Creating Magic Systems for Combat.Swords and sorcery! Pew pew pew! If you’re writing a world where magic works, how can you prevent making your magic system overpowered?
How do you keep a magic system from being overpowered in your novel? Limit it. Forget fireballs and lightning bolts and pew pew pew. Magic takes energy. Energy cannot come from nowhere.
An average person punches with a force of around 150 joules. A magic spell that hits with the same force also needs 150 joules of energy, and that energy’s gotta come from somewhere. If it comes from the body of the person casting the spell, well, that rules out fireballs and lightning bolts right away.
Make your characters fight smart, not hard. They don’t fight with magic, they use magic as a fighting tool.
Back when I was still doing martial arts, my sensei told me that people, given a weapon, tend to fight with the weapon. All their energy and attention tends to go to “how can I use this weapon to hurt my opponent,” not “how can I hurt my opponent.” So they miss obvious openings to punch or kick.
The contemporary urban fantasy Eunice and I have developed uses magical combat, but we wanted to set it in the real world (the novel takes place in London in 2016), so it was important that magic not be overpowered. (This is less critical in traditional fiction, but in contemporary urban fantasy or magical realism, you need to make sure that magic isn’t so powerful that society develops around purely magic combat or you’ll lose the elements of the real world.)
Our system severely limits magic:
An hour later, fizzing with stored erotic energy, May sat cross-legged on a mat in a curtained-off part of the dance floor. February and Freya sat beside her, Margaret and Jillian and several others behind her. Madame Isabelle swept into the small space marked out by hanging tarps, carrying a long, heavy duffel bag in one hand and dragging several padded mats behind her with the other. She wore a focused, slightly harried expression. “Good morning,” she said, voice clipped and formal. “You may call me Madame Isabelle. I will be taking over for Madame Alia. I apologise for the circumstances, and ask your forbearance as we adjust to these trying times. I trained with Madame Alia years ago. She will be missed.” She blinked rapidly several times. “I’m afraid the Guild’s focus has shifted. We will be spending less time on the skills you need to help further the Guild’s business endeavours, and more on those skills that might be useful to a more…confrontational age. Recent events suggest a change in the political landscape, and we must all adapt or perish.”Make magic expensive. Make the physics work—if you want 200 joules on target, your body is going to spend 200 joules (at least! If you really want to limit it, make distance follow the square-cube law) to put it there. Create characters who fight fluidly with a combination of magic, fists, and guns. Use whatever weapon your opponent is least familiar with. (Remember, if you’re fighting Jedi, don’t bring a light saber, bring a shotgun. Or a flamethrower.)
She laid out the mats on the floor, then unzipped the duffel bag and removed several padded boxers’ helmets, thick padded vests of the sort martial artists sometimes wore in movies, and, incongruously, a collapsing easel with a roll-up whiteboard. Restless stirrings and murmurs rose from all around May. February leaned close. “This is more like it. I guess maybe now we’ll start spending less time developing our inner goddess and more time unlocking that inner valkyrie. Not that you need help with that, from the look of you.”
Madame Isabelle fixed her with a piercing gaze. “Do you have something to share with the class?”
February shook her head. “No, ma’am. Sorry, ma’am.”
“Yes, well. If you would be so kind as to come up here, please.” February rose. Madame Isabelle handed her a helmet and padded vest. “Be a dear and put these on? Now then. For many years, the Guild has preferred to exercise soft power, from the shadows. Our leverage has been indirect, influencing those who patronise our services in indirect ways. For that reason, we have largely focused on the arts of pleasure, and invested tremendous time and attention into teaching our members the erotic arts and the art of illusion, which are often the same.”
She walked around February, adjusting the straps on February’s padded chest armour. “In light of the events of the past few days, we are called upon to teach new skills. While the Guild will likely always practise the subtle arts of manipulation, we must also prepare for a world in which the Adversary is more…directly confrontational. Now then.” She sketched out a diagram on the whiteboard, something quite different from anything May had seen before. The other students leaned forward. “February, is it? Do you consent to helping me demonstrate offensive spells by allowing me to cast them on you?”
February crouched in a low, loose wrestler’s stance. “Sure. Bring it.”
Madame Isabelle raised her finger. “Hold that thought.” To the makeshift class, she said, “There are two ways to think about magical combat, mental and physical. While we and the Adversary use both, historically we have tended to focus on the former, while the Adversary has put a lot of effort into the latter.” She flicked her wrist. February fell backward as if struck by a heavy blow, doubling over with a “whuf!”
“Each approach has its strengths and weaknesses,” Madame Isabelle went on as February staggered back to her feet. “Mental attacks take less energy, but are easier to ward against. Our own resident spell engineer has contributed some cutting-edge work in that regard. Physical attacks are harder to defend against, but require far more exertion. Thus, using them effectively means developing and maintaining a formidable reserve of energy from which to cast. Observe.”
She flicked her wrist again. February flew backward, landing hard on the mat with a thump. She climbed to her feet and charged at Madame Isabelle with a roar. Isabelle pivoted to one side, fluid and graceful, twisting one hand in an elaborate gesture. February’s legs flew out from beneath her. She tumbled in a heap at Isabelle’s feet, face a mask of surprise. Isabelle smiled thinly.
February sprang at her from a low crouch. Isabelle leaned back, scarcely seeming to move. February flailed, arms windmilling. The small hairs on the back of May’s neck stood up, and then February flew forward, colliding heavily with the ground. Sweat glowed on Isabelle’s skin.
February climbed upright once more. She glared at Isabelle through narrowed eyes, then made a quick jabbing motion in the air. Isabelle doubled over with a sharp cry, then fell heavily to her side. February grinned in triumph.
“Well done!” Isabelle said as she rolled smoothly back to her feet. “How did you learn that spell?”
“You drew it on the board just now,” February said.
“Correct. I wondered if you’d notice that. The lesson here? Pay attention to your surroundings. Not all instruction is announced as such. Now, if you would—”
February turned white. “I don’t feel so…so…” She reeled, then crumpled to the ground.
“And that is why this form of combat is so difficult.” Isabelle knelt to draw a foil juice pack from her duffel bag. “Here, drink this. It will help. Direct physical magic is inefficient. In practical terms, that means it requires far more energy to throw someone with magic than it does to simply punch them.”
Freya raised her hand. “Then why do it at all?”
“There’s strength, and there’s strength,” Isabelle said. “If you lack a boxer’s physique, you can make up for it with reserves of erotic energy, which are less limited by the constraints of your muscles. You may also find there are times when you want to hit someone without letting them get close to you. Think of it as the magical equivalent of bringing a gun to a knife fight. Ranged attacks are generally better than getting up close and personal. There is no fair fight when your survival is on the line. When you fight with magic, it’s a bit like fighting with a weapon. Focus on the fight, not the magic. Otherwise you leave yourself vulnerable. Your goal is to win, not to use the best spells or the best moves.”
Keep your opponent off-balance. Don’t fight fair—the best magical duels are the ones in which your opponent is dead before he knows there’s a duel. Whipping out your magic wand and giving your opponent time to whip out his while you monologue about how you’re going to avenge your dead father is stupid.
Is your magic line-of-sight? Fight with terrain. Is it blocked by metal? Wear armor.
Magical combat is combat. Magic is the tool. Combat isn’t about the tool, it’s about killing the other guy, while finding ways to keep the other guy from killing you. Make your magic have limits, and make your protagonist and antagonist aware of those limits.