Powers that change RPGs | KingSpoom's RPG Design & Theory Junkyard

Powers that change RPGs

A while ago, when I talked about 2-d, 3-d, and 4-d powers, I made note that 4-d powers often skipped, bent, or broke parts of the system. I'd like to detail this a little more, as it's important for my game. Here is a list of powers that don't work for my game and others:

Flight AKA Permenantly out of reach
Usually one of the earliest powers to be obtained. Flight is most often broken because of the divide of melee and ranged weapondry. Combined with forms of missile protection, it creates a hard to overcome challenge, especially for the level. In addition, it allows its users to take odd entrances and overcome nearly any kind of terrain or simple trap.

Teleportation AKA Always where you need to be
Quite often a power that's a while down the road, teleportation always seems to come in handy. It has a slight overlap with flight in that it overcomes nearly any terrain. It has the added bonus of protecting the user from anything that might have occured while normally traveling between A and B, it keeps the travel itself a secret, and makes outright impossible travel, possible. Time becomes less of a concern when you can be anywhere in 6 seconds.

Instant death AKA You lose
If there's anything that is the blunder of game design, it's the instant death effects. Most combat games revolve around resources, such as hitpoints, or scales, such as wounds, to determine when combat is over. Then mid-high level comes along and tells you that you can win in a single roll. Hitpoints? They don't matter anymore. Why do so many games create a balance, only to throw it away?

Immunity to X AKA Fire? What fire?
I think there is no larger source of metagaming than awesome monster abilities, such as immunity to X. Immunities, plain and simple, remove options from combat. You can't use fire to kill a magma troll. It doesn't matter if your fire can ignite time on fire. It's even worse when someone regenerates from an immunity (because you not only stop moving forward, you take a step back).

Invisibility AKA 1 rank of this beats 10,000 ranks of that
Sort of a continuation of immunities. Invisibility is another absolute that defeats something totally. No matter how good your eyesight is, invisibility is better. This also covers another area, however, that is important to note. Skill replacement is poor design, in my opinion. One invisibility spell and you can stop increasing your hiding skill. A logical power, but it's not going to help balance at all.

Anti-magic shell AKA Your shinies don't work here
There seem to be 2 purposes to this effect. One is a great defense for fighters against spellcasters, albeit a harsh one. The other is just a general "You've got stuff that can instantly win, so let me take that away". Sort of like a patch to repair a broken game. Everyone and their grandma will have these at the most inconvenient times. By default, all shops are built around anti-magic areas.

Time manipulation AKA no no no, that didn't happen
A harder power to swallow and usually not received until the end of a campaign. Not only can time manipulation get confusing, but it can turn tabletop rpgs into console rpgs. Time manipulation is like a save point that can be returned to again and again (so long as you live, I guess). It can quickly turn into a chest beating contest, as each time through the same place has great potential for one-upmanship.

Shapechanging AKA I'm that other guy
This power is another one that overlaps with a recurring theme. Shapechanging is often poorly conceived in many games. Some systems give you powers of the things you turn in to (logic getting in the way sometimes), while others do not. Either way, you're stepping on the toes of the disguise skill, and perhaps others as well (ever have someone shapechange into an enemy guard and waltz into the headquarters?). If I've learned anything from Marvel, it's that a correctly timed shapechange screws everything over. I can't even count the amount of times it's been the focus of a plot!

Creation AKA Easy money making game
A handy power that many people ignore. Its abuse has a long history, however. There are stories upon stories of players trying to scam merchants and it all weighs down the setting. Off the top of my head, I can't think of a redeeming quality that keeps this effect from the garbage heap. It's most often taken by a player who wants to walk the fringe of the rules or use player knowledge in the game (and likely both), so he has the perfect item in any situation.

Bind* AKA You lose a turn
There is nothing more prescious than your turn in combat. Without your turn, you can't win. This is especially true when one side is outnumbered. Beyond that, it takes a player out of combat and more or less out of the game. That is one of the last things you want to do. I do, however, believe that this power can be used in limited forms. At a minimum, it should require someone losing their turn for every turn they want someone else to lose. There are still issues to be had, but that's more on the balancing side of discussion.

Acceleration AKA I do more stuff
Another junt off to the side, this time from a one-two combo of time manipulation and binding. Instead of taking the turn away from your enemy, you give yourself an additional turn (likely do 2x as much in 1 turn). Some recent games have significantly reduced this power, but it is still seen. It also creates a divide in playstyles between the GM and player. The GM can often afford to have his npcs use all of their powers at once to win, but the PCs often have to be concerned about the near future.

Confusion AKA unreliable bind/charm
A sidestep on the way back from binding and charming. Confusion removes players from the game and makes someone lose their turn. However, they could also turn on one of their allies. Just another example of logic defeating design.

Summoning* AKA Get him my minions!
Another common power in the fantasy genre, summoning has a whole layer of things it does. It adds another character to your side of the battle and with that character comes additional turns, etc... Sometimes, you are even able to summon thing more powerful than you are to defeat things that you couldn't defeat. However, I do think that this ability could be redeemed if a proper balance of power and cost could be found.

Divination AKA Tell us what to do AKA Tell us what happened
The mother of all DM fiat. Divination spells cross many lines, and brake many barriers. It's used to circumvent investigation skills, and actual investigation effort. It's used to direct the players as the DM sees fit. It's used to keep the BBEG up to date (and it never works on the BBEG... until it suddenly works). A fix it all patch that can bring a campaign to a snail's pace.

That's all for now. Here's looking forward to a whole new year, and a redoubled effort towards my game. Next time, I might take a look at subcategories for some powers, if there are enough things to talk about.


thanuir said...

A great listing of many troublesome powers. Flight and teleportation are less powerful in social games (teleportation still quite strong), I have noticed. Both, if given out in a challenge-based game, are likely to change it radically.

Stefan / 1of3 said...

This post is suffering from unclear premises.

Sure, making gold might be a nice ability. But the premise in that paragraph is, that the power does not create fictional gold but the game stat called Gold that in turn can effect other game stats.

Shapechanging refers to a "Disguise skill". Wait! Where does that thing come from?

On the same note, Flight only has potential to be a problem, if Range is a game stat.

Compared to that your "Bind" works on a completely different level. Here you talk about a game mechanic itself.

KingSpoom said...

Basically, I believe my premise was that powers (coming from spells, character abilities, or otherwise) eventually alter the way they deal with the part of the system they should be dealing with. Whether this is a direct mechanic, a social interaction, or some other part of the system really doesn't matter.

A 2-d power, usually available at the beginning of the game might embrace a mechanic and give you +5 to your disguise against a single opponent. A 3-d power might grant you a +5 to any opponent. A 4-d power, which is what this list is made of, would just say you are disguised. Notice how there's no bonus to overcome so the fundamental diguise skill has been bypassed completely.

Of course, I realize that this only applies if you have a diguise skill in the first place, otherwise there isn't anything to trample on. However, I do think that a lot of newer systems would at least cover the possibility of diguise.

As for creation, I do see that there's very little content in that paragraph. My problem with creation of object through a spell or ability is that it doesn't usually interact with the system. It can cause problems for any system that counts on an economy to balance power as well.

I agree that flight is really only a problem if the system deals with range. Of course, it could also be a problem if your system has many skills to deal with terrain or low-tech traps.

Again, my premise can really be narrowed down to "powers that mess up my system in particular", but I often find that these powers mess up a lot of other system I've played before. Of note, 3rd D&D suffers from many of the powers on the list. I believe GURPS does as well. Systems that are closer to storygames will generally not have problems with these powers or the divide these powers create because they more directly deal with the conflict at hand than the tasks.

Bwian said...

I agree that all these 'powers' (and probably a few others) can cause balance problems. But what self-respecting sword & sorcery universe doesn't include invisible heroes or magic wishing things?

It seems one must choose in this case, between fitting a world concept and 'balance'.

I'm not sure that a 'spell' that duplicates a 'skill' effect is a problem. Surely the gee-whizz effect of some 'powers' is that they give your character a way better version of an effect they could otherwise only get with difficulty. E.g. a sword-proof cloak is much more wieldy that a mail hauberk; but one requires magic.



KingSpoom said...

Sword and sorcery isn't the only genre, and drifting genre can lead to problems.

I think I understand what you're saying: Without some of these powers, fantasy worlds don't seem all that fantastic. I stand on the other side of the fence, however. The things these powers allow just damages the actual play I'm interested in.

Bwian said...

That's fine. I'm curious about what kind of play you're trying to create. :)

KingSpoom said...

Well, I do favor S over G and N, if you know what I'm saying. Basically, the play I'm looking for: [note: 1, 2, and 3 are probably what applies here; the rest is just extra]

1: Is balanced. Every strategy has a counter and every option is equally valid.

2: Overlap is effective, but never more effective than someone else's core

3: The game changes as you play, but doesn't jump onto a different set of tracks.

4: Every action has an option that feels natural

I like to plan things (how are we going to get into the castle without being spotted? Does it have a sewer?).

I like to make judgements sometimes (it is more important to escape the town than to put out the fire (or maybe than to get our valuables back)), but I don't want a judgement around every corner.

Bwian said...

Cool! That's helpful. I guess I'm roughly the same, although I like a little N with my S? In fact, I think its reasonable for every game to include some of each. But I think S is what makes it all hang together.

In the context of powers, surely you can always ensure your (1) (i.e. balance) by just providing a power that counters the problem power. E.g. if you want teleportation, but its going to dominate play, then just add a power 'teleportation damper' or something that makes it impossible to teleport into (or out of, or through or whatever) affected volumes of space. Then all you have to do is balance their relative costs.

I'm curious how (2) (overlap) is relevant to this particular problem.

I'm not quite sure what you mean by (3). Do you mean that the action doesn't jump around in unpredictable ways?



KingSpoom said...

@1) The problem is a little more complex than that. Giving a power and then taking it away is sorta bait-n-switch. Sure, you can teleport around to most places, but you can never teleport to the places you want to. Logical, yes. Frustrating, also yes.

@2) Particularly for powers (skills, spells, sometimes equipment, etc) I don't care for any sustainable way to completely defeat something out of it's own domain.

For example: If the system has it setup so the thief's main job is to open locks, the Mage shouldn't be getting spells that just defeat locks (knock?). Since it's the thief's core ability to pick locks, a mage's secondary (overlap) ability to pick locks should never overcome that. I guess the word could be called niche protection, but that's generally used for Class-based systems.

@3) Generally speaking, you can plot the change of powers in some games from 2-d, to 3-d, and on to 4-d powers. It's one of my previous posts. Each upgrade is a fundamental change to the game you are playing (jumping tracks). I'd rather see the game start in 2-d or 3-d and make other changes instead.

Bwian said...

Yeah, I noticed that 2-d, 3-d, 4-d stuff; but I can't seem to see any earlier post about it.

What was that about? Maybe I missed the point in this post?


'Giving a power and then taking it away is sorta bait-n-switch.'

Maybe it depends how you do it?

Your basic character in most games has the 'power' to do damage in melee combat with some kind(s) of weapon(s). But this can easily be reduced (or practically negated) by character with a strong passive defence (great armour, or zillions of HitPoints, or immunity to non-magic weapons or able to run faster and attack from a distance).

So is the ability to make melee attacks a 'bait and switch'?

Why would a character bother developing it (apart from the fact its free in most games), if anyone else can easily get a pretty effective counter?

And you could have Teleport Suppression that wasn't all or nothing. So you might compare power levels, or roll an EGO contest, or have Teleport Suppression count as double, triple or whatever distance. Then it seems analogous to your standard attack and defence powers. A character can be stronger or weaker at it, and so it becomes just another dimension characters can fight in.

What do you think?



KingSpoom said...

It's an old post titled "the payoff?" It's in the archive.

It can be bait-n-switch, of varying levels, depending on how the material is presented. That's just from limited knowledge of the material though.

Why develop something that can be countered? Well, everything can be countered and you gotta develop something. So long as it's balanced, it should work right.

Fighting the range of teleportation, or affecting it in other ways than "It doesn't work" is the direction I favor. I'm not fond of teleportation in the first place, but it can find it's place in some games.