Three Quick Steps to Fix a Broken Magic System
Maybe you’re the one who broke it, or maybe someone else pointed it out to you. Either way, you’ve put a lot of work has gone into your magic system, and the last thing we want is for it to stay broken. We need to fix it. Fast.
Today we are going to look at three steps you can take to patch the cracks in your system and make it stronger than ever.
Step 1. Decide If it Needs Fixing
Just because it’s broken doesn’t mean it’s bad. You just have to apply it right.
Take a look at Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson. Ash falls from the sky, the nights are blanketed in unnatural mist, and the country is ruled by an immortal God-Emperor. Sanderson turned a system breaking power-loop and made it central to the plot. I can’t say anything more without spoilers, so you’ll have to read the book to see what I’m talking about.
The point is, a properly handled chink in your magic system can become a powerful feature. An overpowered and broken protagonist can be soul-suckingly boring; an overpowered and broken antagonist can ramp the tension even higher as the characters struggle with the impossibility of their task.
If the damage to your system and plot is too great or simply irritates you, then go ahead and look a little deeper.
Step 2. Determine Core of The Problem.
The trick here is to discover the difference between a broken and an unbroken state. For now, let’s return to Mistborn: The Final Empire, and if you haven’t read it by now, shame on you.
Let’s say we want to build a magic system with telekinetic abilities like those of the Coinshots (Mistings capable of burning steel to push bits of metal, like coins, at deadly velocities). In accordance with Newton’s Third Law of motion (for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction), the push goes both ways. If a Coinshot were to push on something heavier then themselves; it is the Misting that goes flying and not the metal.
For our purposes, we want to characters bounding through the air in graceful arcs, making for stellar action scenes and gorgeous visuals. But in our system, we don’t want them cutting down throngs of soldiers with a single spray of deadly currency. Sanderson made it work beautifully, but that makes killing a little easier than we want in our system.
The heart of the problem lies, not in the power, but the application. We want our Users throwing themselves, and potentially others, around like dolls, but becoming a deadly weapon after a coffee run is too much. The throwing of coins isn’t the concern, it’s their lethality. If we could find a way to make our personal brand of Coinshot less deadly, then issues would be resolved.
If we wish, we can dig down further into the problem, but that will require the use of mathematical equations to quantify each situation. I know that, for some, the prospect of using math on their magic is more sickening than reaching bare-handed into a clogged toilet but don’t worry. When we do it, we will do it together.
For now, let’s fix it at this higher level.
3. Apply More Boundary Conditions
Once we have identified our core problem, it becomes a simple matter of cutting out the problem areas.
There are tons of ways we can do this, and which one is best will depend on exactly what we want from the magic. Nerfing just the main character into a non-lethal Coinshot is easy enough, but we have to remember there will be others that aren’t so limited. To eliminate the problematic elements within the system will require further limitation of the system itself. That means somehow taking away the coins and hide them somehow.
The most obvious solution is to make it impossible for the User to push on metal, but in that case, there might be nothing preventing them from using pebbles instead. Instead of just attacking the surface of the problem, the coin, we can limit the minimum area of influence preventing the creation of any bullet-like projectiles. Sanderson wanted steel-pushing to be part of the Mistborn’s deadly arsenal of tricks, so he didn’t nerf it at all. Instead, he focused on finding a workaround enemy soldiers could take. These men, known as Hazekillers, wore no metals at all and carried wooden shields and staves to protect them from the Coinshots and Mistborn.
Each solution will have it’s own pros and cons, influencing the texture and shape of your magic. Whatever solution you choose, make sure to test the system again. It might not solve the problem completely or may even create new ones.
Things Still Broken?
These three steps are my go-to solution for any potential problems with my magic; sometimes the issues persist.
The most common stumbling block usually occurs in step 2.
Finding the actual source of the break can be a tricky business. Sometimes, to get to the heart of the issue, it’s necessary to take your analysis to a deeper level. For me, that usually involves dusting of my math textbooks and digging up relevant equations. We will talk about this more in the future, but your best option at the moment is to seek an outside opinion.
This doesn’t have to be me. I’m more than happy to help if you want to sit down with me and hash things out. Find a friend or fellow writer willing to look at this with you. Send them this post (email, social media, carrier pigeon, whatever) to build a common framework and get to fixing. Remember, I’m always here if you need me.
That’s all for today. We’ll talk again in two weeks. Rowenson, out.