Tl;DR: I'm doing an urban fantasy story with magic/superpowers, and I'm trying to decide a way to keep technology out of my fight scenes without doing away with technology entirely if at all possible. I have one method that I feel works but needlessly overcomplicates worldbuilding, and a fallback that's not ideal and defeats the point of some of the story's themes but is much easier to worldbuild with and could be fun in its own way. I’m wondering if anyone has a way to salvage one of them or has a third to offer.

As a newcomer here, I'd like to apologize and thank you in advance for your patience with the incoming wall of text. I have this recurring and incredibly frustrating problem with my story with regards of handling technology in my urban fantasy, and I could really use some advice.

So I'm writing a story about a world where an unknown entity starts giving the human race superpowers. Basically, in my setting, which is the modern day with a few adjustments, shortly after the story begins, everyone over the age of 13 has a brand on their arm that can hold four (later six) runes, and every week a new rune is added to the brand, representing a new superpower (it's the same rune for everyone per week). When the brand is full, whatever rune is in the last slot (they can be moved around with your mind) is replaced when the next week's rune is added.

In addition to this, there are four more powers that are free and impossible to remove. The first two, which are given to everyone who was old enough to have a brand when all this started, are a healing factor (which doubles as an immunity to disease and aging) and a power that basically puts everyone, man or woman, at about Captain America's level physically, give or take in a few areas. There are two more, and unlike the first two you don't have to have had a brand when they were initially given out; from that point on everyone gets those powers when they get their brand. I'll get to what these next two powers are in a second.

The story initially goes for pseudo-Harry Potter-esque supernatural slice of life plus mystery format for the six months worth of powers in the story, until it becomes obvious that there are certain powers that society as we know it can't survive everyone having, and unfortunately, everyone now has them.

On to the point: technology and this story have a complicated relationship: I want to make it impossible to use in combat so that I don't have to make the powers god-level ridiculous to keep people from still favoring guns and tanks and such in a fight or war (also I think swords and bows are a lot more fun than guns), but I also want there to still be instant worldwide communication so that I can justify everyone having the same name for each power, and I love the idea of modern methods being used to make old-fashioned weapons.

The idea I initially came up with to compromise on this point was having those later-issued permanent powers be a sort of anti-technology power that lets people blast an area the diameter of a two-lane street with an energy that renders electricity, combustion and chemical reactions impossible for an hour (living organisms are immune to this), with the second power being a force field that blocks all small projectiles, rendering guns useless and requiring ranged attacks to come from powers or larger projectiles like arrows.

At first this sounded perfect, a system where for the most part technology works, but only when everyone who can see it wants it to, and a perfect catalyst for making shit hit the fan at the climax of the first book of this story and sending the world into complete chaos (along with a set of powers that facilitate mass prison breakouts). And with a single alt-history invention I could change the way the internet and phones work to make sure they'd be feasible to keep running too. The problem is that the worldbuilding implications are utterly mind-bending, as figuring out what aspects of modern life would and wouldn't be possible would hinge entirely on a thorough understanding of modern infrastructure, sociology, and also one's optimism about the goodness or lack thereof of the human race, and I don't know if I'd ever be able to truly comprehend what would and wouldn't be possible in a world where anyone can at any time make anything they can see not work. It's fascinating to me, but also pretty complicated and terrifyingly easy to get wrong.

And so an alternative idea I had been throwing around was to send the world into full "power-punk" mode after the initial false sense of security of the first six months, and basically have the unknown entity do some sort of Dies The Fire or Revolution-esque change in the laws of physics that render most technology useless, forcing people to use their various powers instead to compensate. While this would make nearly all technology more complicated than fire off limits, I'd be able to create any power I want to replace the more important stuff, as long as I was comfortable limiting the number of hands it could be in since there's a limit to how many powers you can have. While I'd miss the opportunity to see how various powers would interact with our modern world, and I'd have to break the rule I want to follow about everything supernatural coming from these powers and nothing else (to keep with the theme of "Everyone getting superpowers wouldn't exactly be all sunshine and rainbows"), I wouldn't need to study every conceivable facet of human behavior and modern infrastructure and still probably get half of what I say wrong.

Does anyone have any advice in this area? Am I overestimating the difficulty of working out how a world like Idea #1 would work, or am I right in thinking I'm biting off way more than someone can reasonably expect to chew and I'd be better off keeping things simpler and easier to understand and going with Idea #2? And can anyone who recommends going with Idea #1 give me any advice about any less obvious implications I'd need to think about?

  • $\begingroup$ So your goal is to keep tech from being used in battles/war? $\endgroup$
    – Rick M.
    Apr 22, 2018 at 17:54
  • $\begingroup$ @RickM. Yeah. I want to make people use their powers and such for fighting instead of guns and tanks and the like, without making those powers so ridiculously overpowered that everyone's a nigh-indestructible demigod. $\endgroup$ Apr 22, 2018 at 17:55
  • $\begingroup$ Then I suggest you edit your title (and maybe also the ending of your question) to make that clearer. It will increase the chance of people understanding you and providing useful answers. $\endgroup$
    – Rick M.
    Apr 22, 2018 at 18:01
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Suggestion: preface your backstory / text wall with a bolded single sentence stating your question. Conclude with similar. It is Presentation 101: tell them what you are going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them. I would do it for you but I am not sure what the question is either. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Apr 22, 2018 at 19:41
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Willk Does what I just added work? $\endgroup$ Apr 22, 2018 at 20:44

7 Answers 7


In the Dresden files, technology fails in the presence of magic. Guns jam, computers short out. The longer the technology is exposed the faster it dies and the more complex the faster it dies.

The main character, Harry Dresden, drives an old VW Beetle that dies periodically and a Chief's special revolver which may or may not work. Bad guys with machine guns jam up as soon as magic starts flying

It's explained as using magic affect probability as opposed to stopping reactions

  • $\begingroup$ That stops 'High Noon' or 'Cops vs Robbers' style gunfights where everyone involved is within a hundred metres of each other, but it doesn't stop war with modern weapons which are designed to be fired from miles and miles away. Such as artillery. $\endgroup$
    – DrBob
    Apr 23, 2018 at 16:27
  • $\begingroup$ +1 for probability based magic. $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    Apr 23, 2018 at 17:34
  • $\begingroup$ Probability could still affect artillery where the explosive shell detonates early or completely fails to detonate. It would still work as long as they don't mind using nothing more complicated than a cannon ball. $\endgroup$
    – Thorne
    Apr 23, 2018 at 23:40
  • $\begingroup$ @Thorne Or spontaneously turns into a Sperm Whale or bowl of Petunias... Then again, the Sperm Whale landing on you might do more damage than an unexploded shell. $\endgroup$ Apr 26, 2018 at 7:24

I seriously disagree that swords have any inherent coolness factor to them (which is why I can't take Star Wars seriously), but it's your story and you're the god of it.

Actually, you're underestimating the complications from Idea #1. If you create a field that suppresses electrical activity, people's neurons stop working, and everyone dies. If you suppress combustion, cells cannot breathe, and everyone dies. If chemical reactions are impossible for one hour, all metabolic functions stop, and everyone dies. You can't have such a drastic effect apply only to objects and not to people: living organisms are subject to physical laws too.

So you want not only guns, but even tanks to be unusable against a superpowered character. How about ordinary dynamite? How about tasers? How about napalm? How about poison gas? How about nuclear bombs? You need to set a limit for how resistant your magic is, because you can bet governments will attempt to nuke anything that resists air bombardment.

Before I can propose a solution, I'll need more information. Maybe you could describe in detail what superpowers you're giving your characters?

  • $\begingroup$ "People's neurons stop working, and everyone dies". Shoot. This question went through multiple drafts and I guess I forgot to re-add in the caveat that living organisms are unaffected by this. And anyway, I dislike guns more because they ludicrously inflate the power level I need my characters to be at to make superpowered fights actually interesting and make superpowers actually used. Because I want this to be a lower-tier array of superpowers so that letting everyone have access to them won't completely reduce the planet to dust within weeks. $\endgroup$ Apr 22, 2018 at 19:12
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ You need vitalism to be true in your universe for that restriction to be enforceable. $\endgroup$ Apr 22, 2018 at 19:14
  • $\begingroup$ I figured since we're already accepting that the entity giving the powers already has a means to define the extent and boundaries of a human body, they'd be able to do that for all other life too. $\endgroup$ Apr 22, 2018 at 19:17

What you need is a means of keeping modern technology "out" of the scenario for the period of time the story needs. This is rather difficult, since you are essentially creating mobile plot armour for the heroes, and could run into situational issues (for example, someone not expecting a fight does not have the "negate technology spell" activated and gets shot in an ambush).

As well, the refinements have to be almost ridiculously specific; only some chemical reactions or electronic and electric fields can be cancelled out, otherwise everyone dies. It would be simpler to make people have powers which simply negate the effects of modern weapons, so I pull out the M-4 and put a magazine into you, but the bullets are shrugged off or magically deflected....

One final objection is how do you define "modern weaponry"? If I shoot at you with an arquebus does that count? What if I use a Byzantine flamethrower? What happens when I try to run you over with a car? If my Winchester Model 1897 is fitted with a 22" sword bayonet, can I use it as a spear? For that matter, will a Katana made with modern steel using modern forging methods work, or do I have to smelt poor quality iron ore and hand forge it using traditional smithing techniques?

To get the effects you want, I would suggest one of the spells is a form af magical "Faraday cage" which blocks "modernity" (however defined), which the person can cast over themselves and a small spherical area around them (perhaps an arms reach). That way bullets and so on are deflected, and only hand to hand combat would be possible (where bubbles overlap). Characters can team up to "blow" larger bubbles or link multiple bubbles together for whatever effects that generates.

  • $\begingroup$ The idea with the anti-tech eyesight pulse I thought of (which didn't effect living things) was that it would eliminate most of the mundane methods humans have come up with to make the world "move itself" rather than us moving it. It's not so much semantically eliminating "modernity" and more forcing humans to rely on their own strength and powers rather than electricity and gunpowder. That in and of itself worked. The issue I had was that I couldn't begin to guess how people with that power would behave outside of fights and whether infrastructure would still be possible. $\endgroup$ Apr 22, 2018 at 21:41
  • $\begingroup$ The real problem is we have been using technology to augment our abilities from the time of our ancient hominid ancestors. The Ancestors used Neolithic technology to literally walk around the world and settle virtually every continent. Our modern lives are ridiculously intertwined with technology; I can call for allies to come help in a fight using a cell phone-how would that factor in to your scenario? I suspect people would be treating magic like smartphone apps rather than eliminating modern infrastructure or tools. $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    Apr 22, 2018 at 23:07

Taking inspiration from the The Dark Eye roleplaying system:
Magic and iron don't mix. Prolonged exposure to iron weakens the magic ability of the exposed person. The more refined the iron, the stronger the effect, so a chunk of iron ore weakens you slightly, a modern gun with it's high durability iron drains your power. You don't have to physically touch the iron for it to affect you, you just have to be close to it, so using gloves won't prevent it from affecting you. No magic, no superpowers. The physical strength from magic disappears and the healing factor is gone, so it's very undesirable for it to happen.

You can still use swords, but they have to be made from bronze or other non-iron materials. They'll be weaker, though if I remember correctly more prone to bending than breaking.

Technology won't be gone at all, computers don't have a lot of iron, apart from maybe the casing. Cars are a bigger problem, but it might be possible to handwave it away by adding a bronze mesh around the motor to keep the effect of iron contained and building the rest out of aluminium alloys or people just accept the magic draining cars for the advantage of moving around faster.

  • $\begingroup$ *Looks at articles about people being arrested for 3D-printing working guns* Hmm... *Watches Man At Arms:Reforged make a titanium sword* So, no iron, right? $\endgroup$ Apr 23, 2018 at 8:34
  • $\begingroup$ IIRC the 3D printing working guns was incorrect. It was about parts of guns, but no actual working gun had been entirely 3D printed. I might be wrong about that. A plastic gun wouldn't have a lot of durability anyways. You could also go with "some metals drain magic for inexplicable reasons, some don't," so it doesn't have to be iron specifically. It could be based arbitrary or based around density of materials or some other property of the metals. $\endgroup$
    – Morfildur
    Apr 23, 2018 at 8:44
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, they 3D-printed most of the parts in plastic, but had non-plastic parts to finish it and make it work. But, a titanium-powder-fusion 3D-printer could probably be used to finish those last parts. The idea of making it any metal over a certain density (Or, any Element at-or-past Iron, which is the point where nuclear Fusion stops releases energy and nuclear Fission starts releasing energy - although, that wouldn't include Titanium) that interferes with powers would be better for reducing "quick workarounds" like that though. $\endgroup$ Apr 23, 2018 at 8:50

Why not give your super power system a long enough time period and special powers so that technology based weapons are phased out, being inferior and to and less accessible to the super powers. For example, one of the powers people might get is a shield that can block all projectiles travelling above a certain speed. Another power could have the same effect as a pistol, shooting bullets or air or just force at a person. Overtime, you allow some extremely powerful abilities to come out that over power technology, which leads to a shift in ideology that the powers are better than technology. This way, the people who are likely to fight with each other might try and keep these extreme powers, while those who are living normally will cycle them out for something more useful to their lives. Of course technology will still be there, but you can make it appear that getting access to something like a gun or tank becomes much more harder and less profitable with the rise of powers and more technology related to maximizing the use of the powers.

Other than that, you can try go with the Harry potter method, but that falls apart the moment you look into it. Basically as mentioned before, technology simply does't work around magic/powers. But in the end Mechanical systems are still going to function perfectly fine and so should chemical reactions, so a Gun will still work and anything far enough can still murder you.

Finally depending on your setting you can choose to completely ignore the use of technology. If your hero is in school or a city, it can be very unlikely that anyone they encounter will have a gun because of the prevalence of magic. You don't have to explain why there is no technology, if none of your villains use it, or you quickly over shadow it with how much more powerful magic can be and how much more useful it is. e.g. there is an electronic lock, but some one might have saved the power to open locks or someone shoots you and you have a shield power.

Extra thought from my world, you can have it so that magical powers can be imbued into items that a person is in contact with, but the magic wears off/fades away over time. This way, a person can imbue magical powers into their swords to say set it on fire, or into arrows to make them explode on impact. However this requires energy and doesn't last a long time, so it becomes harder with bullets and machines. You can also adjust it so that it depends on size and material e.g. wood stores magical power better than metal(for archers), but metal exhibits greater magic power then actively fed magical power(for swords). If you combine this idea with a natural power to stop all projectiles above a certain speed (unless imbued with magic) you can negate almost all modern weapons. Note: it doesn't mean you cant use modern weapons, just that the time and cost investment has to happen at a more personal level aka a person has to imbue each and every single bullet they want to use with magic power and shoot them relatively quickly. Making it a unlikely choice to use as a weapon.


Would just giving everyone a 'anti-combustion and modern conventional weapon' work? Ie, it's one of the temporary powers, but enough people decided to keep it that it renders these things too unreliable to use?

I think, is this case, it would be a matter of how specific you'd want the powers to be, and how much you want to squash down these types of weapons.

In this case, people would still be able to use the modern stuff, but there would be enough circumstances where it wouldn't work for them not to want to- unless they knew for sure that noone in the group they were fighting against had decided to keep this power.

This would allow you to make this a relatively recent introduction, to lessen the amount of alt-history you would have to write, or even just lessen how much it would diverge.

  • $\begingroup$ Well the issue is more that if I give people control over what technology does and doesn't work like that, whether it's a fixed or selectable power, the problem will be how difficult it is to predict the effects that's going to have on basically all of modern society. Would it even be possible to get a power grid working as long as wires can be hit by the power? Would running water work? Would it pretty much always not be working or would it be a really unreliable on-and-off sort of thing? Am I missing even more horrific consequences of people having this? $\endgroup$ Apr 22, 2018 at 18:08
  • $\begingroup$ @JasonClyde Well, it depends on how specific you are willing to get with your powers- why not a 'disable modern weapons' power? That wouldn't have the other problems, but might require a creative implementation. Perhaps high velocity triggered force fields? $\endgroup$
    – Dragon
    Apr 22, 2018 at 18:12
  • $\begingroup$ I generally don't like anchoring the mechanics of powers to wholly human concepts that don't have consistent physical definitions, because then it basically implies the people giving the powers basically have magical rules lawyers deciding what does and doesn't work on a case by case basis, and that always struck me as rather silly and flimsy. Ideally I'd like to construct the rules round consistent physical rules and wholly separate from man-made ideas and semantics. So if I can't find a way to make the anti-tech power work it might be simpler and more practical to do away with tech entirely. $\endgroup$ Apr 22, 2018 at 18:38

One of the early powers given out was essentially "anti-projectiles" - it included the ability to detect projectile weapons in your vicinity, to detect where they are pointed/aimed, and the ability to dodge or deflect projectiles. For that 1 week, guns became largely useless, and unlicensed firearms were seized in mass-raids by cops who knew exactly where they were being hidden.

Since people can decide which power they want to "swap out" each week, every police force on the planet has someone who still has this power. Every Military force contains people who still have this power. Every security company at least claims to have someone with this power. This has forced both the armed forces and the criminal element to move away from guns as their weapons of choice - even if your target is too young to have this power, you might walk within range of a cop who can detect your weapon.

Of course, guns are still the weapon of choice for hunting, etc.

(Tangentally: Do people 'just know' what their new weekly power does when they get it, or do they have to experiment? There are ways that could go horribly wrong, such as little Johnny out camping who accidentally triggers his new fire-based power and burns the forest down around him - perhaps there a small group of people holding onto an otherwise useless power that just tells them what next-week's power does, and what the rune looks like. They are the ones who name it, and prepare a press briefing on what it does - this also lets them "downplay" aspects they think shouldn't be widely known)


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