Q&A

How Can I Keep Luck Charms From Breaking My Story?

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Hey, Mythcreants!

One of the many story ideas brewing in my head is a sort of magic system revolving entirely around good luck charms and talismans. Basically, you possess an enchanted artifact that manipulates probability in your favor, making them highly sought after by adventurers. Bullets will miraculously wiz past the hero every time, burning buildings won’t collapse until after they leave them, bad guys won’t stop stepping on banana peels and rakes as they’re giving chase to the heroes, and the vending machine will accidentally give them two sodas after a single purchase!

This got me thinking though, when should their luck run out? How can I as a writer control how well things turn out for characters without overdoing it and making them completely invincible? Additionally, what are some examples of other stories handling luck-based magic and superpowers?

Thanks so much!

– Terk

Hi Terk,

That’s a tough one! Luck magic is really hard to work with for several reasons:

  • It could do just about anything, which makes it harder to set limits.
  • Instead of doing one thing, it generally has some duration in which it does many things.
  • Characters don’t have any agency in what happens with it. So it’s harder to make it feel like they earned their victories.

The end result is that with luck magic, it feels like the character can sit back and relax while the universe takes care of things for them. No tension and no satisfaction. However, if done well it does have lots of novelty. It’s fun to see what random thing happens and often how that random thing actually benefits the protagonists. But novelty fades, and so it won’t be fun for that long.

That means that while luck magic might make for a great short story or a great scene in a story, using it for an entire novel is a tall order. So what can you do to make it work in a novel?

  • Instead of a passive luck charm, make the characters do something to earn their luck. Maybe after they use the charm, they have to do something tricky to recharge it before it works again. Look for something that will create interesting conflicts and stay fresh when done many times. Maybe the requirements for recharging it change every time. Besides adding agency, this will also give you a convenient reason why they don’t have luck powers during scenes where that would get in the way of the story.
  • Make each charm activation cause a single lucky event instead of lots of lucky events over five minutes. This will help keep it from being too powerful and also spread the lucky events out so they don’t lose novelty as fast as if you had tons in one scene.
  • Don’t let the charm judge what protagonists need in the moment. Maybe they activate the charm hoping it will help protect them from the bad guys, but instead they get two sodas out of the machine. Or maybe nothing appears to happen and they’re left guessing if it was subtle or if they still have a lucky event coming. If you keep it random, you’ll have more tension and leeway to do whatever works for the story.
  • Consider making luck turn against the protagonists on occasion. Maybe the bad guys also have luck charms, or if you do something wrong with the charm, your luck turns bad.

Quality examples of luck magic are thin on the ground. In some works, it’s being used in a much more limited fashion than what you’re thinking of. In other works, it’s obviously being used to cover plot holes and comes off as pretty contrived. However, there is a TV Tropes page on luck magic you can use to find examples, I just would be cautious about assuming that these works are actually doing it well.

Best of luck with your magic system!
Chris

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Comments

  1. BeardedLizard

    Something I’ve done some time ago in a tabletop rpg and that might be helpful, was that every time the players used their luck charm, they would get a “luck debt”: Meaning that for every luck they get, a bad luck would eventually come for them later. And they could use their luck multiple times before the bad luck happened, which in turn meant that their debts to the universe grew and grew until it would eventually explode in their face if they were not careful.

    Translated to book form, it could mean your character need to activate their luck charm before or during a big event, like a fight, but they have no way of knowing how it’s going to affect them later on. Which also mean that using your luck charm can be as powerful as it is dangerous. For example, your hero could use their luck charm to win an important fight, but later on it cause them to be run over by a car and break one leg. Then they might need more luck afterward because of their handicap, but by doing so, they’ll invite more bad luck later on.

    • Dave L

      Ooh…

      I like that

      Sounds a bit similar to “flux” in Ferrett Steinmetz’s ‘Mancer Trilogy

  2. Lupus590

    One thing I thought of is making it a karma-luck charm. So by having the wearer do good things to other people, they build up a charge in the charm, then they can use this charge for the luck part of the charm. Having the charge be in the charm, not the person, has the potentially interesting consequence of trading charged charms.

    A person who finds doing good things might make a business of selling charged charms to those who want a luck boost but doesn’t have time to build the karma. This could even mean that the villain could get their hands on some charged charms or even enslave good people to be charm chargers.

    • Adriano

      Interesting idea. But wouldn’t it open space to critics about ethics: is doing good things with the ulterior motive to gain advantage (in this example, monetary gain) really a good deed? Would this grant karma?

  3. Cay Reet

    Making those charms a little unreliable would work … they usually bring good luck, but what they bring might not be what the user hopes for. Like this, there would be an advantage to them, but sometimes the MCs would have to figure out what to do with the luck they got, because it’s not what they thought they’d need.

    For instance, they’re hoping for their enemies to lose track of them, instead they get a heavy rain which washes the traces away, but also drenches them in water. Still luck – the enemy is gone -, but not what they wanted. They were looking for two cans of soda for the price of one, instead they meet someone who showers them in gossip that will prove useful two chapers later. They suddenly snag their foot during a daring escape and fall down a slope. When they get away from there, they see that the area they were aiming for was already overrun by the enemy. Luck can come in different ways.

  4. Jeppsson

    In addition to what everyone else said, “manipulating probabilities in their favour” doesn’t have to mean “guaranteed to succeed”. Maybe it’s more along the lines of, if the story were a role-playing game, you only need to roll 10-20 to succeed at something you’d normally have to roll a 17-20 on because you’re not that skilled.
    This was just an idea that popped up when I read the question. Obvs it would require more work to put it into a story which is NOT a roleplaying game…

  5. Eli

    What if they have to activate it and it only works for a set amount of time before being destroyed? Or what if it’s only about self preservation and the villain has one of the more powerful of these charms?

    Or…
    Luck magic inherently works better with video games and ttrpgs because while it doesn’t guarantee success you can tangibly see it helping you and you can decide when to use it. If you were to frame it like one of those anime I’ve never watched where they’re in a video game world in the real world that could make things work better.

  6. Slayd

    What if you made the luck charm only work based on specific actions the protagonist has taken already? Going along the vending machine example, perhaps they might activate their luck charm, hoping for 2 sodas, but it would end causing the assassin lurking in the air duct to start sneezing because the protagonist had spilt some of their instant coffee powder, and luckily, it got into the air duct. Then when he begins fighting the assassin, he activates the charm again, hoping for an advantage in the fight. Instead, the assassin punches the glass of the vending machine, cutting his fist and allowing our protagonist as many free sodas as they like. If they wanted the assassin to slip on a bananas peel, they would have to have eaten a banana earlier, and the peel conveniently fell out of their pocket. I’m not sure it’s a great idea, I’d like to hear someone else’s thoughts.

  7. Stéphane

    As Chris said, one big problem is that luck is passive : if the character with this magic fight an enemy with this magic, it’s not a character vs enemy situation but a luck vs luck situation… and it’s difficult to handle. It’s probably easier to manage if only one character has this ability in the book. If it’s a whole magic system and a lot of people use it, I can see so much situations in which it could go wrong ! Or maybe it’s possible to find a way to transform luck into an active power : the character has to think about a specific action to activate it, and he has to be smart to exploit the best of it. Or each charm is specific about one type of action (luck about falling from high ground, luck about not being hit by a firearm, luck about finding someone…) and it can work as a superpower.

  8. Sonia

    Many real-life amulets were specialised: one might guard against injury (occasionally even limb-specifi), another against specific types of illness, others help in business affairs…

  9. Richard

    One could consider the luck charm to have a finite amount of luck in it. The “luckier” you need to be, the more you drain the charm. And it’s really hard to tell how much “luck” is stored in it…..

    In the Real World, for example, you wouldn’t need to spend a lot of luck to have all green traffic lights when you’re in a hurry. Arranging a nice sunny day for your picnic at the beach might take a bit more luck. And winning a lottery would definitely drain the charm.

    Or, in line with what BeardedLizard has suggested, what if the charm builds up Good Luck by constantly giving the possessor bad luck (unless they take some special precautions – but then, it won’t get charged up)? Nothing really disastrous; more on the order of stubbing your toe or have your shoelaces come undone once a day. Minor annoyances, rather than anything really bad.

  10. Adriano

    I think the best example of luck charm in TV is that from the Supernatural show, where Sam and Dean find a luck charm that works perfectly well, but gives a backlash in case it’s lost.

    The luck granted is not completely random, so they are able do actively do stuff they would never think of, like clogging the enemy’s pistol with a pen. In other cases, it’s rather passive, just making things work out great for them, like an enemy missing a hit.

    But, once it’s lost, all the warped reality lashes back in the most silly or dangerous ways. Great episode!

  11. Zoe

    Just a quick idea, you could swap luck for some sort of Karma – everytime somebody does something good, it fills the charm and can be used up by the bearer later on.

  12. Lord Degarius

    There are a couple of examples that I like in terms of lucky charm magic:

    – Miraculous Ladybug: The main heroine has an actual lucky charm power that she uses in critical moments facing enemies. However, the catch is that the lucky charm provide her with seemingly random objects (i.e. portfolios, tapes, pipes, etc.) instead of more obvious items (i.e. bows, shields, grenades, etc.). This creates a moment of tension, as the heroine has to figure out what the object is for, although this is a bit diluted by a “secondary super power” of being able visualise right away practical uses for these objects. Also, I think that she can only invoke this power only once per encounter, before her own Miraculous energy is depleted.

    If you take away that secondary super power, the tension is automatically raised and there is even the possibility to create situations when the heroes cannot figure in time the correct use of the object. In that way, you can limit having these charms as an all-solving device.

    – Deadpool 2: In this film, we get Domino with luck-based powers. I am referring to this version of the character, as I am unfamiliar with her comics counterpart (which I understand has a bit more fuzzy luck powers). Although this one is represented as a more passive ability with the possibility of breaking the story, the limitation is placed on the fact that these powers are possessed by a secondary character rather than the protagonist of the film. So only when she is directly involved, we get these luck-based situations, while Deadpool himself has to rely on his own abilities. It also helps that Domino only appears in parts of the film.

    I can picture a situation where the lucky charm is attached to a particular person and does not work with anyone else. Our heroes would need to convince this person to be involved in the conflict.

  13. Kenneth Mackay

    If luck charms are commonplace, then they’re going to interfere with each other; for example, the soda machine owner might have one on his soda machine, in the hope that someone might put money in it, then get distracted and not take the soda, or prevent the customer from luckily getting free sodas. Your heroes might have to come up with clever ways to use this – knowing that the probability of something happening is going to be affected by nearby luck charms, and using this to their advantage, or alternatively tricking their opponents into areas away from other luck charms, so their own charms can operate without interference.

  14. Nobody

    You could ways have all the charms stop working and then the hero has to try and figure out why

  15. SSCaide

    I have a few ideas of my own for ways to balance luck-based abilities, don’t think I’ve seen others mention these after skimming the comments:

    1 – Active Luck
    The primary issue with most luck abilities comes from the fact that they function passively, but there’s no reason you can’t have an active luck-based ability. Perhaps your character can “store” their luckiness in objects they touch, and only things they use their power on have a chance to help them out later. This puts agency back in the character’s hands, since they have to manually setup lucky events before they happen and strategize regarding which things they set up.

    2 – Bad Luck
    Another way to balance luck-based abilities would be if your character exclusively spreads bad luck to others rather than giving themself good luck. This can help balance out conflicts since the character’s luck never actually protects them or helps them achieve their goals, it only thwarts their enemies. For yet another balancing factor, this works even better if the bad luck doesn’t discriminate between allies and enemies.

    • Stéphane

      Your idea 1 is great. Also, it reminds me of allomancy in Brandon Sanderson’s books : characters can store abilities in metal bracelets to use it later (some store their health and feel sick for days to be able to regenerate injuries later, some store their movement and move very slowly for some time to be able to move very fast when needed, etc.). It works very well, so I think it would work with luck too : a character could store his luck in the charm (while enduring bad luck) to be able to use this luck later. The character can choose to fill the charm quickly (and endure very bad luck while doing it) or take his time during a low tension part of the story (and endure a small amount of bad luck for days). In both case it could bring tension or fun to these scenes and give the impression that the character deserve the good luck when he use it. But the power should stay “active” and the character should think of something he wants to achieve when he use the good luck (that would give him agency, and he would have to use environment or possessions to achieve his goals).

  16. Gwen

    Not quite luck powers but on a somewhat similar scale, “divine misfortune” has polytheistic gods that if given great sacrifices make their worshippers have better lives. Kill a few cows to Zeus… get a promotion. The main characters let a minor god of fortune live on their couch.

    But the idea is the luck of all characters in the universe was gain proportionately by what they gave in return. Everyone had divine backing, but it was never free and often came at a price.

    That makes the luck both active and not overpowered. Maybe each charm has particular things that feels it, but major things get major things back, while the protagonists are harried and flustered they get just enough to survive while never stopping to truly evil or monumental sacrifices to the charm.

  17. CKDerrick

    I can’t think of luck charms, but two examples of luck-based powers I can think of are the Birthright Lottery winners in Larry Niven’s Known Space universe(short story “Safe at Any Speed” is probably the best short story example, or the Ringworld series for novels), and Inspector Clouseau of the Pink Panther series, who is of course an utter moron yet always solves the case because of most improbable luck.

  18. Sedivak

    If I recall correctly, this was done very well in Terry Pratchett’s “The dark side of the sun”. One character there had absolute luck (sci-fi technobable explained). The point was it was “dumb” luck and only acted in immediate situations. He could roll as many sixes on the dice as he wanted, he would always win a fist fight and he could even be unharmed after being shot at point blank range – explained by a rare physical phenomenon that made the bullet randomy evaporate. But that was it. The luck would not help the charecter in knowing where to go, who to fight or how to find someone (which was his purpose in said book). This worked brilliantly because it left the character with all the agency connected with decision making and did not create a plot hole.

    TL:DR Luck that only maipulates skill rolls and not roleplay or decision making.

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