Worldbuilding

Six Magic Systems That Need Stricter Limits

Giles in a silly wizard hat from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
When building a magic system, authors are faced with a balancing act. If they restrict their magic too much, then it won’t be cool and interesting. That defeats the whole point of magic! On the other hand, if an author doesn’t put enough restrictions on magic, then it allows the characters to easily solve every problem. That second scenario is a lot more likely, as magic is by definition something that doesn’t actually exist, so authors have trouble planning for how it will affect their stories.

That’s why so many popular stories have totally unrestrained magic, with heroes who can destroy armies at a glance, end famines with a wave of the hand, or even program their VCR through dark and profane rituals. While these problems are annoying to encounter in the wild, they make great learning opportunities for storytellers.

1. The Broken Earth

The three novels of the Broken Earth series laid out on stone.

The mages of N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series are incredibly powerful. They can cause city-destroying earthquakes with a thought or freeze large areas solid as they pull all thermal energy into the ground. The book makes a point that nearly all mages can do this. Contrary to what you might expect, it’s small-scale work that’s a mark of skill and power. Any novice can open a new Grand Canyon. It takes skill and experience to freeze a single person solid in a crowd.

This extreme level of power for every mage causes two main problems. First, this is an oppressed mages setting, where anyone with magical talent is treated like the lowest filth if they aren’t killed outright. Every mage being uber powerful makes that premise even less credible than it normally is, as it’s notoriously difficult to oppress people who can kill you and everyone you love with a single thought.

At the very least, most oppressed mages stories try to create a scenario where muggles could theoretically keep the mages down if they all got together and worked at it, but Broken Earth doesn’t even bother with that. Even a single mage could easily defeat entire armies of non-magical humans. The best explanation is that there’s a special group of people who are immune to normal magic,* but that’s putting a Band-Aid on a severed artery. Even if a mage can’t directly pull the heat from someone’s body, they can pull away all other heat and give their enemy hypothermia, or just open up a sinkhole underneath them.

The second problem is that the Broken Earth eventually wants to put its mage-protagonists up against enemy armies, and the only way it can do that is to completely forget about the mages’ abilities. The first time this happens, we’re told the mage can’t just sink a bunch of enemy ships because they have those people who are immune to magic on board. Okay, but have you considered pulling all the heat out of the surrounding water and freezing the ships in place? It seems worth trying.

Another time, it doesn’t even have that thin veneer. An enemy army threatens the protagonist’s town with death, but instead of destroying them with magic, the protagonist decides to go out herself and negotiate. She doesn’t even send a proxy; she intentionally puts herself into stabbing range. She is then very surprised when her vicious enemy stabs her.

2. Buffy The Vampire Slayer

Dark Willow holding a fireball.

Buffy is an episodic show, with each week’s plot only vaguely connected to the bigger season arc, if at all. This is fitting, since each episode also seems to introduce a new kind of magic, each more powerful than the last!

We rarely get a detailed explanation of how magic works in Buffy, partly because it’s a TV show and partly because the writers probably didn’t know themselves. Sometimes magic is done via psychic powers, sometimes it requires ritual spellwork that anyone can do, and sometimes you need to have an inborn talent to do the ritual spellwork. Literally no one knows what the rules actually are.

What everyone does know is that magic in the Buffyverse is incredibly powerful. Even the low-level stuff, like Willow and Tara hurling a snack machine with their minds, is enough to be overpowered in a fight. Later on, Willow can summon lightning bolts and shield herself from harm, and this is before she becomes the god-being known as Dark Willow.

The only limit Buffy offers is the vague idea that doing too much “dark magic” will become addictive, which is Willow’s main arc in seasons six and seven. This is already a bad limitation, since the possibility of addiction isn’t much when lives are on the line. I’m pretty sure most of us would smoke a cigarette if it were the only way to stop an oncoming axe murderer.

And of course, this limit isn’t even consistent. There’s no indication that Willow and Tara’s telekinesis is a problem, nor is it mentioned at the end of season four when our heroes do a ritual that turns Buffy into an unstoppable juggernaut.* At the end of season seven, Willow does a mega spell that awakens all the potential slayers at once, and it doesn’t seem very dark.

It is impossible to count all the problems our heroes should have solved with Willow’s magic. Perhaps even worse, most of these abilities seem to come from nowhere, with little or no foreshadowing. This makes it difficult to take any conflict seriously, since it always feels like Willow can produce some new spell from thin air if the writers find themselves in a corner.

3. Ninefox Gambit

Space ships attacking a station.

“Wait a minute,” I hear you saying. “Yoon Ha Lee’s novel Ninefox Gambit is scifi, it doesn’t belong in an article about magic systems. Also, you smell bad.”

While you are certainly correct, there’s a reason I put Ninefox on this list: its technology is absolutely wild. In addition to standard stuff like teleportation, FTL drives, and energy shields, Ninefox is a world where certain technologies only work if other people in your area of space are using the right calendar system. So if your ship operates on the Gregorian calendar and you warp to a sector where the Jewish calendar is popular, your vessel could just fall apart around you. No explanation is offered for this, which is probably good, since nothing could possibly explain it. The upshot is that I feel completely justified in calling it magic.

Enough exposition, back to the critique! Like Buffy, Ninefox is a story where new magic is introduced every time the hero needs to get out of an otherwise impossible situation. How do we beat the villains’ unbeatable shields? With a new weapon no one’s ever heard of before. Don’t worry, it comes with a lot of cool description. Once we’re inside the enemy fortress, how do we take it over? With fancy robots called “threshold winnowers,” which do… something. But don’t worry, we’re programming them to do something slightly different than they normally would, and that will make us win with fewer civilian casualties, somehow.

Ninefox doesn’t create quite as many new types of magic as Buffy does, partly because a single novel doesn’t have as much time as seven seasons of TV.* Nor is the book’s technomagic as blatantly overpowered, though that’s partly because we don’t understand what it does. Even so, the problem is the same. There’s little satisfaction in any of the hero’s accomplishments because they have so much magical tech at their disposal, and it’s hard to take threats seriously since the characters can produce new wonder-devices seemingly at any time.

This problem is also a lot harder to excuse in a novel than an episodic TV show. In shows like Buffy, there’s an understanding that each episode is to some extent a self-contained story, and the lack of a narrator makes explaining magic a lot more difficult. Finally, production constraints often mean that problems can’t actually be solved as the author originally intended. That doesn’t give TV shows a free pass, but it does make their mistakes feel less serious.

Novels have a much higher standard. They have more time to explain their magic, a narrator to do it, and are a single, unified story. This helps make up for the fact that prose stories don’t have pretty special effects or charismatic actors. When a novel starts throwing out a grab bag of random supernatural powers, it feels like something has gone horribly wrong.

4. Starless

Shooting stars from the cover of Starless.

Unlike previous entries, Jacqueline Carey’s Starless doesn’t have any trouble limiting the magical powers its characters have access to. Those abilities all have specific uses and none of them break the plot, though one is called “Pahrkun’s Wind,” which sounds a lot more like a fart joke than it should.

No, the problem here is with the gods themselves. They give our heroes an urgent quest with vague instructions where the fate of the universe is at stake, which sounds par for the course at first. But unlike most fantasy stories, the gods of Starless aren’t distant and unknowable. They’re walking around in the real world. They talk to humans all the time. You can go visit them if you want to.

This puts the gods in the role of the hooded old man at the tavern, whispering just enough foreshadowing to get the heroes interested, but not enough to be useful. The story needs this because huge stretches of it are about figuring out what the characters should do next. It’s not until the very end that the main character realizes that the whole problem can be solved by a magic item he’s had since the beginning.

You’ve probably spotted the problem by now: this doesn’t match the gods’ motivation. They want the heroes to succeed on the quest. It doesn’t serve their interests to give incomplete instructions and hope the heroes can figure out the rest in time. What if the heroes’ riddle-solving skills aren’t quite up to the challenge? Then everyone dies, including the gods.

It’s possible the gods are supposed to be so different from humans that we can’t possibly understand their plans, but their goal to survive and return to the heavens is very understandable, so that’s unlikely. The only other explanation is that the gods have Rube Goldberg powers and can predict the future so accurately that they know the heroes will be okay. But in that scenario, nothing the heroes do matters, and the story becomes really boring.

Most fantasy stories are careful to put barriers between the gods and the heroes to prevent this exact problem. Some succeed better than others, but Starless is the first novel I’ve seen to do away with those barriers entirely. Carey may have been trying to stand out by breaking the divine magic mold, but it turns out that mold was around for a reason.

5. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

The main characters from Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell

There’s a lot happening in Susanna Clarke’s nearly 300,000-word doorstop, but one of the major arcs is our heroes trying to prove the value of their magic. Early in the story, Norrell has a rough time because none of his parlor tricks can impress the gentry of London, forcing him to make dark deals with a malicious fey. Later, Strange is deployed with the British army to fight Napoleon in Spain, and he’s hard pressed to think of anything useful to do.

From this kind of plot, you might expect that these bumbling magicians have fairly limited power. You would be wrong. Their deeds include but are not limited to animating hundreds of stone statues, controlling the weather, conjuring illusionary naval fleets, creating roads from nothing, creating endless food, and much, much more.

Are you confused yet? Good, because I certainly was when I read this story. The main characters have seemingly godlike power, and yet they can’t get anyone to take them seriously? It’s incredibly jarring to see Norrell go from filling an entire town with magic to fretting about how he’ll convince a patron of his abilities. We’re supposed to believe that this is due to restrictive English social etiquette; not only is that completely unbelievable, but it vanishes as soon as Norrell resurrects a dead lady. Why are aristocrats impressed by necromancy but not any of Norrell’s other incredible powers? No one can say.

Strange’s story is even more annoying. He goes to war under the command of Sir Arthur Wellesley, otherwise known as the Duke of Wellington. Wellesley was one of the foremost military minds of his age, but we’re supposed to believe he can’t think of any use for weather control on the battlefield. He certainly wouldn’t want to freeze the French soldiers in their camp or drench their gunpowder in torrents of rain, no sir!

This is all an incredibly contrived attempt to give our heroes problems to overcome. Norrell can’t impress his guests, so he makes a deal with a spooky fairy for resurrection magic. Strange is brushed off by Wellesley so he can have some spinach before finally figuring out a spell that will really impress the duke.

Contrived conflict is nothing new, but it’s rare that you see it at the scale found in Strange and Norrell. It’s a story where characters of immense power have trouble with the tiniest of problems. In theory, that could provide some interesting contrast, but Clarke doesn’t give us the context to make it believable. Instead, we’re shown a pair of giants and then told they’re struggling to shift a pebble.

This problem persists into the later chapters when the action heats up. Our heroes finally have to deal with that pesky fey, but it’s difficult to get invested in the conflict because it seems like either of them could produce some new spell and solve it in a heartbeat. Not only are they seriously overpowered, but we have no context for what they’re actually capable of.

6. The Wheel of Time

Rand deflecting a fireball from the Wheel of Time

I talk a lot about how sexist The Wheel of Time’s magic system is, but don’t get me wrong, it also has a lot of technical problems. Most magic systems with too few limits are intentionally vague. The storyteller hopes we won’t notice how arbitrary and overpowered the magic is if they don’t explain it too much. In The Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan takes a different approach.

Every element of WoT’s magic is explained in detail, sometimes excruciating detail. We’re told exactly how much power each character can use, how the five elemental branches of magic interact, not to mention more lessons on weaves, flows, and shields than I know what to do with. Even in the first book, before any of the viewpoint characters can use magic, we have a strong understanding of how it works.

That understanding is what tells us that Wheel of Time’s magic is incredibly overpowered. Even modestly powerful mages* can easily summon magics to destroy groups of enemies in fiery death. Not only that, but Jordan’s mages can keep flinging fire and lightning bolts all day without breaking a sweat.

But wait, there’s more! Mages can also restrain enemies without harming them, heal the most grievous of wounds, and sense nearby evil, because why not? Some mages can also tell the future and travel into parallel worlds, but that doesn’t usually come up enough to be an issue. No, the main problem is around fighting.

There’s a lot of fighting in The Wheel of Time, and mages are way OP at it. There are only three ways to defeat a mage: a perfect ambush, overwhelming numbers, or a more powerful mage. Some mages are so strong that those first two don’t even work on them. The only real limit on magic is, like with Buffy, the vague threat that a mage might get addicted from using too much. That’s not a real limit in a life-or-death fight scene.

But Jordan still wants his non-magical characters to matter, so how does he manage it? Mostly, he forgets the magic rules that he previously spent so much time establishing. For example, in book three, our heroes are attacked by some evil creatures while eating dinner.* These characters have a powerful mage with them, but she’s not the focus of the scene, so Jordan writes a line about how the enemy is now “too close” for her abilities. That way, the other characters can get to work with their swords, axes, and chair legs.

This scene acts as if a massive fireball is the mage’s only option. But just in this book, we’ve seen her create powerful melee weapons perfect for close-quarters fighting. And in previous books, we’ve seen that mages can immobilize their targets with no risk of friendly fire. This problem extends to larger battles as well. WoT’s main character is such a powerful mage that he can disintegrate entire armies with a thought, and on top of that he has items that amplify his power even further. The books host several large battles where it seems like the soldiers should have stayed home and let the mages sort things out.


One thing I’ve learned from several years of content editing is that authors don’t like putting limits on their magic. When I ask about it, they often respond with confusion. Magic is super cool, so why limit it? But if you don’t, your magic will quickly overwhelm your story, leading to broken plots and contrived conflicts. These limits should be worked into the foundation of your magic system, not slapped on as an afterthought. That way, your story will have a robust enough world to support your awesome plot, especially if you’re planning a long series. Don’t worry, there will still be plenty of cool magic for readers to enjoy. A little supernatural power goes a long way.

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Comments

  1. Jeppsson

    But I loooooove Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell! You’re wrong! I don’t have an argument for that, you just ARE!

  2. Cay Reet

    I’ve been avoiding magic for a long while in my stories, mostly because they were set in our reality and we don’t have magic, but also because I didn’t want to think up a magic system and have to avoid mistakes like those you have put into the article.

    Recently, though, some stories have come up where magic plays in to a degree. In “Alex Dorsey,” magic is pretty limited – there’s alchemy and a little necromancy (my favourite magic, LOL), but the main character can only do the first one. Magic plays a very small role overall, it’s more about fighting vampires and the MC finding her own way.

    Gabrielle Munson is another thing entirely. Her whole character is shaped around what happened to her when she was two: she and her twin sister drowned in a stream and Gabrielle came back from the dead – as showed four years later, she came back with the power to raise the dead.
    So Gabrielle is my theoretical necromancer who studies necromancy to understand what happened to her and gave her the power to raise the dead – a power other people in her setting have to sell their soul for.
    Raising something the size and weight of a human requires more than just a touch – unlike the dead rat she raised at the age of seven by accident -, so Gabrielle works with long and complicated rituals which need ingredients and chants (she almost gets caught during one of those in the first story). I’ve made it challenging, because I want her to resort to other tactics when forced to act immediately – running, fighting, talking her way out of things, anything but magic, really.
    It’s draining for her, it can be painful, it can get her hanged, so it’s in her best interest not to use it often. When it comes to the ‘hanged’ part: necromancy needs long rituals and you need dead matter (which once was alive and animalistic) to use it on, so a necromancer locked in a cell is helpless and harmless. Unless, as in another story, there’s a dead body in the cell with her, which Gabrielle then cannibalizes for parts and puts together again later, as to protect her secret.

  3. Cay Reet

    I would also like to point out a series where, I think, the powerful main character works out pretty well: Warlock Holmes.

    Yes, it’s a parody of sorts to the Sherlock Holmes stories – quite some even have titles based on the titles of original stories and often tidbits of the original story as well. Yet, the stories are fun to read and they handle the Masquerade very well.

    Viewpoint character is a certain Dr. Watson (I’m sure you’ve never heard that name before) who was a military doctor in Afghanistan and left the army when severely wounded during a battle nobody ever head of before (Maiwand or something…). He needs new lodgings, because he’s running out of money and a friend directs him towards a curious guy called Warlock Holmes whom he first finds beating a dead body … back to death, as it were. Warlock Holmes is a strange guy, but the offer to only pay one shilling once for lodgings as long as he wants them is too tempting and so Watson moves into Baker Street.
    Months later, he is present when Holmes (who has many quirks) suddenly has a fit and speaks in another voice with his green eyes glowing strongly enough to light up the ceiling he’s staring at. The prophecy and a telegram then lead Holmes, still weakened, and Watson, who wants to lend some support to Holmes as a medical man, to an empty house with a corpse and two strange police inspectors.

    That is how Watson stumbles over a hidden truth: both magic and supernatural creatures exist. Holmes is a powerful Warlock with control over an army of demons (but can’t use their powers too often without unleashing them on the world). Lestrade is a Romanian vampire. Grogson (yup, not Gregson) is an ogre. Wriggles (not Wiggins) is a were-rat. It’s never said outright, but I’m sure Mrs. Hudson is a dwarf. The voice which gave the prophecy is none other than Moriarty’s soul trapped in Holmes’ body (until the end of the first book, that is).
    Why don’t any of them rule the world? Because humans breed so quickly. As Lestrade says when Watson feels insignificant around him and Grogson: we can take two of you, twenty of you, but two million and more? The battle has been fought and we lost it, so we pretend to be humans and hide among you.

    As a comedy series, Warlock Holmes can play with the magic system, of course, but the author does very well with it, nevertheless. The limitations are brought in early, especially the limit on Holmes’ power. It’s clear that, as much as he sometimes relies on the demons, he can’t ask too many favours. He has to keep it to a minimum, which makes it a good thing Watson is there – this Holmes has no deductive power whatsoever, but Watson is good at it.

  4. Rose

    I’ve never read The Broken Earth, but from the description you’ve given here, that actually sounds like one of the best justifications for oppressed mages I’ve heard. Magic is actually TOO powerful to use.

    If you average mage can only cause a city-shattering earthquake and it takes significant ability to dial it down?

    That means A. they can’t fight back unless the oppression is bad enough they’re willing to kill everyone they love as they destroy their city in a Richter 10 earthquake and B. their uses to the powerful are mostly only as WMDs, so it’s justified they won’t all be immediately snapped up into privaliged positions.

    There are surprisingly few situations where causing massive city-wide destruction is useful, and only being able to do that means your hands are actually really tied as long as you have even the most basic concern for other people, in a way muggles aren’t.

    • Cay Reet

      Actually, it’s a setting where oppression makes no sense, because you need power over someone to oppress them and I can’t see how a human without magic can force someone with the power to rip open the earth not to do that.

      • Bubbles

        I think what was meant by the original comment writer (and No-one below) means something similar was that it would be the morality of the mages (or at least the majority of those capable of such destructive power) holding them back from causing WMD-level destruction, and society would probably have to find *some* way of dealing with that kind of power. To be fair, it’s entirely possible, for all I know, that *The Broken Earth* doesn’t actually do this well and that what would realistically result would not even be close to the common idea of “oppression” in the modern day. But I think I’ve said this before here – I’m interested in what a society might do in the face of such powerful, purely destructive magic.

        • Bunny

          That is an interesting question, and to answer it I suppose you’d have to ask at what point magic entered the society. Was the society built around magic? Did it enter at the time of the story? Did it enter a few hundred years ago? In all of these scenarios, the magic would remain just as powerful, but the reaction to it and its place in society would be different. It’s important to remember that societies don’t just pop into existence fully-formed, so thinking about how one came to be would have to take into account the existence or nonexistence of such magic.

          For a society built around the magic from the beginning, the mages would probably be at the top of the pecking order. If the story begins right as the magic appears, I could see a story wherein the nonmagical members of society are trying to figure out how to deal with it. In this case, I could see some nonmagical people trying to restrain and oppress the mages, but given the power of the magic, that would go poorly and quickly be seen as a bad tactic. I could also see some kind of rigorous education system instituted to try and guide that morality, but again, the mages couldn’t be “oppressed” as we understand in the real-world sense, and this kind of system wouldn’t last for long as the magic moved into other tiers of society. (This is assuming magic is an inborn talent.) The latter would be a society much more in flux, but again, the mages would retain all of the power in that scenario.

      • Rose

        If all I have is nukes, you can do quite a lot to me, because things have to be really, really bad for me to start launching nukes.

        You can’t force someone with the power to rip open the earth not to do that, but the fact the person with the power to rip open the earth wants to keep living on an intact planet with a functioning civilization can. “Only citykillers and nothing less” means the mages options boil down to “don’t fight back” or “full scale crusade of genocide against all normal humans” with no real responses inbetween. It makes at least reasonable sense that mages don’t go for the latter, even if they technically have the ability.

        • Rose

          You would, admittedly, need to describe how mages got oppressed in the first place, which is a bit harder. But still easier here- it’s fairly reasonable that the powers the be see walking atom bombs as threats more then opportunities- and once that’s done, the average mage’s lack of desire to be responsible for megadeaths is enough of a hindrance to give mundanes the edge.

          • Cay Reet

            Oppression could always push the less average mages enough reason to fight back, which would always end in a disaster.

            That is why, with people that powerful, you don’t oppress them, you make them feel good, you give them privileges and make them want to help you and protect you instead.

          • Rosenkavalier

            But that requires them to be complicit in their own oppression, out of a desire not to harm their oppressors, which makes no sense to me.

            And even if it was the case, it only needs a tiny handful of them not to have a ‘lack of desire to be responsible for megadeaths’ for any attempt at oppression suddenly to become very unattractive…

  5. Mona

    Maybe the Broken Earth thing could work if they had a power to not just resist magic but negate it around them for I don’t know half a mile? Then nothing magical could happen around them. To nerf that a little you could say it doesn’t happen naturally and could be removed through surgery, and that when they sleep the non-magic stops, but it doesn’t normally matter since they travel in groups.

    • Cay Reet

      Yes, I think that could work. Given that mages usually aren’t also badass fighters, being without magic all in a sudden would make them helpless, so those ‘negate magic’ people could efficiently control them.

  6. Dave L

    Here’s a question: How would you make an RPG of any of these settings, w/out the PC’s being too powerful?

    PC’s NEVER cooperate w/ the story the way characters in fiction do. You’ve mentioned before that one way to figure out appropriate limits is to think like a PC, particularly a power-gamer

    I know there is a BtVS RPG, but I’m not familiar w/ its magic system

  7. No-one

    Disclaimer: I don’t know the Broken Earth settings. so I’m just babling around.

    If the avarage mage is so destructive, then It means that having the mage talent has a big stigma attached to it and there is good chance that society has early detection mechanisms to get rid/stop/reeducate budding magicians. So the oppresions/or just telling ‘using magic is bad’ makes perfect sense as a social mechanism to prevent destruction.

    • Bunny

      I haven’t read Broken Earth either, but the problem with this, as I understand it, is that a mage with that much power would be difficult to oppress. Given the impactful nature of the magic, why would anyone risk pissing off a mage by telling them no? And how would a regular human even have the capacity to stop a mage from doing whatever they want? I can’t imagine that simply telling someone with magic “Don’t use your magic” is an an effective approach.

      A more logical outcome of this situation would be for the society not to restrict magic, but to put it to use for, say, building roads or other projects. That way, the magic has massive benefits for both mages and non-mages and the society is actually doing something productive with the powerful opportunities they have at hand.

      Mythcreants actually has a whole article about this: https://mythcreants.com/blog/the-problem-with-oppressed-mages/

      • Teh Naive Knave

        I haven’t read the entire Broken Earth series, but I have had the opportunity to read the first entry in the trilogy. (I was a little skeptical going in, but I did enjoy the narrative in the end.) Without saying too much on the spoiler side of things, there is in fact a central authority that intends (with varying levels of success) to render the mages a bit more utilitarian as a whole. It isn’t entirely forced conscription, but you’re a ‘Rogga’ (a derogatory term for the mages) until proven otherwise in its eyes. The mages are utilized (to highly varying degrees) to mitigate the effects of what the world calls seasons, tectonic events that would normally be cataclysmic should the mages not have been forcibly wrangled. One of their base functions is to simply serve as a living monitor of tectonic activity. (Without proper training, however, that ability can be a bit lacking; as the OP said, fine control is a dream for most.)

        Again, while I haven’t read further into the series just yet, I could buy that the propaganda of fear coupled with the ever-changing landscape of the continent where the story takes place (Communes are notoriously short-lived for the most part; I would guess that tends to happen when a massive hiccough from the earth could decimate one in an instant.) could result in the mages being feared more than revered. The first entry in the trilogy, at least (I think) does a good job of setting up the play between conscription seen as a way to reign themselves in and seen as a door through which they lose their humanity. Killing your entire family because you don’t know how to control all that you are, in my mind, would be an adequate deterrent. The (more or less) central authority also is a fan of corporal punishment to force falling in line… It does seem to be administered on a more individual level, though. (A lot of those in training are children, turned away by their own families or separated by force following an incident; and so, coupled with a fear of their own abilities and a fear of physical harm, I can see it (corporal punishment) as being an effective act of coercion.)

        (It is also implied that some mages genuinely just do not have the potential of the others, indicated by their perceived level of mastery of their abilities. If that’s true, I think that it would reason to say that not all of them are capable of the same levels of destruction, even untrained; and so, I don’t think that fundamentally there’s an issue in their being oppressed. The execution of their abilities, though…)

        There is also a lot of magic in the world outside of the mages that isn’t well understood because in the tumultuous seasons of the world it remains mostly undiscovered or long forgotten. (Literal living relics, if you will.)

        I am a little disappointed that the mechanics of the magic aren’t leveraged more efficiently in the later chapters, though…

  8. Kat

    I read a series where the mages are oppressed outcasts, except when they get hired by royalty. It’s easy to tell who the mages are because they get burned by touching moonstones, except when they’re so powerful, they don’t. There’s shape shifters powerful enough to shift into any human or creature they want, but still pick ‘rich, young noble’ to visit a tavern when we’re told they wanted to go unnoticed.
    The story had lots of potential, but the author was green and didn’t have editors who caught on to glaring inconsistencies. There were times I could practically see the characters reading off their character creation sheets. “Let’s see. Ah, yes. I love having powerful weapons at my disposal, but I hate mysteries. It says here that you’re mysterious, so, um, grrrr.”
    In the third book, the mage who could do mind control, (yes, some of the ‘oppressed’ mages can control people’s minds and somehow they still ended marginalized because it’s rude to take over people’s minds,) well, she had an affair with a married man. The wife was never warned her husband was a cheating bastard. The mage decided to fix the situation by erasing the husband’s memories of cheating on his wife. Without his consent. Yes, that’s right. The mage got into somebody’s head without their knowledge and erased their memories without their consent and it’s considered harmless because the mage told other people that she was fun-loving and carefree. Therefore, the reader is supposed to let it slide. Gah. The plot holes were so large, an entire society of oppressed mages could live in them…..
    Another mage could burn down entire cities without breaking a sweat. The shape-shifting mage could turn into a cougar and murder entire villages without getting caught. The mind-control mage could enslave people to their will and erase memories. But they were still oppressed because people feared their abilities. Also, you’re supposed to like the mages and sympathize with them because they’re Mary Sues and Gary Stus and the other people are just superstitious or something.

  9. Paul

    I’m honestly surprised that Sabrina the Teenage Witch isn’t on here.

  10. LeeEsq

    I blame the atomic bomb for all this. No really. The magic in many legends and myths before the rise of the speculative fiction genre in the late 19th to mid-20th centuries was really quite limited. They could make illusions, become invisible, charm people, fly, do some curses that would be annoying in an agricultural society like crop failures or causing milk to go bad, turn themselves or other people into animals, and that’s about it. Summoning supernatural creatures was the most impressive feat. This made sense for a society where what technology could do was a lot limited. Magic users could be a threat to ordinary people but their powers were limited enough to believe that ordinary people could take them on, especially in large numbers.

    Then came the Industrial Revolution and what science and technology people could do increased. The massive destructive ability of nuclear weapons really took over the edge. Magic in fiction needs to be able to do stuff that readership knows ordinary people can’t do in reality with the help of science. All the famous mages from legend might be really low level characters if you translate them into D&D stats.

    • LeeEsq

      Readers aren’t going to be impressed by this. So authors need to create more absurdly powerful mages. Readers still like the oppressed mages trope because I think it is a really attractive fantasy for nerds of all sorts and real minorities, we the minorities are really powerful. So you get these weird magical power and social power imbalances.

    • Cay Reet

      Magic on what I’d call a human level is never going to be able to compete with the real-life weaponry we have at our disposal today: tanks, drones, the atom bomb, all of those can do far more damage than what you’d expect of a mage in your regular (usually kind-of-European-middle-ages) fantasy setting. In so far, I agree with you.

      The power level of everyone in a fantasy setting is much lower normally, though. Your orcs are definitely stronger than humans, but they don’t have an atom bomb to top it off. They just need to be tackled by several humans at once. Note that orcs, while physically powerful, usually have low tech, which means that humans usually have more efficient weapons to even the field. There’s a reason different species get balanced out in the stories. Orcs are powerful, but their weapons aren’t as advanced, elves often have magic, but are physically more frail. The elves aren’t both physically and mentally powerful and, as much as I would like to see an Orcish chess tournament, orcs are brutes with little cunning or intelligence. On the whole, they are equal to the humans like this, because what they have more of in one field, they lack in another.

      You don’t need to make magic that powerful for it to work, you need to make clear that it is powerful in your setting, because your setting doesn’t have tanks, drones, and atom bombs (or an equivalent to it). I think this is where a lot of fantasy writers go wrong. They pick the middle ages for their setting, but think the power of their mages has to surpass 21st century tech, which it doesn’t.

      • Jeppsson

        That’s basically the idea behind the mages in Sanderson’s Mistborn series. I usually describe it as superheroes in a fantasy setting. If you compare these super people to characters in, say, Marvel and DC, their powers are very low level, but in the old-timey setting of the books, they’re really useful.

        For instance, some people have the very narrow telekinetic ability to push metal straight away from their bodies. These people often utilize their power to shoot off small coins at very high speeds. Basically, it’s similar to having a gun, and in a setting where actual guns don’t exist, that’s an impressive power.
        There are also those who can run at super speed – although we’re not talking DC’s the Flash here, or even Marvel’s Quicksilver. My impression is it’s rather the speed level of a racing horse or thereabouts, although unlike a racing horse, they can keep it up for several hours. Since cars haven’t been invented yet, that’s also impressive and very useful. And so on.

      • LeeEsq

        It’s not so much that the setting requires mages with powers that can replicate industrial technology, it’s the readers that demand this. The average speculative fiction reader understands that magic is supposed to grant abilities that ordinary people can’t do. The problem is that ordinary people can do quite a lot with modern technology so the usual low level powers of traditional wizards aren’t going to be that impressive. The readers should hopefully be able to understand that the setting is less technologically advanced and therefore magic needs to be less powerful but this doesn’t seem to be the case.

        Crop failure or milk going bad were things that really frightened people when famine was a constant threat. It’s why these things were often attributed to women and men accused of witchcraft. When even people in rather poor areas of the world are unused to hunger and getting new milk is just a drive down to the commerce store, minor crop failure is no longer scary. So speculative fiction witches and wizards need something beyond crop failure to make them seem powerful.

        • Cay Reet

          This is where our view of the readership differs. You say the mages need to be so powerful, because the reader compares their powers to what the average guy can do today. I say if you write your setting well, you don’t need such powerful mages to make an interesting and compelling story the readers will enjoy.

        • Jeppsson

          Well, I mentioned Mistborn above, and those books have sold a gazillion copies. There are other books too with mages who aren’t super powerful that still sell well. So even though really powerful mages are common, it’s simply false that readers want nothing but extreme power.

        • Rosenkavalier

          To me, that seems like a boringly one-dimensional and utilitarian model of magic – it just has to be one step more powerful than the available technology (at which point it simply becomes replaceable by a more advanced technology, in any case).

          I find magic to be interesting and engaging in a setting when it effectively operates at right-angles to what can be achieved by mundane methods, and can thus do things that technology can’t, even if those things are relatively low powered.

          • Jeppsson

            Well, I see what you mean. I often like it best when magic does something completely different from tech. Magic doesn’t have to be crazy powerful, though, to do that.

            I love the Mistborn books, but they’re actually more like superhero stories set in a fantasy environment, albeit with superheros and supervillains who are very low in power compared to what you find in Marvel or DC.

  11. My pal Foot Foot

    Hey! Leave Buffy alone! Buffy was perfect.

  12. Gunny

    I have to take the entry about the Wheel of Time to mean the people on this site simply don’t like the series and never gave it a fair shot. That’s all well and good, and there is a lot to dislike there, but you should stop using it as a critical example if you lack knowledge of the series. It undermines you points when your critique has so many factual errors and untruthful statements.

    “Even in the first book, before any of the viewpoint characters can use magic, we have a strong understanding of how it works.”
    We do not, in fact. We know the philosophical function of the magic and some idea of what the mages currently using it can and cannot do. In fact, many fans of the series who are very invested in understanding the magic system argue that the early books contain a lot of early-installment weirdness, because the magic does not, in fact, appear to work as it does once the characters gain greater facility with it.

    “Even modestly powerful mages can easily summon magics to destroy groups of enemies in fiery death.”
    Citation needed? The characters spend much of the first two books in the company of one of a pair of mages. One, Moiraine, is among the most powerful of the mage guild, and the other, Verin, is very experienced and sneaky and is willing to break ethical constraints to gain advantages, as well as being more than modestly powerful. Destroying groups of enemies in firey death is never an option for them. They spend a lot of time running and hiding from enemies, because the enemies have larger groups. The language is very disingenuous. Yes, they can kill plural enemies, but not easily and not without costs. Also, setting living creatures on fire is not necessarily an effective way to kill them.

    “Not only that, but Jordan’s mages can keep flinging fire and lightning bolts all day without breaking a sweat.”
    Absolutely false. Using magic is grueling and exhausting and pushing beyond the limits of one’s strength is dangerous, risking the loss of one’s magical talent. One character attempts to fling fire and lightning bolts all day, to help an army fight in a battle, and he nearly dies despite having a strength-boosting artifact and having the greatest known capacity to handle magic of anyone ever. He is exhausted and staggering at a relatively early point in the day, and needs to be escorted by soldiers just to stay upright on his horse and led to the front lines to have an effect, and by the end of the day he is lost and not thinking clearly and collapses the moment he relaxes his use of the magic.

    “Mages can also restrain enemies without harming them,” true, one at a time. More is generally beyond the strength of a mage in the period of the main story. “heal the most grievous of wounds,” some can, who have the innate ability. “and sense nearby evil, because why not?” This implies there is something excessive about that last ability. It does not mean sensing evil people, it means sensing monsters made with a particular type of magic drawn from an evil god-like being. And these are not particularly subtle monsters, so it generally means the mages sense their approach a few moments before they attack or the sentries raise the alarm.

    “There are only three ways to defeat a mage: a perfect ambush, overwhelming numbers, or a more powerful mage.” Absolutely false. Mages are ordinary humans. Unlike in a Blizzard game, your capacity to take damage does not increase as your magic abilities do. Mage characters are repeatedly enjoined to be careful because a knife or an arrow can kill them as easily as anyone else, and that all their ability to dish out punishment won’t do any good if they are killed by ordinary means.

    “Some mages are so strong that those first two don’t even work on them.” Citation needed. This is absolutely never a thing in the books. Even the arch villains, among the strongest mages in history, trained at a time when magical organization was at a peak of knowledge and expertise, are very cautious about exposing themselves to battle, and all the most powerful mages gather armies to get anything done.

    “The only real limit on magic is, like with Buffy, the vague threat that a mage might get addicted from using too much.” The limit is physical exhaustion, comparable to an equivalent among of physical labor and nothing remotely like a mana potion to instantly restore your strength when you’ve exhausted your magical capacity.

    “Mostly, he forgets the magic rules that he previously spent so much time establishing. For example, in book three, our heroes are attacked by some evil creatures while eating dinner. ”
    They are not attacked by evil creatures, but by enchanted assassins, who have the ability to pass unnoticed, and even when you see them, your brain ignores them. In a later book, the most powerful mage in the series hears the door to the room open, he looks up and his stream of consciousness goes “Oh, it’s a guy with a knife. I wonder what’s in this letter I just got delivered, and my girlfriend is annoyed at me and trying to talk to me and my bodyguards are making jokes and the guy with the knife is coming closer. I should read this letter. Hey, it’s from the queen and WHAT THE FUCK” just as the knife guy is about to stab him.

    These assassins got in close. It’s hard to aim or concentrate on a target when they are attacking. In the next book two of those assassins slaughter a group of elite, ninja-like guards with only one of them being killed. Fireballs were not an option for the mage, because target selection was difficult in a scrum and target lock is difficult with this type of enemy.

    “And in previous books, we’ve seen that mages can immobilize their targets with no risk of friendly fire.” Not true. They can use their magic to “grab” another person, but seldom in the heat of a melee. A person of the same power level as the mage later states that she can only grab about three times her weight. So this mage, at best, could have held three of the assassins, barring the issues of melee confusion and target lock.

    “This problem extends to larger battles as well. WoT’s main character is such a powerful mage that he can disintegrate entire armies with a thought,”
    Absolutely not true. He never does this. Trying to use energy effects to help his army fight led to the scene I mentioned above. At the end of the series, in his nadir, as he is flirting with the Dark Side, he is tempted to use a magic device to do what the article suggests, but the amount of power is said to be dangerous to the world itself, and distorting his judgment leaving some question as to whether he could, in fact, accomplish such a feat safely. In other words, the OP magic is only available to villains or as a temptation to lure the good guys to the dark side. Isn’t that a GOOD use of excessive power in a narrative?

    “The books host several large battles where it seems like the soldiers should have stayed home and let the mages sort things out.” Which battle? In most battles with a couple of mages present, they have a disproportionate effect on the battle for one or two people, but not a decisive effect. There is one battle where an army of mages, in an advantageous position, are able to inflict devastating damage on a mundane army, but it’s largely because it was unexpected and they got the army to charge into a trap. That same army will continue to be a nuisance right up to the last book that Robert Jordan wrote, so it isn’t even like the army of mages actually destroyed it.

    The arguments are very good, they simply do not describe any real situations in Wheel of Time.
    Buffy, OTOH, I couldn’t have said it better myself. What I liked about the spin-off show Angel, was that they didn’t have a mage. They could use magic here or there to counter magic plot obstacles, but it was strongly implied to be the work of long research and discipline.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Editorial note: This comment contains a number of factually untrue statements about events depicted within The Wheel of Time. That doesn’t violate our comments policy, but I don’t recommend anyone else engage with it.

      • Gunny

        I would genuinely appreciate a reference to any mistakes I made. My interest is in accuracy, which was the theme of my critique of the article. I am glad to see that other comments wrt this series have proven untrue, suggesting mods dismiss or suppress critical comments, but would appreciate anyone with knowledge or a better command of the series engaging to set me straight.

        • Angelo Pardi

          Honestly right at the end of the first book Rand does enough damage to the Trollock army to allow the ten time outnumbered Shienaran army to win the day. Sounds pretty OP to me. And there is a distinct power creep throughout the different books.

  13. Jeppsson

    I watched the first ep of sitcom “Miracle Workers” yesterday, and I thought the limitation put on the angels’ powers was a pretty cool one.

    Whenever you mess with the laws of physics, the consequences are vast and unpredictable. By implication, the laws of physics aren’t 100 % deterministic (but rather probabilistic) in this universe, providing a LITTLE wiggle room for the angels. They can sometimes make TINY changes to things, without having said changes ripple out like rings on a pond. But when newcomer Eliza at the “answering prayers” department tries to answer a poor farmer’s prayer for rain, despite experienced angel Craig telling her it’s an impossible one, she inadvertantly ends up creating a tsunami killing thousands. Creating rain in one place has all kinds of consequences on surrounding weather systems, and those consequences spread and spread.
    (Steve Buscemi’s God is presumably not limited like this, but at least in ep one he’s a stupid drunk who’s completely out of touch with Earth.)

    I thought it was a fun limitation that you could use in a non-religious setting too.

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