out!” or “Aww, how’d I miss that?” or even “I noticed this on a reread!”

To a certain subset of the fantasy reader base, a detailed magic system that is applied in a consistent way allows for a fantasy story to have a similar style of appeal.

When a character learns a new spell, or picks up a new super power, or finds an item, a reader of a fair play fantasy can try to think about how the protagonist might cleverly use that new thing to solve problems later in the story.

Similarly, when a character encounters a problem in a fair play fantasy (or “hard fantasy”, as we’d more commonly call it), a reader can stop and think, “How can the protagonist solve this with the tools at their disposal?”

The clearer the system framework in place, the easier it is to accurately predict how magic can be used to solve problems. This does not mean that great specificity and simplicity are necessarily better, however. These are simply knobs for the author to turn, and in some cases, a degree of flexibility allows for both the writer to be more creative and for the reader to have a harder (but still possible) problem to solve.

Notably, this does not just apply to magic. It’s true for any capability a character possesses, regardless of source. For a non-magical example, let’s consider Batman’s utility belt.

Let’s say we’re watching a new episode of Batman: The Animated series, because this is a better hypothetical world and the show is still being made.

At the end of the episode, Batman tricks one of his usual antagonists – Two Face – by using a trick coin he had hidden in his utility belt.

There are several ways to make this fair play, with different pros and cons. Some of these can be combined.

  1. No foreshadowing in the episode itself. The viewer is supposed to know the character already from previous episodes. This relies on long-term continuity of characters and capabilities, rather than making the episode self-contained. This means the episode has more time to focus on other things, and may work more for established fans – but it won’t be fair play for someone who only watches that one episode.

  2. Character foreshadowing. We establish Batman’s relationship with Two Face early on. He knows Harvey Dent is out of prison, and we know they’ve tangled before. He knows about Two Face having a thing for flipping a coin and using it for determining how he is going to behave. For some readers, this might be sufficient in itself.

  3. Light item foreshadowing. Early in the episode, we could see him working with his utility belt in the bat cave and filling it with items. They’re all small items that can fit in there – a utility knife, a vial of acid, an emergency beacon, a collapsible gas mask, a tracking device…all stuff Batman would have clear reasons to have on hand. This foreshadows that the belt itself, and the objects within, might be used to solve the problem.

  4. Heavy item foreshadowing. In this case, we could literally see Batman putting a coin into his utility belt at some point in the episode, or perhaps playing with a trick coin under other circumstances. Maybe Zatarra the Magician gives him a trick coin in a flashback where Zatarra is teaching him about transposition magic, making it personally relevant to Batman’s training, and more impactful when the coin is used.

Character and item foreshadowing can be combined (and often will be) to make a clearer picture, if fair play is the goal.

The heavier the foreshadowing, the easier it is for a reader to put the pieces together and see where things are going – which can be good or bad, depending on the creator’s goals. But one other advantage that’s easier to overlook is that clear foreshadowing also gives you the ability to subvert expectations.

When we see Two Face’s background with Batman, Batman loading the utility belt with all the items above, and we see Batman with the coin early on, and we might think, “He’s definitely going to trick Two Face with the coin.”

Then Batman tries it, and good old Two Face says, “I’m a lawyer, Batman. You think I’ve never seen a trick coin?”

That’s a whole other way to thrill a reader in a fair play story – misdirection. The coin was the obvious solution. So, when Two Face isn’t tricked by the coin, some readers are thrilled by the misdirect.

And that makes it all the more thrilling when Batman explains, “Of course, Harvey. But you were so distracted by the coin that you missed the tracking device.*”

*I will not pretend to be able to write Batman, but you get the general idea.

We’re reminded about the other items that Batman had in his utility belt – the ones we potentially forgot, because we as the audience were too distracted by the obvious solution presented in the coin.

Some watchers are thrilled by the twist because they caught it. They get to say, “I knew it! When Harvey took the briefcase, Batman had already put the tracking device in it!” Others get to be thrilled because they missed it, but they knew it was fair. That they could have potentially gotten it, if they’d only paid a little more attention. That can be part of the fun, too.

This isn’t going to be appealing to every individual person, nor is it necessary in every single case. But it’s a part of why I think that hard magic has a clear appeal to some readers – they can read watch the episode and say, “I knew Batman was going to try the coin, but I was surprised when he beat Two Face by using magic.”

What – you remember when I said that Zatarra taught Batman transposition magic, right?

Maybe that wasn’t the best example – maybe it wasn’t exactly fair play. It’s a sliding scale, with some readers and writers preferring different techniques. Regardless, I hope this helps illustrate the concept of why some of us enjoy hard magic in fantasy.

3 thoughts on “Fair Play Fantasy and Why Some People Enjoy Magic Systems

  1. When you said ‘not the best example’, were you reffering to your batman twoface tracking device or batman magic?

    1. Magic, primarily, but neither of them is honestly a perfect example. The examples in the article were so simplified that they didn’t have enough context (e.g. how exactly Batman uses magic or a tracking device to solve the problem). In order to execute this as a good example of fair play, I’d need to go into more detail, but that would have bloated the article itself too much.

  2. Is the new mana in seras sword called vay’kes or somthing like that and is what keras can weild the oppisite and you have really stumped me on what the crystal that protected dawnbringer is if it lead to keras speed enhancing ability

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