Allegiances: Anarchy, Balance, Chaos, Evil, Good, Justice, Law, Liberty, Tyranny
Elements: Air, Earth, Fire, Plant, Water, Weather
Energy: Acid, Chemical, Cold, Cosmic, Darkness, Electricity, Gravity, Heat, Kinetic, Light, Magnetic, Radiation, Sonic, Vibration
Phenomena: Colors, Dimensions, Dreams, Entropy, Ideas, Luck, Madness, Memes, Mind, Quantum Forces, Space, Thought, Time
Sources: Alien, Biological, Chi, Divine, Magic, Mystic, Mutant, Preternatural, Primal, Psionic, Psychic, Skill, Technology, Training
Creative Uses of Descriptors
In many instances, players come up with creative uses for their characters’ descriptors. This should be encouraged and, generally speaking, allowed freely so long as those uses don’t spoil the game. So if a fire-using character wants to use a tiny amount of his flame blast power to light some candles, or the electrical-controlling character wants to use some of his power output to act as a living battery to jump-start a car, go for it. In the latter case you might want to call for a Technology skill check to make sure the character gets the terminals and the voltage right, but most of the time it’s better to just let the trick go through and give the character a chance to shine.
Creative uses of descriptors with no real game effect are freebies: no extra effort or victory points needed. Situations where creative uses of descriptors have a significant game effect can be handled as power stunts: pick the effect that best suits the desired outcome and treat it as an Alternate Effect of the power the hero wants to use, with descriptors assigned as appropriate. If an electrical-controlling hero wants to use his power like a living defibrillator to save a heart-attack victim, for example, that can be a Healing power stunt. The hero uses extra effort (and possibly a victory point) and gets a one-shot use of Healing to stabilize the dying victim.
Descriptors help to bring a collection of effects and modifiers to life, differentiating them from similar (or even identical) configurations and making them into distinct powers. Although descriptors don’t always have significant game effects, they’re perhaps the most important element in providing color and character to the powers of heroes and villains.
Descriptors do have some affect on game play. In particular, descriptors often govern how certain effects interact with each other, serving as convenient shorthand to help define an effect’s parameters. For example, Immunity and Nullify work against effects with specific descriptors; if they were limited solely to things like effect type, it would leave out a tremendous range of options, like “Immunity to Fire” or “Nullify Mutant Powers,” which are important to the source material.
Descriptors come in many different forms. The break-down in this section is inexact, and deliberately so; some descriptors fall into more than one category, while others might not fall into any of these categories, being unique to that particular character or power. Still, the following are the major types of descriptors, and things to consider when creating or choosing powers for a character.
A descriptor may relate to the origin of a power, where it comes from or what granted it to the character. For example, did he gain Speed in a scientific accident or from years of focused meditation at a secret temple to the God of Speed? A power’s origin may determine how it interacts with other powers. Some powers with the same origin might be better suited to counter each other, for example, or to work in conjunction, combining their benefits. Examples of origin descriptors include:
Accidental powers are the result of random chance or accident: being struck by lightning, doused in chemicals, exposed to exotic radiation, and so forth. The circumstances of an accidental origin may or may not be something others can duplicate (although some are sure to try).
Bestowed powers are granted by an outside agency of some sort, such as a deity, a technology, an alien race, or another superhuman. The process that bestows the powers can be transitory or effectively permanent, barring some sort of plot device or GM-created setback.
Invented powers are designed and created by someone, either the inventor of a particular piece of technology or the designer of a technique or technology for bestowing powers on others.
Mutant powers are inborn, but not natural to the character’s race or species. They are the result of a genetic quirk or mutation of some sort, possibly due to environmental influences like chemical mutagens or radiation. Since they involve a change in the subject’s DNA, mutant powers—or at least the potential for them—are inheritable.
Training powers are gained from study and practice. While many training powers are “super-skills” or esoteric abilities learned from trained masters, this origin covers any power that is learned rather than acquired in another way. It’s not necessarily limited to “skill-based” powers or advantages. For example, magical or psionic powers might be acquired through training and study.
A power’s source differs from its origin in that the origin is where the potential or ability to use the power comes from (where the character got the power in the first place), while source is where the power’s effect comes from, or where the power draws its energy.
Comic book style superpowers answer this question with vague descriptors, since the kind of real-world energy required for many powers is staggering, requiring all super-humans to be living fusion reactors! While this may well be the case in your own setting, the assumption is that power source is just another descriptor in most games.
Source descriptors influence the effects of certain powers, such as Nullify Magic Powers, which can counter powers with a magical source, whether or not their effects are magical. Examples of power sources include:
Biological powers come from the user’s own physiology, drawing power from stores of bio-chemical energy or perhaps from specialized organs or biological functions, like a squid’s ink or a skunk’s musk, which are generated biologically.
Cosmic powers draw upon the fabric of the universe itself or “cosmic” power sources like quasars, white holes, or the background radiation of the Big Bang. Cosmic powers are close to divine in many respects (see the following) in that they transcend earthly sources of power.
Divine powers come from a higher being, essentially a god or gods. Divine power is generally limited to the god(s) areas of influence and may be morally aligned, available only to wielders with an allegiance to that divinity.
Extradimensional powers originate outside the home dimension of the setting, from other planes or dimensions of existence. Some extradimensional powers are scientific while others are downright mystical, or even beyond into realms “man was not meant to know.”
Magical powers draw upon magical energies, however they might be defined in the setting. Typically, there is some sort of “magical energy” in existence that magicians and magical creatures draw upon for their powers and effects. Note that powers with a magical source are not necessarily “spells,” although they might be; a dragon’s breath might use magic to power it, or it might be biological, depending on the descriptors applied to it (in other words, how it’s defined in terms of the setting).
Moral powers come from an abstract morality or ideal, essentially from an allegiance to that ideal. Whether or not the moral power is aware and capable of interaction is up to the GM and the specifications of the setting; it’s the character’s belief in that ideal that matters so far as the power is concerned. “Good” and “evil” are common abstract moral sources of powers, but others may include chaos, law, an-archy, order, justice, balance, neutrality, reason, and so forth.
Psionic powers are powers of the mind, coming from the psyche of the wielder (or perhaps from the Collective Unconscious, which acts as a “wellspring” of psionic power). This power source is associated with classic “mental” powers like telepathy and telekinesis, although effects like Mind Reading and Move Object can also come from other sources.
Technological powers are the result of technology, machines and technological devices. Although technological power sources often involve Devices or Equipment, they don’t necessary have to; a technological power may be a permanent implant, for example, without the limitations of a Device, but still technological (and affected by things keyed to the technological descriptor).
A power’s medium is what the power uses to accomplish its effect(s). Often, a power’s source and medium are one and the same: a psionic power uses psionic energy to power and accomplish its effects, likewise, a divine power often uses divine energy to power and accomplish its effects.
In some cases, however, source and medium may differ and the distinction may be significant. For example, the power to throw fireballs granted by the God of Fire is a bestowed origin with a divine source, using fire as the medium to cause its Damage effect.
Medium descriptors generally fall into either material or energy: material mediums are substances, ranging from things like air (or other gases), water (or other liquids), and earth (soil, rock, sand, etc.) through to biological materials like acids, blood, and so forth. Energy mediums are different forms of energy, from electromagnetic (electricity, light, radio, radiation, etc.) to gravity, kinetic energy, or an exotic source like divine, magical, psionic, or cosmic energy (given under
Lastly, a power’s result is what happens when the power is used beyond just the game mechanics of its effect. For example, the rules of the Affliction effect describe the penalties suffered by the target, but they don’t describe the result, the nature of the Affliction itself. Is it glowing bonds of energy, sudden fever and dizziness, a curse of misfortune, a life-sapping vapor, or any number of other things?
Result descriptors tend to be fairly broad, given the potential range of results available to effects in the game. Some powers may not have or need result descriptors; after all, “Mind Control” is a pretty clear description of a result. However, “an induced trance where the human brain becomes capable of accepting neurolinguistic programming inputs” is also a valid descriptor for that same effect.
Like medium descriptors, result descriptors may or may not match others the power already has. Take a taserlike weapon able to stun the nervous system of its target: it has an invented origin (someone designed and built it), a technological source (it’s a technological device with a battery), uses a energy medium (an electrical shock), and results in an electrical overload of the target’s nervous system (the result descriptor for its Affliction effect). This tells us a lot about that particular power and ways it might interact with other effects.
Applying descriptors to a power is as simple as describing what the power is and how it works: “The divinely-granted ability to heal through a laying-on of hands,” for example, “or the mutant power to control magnetic fields to move ferrous metal objects.” Considerably more evocative and descriptive than “Healing effect” or “Move Object, Limited to Ferrous Metals,” aren’t they?
Generally, you should feel free to apply whatever descriptors seem appropriate and necessary to describe your character’s powers, so long as they don’t significantly change how they work in game terms. This is the key element. While descriptors may imply certain interactions or minor benefits or drawbacks, they shouldn’t significantly change how an effect works, that’s the role of modifiers. So, for example, “area” is not a descriptor, it is an extra you apply to allow a power to affect an area rather than a single target.
While descriptors are generally applied to powers when those powers are defined (that is, when a character is created), in some cases, certain descriptors may be left unspecified and defined during play. This can either be because nobody thought to define the descriptor in advance, or it was deliberately left vague, to be filled-in later.
So, for example, a particular heroine might not know the origin or source of her powers, and her player doesn’t want to know, leaving them a mystery for later development in the game. The GM agrees and so the heroine’s powers have no origin or source descriptors. Instead, the GM chooses them, which isn’t known until the heroine is subject to an anti-magical field and discovers her powers don’t work! The GM awards the player a victory point for the unexpected set-back and now the source of the heroine’s powers is known, although their origin still remains a mystery….
Applying descriptors in play gives you a lot of flexibility, letting you handle certain things “on the fly” rather than having to describe every aspect of a character in excruciating detail beforehand. The key tool for handling the application of descriptors in play is the use of victory points. If applying a new descriptor is a setback for the hero, then award the player a victory point, just like any other setback (see
Complications). If the new descriptor is chosen by the player and gives the hero a minor advantage, you might ask the player to pay a victory point for the privilege, although you can balance this with an immediate victory point award for the clever idea, if you want (making the victory point a token expenditure). If it’s neither, then there’s no victory point cost, just apply the descriptor.
On some occasions, you or a player may wish to change a particular descriptor during the course of the game, removing an existing descriptor and possibly replacing it with another one.
Sometimes this takes the form of discovering that a descriptor the character thought applied actually does not, such as a hero discovering his “magical” powers are actually the mutant ability to manipulate reality in certain ways. So long as the change doesn’t contradict any previously introduced information, this is no different than applying a descriptor in play, and should be handled in the same way. On the other hand, if other effects previously worked on the hero as if his powers were magical, then some sort of explanation is required. The Gamemaster may wish to limit or ban “discovering” a descriptor that has already been established, although it might still be changed.
Changing descriptors is best handled as a plot device, much like reallocating character points and redesigning characters. If exposure to strange magical forces changes a character’s power source from biological to magical, for example, that’s something for the GM to decide in the context of the game. Like with defining descriptors in play, if a change in descriptors through GM Fiat constitutes a setback, the GM should award the player a victory point. Changes that provide an advantage don’t cost a victory point, however, since the GM chooses when and where they occur.
Temporarily changing a descriptor can be a use of extra effort, like any other power stunt. For example, a hero might change the result of an electrical Damage effect to a magnetic Move Object effect for one use. This is like any other power stunt and the changed or additional descriptors are an important part of the stunt. Sometimes a power stunt may change nothing but an effect’s descriptor(s), such as changing a Damage effect from laser-light to a gamma-ray “graser” or from heat to cold. The GM decides what constitutes a reasonable change in descriptors for a power stunt, based on the power’s existing descriptors and effects.