Effects-Based Superhero Games

Posted on Sun Aug 02 2015 -- supers

We often talk about "effects-based" superhero RPG rules. By "effects-based", we mean the game-mechanical effects: how much damage you do, how fast you fly, how much weight you lift, and so on. Rather than buying "throw fireball" as a power, your super-powered character buys "deal damage at range", for example.

My argument is that effects-based games are a poor fit for high-powered campaigns, or campaigns where a variety of powers are possible. I'll also try to address some objections to my proposed alternative.

The challenge

I've played a lot of supers RPG systems: most incarnations of the Hero system (aka Champions), Brave New World, Aberrant/Trinity, GURPS Supers, the Marvel & DC licensed properties, and others. I've read but not been able to play Mutants & Masterminds.

In general, superhero games try to tackle three goals.

  1. Create a framework for describing powers in a way that enables fair adjudication of their use.
  2. Allow players to create any arbitrary power within this framework.
  3. Allow for "fairness" or "balance", such that no single power-user will overshadow the rest of the party.

Effects-based systems solve goal 1 by worrying about the outcome of a power, rather than the origin. If a given fire-user and a given ice-user can do roughly the same amount of damage, an effects-based system will give them a similar power at a similar cost. In Champions, this would be Energy Blast, with some chosen special effect.

Most systems try to solve goal 2 by writing sufficiently generic powers. Most such systems revolve around super-combats: doing and resisting damage, applying special status effects, movement and rooting, and so on. Many systems offer ways to customize the basic powers: adding an area of effect, raising or lowering the cost to activate a power, and so on.

The usual solution to goal 3 is a point-buy system, power slots, or character classes.

The problem

So what's the problem here? It's that goals 1 and 2 are in opposition.

When I create a fire-using super, I'm not necessarily creating "guy who can 10d6 damage with fire". I'm creating a guy who can manipulate fire to do a variety of things, including inflicting damage.

In an effects-based system, that means I have to front-load most of my creative effort — by anticipating all the different ways that fire can be useful. The more complex the game rules, the harder this becomes, and the more systems knowledge I need.

Here's a run-down for the Hero system, for example:

  • I can start fires in an area. Does fire spread? Can I model that? As it turns out, yes, but it's expensive, unwieldy, and complicated.
  • I can throw blasts of flame to do direct damage. This is Energy Blast.
  • I can divert fire from harming me. This is Energy Defense, limited to "only fire". But it might also require Power Defense, if another fire villain attacks me with some sort of "heat exhaustion attack" to Drain my STUN or END.
  • I can extinguish fires. Well what does that mean? Some combination of Drain or Suppress. But these powers target another power — not an effect.

This is just four things. My power description started from "create, divert, or extinguish flames" and ballooned. I had to anticipate all these scenarios and invest points in each of them — even if the power seems unlikely to come up.

Maybe I'm using wind powers, and I discover that a villain is using air control to speed up his teammates' actions. This is the Aid power, boosting the DEX and SPD attributes. Alright, so how do I counter it with my own wind powers?

Before the villain uses it, this sounds like Suppress Aid. But after it's used, maybe that's no longer the correct power. Maybe I can say "I counter his powers by slowing them down the same way he's speeding them up". Now it's Drain DEX and Drain SPD. Did I have those on my sheet? I'd have to, if I wanted to do this. But narratively, it's simple enough to explain my objective.

Game developers acknowledge the problem

The systems I outlined earlier are mature. Plenty of groups have run into similar problems, and solutions have been advanced. Hero has a Variable Power Pool. GURPS gives us Modular Abilities. M&M has a similar mechanic.

With such powers, you don't have to work out all your possible effects in advance. You can rule on the appropriate power during play, letting your character's abilities align with the  in-fiction power description.

Here's the funny thing: a number of the standard character archetypes (the "wizard", the "mimic", the "animal master", and others) basically depend on this functionality to work at all. A lot of character concepts are simply not satisfactory without a similar mechanic.

Fitting rules to fiction

It's much more common for a character to have a consistent special effect ("fire user") than to have a consistent mechanical effect ("Energy Blast"). I've seen very very few characters whose power was "does damage at range" and changed their special effect every session or so.

Based on this, I'm on the lookout for systems that use special effects rather than effects as their power mechanic. Some do exist — but at the same time, many such systems are fairly limited. You have your choice of the typical characters from comic continuity, but it's challenging to create really original characters.

The most free-form systems — like Fate Accelerated Edition — have their own problems, such as players who want crunchier definitions of their characters' abilities. I don't necessarily see a lot of value in this approach (and can explain why in another post), but it remains their preference and I won't tell them they can't play that way.

What's the answer?

I don't know yet. I want a game system that lets you define a special effect for your powers, and perhaps dive into or elaborate on the consequences of those powers. I want a game system that can gracefully handle all of my wacky, off-the-wall concepts. If I can't find one, I'm forced to write it, but I'll keep looking in the meantime.