I’m having trouble creating a magic system that is balanced. I am attempting to make a system in which magic comes from energy within and is directed through will. It has an elements style theme (fire, water, earth, air, shadow, light, etc). However, I find a problem with some of the elements being too powerful. One could easily control the water in someone’s body or suffocate someone using air. How do I prevent things like this?
That’s a great question for a tricky situation. Shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender use animation to show fire pushing people away instead of burning them and other generally unrealistic things. Narration gives readers a lot more time to think about the choices that characters are making, what their options are, and whether elements are working in a logical way.
I can see two options here.
1. Use more detail and realism to place appropriate restrictions on each element separately. This requires more explanation in the story and requires you to do it for every element, but it also is configurable on a per element basis and possibly easier to work into scenes you already have. However, you have to be careful to keep restrictions from feeling too arbitrary.
- For water, you’ll probably want to specify that it has to be relatively pure, whereas water in the human body – or the moisture inside something like a plant – is out of reach of your water mages.
- For air, you can specify that mages can’t force big pressure changes or move air in a small enclosed space. Outdoor air is easier to move than indoor air, and air inside lungs is out of the question. Mages can’t just suck the air out of something – air always replaces air – just move it.
- For fire, it could be tough to burn something that isn’t naturally pretty flammable, so humans can’t be combusted. Burning clothing, etc., could still be very dangerous, but people who are prepared could wear special clothing.
2. Restrict what all mages are able to target or not target, so it’s difficult for them to kill a bunch of people as soon as they feel like it.
- Maybe they can’t control anything that’s very far away from them.
- They might even need physical contact – a mage dips a toe in a river to control the river, and if a splash of water breaks away they can’t control it anymore. Maybe they can still hurt people with their element but only if they touch the person’s skin.
- Perhaps they have to do a ritual on a part of their element before affecting it. Water mages carry water they can manipulate, or fire mages have a lantern with a blessed flame, and they can only influence fires originating from that flame.
- You could also let mages do pretty much anything with their elements, but then say they can’t do magic directly on a person because of inherent human spirit yada yada. That’s a sort of handwavium, but since readers will probably understand the need for this restriction, I think you could get away with it.
I hope that gives you some ideas that work for your story!