Originally Published February 12th, 2018
Due to some technical issues, this post was published with a number of formatting errors that have since been fixed. Thank you for your understanding.
To understand why limitations are essential for your magic system, we need to cover several topics. You might already know, but we will review what limitations are and some of their many forms. From there we can discuss exactly why you need them and end the day in perfect, harmonious agreement regarding limitations and their importance.
If you’re here, you’ve probably brainstormed some cool ideas and checked the alignment between your story and your magic. You might even have explored different system variables. It’s even possible you’ve done each of these things multiple times.
If not, don’t worry. I’m not going to knock you out, tie you in a sack and throw you in the river; I only do that to people who talk in the theater. Regardless, you’re welcome to stay and learn about magic system limitations, but you will get more from this post if you already have a swarm of ideas flitting through your brain like hummingbirds on amphetamines.
As pretty as those drug-birds might be, let’s look at how and why to clip their wings for the greater good of your magic system.
What Is a Magical Limitation?
A magical limitation is literally anything you put in place to regulate the use or power of your magic system.
That’s really all there is to it. Anytime you build something into your world, add quirks to your characters, or just plain make up rules, you’re setting limitations. While they often manifest as increased costs, terrible consequences, or diminished capabilities, your limitations can take many forms.
Let’s look at a couple.
You Can Limit the Magical Effects
This is by far the most painful route for me. I like my magic to be broad and versatile, but that isn’t always the best choice. Sometimes, it’s better to select a fistful of your best ideas and leave the rest for another day. This is especially true if you want a hard and rational system with every aspect explained.
Look at Brandon Sanderson. He does a marvelous job limiting the individual components of his magic systems. Sure, there are ten orders of the Knights Radiant, but each can only do a couple of very specific things.
Characters Can Have Personal Limitations
It won’t stop them from being amazing. Trust me.
Due to physical injury, psychological trauma, genetics, or any other reason you can think of, the capabilities of one character differ from another.
If you’re up to it, you can even strip your characters of capabilities they previously had. 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 lasted for a while and increased tension throughout the story by robbing Dresden of some of his signature spells.
Magical Knowledge Might Be Limited
Maybe the limitations don’t come from the magic itself but from people’s understanding of it. If they don’t understand the true mechanisms behind their abilities, it’s easy to set limits that don’t really exist.
Between you and me, this is one of my favorite methods. With a little effort, you can take your favorite magic system and generate an endless variety of stories and seemingly disparate systems without changing any of the fundamental rules.
Limitations Can Leak Over from “Reality”
A friend 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 pre-built limitations that you can add to your magic.
The amount of reality that seeps into your system is entirely up to you but it seems scientifically based magic systems are becoming more and more popular these days.
That’s just a few of the many ways you can build limitations into your magic system. In fact, you can apply these limitations virtually anywhere you want within your system or your story. How many limits you use and where you place them will depend heavily on your personal style and the story you want to tell.
Personally, I Apply Limits to My Magic System Variables
***If you’re not sure what in the nine hells I’m talking about, you should really read this post here. It’s just too big a topic to get into right now***
Your magic variables act as the knobs, buttons, and sliders on the magical soundboard of your system, and your limitations will determine their exact value and ranges.
By modifying the limits you put in place, you can fine-tune your variables to deliver the exact kind of magic you want. It’s less vexing than it might sound; limitations can easily be applied to any of the variable types.
For example, assumptions are just one of the user-level variables I like to use. Considering possible limits on magical knowledge and limits from reality, the users might assume certain scientific principles apply when they actually don’t. The character might assume their magic must follow the conservation of mass while, in reality, they can create or subtract mass from their world on a whim.
Where you decide to place the limitation can have repercussions, but that’s not something you need to worry about when first starting. Don’t stress yourself trying to find the perfect place for every limitation. Work with what makes sense for you. For now, we need to come to a very important agreement.
Limitations Are Essential!
So far we’ve covered what limitations are and a little on how to use them, but you need to understand the vital role they play in your magic system. If I haven’t convinced you yet, here are five points for you to consider.
1) Brandon Sanderson Said So
Okay, okay. You don’t have to do anything just because he said so, but he makes some compelling arguments. In fact, it’s the heart of 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. Brandon covers this in greater detail in the original essay and we’ve got four more reasons to talk about.
2) Overpowered Characters Are Boring
I can’t stress this enough!
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 anytime he “dies”, I never believe it. Superman is just too awesome, and that makes him boring.
Overpowered characters are boring, regardless of the story you may be telling.
When Skyrim first came out, there was a power loop between some of the abilities allowing the construction of game-breakingly powerful weapons and armor. Many of my friends gleefully exploited that loop and took their new god-like characters out to slaughter all the dragons in Tamriel.
Personally, 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) Limitations Are Easy to Understand
Many 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 magic. Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy demonstrates this beautifully.
Even if you’re building a soft and nebulous system where extrapolation isn’t necessary, clear, easy to understand rules are still invaluable. 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 experience you can deliver.
5) You Don’t Want to Break It!
Larger systems can offer a correspondingly large array of effects and power struggles in your world, but bigger systems also have a higher chance of breaking. It’s like the difference between a circuit powering an LED and the complex innards of your computer… one is more prone to breaking.
How it becomes broken is important, and we will talk more about that in the future, but for now, I think we can agree its something we’d rather not witness.
Now that we’ve reviewed exactly what magic limitations are, gone over some examples, and explored exactly why limitations are essential for a high-quality magic system, you’re probably wondering what to do with this knowledge. We’re in complete agreement on the importance of limitations, but you’re still confused about how to build limitations of your own.
Well, I’ve got good news: I have a workbook designed for this exact purpose.
Restrictions May Apply: Building Limitations for Your Magic System is precisely the resource you need. This magic building workbook will show you five places to look for inspiration and guide you through fifteen different exercises to help you generate and refine limitations that will take your magic system to the next level.
If this is at all interesting to you, stay tuned as I’m planning to launch the book sometime in early November. You can watch the books progress at the top of the right sidebar or join the Magic Builders Mailing List and get access to the workbook before anyone else… Except for other people on the mailing list… and my cover artist… and my wife. Whatever, you see my point.
If you couldn’t tell, I’m crazy excited about this workbook so I better get back to prepping it for release. That’s all for now. Rowenson, out.