It’s an element of most games that players want to feel a little superhuman, so naturally many game systems, and many GMs, look for ways to give their players exactly that.
The trouble is that there’s only a slim difference between a super power and the tabletop equivalent of a cheat code. If it’s too good, it makes the characters’ abilities, and potentially their choices, completely irrelevant. It becomes an “I win” button they can push, bypassing any challenge in your campaign without thought or effort, even if that’s not how you intended it.
So how do you limit what you’re giving them just enough for it to still be useful without it completely invalidating your campaign and their character builds?
First let’s get our nouns squared away. An “I win” button is pretty much anything above and beyond the characters’ normal skills and abilities that almost guarantees success when used.
A small version is action points, which a player can cash in for a reroll or a one-time bonus. Larger and more assured “I win” buttons are things like favors from powerful allies who can swoop in to assist with armies, influence or their own abilities above and beyond what the PCs have access to (a Firewall strike team, a favor from the Johnson, intel from the baron’s spies, etc).
There are three good ways to limit your “I win” buttons, depending on what it is:
- Restrict frequency of use
- Add a cost for use
- Restrict range of use
Frequency of use is all about how often they can trigger the “I win” button. You can govern it by in-game time (once a day, once an hour) or by real-world time (once a session, once a story arc). With things like action points, frequency is usually limited by the number you can spend at once – you can only trigger one action point on a given action, even if you have a stack of them sitting in your camp.
You can also control frequency with a lead-up period for activation. Have the ability require three turns uninterrupted before it triggers, taking someone out of the action or out of the combat to focus on activation in exchange for a big bada boom if they make it to the magical turn number three.
Cost of use means that each time the ability is triggered, the PCs have to give something back. A vintage example from 3E D&D (yes, it’s vintage now, share a cry with me) was spontaneous casting: clerics had to sacrifice a prepared spell for the super power to turn anything into healing at a whim.
More modern examples are things like psi powers in Eclipse Phase, which cause “strain,” mental damage to the user each time they’re triggered. The end result is that the more often you use them, the closer to completely insane (and unplayable) you become. There are similar costs in other systems that deal physical damage in a similar capacity, and for a similar reason. The damage isn’t much, but it causes the necessary friction to keep the player from using their psi powers constantly and in place of other mundane skills.
With larger “I win” buttons, the cost is usually reputation or mission rewards. If the group you’re calling in is helping you above and beyond what you can do yourself, they’re going to ask for something in return. If it’s the group you’re working for (like calling in the Johnson’s contact on a Shadowrun heist), the cost may be deducted from the payoff at the end of the mission.
Restricting range of use means putting a limit on where or in what circumstances the “I win” button can be used. It might have very specific applications, or can only be used in certain environments (no airstrikes downtown, for instance).
Back to action points: most systems outline specific things you can cash in your action points for, so the range of use is already defined. When you go off-model with your own “I win” buttons, consider doing the same so that the player triggering the super power has to at least apply a modicum of thought.
With all of these restrictions, keep in mind that too many limitations can also invalidate the “I win” button and make it no reward at all in the end. Whatever the GM thinks about how useful the “I win” button is, if the players don’t see it the same way, they’ll never use it, or they won’t enjoy it when they do.
When you’re setting limitations, be careful to avoid the following pitfalls:
- Never set the frequency of use to “only once ever.” Anything the players can only cash in once would have to be huge in scale, and may feel cheap when they do trigger it (if they trigger it at all – once ever will scare many players off of using a thing they might need later). Give them two uses at least – one to try it out on a mission where they may not really need it, and one to hold onto for the grand finale or the night when everyone’s rolling poorly and they need a safety net.
- Don’t rely on “a favor to be named later” as a cost of use. Groups that lend their assistance might realistically ask for “a favor to be named later” when swooping in to help, which can be fun to toy with, but be careful postponing costs. It becomes something you have to keep track of, and often the “favor” is just more RP opportunities, which makes it more of a reward than a cost to most players. If you do trade in favors, trigger them at inconvenient times that add additional challenges to an ongoing mission or task.
- Be flexible on your range of use when the time is right. If the players are ready to trigger the “I win” button but the conditions aren’t quite met, be willing to break your own rules. Remember that all these limitations are to prevent overuse, but if your players haven’t abused the big rewards, that’s a thing to be rewarded in and of itself. Be ready to explain why a limitation you gave them earlier doesn’t apply in this case if they wish to use it during the grand finale or another session-saving instance.
With the right limits on your limitations, you should be able to confidently give your players something they can keep in their back pocket for the chance to make a scene feel truly epic later without it taking over your campaign entirely.
And then it’s an “I win” for everybody.