In one convention game I ran, my players got around a door by using a spell to turn stone into bread. They turned the dungeon wall next to the door into a brick shaped piece of pumpernickel, punched through bread and got through the door. Someone watching the game remarked that they wouldn’t have let them use the spell like that. I asked why, and they said because that wasn’t how the challenge was meant to go down. I wondered why that person thought that way, but then thought about the fact that some game systems are so mechanically focused that not having the specific power means you can’t perform particular tasks. This is less of a mechanical aspect of those systems and more of a game philosophy. “In order to do X, you need ability Y.” Sometimes this is stated, sometimes it is just assumed. Thankfully, many Game Masters value a clever idea more than a mechanical description and will allow awesome things to happen because a player has a nifty power, but sometimes people think that a special power ends with the last period in the description.
But Why Should It?
To me, the powers a character has should never work in this way. A task is a task – and if the player can come up with a logical, fun, or semi-valid way to complete it, then that should be allowed. If a character is trying to get past a door, there are many ways to make that happen. They could go the standard routes:
pick the lock
knock the door down
remove the hinges
find a weak point in the wall
But they could also dig into their character’s theme and abilities to do something really cool. They could:
use a telekinetic power to turn the handle from the other side.
use a spell to teleport to the other side or make a duplicate on the other side to open the door.
utilize their incredibly high finesse and skill to drive a blade through the lock, breaking the tumblers but allowing the door to be opened.
use a matter manipulation power to modify the door or wall (like the stone to bread spell in the description above).
use their misting ability (intended as a defensive mechanism) to move under the crack.
call upon their knowledge to find a hidden lever for the door (even if the description doesn’t really set that particular option up).
use their ability to break armor or cleave opponents in two to get an advantage to break down the door.
While the many ideas listed above aren’t necessarily the way the challenge was written to be overcome, they each provide a solution. In many of the cases, they provide a solution that is more appropriate to a player’s concept of their character. A knowledge based character’s knowledge should enable him to do more than just read books and make rolls to remember things. A combat character with interesting options in other situations is much more epic than a combat character who just kills things. A character whose theme is their deep connection to shadows shouldn’t need a million skills on their sheet to be able to do cool things with the shadows. Letting the special powers or skills a player has enable awesome actions makes a character feel more vibrant and well liked.
This is why Game Masters should….
Think Of Special Powers and Skills as Enablers
Special abilities in all systems enable characters to do awesome things beyond what you would find in mundane life. A soldier trained to fight in the army isn’t the same as the cyber-jacked soldier who is the hero of a movie. A martial artist can’t really fly through the air ala wire-fu, but that wouldn’t make for great movies that detail the concept of achieving the awesome through skill and training. A character in a roleplaying game is almost always more awesome than any real life counterpart or inspiration. The differences are those special abilities, sometimes just incredible skill, that are built into the character.
So when a character has a nifty power, look at it in a multifaceted way. What could that enable the character to do beyond what is written in the description?
For the focus Shadowwalk, a power that allows a character to move between two shadows, a bit of stretching and some extra rolls or manna spent in the use might*:
allow a character to explode the shadow they come out of for intimidating effect or to blind their enemies. (+1 manna, Extra roll)
enable them to extend the shadow and darken a streetlight to help hide themselves. (+1 manna, extra roll)
let them roll through the shadow but leave an item they are trying to hide behind to prevent it from being taken by guards. (No extra roll or manna, but no guarantee they can easily retrieve it later. Make it only available when the shadow they left it in is in the same place or they have to go into the exact shadow to find it, a fun time if that shadow was a person or moving object’s shadow.)
The Game Master might let the player stretch the ability far from its intended purpose and let them see through shadows instead of walking through them. (+2 manna, extra rolls, headache for the character and a die penalty for a little while afterwards. They could however spend some extra exp and make this an additional ability tied to the shadowwalk without any penalty.)
Using powers as enablers can make cool fluff elements possible too.In these instances, the power is an enabler for some piece of fluff not necessarily written in.
It might mean that they are constantly covered in thematic moving shadows, a sign of their dark pact or their time trapped in the shadow world.
Be the reason that their gun fires bolts of black material, flying through the air crackling with dark lightning.
Allow them to work shadow’s like marionettes while telling a story. (1 manna)
While some of these uses might be covered better by other powers or skills, they might also be the difference between awesome and mundane in a situation where the player is really into the game. Really, what is more fun for a player: Being told they can’t do something really cool because they don’t have the specific ability that is written in that way, or letting them stretch the established rules a bit to do something thematically or mechanically awesome in one situation?
So think of the powers, skills, and abilities on the sheet as things that can open up whole new worlds. Look at the options they might present or the cool moments they could be the genesis of. If you like the idea, let the players know you might be amiable to more open interpretations of the powers and they will find ways to make it happen.
Do you think of powers like this, or do you think doing it that way destroys game balance? Have you allowed broad interpretations of powers in your games before?
*Things bolded in parentheses within the lists are my suggestions for extra things the Game Master might require to make it happen.