This week, we’re talking about situational abilities. D&D’s feather fall is probably the most egregious example but there are plenty of others in different games. Anima’s ki techniques had the ability to build moves that would work on a specific opponent or only at night and games like World of Darkness’ Werewolf had abilities that dealt only with specific targets (Spirits).
Other examples include characters that are highly specialized in a specific skillset (Pilots or Drivers are a good example here) or carry very specific tools (like explosives)
How do you, as a GM give these people the opportunity to shine without making that specific element of play the focus of the campaign? And how do you, as a player, make sure you actually get to use those cool spells and abilities you’ve worked so hard for to have?
That’s what we’ll be looking at today.
Let’s start with players. There’s a couple of things you, as a player, are going to have to keep in mind when selecting your sweet abilities: Situational Power and Opportunity Cost.
Situational Power is fairly self-explanatory. When you get to use this ability, how good is it really? A special power that kills a specific creature so hard their entire bloodline is erased from history is a lot more useful than a special power that, for example, causes a mild rash to a specific subset of creatures. Weigh if the power the ability offers is worth its situational nature.
Opportunity Cost is how much it ‘costs’ you to have the ability. In some cases, this may be almost nothing, such as in D&D 3.5 where many magical weapons automatically came with a light-emitting ability (Free Torch!). In other cases, this may be a heavy cost, such as the investment of character creation points, expending a limited resource such as spell slots or mana or permanently lowering a certain maximum like HP.
You should weigh each of these categories against how often you think you’ll be able to use your ability. Check with your GM for this. Some abilities will be much more relevant in certain campaigns compared to others.
Rangers in D&D are an excellent example of this. In some campaigns, picking Favored Enemy: Orcs is going to be amazing as the GM sends waves upon waves of orcs at you. In others, you’ll never see an orc. Similarly, picking the Wyld shaping charms in Exalted is a great idea if your campaign is situated on the edge of the world, but if all you ever see is the Blessed Isle, you’ll just have spent a pile of points on padding your sheet.
So make sure that the abilities you choose are valid for the campaign you’ll be playing.
Which brings us to the GM. First of all, clearly communicate to your players the campaign you wish to run. If you want your players to have a boat and be pirates, tell them so no-one shows up with a pile of desert and volcano related magic. If you want your players to go into a specific dungeon, let them know so none of them roll up pirates with claustrophobia.
Second, make sure you prepare some scenarios for your players to really show off their unique abilities. Put in some animals for the ranger or druid to talk to. Make sure there’s locked doors and traps for your ranger to deal with. Put in a windy bridge where the party’s duelist can have it out with a rival swashbuckler. Make sure each of the signature abilities your players have chosen have their time to shine.
During the campaign, keep an eye out for weird abilities or corner case interactions between player characters and make sure to highlight them when they occur. Check in with your players about their abilities and if it turns out they’re not using them or they feel they’re not effective, don’t be afraid to change them if necessary.
Alternatively, if a player has a really cool ability but doesn’t seem to use it very often, they may be undervaluing it. Set up a scenario where the power of said ability can really shine, be it a swarm of weak minions for their area effect, an area that deals steady trickle-damage for their heal-over-time effect or just a sheer cliff so they can finally cast their Feather Fall spell. Whatever the solution, give them some space to play with their ability. Maybe they’ll find new uses for it.
And if their situational ability turns out to be really powerful, you’ll have a gotten a great story out of it.