Uncontrollable Mutation

I’m a big fan of the basic idea of super-powers in one form or another — it can make a great play mechanic in a lot of settings, and provides a lot of interesting opportunities. I’ve made several uses of White Wolf’s Aberrant RPG for these types of games (the original d10 version, not the d20 edition they printed later), and with a few modifications (and an entirely new setting) it works really, really well. But there’s one thing in the base Aberrant setting/system I’ve always really liked that I’ve never had the opportunity to properly explore: eruptions.

For the uninitiated, Aberrant is a X-Men style super-hero setting, where some humans have experienced a miraculous mutation that gives them their powers. The initial onset of the mutation is a violent presentation of those abilities, normally preceded by a week of migraines and then triggered by a stressful event, called an eruption. It a very cool basic idea, which suggests that the character’s powers are normally selected based on their personality, and the nature of those events.

The problem with this, is that most players of RPGs aren’t interested in events they can’t control — role playing gives people an opportunity to confront situations that they couldn’t approach in their normal life. We create characters, give them abilities, and set them loose in adventures; give them challenges to overcome — challenges within our control. That’s part of what most people find fun. They generally don’t like situations entirely outside their control, especially regarding their character — more so when those uncontrollable events spill over in to the mechanical operation of their character. So when players are made to play characters and not given control over the progression of a major component like their powers, they tend to have less fun.

This isn’t universally true, however. I’m a fan of seeing how characters — mine and others — adapt to very usual situations outside of their control. Many of the most interesting Super Hero stories are about people adapting to abilities thrust upon them. And I thought — hey, why not we make the random selection of powers a bit more predictable? It creates something of a middle ground between players wanting to direct their mechanical growth and the setting wanting that growth to be uncontrolled.

The Mechanics
There’s two key mechanics here — first to determine how players gain new powers, and second to determine what powers they gain. These basic systems are pretty easy to apply to any system with powers.

So, you need to determine what should cause the players to gain new abilities; there’s a few different approaches you might take with this. Here’s my favorite.

  • Players purchase powers as per normal (with XP in Aberrant) but they don’t choose which power (or what level), nor do they get access to it immediately
  • When players improve their stats relevant to their powers (Quantum for Aberrant), purchase new powers, use their powers (generally in a spectacular way), or are exposed to something related to those powers (other powers, radiation, whatever), they earn a point to Potential
  • Whenever a player earns a point in Potential, they roll a d10; if the roll is equal or less than their potential, they gain access to a new (purchased) power, and their Potential is reset to zero

This way, players often earn new powers in the  heat of the moment, or at key points in time, but not as they demand. You may also use some sort of familiarity/penalty system to give players a mechanical sense of adjusting to their new ability.

Next, we need to determine what power they get. This one is a bit trickier — as we need a way to identify what fits the characters actions more ideally. Here’s what I did.

  • We gave the players three spectrum stats to represent their demonstrated personality: Fight/Flight, Direct/Lateral, and Introverted/Extroverted
  • When players create their characters, they can distribute 10 points across those spectra however they like
  • When players encounter a problem, the GM determines the means they used to over come it (which is normally pretty obvious)
    • Fight: Did they choose to combat their conflict?
    • Flight: Did they retreat or flee to avoid the problem?
    • Direct: Did they approach the problem head on?
    • Lateral: Did they approach the problem from a novel/outside-the-box approach?
    • Introverted: Did they act alone (by choice)?
    • Extroverted: Did they (try to) act with others/as a team?
  • Whether or not they actually accomplish their goals, the intent of the player action determines which spectra are selected — we generally avoid picking more than two spectra at once if possible
  • Depending on the scale of the problem encountered, players will have to reallocate up to 3 points from their spectra to the spectra they used
    • You can handle this in two ways; let the players pick which spectra they take their points from, or have them take points from the opposite side of the spectra they are assigning their points to
    • You can additionally allow them to allocate their spectra points to any of the viable spectra (if there is more than one) or require them to allocate them evenly
  • When players acquire new powers, they roll 2 d10 and then count to see which spectra each die lands on
    • If you end up with two opposing spectra (ie: Fight/Flight) you take only the category with more points assigned to it; if tied, the player can pick
    • You can use 1 die if you want the system to be a little simpler
  • Now — here’s the work intensive part — you’ll need a list of the powers available to the players, categorized in to groups of spectra categories; you can do this in three ways
    • roll 1 die, and have 6 categories, one for each spectra
    • roll 2 dice and let the player pick which category they choose
    • roll 2 dice and have 18 categories and use both spectra
    • The intent is to match the most common application of each power to the personality type is suits most
  • Finally, randomly select a power from that list and give it to the player

This might seem like an overly complicated way to determine who gets what power, but it comes with some definite benefits. In foremost, the personality spectra do a  good job monitoring a character’s base actions, and can provide feedback to the players on how their character has been behaving and help them dictate their personality. Then there’s the benefit of how the system mediates the natural and directed growth of powers. And in practice, it’s actually fairly easy to put to use.

So that’s that — I hope some other folks can put this to use in their games. I’ve got two settings that I’d like to put out there that use this system, and I look forward to putting it to more use in future games.

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