Saving the magic system of Familiar of Zero from itself

Familiar of Zero isn’t just a 2006 anime — it is the most 2006 anime I’ve ever seen. It’s the kind of uninspired extruded-fantasy-harem-crap we always complain about, in its purest and most unadulterated form. Its protagonist is without any particular traits, other than an over-the-top lecherousness that while it sticks out now was more or less par for the course a decade ago for harem shows. The romantic lead is the kind of poor-little-rich-girl tsundere we wouldn’t see properly fleshed out and given characterization until Toradora. There’s a large supporting cast of generic archetypes. The most interesting and original character may be Colbert, a plot device of a balding, kindly but boring professor who is also prone to chasing after myths — kind of like if your high school social studies teacher spent his free time trying to find Atlantis — but he is mostly notable for how little he resembles Stephen Colbert. It’s a spectacularly forgettable show, notable mostly for how stupid every single character appears to be. But what it does have is an interesting and well fleshed-out magic system.

That is, until the plot starts.

You see, the way magic works in this world is that each spell works with one of the four classical greek elements. Even simple spells that are theoretically identical are completely different between elements: the spell to illuminate the tip of a wand would have nothing in common in the mechanics of casting between a method using air and a method using earth, even though the result would be identical. A ward or seal created by fire magic can only be undone by fire magic. This creates a pretty stable set of parameters. Imagine this from the perspective of game design for some MMORPG: even if every player character is a mage, you would expect a party to by necessity contain a member specializing in each type of magic. To the extent that attack spells are used, they are undone by attack spells from an opposing element, usually — fire can be defeated by water or redirected by wind, etc.

And then, we’re introduced to the fifth element, void, which is incredibly powerful and can beat anything. Because that’s the only way our protagonists can be put into interesting situations: by deus ex machina.

Ignoring void magic, we have the possibility of multi-classing. The idea is that extremely talented people can reach the limit of advancement in one form of magic and then start from the bottom in another form. If you can master three of the four forms of magic, you become a triangle mage, and can cast spells that weave together the three elements in such a way that it would be very difficult for three high level mages of the individual elements to undo; only a triangle mage specializing in the same three elements, or a square mage who has mastered all four, can undo it.

Void magic is in-born, can’t be properly studied, operates mostly by intuition, and is incompatible with all the other forms. So it breaks everything.

The world in which this show takes place is a kind of extension of feudal europe, in which all those capable of magic are considered a part of the aristocracy, and where rival kingdoms are in politically precarious situations, with webs of secret alliances, spies infiltrating each other’s kingdoms, and aristocrats trying to foment populist uprisings among the peasantry. In other words, a fairly realistic depiction of a society where a whole class of people have magic powers passed on along the bloodline. We have plenty of call-outs to actual historical events, including a revolution in the britain-expy called Albion wherein a guy named Cromwell kills a prince named Wales and turns the country into a dictatorship. Adding intrigue are various magical devices that can temporarily animate corpses or cause people to act against their will while in line of sight.

And then, the void magic is powerful enough to kill all the conspirators. Accidentally. With the help of a world war two era fighter plane. This show keeps generating promise and then screwing it up.

Without the main characters, we have the setup for a really interesting game or story here. We have a complex but internally consistent set of rules for magical warfare — one that rewards teamwork at the lower levels and rewards achievement at the endgame, encouraging people to max out their level up to four times. We have interesting sets of alliances and conflicts: nations at war with each other and themselves, spy networks, the double-cross system. We have devices that have interesting abilities and limitations: the ability to temporarily control a corpse, the ability to control a living being at short range and under line of sight. We have an interesting combat system, with familiars tanking for mages and an interaction between elements. I could imagine something similar to a cross between WoW and Planetside — an ongoing war of small-scale conquest along the edges of domains, powered by a steady supply of fresh blood from strongholds where mages in training follow quest lines to develop their skills.

All we need is somebody to take advantage of this, instead of breaking it in the name of making a generic hero’s journey story.

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Resident hypertext crank. Author of Big and Small Computing: Trajectories for the Future of Software.

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