Worldbuilding

Four Ways to Limit Magic & Technology

While powerful spells and gadgets are fun to imagine, they can do serious harm to a story. Once you add a transporter or summon giant eagles, it becomes too easy for the protagonists to overcome challenges. Luckily, there are many ways to reduce the impact of powerful gadgets on your story – without changing what tasks they perform. Here’s four limitations that can help you get those enchantments under control:

1. Only a Few Can Wield It

The simplest way to limit powerful tools is to reduce the number of people who can use them. There are a lot of different possible reasons for a dearth of magic or tech wielders. You could use one or more of the following:

  • Genetic Ability: The carriers of ESP genes could have been systematically killed or naturally died out. Or magic could have recently entered the world through a single progenitor, and hasn’t had time to spread throughout the population just yet.
  • Talent and Study: It may be that anyone can just use magic or pick up tech gadgets, but only a few have the dexterity, strength, or mental focus necessary to pull off impressive feats. Even with innate talent, they may not become a master wizard unless they take the time to practice. Make knowledge hard-won through years of dedicated study, and most people just won’t have had the time, drive, or opportunity to learn.
  • Rare Knowledge: Perhaps the manual for the gadget was destroyed generations before, and the knowledge that’s been passed down since teaches that only six of the eighteen functions can be used. A seventh or eighth function might be a powerful game-changer.
  • Past Exposure: The ability could be limited to the five scientists that were in the lab when the demon was summoned. It could be a rare gift given by the gods to heroes that completed a quest for them, or the side effect of an experimental drug provided by aliens.

2. It Must Be Done in Specific Situations

This limitation can add a lot of interest to a story. It can provide a deadline for heroes to meet, and intrigue as competing parties maneuver to their advantage – meeting the enemy on their home ground, or waiting until the time is just right. It could give the antagonists an advantage or provide neutral territory. Specific situations means one or both of the following has been restricted:

  • Time: Magic, in many traditional stories, is timed by astronomical phenomena, such as the full moon or planet alignment. A technical operation might need to be done at 14:33, when the Hubble Telescope is directly overhead. Timing can also be relative to an event, such as the birth of a child, the coronation of a ruler, or when a ship enters a planet’s tachyon field.
  • Space: Technological or magical success could also be dependent on a place: on the side of a mountain, underground, in a temple, or out of sight. A gadget could need perfect darkness, a certain altitude level, or zero gravity to operate.

3. It’s Resource Intensive

An under-appreciated option is a two-pronged limit that all of us deal with on a day to day basis: how much money and how much effort we can throw at a particular problem. This limit, as it’s a very realistic one, is often used in gritty settings. It can take multiple forms:

  • Intense Physical Effort: Power that is only attainable through magical martial arts training, sacred fasting, or intricate computer programming, are only available to the dedicated, healthy – and uninterrupted.
  • Group Effort: Anyone who’s tried to choose a restaurant with indecisive friends knows that it can be difficult to get a group of people to agree on a course of action. Just because the characters involved are magicians or cyborgs doesn’t mean that they won’t have disagreements, secret agendas, and interpersonal drama.
  • Rare or Expensive Ingredients: Expensive ingredients will make any power the sole purview of rulers and the rich. Perhaps everyone else can acquire essential components only through great risk or sacrifice, reserving the power for desperate situations.

4. It Has Negative Consequences

Another popular limit is to create negative consequences for using the magic or technology. Serious consequences can strengthen stories by adding conflict for characters to deal with, but they don’t have to be harsh to be useful. Don’t underestimate people’s preference for comfort. If completing a teleportation spell will mean a splitting headache for two hours afterwards, no one will use it to travel within a city.

This limit can take many different forms, and often more than one:

  • Discomfort or Injury: A gadget could be uncomfortable or torturous to use. It might make a user feel physical pain, toy with their emotions, or perhaps even mess with their mind, creating delusions or other symptoms. There could be physical consequences after casting a spell – anything from becoming hungry or thirsty, all the way up to death.
  • Impersonal Consequences: The consequences of using tech or magic might not have anything to do with humans at all. Using magic might weaken the walls between worlds enough for demons or fae to come through; tech might do anything as 20th-century as creating greenhouse gases, or as futuristic as disintegrating a planet.
  • Cultural Consequences: If magic has been used to kill a large section of the population, or ruin the countryside for miles around, it may have also become taboo or outlawed. A member of a Luddite culture that has technological knowledge will only use that knowledge in secret, under duress, by accident, or as an act of rebellion.

 

What you can’t do with magic or technology is more interesting than what you can. An outbreak movie where everyone just stops in at the doctor’s office for a quick shot of life elixir wouldn’t be any fun. Make that elixir slowly turn everyone into a monster, and your story begins to write itself.

Want pointers on your story? We’re available for hire.

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