Keeping Magic From Taking Over Your Story

First, see Phlebotinum-Development Questions. This will help you work out from the very start what your magic could potentially do in the story.

Ask yourself what problems you don't want magic to be able to solve, then think up reasons why it can't be used for that. For example, let's say we don't want magic to be able to bring people back from the dead. There are plenty of possible explanations; here are a few suggestions:

When I played a certain Marvel (movie-verse) sorcerer in an RP, I didn't want him to be able to solve all of his problems magically or be casting spells right and left, so I came up with some rules and limitations to keep him under control:

Magic can also have a physical cost - using it might be tiring. Learning new spells might take significant time and practice. Some works of fiction have a possibility of a magical backlash (particularly if magic is used “improperly” per the rules of the universe), or magic comes at a great personal cost. Not only do these provide good reasons for your characters not to use magic willy-nilly; they're also good mechanisms for providing dramatic potential - eg, a character uses magic improperly or frivolously and has to face the consequences.

Circumstances and conditions can also make the use of magic impractical or even impossible. Perhaps a spell only works on a certain day or when the moon is at a certain phase. Perhaps too many people crowded in an area disrupt the flow of magic.

Another thing I've found effective at curbing the overuse in magic is to make people outside the circle of protagonists react realistically toward it. EG, if one of your protagonists can magically scry into the villains' lair, then the villains should eventually figure out a way to block it. Their solution doesn't have to be "magical" per se - it might be electromagnetic, even - but it sets things up so that magical solutions aren't fix-all solutions.

That said, when it comes to RPGs, I don't like tying magic up in so many rules and potential consequences that players feel punished for using it. I'm all for setting caps and limitations on what it can and can't do - but it's my philosophy that at the end of the day, it should still be fun to use and have rewarding outcomes.

See also:
Setting Rules & Limitations In Your World: Why & How You Need To Do This
So You Wanna Mix Science And Magic?
Keeping Shapeshifters From Getting Overpowered
Tips & Ideas To Write More Believable Masquerades
Tips & Ideas To Create More Believable Sword 'n Sorcery Worlds
Magical & Supernatural Tropes To Reconsider (And Tips To Build Up Your Magical/Supernatural Settings!)

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