Creating Useful Game Abilities Part II: Variation

It’s easy to say that powers should be varied. It’s harder to actually come up with fifty varied and interesting new abilities for your characters. Let’s think in categories for a little while, then. Abilities, powers, spells, rituals, etc. are all created to serve a purpose. What sorts of purposes do people care about? I’ll throw out a few (often overlapping) categories, and some suggestions to get you started. Most of these considerations can apply to supernatural abilities, technological effects or even to natural abilities with a little bit of thought.



People want to communicate with each other and with other things. This category includes: Long-distance communication. Methods of encrypting or encoding messages, and of decrypting and decoding the same. Ways of speaking with things or creatures that typically can’t be communicated with. One-way or anonymous communication. The ability to read, speak, or understand other languages.


People always want information. This category includes: Sensing things that ordinarily can’t be sensed. Sensing others’ emotions (through magical means, a polygraph, or ordinary empathy), sensing magical energy, seeing through walls. Prophetic dreams, visions, scrying, and other fortune-telling methods. Seeing far-away places, other worlds, things that are hidden or disguised, the future or past, etc. Less “magical” abilities involve means of investigating situations, contacts who might have information, use of computers to track, compile or analyze data, etc.


This is, in a way, the opposite of #2. This category covers the confusion of information that other people want. These abilities involve the destruction or confusion of evidence, ways of blocking the ability to see hidden or distant things, ways of distracting or confusing someone, and so on. Even a mundane “poker face” might fit into this category.

Thought Processes

People spend thousands of dollars with psychologists just trying to figure out their own thought processes. People want: To know themselves better. To know other people better. To manipulate other people. To control their own moods, induce madness in others, and so on. Access to other people’s thoughts and memories, or the ability to hide their own. They want other people to forget wrongs that were done them, or important pieces of information, or they want people to remember things that never happened. They might want to induce nightmares or dreams.


This category covers ways to hide, camouflage, and disguise things and people. It includes: Ways to disguise or encrypt information, alter a person’s or a location’s appearance, vanish from plain sight, and so on. Traditional abilities such as invisibility of all varieties. Disguises might range from a knowledge of makeup, wigs, and body language to supernatural shape-changing abilities or illusions.

The Body


People care about feeding themselves. This could involve: Hunting or harvesting. Detection or neutralization of poisons or harmful bacteria in foods. Some supernatural creatures might feed on something other than what we’d think of as “food,” and they might have abilities or powers to help them in this. This category could also involve means of promoting the growth or reproduction of things used as food.


People need shelter. This category includes: Protection of all kinds from the elements. Means of affecting the elements directly. Heat, cold, and weather. Everything involved in keeping up a home.


People who expect to be getting into combat situations want to ensure they’ll come out the victor. This might involve: Doing more damage, being more accurate with blows and shots, doing worse damage than normal, causing your opponent to screw up, confusing your opponent, calling on some sort of aid, and so on. This is a category that you must consider carefully. If you create many items or abilities that affect combat, then players will tend to gravitate towards a high-combat game.

Injury and Healing

People want to heal their own injuries and cause injury to others. This includes: Wounds, infections, poisons, drugs, and more complex physical effects. These are abilities that you obviously need to balance carefully, and link to the type of game you want. If healing is easy, combat is more likely to happen. If injury is easy and healing is hard, characters will have to avoid combat and may die easily. This is one area in which you can use your system to uphold the type of game you’re creating (see last issue for more details).

Physical Capabilities

People would like to be able to run faster, jump farther and higher, walk farther, get sick less often, drink more alcohol without passing out, and so on. They also want to make their opponents weaker or slower, cause them to pass out, or paralyze them.

The Bizarre

People might want aspects of physiology that don’t normally suit their species. This includes: cat’s eyes, armor-like skin, or devastating claws. Causing one’s opponents to take on negative adaptations also fits here.


Magical Power

People want power. This includes: Ways of drawing power out of others or out of objects. The ability to transfer or bestow power. Various means of channeling, altering, hiding or making use of power, and of collecting or storing power.

Power Over Others

This category includes: The means to affect others’ decisions directly, change their minds, or force them into certain actions. Subtler means of charming people or swaying their opinions. Information-gathering abilities, or means of understanding others’ motivations, intentions, and desires. This is a potentially very powerful category of abilities, and thus requires careful power-balancing.


Many people want to be able to affect their luck, or the luck of others, in a positive or negative direction. You’ll need to carefully power-balance luck abilities simply because of their potential breadth. This is one area where you’ll want to keep abilities narrow and specific.


Protection is one of the most powerful desires. It includes: The ability to resist injury, avoid being injured in the first place, keep the bad things away from you, and keep things away from your possessions, certain places, and loved ones.

Action At A Distance

People would like to be able to do any number of things from a distance. If you steal something from a bank without ever entering the bank, after all, you never show up on their cameras, you leave no trail of evidence, and their guards can’t shoot at you. This is something else you need to limit carefully; very narrow ability-breadth is one way to do it. You don’t want your party to be able to do everything they want without ever stepping into danger, or where’s the tension?

As we mentioned last article, if you really want to play with powerful abilities like these but don’t want them to unbalance your game, you still have a few options. Make them one-use-only items or rituals. Make the abilities require heavy preparation, rare items, or other limitations. Alternatively, make the ability, item, or ritual dangerous, or give it nasty side-effects.

The World Around Us

People would like to be able to affect the world around them. They could control the weather, cause a trail of light to spell out words in the air, change the color of paint on a wall, make a room smell like daffodils, or cause an explosion of light in front of someone that blinds them temporarily. This ranges from supernatural abilities to simple flash grenades and similar devices. Obviously this is a broad category that overlaps strongly with others.


A variation on protection, people want to be able to get in and out of secured places. They want to make things impossible to steal, or know when someone enters their home. They want ways of finding out who has touched their things. They want to set up traps to foil, harm, or kill anyone who intrudes upon them. They want to pick locks, open safes, and foil alarms.

Religion, Ritual and Custom

This category is particularly useful when coming up with rituals and spells


There are any number of odd rituals and spells concerning death and what comes afterward. Does your group revere death? Fear it? Accept it? What concerns spring from that attitude? Can they communicate with the dead? Can they affect the disposition of their dead? Can they thwart or reverse death? Can the dead affect them?

The Seasons

Many concerns revolve around the seasons, such as planting, harvest, procreation, sickness, death, and religious associations. There are plenty of things that only happen at certain times of the year.

Rank And Status

What customs and rituals surround rank and status? How may it be attained? How may it be lost? How is it celebrated or mourned? How may you affect someone else’s search for rank and status?

Purity And Corruption

If there are concepts of purity and corruption, how may they be assessed and affected?

Spirits And Gods

Do gods and spirits get involved in everyday life? How can they be contacted? How can their favor be curried? Can they be harmed, and how? Can they be healed, and how? How else may they be interacted with?



People care about going from place to place. This could be as simple as knowing how to drive or operate special machinery. It could involve dimensional travel, time travel, or teleportation, or easier, quicker ways of traveling through specific areas or types of area. What about ways of traveling without being seen?

Procreation And Indoctrination

People and critters of all types want more of their own. They want the key to spawning faster and more reliably, or turning others into creatures just like themselves.

Alteration Of Form

So many people would like to be something other than what they are, or they’d like to be able to change the things around them. This ranges from traditional alchemy effects (lead to gold), to mundane chemistry and materials science, to shape-changing, “faerie glamour,” and illusions of all sorts.

Art And Architecture

People like to enjoy, create, and destroy buildings and works of beauty.

Creation Of Things

People enjoy making things, whether by hand (carving, carpentry, cooking…), on “paper” (musical composition, fiction, software…), with electronics (games, toys, phones, computers…), by magic, and so on.


People want easy answers to their relationships with other people. They want to know what others think of them, and they want to make people like them (or dislike each other).

Light And Shadow

Light and shadow are heavy themes in many powers. Causing light, banishing shadows, cloaking something in shadows, and so on.


When you need inspiration for specifics I recommend several methods, which you may have heard me espouse before.

If you’re trying to come up with something complex and plot-hook-ful, try tarot cards, magazine articles, interesting books on odd subjects, random web sites, and so on. If you’re looking for something short and sweet, try snippets of poetry or song lyrics, maybe even newspaper articles. Just look around you and be inspired by whatever you see.

What I’ve listed here is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of abilities. There’s a lot more you can come up with if you try. Hopefully this will give you a place to start!

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