OP Magic – Fun, yes. But worldbreaking.

It’s tempting to make your mage a siege-engine of shock and awe, but it can also break your world.


I’ve come across this a lot. An author has spent hundreds of pages building a coherent world that feels lived-in and real. This is nothing to sniff at; creating a sense of verisimilitude in a place inhabited by goblins, elves and demons ain’t easy. But good writers do it all the time. It’s a strange and impressive alchemy that makes the fantastic believable and the outlandish relatable.

But then, the good guys get attacked. Some terrible foe emerges, ripping up the earth, raising devils, pummeling the lines of soldiery with blocks of ice, thunderbolts and gouts of molten lead. And the mage sighs, grits his teeth in concentration and WHAM!

When the smoke clears, all the bad guys are dead, and the mage is… well, he’s a bit tired and grouchy. ‘Cor, wiping out that demonic horde really burned through my Vitamin C,’ he groans. ‘I better have a rest.’ So he goes to bed, has a sleep, and then the next day he’s ready to lay down the law again.

The trouble with this is not that the mage is powerful. Magic is supposed to be powerful, it’s supposed to be a gamechanger. But it isn’t supposed to be a gamebreaker. It isn’t supposed to be so powerful that it snaps the carefully-rendered world in two and makes it harder for you to believe in it.

So what’s my problem here?

For me, it all comes down to one question – and this is a question I think all of us fantasy authors should ask ourselves when we’re building a world. And that question is:

Q.1   “Why isn’t everyone in the world a mage?”

Think about it. If mages are so powerful that they can smash entire armies and the only blowback is a bit of exhaustion, why bother learning to fire a bow? Why bother to learn swordplay? Why bother to climb into a suit of armour? Instead of learning how to kill a man with a hand-axe you might as well spend your time in the library, and learn how to kill ten thousand with a flick of your wrist and an arcane word.

(The Hobbit: BOTFA broke for me when Galadriel slapped down Sauron with a Level 10 Restraining Order… in a world where that can happen, would Sauron even bother – or indeed dare – to try and take over the world? No, he’d be in a bunker, soiling himself in fear every time someone knocked at the door, thinking it was Cate Blanchett.)

If the only cost of powerful magic is a headache or a bit of tiredness, then this makes it no more taxing than regular combat, and a heck of a lot more impactful on the battlefield. So why isn’t everyone a mage?

In my opinion, if you want to have awesome OP magic in your books (and I luuurve awesome OP magic), there needs to be a good reason why people choose NOT to learn the magic arts. In Healer’s Ruin, the various Slingers (from ‘spell-slingers’, a derogatory term for wizardly folk) are dicing with madness every time they use their powers. Because they have to immerse themselves in a seductive other world of energy in order to haul magic into the real world, there’s always a chance they’ll get stuck there… and that’s the end of them. And sometimes, they lose themselves piecemeal… a kind of dementia of the soul.

As a consequence, most people in the world of Healer’s Ruin prefer to stick with cold steel and the certainty that they won’t go mad. Even the Ten Plains King lets other people do the spell-slinging for him. It’s a nifty way of this author having his cake, and eating it too. I can have OP magic that burns the page as you’re reading it, but there’s a cost to that magic. Sure, it’s a nice get-out clause when the shit hits the fan on the field, but there’s always drama.

And this is the golden rule of fantasy fiction, right?

Whatever happens, if you’ve lost the drama, you’ve lost the reader. And there’s no magic spell that can pull them back.

So remember the risk and reward mechanic. It keeps people playing table-top games, and it keeps people playing poker. And if you make it an integral part of your magic system, it may just keep people reading your book!





3 thoughts on “OP Magic – Fun, yes. But worldbreaking.

  1. In my world magic is illegal – punishable by death or imprisonment. Mages are hunted and most killed before they become particularly powerful. There is also banecrystal – a substance which cripples mages. The Witch-Hunters use it to good effect. Of course the fact that magic is illegal doesn’t stop it existing, it’s just most people who are mages have to be really careful about it, there are plenty of people willing to turn them in. Most people AREN’T magical, or don’t realise it and so magic is something terrifying.

    Magic also comes in different forms – sorcery, adepts of various sorts, farseeing, and to an extent luck. Some is just more obvious.

    As for physical effects to the spell caster – well it is tiring. The more powerful the spell the more it wipes them out. If they use blood to boost it then they could bleed out. There are also creatures in the Arcane Realms that might like a munch. Mages have been lost there.

    I’d agree – magic or any amazing power needs a balance.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I agree with your basic premise, however it’s too easy to fall into the storytelling trap of high fantasy wizardry and sorcery. Magic doesn’t have to be ‘I cast magic missle’ at my enemies and wait for the dust to clear. Magic should be a force in itself, it should have a drive and desire of it’s own. A person shouldn’t simply be defined by what they do, or what powers they possess. They should have their own goals and the magic should be nothing more than a means to an ends. If this means that everyone is a mage because it’s so powerful? then so be it? It’s not hard to limit this if you don’t want that end result. Simply say that not everyone has the ability to draw upon the magic or make the learning process so difficult that it’s not available to everyone.

    When I was writing my series, I wanted to tell a story about someone learning to use magic and becoming overpowered, addicted and consumed by it. I went through my story at least a dozen times trying to tell it in a high fantasy setting and realized, that i just didn’t know enough about that world to make it believable and was therefore falling back onto well established cliches and tropes. It wasn’t until i tried to tell my story set in a modern day setting that it began to work. I could draw upon my own experiences as a high school student to make my world deeper and more believable.

    One of things that I really wanted to do with my novel was to describe a system of magic that had rules, it had costs – it wasn’t simply chanting some archaic words and pointing your fingers. I liked the idea of the Scientific Mage, one who has to learn the rules of the magic before he can become powerful. I found as I set some basic premises for my magic, it limited the way in which my powers could be utilized. I found myself thinking ‘Okay, that’s not right – the magic couldn’t work that way.’ or ‘If I wanted this to occur, what would be the logical consequence?’ I found myself deep in arguments with friends and alpha readers about the magic and found that we were adhering to a strict rule set and found that by manipulating that rule set we could come up with effects and powers I hadn’t even thought of yet. By imposing a limit on the powers of my magic I had inadvertently created a much stronger world.

    A good friend of mine once said – ‘With Magic everything is possible, there is only consequence.’

    Liked by 1 person

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