Supernormal Characters or Super-Characters?

I recently had an argument with some old friends while roleplaying. My Ars Magica character wants to expand his magic. I was criticised for playing an ‘empty’ character, a character with no real goals, and that just started a whole can of worms…

But something did come out of it. Most of our roleplaying games are based on humans who have supernatural powers but I realised that there is a distinction on how people perceive ‘powers’ and their characters.

There are “Supernormal” characters. What I mean by this is when designing your RPG character; you design the character (personality, motivations, etc.) and then add powers to it.

Now I take a different slant, I see powers are being part of the character. I’ll call these “Super-Character”. The character is partly defined by their powers. It seems a slight distinction but it does have an impact on playing characters and running games. (It’s not the same as specialising character abilities though as you can do that in both models).

For example, when looking at creating a new character, I always think… what do I want this character to be able to do? I then look at the list of ‘powers’, select the ones I want for the character and optimise parts of my character to use those powers effectively. I always felt a little guilty when I did this as if I was power-gaming (which I am to a degree)… but my rationale was that these powers are part of the character, why would he have them if he can’t use them? That’s not to say building a character and adding the powers on top is a bad either (well I think it’s bad in certain situations but I’ll get to those later).

Many games are built around one or the other mode. For example White-Wolf’s Vampire is based on the Supernormal mode. You create your character and then you add the supernatural template and be damned if your core character can’t really use their new powers effectively. But this is good, this is the way playing a new Vampire should be. The curse if forced apon the mortal character.

But any game that is explicitly about Magic should be the Super-character model, IMHO (i.e. Magic is part of the character not added on top). If not, then why call them “Mages” (or Witches, Shamans, Warlocks, Wizards, Sages, etc.) at all. “Mages” are about Magic. It should describe them, affect how they interact with the world, alter their motivations etc. The character should also come to Magic, not have it forced apon them (of course there are variations of this but lets not yet confuse the issue).

A character that has magic added on top… well I guess you can call them a “Mage” but to me it sounds more like a ‘gifted’ character or a ‘magically’ enhanced character then a “Mage”. In fact it’s not really “Magic” in this sense. “Magic” is just the excuses for the powers and provides ‘flavour’ for it. You could just as easily call it ‘advanced science’. (That’s not to say a character that has advanced so far in “magic” but then became more interested in ‘magical’ politics is a supernormal character but then this isn’t a starting magic user… this is a proficient or developed magic user).

(I guess this is another reason why I don’t like the new Mage and Werewolf… for me the supernatural template should not be added on top… it should be a single mortal+super template. The Werewolf has the power in his blood even before his change. It is not a curse like a classic werewolf legend but something they inherited. Likewise a Mage should be drawn to Magic, not something forced on to them. This is IMHO of course and all replies to this point should go to another topic please.)

Going back to the start of this post, my Ars Magica character is a ‘Weather Mage’. The experience of Magic, control of Weather and the experience of Enigma were, I considered, the driving factors of the character. That’s not to say he couldn’t also have other goals. But a character that starts as someone with no interest in Magic at all yet still spends their XP to increase it… that sounds as much to me as power-gaming as me designing a character to effectively use their powers…

But then people seem to fall into one or other of the two modes generally when creating their character (but it can depend on the game in question too).

Some further observations and conjecture (i.e. I could be completely wrong on all these but they are worth throwing out there):

  • Supernormal type games often have ‘Gifts’ or single ‘Powers’ that can’t be developed further though normally new gifts can be bought. Traits that represent a new power at each level are practically the same.
  • Super-Character type games I guess have powers that are linked back into the core character via other stats or personality quirks. Or the powers fall out naturally from the abilities of the character. This might mean very restrictive types or very odd types (?). The setting should also detail how they came to the powers, the efforts required to get it and what they ‘lose’ for them. (Normal mortal characters may have more skill points for example). The setting/system should emphasis how the powers make them different even from day one, before they have real powers. These subtle qualities are infinitely more important than the powers themselves.
  • IMHO a “broken” game is where you have super-character-type powers but a setting that strives to be a supernormal-type one. Well maybe. Anyway these are just conjecture and I guess require a bit more thought.

Am I completely mad? I know the background thing I suggested earlier was not so warmly received.

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