Tips & Ideas To Make Better & More Interesting Powers
Whether for creating a superhero or supervillain OC or developing an original supernatural creature, coming up with and balancing out powers can be a pain. So, here are some pointers and ideas to take you through the whole power creation and development process.
Table of Contents
- First rule of power-having: DON'T BE A MUNCHKIN.
- Get yourself an idea!
- Try to think out the implications and potential complications of the powers.
- Your powers should have a source that's consistent with the tone and laws of the universe.
- Remember: Drawbacks and faults in the powers or characters themselves are preferable to random "super allergies."
First rule of power-having: DON'T BE A MUNCHKIN.
For the uninitiated, the term "munchkin" refers to a type of roleplayer who treats the game like a competitive sport. Munchkins deliberately create their characters to be as powerful as they can possibly make them, enabling them to them to easily defeat their enemies and collect sweet, sweet loot 'n booty.
If you're trying to come up with powers based solely on how unstoppable, awesome, or badass they'll make your character, stop. You have completely missed the point of storytelling or roleplaying. Instead, these are the factors you should be looking at:
- Will it be interesting to watch the character use those powers?
- Will the powers facilitate the character being put into interesting, suspenseful, and dramatic scenarios?
- Will the character be able to use the powers to solve a problem in an interesting way?
- If your character's a member or addition to an ensemble, will the powers allow your character to contribute to the plot without completely overshadowing or upstaging one or more or of the other characters?
In fiction, characters who are so powerful that they can do pretty much whatever they want quickly grow boring. The Disney film Escape To Witch Mountain is a good example of this - the telekinetic and telepathic powers of the two main characters make it so easy for them to escape from whatever predicament they're in that there's no sense that the characters are ever in any real danger. At most, they're only temporarily inconvenienced. Whatever trouble they're in, there's no question of how or if - just how long it will take them to pwn whoever's inconveniencing them now. It's about as suspenseful as watching bread bake.
In a roleplay, if your character's powers allow xir to solve pretty much every problem that comes up, the other players will be left with almost nothing for their characters to do, which means there's no reason for them to keep roleplaying (especially with you). If your character's powers are so strong that xe can prevent, deflect, or nerf pretty much any action other characters try to take against yours, then other players will become frustrated and bored when they realize that they have little to no power to make change or progress to the plot where your character is concerned. (And the more important your character is to the plot/setup, the worse this will be.)
If you're worried that your character is overpowered, you can ask yourself:
- Are your character's powers capable of instantly resolving or preventing any and all suspenseful/dramatic scenarios or conflicts?
- Can your character's powers do so much, so easily, that it's difficult to write a scenario where there's any sense that your character is in real danger, or that your character might fail or sustain a loss of some kind?
- If your character is in a roleplaying game, can your character's powers easily limit the potential actions of other characters to the point where there's nothing they can really do to change or affect the course or outcome of any situation your character is involved in or responsible for?
If you answered "yes" to any of these, your character is most likely OP.
Get yourself an idea!
Sometimes, thinking out a character's powers can be difficult, particularly if you want something original and outside-of-the-box. (Though, do remember: popular and commonly-used powers aren't necessarily bad and can still be used in ways that are creative and interesting.) If you're looking to be original or unique, then bear in mind that the following are extremely common:
- Cat-type/cat-based powers.
- Elemental control powers (ie, earth, air, fire, water, lightning, ice, light, shadow).
- Whatever powers that the current run of popular powered characters have.
- Various combination of the above, especially wings and elemental powers.
It's up to you to decide whether it matters that your characters' powers are fairly commonplace or not, based on your own personal preferences and what seems most appropriate to the universe.
If your character is an OC, don't copy xir powers from the very canon characters xe's supposed to hang out with unless there's a very good reason for it, eg:
- It was passed down genetically from a parent.
- It's a feature of your character's kind. (Ghosts in Danny Phantom all have the power to become intangible and fly by virtue of being ghosts. All powers beyond that depend on the ghost.)
- It's an extremely common power in the universe. (In most superhero universes, flight, super strength, and generic plasma bolts are extremely common.)
- There are very few powers to pick from. (In Avatar: The Last Airbender, you've really only got four options.)
If you have a personality or persona in mind for your character already, you can use that to inspire your character's powers. For example, when Stan Lee created Iron Man, he started with the premise that he wanted to create a military-industrial complex hero. The concept of the technological Iron Man suit is a perfect fit for that theme. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe/Earth-199999 films with Loki, we see that most of Loki's powers involve illusion, which fits perfectly with his predilection toward deception and toward hiding his true feelings and emotions from others.
You could also center your character's powers around some sort of theme or concept. For example, the Hulk is what you get when make a superpower out of blind rage. The Dementors from the Harry Potter series are based around depression - hence why they drain all joy and happiness wherever they go, and why they can suck out a person's soul to leave behind an empty shell.
If nothing comes to mind, you can try randomization through at least one of the following to give yourself some inspiration:
- The Random Superpower Generator, which will give you a handful of potential powers for a character.
- The Magical & Weird Science Effects Generator - the effects can be used as superpowers just as easily.
- Yet Another Superpower Generation Tool, which will require a few dice or a dice-rolling website (there's one linked to on the page) and a little imagination.
- The coin and/or d6 method.
- You can go to a website that lets you choose from a selection of random pages, such a Wikipedia. For example, If you get a page such as this, you might take from it someone who boxes and has a paralyzing touch. Other sites you might try include randomwebsite.com or Imgur's random mode.
Try to think out the implications and potential complications of the powers.
People occasionally give their characters what seem to be fairly innocuous-sounding powers, but if applied correctly, can be absolutely devastating if not completely game- or story-breaking. For example, Susan Storm's "defensive" shield power could also be applied to kill someone instantly via aneurysm. As Avatar: The Last Airbender demonstrated, the ability to control water could be logically extended to one's bodily fluids. (A:TLA prevented this power from becoming a story-breaker by making it a difficult-to-use ability that could only be used on the full moon, when waterbenders were at their strongest.) Potentially, a power like being able to alter reality, if strong enough, could logically extend to being able to simply erase the bad guys or rewrite them as something harmless - which would be all well and good for the reality warper, but horrible for a writer who wants to keep a story ongoing. Thus, it's important to ask yourself if there are any ways that your character's powers could change the status quo of your setting or story in ways that you wouldn't actually want, and what you might to do stop that from being a problem beyond simply nobody in the story ever thinking to use the power that way, lest you make your characters look bad at basic problem-solving skills.
Sometimes, people don't think the negative consequences of their characters' powers through very well. For example, using fire powers carelessly or in the wrong places could result in starting massive fires or causing painful and disfiguring injuries not only to enemies, but also potentially to allies or bystanders. Ice, if used irresponsibly, could cause frostbite. Earthquakes used in a modern urban environment could end up breaking water mains, gas pipes, and knocking over power poles. The ability to communicate with large predators such as big cats and wolves might seem glamorous and exciting, but if your character operates in an area where such animals are few in number or would attract attention if they were seen, it's not going to be a very useful power. (On the other hand, the ability to communicate with common animals such mice and sparrows could be incredibly useful, as these animals are almost everywhere and their presence wouldn't really be questioned.)
Thinking your character's powers through can:
- Close up potential plot holes from the start and prevent cases of fridge logic. What are the odds that your character could call up a pack of gray wolves in Reno, Nevada?
- Open up potential plot threads to explore - what if an eager young hero ended up doing more harm than good and had to face the consequences? What if people started calling animal control on your character's wolf friends?
Go and check out the Phlebotinum-Development Questions for a list of questions you can ask yourself about your character's powers to help you work out early on whether there's potential for your character being potentially too powerful or story-breaking.
Your powers should have a source that's consistent with the tone and laws of the universe.
Take a good look at your character's powers and ask yourself which source would make the most sense for them - or, if you're already considering one particular source, whether that source actually makes sense, or whether something else would work better.
Let's say you wanted your character to have control over the four classical elements (earth, air, fire, and water), and you're operating in a universe that's shown to generally behave in a naturalistic manner (ie, without supernatural forces behind the workings of the universe).
To explain where these powers come from, you give your character a genetic mutation. But - one little snag here: by choosing mutation as the source of your character's powers, they are in source biological, and therefore naturalistic. In the natural world, the four classical elements are vastly different things that chemically and energetically don't relate to each other as much to other things. For example, since fire's a plasma, it has more in common with electricity than water. Water, by virtue of having two hydrogen atoms, has more in common with vinyl than it does with Earth's atmosphere (which does have some hydrogen in it, but the amount is so small that it makes up less than one percent of the atmosphere).
If you want to write it off as that your character can control four states of matter (solid, liquid, gas, and plasma), then there is very little in the universe your character would logically be unable to control, since pretty much everything is in one of these states.
To make an artistic comparison, this is a little like making your character able to control primary colors, but nothing in between. Why can your character control blue and yellow, but not green when green is just a blend of blue and yellow? If your character's powers come from a magic color fairy who has the power to say which colors your character can and cannot control, sure, it makes sense. It can also make sense if your world is one that operates on fundamentally different principles than the real world does (see: Rainbow Brite).
The four classical elements, being a philosophical and/or mystical concept, make sense if the world itself operates on mystical principles (ala Avatar: The Last Airbender), or if the character has a magical, supernatural, or divine source of power, or if your character was in a comic book-style lab accident where xe was specifically exposed to earth, air, fire, and water. But if your character's supposed to be from a naturalistic world that operates more or less like the real world, and if xir powers come from a random mutation, fridge logic will follow your character everywhere.
On the other hand, there's no indication in Avatar: The Last Airbender that you can get powers through mutations or gamma rays, and such a thing wouldn't fit the tone of the universe too well.
Remember: Drawbacks and faults in the powers or characters themselves are preferable to random "super allergies."
A "super allergy" weakness is essentially a random weakness that has no logical or intuitive connection to anything else about the character or xir powers. The problem with super allergy weaknesses is that they come off as random and/or forced (which they usually are) rather than a natural and organic aspect or consequence of the character or xir powers.
Superman is a good example of a character with a super allergy: His powers include super strength, super speed, flight, x-ray vision, and heat vision, among other things. His weakness is… rocks. Specifically, kryptonite and its variants. (Krypton has ended up being used absurdly and implausibly often because it's one of the few things that can actually give Superman a challenge.)
Contrast Bruce Banner and the Hulk: The Hulk is conceptualized around the idea of unstoppable rage, and both his strengths and drawbacks tie into this perfectly: on the one hand, he's amazingly strong, but on the other hand Bruce Banner has little control over him and he frequently causes huge amounts of damage.
Danny Fenton/Danny Phantom is prone to personality flaws believable for a 14-year-old boy, most of which land him in all kinds of trouble at some point or another. (He doesn't require any "super weaknesses" per se, as his enemies usually create a big enough challenge for him already.) The original Omnitrix in Ben 10 can only keep the user shifted into another form for ten minutes before it runs out of power and needs recharged.
More potential drawbacks and flaws for your character's powers include, but are absolutely not limited to:
- Exhaustion - overuse (or even any use) can seriously weaken your character for awhile.
- The character has to deliberately charge before each use.
- The power has a possibility of failure or backfire, possibly even causing harm to the user and/or bystanders.
- The way the power functions can make it difficult to use at times - eg, a power that affects other people only works when skin-to-skin contact is made, and possibly that contact has to be maintained awhile.
- The power only works under certain conditions - eg, at certain times of day.
(Death by overexertion does not often make a particularly good drawback, because it's typically a one-use card: once the character's dead, xe's dead. If the audience knows that there is no way the character will die, there will be little to no drama or suspense attached to this drawback.)
Also, another way to limit your character's pwn-potential and create legitimate challenge and difficulty is to allow the normals to make use of perfectly ordinary tech and strategy to fight your character with. For example, fireproof suits could protect against someone with fire powers, gas masks could protect against someone who created any kind of toxic or mind-altering air-borne compounds, and even someone with super strength could potentially be overcome by a well-organized team capable of driving the superstrong individual into a trap.
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