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I was trying to come up with a power system. I didn't manage to but I decided to just learn first about power systems from other authors and other series. I was searching anime, TV shows, and manga. I was reading and searching and I understand some things so that I can write my power system easily.

Then I watched a video that explains the power system in Hunter x Hunter, Nen. And, long story short, it was complex and very difficult. The author put lots of work into its rules and usage. However, this made me ask the question: Can I write a power system that is complex and how can I execute it properly? Compared to other anime and shows, Hunter x Hunter's power system is very complex and difficult to construct. And I know that you don't need a complex power system to make a good one; for example, Owl House: the bigger the circle the more powerful it is. Consistent and easy to understand. But that's the thing, I'm not sure if I have a complex power system if it would be good, since it couldn't be easy to understand, and I'm just here sitting in confusion.

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    What role do you want your power system to have in your story? Is it a puzzle for your readers to figure out? Then, presuming your audience likes puzzles, making it more complex could be good. If your power system is just background to the real story, then keeping it simple may be better, so it doesn't distract and confuse readers.
    – user54131
    Apr 26, 2022 at 12:28
  • that's a good advice. i didn't think of that before.
    – Crimsoir
    Apr 26, 2022 at 12:36

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The most important rule about writing a complicated magic system is that, first of all, you need to understand it. You have to know what is your magic like, what it's used for, how it works, and what are its downsides, upsides, and restrictions.

Now, in fiction, we differentiate two types of magic systems, the opened one and the closed one. Open magic is when the rules aren't strictly explained and supernatural things happen without deeper clarification, like in the Lotr series. The closed one is when the author introduces the reader to how it works (like in HxH).

The upsides of writing a complicated closed magic system are that you can be original and creative, and you can play with your magic. Now, if you know exactly what is your supernatural system and how it works focus on what impact it has on your story. What do its rules and restrictions contribute to the characters' choices and the diegetic world? If it really is bonded with an action, world, and characters, explaining it won't be hard for readers, because they will understand it along with the story.

It obviously won't be an easy undertaking, but I think that such a challenge as creating a complicated magic system is ambitious and flowering, so I definitely think you should try bringing your magic to life.

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The key thing to recognise here is that any magic system in fiction is defined by its limitations. Magic without limitations is pure deus ex machina where anyone whatsoever with no prior warning can "magic!" any object or situation into existence, and this would leave huge pitfalls and plot holes as no character would ever be in a situation outside their control or comfort zone, which is basically a requirement for any satisfying fiction.
(Technically even in that situation the limitation would still exist, the usefulness of the random magic being limited by the intelligence, cunning and audacity of individual characters and their relative power compared to each other).

The basic limitations used in magic systems are:

  • Limited effect - magic can only achieve certain results, and/or only on certain objects/people/situations.
  • Some sort of trade-off or cost to any magic that is done (e.g. does it tire a character, use up a resource they have, or have another adverse effect on the user or surroundings)
  • More fixed situational limitations - where the magic only works in certain places, can only be done by certain people, requires certain training, etc.

Note that randomising any of the above (so that the magic may or may not work even if the characters fulfil the requirements) can make a more interesting story.


Applying this to your question:

Generally speaking, the tighter the limitations on the magic, the more nuanced the story as the characters have to be more cautious in order to use magic effectively.
When planning to write a 'complicated' system of magic, you need to be sure what you're after; do you want a system with many stringent unrelated limitations, or do you want one where the limitations are interlinked and interdependent?

For example of an interlinked one, "Magic only works to change people's minds, and for normal people the effect is temporary unless the magic is done under a full moon, but if you're a trained wizard then the effect is permanent but also your own mind gets changed unless it's done under a new moon, and if you attempt to change multiple people's minds at once it won't work at all except on full moon".
Here we've taken 4-5 basic limitations (limited temporary effect, moon phase, whether you're a wizard, limited number of people affected, plus a trade off effect for wizards only) and mixed them far more than necessary; the result would make for a story that would be too complex for a reader to understand or keep track of, unless possibly the whole story was about a pioneer pushing the boundaries of the system.

For independent rule systems, 4 to 5 rules of that sort (where rules don't affect each other) is probably about enough without being over-excessive. Bear in mind that two of the same type of rule (two trade-offs for magic, or two situational requirements to fulfil) will still compete, and drama can be created in the story by the characters' efforts to meet multiple requirements simultaneously.

TLDR; Yes, you can make a complicated power system, just think carefully about how you want to achieve that.

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