Worldbuilding

Creating a Magic System for Superpowers

Anime showing man with creepy mask

In Darker Than Black, Contractors each have a unique ability that they must pay for afterward.

Since I posted my instructions on creating rational magic systems years ago, I’ve gotten questions from readers on how to make their magic systems more rational. I found that in many of these cases, the asker was creating a magic system that was more like superpowers than traditional spellcasting. Most magic systems used in medievalish fantasy have groups of people with access to the same spells and abilities, though their talent with magic will vary. In a superpower system, spells are unique to each individual.

These individualized magic systems can be a great way to make characters stand out, but they also come with their own challenges.

  • Some characters are too powerful. In an effort to create a large variety of powers and make some characters more powerful than others, there’s usually one or two characters who are powerful enough to break the story, which leads to plot holes and weird character behavior.
  • Powers feel arbitrary. In a rational magic system, magic feels natural and believable partly because all the spells are consistent with each other. But when you create many different powers for different characters, it’s easy to end up with a grab bag of powers that feel inconsistent and contrived.
  • Powers are cliché. Superpowers have been done a lot. By itself, that’s no big deal except that storytellers tend to use powers similar to what other storytellers have used. If you don’t work to set your magic apart, your story may feel like a rehash of X-Men or another well-known franchise.

Let’s explore how you can avoid these problems when creating superpowers.

Start by Creating Your Theme

I’ve written before about why you should theme your world. A strong theme makes worlds feel consistent and memorable. But when storytellers use real-world settings, they tend to write the world as they know it rather than applying a theme. And those un-themed, contemporary settings are where superpowers usually appear. That’s why superpowers often feel so random and cliché.

More than anything else, a strong theme will make your superpowers stand out. So start by choosing yours. Ask yourself: What kind of feeling or atmosphere do you want for your story?

You might have

  • an animalistic theme where people with powers seem bestial.
  • a mystical theme where powers are based on the movement in the heavens.
  • a divine theme where people with superpowers are angels.
  • a horror theme where powers come from strange forces that humans should not be playing with.

Your theme will limit what you can do – and that’s the whole point. To stand out, you need to focus. Choose one feeling, and go all the way with it. Don’t try to have your cake and eat it too.

Once you know your theme, you’re ready to make other decisions about your powers. With every decision you make, stick with your theme. Hammer it home as much as possible.

Decide Where Powers Come From

Next, come up with an explanation for why and how people have powers. Choose a single explanation for everyone: If one person got their power from radiation, everyone should get it from radiation. Depending on what fits your theme and world, you can give powers a scientific or magical explanation.

Scientific explanations should stay away from things that current science has demystified. Because we understand genes pretty well, many people know that a genetic mutation won’t allow someone to turn to stone and back. In contrast, if you use nanites or alien experiments, your explanation won’t stretch belief as far.

If you use some kind of magic, it should come from an outside source that’s impossible to compel, such as divine gifts, spirit pacts, or magic from the stars. Don’t let humans cast that magic directly, or you’ll have a regular magic system on top of your superpowers. It’s very difficult to mix them.

Once you know what causes your powers to appear, fill in how people end up with them. Is it random, or are they chosen? As long as you tie it to the same source, you can create a variety of circumstances. Maybe most people are gifted with divine powers after a special ritual, but one character just stumbles into a temple at the wrong time and knocks over an altar. Then the gods gave them powers for some reason.

Last, look for any limitations or complications your powers might have based on their source. In many cases, superpowers are only limited by how useful each special ability is. That’s a big reason they get out of hand so often. If you can, give your magic another choke point.

  • If nanites are the source of powers, maybe people have different levels of nanites. Someone’s immune system might start attacking their nanites without warning, making them sick and causing power loss.
  • If the power source is divine, maybe characters have to stay on their god’s good side. Your protagonist could win the day by tricking the villain into doing something that makes them fall out of favor with their god.
  • If powers come from planets or stars, maybe your characters are strongest when those celestial bodies appear in the sky and weakest when their power source is on the other side of the earth.

These types of natural limitations and complications will help you not only keep overpowered characters in check but also create great plot opportunities.

Choose the Effects That Powers Can Produce

Now it’s time to look more closely at what your characters can do with their powers. First, you want to limit the types of powers your characters can have. If you can choose from anything, your theme will be lost, and your powers will feel old and arbitrary. The limits you choose may seem restrictive at first, but it will force you to get creative. That’s what you want.

Of course, your limits should still allow for a lot of variety. I’ll give you some examples.

  • If your theme is animalistic, maybe your superheroes can only acquire properties similar to what real animals have. One character might grow a hard outer shell, while another character might get venomous fangs.
  • If your characters are angels, maybe their other powers are limited to what feels like a miracle from the Bible: healing the sick, turning water into wine, or summoning a pestilence.
  • If you have a scientific theme, maybe each superhero can influence one element on the periodic table.

Once you think you’ve chosen a good guideline for your powers, try making up a bunch of powers, and see how it goes. Ideally, your guidelines will give you lots of ideas. If the powers you invent feel very different from each other, make your limits more specific. If you’re having trouble coming up with a variety of powers, make your limits more general.

When finalizing the abilities your characters have, it’s important to consider all the ways your characters could use them. It’s easy to start with an ability that seems reasonable and then later realize it’s too powerful because it can be used in another way. For instance, if a character opens a portal that tears through reality, they can probably use it to tear through enemies and superweapons. On the other hand, a less powerful ability used in creative ways will stand out. For instance, a character who can conjure mirrors might use them to see around corners, create numerous reflections that camouflage their location, reflect light (particularly lasers), or slice enemies with a broken mirror edge. An ability like that creates fun and interesting scenes.

Give Powers More Limits and Consequences

Now that you know what spells your characters can cast, it’s time to loop back on how we can keep them in check. Adding limitations and consequences isn’t just about avoiding plot holes; it’s another way to make your story stand out.

Start by creating limits on the range or target of spells (if that’s relevant to the powers you’re creating). It’s popular to let characters target anything within eyesight, but that isn’t the most interesting option at your disposal. If your superheroes only need line of sight, they might just stand around during battles. But if they have to touch something before they can do magic on it, they’ll have a reason to fight hand to hand. Besides touch and sight, your characters might have to know something about their target to use their powers. They could need to know the target’s name, what their face looks like, or even what their astrological sign is. Use your theme to add new and creative limits.

One limit that doesn’t work well is lack of control. A character with out-of-control powers can add juicy conflict to your story, but you can’t count on their trouble to keep powerful abilities in check. This is a personal problem, so audiences will expect you to solve it at some point. Once your character grows as a person and learns control, your limit will evaporate.

Once you’re done with limits, come up with some consequences for using superpowers. If you’ve put good limitations on your powers already, you may not need this, but I recommend it. It will make your magic stand out and add conflict to your story. For instance, in the anime Darker Than Black, magic users are called Contractors, and they have to “pay” for using their ability. Their payment is some behavior they are compelled to engage in after each use, and it’s as unique to each person as their powers. One guy has to eat six hard-boiled eggs. Another has to place a large number of small stones in a perfect grid. These activities can distract Contractors and make them vulnerable.

More ideas for fun consequences could be the following:

  • In an animalistic system, characters who use their powers too much might transform into their animal completely – including their mind. Is school starting soon? Too bad, Sarah is just a gecko until lunch time.
  • If you have a cosmic horror theme, the use of powers could strengthen some pervasive evil. This would create a fun global-warming-type effect, wherein characters shouldn’t be using their powers, but they justify it by saying that all the other characters will do it anyway.
  • If you’re using pseudo science for your theme, you could say that every time a character uses their power, the energy or matter they use is drawn from somewhere else they can’t predict.

Once you have strong limits and interesting consequences, don’t give your characters equipment that will nullify these weak spots. Since high-tech equipment can become a superpower in itself, I recommend giving your characters fairly normal gear that specifically fits their abilities. In Darker Than Black, the main character has a knife on a metal cord that he shoots at foes. He uses this weird weapon because if he stabs someone with it, he can then use his power to electrocute them.

Add Variation or Complexity

If I had my way, I would just say, “Your system is now finished!” and end things here. But I know all of you better than that. You’re going to create three kinds of superheroes, give each one three different powers, and then make several characters who need to be extra special. So let’s look at how to add those things without ruining everything you’ve done so far.

Splitting Casters Into Different Groups

If you want different categories of casters, look for a theme that has natural divisions.

  • If you’re using animalistic magic, you could split it into predators and prey.
  • If you are using magic from the heavens, you could have one group that gets their abilities from powerful but different stars and another that’s blessed by the closer but less powerful planets.
  • If you have angels, including demons is a no-brainer.

When making multiple types of casters, follow all the same rules I discussed in my original magic system article. Your categories should feel complete – if you have mammals and reptiles, what about birds? Categories should also feel symmetrical. If all of your angels can fly but your demons have no special form of transport, that will feel inconsistent.

Avoid making so many categories that your theme disappears. If you have different powers for each god who bestows them, you have to be careful. Consider what all the powers from every category have in common.

Giving Characters Multiple Powers

Adding a second power to characters is usually asking for trouble. For one thing, it multiplies the chance that a character will have plot-breaking abilities. Not only will they have two powers that can each get out of hand, but they can also combine them in new ways or use one power to cover weaknesses that the other gives them. Along with the risk of making characters too powerful, now you have to make sure your power combinations don’t feel arbitrary. That said, there are ways to manage this.

First, consider giving all your heroes the same second power – one that’s difficult to win the day with alone. For instance, if you have angels, give them all flight in addition to their individual miracles. Do you want some angels to be more powerful than others? No problem; give garden-variety angels just flight. Only the top-tier angels can cast miracles in addition. Maybe demons can’t fly, but they can all walk through walls. Top-tier demons can cause blight.

If that doesn’t work for your story, aim to give characters a second power that is clearly related to their first. Plus, giving characters a second ability that is a power-up of their first will create a nice character arc for them. Your audience will love it when your humble electric-shock character calls down lightning during the climax. However, consider taking their lower-level ability down a notch. That will make room to give them a cooler ability that isn’t too powerful. It’s fine for your hero to win the day with superpowerful lightning, but what will you do for the sequel? Take their power away again?

Last, instead of adding a completely new power, you can reveal how an existing power is more than it seems. Going back to my example of a character who conjure mirrors, what if she noticed her mirrors weren’t accurately reflecting the real world? People’s faces have different expressions. Items are missing. Strange shadows lurk in the background. This method will give your character two abilities while making it feel more like one. However, for consistency’s sake, you might want your other character who conjures water to also notice there’s something weird about it.

With greater powers should come greater consequences. Give your character a reason not to use their most powerful ability all the time. That will make plotting your story a lot easier.

Making a Chosen One

In most magic systems, characters are special when they are more powerful than anyone else. However, in individualized systems, you can make any character powerful by giving them the right ability. So if you want your character to feel special, reach for something else.

The easiest method is to put your character in a category by themself. What if all the superheroes or villains in your setting are demonic, but your character is an angel? No one has seen an angel for hundreds of years. Some are wondering why they’ve appeared now. Is something important going to happen?

Otherwise, I recommend giving your character not the most powerful ability, but the one that’s most needed. Maybe a mysterious menace from a thousand years ago has appeared, and your character is the only one who can see into the past – unlocking its secrets. Having the most needed ability is particularly striking when it isn’t more powerful than average. Your character can start out with some humble spinach pie and then impress others by using their ability in exactly the right ways.


Because superhero stories are doing well at the box office right now, they’ve also become popular with storytellers. I’m crossing my fingers that this new influx of superheroes will give us some brilliant gems.

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Comments

  1. Michael Campbell

    “In an effort to create a large variety of powers and make some characters more powerful than others, there’s usually one or two characters who are powerful enough to break the story, which leads to plot holes and weird character behavior.”

    Well, I think you might have skipped past the problem.
    Character’s shouldn’t be made more powerful than others.
    The aim is to make them unique while still retaining “standard-issue agency-potential”.

  2. Michael Campbell

    Much of this also applies to alien races.
    If you create a game system where Vulcans are able to “get stuff done” (adventure-wise) better than anyone else; then the effort to create Andorians and Tellarites and Hyper-wookies and greys and even Homo-sapiens, will all be for nought.

  3. Adam J Thaxton

    → Manifestations of new powers are called Breakouts. Once a power has “broken out,” its user becomes known as a Keeper. The power is known as a Title.

    → In general, a user cannot manifest new Titles. Old Titles can become more specific or acquire new uses (limited by the imagination of the keeper). Titles also can’t be stolen or moved around (since Titles can’t directly affect another Title), since they’re bound to the Keeper.

    → A Title can “jump ship” if the Keeper is dying or has the appearance of dying, and when they do, they jump ship to the nearest non-powered individual that’s not related to the death of the previous Keeper (a Title won’t jump into its previous Keeper’s killer). There are situations where Titles will not transfer, and this is usually when death was instantaneous or the Keeper went out while actively using the power. A Title can jump to someone who already has one, but the Keeper must do this deliberately while dying, so it doesn’t happen often.

    → Titles are bound to the Keeper, but some Titles allow the user to transfer power into an object or require an object to work, and some can certainly allow their user to create an object.

    → A Keeper acquires the name of the Title. In the case of a user with multiple Titles, the Keeper “owns” all the names.

    → A Title can’t change the mind of anyone who isn’t its Keeper. It can make its Keeper appear to be authoritative or powerful, or make its Keeper seem like someone who can be trusted, but it can’t directly change someone’s thoughts.

    → Titles don’t typically directly affect other Titles except through side effects (for example, Zed “resets to zero,” and has the side effect of turning off active powers, when its user, say, sets a flyer’s momentum to zero).

    → Titles “know” what the intent of their use was and try to fulfill it. If it’s within the limits of the power, it simply takes effect with little to no input on the side of the Keeper, as if the Keeper just made the order and the power tries to figure out how to make it work, such as Not to Keep’s ability to change the center of gravity; the Keeper doesn’t have to watch where their own center of gravity is, just that they want to use their power to do feats of ridiculous athletic prowess.

    →Keepers can sense each other. This is sometimes jokingly referred to as “Highlander sense,” and can give another Keeper a sense of danger or a warning that another Keeper is near. Objects and items created with a Title also give off this sense, and it is referred to as “sakki,” “Kokets,” or “koketsu.”

  4. Erika

    I think this is the real draw of the Chronicles of Darkness. Superpowers with a supernatural theme. You may have hit the nail on the head.

    So if I get this right, a theme could be something like…
    Emotions:
    The weak can sense their emotion in others (the world around them)
    The Strong can produce effects to mirror their emotion.

    Joy brings luck
    Fear brings darkness and power over nightmares.
    Sadness drains energy
    Anger makes the user physically stronger
    Love sees the connections between things and people and the why behind them.

    But there is also guilt, peace, hope, disgust, and any other emotion

    Empaths are rare but are created from an intense experience with the emotion.

    Limits: it is very hard to produce an effect opposite to the general atmosphere. Emotions themselves cannot be manipulated just understood and eventually harnessed personally.

    Empathy is intense and can completely drain someone. Without being in touch with their emotion they can’t use it.

    Some people do have multiple emotions but can use only related ones each more specific and narrowed. Anger gives general physical power but self righteous fury makes someone very difficult to physically stop. They don’t hit harder or move faster but it is hard to impede their movement between them and the target of their ire.

    The hero would have something like yearning, (a subset of hope) they can feel the desire for something lacking, but more importantly the ability to create illusions of things missed or desired.

  5. Łukasz

    Look at Brandon Sanderson’s work for great examples of a rational Magic system. For example, in Mistborn characters burn different metals to achieve different effects (e.g. Iron lets them pull on nearby metals while copper makes them hide from magic observers). Some individuals may burn only one metal while others have access to all of them. Not all burnable metals are known – there’s a huge mystery there. And both economy of the world and everyday life is influenced by magic: metals have to be mined and sold, while people are very mindful of both risks and limitations of magic.

    Sanderson makes a different magic system for all his different worlds. So there’s a lot to take from. Have fun!

  6. Sam

    I think the Ur-example of themed superpowers with creative limits might be Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. In the third series, each character getting a specific magical being (stand) based off the Tarot and generally keep coming up with insanely creative uses of their powers. The part about mirror powers reminds me of the “Hanged Man” stand which allowed it’s user to attack anyone through any reflective surface, including someone’s eye.

    Though I am curious on your thoughts on stories in settings like Forgotten Realms/D&D where both divine and arcane magic (and psionics) exist somewhat in opposition to your advice on choosing a particular source. Granted most of the stories tend to focus on one type of magic source rather than all of them.

    • Chris Winkle

      Games like D&D often try to be everything to everyone, and that’s why they have both arcane and divine magic, etc. It doesn’t make for a strong world or for memorable magic, but it does make a versatile system, and that’s the primary goal. It makes sense for them, but if you are making your own game system, I recommend against that strategy, just because it will be much harder to compete against the likes of D&D with its large market share without setting yourself apart. Roleplaying games are marketed based on theme, so for making a game, I definitely recommend a strong theme and not doing multiple kinds of magic.

      If your story takes place in an actual game setting with multiple kinds of magic, then your magic system would be expected to reflect the game’s magic system, and so you aren’t making one yourself so much as you’re trying to adapt game mechanics to work for a story. That’s tough.

      If you are building your own world for a prose story, I would say don’t copy worlds like Forgotten Realms, including their multiple source magic system. It’s designed to accommodate the desires of every player, not to make a cohesive and memorable work.

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