Let's start with Sanderson's-first-law. Although I like reading stories with soft magic, this is not question about them. I would like to work with hard magic - the magic bound by strict rules.

So far in either the literature or games (RPG, strategy, pen and paper, etc.), there are rules, yes. But the world is usually converted-medieval or something similar (by converted-medieval I mean world with magic, that is built with the normal world as a base, usually with only the most obvious loopholes covered). And rightly so, to read the story and see it as interesting, you probably want reader to have something to relate to. But there is the issue I have with them, and the core of the question - if I follow through with the effects magic would have, then sooner or later (usually sooner) I arrive at a point, where the logic of world does not hold.

A few examples:

  1. Spatial magic (e.g. teleportation, portals, and blinks) has disastrous results. If I take something really heavy-weight like portal, you nearly immediately get something that breaks security by enabling attacking/retreating with greatly diminished risks, you would break trade (can be mitigated by having cost high enough, but still), create ton of similar problems that would shape the world differently. For example, why build fortifications, when the enemy can transport troops past them, and even if there was plausible way to build something of sort, these would be much more expensive and thus rare. Not to mention the fact, that one (or maybe dozen) spellcaster(s) effectively destroys work of hundreds of workers - maybe not such a big deal, wizards can be powerful, but still.

  2. Well, maybe spatial magic is too broken. So, what about telekinesis?
    If we allow movement of objects, through the force of will or magic, or anything similar, once again broken- nice example (I like the concept, imagine this in world without guns, crossbows possibly, but they are still much slower). However it should not be hard to find something with even more drastic effects.

  3. OK, no telekinesis; let's tone it down to energy manipulation. But why hurl a fireball (although it sure looks nice) when I can simply boil the brain of the opponent directly? Or something along these lines.

And I can continue. The question being - how do I limit magic in a way, that keeps it interesting (it's MAGIC) while keeping the basis of the world similar to medieval?
(or hell, similar to modern one, urban fantasy is nice as well - but modern world started as medieval...)
Or slightly different variant, but for me with similar results: Have you met a magic system, that would not crush the world you saw it in (by critically disrupting the balance) if you took the magic system to its logical consequences?

A few things to clarify

  • I do not accept "they would not think of it" as an answer. Someone would; people are naturally curious.
  • I assume that when something is possible to do with magic (creating a large enough ball of fire to actually burn someone) then something similar (boiling him alive instead (or the critical part)) is also possible - limiting magic to few time-proven use cases is not the answer I am looking for, mostly because of the same reason as previous bullet - if someone tried this for ages, he would have found out more effective way of using power. Wizards tend to be smart.
  • I am perfectly fine with side effects like towers of the magi in the landscape; I am only trying to balance logic/magic in a way that works, yet is still interesting.
  • Quick thought - limiting the amount of power (I mean drastically, of course it is limited. But let's keep it at middle-to-lower fantasy level) that mage wields sure sounds nice, but it does not work too well - as when you can leverage that power well enough (manipulating a needle is enough to poison someone important - voila, assassination becomes a much bigger issue, as if it wasn't easy enough to kill someone already).

At the moment I see two major possible ways out of this (or some kind of their combination), but I would really appreciate more insight.

First way - magic exists broken (no way around it), but for some reason is not used in such a way. Codex, rule set, whatever. Brings issue of upholding the rules.

Second way - find system that is not broken. I have some thoughts on this, but I'm the one asking the question so I would prefer original answer instead of discussing flaws in mine - and there are flaws, otherwise I would not be asking.

I have tried to find an answer to a similar question, without result. Also maybe I should have split this one into two - how to uphold rules when magic is broken and how to find unbroken magic. If this becomes an issue, I will. But I think of this as one question - "having interesting magic, while preventing the world-disruption".

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 17:07
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    $\begingroup$ Having loopholes can be interesting. If you're familiar with Brandon Sanderson, just consider the Lord Ruler from Mistborn: a guy who rose to the status of "god-king of the world" by finding and exploiting a loophole in the magic system, and he made for a great antagonist! $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 17:33
  • $\begingroup$ An example of how a magic system was designed that is at least relatively close to your goals was described in detail by the author, Holly Lisle, here. She also gives some general guidelines for designing "hard" magic systems that are worth looking at. $\endgroup$
    – Jules
    Commented Jul 7, 2016 at 12:16
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    $\begingroup$ One of the best series I ever read which managed to balance Internally-Consistent-Magic with All-Known-Physics was HPMOR by Eliezer Yudkowski (AI researcher, among other things). It's long, but a brilliant series and full of interesting observations and ideas. $\endgroup$
    – Kaz
    Commented Jul 7, 2016 at 13:08
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    $\begingroup$ Check out the Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss - I think at least one of the magic systems in there would fit your bill (sympathy) $\endgroup$
    – Daenyth
    Commented Jul 7, 2016 at 16:14

26 Answers 26


Trying to "balance" magic like this is not an easy task. There's plenty of examples of videogames where people literally make a living balancing the magic in that videogame, and balance is still an issue! However, there are a few points you can address to help keep your magic system as balanced as you can.

Society is balanced around natural physics.

We have societies today which are built around what can and cannot be done in the physical world. We are constantly balancing the need to be close to each other against the need to be protected against each other. Any "disruptive" technology will change this balance. Nowhere is this more visible than in warfare. The gun completely changed the way armies interacted. Any army which relied on the old pre-gun assumptions died off.

Your magic system would qualify as a "disruptive" technology from this viewpoint, and your society will have hundreds of years of time to have adjusted their customs. Magicians have the ability to boil your brain at a distance of 10 feet? Don't be surprised when society politely stays 10 feet away from anyone who looks like a mage. Don't be surprised when royalty issues clear rules to murder anyone who foolishly advances to within 10 feet of the throne. Society will adapt to such magic, unless your magic is so incredibly unbalanced that not even society can keep up. In such a case, one should simply build a story without society, and focus on "man vs. nature" or "man vs. himself" storylines!

Pay attention to conservation laws

Conservation laws are ingrained deeply in our understanding of physics, even long before they were given the name "conservation laws." Any infant learning to crawl is already learning to work in a world where conservation of energy and momentum apply. These laws are so deeply associated with our understanding of physics, that many of them are fundamentally associated to the basic symmetries of our laws. By Nother's Theorem, we can show that the mere idea that the laws of physics do not change over time forces there to be a conserved value: energy. The mere idea that the laws of physics are the same in all places forces there to be a conserved value: momentum. Breaking these conservation laws upsets so much of physics that you are basically opening a can of worms every time you try.

Thus, don't make fireballs free. Make sure mages have to pay an energy cost for putting that much thermal energy into the world. Don't want to make it a boring zero sum system? Make the sources of energy well defined and isolated from the mages that use that energy. Conservation of energy is a big deal in physics, but if you're willing to handwave away the fact that our sun is going to die in 4 billion years, you can treat our sun as a external "source" of energy. If your mages' source of energy feels like the magical equivalent of a sun warming the surface of the Earth, you'll keep your mages in balance.

Distance matters

Define some concept of distance, such that it is harder to have a magical effect at a distance. This is intuitive in our day to day life. Things close to our body are easy to control. Things barely within our grasp are harder. Things just within our reach are harder still. Then, we see that it is actually quite unintuitive when something brings us closer together than we think. We don't realise just how close we get to someone when we hit Post on a social media site, until it's too late. Our understanding of distance was flawed, and thus our intuitive model was wrong.

You don't have to make the distance for your magic system a boring measure of physical space. Mental distance may be meaningful. A "distant" individual might be harder to manipulate with a magic spell. Certain "cold" feeling gems or armor might have the effect of adding "distance" between two individuals. Strange astrological events might bring people closer together. However, if you use distance as a limiting factor, you'll find you balance things more evenly.

Also consider stability. We know that if you have a teepee, it is more stable if the legs are wide than if the legs are narrow. We know that a tall tower is less stable than a short one. If you can have concepts of stability based on metaphors like this, you'll naturally make things which have reasonable limits to them. For instance, this way of thinking naturally points out that the power it takes to summon a gargantuan fireball at close range is not necessarily the same power that it takes to subtlety manipulate the mind of a king from afar while he sleeps. The former requires great power, but is being done in a naturally stable position. The latter requires very little power, but must be done from an incredibly tricky position (and be assured the king has wizards who are watching for the side effects of a careless mind-manipulation attempt. You're going to have to have the magical equivalent of surgeons hands to avoid detection)

Non-transitive laws

You mention a specific case that is worth talking about:

I assume that when something is possible to do with magic(creating large enough ball of fire to actually burn someone) then something similar(boiling him alive instead(or the critical part)) is also possible

This is a good principle. It leads to far more interesting magic systems. However, if you have some concept of distance, it should be clear that just because A is similar to B, and B is similar to C, that doesn't mean A must be similar to C. There's some level of distortion that does occur as you try to apply such a transitive property. This is true for any non-linear system.

Accordingly, it is reasonable to explore spellbook "creep," as you mention. However, the new spells may not be quite as effective as the original. After all, they're being prescribed "off label." Over time, it is reasonable to assume mages will refine this new spell and make it powerful again. It is this refining process that gives you a chance to retain control over the magic system. The refining process may have to give up properties of the old spell in order to acquire new more valuable properties. Thus when you let spell A creep into becoming spell B, spell B may be too weak to also creep into spell C. However, we can develop spell B', a new spell with new properties, which could creep into spell C. You can balance it as such. You may find that you can avoid lots of loopholes by controlling the process from B to B' while permitting characters to control the process from A to B and B' to C.

Value Metastability

A lot of things are not actually set in stone, they just linger much longer than we expect. Airplanes are not lighter than air, but we found ways to use them such that they get to fly far longer than anyone would have thought possible a hundred years prior. We value this metastability greatly. Its powerful, and it has changed our economy. However, it is transient. Try to shave costs by putting less fuel in the aircraft, and you find out just how transient it is.

Wizards are transient. Other than perhaps a select few that are immortal, most of them have something they will lose over the years. They may linger far longer than others expect, but they are not permanent. If you make it so that casting "risky" spells increases the likelyhood that you will lose something inside you that you cared about provides a natural balance for magic. Wizards that push the mold too hard don't live very long. It also demonstrates just why Necromancers are oft so scary: they are wizards who no longer have anything they worry about losing, besides their own power. Thus they can cast spells no one else would risk casting!

Personally, my favorite approach to magic involves having the entire magic system act as a metastable character that seems to be perfectly stationary, but every now and then shows an edge that suggests "If you guys keep using magic in this way, the entire system of magic will shift to stop you." This Gaia like approach is fun because it permits you to use more dangerous rulesets. The more the characters try to screw with the system, the more the system pushes back at them. However, even if you don't go with such a self-aware magic system, at least the heart and soul of the wizards casting the spell can work as a natural limiter.

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    $\begingroup$ I'd double down on metastability. I personally do not see it necessary to limit what magic can do, because the limits of what a magician can control and keep stable arrive so much sooner. If you assume the spell must be fully formed before it takes effect, your issues are limited to mages having innate ability to explode themselves and their experiments. Which is kind of appropriate. Difference in power would then be reduced to difference in processing power. You can then use analogy between spells and computer programs for rules of magic. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 4:43
  • $\begingroup$ Distance matters, but for certain there would be some relay magic technology possible. $\endgroup$
    – dtldarek
    Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 15:57
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    $\begingroup$ @dtldarek It doesn't have to be a simple distance function, like a euclidean distance measured in meters. Your distance function could be specified by the shortest possible path. For example, in the game Chutes and Ladders, the distance to one square may be 15, but the distance to the following square is 1 (not 16), because there was a ladder to that square that let you shortcut things. This is what the internet has done to us socially - it's created a new measure of distance where people are much closer together, even though their physical distance is great. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 16:24
  • $\begingroup$ You want to have Strong magic that is not overpowered, Nerf it with Time and Distance limitations, and make it easy to spot. The Farther away and more powerful your spell, the more energy and time it takes to cast. Say i try to open a portal from my base to your city, It should take a long time, and probably visible distort the space in your city where it will open, long enough that your own mages can disrupt it. Fireball and Boiling Magic still take time to get to you. Only the best of the best have the power and skill to work around these limits, and you control by how much they can. $\endgroup$
    – Ryan
    Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 16:35
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    $\begingroup$ @Ryan Time is another good one. I may add a section to explore that. It's a tricky one because people who are seeking rule based magic systems often try to prove out the stability of their magic system using static logic, like propositional logic or first order logic. Once you put time into the mix, you have to use dynamic logic, and there are some subtleties that arise there. They're beautiful subtleties, which make for really interesting magical combat, but they can be really subtle and nefarious! $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 16:46

Sooo many answers.

First, you won't find a system that leaves medieval entirely intact, and that's fine. One of the jobs of good world building is to think through the implications of anything new you add to a setting and extrapolating how it affects your world. There are many things we can do to make the magic fit in 'nicer' with your world, but your still going to have to think through what things it changes.

Going along with that, remember that if you can think of it not only have people come up with it, others have come up with counters to it. If magic-portal invasion is a threat someone creates a spell to prevent creation of portals in your castle. If people start throwing lightning bolts around insulated armor with 'grounding boots' to direct the lightning away from the body becomes common. If someone uses magic for assassinations others create magic tracking spells to easily track the assassin down and punish them etc. Creating intelligent counters to uses you don't like is ultimately going to be required to some degree.

Likewise there will be some things you may not want to 'counter' in such a manner. Perhaps magic fireballs prove more effective then arrows for long range attacks, and you don't want to create an obvious counter, like anti-mage individuals responsible for blocking or stopping magic attacks in squads. Then you should run with this, what does this do to combat? maybe armor changes now that protection from arrows is pointless. Maybe lots of small squads that are more spread out are used to limit the harm a fireball can do. Maybe assassination of mages before major battles are common. Most extreme, maybe defending a ground becomes far easier then attacking and tactics more similar to the world wars, where machine guns likewise redefined the ability to charge a point guarded by someone with lethal ranged weapons, occur.

In short whatever system you create it will be your duty to sit down and think of exceptions or how magic changes. Almost anything you really dislike you can justify a reason why it won't work, and you should leave some changes in and explore how it changes your world. showing magic change the world makes the world feel more real, and so long as not done too drastically does not make the world feel unrelatable. Just remember you can't stop at one step. If magic changes element A of the world then ask how changing A will affect B and C, and how they in turn affect D etc. It's an iterative process that can go a long way to building your world and helping to make it feel unique and real. Not always easy, but still desirable.

Having said that, lets focus on your actual question, what can we do to limit the affect magic has on the world. Not remove it entirely, but lower how drastic the affect is.

Magic is new

In many ways this is the easiest option, magic is a recent development. People have only recently discovered the existence of magic, or magic has recently become more powerful due to some new discovery or change in some magical principle.

This works so well because the people of the world don't know how magic works yet then their culture wouldn't have changed to adapt to it. Remember cultural adaptation is slow, even once a change means that the world would make more sense doing X it can take as much of a generation for the culture to realize that they need to stop doing Y and do the more logical X. Thus a culture can still be 'stuck' in some non-magical view of the world even though magic has been around for a little while. The culture doesn't make sense given magic's existence, but not because you made a bad world, but because your believable world is just as slow and foolish about adapting to change as people usually are.

Conservation of Everything

If you want your system to work and be at all believable your are going to have to stick to conservation of mass/energy very hard. Any violation of these principles leads to some sort of exploit to break thermodynamics in a way that's going to radically change the world.

Of course, it's nearly impossible to have an interesting magic that doesn't violate one of these fundamental principles in some manner, and if you do it's likely a magic that is not very useful. However, there is some room to bend the rules, particularly in conservation of energy. It's okay if you get more energy out of a spell then you put in, hand wave it by saying it's being drawn from some external source, However, make sure that energy put in is still proportional to energy gotten back out. Your mage is going to exhaust it's magical reserves in some manner if it keeps producing energy out of no where, and will do so before the energy produced is too drastic. Furthermore, having much of the energy produced only stick around while the mage focuses on it, and disappear once the spell is ended/disrupted, further addresses this.

Conservation of mass is in many ways more important to conserve. If you can summon something out of nothing and make it stick around you can bend practically every rule out there. Generally speaking I suggest either not being able to create any mass, or if done it's something that lasts only as long as a spell is actively maintained (for instance, a shapeshifter can change their mass to change shape, but as soon as they stop focusing they change back to their original shape, and you can't cut gigantic slabs of meat off of someone shifted into an elephant and have them stick around once he changes back etc).

Long range communication is limited

One huge change on recent world is the presence of phone, tv, and internet making communication over long distances easy. This caused a huge change in our culture, if subtly. Most obviously it changes the "us vs them" mentality we use to have of certain groups by making it easier to speak with them. It also means spread of ideas and memes across the world.

The most obvious, but by no means only, affect rapid communication would have is to do away with a feudal system. Nobel's had near-absolute control of his personal lands in medieval times, This was necessary because it was too slow and difficult to appeal to a king or the kingdoms law as a peasant, someone local and reachable was required and he had to have the power to make decisions immediately. However, with rapid communication a kingdom can pass laws and enforce them easier across his entire nation, without worrying that a decision he makes about a problem 3 months ride to the east will be out of date by the time it arrives etc. Once a king/government can effectively rule over larger lands they would then be oppose to giving so much power/independence to smaller ruler bodies. In fact the USA, and many other countries, have shown a similar tendency to move towards centralized governments as rapid communication developed. Roughly speaking states of the USA are analogous to feudal lords of the past, while they are much lager and with less absolute power they still serve the goal of creating smaller ruling body designed to make rules designed to support their local needs that a larger government has difficulty regulating. With the development of rapid communication more power has been drifting towards federal government over the states with time. As people through of themselves less as "Marylander" or "Californian" and more as an "American", who happens to live in a specific state, they became more open to the idea of central government because they were less worried about defending their individual's state's sovereignty over trying to support America as a whole.

The peasants would also be less likely to abide with feudal rule, which placed them in a near slavery to enrich the coffers of nobles, if they had access to rapid communication of their own. With more access to learning that comes with rapid communication, the ability for peasants to communicate and discuss revolution without feeling isolated and powerless, and awareness of faults of nobility and/or how they are spending the wealth your making them all would incline peasants to fighting for more power. We've seen revolts all over the world linked to twitter, texting, and other rapid communication making it easier to organize the masses.

In short the more readily available communication the more the tendency towards larger centralized governments, the more available it is to the lower class the lower the tendency towards ridged social class systems or subjugation of the 'peasant' class. This is only one example of many things that rapid communication changes.

As such it's best to be careful with any form of rapid communication over a distance. It's so absurdly useful, and world changing, that it would require substantial world building to work around, and likely will not look like feudal/medieval period your use to.

This also requires caution about anything that could lead to rapid communication, even if that was not the intent of the magic in your own mind or it is difficult to do. For instance the ability to transport from A to B equates to rapid communication and thus could need restricting. If such a transport spell were difficult and costly enough it may be possible to keep without completely doing away with feudal system, so long as you accept that being a carrier will likely be a huge part of any mages job, and consider what rapid, but very limited, communication, used only for the most important messages, would do to your world. It's generally easier to forbid this entirely though.

Certain permanent transportation portals from point A to B, that are huge public works to produce and maintain and can't be easily created or moved, are more forgivable. You just have to work with the realization that A and B are effectively neighbors once such a portal is created, culture, memes, information, etc will pass rapidly between their borders and the culture between the two must be adjusted accordingly.

Be careful with spells that keep working long after your mage is done casting

In many cases any enchantment that lasts forever is bad, though in reality this is simply a side affect of conservation of energy, if I cast a spell once and it keeps doing something that takes energy to do then eventually I'm going to have produced a disproportionate amount of energy. Though you could get around this by having mages constantly 'refresh' a spell to put in new energy in it.

However, I would take this a step further then just that. You need to avoid magic-as-technology if your setting the world in the past era, and that means enchanted items that can serve as technology must be very carefully handled. A piece of magic may seem small, like making a small stone glow with it's own light; light doesn't take much energy after all. However, if it's simple then mages will likely start producing and selling them regularly, and now you have a flashlight/lamp item that is free for everyone to use. This will drastically change the pattern of daily life, if light is so easy to come by (fires and lamps have a more significant continual expense and inconsistent lighting which limited how they could be used). You could say the stones are hard enough to make that they aren't cheap, but that just means only your nobles get your technology, which furthers divide between noble and peasant but still results in a pretty different world.

My suggestion would be to be very careful with any spell that a mage can cast and then walk away and leave running once their no longer focusing on them. You can have some, but if you want to make a system that's easy to 'fit in' to your target timeline your probably want to stick mostly to one of three options.

  1. Large, stationary, works that took extensive effort to create and are constantly requiring mages to revisit and refresh. You can make these rare enough and easily decide which work you do or don't want to exist by simply saying only certain types of spells are cost effective enough to be viable.

  2. Meta-magical items. By this I mean items that mostly affect magic itself. Most obvious being items that detect magic, or block magic, or allow affecting magic. We have no history of magic so these sort of items aren't going to cause your world to feel less in keeping with the time period you came up with since they only affect something that is new to your world. They are also potentially useful for serving as magic counters (see below).

  3. Very short lived enchantments. Anything that requires a mage to make and tends to degrade in it's power quickly can't serve the role of technology or automation since the spells collapse too quickly to constantly be replacing the magical technology for regular use. This gives a useful manner to have characters who aren't magic have access to something magical for a little while, by saying it's just recently been made for them. A standard trope is that sunlight or dawn refreshes magic, so spells that tend to break by the start of the next day, or degrade at start of day and likely will collapse after only a few days, could be fair game.

You can always add other items as needed for your world. But for any other enchantment your need to put serious thought into how it works and what affects it will have. In particular ask how hard it is to make and if it will become something every day people would have, or even 'just' all the nobles and rich will have, because if so it may serve as technology and your need to build your world around presumption that a group of people have it. You may have some 'wiggle room' for very specific types of magic if you claim they aren't useful in most cases, but justifying why some odd magic can be created as an enchantment but no other magic can gets to be difficult.

Counter Magic

Magic designed to counter undesirable magics is a very common trick to address some problems. If something is too game breaking have people go out of their way to create a magical counter to that problem. It may be a spell that stops specific spells from working in an area, or a spell to stop all magic from working.

Separately, a good counter to many game breaking magics can be simple rule of law. Maybe magic can let you get away with lots of things in the short term, but your going to be found out and punished quickly. For instance maybe there is a spell you can work to charm people into doing what you want, but it will rear off after some time and they will remember you worked it on them and report it to the magistrate who will have you arrested and harshly punished? Or maybe regular checks for mind-magic are done and if they 'detect' mind magic on you, meaning you have cast it recently, your are likewise punished even if they don't know how you used it. There are many similar options, but basically whatever magic you work can be identified and is so harshly punished that few are foolish enough to risk the punishment for the reward.

However, it may be even simpler, people engaging in standard practices or building in 'mundane' anti magic solutions to protect from particular threats. Perhaps running water interferes with magic and so to prevent shapeshifters from entering a village an aqueduct is built that runs along the perimeter of the town, ensuring anyone entering it will show as their normal shape? Maybe it's known vampires can't enter a building without an invitation so no one ever invites anyone in their house, instead if a door is open it's taken to mean someone won't be offended if you enter without invitation. Maybe a mage can set you on fire with their mind, so everyone knows to preemptively attack a mage if they start casting a spell without permission so they can never work their magic on you?

The point to all ideas is the same, people come up with solutions to stop mages from doing things they don't want done. At the most extreme make it the nature of the magic that it's usually easier to counter any spell then to cast it and your pretty much prevent most malicious uses of magic.

Bias against magic

This is, at best, a minor 'fix' to any magic system, but a bias against magic can partially help explain why a society insists on doing things the non-magical way even though magic would seem to be more logical. This could therefore help solve some questions of "wait, if magic does that why not use it for XYZ" with the solution of "people don't like using it that way"

This could be the whole "magic is evil" view, but it doesn't have to be so extreme. Perhaps over use of magic is seen as decadent/lazy so people do things the "hard" way because they want to prove their not lazy, even though they don't hate magic. Maybe magic is thought as something that everyone knows should be saved for some specific causes, as such it's considered wasteful using it for some other reason, even if it would make it easier.

One of the easiest biases to justify sticking into society, other then 'magic is evil', is a religious one. Perhaps their religion believes that magic is holy and so only priests should use it or it should only be used for 'holy' uses. Perhaps instead it's believed that hard work is part of our lot in life and using the great magic given by god to frivolously to make our life too easy is decadent or sacrilegious.

The great thing about a religious bias is that it's much easier to create a far more nuanced bias that specifically says that "x" is okay but "y" isn't then most biases would allow, based off of the holy text and a societies interpretation of it. As an example maybe their messiah had some manual labor job and so that particular job is thought of as following in the messiah's foot steps and thus holy, thus the reason people still do that one specific thing by hand when magic would do it easier while still using magic for many other similar tasks. This does imply a particularly powerful church if everyone does things the hard way just to keep with church doctrine, but a powerful church is accurate to medieval time period.

Mages are specialists

You could say that magic is so hard to learn that a mage needs to specialize on very specific and exact set of abilities and spells to do anything useful. As such a hand full of 'standard' mage specialties will exist, being good at the few spells that are most needed and highly payed, with no one learning how to do other spells that aren't worth specializing in. More importantly a mage can not generalize his specialized magic to do much outside of it's specific intended use case. Once you have that then you only need to look at the hand full of common mage specialties and work to make sure none of them are game breaking.

For instance maybe a mage specializes in sensing the wind and (slightly) controlling the winds who will work on a large boat helping to propel the boat to it's destination. Say he doesn't create wind so much as redirect it in the direction he wants (conservation of energy!) and has decent but not exact control. He could be quit useful on a boat, helping the boat get to where it needs to go much faster and avoid storms, but he can't create winds so powerful as to push people around, or so focused as to move items at a distance, and he still can only work with existing winds. Effectively he is really only useful at assisting wind powered tech like sail boats. Now you need to ask what it does to your world to have boats travel faster and somewhat more reliably (and this is a non-trivial change to your world! still lots of world building comes from it), but you don't have to put much though into other affects of magic because this is really the only thing wind mages can do well enough to be worth doing.

This does offer an interesting story premise of having a mage who does generalize specialized skills to unusual use cases. The creative 'guile hero' who lacks strength but uses what limited abilities he has to maximum effectiveness is a standard and successful trope someone may wish to try writing. Though if one does go that route remember anything a single intelligent person can come up with on the fly has probably been thought of by someone in society in the past, so be careful not to come up with any innovations that are too effective or people will start wondering why it hasn't become standard yet.

Mages are rare

One common trope is to make people able to work magic rare enough that they don't significantly change the world. Perhaps a mage could move some supplies form point A to point B faster then someone can carry them with a cart. However, if you have few mages and their all busy maintaining your key palace spells and doing other more 'glorious' work it may be that you still have people using horses and carts most of the time. You can make your culture mostly fit simply by limiting the availability of alternatives.

This is a double edged sword. It keeps your peasant life standard, but since your nobles and king are rich their have a mage or two on staff, so your have to put some thought on how it furthers the divide between peasant and rich and how the rich employ their mages, but it at least limits the scope of your changes somewhat.

If you take this trope far enough, with mages sufficiently powerful and rare, you get into the question of what happens when one powerful mage goes rogue and tries to use his power to force others to do what he wants; since he is so much stronger and there are not mages to counter him. Of course one easy counter to this is a knife to the stomach, even massive power is not very helpful when anyone can kill you before you cast a spell if they get close and your not 100% vigilant. In fact this is likely the honest answer to 90% of rogue mage problems, that a solitary mage, for all that he can cause devastation when focused, can never be strong enough to protect himself from reciprocation if he starts abusing his powers too blatantly, someone can always knife him in his sleep unless he has a major power base/country backing him and offering protection. Thus most mages, even if massively powerful, will either work within the law or stick to subtler bullying and manipulation because if they draw the anger of the king/country they will not be able to stay vigilant enough to defend against an entire country focused on prosecuting them. You can also use counter-magic tricks as mentioned earlier to address rogue-mage problems.

Limit magic Power

You already mentioned this, keep power limited so that magic is not too massively powerful. However, power does not just mean raw strength, ie how much does it break conservation of energy. Power also means control. You can limit effectiveness of mages this way as well.

Using magic telekinesis to pinch an artery to assassinate someone may not work because no one has that level of finesse. Perhaps a mage could produce a fireball hot enough to roast a half dozen men, but it's going to take him so long to do it that he's likely going to take an arrow to the gut (or knee?) long before he pulls it off, making it impractical to use. Maybe fine magic require extensive focus, so that if you want to prevent someone from doing something like your needle trick you just need to distract them, they may be able to use less subtle magics easier but fine magics are hard to do without the support of everyone around you.

Combining a few of the above options together, the "net magic" of your world needs to be limited. That means the total ability to modify things using magic should be only so great. You could spread lots of power near a few people, or a little power near almost everyone, or some combination with lots of week mages and a few breathtakingly powerful ones. However, in the end the total available magic a society has to work with should have an upper bound.

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    $\begingroup$ wow, this took me long to read. at the moment I hesitate whether mark you or Cort Ammon as THE answer. I enjoyed reading both of them, there are lot of valid points that I really like. In your case Long range communication limit and spells that would work w/o mage present seconded by specialization. Magic is new strikes me as a bit cheap, although admittedly easiest, Limit power with regards to finesse is nice touch. $\endgroup$
    – Shamis
    Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 7:13
  • $\begingroup$ @Shamis yes it looks like cort hit on many of the big ones I listed. I listed a few more things, but he did explain everything better and cleaner and there is an advantage to being concise and focused on the big options. In any case I'm happy if the answer helps you whoever gets the little green checkmark ;) $\endgroup$
    – dsollen
    Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 15:03
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    $\begingroup$ @Shamis If you like some answer very much, but you cannot mark it as accepted, you can always award a bounty (even the smallest one is a distinct mark, while it doesn't decrease your rep too much). $\endgroup$
    – dtldarek
    Commented Jul 8, 2016 at 6:28

One possibility would be to strictly enforce energy requirements (on a "realistic" level). If a mage needed to provide all energy for a spell, and the energy were something on par with the energy required to do an effect in the first place, any large-scale effect would be crippling.

For instance, a mage who wished to "simply" telekinetically lift an object would have to exert the same energy as someone who physically lifted that same object. (The serious student with a more physics-oriented mind could start talking about potential and kinetic energy - but even if you wish to avoid that, most people can easily visualize how much effort it takes to lift something.) A normal mage could "effortlessly" lift or throw a baseball - but a person would be difficult, and a car would be nearly impossible.

Likewise, a mage who wished to boil someone alive would have to exert the energy required to raise the heat - and the bigger the object to be heated, the more energy it requires.

Something like spatial magic is going to be more entertaining - but given that a "true" teleport likely violates conservation laws, you could simply make that not theoretically possible. (You can apply the same argument against time travel magic.)

Of course, you still get to worry about some of the more interesting questions - such as reading minds, or scrying over large distances, or predicting the future... In those cases, there might not be an easy real-world analogy. Even then, you can hand-wave that they are similar to some realistic effect, raising or lowering the energy required to suit the needs of your story: perhaps mind-reading someone in visual range is on par with lifting a 20 lb. object.

  • $\begingroup$ Like in Eragon then? $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 5, 2016 at 21:38
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    $\begingroup$ @Bellerephon - I was't familiar with that... but I would be shocked if this wasn't an established idea somewhere. It's too "obvious" not to have been used before. If anything, this is a logical extension of the GURPS roleplaying system... taken to a much "higher" degree. $\endgroup$
    – Ghotir
    Commented Jul 5, 2016 at 21:42
  • $\begingroup$ If you're willing to spend a few weeks recovering from a single really impressive spell, you could throw a person 200 miles or toss a baseball to the Moon, cast a lightning bolt, or blow up a medium-sized building. (Source: Orders of magnitude (energy), and assuming that you can expend about a month's food in a single shot.) $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 6:13
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    $\begingroup$ Realistic energy requirements (no violation of the conservation of energy principle) coupled with distance making things harder (lever effect) or the idea of "field of influence" (each individual exert an influence over its surrounding inversely proportional to the square of the distance) seems sufficiently restrictive indeed to prevent most of the abuse described. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 6:51
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    $\begingroup$ Remember Eragons 12(I think there were 12) words for death? (I recall something along disrupting blood vessels in brain for one instance). Not that I do not agree with the need to limit the energy output. But by itself that is not sufficient if not paired with something else. (and I also recall Eragon basically executing whole unit of soldiers, after he tore down the mage that protected them. Althought back then it would be far more practical to draw power from them, than to exploit that poor dying horse that he was so sorry for - but that is only my nitpicking at eragon ;-) ) $\endgroup$
    – Shamis
    Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 7:24

It's All About the Benjamins

Although many folks will tell you to mind the physics, I will instead suggest that you should mind the economics. Start with the assumption that mages will not form the 1% of the 1% and own 99.999% of the wealth, and think about what kinds of restrictions need to be in place to guarantee that. If you succeed, I think the physics will take care of itself.

In fact, there are all kinds of ways to limit magic which makes it economically balanced. An absurd way is to say that all magic spells require the caster to be holding a semi-rare toad in the left hand, and that the toad is consumed in the casting of the spell. Now magic is limited to the toad population, and it is literally possible to make magic extinct in that world. Of course, you need to make it impossible to generate new toads with magic, but that's just the "don't print money" rule.

Universal Currency

The one currency common to all men is time. Anything which consumes time puts finite limits on the amount of magic which is possible. If the magnitude of a spell is proportional to the time required to cast it, then folks will only cast powerful spells to do very effective things. And by "magnitude", I mean: "the degree to which it breaks the rules."

You want transmutation, so that you can turn lead into gold? Fine. Figure out how much energy it would take to do that with science, and convert the energy into a spell-casting time which makes this economically infeasible (i.e., make it more cost-effective to mine the gold than transmute it). If it would take a mage 3 days of continuous effort to transmute a 1 oz. nugget of gold, at risk of permanent long-term health effects, good luck finding mages willing to be your private gold foundries.

Mundane Currency

Of course, you don't need to use time as your currency. Many magicks require the use of rare reagents to cast a spell, and this naturally acts to limit supply. You want me to launch giant fireballs into your enemy's castle? Ok, I will need 10 feathers of the Great Roc on Misty Mountain (don't complain to me that only 3 of them have been seen in the last decade!), 7 jade stones the size of my thumb, a perfect black lizard's egg (no spots), and the unbroken molt of a giant river snake. What's that? You have 3 castles you want to burn down? Well, you better get collecting, then!!! Yeah, maybe a few catapults and battering rams are a better idea for the smaller castles, genius!


Focus is, of course, one of the most common tropes in the video game industry: that casting a spell requires focus, and the bigger the spell, the more focus it requires. This combines both a time element and an "environmental control" aspect. That is, you can defeat a mage by tickling him with a feather. Sure, he could boil your brain with telekinesis...if he can only concentrate long enough while you tickle him! An advantage of this system is that mages can differentiate their power by practicing focus and the power of a mage will be scaled by how much distraction they can filter out. A battle mage will need to be able to ignore a very lot indeed to cast spells in the midst of battle (but would still need to be protected to avoid direct interference with spellcasting).

In some systems, the act of casting requires precise movements. In FullMetal Alchemist, it requires the drawing of symbols. The act of spellcasting itself can be used to limit what is possible. FMA had a rather liberal system which allowed the kinds of actions which are "world-breaking", in your sense, but that lack of discipline is not at all forced for every system.


Basically, any rules you like can be tamed with the appropriate costs put into place. Just ask yourself: "How can I become a Warren Buffet Mage with this magic system?" If the answer is: "Not very easily at all", then it will probably work for your story. Otherwise, add handicaps until the marginal utility of a mage is just a little higher than a well-trained knight, and you will be well on your way to success!


One way to limit magic is to give it a very limited range. Say, you cannot apply it over a distance more then twice your body height. That would certainly disallow the arrow scene, and also quite a few other scenarios like just teleporting directly from your own castle into the enemy's fortified castle.

Next, make it so that only very few people have the ability (you need to be born with it, even though you then still have to learn to use it; only few people are born to have access to magic). This makes a traditional fortification still quite effective, as while a single mage may just move through, a full army cannot, unless they go all through the same spot near the mage (and that's easy to defend against, as they basically have to enter one after the other).

Third, certain materials (typically iron) are magic resistant/blocking. So you can fortify not only against physical force. Just add an iron layer to your fortified wall, and even the best mage won't be able to cross it. And the knight's iron armour not only protects him from lancets, but also from magic attacks. And your treasure is safe from magic stealing if it is inside an iron chest.

I think those three rules should already be enough to prevent magic to be all-powerful, and still allow enough magic to be used for interesting things.

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    $\begingroup$ I like the distance-limit thing, its even quite easy to "scientifically" explain. (similar as the intensity of sound decreases with the power of distance). Limiting the ability to selected few can actually make it worse I think, as it makes it less economical to consider in planning and thus makes even weaker magic much more desirable. Magic resistant materials are nice, but not for knights - indirect magic is the thing. (making the stone speed up enough to kill/knock out the knight. Magic affects the stone, not the armor). Or something similar. $\endgroup$
    – Shamis
    Commented Jul 5, 2016 at 20:05
  • $\begingroup$ But then, the opponent probably also has a mage who can protect against those stones by simply having a magic field that slows approaching things down, And while a mage might kill/knock out a few lesser knights with his magic, probably a few normal soldiers with crossbows are much more effective doing the same. Also note that using magic, it may also be possible to make much more resistant armour (I mean the magic is used to produce the armour; the armour itself is protecting through physical means, like kevlar vests). $\endgroup$
    – celtschk
    Commented Jul 5, 2016 at 20:25

One proposal I haven't seen for dealing with your "boil the brain" idea (I calculated an answer to the energy requirements for that spell in a different question) is that magic is based predominantly on will and animus. Thus, it is far harder to effect an already living entity (which has its own magic like life force) than it is to create a magical effect upon an inanimate object.

To extend this point, your will to burn me is directly countered by my will to NOT explode in a fireball. That contest of wills, like locked lightsabers, is usually not resolved by "pushing through" but by disengaging and looking for a new opening. Thus, a magical sneak attack from an unexpected angle (dropping a boulder) is more likely to be effective than a direct attack. Similarly, the mere existence of an army defending a castle from intruders crafts a blockade against teleporting into that fortress.

Another issue to solve teleportation is to make it intrinsically risky and "wibbly-wobbly." Sure you could march an army through a portal, but without a friendly mage with a corresponding portal and beacon on the other side it would be VERY risky and you might get trapped inside the pocket dimension. And who says teleportation is instantaneous? Maybe it's just the equivalent of "flattening out" the mountains and valleys. You'd be marching the same functional distance but on flat land, making transport of goods easier but not necessarily faster.

Regarding the issue of WILLFUL teleportation trade, then you've basically created a society with a large economic surplus due to safer trade and faster communication. So? We've got courier services now and the internet. It will make diplomacy interesting, since you might "fake" an alliance to gain access to their network of portals... or turn on your allies in the middle of the night with said portals...


The most basic way of controlling it, is not to let them just wish for stuff.

It is fairly common for magic to be arcane and clouded in mystery. If the way magic works is: you do X, Y, and Z and you get the desired effect. And if you do Z, X, and Y either nothing happens or you die, then nobody experiments. The point is, if it's just recipes that folks follow, but do not understand the cause and effect, then it really does come down to: they never think to do it otherwise.

There is plenty of support for than in history and literature, and some good stories about that one guy who figures out how to experiment without killing himself/understanding the danger.

If the only spell that anyone knows is a fireball, then nobody can cast a "microwave your brain" spell because there isn't one. Maybe until our hero invents it. ;)

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    $\begingroup$ Bit violationg one of the premises in the question - that the research is possible and will be done. $\endgroup$
    – Shamis
    Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 7:31
  • $\begingroup$ If magic follows rules, and the rules aren't know, or not generally known, it strongly curtails experimentation and it eliminates just wishing for stuff (i.e. fitting magic to solve whatever situation you are in) You either have to plan what you want to do with the known tools or come up with a new way to do something ahead of time. And just because new spells are possible doesn't mean there is any control over the results. (e.g. I make a small change to a fireball spell, and it becomes a "summon pet dog" spell) $\endgroup$
    – Seeds
    Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 16:36
  • $\begingroup$ Preventing research is hard. Say I have a hundred serfs. I have ten runes. Putting two of those runes in order may cast a spell, or kill the caster. I now have an exhaustive list of death-combos and valuable spells, and a few fewer serfs. The remainder can be enticed to start experimenting with combos involving three runes... $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 17:30
  • $\begingroup$ Drawing runes is a whole different ball of wax, if anyone can cast a spell by arranging runstones or tracing out figures on paper then you already have a limitation. Physical requirement for art supplies or runstones, in order to allow the kind of fine control that becomes world breaking, one would need a bunch of runes, not something done quickly. If one must have some "gift" to make magic the surf thing fails from the start. (assuming the surfs don't dispose of the experimenter) It's easy to make research hard, people avoid hard stuff, unless the are really motivated. $\endgroup$
    – Seeds
    Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 18:03

Here's another approach often used: embrace the fact that magic is OP and can break the world. In fact, magic DID break the world.

What's left of the world is rebuilding. Magic is viewed with suspicion.

There are a few fragments of magical knowledge left, but not enough to form an overarching theory. You find a glowing sword here which seems to kill people who touch it within a week, but no explanation why, or how to protect yourself; a bag of runes that has a different effect depending which two runes you pull out; whole libraries with scrolls of recipes for common spells, but no understanding of the language they were written in other than understanding how to read it phonetically to get the right effect. Scrolls are easy enough to copy, and experimentation has allowed people to label most of the scrolls, at least where the effect was immediate. Those who can memorize the incantations rather than read them are at an advantage.

Even these dregs of power are enough to make mages more powerful, but not indescribably so; only like someone having access to modern technology in medieval days.

Eventually, with research, the historical levels of magic might be reached again. Many are trying to, but many more are trying to stamp it out entirely to prevent history from repeating itself. Entire great libraries have been destroyed in this pursuit. Researchers regularly get burned at the stake.


Sphere of Magical Influence (SOMI)

Distance is a factor in virtually every magic system I've ever seen (from the Force to Harry Potter), but one for which the rules usually aren't defined (or are simply downright arbitrary), which is what leads to many of the issues you mentioned. If a person can teleport down the street, why not across the world? If they can transmogrify a rat, why not a human? We want a system that allows flexible use of magic, without poor excuses for why certain things can't be done.

Lets consider magic in this world as an energy system constantly radiating out from every person (like an aura) where the user can manipulate things within that field depending on strength of the "signal" at a point. This can adopt aspects of the existing laws of the natural world to help us work limits into it in a natural and sensible way.

For example, consider the Inverse-Square law, which in simple terms states that as energy spreads out from an object, it's strength/power at a given point is inversely proportional to the square of the distance from it's source (it gets significantly weaker the farther you go). This is one reason why the signal degrades as you get farther from a WiFi hotspot. In a magic system, you could use this to say that the effectiveness of the magic diminishes the further away the point of focus is from the user. What might be a fireball in your hand might only be a spark at ten feet. What range is "good" could also be affected by how much power a user can amass to put into it (be it by charging, proportional to mass, or just different power potential between users, all depending on how your power is derived).

This works particularly well with another aspect of signals: noise and interference. If you've ever used a walkie-talkie, you know only one side can talk at a time, or else you get static. That static is caused because the signals overlap and drown each other out. Since every living person is always naturally emitting a magical field (SOMI), this means that the closer to them that you focus your magic, the greater the diminishing of the effect, and at the point that you try to cast near or directly on them, it becomes completely ineffective. This would prevent you from just teleporting right behind someone and stabbing them in the back or setting their brain on fire, but wouldn't stop you from just creating a fireball in your hand and then throwing it towards them from a distance.

You could also use other aspects of signals to extend your needs:

  • The density of an object/material would weaken the strength of the SOMI, and certain materials can be dense enough that magic cannot penetrate.
    • Cities/buildings would be protected by either thick walls, or walls containing dense materials like lead.
    • Faraday cages can be used to isolate magic between the inside and outside. This would allow for safe prisoner containment, protecting an armory, or other special uses.
    • Armor would be dense enough to at hinder a user's SOMI to some degree, which would make lighter clothing more magically beneficial.
  • Magical amplifiers can direct a persons SOMI in a particular direction, increasing it's range and effectiveness (like how a satellite dish directs the signal better). The larger the amplifier, the better the effect, but this also makes good ones impossible to carry around with you.
    • Certain magic like teleportation would be much more useful with an amplifier than it would on it's own, giving a range of miles instead of meters. Because they would have to be rather large, you would only be able to find them in towns for use in long distance travel.
    • Powerful enough ones could be used as weapons of war, where a person's SOMI could be amplified in a particular direction to be powerful enough to possibly punch through another person's SOMI (or a wall). The size needed makes moving and aiming them difficult though.
    • Small amplifiers could be worn on the hands to allow for directional casting with improved range or secrecy (unlocking a door with specific magic without broadcasting the "key" all around you), but might also be regulated like weapons would.
    • If you want wands to exist, they could work like directional antenna. Wands could either be required to focus any magic at all (no wand means no focusing your SOMI on a point in order to do anything useful), or optional, and just increase the power and range in that direction. In either case, they would likely be regulated to some degree as well.
  • Multiple mages can "synchronize" their fields, allowing them to cast stronger effects than a single person could cast alone, or otherwise to cast effects on each other such as healing.
    • Due to the inverse-square law, doubling the number of people would not double the effective range (range would only increase slightly), but would increase the strength of the magic significantly when closer. In theory, enough people in sync could overpower an individual's SOMI when at close range (good for judicial systems to carry out punishments, and encourages working/traveling in groups with people you trust, but also leads to the formation of gangs).
    • Synchronizing requires practice and a familiarity with the people you are working with. The larger the group, or the more noise from other people "out of sync", the more difficult it is.
    • You cannot cast undesired magic on someone you are synced with. Syncing requires having the same focus/goal, so to do so would by definition put you out of sync.
  • Because the SOMI is a field, it is detectable. People (or machinations) can detect the fields of others, and those with the training and/or familiarity with the person can recognize their distinct "pattern". This means while you could make yourself invisible or transform into someone else in order to avoid detection, there's still risk involved.
    • If you have synced with someones SOMI before (or been around them enough to recognize it), you could imitate it like you would while syncing. This requires the training to do so, and the effectiveness varies.
    • You can also "turn down" or "shut off" your own SOMI. This comes at a risk, because while it makes you less detectable, it also makes you vulnerable, since someone else's field can now reach you and have an effect. This may be desired in a friendly situation to allow someone who can't sync with you to still heal or effect you. With enough training, perhaps you could even limit what directions you SOMI is "broadcasting" in to a limited degree.
    • A person could also "constrain" their SOMI, through the use of clothes laced with dense material to create a sort of "personal Faraday cage". This reduces detection without leaving them defenseless and offers greater magical resistance, but at the cost of their own SOMI being blocked or degraded while wearing it (and thus ability to perform magic).

These are just a few ideas I've come up with built around such a system. Other factors would need to be considered such as where power is derived from, what sort of magic can be cast, and if people have different magical potential can vary. But at the very least it should provide a solid foundation for a balanced magical system.

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    $\begingroup$ thank you, this one really helped - it is broad enough to match nearly any magic system, yet still precisely defined so that it cuts to the point. And solves most of the issues of the type: how to explain magic circles, wands, staves. Why does not knight in shiny armor cast spells as well? And so many more. $\endgroup$
    – Shamis
    Commented Jul 11, 2016 at 7:56
  • $\begingroup$ @Shamis Glad it was of use :D I've had similar grievances with magic systems, but it wasn't until I saw your question that it got me thinking about how I would go about solving them. After that I just sorta got carried away haha, but I'm rather proud of how it turned out. Also, I hadn't actually thought about armor (just laced clothing). Adding that idea to the post! $\endgroup$
    – Mwr247
    Commented Jul 11, 2016 at 15:03

Why build castles when artillery strikes cut right through the walls? Answer: the artillery didn't exist when the castle was built.

Novelty is thus one possible answer to your conundrum. Either magic is so new, or so rare, or so foreign, that 99% of human life is unaffected by it (yet). Maybe it existed as a form of entertainment, with nothing more complex than cheap parlor tricks, until last year when a scholar took a look and realized the spell that allows you to light candles can be turned up to 11 to produce a fireball if you pronounce it wrong. Cue monarchs pouring funding into research to discover how to harness this strange power, with no two nations discovering exactly the same things.

(Will it change the world? Yes. But no one understands it yet, and all the amazing things you might be able to do have not yet been discovered, or are only beginning to have their ramifications play out.)

This is not without precedent in our own world. How many people had watched how many apples fall to the ground before Newton figured out the rules behind it?

See the web serials Ra, Worm, and Unsong, which all use this idea of magic (or superpowers, in the case of Worm) being discovered in the last 50 years, and describing how the world changed.

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    $\begingroup$ Also, if you stop building castle walls, your attacker will switch tactic to exploit this weakness. That is the issue with an arms race. You still have to maintain your current status quo AND escalate. $\endgroup$
    – Jammin4CO
    Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 14:22


The mage must be in contact with the item being affected. This still allows all sorts of fun, mages can still throw fireballs (technically starting in contact), launch rocks etc. but it gets more complicated teleporting an army. The mage can teleport himself, no problem, but can he teleport you? He's touching you but if he gets it wrong he could do any of the following:
1) Teleport only your skin
2) Teleport you without your clothes and weapons
3) Teleport you without your stomach contents
In all these cases, while use of magic carries great advantage, it also carries equivalent levels of risk.


If something gets hotter, something else must get colder, for everything that goes up, something must come down. While this doesn't have to be strictly true, it's certainly easier if it is. If the balance is wrong and the mage not up to it, the imbalance dumps straight into the mage.


No matter what you do in a magical world, it should always have the option to come back and bite you. Courtesy of the great Pterry.

Seven league boots, as has already been intimated, are a tricky form of magic at best, and he remembered too late that the utmost caution must be taken in using a means of transport which, when all is said and done, relies for its effectiveness on trying to put one foot twenty-one miles in front of the other.

  • $\begingroup$ 2-A) Teleport your clothes and weapons without you in them ... $\endgroup$
    – Harthag
    Commented Jul 10, 2019 at 13:01

Difficulty and Counter Magic

The first step is to make magic harder. Not necessary less powerful, but let's say a mage can do less of it, and needs more skill and concentration. This should be enough to eliminate things like trade, except for very valuable goods.

But why aren't assassins being teleported into your throne room? That is surely valuable enough. The answer is various forms of Counter Magic! A spell is being used to prevent this from happening. Of course, it would be much too expensive to cover literally your entire country in counterspells, but you can at least cover all your cities. A powerful enough mage can overcome a weak mages counterspells, but in general the counterspell caster has a much greater advantage.

Additionally, you can imagine counter magic armor, that blocks certain types of magic. Although you could throw a magic projectile at someone and it would hit them, it likely couldn't come back. Likewise, although you can throw fireballs at people, you can't actually form the fireball inside them.

In general, it would be an arms race. If a use of magic "breaks the system", enemy magicians will quickly develop a countermagic to stop it.


Ultimately the limitations you design for your world must be determined by what you want with your world. Do you want a magic system where mages can boil people's brains out from two miles away? You can create a system to do that. From what you said however I'm going to assume you want a magic system where mages can do interesting things, such as throwing a stopping an arrow, or flinging someone across a room without allowing them to just stab out someone's eyes with telekinesis.

While there aren't really general guidelines for this, one of the best ways to limit a magic system is to create hard physics rules for how magic operates. I'll give a simplified example of a system I used in one of the past games I ran. Mages were able to exert a gravitational force on any non-living object that was directly proportional to the object's mass. (Note that since objects are just a collection of smaller pieces there was no hard rule as to what defined an "object"). The larger the object the more energy it took to do so, and a magus could only push directly away or pull directly towards themselves.

To prevent someone from stabbing a person's eyes out with magic, you could not directly push on a living person, as all humans exuded a aura that prevented magic from directly affecting them. Additionally, since the acceleration of an object was based of an equation I prepared, and couldn't be accelerated at a faster rate by adding more energy, you couldn't accelerate a very small object to massive speeds.

The risk in defining magic systems with incredibly hard rules such as this is they often end up being very constraining. This system only worked well in the game I ran because all the players had very comprehensive physics educations, having degrees in fields where they studied physics, or in the case of one of my players, having experience as a researcher and professor at a university. For us the system worked, because although it was constraining, each player had to think about how to use magic to achieve their goals. You couldn't simply throw a fireball and expect an enemy to die. You had to think about how to use your powers creatively, while avoiding their use of their power.

However, it is understandable that not every player would appreciate such a detailed magic system. Especially since in order to work a magic system like that, we had to define certain equations that governed every aspect of magic in definitive terms. Another limitation you could place on a magic system would be to require that all magic must originate from the magus casting it. What I mean by that is if a magus throws a fireball, the fireball must originate from his fingers. Therefore removing the possibility of boiling someone's brain from a distance. While in this example there is still opportunities for a magus to innovate and do more efficient things than throw a simple fireball, do you really want to stop all innovation? Ideally I like to allow my players to innovate with my magic system, however what I hope to avoid is allowing them to innovate in ways that completely breaks the game.

Apologies if my grammar or spelling aren't very good. I'm still learning English. I know this doesn't give you a definite answer, but hopefully this gives you some ideas so you can start to form a magic system that works for your game.


One possible solution is "just" to make magic costly:

  • You wont break trade if to teleport someone over 10km you need to sacrifice a human in a complex ritual.
  • You wont have magical wars if casting a single fireball cost as much money in reagents as hiring a complete company of mercenaries.

If the more your magic has an effect on reality, the more it will cost (be it in blood, money or sanity), then the system will balance itself.

And this would naturally imply that altering reality cost more than keeping it intact, so protecting a castle wall with wards against magic would be "cheap", at least far far cheaper than the magic needed to destroy it.


Realize, that based on the constraints you have named, that you will fail. Seriously. You smarter than Einstein? because he tried to define physics in the real world and it doesn't hold up. Author after author after designer after world builder all run into this because the question is too big. "How do I make a perfect magic system from the start?" isn't a realistic goal. As numerous other answers dig into, this is an actual career for companies that do MMOs. Realize you will miss something. Realize that if you make it "big" that you didn't miss something for years and then with thousands of people that like to pick magic systems apart... you will have missed a lot of things it turns out.

Once you wrap your noggin around either redefining your problem to be solvable or accepting that you have created an unsolvable problem and you are trying anyways because the journey of trying to solve it will be fun and rewarding... Now you can make progress instead of getting stuck or stopping each time an issue comes up.

Start at the end. What do you want magic to look like and how should it work? What kind of rules need to be in place to make it so? eg: Portals would likely never have been used militarily before someone started working on anti-portal magic just like it is here with military advancements. Maybe the inventing nation got to use it a few times before someone came up with a counter like the US did with nukes. (Didn't take long for countries to build nuke bunkers). Realize you will miss something again. Try anyway.

That's pretty much all you can do. Seriously. Magic is basically a new type of physics with the way you want to solve it. Nothing wrong with that, but you are asking a bigger question than you might realize.


I will answer based on the following assumptions:

1) Magic is relatively common, maybe 1 in 100 have it.

2)Most mages have a similar power level, I would suggest mid-level but it is up to you.

My theory is that for every piece of magic Mage Bob does Mage Alice will counter it rendering magic useless. For example, Bob teleports into treasure room. Alice sees Bob and teleports all the treasure to a different room. Bob doesn't know which room so has to leave. For every magic attack there is a magic defence. The only way to win a fight with magic is to use something your opponent hasn't thought of. This is now a situation similar to cyber security. Criminals find elaborate hacks which are then blocked by security.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ here I see the classical cops/robbers problem - you need far more cops then robbers, mosly because you do not know where the robber will strike. $\endgroup$
    – Shamis
    Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 7:36
  • $\begingroup$ @Shamis Except that companies can hire private security. Besides this way magic is blocked to a similar extent as a skilled thief. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 15:20

I'm not sure if anybody gives a crap so I'm not going to bother you all with reading a lot of text, but I suggest checking out how it's done in Souls series games. To me, it seems pretty reasonable.

A quick general overview of how getting a spell to use works:

  • You find a scroll that teaches you how to cast certain spell;
  • You get enough Attunement stat to put that scroll in your usable inventory slot;
  • You get enough corresponding stat (such as Intelligence for Magic or Faith for Miracles);
  • For each scroll attuned, you gain a certain number of castings of given spell;
  • Scrolls are not used up because of casting, and castings regain after resting at a bonfire.

Developing new spells is explained as dedicating a lot of your time and energy (which often means studying a spell your whole life to develop it), and using it requires certain study to have place also (for NPCs, as it's simplified for protagonist to just leveling according stat). In return, the spells are really powerful and useful, but not really world-shaping. Such as, you can enchant your weapon, throw fireballs, magic and lightning bolts around the place and do many advanced things coming out of it, but it's pretty limited in quality AND quantity. As such, it's been hinted in a couple of spells' descriptions that they challenge the very limits of skill of even the most dedicated scholars, and they have taken some ingenius scholar's whole lifetime to create, and yet it can't do so much as worldshaping. Of course it's entirely possible, but it hasn't happened ever, which easily explains the limitations of magic lore-wise. That's just the setting, and it's reasonable, and I don't think anybody would have a problem with that?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ just on the side, I care, I read the answers. At the moment I am pondering about how to explain what bugs me here. Mostly the fact I am trying to make setting realistic - which kind of does not work well with the game-like mechanic. You could say, that attunement is some kind of karma-like intangible something, intelligence is fairly self explanatory etc. but then it boils down to limiting the use of magic/making it difficult, which I agree with. $\endgroup$
    – Shamis
    Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 7:30

Well, even if the magic is "broken" or "imbalanced", what does that matter? There are many technologies that you could consider broken.

  • What good is a wall around a city in today's time when we have aircraft and powerful explosives?
  • Why would you bother owning a horse when you can travel by automobile or use some type of powered farm equipment?
  • Why would you bother sending a letter when the internet and strong encryption exist?
  • Some day it will probably become the norm to own a 3D printer and make what you need in your own home instead of travelling to the store to purchase it.
  • Why employ factory workers when you can employ factory robots?

Those are just a few examples of the type of era-advancing technologies that magic would be. I think that it is less important to think of how to "balance" magic (what does that even mean outside of a game?) and more important to accurately reflect in the society how magic has changed it. Cort Ammon had some good examples of this based on your question:

Magicians have the ability to boil your brain at a distance of 10 feet? Don't be surprised when society politely stays 10 feet away from anyone who looks like a mage. Don't be surprised when royalty issues clear rules to murder anyone who foolishly advances to within 10 feet of the throne.

It's the same way how when you pass someone holding a gun, a device which is totally over powered in that it can end anyones life by being point at your head while a button is pressed, you don't necessarily get nervous, but if someone points one at you, or begins to get visibly and irrationally angry, you most certainly will get fearful.

I think there are two approaches, either you can decide what magic is like and figure out how the world should change or you decide how you want the world and make magic such that the world would be like that.

So if you want a place very similar to medieval times with walled cities, clearly you can't have teleportation (or there needs to be some sort of enchantment that people can't teleport through that can be put on the walls). If you want people to be able to have some trust that their brain won't be boiled then you need to make there have to be some sort of visible indicator of magic, like a tattoo or wand.


Magic spell is a "request" or "message", that will or will not initiate some chain of events.

Like an any "message" spell must to reach some "execution agent" or "behavior".

At next step "agent" must or must not recognize some instructions from received "message".

If "agent" will make some actions, then some energy will be consumed.

Also some kind of "agents" or obstacles may "guard" the final target of the spell from any actions provided by "agent" that receives initial message.

So, we have "agents", "messages", "obstacles" and infinite combinations for prevent any sort of action in this system.

For example: Agents: ether, spirit plane, gods, elements. Messages: spells, magick place events, item events, etc. Obstacles: ether waves, visual obstacles, another agent actions, counter spells, bad reputation, gods hate etc.


The magic police... An alternative way of dealing with magic

Instead of finding ways to limit magic, and there are some awesome answers for ways to do that, how about having a police force. I'm thinking, we have guns, machine guns, missiles, atomic bombs, germ warfare, today's society has enough firepower to smash the world several times over, so why hasn't it happened? Think of how we manage to live with such frightening power, and just replace guns with wands.

Getting back to the police, they are organised and powerful. A single Mage may make a stand, but he'll be taken down eventually. Think of surveillance of rogue wizards, personality checks for training in the dark arts. And what about the army? An army of wizards protecting the country, hunting terrorist mages, undercover mages. They'll be mercenaries, bodyguards, private protection, etc specialising in counter magic.

A lone gunman could kill the president, or a lone wizard could kill the King... Both scenarios are possible, and preventable.

But mostly, people will go about their business knowing the law keeps things safe.


thermal magic rules

-Mages can feel the collision of limited rough pure elements like hydrogen and methane molecules close to them when they focus

-Mages can alter the collision of these limited elements to cool or heat them This explains why a mage can throw a needle of ice or a ball of fire but can't boil people or transform the earth in a mass of magma and fire.

-Magic can't directly balance temperature therefore mages can't cause an earlier heat death of the universe

Kinetic magic rules

-Magic can lift and move matter under 10% speed of sound This limits mages from using bullets that could penetrate castles walls like they were made of water, but they could move vehicles as fast as modern cars.

-Kinetic magic can't split molecules This doesn't let mages transform mountains or people in a bunch of atoms and doesn't let them cause atomic explosions at any time they want.

-Kinetic magic can't control acids and salts. You don't want your mages to destroy the genetic code of their enemies or simply create cobalt bombs , right ?

-Kinetic magic force is based on the caster's brute strength If a mage can't lift a pencil with hir bare hands ey wont be able to do so with hir mind power.

Magnetism magic rules

-Mages feel pain every time they cast a lightning bolt, the stronger and further the more painful it will be. This way your mages can't shoot a lighting at people from the other side of the world or they would be paralyzed by pain for days or probably even die.

-Mages can create magnetic fields only in hot temperatures like anything under 15° C will be extremely weak. This gives people who live in cold places a protection against those types of mages

-Magnetism magic can't speed up light but can move it away this way your mages can't control time but can become invisible or make other things invisible

-Magnetic fields can't affect global gravity If your mages want to suppress the world to a single point and then release the explosion they can't.

-Magnetic fields have an effectiveness of just force of gravity of earth's surface. This way your mages can't simply make people explode from the inside or split them in two with the though.

Biologic magic rules

-Mages need to see the bio-matter they want to control. This way your mages can't cause cancers to internal organs or simply destroy or cure them without opening the flesh of the victim.

-Mages can only control the way cells act but can't change them internally. This way mages can make a person blind but can't make their eyes melt or explode by changing carbon with explosive compounds ...

-Powering effects to cells can be permanent while harmful effects last only few minutes. This way mages can cure a cancer permanently but can cause one only for a limited time.

-Biologic magic only work with cells of the same specie of the caster. This way mages can make people weaker or more resistant to a virus but can't enhance said virus or create a new one.

space magic rules

-Wormholes instead of teleportation Teleporting a person consists of killing it in place and creating a clone in another place... this is simply stupid.

-Wormholes can be controlled at any speed but anyone can use them. Your mages can create a portal to escape from danger directly in home and relax, but if the portal isn't closed fast enough then enemies will chase hir.

-Only light and people who have clear intent to enter the portal will use it. This way your mages can create a portal large enough to suck the light and create an ''eclipse zone'' but can decide to create a portal inside people and export their organs and can't force people enter wormholes and throw them inside a volcano. Or your mages can't simply put a portal that will take all the incoming arrows and throw them back on the behind of enemies.

-Portals last for only 2 minutes if the caster doesn't decide to close it earlier. This way mages can't simply fill the world with portals.

-Wormholes have no limit in distance but mages have to see the point they want the exist portal and the entrance to be or at least have a memory of it. It's a pretty weak power but giving it no distance limit mages it decent and balanced.

-Portals have a recharge time of 30 minutes so your mages can just use a portal to sneak behind someone , kill them and escape immediately.

-Mages can close portals at any time even when someone is passing it As mentioned before mages can't force people to use portals but if they are chased by an enemy they can close it and split their enemies in piece.

Illusory magic rule

-Illusions can be of any type and as strong as possible but can't scare to death people.

General magic rule

-Every cast costs energy from breathed oxygen and the stronger the spell, the weaker a mage will feel , but the spell cost can't directly kill a mage.


The real world had magic. People believed it did, anyway, and acted accordingly. What would have been the difference in the things you are concerned about, if the magic they believed existed actually had? I don't think much, if any.

The modern world also has magic. Some people at least believe in it and study it. Yes, even some very smart and skeptical critical thinkers. But the magic they believe in, like most of the historical magic (which in many cases is the same thing) is not the flashy direct magic of typical fantasy stories, films and games, nor denial of physics, but more subtle and personal effects. Not fireballs and teleportation but divination, telepathy, intuition, empathy, healing, energy work, spirit communication, (de)possession, and shifting mindsets.

As for more literal overt magic and how to work it consistently into a world, there are a few workable approaches:

1) Have it be largely secret, rather than everywhere.

2) Have it be limited to a few users, who for various reasons may not to often use it overtly.

3) Have there be counters from opposing users, to balance things out.

4) Have there be counters from the magic realm itself. Maybe using magic creates a backlash or gets the intention of malicious magical entities.

5) Have there be downsides to use. Read just about any pre-modern Christian tale with magic involved, and you'll almost surely find a morality tale about how magic users make pacts with the devil that don't turn out well. Or see magic systems where casting spells has a serious chance of serious side-effects.

6) Have the nature of magical study tend to attract and/or require people with a lot of patience and/or wisdom and/or other traits that make most/all of them not munchkins looking to abuse things and/or amass power, but people who mainly want to be alone to study their own projects, and/or do other beneficial and non-world-disturbing activities.

7) Carefully limit the powers of magic to not include things that mess with things you don't want messed with, and that don't invalidate the world you've designed.

8) Choose the magic system you want, and then brainstorm what people will do with it, and ask others (especially RPG gamers with munchkin experience) to ask them how they can think to exploit it. Then trim/limit the abuses and then design your world as a natural consequence of those powers.

9) Have the arrival of magic at the power level you want, be a new arrival on the scene.


Society is based around actions that can be applied consistently to get consistent results. Make magic inconsistent, and society can not be based around a spell.

  • If a spell once discovered can only be cast once, ever, spells do not transform society beyond their immediate effect.
  • If the nature of magic changes over time, new spells must be researched continually and stop working before society can figure out and apply all of the cool ways to abuse them. (This is a stated property of the Mysticism school of magic in The Elder Scrolls series of games, although it doesn't happen in-game.) The changes can be continuous (spells' effects change slowly and in random ways) or abrupt, even un-creating all existing spells simultaneously if you want.
  • Magic itself is unpredictable (this may go well with the next point). If magic can randomly do something different from what is desired, this can limit its usefulness. Perhaps functioning like a literal-minded genie, or randomly overdoing or under-doing effects. Or doing something completely different at the worst times. If magic is created by some god or by demons, or simply has a mind of its own, it can be a trickster god which inevitably fails its user at the worst possible time.
  • If magic is a kind of "thing man was not meant to know" it can be not just inconsistent but, more importantly, cause madness and inconsistency in its users. So mages don't necessarily do as they are told, nor what we consider to be wise, nor do their spells do quite what everyone else was expecting.

Require that conservation laws are still in effect

Without this, it is possible to break nature itself in many different ways that can hardly be predicted.

Some consequences:

No transmutation between things that involves nuclear reactions

Otherwise things break. Hard. My go-to example is from Harry Potter: with a few exceptions, there seems to be no limit to what can be Conjured or Transfigured. When you are limited to mundane objects, that works okay in-universe. But what if you transmuted something into, say, a supercritical mass of pure U-235 with some deuterium and tritium in there? AKA a nuclear weapon whose detonation mechanism has already fired. The resulting explosion would obliterate far more than just Hogwarts. And the spells needed to do so seem to be well within the capability of a gifted 7th year Hogwarts student. For someone like Voldemort or Dumbledore, they would be trivial. Granted, it’s a suicide weapon, but one could always use the Imperius Curse to force someone else to be the caster. And imagine if you could conjure, say, antimatter…

Mass is conserved (barring relativistic effects)

Otherwise conservation of energy fails. By Noether’s theorem this implies that the laws of nature have an explicit dependency on the time. That is a contradiction.

All magic requires a power source

It doesn’t need to be internal to the mage. But it must be present.


Many of your problems will be simply solved if you

make serious magical abilities extremely rare, and require focus.

Transportation example

Take the problem of transportation: granted, if you can hire a minor mage to haul your stuff many miles far for costs of living and some extra beer, it's going to be an issue. But if there are just 20 people in the world capable of transfering a piece of rock further than fifty feets far, there is no issue at all - they are all much too busy to care about someone's little bussiness.

The possible loophole here is the capability of a single person to control a vast number of transfers - if a single wizard was capable of handling all Amazon's shipping while doing he's normal bussiness, it would be a problem again - but the usual approach is to assume the focus of a person is limited to a small number of objects, or even just one.

Military use

In the same vein, the military use of magic is limited to this extremely small group of people. And if your enemy has a one-in-a-billion wizard on board, his ability to create a portal to your castle may actually be less of a problem that his ability to outsmart you in any other field. Cause it's somehow natural to assume that magic abilities should go together with intelligence and mental abilities.

This way or another, a mage is going to be just a single super weapon with their own agenda, so you don't expect to meddle with some everyday fight.

Different levels of magical abilities

While extreme magical abilites rare, it's not the problem if many people (even majority), have some magical abilities - the telekinesis allowing you to flip pages while reading a book is not going to make you a superhero. It may cause existence of some new nice inventions, like locks without a key (instead of turning the key, you use your knowledge of the internal structure of lock to unlock it with telekinesis), but most likely nothing groundbreaking.

Of course this answer doesn't cover some aspects (like, why use a fireball instead of brain-boiling), but they seem sufficiently addressed by others.


One way is to stop thinking of Magic as "Science only better":

It's not a simple (or even complex) set of reproducible rules, causes and effects. It exists at the whim of the gods. It takes a combination of concentration, knowledge, instinct, will, creativity from the mage to produce a spell.

Why can he produce a fireball and throw it at an enemy, but not boil his brain? Not even the mage himself (or perhaps even the author/narrator!) knows. All he knows is one is relatively easy (or allows room for error) and the other is difficult. It's a very mysterious art. And as the effects become more complex or powerful, the spell becomes more difficult.

Asking an army to step through a teleportal is a big request if they know that the more people that step through, the stronger the spell has to be, and the stronger the spell is, the more concentration and skill is needed from the mage, and if it goes wrong, they could end up trapped in a deep cavern for the rest of their lives, or teleported into solid rock, or their bodies just mangled or never rematerialising.


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