• Welcome to the Fantasy Writing Forums. Register Now to join us!

Are limitations important in a magic system?

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.
That is a really good point!
 

Firefly

Troubadour
I wanted to add on that, Firefly. 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.

I've talked before about how much I love superhero-style magic systems where every character has their own powers with their own rules, and I think this is why. They just feel so full and alive. In fact, I think that the best magic systems are almost always some kind of "bundle".

Take Harry Potter, for example. We don't know how "spells in Harry Potter" work on a macro level, but we know how individual spells work. (which is all we really need on a plot/problem solving level) It's not really one big "wizards can do anything" system, it's a bunch of smaller systems that ARE defined all layered on top of each other. Animagi. Boggarts. Expelliarmus. House elves.

I think you need something like that in order to have the magic in your world feel fully developed. You'll probably want some sort of broader aesthetic or theme to keep things feeling like they belong in the same story, but it's as boring to have a story where the entire magic system is basically one spell as it is to have one where one spell can do anything.

I don't really know where the line is either, but I think it probably comes down to having lots of variety and making sure your different micro systems don't all feel like different versions of the same thing.
 

Yora

Maester
I am a big fan and huge proponent of ambigous magic in stories. Hard magic systems leave me completely cold and I think they totally miss the point of being magical. And I never had any interest in reading any of Sanderon's books. They sound really boring to me.
I still think that Sanderson's Law is an extremely valuable observation. It's not a rule that tells you what to do, but an observation of the relationship between different factors. As a fan of ambiguous magic, the useful recommendation I take from it is "When your magic is unexplained, don't rely on it to overcome the characters' obstacles, since it will feel unsatisfying for the audience." I find this a very important thing to understand when writing ambiguous magic.
 
All of you are making some awesome posts in this thread!
Yora , I think you're right about Sanderson's Law. I actually think his first law is more a law of foreshadowing. He just happens to use it to great effect with his magic systems. I'd like to hear more about what you like to see in a magic system. Do you prefer there be as few limitations as possible to keep it all mysterious and wondrous? What is it that draws you into a magic system and how does that relate to the limitations that have been set on it.
I have lots of opinions about limitations, the different types of magic systems, and a lot more, but I'm trying to mostly listen so I don't become that guy who only drops links to his blog ;P On a side-note, Yora have you read Uprooted by Naomi Novik? I think you might like that a lot.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
I'm trying to recall if I've ever read a book where I as the reader knew what the magic system was. At most, I know a few principles and some or many applications, but I doubt I ever see the entire system as the author sees it.

So, I don't know that I can say what I like to see in a magic system. All I can really say is that I like a good story. It can have much magic or very little. It's not the system that wins me.
 

Yora

Maester
I personally like it when magic is really narrow in its scope and not something that can provide the right solution to every conceivable problem. I think a good start for that is to begin by establishing what things magic just can't do. Some of my favorites are that magic can not create matter, can not cause teleportation, can not create force fields, and not manipulate time. These all don't sound like very big restrictions even taken together, but it already narrows down the potential applications of magic massively.
With some additional limitations, I eventually ended up really wanting to use a magic system that only has the two basic powers of telepathy and summoning spirits, which exist as some kind of semi-hive mind. Telepathy allows a mage to read minds and manipulate people. Telepathically linking with the spirit hive mind gives access to a wide range of divinations and expanded perception. And once a spirit is summoned, it can telepathically be coerced to perform various tasks.
And you already got yourself a complete magic system. One that is significantly limited in its applications but also has huge potential for having massive impact on events. The main determining factor is how clearly a mage can read thought, how strongly he can influence people, and what powers the spirits have that he can command.

I like it because it's very oldschool and steps well away from the idea of game rules. It also lets me give some actual substance to two of my favorite quotes that were wonderfully evocative and hinted at supernatural mysteries that the works then didn't really go into further:
"Don't be too proud of this technological terror you have constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the powers of the Force."
"Rudimentary creatures of blood and flesh, you touch my mind, fumbling in ignorance, incapable of understanding. There exists a real so far beyond your own you can not even imagine it."
I find that so much more compelling than blocking fireballs with shields of ice.
 
I'm trying to recall if I've ever read a book where I as the reader knew what the magic system was. At most, I know a few principles and some or many applications, but I doubt I ever see the entire system as the author sees it.

So, I don't know that I can say what I like to see in a magic system. All I can really say is that I like a good story. It can have much magic or very little. It's not the system that wins me.
That's fair. I can't think of any 100% explained systems either.
I'm a sucker for magic systems. If the magic is interesting, I will absolutely keep reading, watching, or playing long after I've given up on the story itself.
 
Yora I think I understand where you're coming from. If I'm hearing you right, you like systems that focus on exploring a few specific powers but at the same time, you like the magic to be left unquantified and undefined beyond what is shown. Something like in the Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb?
Does that sound right?
 
I have no use for Harry Potter style magic. Gag me with a wand. Sanderson... I didn’t enjoy Mistborn because of the magic... maybe a little despite the magic system? Honestly, there is no book out there I enjoy because of the magic system.

In my works there is a distinct system and systems within the system, but neither the reader nor the characters understand said systems... even if they think they do. I could work into book 30 and still be revealing tidbits of the systems and how the world itself intertwine. This sort of depth should keep the feel of mystery around magic.
 

Yora

Maester
Yora I think I understand where you're coming from. If I'm hearing you right, you like systems that focus on exploring a few specific powers but at the same time, you like the magic to be left unquantified and undefined beyond what is shown. Something like in the Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb?
Does that sound right?
Never read that. My reference point is the Force from Star Wars.
 

Futhark

Inkling
I think limitations are very important, but I think that there are different types of limits that are sometimes overlooked. There is the obvious: what can magic do, what are the costs. Then there is the limit of how well magic can be quantified and understood by the characters. What are the rules? Why are they there? Are they necessary, or arbitrary? In my Magnus opus WIP, there is one magic system created by humans for humans, that has branched out. Very few understand the big picture, but there is no limit on what they can learn (within the system). It’s a very rational and hard system, as the MC will be overcoming plot points using his magic skills. The reader will (hopefully) be able to extrapolate what is possible, or even better, sit in awe at the brilliant subtlety as they wonder ‘why didn’t I think of that?’.

However, some of the books that have magic that I have really enjoyed, never explore where magic comes from or how it works. The characters only know that if they do such and such, then this will probably happen. This nebulous limit works equally well. I think it’s all in the context of the story being told.

Another limit that is often overlooked (though not so much these days I feel) is the effect that magic has on the physical, social, and economic world. I could probably write a speculative essay on these topics, but...I don’t want to :).

I don’t believe that there is any limit on how powerful magic can be, as long it doesn’t unbalance the story. I like the idea of world devouring god-like entities battling it out, or invading Martian armies. I’m not fond of the idea that a space-faring civilisation would all suddenly catch cold and die at the same time.
 

R.H. Smith

Minstrel
I think limitation on magic is key. For me, though, the main thing that would set apart magic systems are the types of limitations. As in life, not everyone has the same knowledge, skill, and i think most importantly, that "inner talent". As much as I want it and practice, I will never be as good as Lebron James in basketball. As such, depending on the limitations you place, you can play around with how powerful you want your magics and magic-wielders to be. My magics, or Magias, as I call them in my MS, is baked into the lore as a "natural" law. By that I mean it is not something God given. Limitation #1 - You are either born with it, like Star Wars Mitochondrea, or you are not and cannot do magic. Limitation #2 - Each race has its own cultural version of Magia which are tied not only to their language, but also their though process. I decided to add through process so that to really be powerful in Magia, the wielder has to have a seamless cohesion between what they say they want and what they think they want in their Magia. So in essence, power is mainly limited to the wielder's imagination, limited by their knowledge of language. For example. a human trying to pull off an Elven spell, unless they grew up with Elves, know their language and how they think, would never really perform 'true' elven magic, only some form of variation. So if there is an Elven spell to, say, burn garbage, a human trying that spell would, say, get only organic things to burn. This is my version of limitations to my Magia.
 

elemtilas

Inkling
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)

Hm.

As i think on it, my take is that, really, all magic systems are in some way self-limiting. Of course, writers know well that magic must be curtailed in some way, or else they end up writing the shortest heptology in history: "Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. But then Dumbledore accidentally snapped the wrong fingers, resetting the time flux of the wizarding world to a day long ago when his younger self entered an orphanage and, coshing his younger self in the toilet, strode into the room of a small boy named Tom and uttering a single word, decorticato!, caused the boy's brains to dribble out his ears and onto his bed. And they all lived happily ever after."

Excessive use of magic, magic acts that are too powerful and constant reliance on magic all make for poor stories. The point of stories isn't to see a powerful wizard snap his fingers and make all the problems go away. That's a puerile fantasy The point of the stories is to experience the narrative arc with the characters in the story: learn their character, face their trials at their sides, mourn with their failings and cheer them on when they get up and keep going on.

The task of the geopoet is to understand this, to understand the failings of human (and alien) nature as regards use of such power and to ensure that balances are maintained: that wizards can't be all-powerful and all-meddling at the same time; that magic isn't easy to use or abuse without consequence. This way, stories can unfold and characters can evolve and problems can be resolved without resorting to the easy fix.

That said, I am not adverse to universe smashing magic in principle. For example, in my own world, magic is a force of nature. And like electricity, gravity, and Persian rug attractive force, can be played with at various levels of utility and destruction. Theoretically, one can accumulate sufficient gravity that a black hole is formed and it begins hoovering up all the matter around it. Likewise, one can accumulate sufficient magic that an entire star system could be decomposed into its constituent bits, thrown across the universe one subatomic particle at a time and instantly recomposed upside down and backwards. However, both kinds of magic are somewhat off the metaphorical table: the technology required to accumulate gravity simply doesn't exist, and so we are technically limited. Likewise, the ability of even the dwimcraftiest of folk for doing thaumic work of that kind is insufficient, even if they knew what a star system was and we are thus capacitatively limited.

And, whether playing with gravity and flimsy cloth covered frames, or buttered toast and expensive heirloom rugs, or magic and a tub of laundry, there are consequences. Pride goeth before the fall and, at the end of the day, it's usually easier (and a whole lot safer) to just use a manual clothes wringer rather than one of those thaumological contraptions. Anyway, you never know what dimensions your underclothes will pass through and what they'll pick up on their way back...
 

Hexasi

Scribe
Well, I'm sure there are many that are more well versed than I in this subject, but my laymen's take on the whole thing would be it depends on what you want out of the magic system in the story. Hard magic systems need rules, because you want to satisfy a logical end of the story and limitations help you do that to close up plot holes. If you're using magic to create an atmosphere or a mood in a setting and it doesn't take a major part in the plot... you can keep them vague.

Have a nice day!
 

MrNybble

Sage
Limitations are magic can be used to make challanges for the characters instead of a plot progression tool. Like anything in the real world there are set rules, but always a rare exception. You can have a magic system that is understood and yet not. We understand gravity, but can't fully grasp what makes it work or how to control it.

Try to avoid video game logic when making limitations. Real life isn't fair and nither should magic limitations. Main thing magic limitations try to help avoid are plot holes. If such magic like healing is around, why is there death and sickness?
 

CelestialGrace

Minstrel
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)

I believe magic systems should have some form of limits otherwise magic becomes the answer to everything; which would be freaking boring and for me it would be sloppy. I'm Pagan and in my own life I state that seeking a "magickal solution" should always be a last resort. I want my characters to be the same. I'm working with deities and magick in my own works and I don't want everything "fixed" with the wave of a hand. That's why the idea that all magic comes with a price works so well.
 
Top