Worldbuilding Magic Systems and technology is so much fun, but it can also be daunting – because with all that power, creating magic items or technology that are overpowered or out-of-place is easy to do accidentally. And overpowered magic or overpowered technology can be a real drain on your storytelling. Whether you’re working with other people like player characters at your table, or you need a good reason why your main characters of your novel wouldn’t just use your overpowered device for every problem, it can really put you in a bind. So how do you fix overpowered items in your world? You use the Triangle of Power.

The Triangle of Power: managing overpowered magic

The Triangle of Power – as far as I know – is my own invention. But I’m sure there are lots of clever people out there who’ve come up with other versions of the same thing.




the triangle of power tool for creating magic items and tech


Abilities: what can it do?

This is the most straightforward, in many ways. When creating a magic item, ask what does the item do? Does it make you invisible (like a Cloaking Shield, or the One Ring)? Does it give you the strength of ten elephants? What is the power you want to give the item? Often, especially when an item is story critical (like a MacGuffin) the ability is the most important thing and it’s what we think of first.

The Cost of Magic

The Cost of the item might be mana or spell slots (especially for DnD magic items!) but it could easily be something as mundane as fuel. How often did the Star Trek’s Voyager stall because it needed Deuterium or Trilithium or any of a number of other fuel components? The cost can be complex, or it can be something simple. It might not even be immediately obvious what the cost of using the item is (and sometimes this is even more sinister – consider Tolkien’s One Ring that slowly saps away your soul.)

Some examples of item costs include:

  • your soul
  • someone else’s soul! (e.g. Skyrim soul gems!)
  • blood, a heart or another body part (yours or someone else’s)
  • some of your life force
  • mana, spell slots, or similar

But read below about balancing your triangle before picking one!

Think about Limitations when creating magic items & tech

And the most overlooked side of the Triangle of Power…. the Limitations. Limitations are…. the other stuff. In DnD these are common: something only works in touch range, or within 30 feet, or is blocked by 1 foot of stone. But in science fiction, limitations are important too: the tech doesn’t work because of a dust storm, or radiation. This is different from cost, it’s more akin to conditions that either must be met, or must be avoided, such as “interference” or requiring special circumstances. For example, “the planets aligning” is a special circumstance used often in the Dark Crystal (so much so it’s part of the Worldbuilding Meta of Thra!)

Good limitations might include:

  • zones or areas it doesn’t work
  • only works for the right species/bloodline/ancestor/blessed person
  • only works at a specific time, celestial phase, etc.
  • only works in darkness/light
  • only works at specific temperatures or altitudes

Again, the weight of the limitation depends on the abilities – see the “balancing your triangle” section below!

What’s the point of the Triangle of Power?

Well, essentially, it’s preventing the overpowered magic or overpowered technology problem. At any point, you can introduce obstacles, reasons why something WOULDN’T work. Of course, you have to be careful with this. For example, the oldest trick in the book to limit cell phones is to have them out of battery or signal, and it can feel hackneyed. But, if your characters come across limitations or costs, this can be a powerful start to a try-fail cycle. And we all know that Pixar’s number one rule of storytelling is: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes. Limitations gives characters something to TRY for, even when they’ve already got their hands on the ALL POWERFUL ARTIFACT. And that’s good – it’s rich potential for storytelling.

And of course, we don’t want things to come too easily. That saps all the drama out of a situation. I’m not saying I’m one of the “why didn’t the eagles fly the hobbits into Mordor” crew, but if I were, the answer is an obvious one – that story sucks. Air taxi isn’t the epic finish the Lord of the Rings needed. It’s a whole story about trying. So no easy ways out – and the costs and limitations of an item give you that in spades.

Balancing the Triangle of Power when creating magic items & tech

Essentially, for the triangle to be balanced, all sides need to be the same length, or “weight”. If the item with WORLD ENDING POWER merely demands a drop of blood as a cost, and has no limitations worth mentioning, then it’s going to be pretty world breaking. Anyone who gets their mits on it – well, they’re going to derail your story pretty quickly. But if the Ability is to Summon Cthulhu, a good cost might be the immortal soul of an angel – something difficult to get hold of and weighty. And the limitation might be something very rare, like when the planets align, for example (it’s a classic for a reason, just sayin’).

Theming the Triangle when creating magic items & tech

This amulet summons the damned. And all it takes is three unicorn farts!

Theming is slightly less important than balancing from an over-powered point of view, but it’s darned important for making your world feel, well, authentic and connected. It all comes down to mood and tone. If the cost is the blood of a hundred virgins, but your power is bringing back the marshmallow fairies, then you need to take a long, hard look at your worldbuilding. This item is balanced, but it’s still broken – it betrays the spirit of whatever you’re trying to tell the audience. (That is, unless your marshmallow fairies are really sinister). Make sure your tone matches across the sides of your triangle too, and you’ll have an item that’s seamless, balanced and memorable too!

For more advice specifically about DnD magic items, check out our post about how to create DnD 5e Magic Items!

What’s the coolest item you’ve created for your world, or seen in a story or movie? Share it in the comments, then grab your hammer and go worldbuild!