View Full Version : Limitations of Magic

2012-01-21, 10:27 AM
In D&D, magic can do pretty much everything. Only time travel is rather rare, but also that appears on occasion. Lots of other magic systems have clear restrictions and limitations of what's possible and what not.

I am looking for ideas for the magic system for a setting. Please share what ever limitations of magic you like to use in your games or have seen in novels and other places.

Bringing back the dead: Probably one of the most common limitations. In many worlds, magic can not return the dead to life, or only if the body is restored before the soul has passed into the afterlife.
Manipulating Time: Except for super-speed and keeping something in permanent stasis to be unaffected by decay and errosion, manipulating the flow of time or even being able to move back and forth in time seems to be impossible in most worlds.

2012-01-21, 10:41 AM
In the Ravenloft and Midnight campaign settings extradimensional travel is difficult at best.

I like dedicated extraplanar companions as summons/calling effects rather than the summon for each situation we have in 2nd/3rd edition.

2012-01-21, 10:46 AM
Though in those two cases it is important because normally it should work.

Thedas also has no extradimensional travel. You can only leave the world as your spirit, in a kind of astral travel. The one time people tried actual physical travel to the other world, it severed the connection to the creator god and caused a Zombie-Apokalpyse.

2012-01-21, 10:47 AM
I rarely play D&D, so magic items are rare, but the way my group likes to do it is that magic items have no limits. The only restriction is that any sufficiently powerful relic has an equal (and often opposite) downside - for example, the party might might a powerful item that allows you to raise the dead - but at the cost of your own life. Extradimensional travel might be made possible via some arcane device, but at the cost of you switching places with a member of the plane you travel to. My favourite was possibly a small set of poker chips that, when used, would make every spell go off perfectly - with the caveat that in addition to the intended effect, there was some sort of backlash. We had fun with those.

2012-01-21, 11:11 AM
Have you read Brandon Sanderson's Second Law (http://www.brandonsanderson.com/article/100/Sandersons-Second-Law) article? It may help you with this. It talks about restrictions in magic systems, and gives a lot of examples from literature.

One example in there I particularly liked was Magic can create, but never destroy. It seems like it's a pretty flavorful premise to a magic system. Especially combined with another idea of having too much magic being a bad thing, capable of hurting you, what you could have is a system where debuffing isn't possible (as that is considered something of destruction), but you CAN buff an enemy until they're hitting that overflow point, making them much stronger, but at the same time applying negative status effects and reducing defenses, which I think is a more interesting tradeoff than just "I make you suck at everything now"

2012-01-21, 11:19 AM
That's very counter-intuitive.

Which in the case of magic can make things very interesting. :smallbiggrin:

2012-01-21, 04:21 PM
If I were to make my own magic system, or to incorpaorate imitations on an existing one, I would focus them on Turtledove's laws of similarity and contagion.

Law of similarity = objects are connected magically through their similarities. For example, with the right spell, you could use one coin to easily find other coins of the same type, or copy a desk by manipulating the same kind of wood.

Law of contagion = objects that have been in contact remain in contact. For example, you could touch two stones together and, with the right spell, use them as a radio.

i have already used this in my DnD game to a small extent.

2012-01-21, 04:29 PM
In Shadowrun, it is more difficult for magic to affect artificial objects. The higher the technology going into it, the more steps the fabrication took, the more artificial materials are in it, the harder. This could also, in a fantasy setting, apply to some degree, as evidenced in the old trope of Cold Iron: make a magic system that can not affect certain materials at all. A warrior in iron mail is resistant to magic. A wizard can break his wooden spear, but not his iron sword. Or, as in The Soldier's Son, an iron collar makes a mage utterly unable to cast spells.

2012-01-21, 04:37 PM
If you ever played Betrayal at Krondor, (spoiler because it's a decent game, and I wouldn't want to ruin it for anyone who hasn't played it, that might want to pick it up after seeing it mentioned. It is a fairly ancient game though) there was a chapter where you get transported to a place where magic doesn't permeate everything like it does in the normal world. Because of this, if you wanted to use magic, you had to carry mana crystals around with you to fuel your spells.

2012-01-21, 04:51 PM
The funny thing about cold iron is, that the mystical properties where probably attributed to it when it was state of the art technology. People who had iron equipment had a significant advantage over their enemies. If newcommers had iron equipment, they could even kick out the former big dogs of the region.
Later on, the association with cold iron being able to defeat magical creatures remained, even through the technology was falling way behind much more advanced forms of steel making. Instead of being high tech, cold iron was now the more natural material less affected by human manipulation.

2012-01-21, 05:12 PM
Certainly. Which is why I associated it with Shadowrun's Object Resistance.

Kol Korran
2012-01-21, 05:28 PM
not a specific limitations, but i always liked the feel of a narrower scope of magic, of specialization. in D&D terms i think that might mean being limited to only a few schools (or playing a "known spells" class). the "do everything from every field" kind of magic always felt... too much for me.

but that is personal taste. i know many that would disagree, but i think it might make casters more interesting, and more reliant on others in the game.

2012-01-21, 05:32 PM
For that I think it would be best to have the benefits of specialization by far outweight those of a broad range of spells. There are few plausible reason why knowledge of one kind of magic would prevent you from learning other kinds. However, when you have to split your skill to master different types of spells, just concentrating one one and doing that really well might be a very good idea.

2012-01-21, 07:50 PM
Magic cannot cure what Magic creates.


Only Magic can cure what Magic creates.

The first option I find takes away 'wishing everything back to normal' type solutions.

The second can force those responsible to take responsibility for what they've done.

These are both rather 'Big effect' rules to put into place; usually it changes from spell-to-spell, to keep things interesting.

Quite often in very low magic worlds I make it so magic wounds can only be cured with magical means, thus making the impact of magic more influential.

Belril Duskwalk
2012-01-22, 12:37 AM
In D&D, a caster is limited in how much magic they can use based on how many spells they can memorize. The idea being that as they gain power they get better at retaining spells in their head, so they can remember more complex spells and more of them. I always found that somewhat unsatisfactory. Here's a system of limiting casting that I like better:

Magic Is Hard Work: I've seen this show up in a few sources, but I think the best presentation I've seen of it is from The Wheel Of Time series. Basically the reason casters here can't God-Mode their way through their day is because using their magic is both mentally and physically tiring. Little things like calling a minor breath of wind or lighting a candle on the other side of the room are no challenge. Bigger things like flinging fireballs into your enemies are more challenging, but with experience you can do it quite a few times before it starts to wear you out. The biggest efforts of magic you can pull off you'll get away with for maybe 20-30 seconds before you'll fall over completely exhausted. Trying to push beyond your limits is possible but you run the risk of killing yourself in the process.

Another one I find interesting (when done well) is Magic Is Addictive:
The philosophy behind this is generally that since using magic involves using your body as a conduit for living energy, it leads to you holding on to a portion of that energy. Holding that energy feels good. Used sparingly, that's no problem. If you use magic excessively, you'll start to want the feeling of magic more, leading to using it more, causing you to want it even more and so on. The real risk comes in when you have magic that can kill you if used improperly (as above).

2012-01-22, 01:35 AM
For that I think it would be best to have the benefits of specialization by far outweight those of a broad range of spells. There are few plausible reason why knowledge of one kind of magic would prevent you from learning other kinds. However, when you have to split your skill to master different types of spells, just concentrating one one and doing that really well might be a very good idea.

For specialization, it might be a point system, where you "unlock" spell levels for each school, and higher-level magic needs so many points that you're forced to specialize in one or two areas. In this case a "generalist" would have access to a lot of low-level effects, giving him/her some utility, but not so much higher-level magic, so s/he can't really trash reality.

It might also add fluff for powerful/world-changing effects to require things like lengthy or elaborate rituals, human(oid)/blood sacrifices, special locations (the middle of a deep forest, underground caverns, the top of a big mountain, an unholy/holy altar, etc.), multiple casters, cooperation with a spirit/demon/angel/god; generally fancy things that make powerful magic hard to use.

Lord Raziere
2012-01-22, 01:48 AM
in all White Wolf games, magic somehow influences your behavior and what you tend to do with it.

they also always comes with some sort of curse or mental condition that comes with them and influences your behavior even further in another way.

2012-01-22, 02:13 AM
Have you read Brandon Sanderson's Second Law (http://www.brandonsanderson.com/article/100/Sandersons-Second-Law) article? It may help you with this.The Second Law is "don't eat people", if my memory serves. :smallcool:

2012-01-22, 04:00 AM
Magic has a price

One of my favourite limitations of magic is the idea that there's steep prices to pay for changing the world. The more powerful the magic you weave the more you have to pay. Symbolical prices, not purchased ones.
Ranging from physical exhaustion to having to pluck a tailfeather from a wild bird to allow flight to giving away entire years of your life or precious memories.

2012-01-22, 06:12 AM
Lately I really enjoy fairy tale type magic.
A lot of magic is, I don't know, reductive? In some sense. Like if you put a geas on someone, there's really a lot of stuff going on inside the geas. You could open the geas up, pick it apart and sort the pieces into neat piles. When you can't do that, that's what I like about fairy tale magic.

Can't break a curse but you can bend or alter it.

On the other hand I love the space the lies between magic that is really narrative and magic that is almost down to a science too. Because fighting a mechanical dragon by using combinatorics to divine the syllables of its true name is pretty cool.

Have you read Brandon Sanderson's Second Law (http://www.brandonsanderson.com/article/100/Sandersons-Second-Law) article? It may help you with this. It talks about restrictions in magic systems, and gives a lot of examples from literature.

This can stand some quoting. I am ambivalent about Sanderson's writing but the Second Law is a very good piece of thinking.

2012-01-22, 07:34 AM
Something I've been working on lately is territorial magic (not the best term, mind you), applying mostly to druids and shamans. Rather than "generic nature guy", the druid is "guardian/spirit/manifestation of locale X". So for starters, summons, wildshape and animal companions are tied to the land you protect. (No dinosaurs for the celtic druid, and no polar bears for the jungle shaman.) Manipulating the elements is cool, but not all elements haphazardly. (I'm fine with giving the Druid of the Great Mountain Range any storm/snow/ice related spell even if it's not on the druid list, but no Tsunamis for him.)

It's not exactly what you're looking for, and it's really hard to codify and write down specific comprehensive rules for it (trust me, I've tried). But it's quite easy to implement, by the Power of Common Sense. It's actually a subset of Magic by Association, or Themed Magic. Rather than saying "this can't happen at all in my setting", I say "sure, some people can do that, but only if fits the theme". Draw energy from your land, and do anything you like that's related to it (the environment or the culture, I like picturing divine casters as community sages). You just can't do anything you like, period.

Another themed example is the Greek mythology variant in my sig. I haven't written the rationale for why this deity grants this spell and not the other, or why that form of magic is completely unavailavble, but it's all about the campaign world. Since it's the adaptation of an existing mythology, I just know what fits and what doesn't. For example, Raising the dead can't be done with magic, because descending to Hades and making a deal with the Lord of the Underworld (or slipping past/incapacitating the guards and running as fast as your feet can carry you) is a huge staple in the stories. Plane-hopping is out for similar reasons (and because the cosmology is entirely different, and also because no mortal ever materialized suddenly on Olympus with a loud POP). And so on.

The above example is terribly specific of course, but I think the basic concept applies to all consistent settings (like your Lands of the Barbarian Kings for example). The difference is that when you make up something from scratch, you have to think what defines it and decide yourself what fits and what doesn't. But if you are already set on cosmology, geography and environment, the cultures that thrive in it, and the sort of stories you want to tell about this world, I think it will come naturally. Just ask yourself one question for each form of magic / category of spells / whatever: If that thing applies in my setting, do I like it here?

Final note: There are some limitations in magic that sound flavorful and appropriate on paper, but make players unhappy and/or the game a bookkeeping nightmare. Being stringy with material components (sympathetic magic FTW) makes perfect sense and adds to immersion, but makes gameplay very difficult. Imposing huge costs is an excellent story-telling tool, but doesn't mesh well with an RPG whose entire set of rules revolves around combat.

Jeff the Green
2012-01-23, 02:12 PM
There are two related ideas from the more recent Dresden files books that I'm fond of.

First, you can infuse your magic with soulfire. Most spells can use it, but those that create something benefit most. Soulfire is powered by your soul, so use it too much and you die (it grows back with time). Worse, though, is that you can't see or feel how much of your soul you've used up. Others might be able to by using the Sight (hasn't come up yet), but you're guessing.

Second, ghosts can't cast magic normally because they don't have emotions. They do, however, have memories of emotions they can use. However, since they're made of memories, doing so slowly uses them up. As they do, they become less real and more transparent.