When it comes to Powers, do you prefer lists or freeform?

Posted: October 17, 2011 by pointyman2000 in Articles, Roleplaying Games

Here’s a question that I tend to ask lately (mostly due to a project I’ve been working on.)  Some people prefer all the powers and special abilities in a game laid out before them in nice orderly lists.  Others, on the other hand prefer loose guidelines that are open to much interpretation.  Both systems have their merits, and both of them tend to have their downsides as well.

Lists tend to be inflexible, but clear.  If it doesn’t exist in the lists, then it doesn’t exist at all, even if logic would say that some powers could be bent to achieve a given alternate result.  This could be overlooked as a necessary evil of course, and if anything at least it avoids the inevitable arguments when it comes to just what a given power can do.

Freeform tends to be flexible to the point where it can do all sorts of neat creative things.  The downside of course is that it can be easily abused, and may occasionally slow a game down to a crawl the moment the arguing starts.  This is one of the things that happens in any iteration of Mage, though I’m certain that other freeform systems endure this as well.

Ultimately, it’s an issue of preference, but I am curious if my preference for freeform is the minority.  What do you guys think?  What kind of framework for powers works for you?

  1. Joshua says:

    Freeform. If that results in arguing, you’re not using one of my SFX! systems 😉

  2. sonsoftaurus says:

    They both have their place of course. Freeform requires the GM to be more willing to say no, but it can lead to really interesting powers. Lists, if they are able to be tweaked/modified, can work well and can sometimes help to spark character ideas.

    So I think that the ideal is a mix. A list of common powers and a GM that is willing to wing it if needed, using the list for potential balance guidelines.

    A lot of games take that approach, or at least leave the door open for it.

    The old FASERIP Marvel supers had a number of regular powers, but also had provisions for modifying powers, and it was easy-peasy to make new ones – write a description of how it works, slap a rank onto it, done.

    Villains & Vigilantes had a number of regular powers, but also some very open-ended ones that you could do anything with, with GM approval (Body Power, Spells, Psionics, Mutant Power).

    HERO has a number of powers, and by applying advantages/limits and combining powers you can kludge together quite a lot of powers, especially with liberal interpretations of Transform or Change Environment. With everything expressed in points, it is also possible for GMs to weigh what a new power should cost and assign a value to it.

    D&D, at least earlier versions, had a number of standard spells, but you could also come up with new ones. Again, the existing lists helped provide a guide for appropriate power levels.

    So to answer the question, I like the convenience of lists when they’re coupled with the freedom for freeform when needed. A strict list of “this is all you can ever do, period” is not so great.

  3. EverKang says:

    Ditto to what sonoftaurus said. I prefer freeform, but with some kind of structure underlying that. I do like what M&M 3e does with powers now. Mostly, you’ve got a catalog of bare Effects that you slap modifiers and descriptors on to create actual Powers, much like Hero. But you can, of course, use Extra Effort or Hero Points to improvise an Effect from an existing Power. You’re still building from the same catalog, but without being absolutely confined to the Power’s existing effect. A nice blend. It can still slow the game down to build new effects on the fly, especially if a player has to look up the appropriate entries. Great flexibility, though.

  4. anarkeith says:

    The pre-written powers in 4e D&D were too rigid for me, so I took them apart, assigned a point value to them and gave each player a handful of point-cards to spend on power options like dice of damage and/or imposed conditions. We’ve played with this system for a couple of months now, and it’s holding up OK so far. Players can “roll their own” powers to fit the situation. You can check out the details here:


  5. Hikkikomori says:

    Lists help both unimaginative players and Munchkins have an idea of what each level of ability does – and curbs the latter’s penchant to rationalize all their actions with a low level skill in order to get a discount.

    Freeform allows for a more versatile and innovative gameplay. But it can also spiral out of control when there are too imaginative players in the pool.

    I guess it would boil down to what you would be more comfortable with as a Game Designer. Since you will be the one who will be designing the system and therefore set the boundaries of what your system can or cannot do. Set skills would be easier for both you and newbie players. Whereas Freeform would entice more out-of-the-box type of gameplay as compared to the Fight-Magic-Item action option in every encounter.

    Personally, what I like depends on what type of game it is. But what I do know is that I don’t like crunchy systems. My ideal preference leans more towards freeform skills, though set lists are helpful once in a while when I don’t feel like coming with zany ideas and would just like to shoot some goblins.

  6. Tim K. says:

    I prefer freeform. I like ideas on how to use it, but the fact of the matter is there is always a problem with lists that might come up in play that has to be handled. Handling those problems leads to freeform of a sort anyway, since few games give guidelines for particularly unique or obscure powers–especially in superhero games. Even powerful games like Hero fail at this–sure they’ve work around elements, but it still boils down to ‘because the GM says so..” (Example: Immunity to Heat)

  7. Rev. Keith Johnson says:

    I prefer lists of powers that were designed by a freeform system that is available in the appendix for those who want to tinker.

  8. loquacious says:

    A list, as long as Steve Long didn’t write it.

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