Monday, July 28, 2014

Superman vs. Gandalf

Some years ago, I was reading a Shannara book (not something I'm likely to repeat), and one of the things that bothered me about it was how characters kept talking about "your magic" or "his magic is [x]." This language was grating because it contradicted my view of magic (formed from most fantasy fiction) as a singular force or tool that might be used in different ways, but was always just "magic." This language reminded more of a superhero setting. This got me thinking about what difference was between these approaches in terms of how fantastic abilities are portrayed.

It seems to me that there's probably a continuum with two poles:

Skill/Expertise: Fantastic abilities are accessed by training or learning, though as with any skill, some people will have a greater aptitude for it than others. The ability pretty much does the same thing for everybody, the difference is in the creativity of application and power level. Examples: Green lantern power rings, magic in the Conan stories or in The Dying Earth.

Unique Power: Fantastic abilities come in the form of idiosyncratic powers or at least one in a large array of powers. The focus is more on what a character can do rather than how good they are at doing it. Examples: standard superheroes.

Note that the names don't necessarily carry any connotations beyond the stated ones. For instance, the fantastic ability could be completely inborn or intrinsic but still fall into the "skill/expertise" category.

There is a category between those two that shows a greater variety of presentation. I would call this one:

Interesting Technique: Fantastic abilities have a common origin and common basic features, but individuals will develop a single unique application of sub-ability, or a small number of them. Examples: psi-powers in a lot of media, the powers of the Shimigami in the anime Bleach (fighting anime has this sort of thing a fair amount), the eponymous Exalted in the rpg.

The middle option tends to occur a lot when all the characters are of the same organization/origin, whereas the skill expertise approach is more commonly seen when fantastic powers are rare--but not always. There is a common variant where each power source/variety works like Skill/Expertise, but there are multiple power sources/varieties (bending in Avatar would be a good example). Also, settings can be mostly one presentation, but still have characters/groups show up that better fit another.


bombasticus said...

Love this. It plays into a fugitive thought I had while watching "Days of Future Past" in which the intrinsic abilities ("talents," maybe) people are born with are random and often niche-oriented gimmicks but with training, they become more versatile and impressive. Talent is narrow, technique broadens to the point where Kitty in the movies can phase minds through time.

Obviously this plays into experience-based game systems where Superman (for example) on his very broad base rarely learns very much of lasting importance about his powers in session but someone who pushes a psi ability may unlock new ones as a reward.

Trey said...

Oh, good thought. You could start out in one presentation and shift to another.

Jay Exonauts said...

So is it the PC as Kitty that decides to take her phasing powers towards a time travel motif? Or does the GM set that up by having developed that option/path through the setting?

Trey said...

Well, bombasticus would have to say what he has in mind. Based on the movie, I would say it was a stunt suggested by the player--and a pretty permissive GM.

bombasticus said...

Sorry so slow to get back guys. More filled out ramblings on Kitty's New Powers this afternoon!

bombasticus said...

Because I am nice, I lean toward letting Kitty's player decide whether to spend points earned in play on time travel instead of more obvious phasing enhancements, unlocking a previously unknown ninja background, buying down limitations or whatever. If the player makes a convincing case that the "new" power is a logical extension of how we already know the power works, we can handwave it through training and/or practice.

I can guide the conversation by establishing the relationships among various powers outside play -- Kitty's character sheet has density control (self, reduction only) -- or inside the game through expert NPCs pondering the ultimate extent of Kitty's power if she really applies herself. But ultimately it's up to Kitty's player to decide what she's going to work toward.

That said, I can always nudge the player in a particular direction if it suits my known drama needs. And the player can definitely try a one-time stunt outside Kitty's normal limits in a desperate situation. It's drama, great. We can get our pound of flesh out of the character if she succeeds through acquired disadvantages, fatigue, whatever.

Now if Kitty's player decides she needs to acquire the ability to read minds and can't give me a no-prize-level reason to justify the point spend, we can set up a secondary origin for her in play. Illyana gave her a magic locket or something. Congratulations! I would handicap these off-theme acquired powers by making them extrinsic -- not talents or even techniques, but something more like tools -- that can be lost, stolen or used up. If Kitty eventually wants to become primarily a telepath, there are always machines that can change her theme permanently. (Probably Dream Girl is involved.)

TLDR, what this really gives us is power profiles that can evolve with player needs. Kitty can handwave time travel into her phasing in order to stay relevant in an increasingly time-travel-heavy franchise.

Mystique can apparently convince me that she's learned to use her mutable body to become a super-martial-artist. Awesome, Mystique, you go girl. A less permissive GM would simply force the player to send the character to a dojo or something.

Either way, the character starts with a talent and the player can claim "new training" unlocks new abilities. This type of approach is really well suited to handling games where characters start out relatively close to normal and eventually drift into the fantastic.

Jay Exonauts said...

Bombasticus, this is post-worthy all on its own! I'm adopting this kernel for my own gaming habits and player pursuits.

Thank you!

bombasticus said...

You're too kind. Borrow, steal, improve, play hell out of it.