Spell books and mystic sigils are all well and good, but what if you’re planning a story with lots of fights? For that matter, what if the spell books and mystic sigils are part of the fights? This week, we’re talking about how to design your magic system for maximum action entertainment. Sorcerous martial arts, psychic duels, and shimmering shields abound! Plus, you know there will be complaints about pro-bending, right? How could there not be?


Generously transcribed by Anna. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.

Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. 

[Intro Music]

Oren: And welcome everyone to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren. 

Chris: And I’m Chris. And before we get started, just letting you know we are looking for audio editing volunteers. No experience is necessary. We will train you just to make us sound good. 

Oren: Please make us sound good. [Chris laughs] You have no idea how much we need that. 

Chris: Anyway, just go to mythcreants.com/volunteer. 

Oren: Alright, so it’s time for a magic battle. Very exciting. So you’re gonna make a shield and I’m gonna shoot little bolts at the shield until it either goes away or I get tired. Does that sound like fun? It’s like a lot of fun, right? Very exciting. 

Chris: To make it more exciting, maybe we can just make it last longer. You know, make it epic size? 

Oren: Yeah, I could make the bolts real big and glowy. 

Chris: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’ll make the shield super huge. Oh, it’ll be a dome. 

Oren: Everyone loves domes. So magic, designing magic systems is hard and I really struggle with it. So I thought that it would be useful to focus specifically on making a magic system that is for fighting. If you want to do a lot of magic fights in your setting, what should you design your magic to be like? Because I’ve encountered a number of stories, both published and unpublished, where the author clearly wants to have a lot of magic battles but did not design their magic to work for magic fights. And so as a result, the fights are boring, or contrived, or over too quickly and such. So this is a way to concentrate and figure out if this is what you want your magic to do.

Chris: And like, usually when we talk about fights, we also have to point out the difference between movies and books because it’s not the same. Movies, of course, are very good at making magic look cool. So we can have what is actually a very boring magic system or just a magic system that’s not optimized for fighting. So maybe it’s interesting, but the fights would be really boring and they’ll do all kinds of things to make it look super cool. Even though the fight isn’t actually that exciting in a way that a book would take advantage of. A book has to focus more on the strategy of the situation and has to carefully communicate first what is happening, which is hard enough when you have a whole bunch of people moving around and not just moving around, but also using magic, which has to be explained. 

And part of what is happening is who is currently winning and why. And then they have to know what could happen. Right? So if you want your protagonist to feel threatened, we need to know that something could threaten them. If your protagonist just comes up with whatever magic is super cool in the moment and can do just about anything (which there are lots of stories where that is the case), how do you threaten that person? They’re on fire right now, but we know that they can just kind of like, wave their wand and that fire will turn into water and they’ll be completely healed. There’s not going to be much sense of threat in that situation. 

Oren: Wheel of Time has that problem, which, because the mages can do practically anything. Age of Myth has it even worse. The book Age of Myth, where the mages are just at Q-levels of power. So like when two of them are fighting, I have no idea who’s winning. One of them throws a house at the other one and it’s like, is that bad? Is having a house land on you a problem for these mages? I can’t tell. I have no way to know. 

Chris: [laughs] So yeah, the first question is just, are you limiting your magic? If you have a really long range ability to like, blow up anything, it’s not going to be much of a fight. Somebody just does spells in their basement. 

Oren: Anything that instantly ends the fight, that there’s no defense against, is not good. And it gets worse the more easily it can be used. Like the further away you have to be, or the less effort you have to put into it. Avatar starts to have that problem towards the end with Korra, especially with bloodbending. Like bloodbending is actually very boring. It’s fine as a scary thing for the bad guy to do to show how threatening he is. But once you actually get into the fights, he can’t use his bloodbending because it just ends the fight immediately. Winx Saga on Netflix had the same problem. There were a bunch of characters, they were called blood witches, who, their power was just instant mind control. And so to stop them from just ending fights immediately, we just had to introduce a bunch of situations in which their powers didn’t work. It just started to feel like now it’s gone the other direction. Now they just feel useless. 

Chris: So just having good limits is really important to keep the fight interesting. Because if one person can just insta-kill the other person, there’s no strategy that can happen there. Or having a death spell that’s equivalent to just shooting a gun or like a wand. A gun is at least better because a gun can run out of ammo. If your character has a kill spell, they don’t have any reason but to point their wand at the other person and be like, “kill, kill, kill,” all over and over again. And that’s just not very interesting. 

Oren: That also can get into another common problem, which is repetitive powers, where you have a bunch of different powers that more or less do the same thing. I’d rather not mention it, but there’s a certain wizard school story, which is the poster child for this, because the characters have like 50 different spells, all of which do some variation of “point your wand and it incapacitates whoever’s on the other end” in various ways. And it’s like, there are not that many ways that you can do that that are actually interesting. Like, oh, well now the blast you shoot is green instead of red. [Chris laughs] That doesn’t actually make it that much more interesting. And even Avatar starts to run into this problem in Korra, but not just in Korra, but that’s where it really starts to become obvious, is that they have different bending powers, but often the bending powers just kind of end up being various flavors of “push your opponent backwards.” That’s most notable in pro-bending, where they added a bunch of restrictions that made the fight less interesting, and now they literally are just shoving each other back and forth. And I don’t know whose idea that was, but it doesn’t work very well. 

Chris: Right, it’s also because it was a kids show, and so they don’t really want to show people getting burned. So fire pushes people back now. 

Oren: Roasting someone alive. So I wanted to talk about two extremely broad strategies that you can go with, with your magical combat. And I found that, I think pretty much all books are going to fall into one of these categories, but that’s not impressive. It’s just because they’re very broad. There is the enhanced physical fight, in which the characters are still fighting with their bodies in some capacity, but they have additional powers that help them do that. Avatar is like that. Star Wars is like that. The Art of Prophecy book that I’ve talked about a few times recently is like that. Mistborn is like that. Any kind of magical martial arts story is going to be that way. And then the other extremely broad category is where your protagonist is basically not using their body in any meaningful way, and is just dueling with powers themselves. Which is rarer, but still happens. And The Broken Earth is probably the most notable example right now. Because when two mages in The Broken Earth fight, what they do with their hands basically doesn’t matter. They’re entirely dueling with their magic powers. So first things first, pick one of those. Decide which one you want. 

Chris: There is opportunity for a little bit of blurring. So if your characters aren’t really doing martial arts, but where they stand ends up mattering for how good the magic is. Maybe there’s some ley lines, and if they are immediately on top of that ley line, for instance, they can cast better magic. They might still have reasons to use maneuvering their position as a strategy during the fight, or doing magic to get the other person off of the ley line to reduce their power might be a thing. You can still use a little bit of movement and spacing if you want, but it’s not the same as doing martial arts with some magic. 

Oren: Okay, so the first thing that I recommend for your magic, when you’re adding defensive magical options, you usually want those to be active defenses. Such as jumping out of the way, or some kind of difficult deflection spell, or something like that. You don’t usually want all of your magic defenses to be like a passive shield or a suit of armor. Some of that is fine. It can help explain how your characters survive, despite having these very spectacular attacks hurled at them. But if that’s like the entirety of their defense, then that just gets kind of boring, because they just stand there and take hits. 

Chris: You definitely don’t want defenses to be super reliable, because you also don’t want, for instance, a shield spell that a character can just cast over and over again. You want the possibility that the defense will fail, or some way for the attacker to get around it so that they have to change tactics. I’m actually reminded of the Borg. They have adapted! [both laugh] Okay, this character’s using this type of shield. Maybe there’s a way to get around it, or certain types of spells that get past that type of shield. 

Oren: Yeah, I mean, and like, the bad guy having a form of invincibility or resilience that they use offensively is a little different. The Borg don’t just like, sit there and wait for your phaser to run out. They come at you. So there’s a certain amount of like, alright, well now we can’t shoot them and we need to think of another way to beat them or something. And that usually involves shooting them with something that isn’t an energy weapon for some reason. [both laugh] Bullets, they could never adapt to that. 

Chris: That is hilarious when sci-fi settings pull out, like, okay, but like, what about the physical bullet? 

Oren: Yeah, Stargate did that too, where it was like, the replicators are basically immune to everything except bullets. Bullets can kill them. It’s like, well, that’s convenient. 

Chris: So if you have a battle, it could be just magical or there’s no reason you couldn’t do this if you’re doing like, physical martial arts too. Basically you want to create strategies that you can communicate to readers and that your characters can use to be clever, right? And that can change from fight to fight. The more fights you have, the more you need to be able to vary those fights so that every fight doesn’t feel the same. So basically what you want is lots of different levers that you can pull to affect the outcome of the fight and make the situation different this time. And one way to do that is to just think through all the different ways that your magic can break down or go wrong, right? Which is something I encourage people to do anyway, because you’re always going to have times in the story where magic is a little inconvenient. And on one hand, it can be a little bit much if you’re like, oh, it’s like the transporter fails for a different reason every time. That would solve the problem. But still, it’s good for magic to not always work. 

For example, it’s very common in magic systems for characters to need to concentrate to do magic. It’s like, just concentrate, just concentrate. But strangely, once a character learns to concentrate, that almost never goes wrong. I almost never see stories where the concentration is only for a little training arc that’s usually underdeveloped. We never see people who are proficient in magic have problems with concentration, but there’s so many reasons why we might not be able to concentrate. And there are tactics an opponent can use to break somebody’s concentration. Anything from just a loud bang right nearby, that would make it hard to concentrate. Or you could go with the whole “your loved ones calling out to you” thing if we want to be much more clever about it. But if your characters have to do X in order to cast magic, that’s potentially something that could be disrupted, even if it’s something like, internal, like concentration. 

Similarly, if you have an elemental system and they need to have access to that element, they can’t just generate it automatically. You probably don’t want to take all of the element away from them because, or at least not for the full fight. Maybe you take it away and they get it back. But you could have a strategy that’s about reducing it. So for instance, if you have a water mage and a fire mage, and the water mage can’t control steam in the air, the fire mage might use a tactic that’s designed to grind down the amount of water that the water mage controls by boiling it. 

Oren: I like that concept. I do find it kind of annoying when you have an elemental system and like only one element has that problem and it’s always water. It’s assumed for whatever reason by default that fire mages can just make fire and earth mages always have earth around, basically. Most of these stories never take place somewhere where there isn’t any earth. And then air mages always have air or they would be dead. But with water mages, it’s like, ah, well now there’s no water. Drat. [Chris laughs] It starts to feel like picking on water.

Chris: Well, I will say if the fire mage can’t just create fire in thin air, the water mage is definitely going to have an advantage for that one.

Oren: Yeah, I agree, I agree. 

Chris: Yeah. And then your magic systems have their own trickiness because you need to make them roughly equivalent enough if you’re doing lots of fights. 

Oren: They have to be the same but different. 

Chris: Same but different. But for instance, if your characters have magic tattoos, okay, what happens when somebody gets injured in a way that breaks their tattoo? That creates a new pattern there. Could that mean that their magic goes wrong? And just look at all the aspects of your magic system. Be like, “okay, where could it break down?” That’s a potential attack vector that somebody could use and the fight could then focus on that. Now you need a reason why, again, they would do that instead of just doing the insta-kill spell, which is why you don’t really want insta-kill spells. You want something where a person has to be clever to get around the other person’s kind of defensive or has a reason to try to get an advantage, right, for later in the fight. 

Oren: The Broken Earth is actually a very good example here. So The Broken Earth has a clear objective that you’re trying to achieve in a magic battle, which is you are trying to break the other mage’s Torus, which is a fancy way of saying their little donut of magic that’s around them. Because if you break that, you can’t use your powers without an intact Torus, and if you can’t use your powers, you’re basically helpless against another mage. And so first it’s like, alright, that’s what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to break their Torus. And then, how do you do that? And so it creates this interesting system where you have to try to figure out, okay, should I put all of my energy into one point and attack there, but then they can avoid that attack? Should I split them into multiple attacks and hit them from different directions? And you have to try to find different sources of power from within the ground, because it’s all geology-based, so you’re trying to find hot spots or pockets of gas that you can use to draw power from. And so it creates a very active magic system. With a goal that is clear and easy to understand, but multiple ways to accomplish it. And no, like, one single, “I get out my Torus-piercing bullet and shoot it.” It’s a remarkably good combat system. I really like it. 

One of the problems with that book is that there isn’t nearly enough mage-on-mage fighting, even though that’s like the best part. [Chris laughs] Because it’s an Oppressed Mages story. It’s like, I would really love it if the battle was between two factions of mages instead. 

Chris: Yeah, that sounds cool.

Oren: It’s so cool. Anyway, so that’s an example. There aren’t that many examples of books with good magic systems for fighting. 

Chris: Unfortunately. 

Oren: Broken Earth is one of the few I could find, and so I feel the need to trumpet it. 

Chris: Well, I mean, similarly to, you know, what makes the magic break down, you could also go with, can you add something fun that would give somebody an advantage? You just have to be, again, be careful that the advantage is not too big, because you don’t want, like, “I do this and then the battle is over.” Well, I mean, that might be very convenient for one fight, but if you have lots of fights. For instance, my example of, maybe it matters where they stand, and then you have a reason for them to try to do a weird king-of-the-hill situation, for instance, where they’re both trying to stand on this little hillock and like fighting over it. [laughs]

Oren: “You give me that. That’s my hilltop!” 

Chris: Or anything else that could be interesting. One of them is upwind, or has other things about them. Items on them. Maybe you have a system where they have rings that help a little bit, and they can knock rings off of each other’s hands or something like that. So there’s lots of different options here, but basically you’re looking for things that could make the difference, you know, give an advantage or a disadvantage, or be the difference between winning and losing, so that you have different things to focus on in different fights. 

And it’s also helpful, I think, if your mages are a little different from each other. And it doesn’t have to be like they inherently have one talent or the other, but you know, they can be trained in certain ways so that they focus on some tactics over other tactics. And that way they can do a little bit of sizing up. What’s this person good at, what they’re not good at. Just like all the times when we have physical fights. It’s all about, okay, this person is very fast, but they’re not very strong, so they can’t take a hit very well. That kind of thing. It’s also nice if you can do that during magic battles.

Oren: I had one client story, and I’m changing the details of this because it’s a client story, but the general concept is the same, where the idea was basically that characters can activate more magical abilities, but doing that comes with risk of either exhausting themselves faster or losing control of their magic. So it was like (as an example, this isn’t what it actually manifested as, but without telling you the details of someone’s unpublished story), suppose you had a series of magic gemstones. You could like, socket them into your magic wrist gemstone holder. And the more you put in, the more powers you had access to, but also the faster you are drained and the greater the chance of a bad reaction between the two spells. So that creates an interesting choice that the character has to make, of like, “Okay, how many powers do I want at one time? What’s the risk worth here?” That was just a really cool concept, and it introduced a bunch of fun strategies for the mages in this client’s story to use in fighting. I really liked it.

Chris: Yeah, any time the choice to use magic has to be strategic. Like, one of the things that’s interesting is if you have a system where you have to prepare magical things in advance, as opposed to just during the fight doing spells, that can be, you know, that has its own strengths and weaknesses. But if your character is like, okay, I’ve used up my magical battery, and now I have a finite number of spells that I can use, these spells left, now I have to suddenly be strategic. And there’s a cost to using magic now. And now I can only use it if it’s actually worth it, right? Where I have to like, “wait till I see the whites of their eyes” is basically the equivalent. [Oren laughs] Don’t shoot until you have a good shot, because we have limited ammunition. It’s similarly, you gotta hold on and only use a spell once you know it will have maximum effect if you only have a limited number of spells. So anything that has a tradeoff that comes with a cost, then the character has a reason to be more strategic than they were before, as opposed to again, just spamming the insta-kill spell as fast as you can for the entire fight. 

Oren: If you’re primarily experienced with magic systems through videogames, this is a place where you’re going to run into problems. Because in a videogame, you can have like, fire, lightning and ice. And each of those have a different, like secondary effect. Fire puts a damage over time, lightning gives a paralysis and ice slows them or something. And like in a videogame, sure, that totally could work. But in a story, unless it’s a very specific type of story, hitting someone with fire, lightning or ice will have roughly the same effect in that they will be dead. [both laugh] Those secondary effects aren’t going to matter, so you have to think about it in terms of real humans and the way real human bodies work. You can’t count on very abstract secondary effects that only work in video game logic. 

Chris: Unless you’re a Dragon Age cartoon show, though. 

Oren: Yeah, I mean. [both laugh] 

Chris: This new Dragon Age show, which was very surprising that it kept using all the same mechanics as the videogame. 

Oren: Yeah, it was weird. Character gets like, stabbed in the back and just walks it off because they’re fine. Because they have hit points left. 

Chris: Well, it does feel like Dragon Age. So that’s success there, I guess. 

Oren: Yeah, it definitely feels like Dragon Age. [both laugh]

Chris: I think it’s worth looping back on the fact that you want to make characters do more with less. We’ve talked about these situations where we have magic powers that just get out of hand. And I think bloodbending is such a great example because it shows you why we add things like that to the story in the first place. For one episode, it was really impressive and cool and intimidating. And so it had its purpose at that time. But then when we start to use it more and we get used to it, then suddenly it’s bloodbending everywhere all the time and our fights are just less interesting. 

Oren: Right. And I was thinking about bloodbending too, right? Because I was like, all right, what if they… Because in Korra, they added a ton of special things onto bloodbending to make it even more overpowered. 

Chris: And they didn’t have to. 

Oren: That was a completely unforced error. There was no reason to do that. 

Chris: I do think that once you add something that’s cool to your story, you want to bring it back outside of its original context. And that’s part of the problem here. Because originally, bloodbending was very difficult. It could only do it during the full moon. 

Oren: And that was something that I was thinking about. I was like, what if they hadn’t added all of that nonsense to bloodbending that they do in Korra and make it able to take bending away and work when not on a full moon and not even have to make motions to do it? What if they just hadn’t done any of that? What role would bloodbending have had in the story? And I was forced to conclude I still think it would be kind of not good because it would basically just come down to Katara can auto-win a one-on-one fight during full moons. That’s what bloodbending came down to. If it requires full moons, that basically means it almost never comes up. Except if it did come up on a full moon, then the fight would be kind of boring. 

Chris: There’s exactly one bloodbending plot you can do, which is “character learns bloodbending for the first time.” [laughs]

Oren: You could arrange things so that on the full moon, she has to fight multiple enemies because she can only bloodbend one person at a time, presumably. So maybe you could make it work that way. But once you find yourself having to limit a power by like, a certain time slot that it can be used in, that’s already a bad sign.

Chris: Right, I mean I do think with bloodbending we could have had maybe one additional episode where Katara uses it when she really doesn’t want to. Right? Uses it out of desperation. And then the full moon just doesn’t come back for the rest of the show. And fast forward to Korra, Korra learns bloodbending for the first time. It’s also still super creepy, the end. 

But yeah, besides that, I think the other thing that happens a lot is that people who show their protagonist learning magic, they really want the climax to be showing, “Oh hey look at all the cool, powerful things they can do now!” But that doesn’t actually make for the most exciting climax. Because you’re just escalating all of the powers. They probably won’t feel threatened. It’s going to be really hard to keep track of what’s going on. So I think in many cases it’s almost better to, if your protagonist is growing in power, make them show off during the penultimate fight. And then for this climax, force them to show a lot of ingenuity by taking things away from them, right? 

And again, if you have lots of levers, if you have reasons why your magic wouldn’t work, then you should be able to do this. If you don’t have any way to take the magic away from them, then you’re kind of forced to wait until the very end of the story to give them magic so that it doesn’t get in the way of conflict. But if you have those levers, then what you can do is they can show off for the penultimate fight and then during the climax, “Oh no! Their magic item was broken or their magical battery is out” or, you know, whatever you want to do, and then show that they are so good that they can overcome this obstacle by being clever. And showing finesse, for instance, instead of just like raw power. That kind of thing. Or in some cases, you can loop back onto the lessons that they were learning when they were just starting. It’s like, “Oh, you need to be more disciplined. You know, do your breathing exercises.” “Oh, breathing exercises are so boring!” And then like, at the very end, “Oh, I’ve got nothing left except for these breathing exercises.” [both laugh]

Oren: A breathing exercise to save the world. 

Chris: Something like that. 

Oren: Here’s a question as we’re coming to the end of our time: What did you think of the magic fighting in Mistborn? 

Chris: Now that I think about it, it did feel kind of like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I didn’t actually think about it that way at the time, but when I was told after, I was like, oh yeah, that does make sense because they’re leaping off of rooftops a lot. 

Oren: Right, if you are a Mistborn in the setting, you can do that. That’s one of the things about it that I found kind of annoying is that it felt like, to do the cool stuff, you basically have to be one of the Special Mages who gets all eight powers. Because like, with just one of those powers, there’s not really a lot you can do. But with all eight of them, you can base, or at least with, there are a few that don’t really matter, but with like two or three, you can do magical kung-fu fighting. 

Chris: On the plus side though, that means that you can have your super special chosen one who has all of the powers and not have them insta-win because they’re super powerful. 

Oren: That’s true. 

Chris: That’s definitely a tradeoff. There’s so many people who want to do the trope of,  “My main character has all the powers and everybody else just has one.” Right? It’s good wish fulfillment. I think that when you get to an elemental system that has like eight different elements, right? It’s one thing for Aang to have access to all four elements. Of course he also has the Avatar State, which is the real broken. 

Oren: Yeah, that’s the real issue. 

Chris: But if you have eight elements, think of how much that magnifies the difference in power level and it’s just gonna make it harder for you to keep that under control. 

Oren: Or alternatively, the way that Mistborn addresses that problem is that like five of the eight kind of suck [Chris laughs] and they don’t really matter that much. It’s like, “Oh boy, I have eight powers. One of them is: the ability to notice when someone else is using magic.” And then another one is the ability to prevent that first power from working. There’s like the one to see far away, which is situationally useful. And then there’s like the three that are actually good, which is super strength, and then like the ability to pull metal towards you or push it away from you, which are like the three that actually matter in the story. 

Chris: Yeah, I mean, it’s worth noting that Mistborn also has a limit in that they all rely on metals that get burned up. So you have kind of a limited time span quantity, which is also, I think, a good choice there. 

Oren: It gives you a good built-in reason why they can’t use their powers forever. Admittedly, it does have certain shades of like, they’ll get tired because I don’t know how long the metal that they’ve taken will last. They can tell me in the story, but like, I have no way of knowing how many seconds have gone by. 

Chris: If you have any limit that’s like they get tired, their energy fades, or, you know, we have a limited quantity of material, something that’s, you know, not binary, that’s like an amount that diminishes, the key is really being consistent about it and not just, hey, this would be a convenient time for them to get tired. It should always be present and used consistently, and then it will feel a lot better. 

Oren: Alright, well, that’s a good note, I think, to end this podcast because we are out of time. 

Chris: If you found this episode useful, become a patron. You can support us on patreon.com/mythcreants. 

Oren: And before we go, I want to thank a few of our existing patrons. First, we have the popular writing software Plottr, which you can learn more about at plottr.com. Then there’s Callie Macleod. Next we have Ayman Jaber. He’s an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Kathy Ferguson, a professor of political theory in Star Trek. We’ll talk to you next week. 

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