Why Boundary Conditions Are Essential for Powerful Magic
Let me get this straight. You’ve done some brainstorming for cool ideas, you’ve checked the alignment between your story and your magic, and you’ve explored different system variables. On top of that, you might have done each of these things multiple times?
My, my, my. You have been busy. I bet your ideas are flitting about like hummingbirds on amphetamines as a genuinely awesome magic system takes form.
Well, I’ve got some bad news. As pretty as those drug-birds might be, the next step is to catch a few and clip their wings. I know this sounds cruel, but for the sake of your magic system, proper boundary conditions must be applied.
What Is a Boundary Condition?
The technical and boring definition of a boundary condition is
“A condition [in] which a quantity that varies throughout a given space or enclosure must fulfill at every point on the boundary of that space…”
When used in engineering, physics, and mathematics, boundary conditions provide you known or assumed values from which you can start your calculations. When you have a complex problem with too many unknowns and not enough data, finding and setting boundary conditions is a crucial step to take. In fact, when faced with a group of differential equations…
… Sorry. I started dozing off just writing that, and I like boundary conditions.
Let’s make it simple. Boundary conditions are limits that you set regarding some flexible property or value. If we set up a gift exchange among friends, we might decide that gifts must be less than 25$. As a kid. your parents might set 7th and 23rd Streets as your limits. At first setting boundary conditions can seem like a negative thing. I mean, aren’t you cutting out a bunch of gifts you can buy and places you can ride?
Yes, you are. But that is often exactly what you need.
Let’s say you are living every young girl’s dream and bought an entire herd of horses. Naturally, you also bought a massive meadow where they could graze and frolic to their hearts’ content. And that’s exactly what they do… for five minutes… before galloping out of the meadow and out of your life. As majestic as that sight was, you might consider building a fence next time.
The same principle holds for your magic system. In this analogy, the meadow is one of your systems or variables, the fence represents your boundary conditions, and the horses are your characters and readers. It’s all about keeping things bound where you want them to be.
Before we go any further, let’s make one thing very clear:
Yes, You DO Need Them
Don’t believe me? I’ll give you five good reasons why.
1) Limitations are Good. Sanderson Said So.
Okay, okay. You don’t have to do anything just because he said so, but he makes some compelling arguments. The heart of it all is his Second Law of Magic.
Limitations > Power
It seems a bit counter-intuitive at first, but adding more limitations to your magic will actually make it a more powerful system as a whole. He covers this in greater detail in the original essay, but limitations are what boundary conditions are really all about.
2) Overpowered Characters are Boring!
I’m serious. Despite sharing a first name with the guy, I’ve always hated Superman. His only real conflict comes from not being able to save everyone. There is no tension, struggle or fear related to him and his powers. And when he does die, I never believe it. Superman is just a big boring mess of too much awesome.
This is true everywhere. When Skyrim first came out, there was a power loop between some of the abilities which allowed the construction of game-breakingly powerful weapons and armor. Many of my friends gleefully exploited that loop before taking their new god-like characters out to slaughter all the dragons in Tamriel.
Me? It made me sad. All of a sudden the game lost all challenge and entertainment value. I would rather limit my playstyle and die over and over than play such an overpowered character.
3) Bounded Systems Are Easier to Understand
Steve Erikson aside, most authors want their readers to understand the magic early on. Not only do simple and clear rules make the system easy to grasp, but they allow for extrapolation. With an understanding of the basics, a reader or character can rationally explore applications and uses of the system. Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy demonstrates this beautifully.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. If you’re building a more wondrous and irrational system, extrapolation might not be something you want, but having clear rules becomes even more important. Take a look at Harry Potter. There isn’t much extrapolation you, as the reader, can do regarding the magic, but Rowling is clear from the beginning how specific elements of the magic work.
4) Simple, Restricted Systems Are Easier to Explore
This comes back to Sanderson again. This time it’s his third and final law of magic.
Expand what you already have before you add something new
This might not be as important for your readers, but it is vitally important to you as the creator. Changing one thing changes everything, and magic is one really big thing. The bigger and more complex you make it, the more it affects the world.
With a simple system, you can get as deep and detailed as you want, exploring the minutia of how it works and how it can be used. For some readers, like me, that is the most addicting and satisfying drug I’ve ever experienced.
5) For The Love Of Everything, Don’t Break It!
Larger systems create an increasingly complicated array of effects and power struggles in your world, but bigger systems also have a much higher chance of breaking. The more stuff there is, the more likely someone will discover how to make a character immortal, develop a hack for infinite wealth, or even combine two fully functional capabilities into an infinite loop.
How it becomes broken is important, and we will talk more about that in the future, but I think we can agree its something we’d rather not witness.
Example Boundary Conditions
There are lots of options you can take here.
You can limit the effects
This is by far the most painful route for me. I like the magic to be broad and versatile, but that isn’t necessarily the best choice. Take another look at Sanderson. He does a marvelous job with each of his magic systems, limiting what the individual components are capable of. Sure, there are ten orders of the Knights Radiant, but each can only do a couple of very specific things.
You can handicap a character
This can be the result of physical injury, psychological trauma, or something else entirely. Jim Butcher did this around book 6 of the Dresden Files, leaving Harry seriously injured and mentally unable to handle certain types of magic. It could also be an emotional issue where the character is limited by a fear or catastrophic event in their past
You can make the magic misunderstood
Maybe the limitations don’t come from the magic itself but from peoples understanding of it. If they don’t understand the true mechanisms behind their abilities, it is very easy to set limits that don’t really exist.
You can follow scientific principles
A friends once said to me, “I don’t like science. All it does is tell me what we can’t do.” While I disagree, science does provide a wonderful set of prebuilt limitations that you can add to your system and magic.
The path you choose doesn’t matter. It’s really about making sure you apply the right boundaries in the right places.
Boundary Conditions Are Applied to Magic Variables
Just as your magic variables help you understand and define your system, boundary conditions further refine and tune your variables. By modifying the boundaries you put in place, you can fine-tune your variables to deliver exactly the kind of magic you want. It’s really less vexing than it might sound; boundary conditions can easily be applied to any of the variable types.
Assumptions are just one of the user-level variables. Working the last two example conditions, the users might assume certain scientific principles apply when they actually don’t. The character might assume their magic must follow conservation of mass while, in reality, they can create or subtract mass from their world on a whim.
You might already have noticed that the exact same boundary condition could be applied at different variable levels. Perhaps conservation isn’t an assumption of the user but is actually a hard limit of the system itself. Where you decide to place it can have repercussions, but they aren’t something you need to worry about when first starting.
Speaking of system variables, you might enforce boundaries on the source variable. Maybe the spells require dried flowers from specific plants or some other kind of material component.
One final example:
The global variable of magic flux can easily be modified to meet your needs. Maybe the birthrate of magi has dropped to one child every hundred years, leading to a decline in magic with each passing year. On the other hand, maybe more magicians are being trained with each season as the number magic-capable individuals rises. There are so many possibilities.
Don’t stress yourself trying to find the perfect place for every boundary; the differences between variables can get really fuzzy. Work with what makes sense for you. In the future, we will look deeper into these kinds of boundary conditions, what they do to your system, and other options you might have for achieving the same effect.
Boundary Conditions in <100 Words
- Boundary conditions are the limitations you place on your system.
- There are at least 5 reasons you need them
- Boundaries come in many forms
- Limited effects
- Handicapped characters
- Scientific principles
- Boundaries are applied to specific variables
I’ll See You Again in Two Weeks
If you liked this post, consider sharing it with another magic builder you know. Next time we’re going to take a look at how to test your system. More specifically, we will cover how you can break it on purpose so other’s can’t break it by accident. It sounds terrible, but it’s going to be lots of fun.