We all know about magic items so powerful they damage the plot. Take time turners and liquid luck potions from Harry Potter. Why not go back in time and stop Tom Riddle from ever becoming the Dark Lord? Why not take some liquid luck and destroy Voldemort in the present? This kind of overpowered item isn’t confined to Rowling’s work. Storytellers must always be on guard against these puffed-up MacGuffins. They seem cool until fans start complaining. Here are five of the most blatant offenders, without even mentioning Harry Potter.*
1. Gem of Amara, Angel
The Gem of Amara was first introduced in Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a MacGuffin that Spike wanted to make himself stronger. Any vampire wearing it gains immunity to normal vampiric weaknesses like crosses, stakes, and holy water. It’s unclear if the gem makes its wearer immune to decapitation, but at least one character claims that any vampire wearing the gem is impossible to kill. Even more important, the gem allows its wearer to walk in full sunlight.
This was all fine on Buffy, when the gem just made villains more dangerous. But then someone remembered that Buffy has a vampire friend: Angel.* That’s when the gem became a problem. Despite Spike trying (again) to claim the gem for himself, Angel ends up with it. But instead of keeping it, he smashes it with a brick, because being able to go outside during the day would somehow make him forget the people he’s supposed to protect.
What? How’s that supposed to work? Buffy can walk around in the sun, and she’s somehow managed to do her job. With the ring in his possession, Angel could protect more people. He could chase a demon after it steps outside, and he wouldn’t be one sharp piece of wood away from death. The real reason Angel breaks the gem is that the writers didn’t want him to withstand the sun, but that’s hardly a satisfying reason.
How to Fix It
The solution is simple: give the gem a serious drawback, preferably something that works with Angel’s vampiric nature. Perhaps the gem increases its wearer’s bloodlust the longer it’s worn. That’s not something an evil vampire would care about, but it would be a serious problem for Angel.
That way, Angel could keep the gem for an emergency. It would be a constant temptation for him, and the writers love tempting Angel.
2. The Transporter Gun, Deep Space Nine
Even in the 24th century, you need to see what you’re shooting. Or at least, you did, until Deep Space Nine unveiled the TR-116 rifle, a gun that can shoot through walls. Technically, this is a science-based item, not a magic one, but we all know that most of the tech on Star Trek is magic dressed up in tachyons and antiprotons.
The TR-116 is actually two magic devices in one. First, it has a transporter that can materialize bullets anywhere the shooter likes. This is obviously useful, as enemies have an annoying habit of hiding behind things when the shooting starts. Second, the rifle comes with an eyepiece that lets the shooter see through solid objects.
This incredibly powerful combo should revolutionize Federation military tactics, but instead we’re told that Starfleet decided the weapon wasn’t practical and abandoned it. Huuuuuh. Shooting through walls feels pretty practical to me. Keep in mind that this is during the Dominion War, the most brutal conflict the Federation has ever faced. Heck, just the eyepiece would be a huge benefit.
But that kind of fighting is difficult to film, so the TR-116 only appears long enough for a Vulcan serial killer to murder a few people with it, and then it is never seen again.
How to Fix It
Working within Star Trek’s filming budget, there’s probably no way for the TR-116 to function as originally presented. A fight where Starfleet just beams a load of bullets behind the enemy wouldn’t be fun to watch.
Instead, the easiest solution is to change the TR-116 into an extension of existing technology. All the episode needed was for a murderer to kill their victims without being in the same room with them. Rather than a fancy new gun, the killer could have used the existing transporter system to beam away some small but vital part of the body and then let the victims bleed out.
The characters could then have explained that this was only possible because the killer hacked the victims’ communicators, using them as a homing signal. This isn’t something most enemies could do, so viewers wouldn’t wonder why the tactic isn’t used again.
3. Vita-Chamber, Bioshock
Bioshock is a horror game of desperate survival in an underwater city, at least until you discover that death has no power over your character. You see, the city of Rapture is filled with these strange things called “vita-chambers.” To most people, they are used to restore health and vigor, but they will literally bring your character back to life because of some backstory shenanigans.
Your enemies do not respawn in this manner. This means it’s a perfectly viable strategy to charge blindly at every enemy you see, because you’re not at any risk. This degrades the gameplay. You no longer have incentive to be careful or creative, because you can just apply brute force every time.
But that’s nothing compared to what it does to the story. Instead of a gripping drama about the failure of objectivism beneath the waves, Bioshock instead becomes a slapstick comedy about one man taking on a whole city with his wrench. All fear and tension vanishes, and it strains credibility that enemies keep attacking your character. You’d think they’d learn after the fifth or sixth time a vita-chamber spits you out.
How to Fix It
The ideal solution would have been for the vita-chambers to cost some kind of resource. There are advanced options where each time your character dies, you lose money, but those aren’t enough on their own. For one thing, the game is balanced with the assumption that players will be making free use of vita-chambers. Simply taking that away makes the game far too difficult for many players. It’s also hard to explain in the story. How does the vita-chamber take your money after you die?
If the vita-chambers were something you had to pay for ahead of time, that would have added to the game’s tense atmosphere. You know a big fight is coming; do you buy more bullets or an insurance policy?
4. Devil’s Traps, Supernatural
In Supernatural, the world is full of terrifying monsters. The most dangerous of these monsters* is the demon. Demons are incredibly strong, nearly impossible to kill, and can completely blend in by possessing an innocent human. Hunters in this setting are just ordinary humans, so fighting demons is extremely difficult, unless of course the hunters have a devil’s trap.
A devil’s trap is a pentagram with some runes drawn inside it. Like the name suggests, such a trap prevents demonic entities from leaving the pentagram, or damaging it in any way. This is a powerful tool for hunters, so naturally it must be hard to make, right? Nope, anyone can draw a devil’s trap on any material.
This raises some serious questions. Why don’t hunters have devil’s traps everywhere? Spray-paint them on sidewalks, get them printed on rollout mats, start a line of novelty t-shirts. Anyone caught in the trap is revealed to be a demon, and they’re helpless as the hunters break out their exorcism ritual.
But it gets better! In one episode, it’s shown that devil’s traps can be inscribed on bullets, which then paralyze any demon they hit. For some reason, hunters only do this once and then never mention it again.
How to Fix It
First, devil’s traps have no place on bullets. That’s just silly. Second, devil’s traps should be hard to make. An imperfect devil’s trap will only hold a demon for a limited time. That way, drawing devil’s traps would be a skill in its own right.
For that matter, different traps might be needed for different types of demons. Or the trap might need to be inscribed with the demon’s true name. That’s appropriately thematic and would allow the characters to have an edge over demonic foes they’ve vanquished in the past.
5. The Alethiometer, His Dark Materials
In the first book of His Dark Materials, protagonist Lyra is given an alethiometer, which looks like a large, golden compass.* While not as flashy as the other objects on this list, the alethiometer is easily the most powerful. You see it answers any question truthfully, from “what color is the sky” to “what are the US nuclear launch codes.”
In the first book, this isn’t a problem because Lyra is still learning how to use it. The alethiometer gives its answers by pointing at a number of symbols, and decoding the meaning is no easy task. In fact, learning to use the alethiometer is an important part of Lyra’s arc, and she becomes completely fluent in it near the first story’s climax.
But what about the later books? For most of book two, Lyra has the alethiometer but neglects to use it. At one point, her best friend has a wound that’s slowly killing him, and no one knows how to heal it. Lyra could have just asked the alethiometer, but for some reason she doesn’t. Nor does she ask what kind of opposition they might face or where her missing allies are. Most bizarrely, her objective in book two is to learn about the mysterious particles known as “dust,” and she goes trekking across multiple worlds rather than just asking the alethiometer.
No in-character reason is given to explain Lyra’s behavior. The real reason is that the book would be boring if Lyra solved all mysteries by asking the alethiometer, which is why it’s a bad idea to give your protagonist an endless source of knowledge.
How to Fix It
In the first book, Lyra couldn’t just ask the alethiometer a question and get an answer; she had to interpret what the symbols meant. This was a pretty effective limit. Simple questions like “which building are the bad guys hiding in” would be easy, but more complex ones like “how do I defeat the bad guys” could be very difficult to interpret.
Barring that, if the alethiometer exacted some kind of cost for using it, that would go a long way. It’s already in the book that Lyra needs to concentrate hard in order to ask questions and figure out the answer; what if extended use gave her painful headaches? That would let her use it occasionally, but constantly asking questions would be a no-no.
Magic items are cool and shiny. They can add a lot to your story, but they can also break it. Readers are clever, and they’ll notice if you try to sweep the implications of an item under the rug. So take the lesson of these items to heart: don’t introduce a new magic item until you’re sure the story can handle it.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?