Character powers, how to set them up right.

edited April 2019 in Game Design Help
So I have a game I'm rewriting where characters start with a "power" and through play they gain new "powers," modify their existing ones, or some combination there of.

I will not be having a subsystem to handle powers, you will roll as normal but when powers are involved the risks shift to appropriate power related ones. (My system will work a lot like ghost/echo in this way)

I certainly want players to have a lot of creative control of the power, how it looks and operates. But I do also want the gameplay around using powers feel like the players are pushing the limits of their power as they first understand it and gaining further mastery in play. Essentially something they do a lot becomes way less risky as they learn to effectively control their power.

For context this is science fiction characters basically exploring a huge Clarktech megastructure and coming back changed by what they encounter. The powers should feel somewhat dangerous to use, be mysterious but somewhat plausibly breaking rules of physics. This is not a superhero game

To this end I want to create a list of suggested starting powers that a player can choose that will be open ended but also evocative. I want to to provide the players a small nugget to interpret how they choose and grow their idea in play as they attempt to solve problems with the power.

What do you folks think, I'd love to hear thoughts and suggestions on how to handle this.


  • The idea is tempting to frame the starting powers hard and not include any other "hard" (numerical) limitation on power evolution. This requires careful redaction and no calculation.
    I think there's a number of "system matters" solutions however, that will increase portability. Like : an easy one is a number of trade offs for power use. See Spirit of the Century (eg: break something big time) or AW (cancel 1 per power control level : -you harm a friend -your energy source is depleted, etc. ) These games work with various booklets according to character style. My own personal system which I invented myself is : people (DM ? Adversaries ? depends on your configuration) write consequences on X cards and you pick Y depending on your control level (or pick Y and discard Z or any arrangement that suits your game). Or consequences are negotiated (some like it cold).
    So it would depend on how much time and ambition you've got, your taste and configuration. ;)

  • Are you familiar with Dogs in the Vineyard? Someone did a cool superpowers hack I’ve been reading about recently. I could link you to it, but it won’t make much sense if you’re not familiar with the game.
  • I do know it is Paul, never played it but have seen the video of Vincent running it.
  • edited April 2019
    @DeReel I'm I'm definitely not going to have any numerical value with the starting powers, no listed trade-offs. As for consequences these will be decided before the roll ala other kind dice/ ghost/echo. If a threat or risk or consequence remains it getts written on a card to be used later.

    Other kind dice

    I'm not actually looking for procedure I'm looking to provide a list of Powers and I want advice on what to put on the list. Do I say "elemental control" or is that too broad, do I put more specifics like "minor manipulation of energy" or is that too specific?
  • Oh, I see, I focused on "effectively control their power" when "suggested starting powers" was the matter.
    I'd go for powers issues and themes, like
    - (ruthlessly) get what you want from others
    - stay unpunished
    - thrive in a specific environment
    - be dangerous
    + look good doing it
  • Well those suggestions seem more like broad character traits and I was definitely thinking more like "super power's." But I didn't want to say that because I don't want to simply just emulate what's in comics (frankly I think this has narrowed how fiction approaches powers for characters).

    I would rather have something more like Avatar the last air bender or powers from a Brandon Sanderson Novel as a starting point then the player decides how it grows and refines during play.

    For an example I will put my old list that I do not think works as well.

    Heightened senses
    Psychic abilities
    Energy manipulation
    Gravity manipulation
    Techno fusion
    Density manipulation
    Improved Physicality
    In playtesting I don't think these were suggestive enough in practice, I found players just went with what seemed simplest to understand like teleportation, you teleport cool. But I was hoping players would see this as a category to create their own ideas, but its broken.
  • edited April 2019
    I proposed this list because, in my view, the powers are only colour, the issues are what define superheroes. So I believe starting with the powers is an error.

    Still, you can try subverting scientific facts : gravity, time, etc. one by one. With just nominal hints for starter levels : you make the clock tick faster, the glass floats in the air. "Playing psychic kid" author Sam Keith called this.

    For a cool framework for powers, have a look at Nen.

    Anyhow, restricting your list (as Nen's framework does) will work better, due to paradox of choice.
  • edited April 2019
    This is definitely not a superhero thing, not by a long shot, and I am definitely not starting with the powers. Like I said I am re-writing a complete game. These abilities are just something I'm having trouble getting how I want them.
  • Here’s an idea:

    Instead of thinking of powers and abilities, think of experiences or images.

    Instead of “Super Strength”, or “can lift 2,000 lbs”, write down, “when I was surrounded by a gang of criminals, I lifted a car off the ground.” Or, perhaps, “red glowing eyes and muscles bulging with pulsating veins”.

    All stuff that gives you a starting point and allows the player to experiment and discover their actual powers in play.
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