Cinemechanix: Super-Power Rules

Category: Cussin' In Tongues
Created on Friday, 26 July 2019 Written by Steve

I’m trying to work out how to make the rules for powers to work in Guardians of Aetheria. I’ve had several false starts so far. Every time I actually start writing the rules, I find myself lost once again in the Land of Crunch. I don’t want the rules to come from the Land of Crunch, so I keep having to start over. Eventually I realized that part of the problem was that I kept coming at it from the effect side of the equation. 

Defining costs in terms of effect works fine when you’re dealing with things that have clear mechanical definitions in the game. For example, saying “An attack that causes X damage costs Y points” works just fine. It doesn’t matter whether the attack is a super Kung-Fu kick or a flamethrower, if you spent Y points on it, it causes X damage. If you want special effects (like a kick that knocks the opponent out or a flamethrower attack that keeps them burning for several rounds), you either already have rules for that or have an add-on special ability the player can buy.  

The same logic also works for a while when you’re comparing apples and oranges. If you’re using the core mechanic to determine effects using powers the same way you would skills (GM sets a Difficulty, player rolls to beat it, the amount by which the player exceeds the Difficulty determines effects), then a +1 in “Flying” costs the same as a +1 in “Swords.” There’s no more need to weight the cost based on the perceived usefulness or weirdness or whatever of the power than there is to make the “Swords” skill cost more than the “Slam Dancing” skill. If the player wants to be more useful in a mosh pit than on a battlefield, that’s the player’s prerogative. 

The problem comes when you hit the powers that lie outside the rules. Automatic and “Always On” are one problem. Since you never roll for “Underwater Breathing,” for example, you don’t really have a handy skill bonus to tie a cost to, and making players pay for some high bonus that basically guarantees an automatic success means that relatively limited skills suddenly cost way more than more useful things (Are you going to spend 50 points to get “Breathe Underwater” at +10 when for the same number of points you could buy “Shoot Lasers From Your Eyes +5” and “Shit Lightning,” also at +5? Of course you’re not). And on top of that you’ve got things like “Night Vision” which is more likely to negate a penalty than give a bonus, and usually manifests more as a matter of narrative than rules. 

That brings us to the stuff that’s purely narrative. Eventually you’re going to run into something like Trap Jaw’s switchable hands. Since the ability to swap a hook hand for a laser gun hand is a purely narrative power, you start getting into Champions territory where you’re trying to fit weird equipment into the powers rules as well as powers, which can easily trickle down to things that would normally be handled purely as a matter of story. At that point you start getting into situations where (if you follow the rules), Green Arrow has to use his bow as a club because the player forgot to buy the “ranged” property for it. 

That’s pretty much the problem I kept running into. When you use effect as a way of defining powers, internal consistency requires that you quantify every game element in terms of its “powers.” Either that, or you try to draw a line where narrative and common sense end and mechanics take over. Depending on where you draw that line, you end up with end up with a set of rules that’s crunchy, vague, or limited. 

The good news is that I think I’ve started to get my head around an alternative that will offer a good mix of flexibility, simplicity, and “game balance” (in the “avoiding Mary-Sue-omancy” sense, not the “everyone is mathematically equal, ensuring fairness!” sense). The bad news is that you’ll have to wait two weeks for me to tell you about it, because I’ll be at GenCon next week. We’re in room 243 of the convention center his year instead of the J.W. Marriott, so plan accordingly. All but two of our games are sold out, but there’s always a chance of getting in on generic tickets or talking the GM into allowing an extra player.

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Cinemechanix: Super-Power Rules.
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