by Mike Brotzman
©2005 Mike Brotzman -- all rights reserved
In this month's episode of Dragon's Lair we are going to talk about designing good limitations to go along with your transformation. Now, some of you might ask, "Why do we need limitations to go along with our transformations? Aren't transformations supposed to be fun?" To answer the second question first: Yes, TF is supposed to be fun -- which is exactly why we need limitations on TF.
You might think that unfettered access to transformation would be great, but it quickly leads to a story that is unexciting, implausible or both. If you remember the Twilight Zone episode A Nice Place to Visit, a not-so-nice man dies and in the afterlife he goes to a place where he always wins and always gets exactly what he wants. After a few days the fun wears off -- there is no challenge to his new life -- and he discovers that he is not in heaven, but in Hell. This is exactly where you and your readers will find yourselves if you do not design proper limitations to the sort of latent transformational ability which dragons often possess.
Generally, stories need some form of adversity for the protagonist to overcome. This article is not going to lecture you on the downsides which come with a single transformational event or even the downsides which accompany a new body (e.g. Billy is TFed into a Dragon and sets his house on fire with a sneeze). That has been addressed many times already and the point of this column is to address transformational issues involving the proud draconic species. When dealing with dragons one is often faced with a continuing transformational ability. Common examples include a dragon's ability to shapeshift or some artifact which enables a character to change into a dragon. Here, one is not dealing with trying to come up with basic literary adversity; rather, one is trying to avoid turning their character into a god which either blows the adversity away with the flick of a claw or causes the reader to roll their eyes when your character fails to simply blow the adversity away with the flick of a claw.
Generally, writers are pretty successful at having their characters use god powers to wipe away any and all troubles and stories that do tend to be boring to read and boring to write. Let me give you an example:
Sturmovik the dragon, thinking quickly, changes into God and wills all the terrorists to transmogrify into mailboxes. The world was now safe. The End.
Wasn't very stimulating, was it now? The much more common problem is where you have a character with mad abilities that could easily overcome whatever challenge he's facing, and the author inserts a blatant hack of a reason of why this doesn't happen. Most often this is seen in fantasy works with the powerful mentor who is incapacitated by a spot of bad luck, leaving the weaker hero to fight the villain. This could be something along the lines of "as the party approaches the cave, Sturmovik slips on a patch of wet ground and is rendered unconscious", or "Sturmovik slipped, his dragon TF ring flying off his finger and rolling into a nearby storm drain to be forever lost for the rest of the quest", or even sudden pronouncements like "I can't do this because it violates the dragon code". Any need to suddenly disable a character to make some challenge meaningful is probably a hack and should be avoided. Hacks like these are a disservice to your readers. They mean you have screwed up, made your TF ability too powerful, and now you're scrambling to artificially bring a little suspense into your story.
Properly designing your TF ability with good limitations is the way to avoid a boring story and insulting your readers with hacks. If your characters can keep up the suspense and challenge while still functioning at 100% of ability through the entire story, that is a mark of good writing, creativity and proper planning. There are all sorts of limitations you can apply to a TF ability and I am sure you have probably run into most of them. Designing proper limitations is more than about picking 5 from column A and 3 from column B; they need to be chosen so that they work well with the story, work well with each other and instead of 'limiting' you, they actually function to expand what you can do with your characters and plot.
Let's go through a couple of examples. Everybody is familiar with Superman. Naturally, having a guy who can't be killed or stopped in any way might make the stories a little unexciting, so the writers came up with a weakness: Kryptonite. On the positive side, Kryptonite does seem to kill/disable Superman. One the negative side, Kryptonite is rather rare, so Superman doesn't run into it on a daily basis -- but for some strange reason, his enemies seem to have it in abundance. Moreover, Kryptonite seems to be the only thing that can kill him so after several movies it starts to get a little hard finding new ways to disable Superman and keep everyone's interest (although that evil TF in Superman III was fairly innovative).
The other good example is Animorphs, a series you all are (or should be!) familiar with. This involved a latent TF power, and if saving the world from a hidden invasion wasn't enough, the author threw in a whole raft of limitations to spice things up. There were basically two: One, the two-hour time limit. Stay TFed for too long, you're stuck in that body and can't TF anymore. Two, you have to touch an animal before you can TF into it -- and it's not just a slap on the side; you have to maintain contact for a non-trivial amount of time and effort, during which you're vulnerable. These were further offset by a number of special abilities beyond the basic TF, which included full TF healing and limited partial TFing. This wider range of limitations allows for more diverse plotlines than you have with 'the single weakness'. The limitations are part of the TF package from the beginning and not suddenly imposed to build suspense. They make sense in context with the TF engine; again, the limitations don't off like a plot band-aid; and finally, they prevent the characters from becoming super-powerful so that they have to really work for their victories.
The negatives of the Animorphs package mainly come from the two-hour time limit. It's short enough that the heroes get hit with it almost every time, and the old "morphing back with minutes to spare" gets a little old after a while. It stops feeling like an organic part of the story and more like a switch that the author turns on and off to tweak the plotline.
As you can see, designing a package of downsides and limitations is really an art. It is just as important and takes just as much effort as designing a good character or plot and it should be approached in the same way. Things get even more complicated when one considers secondary benefits of a TF power, like healing or partial TF. I could go on and talk about all sorts of little tricks and situations, but probably your best inspiration is real life. Think of all the modern conveyances, cars, guns, cell phones, then think about how those are limited both in your experience and as you have seen in the media. Cars have problems off-road, run out of gas, and suffer all sorts of breakdowns. Guns run out of ammunition and aren't allowed in certain places. Cell phones are critically dependent on battery power, don't work underground, and suffer dead zones. Trying to make your TF engine work the way it probably would in real life is a good start to avoiding an implausible story. So, enough advice, I am going to list as many of the popular limitation types I can think of and you are free to find inspiration.
Kryptonite or any other "single big weakness" is the classic one seen in both Superman and The Wizard of Oz. If you want to avoid it getting old, have a plausible reason behind the weakness so that you can being in new items which have a similar effect. I.e., many fæ don't get along well with Iron; one author hinted that the real problem was iron's magnetic properties, which allows the limitation to evolve. For dragons you can use Kryptonite as a means to undo the TF or kill the dragon in that form.
Time Limit, as seen in Animorphs, with the results including reversal, getting stuck or sickness/death. To avoid beating your readers over the head with it, make the time period long and use the limitation to stop the person from taking up permanent residence in the new body. Avoid using time limit as the only limitation. God can do a lot in a minute.
Mass restrictions are perhaps the most basic TF limitation. Besides the issues you get with physics, the insanely large and the insanely small can do a lot of really nasty things. It's best to set minimum and maximum sizes for a TF ability. Also, if you don't conserve mass, where the excess mass is stored or taken from provides another avenue for limitations itself. When I take hewman form I put my mass in a pocket dimension. If someone were to tamper with that, it would cause all sorts of not-goodness.
Shut up! Didn't I tell you to leave?
Energy Usage is another popular limitation with TFing taking a lot out of someone in terms of physical or magical strength. In the case of a TF device, it would be energy of various sorts. Energy use limitations are highly variable depending on the effect you want, as there are many many ways to subtract or add energy that don't seem out of place, won't look like a hack, and are resistant to repetitiveness.
Change Lag -- that is, the character is somewhat disoriented or weak or otherwise 'under the weather' during the act of TFing, and perhaps for some time afterwards -- is often used to make an insanely powerful creature vulnerable during his moment of TF. Needless to say, this works well for dragons. The vulnerability can be fragility, immobility, disorientation, basically whatever you want.
Time Period limitations include both time between TFs (can you say Altered Fates?) and a limit to the number of TFs within a certain time period, i.e. three per day as in the D&D type dragons. The latter is somewhat harder to justify and if you have a fixed recharge point you run into the "unused vacation day" problem.
Skill and Knowledge based restrictions are your best friend when it comes to curbing abuses of transformation power. Remember, being able to look at someone and take their identity makes someone insanely powerful. Basically, someone can't change into something unless they possess some sort of skill or knowledge. What these are can vary to suit your individual needs. Think of it along the lines of automatic vs manual. The less input someone needs to successfully TF, the more powerful that TF ability is. This ranges from 'think and click' to requiring that the dragon have previously memorized a Heisenberg-compensated molecular model of the intended form. With dragons, one of the better limitations is the requirement of having a long practice time for each new form. Trying to rush things can lead to non-viable bodies.
Injuries can also affect a transformation power. While some have transformations heal injuries, you can go the other way and have TFs make injuries much worse, to the point of essentially locking an injured character in that form.
Telltale Signs are another way to limit the power of identity theft and infiltration. Often when dragons transform they change in shape only and still retain the same DNA, blood, aura, scent, etc. These giveaways are usually easily detectable by other dragons (and well-trained hewmans), and can prevent your characters from just impersonating their way to victory.
Object Oriented TF systems are also a form of limitation. If your TF power is wrapped up in a physical object, the object can be lost, damaged or stolen (and just as easily found, recovered or repaired). Objects also allow for mix 'n' matching, sharing, and salvaging in your plots.
Special Resources are sometimes needed to help someone TF. Once again, you are free to vary the intensity of this limitation on the rarity and complexity of the resource. It could be something as simple as needing to get wet, or as complex as plutonium.
Anyway, I am sure there are many more, but this has gone on for quite some paragraphs and I should probably let you get onto the comic. Next time on Dragon's Lair... something.