Welcome to Part 7 of Building a Viral Magic System
Today is going to be fun! Why? Because today we’re talking about one of my favorite parts of the magic building process. Today we’re building the viral magic boundary conditions!
It might not sound fun or glamorous, but I love this part. Everything so far was about exploring options. Now… now we discover the shape of our system. Even a few boundary conditions can do a lot to show what is and isn’t possible with a magic system. You may be tempted to skip this part, but it is well worth completing.
If you’re feeling lost and confused right now, I recommend familiarizing yourself with the basics of How to Create a Magic System and read the intro to Building a Viral Magic System to give you more context on where we are today. Now, let’s not waste another minute getting into this. To get things rolling, just keep it simple.
I Started With Known Boundary Conditions
I cannot properly stress the importance of getting all thoughts out of your head and written down. Not only does it decrease the odds of you losing an awesome idea, it also frees up more mental space for new stuff.
The advice may feel repetitive at this juncture, but I need you to trust me. Every time I run through my notes on a system, I find another nugget I’d missed before.
What viral magic boundary conditions have I already developed?
- Magical effects only appear while a person has a specific viral infection.
- There is an incubation period between being infected and manifesting magical symptoms and powers.
- The infection doesn’t last forever. Some viral infections only last a few days.
- Healthier individuals will have the power for less time than others.
- Peak magical power occurs at the height of the sickness. Therefore, the most powerful effects are only present for a few days.
- You’re sick and, well… you feel like crap.
- The more simultaneous infections you have, the more likely they are to kill you.
- You can become immune to a viral strain and therefore lose access to magic.
- Each virus behaves differently, requiring extensive knowledge to use it properly.
I already had a lot of viral magic boundary conditions worked out from early brainstorming and research for this system, but still need more. There are several ways to find and set your boundaries, but let me show you where I usually turn.
Where I Looked for New Boundary Conditions
One thing you might have noticed is that boundary conditions don’t always look like boundary conditions.
Look at number six on my list. Someone with a viral infection feeling like crap seems less like a boundary condition for the magic and more a fact of life. When you get sick, you feel sick. And, from a magical perspective, it’s not much of a boundary. But as a user of the magic, feeling sick just when you got access to your power presents a big problem.
Most of my viral magic boundary conditions so far came from the nature of the magic itself. Everything on the list above is there because of how viruses work. But what if that’s not enough? Well, from my experience, boundary conditions usually exist for a few reasons.
- Scientific Reasons: the nature of the world and the universe limits things somehow.
- Rational/Logical Reasons: if the power works this way, then the character can do action X, but not action Y.
- Societal Reasons: There’s nothing limiting the magic itself, but social norms or regulations make certain actions difficult or impossible.
- Personal Reasons: each individual character might have their own boundary conditions, whether they are self-inflicted or not is up to you.
- Arbitrary Reasons: Because you, the creator, said so. It’s magic, so you can do whatever you want.
The different reasons often blend together for me as I work and sometimes resemble certain magic system variables. That said, thinking through the types of boundary conditions always gives me a place to start.
For this story, I didn’t focus much on personal or societal boundaries because the characters are not concerned with such limitations.
Let’s look at some other boundary conditions I came up with.
Scientific and Logical Boundaries
The effects themselves will need to follow science and logic… mostly.
For example, the strain that can turn solid objects into dust can’t destroy matter. I can’t put the boundary details in place until I have made final decisions regarding which effects to use.
Vector Strains induce behavioral changes and little else.
It seems like a massive stretch of science and logic to allow a single virus to grant full muscular control over another person. Scientists have discovered several viruses, like rabies, capable of changing behavioral patterns of the infected individual and I’m don’t want to take things much past that.
Host effects will follow the conservation of mass and energy.
If the infected host grows armored scales, they must consume the new matter before their body can produce the scales. Straight forward, but I’m not thrilled with this boundary condition. It’s one of my defaults and feels too generic; at least it’s a place to start.
A maximum of 3 simultaneous magic infections.
It is entirely possible for a person to have multiple diseases at the same time. In fact, as one infection knocks down their immune system, they can become more susceptible to additional viruses. And that creates a big problem. There is no scientific or logical reason a person couldn’t infect themselves with multiple viruses all at once. The chances of death go up, but that doesn’t stop them unlocking massive power before they die.
This is a power loop I saw coming from the beginning, so I’m shutting it down. The number three is almost completely arbitrary, but it allows me to reinforce my previous pattern of three classes of magical strains.
While the boundary condition itself is arbitrary, there is nothing to stop me from applying logic to it after the fact. For example, I learned viruses can be “territorial,” competing for dominance in an area of the body. Knowing that, I can say all the magical viruses are hostile toward all similar strains. This further defines the boundary condition to be one host strain, one vector strain, and one environmental strain at a time.
As a side note, this competition doesn’t mean only one infection exists. A person can be infected with multiple environmental strains, but only one can produce a magical effect at a time. Just an extra loophole I threw in to make everything work better in the story.
The User has little direct control over the magic.
The effects of the magical strains are mostly passive. They aren’t something that a person “casts” or “uses”. Most of them simply exist and it is up to the user to take advantage of their existence. Some strains will allow more active manipulation of effects than others, but even in those cases, the user can’t turn the magic off.
This limitation generates several interesting possibilities for the user and those around them. It’s up to the people of the world to be clever enough to take advantage of the effects as they occur.
Since this is an arbitrary decision, I could have gone in a different direction with the system. Most magic systems give the user more agency. This allows them to be active, precise, and skilled with the magic. While I could have gone the standard route, I felt this was a better match for how viruses work. We don’t choose what the symptoms will be, we only treat them.
Each Type of Virus will be spread by specific bodily fluids.
I decided that the Vector Strains spread via saliva, vomit, and diarrhea (anything in the digestive tract) while Environmental strains spread through contaminated blood and Host Strains through contaminated sweat.
This is another boundary condition that blurs the lines of logical and arbitrary reasoning. It makes perfect sense for classes or families of viruses to spread the same way. The actual decision and pairing of fluids to strain does not have the same scientific foundation.
Just because there aren’t scientific reasons, doesn’t mean the choices weren’t deliberate.
Some classes of effects are easier to manipulate than others. If paired incorrectly that could lead to a breaking point in the system. Take the environmental effect that turns matter to dust. If it spread through contaminated sweat, a person could disintegrate large amounts of matter around them with little effort. All they would need to do is stay hydrated.
By making this dependent on contaminated blood, I greatly reduce the risk of a story-breaking power.
Those are all the boundary conditions I have developed so far. Some of them still need work, but I love the direction things are heading. Now it’s starting to feel like a rational system. Before it felt like a collection of cool stuff (a nebulous system), but now it feels like it has actual rules and patterns.
I Still Need More Viral Magic Boundary Conditions
We’re still in the first iteration of Stage 3: Definition, so we aren’t done setting boundaries. Once I better understand where they’re needed, we will come back and develop more boundary conditions.
As things stand, I might have enough boundaries to limit the magic and the characters in this story. Then again, I might not. I won’t know until I break the system. Once I’ve broken it, I can see where more boundaries are needed and there’s always a chance I missed something. It is important to stay vigilant for potential problems and flexible with potential solutions.
Oh, and another thing. Most of the boundary conditions discussed in this post work on a system-wide level. Because this is going to be a rational system, I will need to apply more on a deeper level for each individual magical effect. While I’ve made good progress, a lot more development is needed before I can call this system ready for use.
That’s All for Now
Boundary conditions can be a little confusing at first, which is why this post focused more on the boundaries I put in place and less on the logic behind their development. Check out this overview to learn more about boundary conditions for magic systems.
If you’re still lost and unsure how to proceed, you might need guidance tailored for your system. That level of detail and custom direction is difficult to achieve through simple blog posts, which is why I offer coaching services as well. Helping people craft and repair the extraordinary elements and systems within their story is the entire reason I’m here.
Check out my coaching services if you want 1-on-1 guidance on developing your system. And don’t let the pricing hold you back. At the very least we can set up a free 30-minute introductory session to identify where you are in the process and outline your next step.
My ultimate goal is to be for magic systems what K. M. Weiland is for story structure, so don’t be afraid to reach out and ask questions. I am here to help you build an extraordinary system (magic, tech, or otherwise) that supports your story rather than damaging it. After all, we want people to remember the force powers and flying brooms, not the midichlorians and time-turners.
Next time we look at the viral magic, we’ll start the hunt for equations, functions, and patterns. Until then, Rowenson, out.