Creating Useful Game Abilities

I’m a big fan of using interesting, well-detailed, unusual NPCs to liven games up. In the past I’ve tended to come up with NPCs one at a time, so I had plenty of opportunity to pull useful plot ideas and abilities from all sorts of places. Back then I would have told you that the best way to help roleplayers come up with diverse and interesting NPCs was to provide lots of interesting and plot-hook-full background material.

Then one day I had to come up with a whole bunch of antagonists all at once. That’s when I made a discovery: without a wide variety of abilities to choose from, coming up with a bunch of varied antagonists on short notice is a real pain. Okay, so most of you probably knew that already (sometimes I’m a slow learner).

I still believe that the road to interesting player characters is usually paved with spiffy back-story. But both PCs and NPCs benefit from the availability of lots of stats to choose from. Whether it’s abilities, backgrounds, advantages and disadvantages, quirks, merits and flaws, rituals, spells, or talismans, my rule now is: the more the better, as long as they’re of good quality.

I’m not saying that they’re more important than spiffy setting or world background, neat groups, and so on; that’s really an individual decision that each roleplayer has to make for herself. But they are important, particularly for NPC creation. It’s a quick and easy way to insert a little individuality into your tenth vampire of the evening. It’s a hook for you to hang back-story on later, when you have time to develop the character further. And ideally, if they were designed well, lots of those rituals and spells and merits and disadvantages are filled with plot hooks that you’ll be able to make use of.

NPCs by the Bushel

This is how I came to my epiphany. I was putting together a bunch of antagonists, and for once I didn’t have the time to spend hours on each. I needed not-terribly-detailed characters that were yet interesting and diverse. And I found that when you only have five sample rituals to choose from and everyone’s supposed to have several rituals, frustration quickly ensues.

Every GM hits a point where she needs to come up with NPCs in a hurry. When that happens, one of the easiest ways to individualize them is to make sure they all have slightly different skill-sets. If you have some hours to spare, you have plenty of time to come up with your own stuff, or to convert items from other games (or from movies or TV shows) into the abilities you need. But when you’re in a hurry is exactly when you don’t have the time to come up with those skill-sets yourself. And for some reason (probably money and word count issues), gaming companies rarely seem to give antagonists nearly the same attention as PCs when it comes to spiffy powers designed just for them.

So the next time you’re coming up with a new group of NPCs for your favorite game, or a new class, race, or creature, remember to come up with some abilities too. You definitely don’t want to neglect all the fun back-story, plot hooks, and so on, but any GM who wants to use your antagonists will need more than just two or three abilities, rituals, powers, spells, magical items, or whatever equivalent you have.

Not All Powers are Created Equal

All of this said, not all powers are created equal. Some are more useful than others. Here are a few ways to ensure that you end up with abilities that are worth the space they take up:

Plot Hooks

If you really want to create “powers” or abilities that will encourage individuality and good stories, then fill them with plot hooks. Create abilities that will put characters into situations the GM can make use of, or which leave open-ended spots for the GM to get creative. One ritual, for example, might state that its effects can only be undone by the completion of a quest of a certain nature. A GM can then use this ritual as a hook into a new plot.

Tie the powers into your game’s back-story. This is particularly easy with magical items: what is the history of each item? Where did it come from? How was it made? What purpose was it meant to serve? How did it end up where it is now? You can do the same with spells and rituals — why were they created? By whom? How have they changed since then?

Give the abilities lots of atmosphere. Make them creepy, exciting, frightening. Use your words to make the descriptions interesting.

Narrow Your Scope

The narrower your powers the more of them you have room for in your reality. If anything that a person could possibly want to do can be summed up with five different abilities, then there isn’t room for much else. The more broad your powers, the less easy it is to fill them with plot hooks.

In addition, if your abilities have a narrow scope, then they’re less likely to unbalance the power structure of your game. It’s impossible to foresee all of the ways in which the abilities you come up with can be abused, but the more narrow you make them, the easier it is to pin potential problems down. And the narrower they are, the less likely they are to unbalance things simply by nature. A narrow, focused ability usually can’t be applied to all situations, after all.

Give your powers very specific uses. Rather than creating one thing to handle one whole area of effect, create a handful of powers that are variations on a theme.

Caveat: this isn’t appropriate to all genres. In some genres, big, world-altering powers really are appropriate.

Start with Characters

Instead of coming up with powers off the top of your head, try starting with the group you’re working on. Write a few characters up, and think about what they need to be able to do, or what you think it would be cool if they could do. Extrapolate those thoughts into abilities.

If you still can’t come up with anything, then write a piece of fiction involving those characters. Or just sit with your eyes closed for a little while and daydream them. Put them into a situation you’d like to see happen in your world. How do they respond to danger? How do they solve problems? Write those up as abilities.

This tends to be one good way to come up with narrow, focussed, useful abilities. Remember to go back over the abilities with the other points on this list in mind, though. You may have to adjust them a bit here and there to turn them into good RPG abilities. Not all things that characters can do in fiction make good roleplaying!

Think about Use

Think carefully about how you would use these abilities in a game, or want them to be used. Cover as many angles as possible. If you can’t think of an interesting way to use the ability, then think about whether it’s worth keeping. Some powers sound neat on paper, but don’t lend much to an RPG.

The trick, while thinking about all of these possible uses and angles, is to keep the write-up as clear and simple as possible. If you cover all the angles and you end up with something that’s four pages long, then it might be time to narrow your scope. Can you split the ability into two, three, or even four separate abilities?

Serve a Purpose

Make sure that each power serves a purpose in your game.

  • Does it promote atmosphere? Does it help to reinforce that this is a creepy, frightening place? Or that this is a dangerous, deadly world? Does it reinforce the idea that the characters are heroes who can achieve great feats, or ordinary mortals caught up in extraordinary circumstances?
  • Is it useful? Will characters make use of this ability during game? Will your NPCs make use of it?
  • Does it provide a plot hook? Does it give you a way to pull the characters into something interesting?
  • Does it tie in to the back-story? Does it give the characters a glimpse into the history of the world?
  • Is it fun? Will players enjoy playing with the ability, or having their characters be subject to the ability?

Any of those are valid purposes, and there may be more purposes that suit your game as well. Any given ability doesn’t need to suit all of these purposes, but it should suit at least one. If it doesn’t then ask yourself why you’re holding onto it. Is it a good reason, or are you just trying to justify an ability that sounds cool on paper but won’t translate well into game-play? It’s a harsh thing to have to think about, but sometimes it’s true.

Balance Things

Try to power-balance the abilities you create. Work within the framework provided by the game you’re using to determine that the more powerful the ability is: the harder it is to get, the more it costs, the more disadvantages that go with it, the narrower it is, or whatever.

Try to play-test abilities before providing them to other people where possible. You can’t think of everything, but you can at least rule out obvious problems.

Try not to hand out “instant death” abilities, particularly ones that can be used easily and/or at a distance. If you simply must put such a thing in your game, consider making it a one-use-only item or a ritual that requires very rare components, instead.

Variety is Key

Make sure there’s a variety of abilities. If you present twenty sample abilities and every single one ties in to combat, they won’t be incredibly useful to the GM who wants to quickly create a variety of NPCs. That whole point earlier about having lots of abilities so you can quickly create NPCs doesn’t help unless those abilities are actually varied.

Try to provide abilities that affect all areas of life. In the next article I’ll give you a bunch of categories to start from, and some suggestions of where you can go with each.

Promote Atmosphere

Make sure the abilities promote the atmosphere you want to create. If you’re trying to come up with abilities for a group that’s supposed to be scholarly and wise, then it’ll send the wrong message if ten of your twenty abilities involve combat. Telling people “this group involves itself in a wide variety of academic pursuits” but providing abilities (or whatever) to represent only one or two of them undermines your message. It would be like providing only one kind of gun in a game that’s all about gun-fights, or three spells in a game that’s all about magic. Your system and abilities must back up your world background. If they don’t, then many people aren’t going to be playing the game you think you’re writing.

This applies to power level as well as to area of expertise. If your group is supposed to be low-powered, then massive world-altering abilities are out of place. Think about your genre and atmosphere carefully, and make sure your abilities back them up.

No Quick Answers

Don’t hand out “cure-alls.” Any ability that quickly and easily solves harsh, dangerous problems in a wink of the eye and a wave of the hand removes the tension from your game. Occasionally one- or two-use items can be used for this, because giving your players the easy solution to their problem now and then can be an interesting change of pace. But if you give them an instant death ability that they can use at will, then they’ll use it. They have no reason not to. This can wreak havoc with almost any well-planned plot, and there are very few ways to take away abilities once you’ve granted them. Not to mention that it isn’t particularly fair to the players, who probably worked hard to buy up that ability. Better to not give them the toy in the first place than to have to take it away from them.

The best solutions to big problems are ones that require further effort or work to complete them. For example, an ability to cure poisons could require the ingestion of rare herbs, ritual components that are difficult to acquire, medical supplies, or some sort of task or quest. And the more virulent the poison, the more difficult or dangerous the cure.

That said, of course, powerful abilities are appropriate to some genres.

Pay Attention to Mechanics

Always phrase the effects of an ability in terms of the game mechanics. It isn’t enough to say “it allows you to read minds.” You have to say whether it requires a die roll, whether there’s any way to resist it, how the GM knows how much information to give the player using the ability, and so on. Again, read abilities in books and see how they’re phrased. Pay attention to the concerns that they address.

Encourage Useful Game-Play

Try to make sure anything you create encourages useful game-play. Abilities should promote plots and actions that are useful specifically to the medium of a roleplaying game. Roleplaying games involve certain issues like keeping the party together, finding ways to get all party members involved in plots, balancing the abilities of the PCs and the NPCs, and so on. The mechanics need to take these issues into account.

Think about PCs, Even for NPC Abilities

When people create abilities and items designed to be used by NPCs, they often forget to think about whether or not it’s possible for the PCs to get their hands on them. Can the party find a way to learn the ability? Can they spy on the NPCs to learn the ritual? Can they get their hands on the magical item? Unless it is absolutely impossible for them to do these things (and by this I pretty much mean mechanically impossible, not just “oh, it could never happen,” because there’s always a way for the impossible to happen when player characters get involved!), you must take into account the possibility that your ability or item could see use by the party.

So, if the party got their hands on the villain’s spiffy artifact, would it unbalance the entire game? Then you need to re-write that artifact. If they spied on the ritual, memorized it, and performed it, would it let them change the world in a way that would make party-play impossible? Then re-write that ritual.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t occasionally allow the party to be clever and get their hands on something powerful. Now and then that’s a lot of fun. But there’s a difference between giving them something fun, and making the game not-fun for everyone by unbalancing everything.

How Would Players Feel?

How would your players feel if the ability or item you’ve written up was used on their character? How would *you* feel if you were a player and it was used on your character? Most people don’t appreciate sudden “you’re dead” effects coming out of nowhere. It’s always a good idea to think about this before putting something into your game.

One way to handle abilities that may seem to powerful is to make their effects slower and to make sure there’s a way out. Instead of someone using an instant death spell on a PC, they use a slow-lingering-death spell on a PC. The PC has time to notice what’s going on, and to work desperately against the clock to find a way to undo it.

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