The Power of Magic

It’s time to put the F in SF/F. Well, the other F, you know… for Fantasy, and that means talking about magic. This is the first of a planned three-part series on magical systems, talking about the limits of power, the schools of magic, and magical objects. Today, we start with power.

Power is good, yes? More power is even better, right? Go far enough and you’ve got limitless power… and no story. With limitless power, you’re no longer talking about wizards or warlocks; you’re talking about gods. Usually their power is not limited by their abilities. Rather, their power is limited by rules and agreements with other gods. Those stories can be cool, but they’re about politics and godly drama, not magical power.

I want to start off with the Harry Potter universe, because it’s a particularly bad example of limitless power. Now, don’t get me wrong – I loved the Harry Potter books. They were great stories, and many of those characters still have comfy spots in my monkeysphere. But Rowling never addressed the limits of power, or at least not particularly well. Our heroes certainly put in the effort to learn their magical skills as well as struggled to find the emotional will required to cast particular spells, e.g. joy for a patronus or vicious hatred for various curses. As students, they were hardly without hurdles on their path towards magical power.

But once they developed the knack of it, they could go all day long until their wand hand got tired. Against mortals or purely physical obstructions, a skilled wizard was truly godlike. Only other wizards or magical creatures/constructs posed any real limits on what they could do. Now, I’m not saying that this made them bad stories, just that the magic system in those books did not impose any internal limits on a wizard’s power. Other than perhaps damning your eternal soul, casting a spell never cost you anything.

So, instead of that, I want to look at systems where there is a real cost to the use of magic and where the practitioner’s magical bank account has limited funds.

To start with, let’s talk about magical “energy”. I don’t think it can be quantized in convenient units like joules or kilowatt-hours, but many writers talk about magical energy. Sometimes they talk about it in terms of the magical energy they carry around with them, and sometimes it’s the magical energy of a place or object. Performing magic taps into that energy. In many games (and a few stories) this energy has been given the name of “mana”, but for the moment I’ll stick with calling it energy.

Let me give you some examples. One famous wizard created a ring that stores up energy every time the ring moves. He has to swing his arm a little harder with each step, but bit by bit that ring stores up more and more energy. Eventually, he can release that energy in a sudden powerful punch.

Another common energy soruce are ley lines, powerful currents in the land where magical energy flows. Stand over one of those, and you’re plugged in to the main magical power grid. Stand at the intersection of two or more ley lines, and you’re so wired up, it’s like grabbing hold of those big transformers at the power station. Great for working big magic, but maybe not so great for your health.

Going broader, energy can be drawn from storms, earthquakes, living things, emotions, and all manner of stuff in transition. As a writer, you pretty much have a blank check there. If something is happening (or happened a long time ago), you can find a way for your wizard to tap into it, but to get readers to believe it, you have to be consistent and rein it in with limits.

But with all that energy surging around, how can we possibly impose limits on our mortal wizards? I’ve seen three ways that work pretty well. The first is that for our wizardly heroes to use all this free energy, it has to flow through the wizard somehow, and how that happens can impose limits. How quickly can it flow? Maybe, like that little ring, it can only seep in over time, making our wizard a bit like a rechargeable battery – great for sprints, not so good for marathons. Or maybe it can flow like the electric current from a wall, and as someone who has experienced that particular joy, let me tell you that you can’t do it for very long. Even wizards who make a practice of crossing the streams can only take so much before mental and physical exhaustion leaves them quivering on the floor.

The second kind of limit is that of simple finite supply vs. near-infinite demand. Yes, you’re standing on the intersection of eight of the most powerful ley lines in the land, but that’s a castle you’re trying tear down. Big magic takes a lot of juice, and sometimes there just isn’t enough, or at the very least, there’s not enough right here right now. The smart wizard, of course, knows how to use that limited energy more efficiently and will cleverly dissolve the mortar between the stones at the base of that one corner tower. Oops, sorry about the collapsing walls!

The third kind of limit I’ve seen is to cut the wizard off from his or her power. That’s cheating a little because it is typically an opposing character taking action against the wizard, but I still consider it an internal limit because instead of meeting strength with strength, it’s robbing the wizard of his strength. I’ve usually seen this done in one of two ways, either putting some kind of boundary in place between the wizard and the surrounding sources of magical energy, or magically grounding him so that he can’t get the get the energy to flow through him. Water and iron frequently play roles in this, both as boundaries and grounding mechanisms.

Now, I want to return to mana for a moment because it leads to a very different kind of limit. First, I want to discard the gaming notion of mana, which is basically a short-term in-person energy store which is readily replenished as long as you sit down for a moment without catching on fire. That makes for a great game mechanic but is not so good for telling stories with hard choices. Instead, I want to talk about mana as a limited natural resource.

I first ran into the term “mana” in some fantasy stories written by Niven in the 1970’s. Similar to the magical energy I described above, it was all over the place, specifically in the land beneath your feet. However, unlike most other settings where the energy would build back up after being depleted, the mana in Niven’s fantasy world was not renewable. Once you spent it, it was gone forever.

He meant it as an allegory for the oil crisis of the 1970’s, but it was even harder on the practitioners of his world. While we can bring in oil from the far side of the globe, wizards could only tap the land nearby. Once a wizard had done magic in the same place for a few years, he had to move on to fresh lands. Worse, extreme uses of magic (duels or certain experiments) could drain the land completely, leaving dead zones where magic would not function ever again. This was not a limit for the day. This was a limit forever.

Chilling, no?

But then I heard about a limit even more frightening and personal. I didn’t catch the author’s name, but there was a series of books where the magic power came from the color of the wizard’s eyes, specifically their irises. Different colors powered different kinds of magic, and as you worked those particular spells, that color was slowly leeched out of your eye, spell by spell. And then one day, when your eyes had gone completely gray, your magic was gone, used up. You only got so much magic to begin with, and when it was gone, it was gone.

So considering what it cost you, maybe that fireball wasn’t worth it after all.

So, any other power limits I’ve missed?