Five Character Powers That Will Fuck Up Your Game With Off-Label Applications

Well, maybe not fuck it up, precisely. RPGs are actually somewhat hard to screw up so long as everyone is having fun, and fun is the name of the game. There are certain powers and abilities though that can take the tone in some very weird places quickly if you aren’t expecting it. If you are planning to run an RPG, make sure you stay sharp and ready for the following, just in case a player comes up with something a little too off-the-wall.

Numbah One: Transportation Powers

A good number of RPGs feature a power or spell to let the whole party instantly move from one location to another. Mostly these spells exist to cut out travel time or to make your characters look cool. Sometimes these are simple teleportation abilities that only cover short distances. They tend to be lower level, and fairly cheap to cast in your game’s given resource cost.

So what is the problem?

Too many games include these powers without giving thought to them being used offensively. The whole idea that they may be used on an unwilling party never seems to cross the designer’s mind. If you can instantly send your group of five friends thousands of miles away, it’s kind of simple to send the guards the same way, isn’t it? Since most of these spells are cheaper than any attack spells and work out to be “Save or Don’t Participate in This Battle”, these abilities will become the go-to for players. Variants on this include powers that send people back in time or to different dimensions, which means suddenly your poor antagonists are easily stuck in another plane of existence entirely.

(Note for the Evil GM: Consider the players finding a single use spell to “banish” an evil being. Have them set up to use this on a vampire lord, and have it send him some 500-1000 into the past. By the time he catches up to the players he will be both extremely pissed and even more powerful for having to wait out the interregnum.)

Likewise, very few designers tend to think in three dimensions. Teleporting someone fifty feet away is an inconvenience for them. Teleporting them 50 feet up is an attack. For spells meant for overland travel instead of combat, opponents could be sent several hundred to several thousand miles up, and good luck having the hit points to ignore atmospheric reentry. Worse yet are powers based on “line of sight”, as celestial bodies like the sun and moon have a nasty habit of being “in sight”.

If you are designing such a power, consider either scaling it with these problems in mind, or specifically stating that it does not work on unwilling characters.

Numbah Two: Gates

Related to Numbah One, above, the ability to place Gates is usually a quick travel option for players who don’t wish to keep retreading the same areas. While not quite on the same level as instant travel spells, Gates a re a very potent and useful form of instant when used as intended.

So what is the problem?

The Gate variant includes most of the problems listed in transportation powers, with a nasty little addition. Most of the time designers tend to think in terms of open areas when designing these “Gate” style powers, and ignore what happens if one side happens to be naturally “filled” with something else, such as gates into the sea, active volcanoes, or even outer space. Suddenly your transportation spell has been weaponized again into an elemental blast or strange vacuum attack. When designing these powers, consider addressing whether or not non-living matter passes through, or if vacuum on one side affects the other.

Numbah Three: Creating Food and Water

Most games include a set of powers to let you create things like water or food out of thin air, although sometimes higher level versions may include things like weapons or gold. Most of the time it’s so the party no longer has to worry about mundane trivialities like eating, getting clean water or even paying for a night in the inn. You are big damn heroes and past all that crap, or possibly you are small tissue-frail heroes in a crap-sack stick-and-potato world, and this is the only charity you will ever get from your GM.

So what is the problem?

The first most obvious problem is normally addressed by most game designers, but bears mentioning. If a creation style power has no limits on it’s amount, it becomes possible to drown cities in created water and crush enemies with half-ton blocks of summoned bacon. Most such abilities have daily uses or similar limitations in mind to prevent these kind of shenanigans, but keep an eye out for them. Even kobolds don’t deserve to drown in flavorless gruel.

A more common mistake is not indicating that there has to be free space to create an object in the first place. Ignore this quality, and suddenly the orc attacking the party priest now has a skull full of bread. The ability to create a gallon of water at will is useful; the ability to explode an enemy’s head by manifesting a gallon of water in their ear canal may be a bit much. Adjust accordingly.

Numbah Four: Walls and Barriers

Most fantasy style games include the abilities to create walls or barriers of some kind. Walls can be made of physical things like stone or ice, but can also be made of pure force. It’s usually a mid-level defensive power meant to buy the party some time.

So what is the problem?

The problem comes in two forms. First a number of these walls and barrier powers don’t say anything about having to be made upright. Even assuming an opponent isn’t crushed flat by this, a 5′ x 5′ x 1′ stone wall is heavy as, well, a stone wall and is a good way to pin down an enemy for a good long while until some comrade can help dig him out.

The second comes with using barriers in a weaponized form. Some force barriers travel with the character using them, and the rules for those barriers don’t include much detail on what is repelled and what isn’t. With these it’s possible to push enemies over cliff faces or just flat crush them. Make sure to keep some kind of rationale in mind for why some objects get through a some do not.

Numbah Five: Transformation Powers

Let’s talk about something a little higher level. Transformation powers are powers that let you transform yourself or others in other things. Its a pretty broad range of effects. I’m mostly going to focus on transforming enemies and objects.

So what is the problem?

Pretty much without exception, transforming an enemy means the player wins flat out. Even if the designers choose to include fairly harsh time limits, a few rounds as an earth worm will be enough to ensure the defeat of even the mightiest demon lord. Stone statues may be tough, but they are infinitely easier to break than an opponent that can fight back. Do not be fooled into thinking of these things as anything short of save-or-die powers. If you ever intend PCs to use anything else, using them must be as difficult as killing an opponent normally. You may want to consider limiting what an opponent can be turned into as well. Duration restrictions are not very helpful here; a few turns can be just a devastating as a lifetime depending on the transformation.

As for transforming objects, player cleverness will pop up with this one. This is an area where duration limitations can hurt more than help. Designers don’t tend to think in terms of shape-changing affecting size, and if duration are too short you will see characters’ sling stones turn back into boulders mid-flight and gold coins back into rabid badgers when they’ve skipped town. Political enemies tend to not fair well when their midnight snack turns back into an elephant. The line between player cleverness and player stupidity is delicate here; I recommend going according to personal taste.

Stay on the look out for these things. Your players are clever bastards. Always stay one step ahead.

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