Follow TV Tropes

Utility-Based Power Ranking

Go To

Spells that are more useful are interpreted as dominating or outranking less-useful spells, even if this makes no sense.

This work is a proposed Trope, Tropers can vote and offer feedback in the comments section below.
Proposed By:
Yerushalmi on Nov 5th 2013 at 3:40:22 AM
Last Edited By:
FactoidCow on Aug 12th 2017 at 9:10:55 AM
Name Space: Main
Page Type: Trope

A type of Fridge Logic.

It stands to reason that, as magic users gain strength and power, they gain access to greater and more powerful spells. In most cases, these spells will be more useful and more difficult to overcome or counter than the spells cast by lesser mages. The logical progression behind this is straightforward:

  1. The spell is stronger
  2. Therefore the spell takes more energy to cast
  3. Therefore the spell is likely more useful.

Sometimes, however, a setting will spin this logic the wrong way around:

  1. The spell is more useful
  2. Therefore it automatically takes more energy to cast
  3. Therefore it is automatically stronger.

This reverse order has two holes in it:

First, authors and game designers usually set the accessibility of spells based on how much the characters want to use them - not on a realistic assessment of how much energy such effects would require. As a result, most settings make the One-Hit Kill spell quite difficult to cast, while opening a large hole in a wall can be cast by relative beginners - even though this is the reverse of how difficult it would be to accomplish the same things by mundane means.

Second, even if a spell requires more magical energy, that extra energy can be poured into the diameter of the effect, the duration, or the number of people it hits. None of these necessarily makes the spell more difficult to overcome. Yet if a large group is being enchanted instead of an individual, the setting may assume that the more difficult spell to cast is therefore more difficult to escape - even though it could make just as much sense to say that the divided attention would make it easier for the individual to break free.

This trope can apply to superpowers as well as spells: a setting might initially set Power Levels based on how useful a person's superpowers are, and only later in the series will the question arise of who wins when two super-beings come into conflict. In resolving such questions, authors often take the easy way out and use the same Power Levels for both purposes. The superhero whose powers are more obviously useful will invariably have powers that are more obviously 'stronger'.

Roleplaying Games can exacerbate this trope because the mechanics of spellcasting often directly incorporate the level of the spell in deciding, for instance, dodge or resistance rates. As a result, the difference between higher-level and lower-level spells is compounded: a higher-level spell that is simply a longer-lasting or wider-range copy of a lower-level spell will be stronger not only because of what it does but also because it is higher level. This can help feed the Quadratic Wizards half of Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards.

Aversions often arise for status effect spells in video games, as these are often Useless Useful Spells to prevent them becoming Game Breakers. See also Mundane Utility, which can sometimes inform and sometimes defy this trope. Contrast with Lethal Harmless Powers, which this trope is designed to avoid; said avoidance is often enforced with ObviousRulePatches.


Comic Books

  • X-Men comics use Greek letters to mark power levels: Delta-Epsilon (latent), Gamma (almost nonexistent), Beta (weak powers, or powers that only affect the mutant in question), Alpha (powers of moderate to great strength that can affect others), and Omega (depending on the writer, powers that might be "theoretically unlimited" or "can affect the world as a whole"). However, Depending on the Writer, it's instead a rating of how useful or convenient a power is. Alpha powers are useful and controllable. Beta powers are useful but with Power Incontinence. Gammas are weak, but controllable, and Epsilon-Delta are basically the Marauders.

Fan Works

  • Outright defied in Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, in which Harry expresses surprise about the Unforgiveable nature of certain specific curses, as even the simplest spells can have lethal applications when applied creatively. The wizards' lack of appreciation for which spells can actually be the most useful - or the most dangerous, or the most horrifying - is one of the themes of the work.


  • Xanth
    • Magician-class talents were originally used to describe anybody whose powers are useful above and beyond any others: transfiguration, weather magic, informational magic. But later in the series it was established that a Magician's magic will always defeat that of a lesser talent when they go head-to-head, no matter the circumstances.
    • There is an attempted subversion with Dot, a minor character whose "spot on the wall" variety of talent turns out to be extremely useful because she can produce any number of dots of any size and therefore create fully detailed mosaic images of things like instruction manuals she's never seen before. But the subversion only goes as far as establishing that her talent is of a much higher level than you would have thought at first glance, and if anybody with the non-Magician-level talent of Cleaning A Wall tried to erase her dots, they'd fail.
  • In The Wheel of Time, the spells with the greatest amount of utility, especially Traveling, require so much power that most magic-users in the setting are unable to use them. However, this also varies according to the talent of the individual: one man in particular is almost as weak as a man can be, yet can make a portal as large as anyone else.

Tabletop Games

  • Dungeons & Dragons. In D&D 3.5 the level of a spell is directly added on to the difficulty score of throwing off its effects.
    • Even though Mass Inflict Light Wounds does exactly the same damage as Inflict Light Wounds, to each of several people, the difficulty of any given person saving against it is raised by four, just because the spell is higher level. But the spell is at a higher level because it's more useful, not because it's stronger - so making it more difficult to dodge makes little sense.
    • Similarly, you'll never see an instant death spell with a ridiculously low save DC; it is assumed that instant death spells are too useful to put at lower levels, even if the very act of putting it at a lower level would make it easier to save against, and therefore less useful.
  • This is both played straight and averted in Magic: The Gathering.
    • Stronger creatures almost always cost more mana to summon, no matter whether they are larger, more powerful, or are actually a swarm of creatures in one. Stronger single spells, too, cost more mana.
    • Due to the way the game is structured, however, many of the most useful cards are actually quite weak individually. They're considered the most useful precisely because they cost nothing or next to nothing, and merely provide an important boost in the early game, allowing you to get ahead of your opponent and stay ahead. The famous Black Lotus, for instance, never killed anybody on its own, but it can help you play other cards that do - and in the first turn of the game. And the Black Lotus costs nothing.
    • Counterspells and protective spells are a mixed bag. Some play this trope straight, scaling up their mana cost in accordance with the strength of the spell being countered or the damage you're preventing; but others (such as Circles of Protection) cost a fixed amount no matter how strong the effect being negated is.

Video Games

  • Even a Useless Useful Spell can suffer from this trope. Instant-death spells in the Final Fantasy series will always be fairly high level, even though they're no good against anybody except the enemies you could defeat easily with spells of a far lower level.

Feedback: 56 replies

Nov 5th 2013 at 5:27:25 PM

Laconic seems to imply "Strength equals Utility" rather than the other way around.

Nov 5th 2013 at 9:43:43 PM

To me, "equals" is transitive. In which direction do you see the causality running - useful therefore stronger, or stronger therefore more useful?

Nov 6th 2013 at 2:31:15 AM

^ OTOH, Redemption Equals Death and Death Equals Redemption are two different tropes (though they're indeed related).

Though yeah, I agree that the equal sign is transitive and those two tropes needs better names...

Nov 6th 2013 at 2:39:28 AM

Oh, I wasn't raising that as an objection. I was asking which direction you felt the trope should imply, and which direction the title and the laconic actually do imply.

In other words, when this title says "Utility Equals Strength", does that sound to you like I'm saying "Utility therefore Strength" or "Utility Thanks To Strength"? And which ones is the laconic version implying? And which one should this trope be describing?

For that last one, I think "Utility therefore Strength" is the correct direction in which to draw the causal arrow, but for the previous two I don't want to express my own opinion because I need to know how what I wrote reads to others.

EDIT: Actually, to heck with that. Utility Therefore Strength is a great name for this trope, and I'll use it.

Nov 6th 2013 at 4:45:23 AM

Namespaced and italicized work names, grouped examples by media, corrected an improper Example Indentation, and moved a blanket statement about Tabletop Games to the description as per How To Write An Example - Keep It An Example.

Nov 10th 2013 at 6:28:42 AM

In The Wheel Of Time, the spells with the greatest amount of utility, especially Traveling, require so much power that most magic-users in the setting are unable to use them. However, this also varies according to the talent of the individual: one man in particular is almost as weak as a man can be, yet can make a portal as large as anyone else.

Nov 10th 2013 at 5:08:47 PM

seems related to Inverse Law Of Utility And Lethality, except it's more With Great Magic Comes Great Power Consumption. which is kinda obvious though.

btw, current description seems rather confusing and situational.

Nov 11th 2013 at 9:33:31 AM

With Great Magic Comes Great Power Consumption is kind of obvious, yes. But this is trope is actually With Useful Magic Comes More Power Consumption, which really isn't self-evident and in some cases is the reverse of what might have been expected.

How would you suggest I correct the description?

Nov 11th 2013 at 4:52:45 PM

I think the description is already descriptive and rich enough.

Nov 11th 2013 at 9:51:13 PM

That's the problem. it's too rich and descriptive.

most of the stuff mentioned in the description can go to the Analysis page.

@ Yerushalmi

just cut the description a bit to focus on what the trope is supposed to be. keep the discussion elsewhere(maybe at the end of the description if you don't wanna stow it away on a txt file or something) for putting in the Analysis page.

Nov 11th 2013 at 10:15:38 PM

  • Disgaea has two ways of this. Spells and skills have their own leveling system and the former's area of effect and range will increase the higher the level. However there are 5 versions of the an elemental spell (and Heal): (Regular, Mega, Giga, Omega, and Tera) while there are four different elements (Fire, Ice, Wind and Star)

I'm not sure if this counts though, because with enough Level Grinding, any spell and skill one One Hit Kill enemies note , however, some players use the Tera spells to nuke opponents (Especialy in the Land of Carnage), so it may be a meta example.

Nov 12th 2013 at 12:16:55 AM

@Morning Star 1337: The idea that a version of the same spell that does more damage will be of higher level is not an example of Fridge Logic, it's just common sense. This trope is when the greater-damage version of the spell is placed at a higher level, and that very fact feeds directly into the spell to make it even stronger. The Tera version of the spell does more damage - but do all Tera spells automatically have, say, a lower miss rate than Regular spells? If so, why must all Tera spells do more damage? Shouldn't you be able to place a spell at Tera level just to take advantage of the lower miss rate, while being otherwise identical?

In other words, and I'll be putting this language in the main text because it makes things simpler:

The logical direction should be as follows:

  • The spell is stronger
  • Therefore the spell takes more energy to cast
  • Therefore it is probably more useful.
But this trope is when the direction is reversed:
  • The spell is more useful
  • Therefore it automatically takes more energy to cast
  • Therefore it is automatically stronger.

Nov 12th 2013 at 12:57:21 AM

Incidentally, how do I remove the Up For Grabs tag? I decided I want to maintain this myself after all.

Nov 12th 2013 at 1:18:35 AM

^^ Ask on Ask The Tropers for a moderator to remove the tag.

Nov 12th 2013 at 1:23:34 AM

Odd, I can't seem to click on any of the buttons on that page.

Anyway, I made extensive editing on the description and hope the text is a lot less dense now.

Nov 12th 2013 at 1:50:23 AM

^ Did you try the "Add a new query" button at the bottom of the page?

Nov 12th 2013 at 2:00:56 AM

I had, but it's working now. Very odd.

Nov 12th 2013 at 1:48:36 PM

the two "holes" are Example As A Thesis. you don't really need it. but the fact that i was even able to spot it now is an improvement. this is also the "discussion" i was referring to in my previous reply.

Nov 12th 2013 at 3:17:02 PM

How would you correct it?

Nov 12th 2013 at 3:41:34 PM

i would just remove it. but if you must keep it. save it somewhere else (in a txt file, perhaps) and when you launch this page. put it in the analysis and expound on it. i don't know the details on how to do that so just ask around when you're going to launch this.

Nov 12th 2013 at 8:46:00 PM

Those are the primary paragraphs that explain what the trope actually is, though. I'll be glad to change them, but to remove them entirely removes all explanation of just why this is an example of fridge logic.

Nov 12th 2013 at 8:57:06 PM

^ Then maybe we need to find a better way to describe this trope with mentioning Fridge Logic.

Nov 12th 2013 at 9:22:49 PM

It already does - Fridge Logic is mentioned outright in the second paragraph, and the introductory line to the holes paragraphs potholes to it as well. But if the holes paragraphs are too example-y and need to emphasize it more, I'd appreciate any help you can offer in changing them.

Nov 12th 2013 at 11:05:09 PM

I rewrote the second "holes" paragraph to eliminate Example As A Thesis; it also makes the reason the paragraph is important to explaining the trope clearer.

I can't see a way to do it for the first "holes" paragraph, though. Since in general it actually makes sense for more useful spells to cost more than less useful ones, the only real way I know of to counter a general rule is with a specific counterexample.

Nov 12th 2013 at 11:19:03 PM

^^ Forgive me, I typed "with" instead of "without".

Nov 12th 2013 at 11:28:32 PM

I'm sort of confused but is this, stronger spells are better (duh) and take longer to get/are higher on the unlock tier system? If so, seems sorta chairsy.

Nov 12th 2013 at 11:33:24 PM

@Morning Star 1337 But Fridge Logic is the whole point of the trope! o.O

@arbiter099 The point of this trope is that "stronger=better" is not really so obvious when you think about it. The axe example in the description is an illustration of how the tiers in most game systems are organized not by how difficult something would be to accomplish in the real world (as much as you can estimate such a thing when talking about magic, of course) but rather by how useful the system's designers think the spell would be for the players. The Xanth example demonstrates how the utility of the spell is conflated with its strength - people whose talents are more useful will always defeat people whose powers are less useful, even if a given talent is only useful because of creative application rather than because of raw power.

I'll give a direct example from D&D 3.5. Suggestion, which mind-controls one person, is a 3rd-level spell; Mass Suggestion, which affects more than one person, is a 6th-level spell. This makes sense, sure. But the level of the spell is added directly on to the difficulty of overcoming it by rolling a successful Will save. So if you're being personally targetted by a mage wanting to control your mind, it's easier to overcome it than if you're simply one person in a group (unless he's willing to use Mass Suggestion on just one person). This doesn't really make all that much sense.

Similarly, Mass Inflict Light Wounds does exactly the same damage as Inflict Light Wounds to each of several people. But difficulty of rolling the Will save in order to cut the damage in half is raised by four, just because the spell is higher level. But it's higher level because it's more useful, not because it's stronger!

Your objection is based on something akin to Acceptable Breaks From Reality, which is something I multiple times was tempted to link to when writing the description. But I didn't, because there's no "reality" in "magic". I wonder if there's an Acceptable Breaks From Logic?

Nov 13th 2013 at 1:17:16 AM

^ dude. your "(mass) inflict light wounds" so far seems to be the shortest and clearest way to illustrate this trope without needing counterexamples. why not put that in place of the ax and the alice and bob examples?

though at least now i see why the description started out rather long: you love to cover your bases. that's not an insult, just an observation.

Nov 13th 2013 at 1:33:11 AM

You're absolutely right (about both your observation regarding me and about the quality of the inflict light wounds example). I'll add/replace Inflict Light Wounds into the D&D example.

The Alice and Bob example has already been replaced by a generic description that I think does the job well. But there are two parts to this trope: the fridge logic of "useful therefore requires more power" and the fridge logic of "requires more power therefore stronger". Inflict Lights Wounds is an example of the latter, but not of the former, because it makes perfect sense that a mass version of a spell requires more power than the single version. The axe example is not quite the same thing.

I did just think of another way to replace the axe example, and will put it in momentarily; let me know if it looks better and still communicates the idea behind the trope.

EDIT: I couldn't quite bring myself to eliminate the example entirely, because I felt the explanation doesn't prove anything in and of itself (see, for instance, arbiter099's "stronger spells are better (duh)" reaction above, which is my instinctive reaction too and the reason I didn't add this trope years ago). But I put it after rather than before the description, and cut it so it's not much longer than the bare-bones "one of a dozen people" example in the following paragraph. It doesn't even mention the axe anymore :p

Nov 13th 2013 at 2:53:55 AM

nice one on the description. does the job for me (democracy rules here, so i dunno about the rest).

also no longer an Example As A Thesis. bonus points for each paragraph strictly about a single idea. are you a writer by any chance?

also, hatting this now.

Nov 13th 2013 at 3:06:27 AM

Technical writer, yes. It's part of the reason I like covering all my bases: my job depends quite a lot on technical precision, so I can sometimes have trouble remembering that there are simplified ways of saying things.

Thanks for the hat!

Nov 14th 2013 at 10:30:45 PM

No more love for this trope? Examples? Suggestions? Corrections? Hats?

Nov 15th 2013 at 3:23:03 AM

Your explanation for the two "holes" should go to Analysis. At least make a shortened version of both in the main page and give a link for the analysis.

Nov 15th 2013 at 3:49:38 AM

I'd appreciate a suggestion for how to do that; from my point of view, the two holes are the trope.

Nov 15th 2013 at 3:56:05 AM

Hmm yeah... many tropes have fridge logic as a basis. And they tend to have long descriptions. :P

Nov 15th 2013 at 4:27:45 AM

That stands to reason. Most tropes explain "what happens". A Fridge Logic-based trope needs to explain "what happens" and then add "why that makes no sense".

Nov 18th 2013 at 12:21:09 AM

Should I just launch this?

Nov 18th 2013 at 3:39:55 AM

5 hats first, of course.

Nov 18th 2013 at 3:54:29 AM

I've been waiting for that, but nobody's giving me any constructive criticism/reasons they aren't hatting yet.

Nov 20th 2013 at 5:19:14 AM

Trim down the description and I'll give you mine.

Nov 20th 2013 at 6:48:27 AM

Suggestions for how and where? (I assume from your "Hmm yeah" that I convinced you that removing the two "holes" paragraphs isn't the right way to do so.)

Nov 21st 2013 at 1:53:53 AM

I rewrote the opening paragraph to make it more clear that the Fridge Logic is the entire point of this trope.

Feb 28th 2016 at 8:37:14 PM

A question that should've been asked from the beginning: what do you mean by "a skill is more useful"? And what do you mean by "the work therefore deems the skill powerful"?

Feb 28th 2016 at 9:21:33 PM

So by "strength" you seem to mean either "requiring a high Power Level" or "difficult to block/counteract", possibly both. By "useful" you seem to mean..."how good it is at killing people"? And both of these are separate from the amount of energy it takes to actually use the power?

First off, the concept of "useful" is inherently fuzzy because it depends so heavily on circumstances. Second, I just can't think of many works that make the clear assertion "Oh, this is a high-Power Level power because it's good at killing people, and not the other way around." It seems more like a chicken-and-egg sort of thing.

Overall, I'm just confused. I see the core of a good trope here—one about how the difficulty of unlocking or earning a power in a game note  is based on its relevance to the goals of that game rather than the real-world difficulty of accomplishing a similar task—but it's hung up on this weirdly narrow yet still unclear definition of "strength" and cluttered with all these kinda-sorta-related examples from other genres.

Feb 29th 2016 at 12:38:40 AM

The fact that the order of causality is reversed, by itself, is hard to imagine.

Feb 29th 2016 at 2:17:58 AM

Apr 3rd 2016 at 1:36:08 AM

@Factoid Cow This trope is all about your second paragraph, not your third. The clear assertion "Oh, this is a high-Power Level power because it's good at killing people, and not the other way around" is, in fact, the point of the trope.

The Xanth example was the Ur-example for me. In the earliest Xanth books, the term "Magician-class" is always used to describe people whose magic talents were particularly useful. A person whose power was massive weather control was Magician-class; when that person's power was weakened with old age and he could barely bring up a few storm clouds, it was suggested he might no longer be of that class.

But the utility of a massive-weather-control spell is very different from the *strength* of that spell. Let's say there Bob's magic talent is to always have a sunbeam pointing directly at his head. Clearly not Magician-class. But if the aforementioned magician attempted to create a cloud over Bob, would he succeed? In earlier Xanth books, he might or he might not; there's no way of knowing whose talent would be victorious if they went head-to-head.

But *later* Xanth books decided that Magician-class talents were also *more powerful* than other talents. So the aforementioned Magician would always be able to override Bob's sunbeam talent with his storm clouds.

Basically, in Xanth there is no such thing as a person whose talent is simple and useless yet cannot be overridden. In that world's rules, it seems, if a person's talent is less useful then it must also be weaker.

It was only after noticing this in Xanth over a decade ago that I realized it was true for D&D as well. As I wrote in the trope, the mass version of a spell is more useful because it affects more people, which causes the game developers to place it at a higher level, which in turn means it has a higher saving throw, which means it is more difficult to overcome. It's very clear that the order of causality is as you described: It's high-power level *because* it's good at killing people, and not the other way around.

Apr 3rd 2016 at 6:26:14 PM

^ coooonfuuuuusiiiiiing.

But I at least get one thing: there's some kind of "levels" (whether skill levels or power levels) involved here and abilities are measured by their utility rather than strength?

Maybe Inverse Law Of Utility And Lethality is related.

Apr 3rd 2016 at 6:26:39 PM

^ coooonfuuuuusiiiiiing.

But I at least get one thing: there's some kind of "levels" (whether skill levels or power levels) involved here and abilities are measured by their utility rather than strength?

Maybe Inverse Law Of Utility And Lethality os related.

Apr 6th 2016 at 6:28:19 AM

They were originally *supposed* to be measured by their utility rather than their strength, but somewhere along the line the author decided that more utility also automatically meant stronger. That's the point of this trope.

Jul 30th 2016 at 12:26:39 AM

So "strength" means "my power can beat your power"? OK, I can get on board with that. Still think the description needs to be rewritten.

Jul 30th 2016 at 6:11:03 AM

^ I guess from there, "I'm stronger than you" means "my power is more useful than yours".

I kinda get the logic by now. Still, the weird thing is how such measurement is called "strength".

Again, I'd like either the op or Factoid Cow to check Inverse Law Of Utility And Lethality and then compare it to this one. That trope seems really related.

Aug 4th 2016 at 8:28:54 PM

^ So I looked into it...

In Inverse Law Of Utility And Lethality, as far as I can tell from the trope description, "utility" essentially means "getting the job done". The trope refers to settings where characters with lethality- or combat-focused powers rarely get anything done with those powers (killing people or otherwise), while characters with non-combative powers get all sorts of things done with their powers (even killing people).

Here, to quote the trope description, "utility" apparently means "how much the characters want to use [the power]". It's forward-looking (which powers do you think will be the most useful), while Inverse Law Of Utility And Lethality seems more backwards-looking (which powers turned out to be the most useful). It's a subtle difference, and I don't know if it's an important one or not. It might just be a matter of writing style. Otherwise the definitions are pretty similar.

In any case, "utility" here is not tied to lethality in any way, so it is a distinct trope.

The current trope description here mentions Power Levels; I think renaming this proposed trope to Utility Therefore Power Level would make it a lot clearer.

EDIT: I take that back; looking at the page for Power Levels, that trope refers to granular numerical measurements of abstract power, which is not really what we've been discussing here. Perhaps Utility Therefore Power Ranking instead?