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fixing the viral magic

Welcome to Part 10 of
Building a Viral Magic System

Aaaand we’re back. Don’t ask “back from where”; it doesn’t matter. Plausible deniability is the only real edge we have left, so you’re better off not knowing.

When we last looked at the viral magic system, we spent a whole lot of time figuring out how to break it. We’ve worked hard to get here, putting blood, tears, and brain-sweat into this system. All that effort will be wasted if we don’t find a way to fix it.

So that’s what we’re going to do.

Before getting into the specifics, I want to cover my general approach to fixing magic systems. This approach works whether you’re making advanced technology, bizarre alien biology, or a traditional magic system. After covering the basics, we’ll discuss details on how to repair the viral magic system.

How to Fix a System in 3 Simple Steps

If you’ve been hanging around me for a while, you might have seen the original post already and you definitely need to see a psychiatrist. Questions regarding your sanity or choice in conversationalists aside, here are the three steps.

  1. Decide if it needs fixing.
  2. Find the Core of the problem.
  3. Fix it with more boundary conditions, additional equations, or more specific information.

That’s all there is to it.

Granted, it takes practice just like anything else, and some breaks will be harder to repair than others but that’s the process.

Now, let’s dive right into fixing the viral magic system.

Problem 1) Kinetic Dampening

Does It Need Fixing? 

Yes. I found enough potential issues that, even if I dodged all of them in the story itself, it might leave readers asking questions. Since this is to be a rational system, I have to worry just as much about what happens “off-screen” as on.

The Core Problem

The real risk here is losing all sense of danger. If a character is too difficult to hurt, it damages the story. Done wrong, it makes things incredibly boring because the character is untouchable or incredibly annoying because it makes the antagonist untouchable. You can make both work, but that’s not what I want to deal with in this story.

Potential Solutions

The easiest solution would be to remove this effect from the system, but I don’t want to do that. The visuals I have in my head related to this effect are just too stinking cool to pass up.

Instead, I’m going to dial back the power.

For one, it’s doesn’t stop the force of an attack, it simply resists and redistributes it. So the shield might work for small things like a rock, but hit it with enough energy will still destroy the user. On top of that, making it a simple redistribution of energy won’t stop everything. Piercing and slashing weapons will still do the job as long as they reach the body.

And that’s it. No new equations necessary, just a specific description and better-defined boundary conditions.

Problem 2) Mind Control

Does It Need Fixing? 

Absolutely. Mind control and all its variants must be watched carefully or you will quickly find your characters overpowered and capable of untold mischief.

The Core Problem

The real issue with mind control is that, without limitations, it provides too many options. If they can control an infinite number of subjects, from any distance, and give any command, then you have a horribly broken system on your hands. With such a vast array of options and abilities, there are few scenarios to which mind control can’t provide a solution.

Granted, what breaks one story, might not break another. If, for example, your character had limitless powers of the mind but was forced to face a horde of robots, then the problem goes away. Additionally, if you give all that power to the antagonist, then you get the delicious task of defeating an impossible force.

Potential Solutions

Because the problem comes from having too many choices, the simplest solution is to start limiting possibilities.

Common ways are to limit the mind control by duration, line of sight, activated by touch alone, and limiting the number of people that can be controlled simultaneously. Adding a contest of wills to fight free of the controlling influence is another common balancing point for such a power.

For this system, I wanted to go a different route. 

Remember, the power is in the virus, not the host. The mind control strain won’t grant the host a sudden ability to extend their thoughts and will into the heads of others. It will, however, change the behavioral filters of the second host, making them highly susceptible to commands and suggestions from the primary host. It’s more like viral hypnosis than traditional mind control.

This way I can easily add in a handful of standard options. Suggestions to do something outside the person’s character, such as violence or suicide, are less likely to be successful. A clever user could put people in a position to fight or die, but the direct command might not work. This makes the selection of the secondary host almost as important as the power itself.

Problem 3) Stronger Magic Together

Does It Need Fixing? 

This might surprise you, but no. There is potential for some horrible breaks and abuse of the system, but I’m actually okay with that.

Let’s reframe the problem. 

None of the magical virus strains are overly powerful, at least not after we finish fixing them. However, there is nothing to stop infected individuals from working together to combine their powers all at once. Alternatively, a person could intentionally infect others and harvest the magical fluids from their bodies. When harnessed on a larger scale, the magical effects become significantly more dangerous.

And I like it that way!

Remember, a system becomes broken when it’s too easy for a character to solve problems. While such scenarios hold the potential to generate powerful and devastating effects, they don’t come easily. Regardless of how it’s done, massive amounts of planning, coordination, and effort would be needed to make this work.

Honestly, if a character is willing and capable of pulling it off, I’m willing to let them have their amplified magic. And I haven’t even begun discussing all the incredible story ideas that have already come from this. And to top it all off, this kind of manipulation and “breaking” of the system is perfectly in line with the tone and theme of the rest of the magic and the story itself. 

Just because something is broken, doesn’t mean it needs to be fixed. You might be able to turn a bug into a feature.

System-Wide Fixes

Those were all the specific problems I found while breaking the system, and have all been fixed or accepted into the system. But we’re not quite done. There are things we can do to further patch any lingering damage and prevent other minor problems from surfacing. 

Really, I’m making tweaks to the system as a whole to make it feel more balanced and interesting. To do this, I am going to take a closer look at the different magical strains one at a time and see what I can do.

Environmental Effects

The environmental effects (turning matter to dust, decreasing gravity, magical portals, etc) are by far the most tactically useful effects in the entire system. You still have to wait through the incubation period of the virus, but when it comes to manipulating the effects to your advantage, these are the easiest to use quickly and responsively. Because of that, these magical strains need some additional limitations so they don’t outshine the rest of the system.

I actually fixed this back in Post 7. (include post 7 featured image below)

I had the idea that the different strains might function through specific contaminated fluids. Of the three options (blood, saliva, and sweat), blood places the most limitations on the user. This is exactly why, while exploring boundary conditions, I decided these viruses should be bloodborne.

This works for several reasons.

For one, it’s harder to induce the desired effect. Regardless of which strain you have, the magic only becomes apparent when the blood leaves the body. To top it all off, there is a hard limit to how much magic can be performed this way. Lose too much blood and your body goes into shock or you die.

A character can do amazing things with this magic but must take care or literally bleed themselves dry in the process.

It also adds an extra tactical dimension to the powers. You can’t turn the effects off once they’re going, but you do have some control over when they appear. Which is a new facet to the power that makes it more interesting overall.

There are going to be smaller breaks that show up, I just know it, but I can easily change the magic on an effect-by-effect base to make it all work out. 

Vector Effects

Review part 4 of the series for full details on these effects as they are by far the most complicated of the three. In short, these viruses turn you into an infectious vector, ultimately giving you some behavioral control over those you infect.

While the environmental effects are the most flashy and evocative, especially with their connection to blood, the vector effects are potentially the most powerful and influential effects in the system.

Even with the patches in place to limit the mind control aspect, these powers still come dangerously close to breaking the system. This is especially true if a character intentionally behaves in ways to extend the duration of their sickness.

To combat that issue, I’m going to take some control out of their hands. While characters can work to keep themselves sick, they cannot control how long others are sick. That combined with a relatively short duration of sickness means their control over others won’t last for more than a few days. There are still ways to break and manipulate the system beyond that, but those are more in line with the scaling of power problem we discussed earlier. 

In the end, not much more to do here, but I’ve got my eye on some things to watch as we finish off the system.

Host Effects

Most of these powers are balanced. They change things about the host that could be useful if managed correctly, but none are too powerful.

There are some cool things that can be done with the host effects, but most can be managed by simply increasing the danger associated with using them.

Take “organ enhancement” for example. These viruses take specific organs in the body and supercharge them. Very useful, but at the same time runs a very high risk of permanently damaging the body. A careless user might kill themselves faster with a host effect strain than with any environmental strain. Keeping your blood inside your body is obviously important, but it might be harder not to overexert yourself when you feel like running 12 miles straight.

The Viral Magic Is Fixed

You now have all the information you need to fix your own system and seen how it can be done.

It will still be difficult. Sometimes an effect or really cool hat latches onto your very soul such that you can’t bear to let it go even as it destroys the surrounding system. Of course, that’s never happened to me or anything, but should you find yourself in one of these soul-rending situations, there’s still hope.

It’s painful, I know, but try to remember Sanderson’s 2nd Law of Magic: Limitations > Power. Making a decision and putting in an interesting limitation is often more fascinating for the reader than the original power itself. So, even though you can’t bear the thought of losing your precious idea, maybe you’ll have a better, more interesting system without it.

On the upside, this gets easier with practice. After so much time working with magic systems, I was fixing most of the problems as soon as I found them. I even had some solutions before I even got the breaking phase. But enough about my unquestionable brilliance, I’ve kept you here long enough.

Thanks For Stopping By

As I continue growing my career as a writing coach and developmental editor, I’m constantly having to change how I manage my time. In order to make more room time in my life for the creation of classes, books, and workbooks (like Restrictions May Apply), I’ve had to cut back on how much time I spend blogging.

display the magic limitations workbook cover

Don’t worry. The blog isn’t going anywhere and I will continue to provide you as much valuable content on the site as I can. The posting schedule has been cut back, however. I know that makes it harder for you to catch new posts as they come out, but there are still options.

The best by far would be to join my mailing list.

Not only will you get alerts when a new post goes live, but you’ll hear from me every week. The topic varies, but it’s always fun (at least it’s fun for me), so I hope you join in the fun.

That’s all for now. Good luck with fixing your magic and remember that I’m always here to help. Rowenson, out.

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