Episodic Powers

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In comics, pulps, cartoons, some episodic TV shows, and similar sources, it is often the case that the hero will display some ability or tactic that he or she has never used before. Even though it might be a generally useful and effective thing to do, it may never show up again.

If we wanted to, we could easily incorporate such a thing into many RPGs. In 4e D&D, this would be easy – allow players to swap out a single encounter power between sessions (or, perhaps, during an extended rest). In other systems, it might take a bit more creativity. In 3.5, this could be a feat swap, or the swapping of a single spell for some classes (such as the sorcerer or bard). In Exalted, this might be a charm in one of your caste abilities. In the Marvel RPG, this would likely be power stunts.

The idea is simple, and it is useful in addition to emulating certain genres. What does it get you?

  • Variety: You aren’t always doing the same thing game after game.
  • Adaptability: You can anticipate what abilities you have will be pointless in the coming session… and what abilities which you don’t normally have will be useful.
  • Experimentation: Thinking about taking a new ability? Take it for a no-commitment test drive first.



8 Responses

  1. That’s called bad writing. Not sure you need rules, even house rules, to help emulate it, any more than you need rules to help characters stay two-dimensional with their personalities dictated by the needs of the plot.

  2. I don’t think it is necessarily bad writing. Often, the use of such abilities is either done to benefit pacing, break up potential monotony, or take advantages of unique situations.

    Is it necessarily bad writing when the hero waits until the climax to use a particular ability? If they had that capability, why didn’t they use it earlier (and constantly)? That’s what encounter/daily powers emulate… and I see this as somewhat analogous.

  3. I think I must have been unclear, because what I’m talking about is somewhat different from an idiot plot.

    Often, it is done intentionally in certain genres where the exact capabilities of a character are not nearly as important as their personalities and general aptitudes. Look at MacGyver for instance. Over the course of the series, he created all sorts of useful devices… each of which he used once. His general aptitude was focused in adapting to the circumstances and making something useful. Was it bad writing because he didn’t make the same things over and over again? Wouldn’t it have been bad writing if he did?

  4. To the extent that MacGuyver avoids the obvious solution that he used in the last episode to get himself out of scrapes in the current episode just to provide the audience novelty, yes, that was bad writing. There’s just not really any getting around the fact that when characters take actions that are motivated by the author’s needs (such as novelty) instead of by the character’s own psychology and history, that’s a failure on the part of the writer. A better writer facing the same challenge would find a way to change the circumstances enough that the obvious prior solution can’t be re-used (e.g. MacGuyver is missing some ingredient he had, so needs a new solution).

    That doesn’t mean that you can’t have systems that support characters who have the ability to improvise. Savage Worlds, for instance, has an Edge (Feat) actually called “McGuyver” that lets the character improvise tools to avoid penalties for lack of equipment, and jury rig devices to escape from death-traps and the like. What it doesn’t have, and would be a mistake IMO, is a requirement to mimic the bad writing aspect by forbidding a character from using the same improvisation more than once. If the characters actually have something at stake, they’d have to be idiots to ignore a solution for a purely meta-game reason of keeping the audience entertained: hence “idiot plot.”

    Now, it may be that you actually want to emulate the bad writing typical of a particular genre, such as having a party exploring a haunted house split up. I think that’s a legitimate thing to want, but I think you get better results from just agreeing with your players in advance that they should try to act “in genre” than by trying to jigger the game system to encourage them on a meta level.

  5. Hmmm… I don’t fully agree with your assessment of certain styles as failures on the part of writers. There are genres which you may not appreciate. That’s not really the issue, though.

    I’m pretty sure that you are focusing on a minor part of what I see as the justification here. The use of this in fiction is what jump-started the idea. It could be used to emulate that, yes. If that was all I was concerned with here, I’d agree with you. It isn’t. See the variety-adaptability-experimentation bits in the original post.

    Anyway, I’m not preventing PCs from using the ability in every game session. If the player wants to keep the same abilities session-to-session, that would be fine: that player would always pick the same thing for their ‘floating’ ability.

    On the other hand, if there’s an ability that a player might only want to use every once in a while (say ever fifth session on average), does it matter if it is on that player’s character sheet if it isn’t one of the sessions that the player wants to use it?

  6. Ok, but why swap? What’s the in-game justification for forgetting one power to access another? If you’re going to let them choose to have it for the once in a while that they need it, why not just let them have it?

  7. That is a good question.

    There are plenty of out of game reasons (experimentation, balance, variety…), but in-game justifications are trickier. I would posit, though, that it is no weirder than 4e’s only being able to use daily powers 1/day and encounter powers 1/encounter.

    Ideally, the powers you’d swap out are the ones you’d use so rarely under most circumstances that it wouldn’t really be an issue. Going on an aquatic adventure? Pack the swimmy-power that is in the book and sounds kind of cool that you’d never get a chance to otherwise use. Did you just suddenly develop the power? Not necessarily – but if you’d never have the chance to otherwise use it, what’s the effective difference?

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