imageWhile watching Star Wars the other day, okay Something, Something, Something, Dark-side, I realized that very few people in the Star Wars stories(aside from Jedi) had that many "special" powers. Sure the Jedi and Sith are the powerhouses of the universe, but for the most part everyone was on the same playing field. Tech of course made some people better *cough cough* Bobba fett *cough cough* and a few alien races had one or two special abilities, but there weren’t that many. While I’m sure that I can be proven incredibly wrong about special powers in the Star Wars universe, one thing struck me upon considering the special powers question – awesome abilities is not where the drama and action of Star Wars comes from.

Thinking about similar movies -  like Indiana Jones, Serenity, Conan, or Flash Gordan, one of Star War’s inspirations – there are few instances where the heroes have special powers. Though they may be portrayed as the peak of humanity, they rely on skills and natural abilities as opposed to magically or specially granted powers.

Powers Everywhere!
Looking through the gaming books on my shelf, it occurs to me that most games and characters rely on some kind of special powers. Of the 10 base 3.5 D&D classes, only 3 jump out as not having "special" powers built in (Barbarian, Fighter, Rogue).  Moving into 4e, where everything is set up as a power, the number of classes without something that could be considered special drops. (Mind you, many of the 4e powers, for some classes, are merely mechanical representations of extreme combat skill.) But D&D is also fairly reliant on magical items, which grant abilities outside the scope of human ability. Games like Gurps, Besm, Savage Worlds, and Fudge are so open-ended in their character creation that characters might have any variety of special powers or not. It all depends on the limitations the Game Master puts on the game and the game setting.

On the other hand, games like Call of Cthulu, Indie games that focus on specific themes, many horror themed games, and many licensed property games pit regular humans against great threats without the aid of powers or magic. I’m sure there are many other games that take this approach as well.

Do we need them?
I don’t think special powers are bad in a game, not by a long-shot. I enjoy playing games where my character is INFINITELY more awesome than I could ever hope to be. I just notice that a lot of games grant powers like candy, or at the least treat PCs as better than regular people.

"Look, we got four or five of the main characters on this ship. I think we’ll be fine." – Peter (as Han Solo) from Something, Something, Something, Dark Side

I wonder if special powers (or that better than regular people feeling) are necessary to the enjoyment of a game. One of my favorite heroes of all time, Dr. Henry Walton Jones, isn’t anything more than a guy with an awesome mind, a well trained array of skills, a whip, a gun, and a hat. I love the feel of the Indiana Jones movies, and games that emulate that "pulp" style. The best game experiences I’ve had (as a player) are in games like this, where my character wasn’t "above" the rest of the world, One of my favorite characters was in a Star Wars games where I played a Brash Pilot, without any mystic abilities.

I’m not fully decided on the necessity of special powers in a game. I think there are a lot of factors involved in the question, and I’m curious how people feel about them – so I put this question to you, the awesome Gnome Stew Commenters: Do you prefer games where special powers (even just implied superiority) are given to the PCs? Do you think that PCs are automatically in the top percentile of most gaming worlds? Does the necessity of special powers get completely trumped by gaming styles?

17 replies
  1. Sigurd
    Sigurd says:

    I don’t know that I agree with you. The plotline follows a few less than jedi people and Luke. This is true. But the underlying world in Star Wars is rife with powers and special abilities – the storyline doesn’t emphasize them though.

    Lots of different races – presumably each has strengths and weaknesses. Jawas and Sand People certainly aren’t the same as settlers. Creating clones was a pivotal point for the emperor – perhaps all of the storm troupers are super soldiers. Definitely a prestige class designed to counter the jedi threat. Robots and robotic implants – hard to guess who punches harder or interfaces better or ???

    I think what you are seeing is that the oddball things aren’t the focus. They’re certainly there. Good story telling includes the reader and emphasizes shared traits. Fiction has the benefit over simulation that story emphasis is chosen for impact and enjoyment. Sometimes Simulations and RPGs don’t have that option. They need the toys and powers because they are really concerned with balance and challenge.

    Just my .02


  2. Sigurd
    Sigurd says:

    @Sigurd – To answer your question however :).

    I think powers and special abilities are often the simplest paths to discovering a character. They exist without a need for setting or plot development. If a game comes together and players all contribute to a plot they fade a bit in favour of genuine plot and setting elements. Powers and Toys serve their purpose but they are not enough. When a game comes together it is not because of the special powers.

  3. theeo123
    theeo123 says:

    I I think there’s a balance that could be struck. When i first heard about 4E and was thinking “wow on my turn of combat it will be more than just ‘I attack” over & over” Two things came to mind though, for one thing a lot of people already do more than just “I attack” being descriptive and telling your GM how you attack ,where you attack etc. 4E with every single attack being a power, sort of locks you into their description and fluff, as even your basic attacks are not used often, you use your “at will power”. I’ve personally found it harder to be descriptive of attacks because the flavor text is already written for me.

    Aside from that, it’s one thing to give people lots of powers, but it’s another to make EVERYTHING into a power. such as firing two arrows at once… it seems less special, when it’s a standardized power that every single ranger gets.

    and when ordering your animal companion to attacks, is a power….. I think it’s gone to far.

    One the other end of the spectrum are games like Call of Cthulhu. your about as normal as normal can be. These can be a LOT of fun, though I often find myself searching for some shtick to set myself apart from other PC’s that shtick doesn’t need to be a power, or even mechanical in nature, it could be some character flaw or quirk.

    I think in the end, they aren’t necessary, but special powers are nice, and much like anything, they can be over-done. So if your going to have them in a game, you need to strike a certain balance.

  4. danwho
    danwho says:

    I’m not about to get into arguing about Star Wars, but I think it is worth noting that many of the non-mystic characters (good and bad) at the very least possessed exceptional skills: mechanical aptitude, piloting, leadership, clever hunting skills. Unless they were a Gungan.

    I’ve always liked playing characters that had something special about them. Any of the WOD games starts you out as being exceptional in some way, even from others of your kind. Wealth itself is something of a power all on it’s own. In most campaigns, characters generally acquire more wealth than the average person pretty quickly. In D&D 3.5 this was clearly established by the set of NPC character classes (e.g. warrior vs. fighter).

    That being said, I’ve always enjoyed games where the exceptional aspect of my character is based more on skills and knowledge than on mystical powers or exceptional strength. There’s something more appealing to hacking the keypad on a door as opposed to just hacking at the door.

    Don’t get me wrong, powers are nice, but it’s always more satisfying for me to have a character who is able to get through situations based on wits or clever planning. Of course, I suppose it depends on the character archetypes you are drawn to. Like John, I’m a big fan of Dr. Jones. I also like characters like Michael Westen from Burn Notice. It’s just how I enjoy playing characters most of the time. Designing and building your own toys is much more satisfying than just purchasing them.

  5. jcdietrich
    jcdietrich says:

    There are two things at play here: the powers of the characters, and the mechanical representation of them.

    The number and type of powers a character should have is dependent on the setting and the plot. Dr. Jones doesn’t need to be able to fly, time travel, throw fireballs, or teleport around. He doesn’t need to. His setting and plots present him with challenges that only require his wits, a revolver, and his trusty whip. The creator doesn’t pit Dr. Jones against Magneto, Zeus, or Tiamat.

    The mechanics of powers is a separate issue. Some groups like to have most, if not all, of their options laid out for them, and they take comfort in knowing the possibilities. This leads to a high level of codification as you see in 4e. Others find this too restrictive and prefer a system that provides a framework in which they can be more creative.

  6. Lychess
    Lychess says:

    Yes, and No.

    All of our favorite heroes are special. Don’t you remember Dr Jones punching it out with the HUGE German airplane mechanic? In reality that fight would have been brutal, short, and one-sided. How many trained soldiers shot at him over the years? Jones has special powers. They just aren’t flashy. If Marvel’s Longshot taught me anything, it’s that Luck can be a power too.

    That being said, I personally enjoy stories and campaigns where the characters are a bit closer to average, and becoming extraordinary takes time. My players… Not so much.

    So do you need special powers? No, you just need to be special. It’s really the character’s relationship to the setting that matters. I read a comic once where everyone on the planet was a superhero except for one guy. Guess who I would want to play?

  7. callin
    callin says:

    It is my personal belief that they do indeed have special powers. The breakdown seems to be what each of us defines as a special power.
    Hans is super fast with a gun. The Wookie is stronger than normal humans. Luke is a jedi.

    For me the definition of a special power (especially within an rpg game) is “abilites beyond a normal person”. There are varying degrees of these abilites, with some closer to “normal” (Hans gun skill) to the wild (Superman).

    Personally, it my belief that all rpg games are variations of superhero games anyway, wherein characters are given “beyond normal” powers that somehow set them apart from the average person.

    And honestly, who wants to play an “average” character; we get to do that enough in real-life.

    My blog-

  8. Robert
    Robert says:

    Look at a few super hero comic books. (Well…at least the old Marvel ones that I used to read.) Note how the villains tend to make the hero’s powers moot. Despite their powers, the writers choose to have the hero’s win with their brains rather than their powers.

    Powers are fun icing. Just about every genre is going to have them, be they technology, magic, superhuman, or whatever. For me, the fun comes from figuring out how to make the most of what I have rather than just having more than the opposition.

  9. drow
    drow says:

    i don’t need my powers! i don’t need any of them! just this ashtray. and this paddle game. the ashtray and the paddle game and that’s all i need. and this remote control.

  10. Scott Martin
    Scott Martin says:

    I think that characters without powers can be fun to play. There are lots of PTA games set in the “real world” that would be interesting– like the Bootleggers example.

    That said, I think that powers are common in typical geek books and movies; super science, magic, and the like are common. If the idea is that characters are not supernatural– I think that’s a great idea. Just pick a matching setting: GURPS NYPD Blue, Serial Homicide Unit, or Gumshoe.

    It can be hard to mix power bearing PCs and their natural brethren. I believe it can be done– the Dresden Files Q&A has highlighted “pure mortals” journeying alongside wizards and werewolves… just as Murphy makes it through beside Harry in the books. At the table, though, I imagine it would usually be more interesting to play Harry, if only because of the extra options you have.

  11. BryanB
    BryanB says:

    @Scott Martin – How has it been for you to be playing a non-Jedi mixed with our Jedi characters? Doumar seems to contribute substantially along with Geoff, and it doesn’t seem that the lack of powers makes either of them any less heroic. I might even say that they have been a little more heroic by putting themselves in harm’s way against the Sith Lords that they were dealing with.

  12. Bercilac
    Bercilac says:

    I agree with those above that the amazing skills of various characters do indeed rate as “special powers” in the ordinary sense of the word. In real life, an extremely experienced swordsman, when surrounded by fifty gangsters, is going to die (unless you believe what they say about Miyamoto Musashi). In role-playing games, it’s usually Kill Bill.

    I’m trying to design a Fudge setting at the moment that minimises this effect. I want it to be slightly cinematic, so a PC that’s a Superb fencer will still be able to despatch a small street gang, but there will be moments when reality kicks in, and the options become escape, capture, or death.

    However, even if we accept ridiculous levels of ability, the question remains of supernatural powers, which I think is closer to what you were aiming at. My answer is NO, THEY ARE NOT NECESSARY. But they can be interesting.

    Bending the rules of physics (not just common sense) adds a level of the symbolic to games. Take clerics in D&D: their whole system of deity-driven powers symbolises a great cleft in the moral fabric of the universe (one reason I have a love-hate relationship with them). Wizards’ powers are based around the magic properties of words, found to some extent in every culture. This includes ours: if you put a motto in Latin, doesn’t it immediately carry more power than in English? Sorcerors imply that personal magnetism can distort reality (and in a very real way, it does; this is Weber’s idea of charismatic leadership writ large).

    In my campaign (I know, I know, this is always a cue to stop reading…), I’m going to try low-powered Fudge miracles, driven by a “Faith” attribute. The secret will be that I will make the character’s rolls behind the screen, and I will make the effects subtle. A decent petition to a deity may mean I later fudge a roll in the player’s favour, or introduce a happy coincidence (a doorway not previously noticed), or perhaps little “slips” in reality (I’m sure my sword was broken a moment ago). Only extreme miracles (based on extreme degrees of success) will be really visible. The player won’t really know, most of the time, whether their prayers have worked. It’s down to faith. Huzzah for the unification of game concepts and mechanics!

  13. Scott Martin
    Scott Martin says:

    @BryanB – It works, but I do have “powers”, even if expressed as talents… and, for this system I think that Doumar is less “effective” but still fun. If the group gave props only for inflicting damage, I’d probably be frustrated– but characterization is rewarded around our table. As long as I’m getting the social rewards, I’m happy.

  14. Kurt "Telas" Schneider
    Kurt "Telas" Schneider says:

    My complaint about powers is that some people need them to keep getting more and more powerful.

    It’s not enough that Jedi are mystic masters of swords that will cut anything; they must also have lightning, and Force Push, and telekinesis, and be borne of a virgin birth, and the subject of prophecy… *sigh*

    Can I get my childhood back when you’re done defiling it, Mr. Lucas? (Ditto, to all of those for whom “more is always better”.)

    And get off my lawn, while you’re at it.


  15. GiacomoArt
    GiacomoArt says:

    Every story ever told was about the “specialness” of its pivotal characters, even if that specialness was something as simple as finding the courage to face adversity. Without that specialness, you don’t have a story in any meaningful sense of the word. At best, you have a soul-less recounting of events.

    The more flamboyant the specialness of your protagonists is, the easier it becomes to tell their story in broad, primitive strokes. That’s why mundanity came to be equated with quality in literature and cinema, despite the obvious logical fallacy. Just because it takes a great storyteller to tell a great mundane story doesn’t mean that the only great stories are purely mundane. Witness the works of Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare if you need any proof.

    So, you don’t actually need “powers” in RPGs, but they DO make the game a heckuva lot easier, less draining mentally and emotionally, and more about simply having fun. They can also grease the social wheels. In a hobby that tends to be favored by quiet, introspective people who may not be comfortable wearing their feelings on their sleeves, it’s a lot less “dangerous” to act out the exploits of a larger-than-life archetype than it is to act out realistic, emotion-charged conflicts.

  16. John Arcadian
    John Arcadian says:

    Man I wish the last few days hadn’t kept me so busy! There are a lot of great comments here and they went mostly the way I thought they would. Special powers, defined as making the PCs more than just normal people, seem to be almost necessary. They don’t need to be superhuman powers, but they need to be extraordinary. While Conan, Indiana Jones, and other non super-hero, non magic weapon wielding heroes are all better than your average joe, they don’t step outside the sphere of being human, they don’t feel like scions of destiny.

    @Sigurd – True, races that weren’t focused on in the story were extraordinary in their own ways, but the story of star wars focused on mostly ordinary people and their conflicts, at least in the original. While luke had the Jedi powers, the story focused on the group. Chewbacca was definitely stronger than human, but he wasn’t supernaturally strong for a wookie. Jedi mind tricks didn’t work on Watto, but they wouldn’t have worked on any of his race. While there are lots of things considered “better than human” in Star Wars, they weren’t the focus, which was always nifty to me.

    @theeo123 – “I’ve personally found it harder to be descriptive of attacks because the flavor text is already written for me.

    Aside from that, it’s one thing to give people lots of powers, but it’s another to make EVERYTHING into a power. such as firing two arrows at once… it seems less special, when it’s a standardized power that every single ranger gets.

    and when ordering your animal companion to attacks, is a power….. I think it’s gone to far.”

    That is the primary complaint I’ve heard about 4e. Things feel less special. I’ve always been a fan of games where the descriptions are left in the players’ hands, but in the end it is all just a mechanical way to represent something. The +2 bonus or 2W damage is just a mechanical element of the game, but when there are so many that do the same thing, or so much of the fluff built in it creates a psychological barrier.

    @danwho – Westin is an awesome character. He is kind of the epitome of ‘peak human’, which doesn’t quite branch into special powers but is definitely better than most everyone on the planet.

    @jcdietrich – This is definitely true. ‘Special’ powers are very dependent on setting. While Indiana Jones had mystic elements in its setting, they were never in the hands of people.

    @Lychess – I like the way you put it. Of course Dr. Jones has the special power of “plot” on his side. 🙂 That has to be one of the best ones to have.

    “That being said, I personally enjoy stories and campaigns where the characters are a bit closer to average, and becoming extraordinary takes time. My players… Not so much.”

    I totally agree with that. I think that we, as GMs, tend to see the whole story unfolding, like the audience in a movie even though we are modifying the story. When I play a video game RPG, I always want to be a step above the challenges. It just feels ‘safer’ to do so. I think players have the same kind of feeling often. I know that too much GMing has changed my style of play, and I usually am good enjoying the story and contributing casually or only every so often, but I think people who are primarily players have a greater sense of their role in a story, as opposed to the story as a whole.

    @Robert – Very true. The super-hero genre always has to keep throwing challenges at the heroes that nerf their abilities. Old-school comics always annoyed me with that, but I got why it was necessary. Green Lantern’s inability to affect yellow always annoyed me (it seemed so arbitrary), but it did force him to figure out how to use his powers effectively.

    @drow – What about your thermos? Nice reference!

    @Kurt “Telas” Schneider – I agree with this. I’ve often felt that gaming would be incredibly awesome if you stopped progressing mid-level. Once you have a great array of abilities, but aren’t so powerful that you have to take on the gods, you tend to have a lot of fun.

  17. Eclipse
    Eclipse says:

    I like games where the PCs have special powers for one reason: the subset of special powers called magic. I occasionally play something different, but it’s spellcasting that I’m drawn to in roleplaying games. That’s just what I enjoy playing. It’s not the mechanics of it, it’s the idea of it. I love mages and sorcerers in World of Darkness, all varieties of spellcaster in D&D/Pathfinder, the mystics and adepts of Shadowrun, you name it. It’s about doing those things I can’t do in the real world, but wish it were possible.

    That said, I don’t think the PCs should have inherent superiority either. This is a lot more plot dependent. If the PCs can learn it, it’s entirely possible anyone else can learn it too. This depends entirely on how the story is running though. Sometimes, the PCs really are the big dogs, and they are on the world stage against the great evil destroying the world. Sometimes, they’re big fish in a much bigger pond. It all depends on the setting.

    My point is that PCs having special powers doesn’t have to immediately imply superiority, it depends on how the world is run, who else has powers, and how common they are. The potency of PC powers also has an effect on whether they’re truly superior, or just different as well.

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