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Author Topic: The Strength of Simple Powers  (Read 487 times)

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Offline NO1SY

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The Strength of Simple Powers
« on: January 29, 2023, 12:18:19 PM »
Another essay. This is the 3rd time I’m rewriting this because I never felt I was quite getting across the point I wanted… let’s hope this is good enough because I’m not doing it again! Hopefully others can pick up the slack for whatever slips through the cracks in further discussion on this thread.


The Strength of Simple Powers


I have reviewed quite a few written pieces in my time on MangaRaiders, and given input towards several concepts. A common theme I’ve seen from amateur writers, particularly those inspired by shounen manga and anime, is the desire to write a super powerful, badass main character. This is quite reasonable. Even I have ideas like that. However, the way that many seem to want to go about this is by giving their character a really awesome superpower that can do EVERYTHING (or just give them a power that sounds cool but if they thought it through could practically can be applied in such a broad set of ways that they can achieve absolutely anything with it). “The power of creation” is a big one, but unlimited powers of entropy and energy, life and death or immortality, time travel or manipulation, and even complete control over one’s body to an extent are all examples of what I would say are powers that are too broad in scope if this is the level at which they are presented.

I have spoken of my views on power fantasy in a past discussion, but another issue exists for writers, outside of problems with generating tension and delivering satisfying conflict resolution, when dealing with broad powers: a sort of conceptualisation paralysis - the powers can do so much that it becomes hard to imagine absolutely everything that they can do, but also, without knowing, you risk obvious plot holes in your storytelling that could have been solved by the powers in a way you didn’t realise. So in the end it becomes another hurdle to get over when it actually becomes time to sit down and write.

The irony is that very few of your favourite series have main characters with powers like this. My inspiration for writing this essay was going from reading Solo Levelling to watching Fire Force and just revelling in the clear cut nature of the powers in the latter and how well they tie into the setting as a result. But let’s just think about the “Big 3” and think about their powers or ‘magic systems’. You may be tempted to say “Devil Fruit, Jutsu and Bankai” and “these can do just about everything right?” Well, you are only half right. Looking top down, you may be correct, however flipping the perspective to look at the character level and you will see that each of these are actually large collections of individual, simple, and limited magic systems uniquely used by single characters (for the most part). Luffy has Gomu Gomu powers specifically, Naruto specialises in Shadow Clones and Rasengan, Ichigo… well I think his bankai is just to basically go super sayan and fire off progressively more powerful getsuga tenshos (more obvious with different bleach characters)… There can also be generalised magic systems in each too: Haki, basic ninja techniques, and reishi, which either add a foundation of power or stack on top to escalate power, but the character defining powers come from the individualised magic systems.

So how can you achieve something similar in a satisfying manner without getting carried away? I have a few points to cover here: Start small and grow, add costs and/or constraints, tie the powers into your setting.

Start small and grow: Natsu starts out with basic fire punches and kicks. Naruto can only summon a few shadow clones at the start (by himself). Luffy starts out with basically just Gomu Gomu no Pistol, Gatling and Rocket, before adding more techniques to his repertoire over the long course of the story. Each new technique usually comes about in response to having to learn to use his Gomu Gomu powers in a new way to overcome a new enemy that his current techniques do not work on. This can either be by working out how to make his elasticated punches more powerful, or a more creative solution combining his elasticity with the environment or another character’s techniques. In all examples, starting small allows you time to establish the rules about their powers in a manageable way for you as the writer and for the readers. It should be easy to see why the magic can be used to create the effect. At this small scale and level, there is less crossover in effect also, so you have the benefit of the powers being distinct and identifying for your characters. (These principles can be applied to power fantasy stories, however the power level of the main character just starts higher than other characters’.)

Add costs/constraints: Devil fruit users sink in water and Luffy can be cut by slashing attacks. Notice how one of these weaknesses is imparted by the generalised magic system whereas the other is specific to Luffy and his Gumo Gumo powers. Anyways, powers always become more interesting in and of themselves when there are trade-offs involved. This can really be anything from requiring rituals or somatics, which can be interrupted, or limiting the number of times that the powers can be used (or the amount of time they can be accessed for/the amount of energy they can draw upon), which builds tension when they are down to their last try and everything is riding on it. On the more extreme end of things I think of Code Geass, where the power itself is very unwieldy and one slip up can lead to tragedy, or Darker Than Black, where people have the compulsion to do strange and very specific things after using their powers. Following this, sometimes we see powers driving the users insane if used too much or if they are unable to pay their costs. Even in Harry Potter, wands have to be used as conduits for the magic spells, combined with specific “swishes” and “flicks” and generally reciting the words to the spells with the correct intonations and inflections - some powers can fail if not accessed correctly. Perhaps they have to have access to an energy or power source like the sun or a lodestone or lots of food. An interesting power is not just defined by what it can do or be used for, all of these things add into it, meaning that when it comes to power level, less can be more whilst still drawing readers in.

Tie the powers into your setting: Superhuman abilities and magic fundamentally change how societies function, how they would be organised and built, and how people would interact with one another, the environment and the natural world. That’s a lot of world building to get lost in, but, thankfully, the more straightforward your magic/power system, the easier it is to apply it to your world. Fire Force is the best example of this for me in recent memory. It’s nothing groundbreaking conceptually, but I was constantly in awe of how seamless the worldbuilding of that series was on account of a very tight magic system at the bottom of it all. Honestly, I don’t think I could recommend a better case study. And all that centred around a main character whose power it is to blast fire out of his feet! Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn and Reckoners series are probably other good examples. When the magic/powers are connected to the setting/worldbuilding, once again they become more than just their strength, and can take identity from the full breadth of your world and characters’ places in it.

Finally, ok, so some of us may just want to write a character with just completely overpowered abilities for the sheer spectacle of it, and well, that’s fine too. But once again, unless you want to write a story about a literal god presiding over some sort of creation story, or total annihilation story, keep the powers straightforward and sensible. One-Punch Man is great at this (although it is all ironic). Just remember that the true conflict and tension and other things that grip the readers will more often have to come from elsewhere. If a character has a power that can do anything, they can solve everything, and plot holes will arise when they cannot (although this might be a more interesting concept - a Moriarty type character trying to find the one thing that a superhuman character cannot solve with their powers).


I hope all of this has made some kind of sense. There is definitely stuff that I have forgotten to include, or that I just could work out how to say, but maybe they’ll be teased out if some discussion is generated. Let me know your thoughts about superpowers and magic systems, and their complexity vs. simplicity. Do you agree or disagree with me? What are examples of powers that you find cool? Are there examples of really overloaded powers that have been done well? Any other advice for writers?

Cheers for reading

« Last Edit: January 29, 2023, 06:50:45 PM by NO1SY »

Offline Coryn

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Re: The Strength of Simple Powers
« Reply #1 on: January 30, 2023, 10:22:31 AM »
I think your arguments were all well thought out! I'm sure there are more points or examples that could have been made, but you got the majority I think.

For a good example of characters "starting stronger", there's no case study like Dragon Ball Z. Sure, Goku can blow up a mountain, but Freiza can blow up a planet, so the tension comes from Goku surviving more than beating Freiza.

I agree with the urge to create an ultra powerful character as a new writer. I am 100% guilty of that very thing, and it's for all of the reasons written above that I have been clawing back on what the super powerful characters in my story can do, and introducing even more powerful antagonists.

Like you pointed out, I started in the "power over all creation" camp, and have slowly walked that back as I discovered that not only is it a quick way to lose any tension, but also it's a pain in the butt to write! The more constrained your characters are, the easier they are to conceptualize, and the more limited you are as a writer. Limits, as we all know, force us to think and be creative in ways that may surprise us.

To use MR Canon as an example, my avatar Coryn is a cyborg, but his cyborg parts only work if they are charged. If the power runs out, he's just a human. He is also limited in that his only form of attack or defense are the energy shields he can generate with emitters in his hands. That also limits him if he say, has an arm chopped off. Because of all this, I've had to think of interesting uses of the shields each time I write for him.

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Offline NO1SY

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Re: The Strength of Simple Powers
« Reply #2 on: January 30, 2023, 01:09:05 PM »
So... I've never really got into Dragonball... Z or otherwise... I know I know, shame on me... But, while Goku seems strong and does seem to get overloaded with different powers that cover many bases, to begin with his powers just seem to help him attack and defend in a fight. He can he is super strong so he can give and take super hard punches. He can move super fast so they can box and block in super-speed. And he can fire a big laser. So he has a lot of destructive potential, but he is also in a setting and up against other beings that can withstand him, so the conflict and tension can remain. Later on, I understand that things escalate to insane levels of power and destruction, plus he like dies a couple of times and comes back to life, and he learns a bunch more abilities that cover even more ground... It sounds like he's stronger than superman and without the weakness of kryptonite (and I already find superman pretty boring...), so for me things start to break down from a perspective of writers using Goku as inspiration. It seems that a story involving Goku can only really be about who wins in a fight between him and another DBZ character, because he can basically destroy every other obstacle in the universe, go anywhere he wants and make or take anything he wants. The only other thing to write about would be romance and interpersonal drama - things that cannot be solved through might alone... but then there are other series that explore those kinds of concepts way better.

Personally, when I think of DBZ and its head-to-head fight plot-lines, I'm pushed in the direction of other martial arts series like Gamaran, Kengan Ashura, Baki, The Breaker etc. These are somewhat more grounded/physics-bound and give more space for the focusing in on the techniques they are using as they happen, as opposed to the effect afterwards. The story-lines will focus on the motivations and growth of the characters involved of course, and who has the nerve, will, creativity and ability to win, but the moment to moment action is generally more engaging to me, in these kinds of stories, when it can be zoomed in on rather than zoomed out from.

Talking about overloading Goku with powers actually jogged something for me. In a recent Guild Wars 2 development livestream they outlined their principals when designing and balancing classes, and a couple of them are particularly pertinent I think:

"The following are a few key ideas that we consider when balancing skills and traits. This list isn't intended to be absolute in all cases, but there should be a strong reason when a skill breaks one of these rules.
Purity of Purpose

Purity of purpose is the idea that a skill (or trait, or weapon, etc.) should have a well-defined identity. In other words, skills should not do too many different things at once. Some common skill identities include damage, defense, support, control, and mobility.
Holes in Roles

This is an idea similar to purity of purpose, but applied to builds or professions. As we touched on when discussing identity, we want every profession to have distinct strengths and weaknesses. Professions should have things that they excel at, things that they are less effective at than other professions, and some things that they simply cannot do. If one profession does everything and has no holes, there's no reason for players to play anything else.
"

Offline Suuper-san

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Re: The Strength of Simple Powers
« Reply #3 on: January 30, 2023, 04:05:28 PM »
This is a fantastic and easy to understand read. I couldn't have put it any better myself. Definitely needs to be read by anyone writing a story with a magic system.

100% true that it's a common pitfall for new writers. I've got a few head stories with ultra-OP characters for sure. They dont realize when watching other shows, the reason the climax where the hero goes OP is amazing, is because of the build up and not going OP all the time previously.

The strange issue I've noticed with some popular manga lately is that they seem to get away with more and more unjustified OP shenanigans. A good 50% of isekai genre fall into this with some game breaking skill awarded to the MC right in chapter 1, often outright lampshaded as being a game breaking skill. But the story immediately falls flat, there's no tension and there's no threat. You know the MC is going to win no problem. But for some reason it's popular? I don't get it. And even worse is when the writer doesn't fully take into account the ways the power can be used you get even more annoyed. In Another World with My Smartphone is one of the worst offenders.

I 100% agree with the adding limits, it makes it so interesting when the character can't go OP all the time, because you not only get a much richer and complex story, but you get an awesome payoff when they finally do go OP for the climax. In fact writing the limits I would say affects the story much more than writing the powers.

I think with writing a power system, you really have to test it out, beta test it, if you will. Run mock battles in a variety of scenarios using your characters and really consider the out-of-the-box ways the power can be used. And then re-balance the magic system if you find loopholes that can be exploited badly. OR write those loopholes into the plot and see where it goes. I also find that the mundane use of the powers can really give the magic system some stability. Such as Star Wars - anyone who could use the force would totally use it to lazily pick up things that were just out of reach and so on. The characters don't do this nearly as much as they should, but at least they do, on occasion. In writing one of my own stories I realized that if children could use magic, the chances are the games they play together would have magic mixed in, they literally would play with magic just like children play with other stuff. So I had to stop and think, how would I play with magic if I could use it? makes the story so much more interesting but really takes a lot of effort and time to get to that top notch level.

The only time you can get away with writing a no-limits OP character is in a heavily comedy focused story. One-punch man falls into this, and a couple other fantasy ones that I've been reading. The driving of the story comes from somewhere other than the clash of powers, it's the dialogue and minor events that make the comedy and drive the plot.

My unfinished canon character also has a reasonable balance of limits so they can be awesome occasionally, but not all the time :D Gotta keep the humility XD
« Last Edit: January 30, 2023, 04:07:17 PM by Suuper-san »
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Offline NO1SY

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Re: The Strength of Simple Powers
« Reply #4 on: January 30, 2023, 07:06:10 PM »
Doing experiments to test out your systems can work, it's just a bit time consuming. I do like doing small writing exercises anyway though, because often it results in small pre-written bits that work well for backstory, flashbacks, or historic events.

Ooooh you are writing a bit of MR Canon eh Suuper!? Fleshing out the back story of the Yellow Raider? Sorry for abusing you a little towards the end of Sentai Revival...

Overlord is just about the only isekai I have watched since SAO and Log Horizon season 1... It's actually not a bad example of a completely overpowered character who's strength is completely tied into and justified by his place in the setting.

A couple of other examples of interesting power/magic systems that are now coming to mind are:

K Project - Seven "Kings" are bestowed power by a magic stone. Each has their own coloured aura, representing different "forces of the natural world". When they use their aura, a giant sword - dubbed a "Sword of Damocles" - materialises in the sky above them, which can degrade and fall if they overuse their power, causing massive devastation. The Kings can share their aura with members of their clan, and the clan member can manifest powers that are derivative of that aura, generally much weaker than the King. For instance the Red King's aura is fire-based and destructive. His clan members each have a slightly individualised fire type ability - launch small fireballs, wreath weapons in flame, jet-power a skateboard etc. The other clans' auras are actually a little more vague and less straightforward, but I think that this is a strong way to organise a magic system overall.

Gideon The Ninth - I haven't gotten around to reading this yet, but as I understand it this is a story about necromancers in space. There are nine Houses, each practicing a different School of necromancy. The Second House specialises in draining life energy from the living; the Third in drawing death energy from corpses; the Fourth focuses on "exciting" death energy and turning corpses into bombs; the Fifth are spirit magicians able to commune with the dead; the Sixth can read the histories of the dead from objects; the Seventh specialise in preservation of the dead and death-like stasis; the Eighth can siphon souls and use them for casting spirit magic; the Ninth raise skeletons. This is a masterclass in taking a single broad concept (necromancy, creation, elements, nature, Kendo, music) and splitting it into individual and distinct aspects, to build a collection of simple systems.

Offline Coryn

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Re: The Strength of Simple Powers
« Reply #5 on: January 31, 2023, 10:35:48 AM »
I think isekai is popular BECAUSE it's a power fantasy of (let's face it) nerds who suddenly become OP and become masters of their new worlds (for the most part). It's appealing directly to the anime nerd themselves. "This could be you" feels like the whole pitch.

Back with Dragon Ball, I would say that the original series (DB no Z), does a better job of keeping characters more humble. When it gets to Z, the anime, and specifically the english dub, loses a lot of what the manga had which kept up the tension.

The dub is all about the spectacle of the thing, but with the manga and the sub, you get a lot more play on the characters themselves. Goku let's Freiza power up because he wants a tougher fight. Vegeta later does the same with Cell because of his own arrogance. There's just a lot more personality affecting the plot which gets muddled in translation and adaptation for the audience at the time.

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Offline Suuper-san

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Re: The Strength of Simple Powers
« Reply #6 on: January 31, 2023, 01:48:04 PM »
I guess that makes sense, sort of appealing to the same sort of people that play a game on easy mode because they dont want the challenge ahahahaha
I guess in that light those sort of isekai lean toward iyashikei genre in that it's not stressful to watch and you just chill and enjoy without too much involvement. Like slice of life.
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