Magic is the cheat code to the universe

Magic is the cheat codes to the universe. Never read it (and maybe I should) but that’s a quote from DC’s Checkmate. It also shows up in Planetary as an explanation from the Drummer, which I have read. And recommend. But moving on. Magic, cheat code to the universe. Hacking reality. It’s funny that a lot of atheist and agnostic authors are obsessed with filling fantasy novels with wizards, shape-shifters and gods. Same with sci-fi. But magic, now, I think, magic is like this double-edged sword you have to be careful not to whack yourself in the head with. It doesn’t need justifying, the rule of cool covers it, it’s inherently cool when you have wizards doing fly-bys on magic carpets hoicking fireballs at each other and to anyone unfortunate enough to be standing under the fallout. It’s almost inherently impossible to write fantasy without the mandatory evil wizard in there somewhere. If they’re not the evil overlord themselves they’re probably the right-hand henchman. Yes, I’ve been reading the TV Tropes website again, it’s research!


But to cheating the universe. Because it is. How does that scrawny old man compete with our team of hardened adventurers? Magic, zap ‘em with a few lightning bolts. The answer? Train the orphan farm boy up to be a wizard himself. Or teach him to wield the magic sword which the other old (good) wizard probably has stashed somewhere. Wait, where am I going with this? Right, cheating. So once that orphan farm boy powers up to Super Saiyan level (yes, I’m mixing my metaphors) how do you stop them inadvertently destroying the world and becoming the next overlord? For that matter, is the age of evil overlords now officially over, seeing as you have this all powerful avatar for good, righteousness and other boring stuff present and available? Did I mention he can fly? Or possibly teleport, one or the other. So not only can he easily stop evil-doers, he can get there and be home in time for the damsel-in-distress turned princess to have dinner on the table (walking right into a liberated-woman’s backslap right here).


So if you make your magic-user/system too all powerful you’re immediately faced with the problem of having to limit them. This comes up in gaming all the time when heroes take a level too far and start vacationing in the fiery abyss because the weather is warmed down there. Often it gets balanced out by associated costs, or having to memories spells and forgetting them once they’re cast, extraneous things like that. Or mana, mana is a good one.


So magic becomes a whole lot more complicated than ‘this guy can throw fireballs’, it’s not like taking a gun to knife fight, it’s like taking a laser to the stone age. You have to think it through and have your checks and balances. Or you can take the Steven Erikson Malazan world approach and just have dozens of super-charged magic-users running around and lobbing fireballs at each other. And how the mere mortals cope with that scenario?


‘Oh, so you’re a wizard? Got fireballs and lightning and big fluffy clouds of smoke do ya? Well…we’ve got explosives.’


And then they go build crossbows to lob said explosives at the wizards’ tower.


So, it probably pays to think your magic system through a little bit (not that I’m even implying I know how to do that!). Because in fantasy it rarely ends well for wizards. And cheaters never prosper anyway.

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