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Author Topic: What is the function of Kewl Powerz  (Read 14815 times)
Troy_Costisick
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« on: June 26, 2005, 10:02:31 AM »

Heya,

In this thread Tony wrote this:

Quote
My argument is that they address something that is hard to address in other ways. Which is why, in fact, games without them usually don't function well.

I don't think kewl powerz and adventure are necessary. But I think they are a reliable technique for addressing something that is necessary. If I could just figure out what it is then I could address it in a different way in Misery Bubblegum, which would (I suspect) help the game tremendously.


To which Euro replied:

Quote
The something necessary addressed by kewl powerz is characterization. Being a <insert character type> obliviates the necessity of indentity. You can shoot lightning out of your butt? Good for you, that makes you a superhero. As you can see, the kewl powerz are just a justification for the identity, not the identity itself. Both D&D and WW games demonstrate this principle very clearly, although the kewl powerz tend to overshadow the original purpose. Look at D&D, for example: it's definite history that the original purpose of character classes and class powers was niche protection and tactical variety.


Tony asked that we take this to new threads, so I am honoring his wishes.  So, to continue:

I believe Kewl Powerz also provide motivation.  For instance, "Yeah, you can shoot 'lesser lightning' out your butt, however if you schore six more character points you can upgrade it to 'greater lightning' and really deal some damage."  Kewl Powerz, often in Gamists games IMO, spur players on to take risk, address gamble/crunch, and alter the SIS.  This way their characters advance and give them greater strategic options.  For Sim and Nar I'm less clear on what function they serve exactly, but that's what I want this thread to be about.

Euro posed "characterization", I posed "motivation", but what other functions do Kewl Powers serve in a game?  Is there a difference in function between, Gamist, Simulationist, and Narrativist games?

Peace,

-Troy
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KingstonC
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« Reply #1 on: June 26, 2005, 11:38:58 AM »

People like to pretend to have Kewl Powers so they can pretend to be powerful.  Imagining you can shoot lightning out of your butt has a strong psychological appeal to those who feel powerless. This "power fantasy" drives a lot of sim-color gaming, the terrain explored being "what is it like to be powerful and cool?"
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Jeph
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Jeff Schecter


« Reply #2 on: June 26, 2005, 12:48:35 PM »

Kewl Powerz also have another very important function, gam-wise: they add complexity. The more complex a game is, the more different strategies and tactics you can explore. That's the reason I enjoy playing spell using characters in D&D so much: more Kewl Powerz, more options, more flexible tactics!
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Jeffrey S. Schecter: Pagoda / Other
Remko
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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« Reply #3 on: June 26, 2005, 12:58:30 PM »

Troy,

Quote from: Troy_Costisick

Euro posed "characterization", I posed "motivation", but what other functions do Kewl Powers serve in a game?  Is there a difference in function between, Gamist, Simulationist, and Narrativist games?



As Jeph mentioned above, Gamist definitely has a flexible tactics as their motivation for kewl powerz.

For sim, I guess two explorations are appropriate:

A. Exploration of system. This is a no-brainer: more complexity means more to explore, I guess.
B. Exploration of character: A lot of people want to distinguish themselves from normal live. A way to do that is to have kewl powers one normally doesn't have. They can feel more like the character (because the kewl powerz are defining the character) and it's really a different person.
<EDIT>: I guess the being a different person is called the Dream, but I'm not sure of that.

Nar: Well, there is only one thing I could think of: kewl powerz give the opportunity to adress some Premises in normal life probably couldn't exist or at least couldn't be put in such a strong contrast (or provide a method to create a more difficult decision). Example: Sorcerer. The strive for power could be adressed by using political characters, but situations are given more impact by choosing something as radical as a demon (even if the demons aren't demons from hell).

My two cents.
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Remko van der Pluijm

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Andrew Morris
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« Reply #4 on: June 26, 2005, 02:01:14 PM »

Perhaps powers give the players a sense of greater authorial control over the story. Which would be why most of the examples of non-powers games are indie titles, coming from the foundation that stance and control of the story can be divvied up by design. Whereas in traditional games, the idea of GM-as-god has so much weight that character powers give the player a sense that they have a mechanically proteced method for exerting control over the SIS.

One of my favorite games is Universalis, in which each player has equal control of the game and the story. I don't think this is coincidence. Another great game is Capes, where, again, all participants have equal control. Thinking about it, this could also be the reason I enjoy Breaking the Ice so much. Quite clearly in this game, characters have no powers, yet authorial control is equally shared. Universalis could easily be played without any sort of powers, and Capes could be drifted so that the mechanics handled, say, politcal machinations or a love story without significant effort. And, I think, they'd be just as much fun.
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Callan S.
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« Reply #5 on: June 26, 2005, 03:33:35 PM »

Quote from: Andrew Morris
Perhaps powers give the players a sense of greater authorial control over the story. Which would be why most of the examples of non-powers games are indie titles, coming from the foundation that stance and control of the story can be divvied up by design. Whereas in traditional games, the idea of GM-as-god has so much weight that character powers give the player a sense that they have a mechanically proteced method for exerting control over the SIS.

Thinking about that, kewl powerz are a type of niche protection. When the group of PC's are all normal, they all do roughly the same stuff. While kewl powerz give each PC a niche. This means that if the opposing player (ie the GM) renders useless the abilities of several PC's, one PC might still have the capacity to get through. If everyone is the same, then when the GM renders one PC's abilities useless, as much as they are all have basically the same abilities, they are all rendered useless.

Kewl powerz give the players different approach vectors to the SIS...it's part of the exploration process, discovering which PC isn't really blocked in a particular situation. Knowing which PC's are and aren't blocked, helps you learn about the game world. I think this is a CA neutral technique.
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Philosopher Gamer
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Andrew Morris
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« Reply #6 on: June 26, 2005, 05:49:44 PM »

Callan, that might be true, but wouldn't that also be the case with other Effectiveness traits? In a game about political scheming, one character might have the "Uncover Dirty Secrets" skill, which allows the group to achieve their goal. Differentiation might be accomplished by powers, but I think it could also be accomplished by other means.
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Callan S.
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« Reply #7 on: June 27, 2005, 05:13:58 PM »

Hi Andrew: I see what you mean. However those other means you end up using may themselves become 'kewl powers'. 'Uncover dirty secrets' sounds pretty kewl to me.

I think I said it wrong before: Rather than this providing niche protection, this is what niche protection is supposed to provide. It's not so much about being different and differentiation, but some toe hold on the SIS like with your 'GM is god' idea. Each player owns patches of SIS, different patches from anyone else. Then we see what happens when everyone collides.
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Philosopher Gamer
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Troy_Costisick
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« Reply #8 on: June 27, 2005, 05:33:59 PM »

Heya,

Okay, we can add escapism, complexity, and niche protection to the list.  And to add to what Callan said, I agree niche protection has been the rationale for many games to have Kewl Powerz.  

But the point is here to deconstruct Kewl Powerz so that we can find both alternatives and better ways to implement them.  So, what would happen in a game full of Kewl Powerz (Dnd3e for instance) if a character was made lacking them.  What might the play look like?  What might the player do to compensate?  Could the character survive?

Peace,

-Troy
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Callan S.
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« Reply #9 on: June 27, 2005, 06:21:59 PM »

That was a deconstruction. Kewl powers give keynote arguements. Imagine the fighter trying to say he sneaks up and steals something...imagine how much effort he's going to have to put into convincing you. Now imagine a rogue saying he sneaks up and steals something. He's not going to have to work as hard at convincing you.

That character who lacks cool powers? He's always going to be having a hard time. See, the fighter from above could, instead of just sneaking, hybridize his arguement...sniping some guards with his bow, then trying to sneak past the rest. This uses his characters kewl power to help him from sweating as much in trying to convince you of what he's doing.

Once you have something you can rely on in game, it provokes clever roleplay (like the sniping/sneak combo from above), because you can build ideas based on the 'fact' of your characters kewl power.

Perhaps cool powers are just the same as using some hard facts in an arguement. Once you have those hard facts, you will try to use them to underpin your arguement that an idea is true/would work in the game world. Without hard facts, what have you got to work with arguement wise?

Rambling a bit here.
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Philosopher Gamer
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TonyLB
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« Reply #10 on: June 27, 2005, 06:28:05 PM »

That's what the kewl powerz do to empower the player of that character.  Any thoughts on what they do to empower the other players (including the GM)?

Because in niche-heavy games, I've very commonly heard the complain from GMs that an imbalanced party makes it impossible for them to do their job.  Which always struck me as odd and illuminating.
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Doug Ruff
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« Reply #11 on: June 27, 2005, 10:35:07 PM »

Quote from: TonyLB
That's what the kewl powerz do to empower the player of that character.  Any thoughts on what they do to empower the other players (including the GM)?


They facilitate exploration of the setting.

A basic example: the maguffin is in a locked and trapped chest behind a locked secret door. Without characters who can find the door and open the locks, the plot can't continue and all of the players (including the GM) can suffer.

(Notice that there's no thought given here to the GM deciding that the maguffin doesn't have to be locked away.)

The same goes with knobs on for any obstacle which requires magic to pass.

In niche-heavy games, an individual character can be quite limited in what they can achieve in the game world. There's a whole range of challenges that can no longer be "fairly" thrown at the players.

Consider the cleric in the context of "classic" D&D play. Typically, this is a support role. Because of the slow healing rates in the game, most of the perilous adventures are just too damn perilous unless there's someone around to zap your wounds better. No cleric, no dungeon crawl - that's a whole avenue of exploration closed to the party.
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Sydney Freedberg
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« Reply #12 on: June 28, 2005, 12:40:36 PM »

Three-stage argument here. Bear with me!

Quote
Tragedy is when I stub my toe; comedy is when you fall into a sewer and die.


1. Intensity

The implicit question is, "Why do I care about someone who isn't me?"

And the way Kewl Powerz answer that question is by saying, "Because there are HUGE horrible wonderful strange things happening to that character! Look! He shoots lightning out his butt! At space monkeys! With angst!"

And I'm like, "Cool - monkeys!"

Because to engage my intense interest in me, all you have to do is make me stub my toe: That frickin' hurts! Or give me a cracker: Crunchy, crunchy in my mouth, mmmm. Because this stuff is all actually happening to me, sending pain or pleasure signals up into my brain.

A step removed, to engage my interest in my baby daughter, all you have to do is make her cry, or giggle cutely, because I have socially beneficial hardwired primate parenting instincts to make me empathize intensely with her feelings: What happens to her isn't happening directly to my body, but my senses take it in and my brain's pain/pleasure centers fire anyway.

To engage my interest in some poor starving kids in the Third World, people I don't know and who aren't here? Maybe a few seconds of camera footage, so I can see their faces and read their body language and my primate social empathy can kick in. (My conscious brain knows they're not members of my little tribe, sure; my subsconcious doesn't).

To engage my interest in some fictional character, someone who is not only not-here but not-anywhere? Maybe let me watch a skilled, charismatic actor pretend to be that chacter, so (again) my primate social empathy kicks in. (My conscious brain knows they're not real, sure; my subconscious, not so much).

But to engage my interest in a fictional character whose very existence is only conveyed by the (probably iffy) acting and narration skills of my fellow players and myself? Just to get my attention in the first place, you probably have to turn the dial up to 11. If that character flies through the air shooting lightning bolts and then has a skyscraper dropped on him -- that's how hard you probably have to push it before I feel the same degree of pleasure and pain as I get when I, myself, take a nice brisk walk and then stub my toe.

Big Important Caveat: I am not saying here "if only we were better artists (actors, writers, storytellers, whatever), we would be able to engage people's sympathies without any of this juvenile Kewl Powerz crap." Skill does matter, immensely, but anything that is not happening to me personally (or, maybe, my baby) is just not going to feel as intense. And there are some degrees of intensity in anyone's life that can ONLY be expressed through Kewl Powerz -- that's why people speak in metaphor and simile ("She smiled at me, I felt like I was flying!" "He hated my project, I'm crushed!") and in myth.

All this applies equally to any medium, though, from movies to the morning paper. So what about RPGs, specifically?


2. Choice

In real life, most of the time, we don't actually have a lot of practicable choices. Yes, I could seek horrible revenge on the guy who cut me off in traffic, blow off work to post on the internet (err, hmmm), cheat on my spouse, or -- alternatively -- rescue people from burning buildings and feed the hungry, but it'd be hard, with a high ratio of effort to return, e.g. of dangerous driving to jerk humilation, or of soup ladeled out to people lastingly helped.

But if I had powers -- aaaah. And haven't we all heard something infuriating on the radio and thought, "if I were in charge, I would..." or seen an opportunity to do good (or a temptation to do evil!) and thought "if only I could..." or even mused "if I had a million dollars..."? Any more-than-ordinary ability makes impractical options into practical ones; superhuman abilities can make impossible options into practical ones.

If you don't have that many real, practicable choices, if there's really only one thing you can do that makes any sense, there's not much challenge in achieving victory that way (Gamism) or much moral impact in choosing that path (Narrativism). But if you have enough power -- particularly power to survive the consequences of your choices -- relative to the obstacles, that effort:return equation starts changing, and you have more options to play (literally) with.


3. Alternatives to Powerz?

I didn't start this little essay with any in mind, actually; and my Big Important Caveat is that there's always a place for Powerz; but as I've written, a few have come to mind:

(A) Intensity - stakes: Give the real people playing the game something (more or less) real to care about that corresponds to the things their imaginary characters care about. This, I think, is part of the appeal of Story Tokens, Hero Points, Experience, etc. -- your character cares about getting or losing Imaginary Thing X, but you the real person care about losing Corresponding Thing Y, which doesn't exist in the character's reality but does in yours, if only as a means of (in turn) shaping the character's story in the way you desire. Perhaps this is why people get so intensely involved in gambling games: Dice and cards hardly attract empathy, but when their fate is intertwined with your finances, you start caring really fast.

(B) Intensity - empathy: Make the players feel the same things as the characters, albeit in different degrees towards different objects. E.g. if my character fails an Awareness check, maybe I don't get as much information about the situation in-game, so I and my character are both confused; if my character is being seduced, maybe I am offered a pile of Story Point Things if I go along, so both I and my character are tempted.

(C) Choice - reduce burden: If you play characters who are "built to suffer," then it doesn't matter that their effort:return ratio is lousy, because you don't want them to succeed. (I do this a lot). A game might encourage this by rewarding defeat (e.g. Story Tokens in Capes).

(D) Choice - increase options: This is probably the hard one. If you build a game where all people can do is fight, then of course normal characters will be unsatisfying, if not swiftly dead; if you build a game where the things ordinary people can do -- love, hate, lie, cheat, tell the truth -- actually make a difference, then ordinary people become attractive characters. "Make a difference," here, means not just in the Shared Imagined Space of the game, freeform: I think it really has to mean (as in option A above) something in the real world of the players as well.
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Callan S.
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« Reply #13 on: June 28, 2005, 08:08:04 PM »

Quote from: TonyLB
That's what the kewl powerz do to empower the player of that character.  Any thoughts on what they do to empower the other players (including the GM)?
They don't empower other players, quite the opposite! They add hurdles for the other players to jump. Beneficial ones, as coping with how powerful someone else is in a particular area, will help get you out of your comfort zone (even if it just results in a Legolas Vs Gimli style kill count races, it's still busting you out of your comfort zone). Coping with someone elses power also involves the places you'll get into that you couldn't have without their power.
Quote

Because in niche-heavy games, I've very commonly heard the complain from GMs that an imbalanced party makes it impossible for them to do their job.  Which always struck me as odd and illuminating.

I'm not sure about answering this one...it sounds like illusionist GM's having trouble making things go just as they wish, when too much force will kill some PC's, but too little will not control the strong PC's.
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Philosopher Gamer
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TonyLB
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« Reply #14 on: June 29, 2005, 03:49:14 AM »

That's disempowering the other characters, but doesn't it empower the players to address the challenges that the kewl powerz provide?  A player, for instance, doesn't usually have the power to address a challenge that doesn't exist.

GM-wise, for instance, a group with no wilderness skills means that the GM simply cannot present most wilderness adventures.
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