Five Broken Abilities From The World Of Darkness

In gaming, an ability is defined as overpowered if it is more powerful than it should be. How you decide that can be tricky, but it usually boils down to an ability being stronger than other powers of the same cost or level. Three ranks in Forces Magic granting you the ability to call down lightning bolts would be over powered if three ranks in Matter Magic only let you turn water into salty water.

Overpowered abilities are bad for roleplaying games because they unbalance play. If one power is much stronger than others of the same cost, you feel pressured to take it because you want your character to be effective. Those who don’t take them end up feeling discouraged because their characters are so much less capable. Even in a narrative heavy game like White Wolf’s The World of Darkness (WoD), keeping abilities on the same level is important. Unfortunately, the World of Darkness has some of the most overpowered abilities available in gaming.

Arcane, Mage: The Ascension

Mageasce_cFor our first entry, we have to take a trip in the Wayback Machine to 1993. Macedonia was admitted into the UN, the European Union was created, and White Wolf Publishing put out a book about pretending to be a wizard. That book was Mage: The Ascension, and it would forever change the way people thought about roleplaying games. It introduce a revolutionary free-form magic system and a setting so rich that many groups are still using it today. It also had one of the most broken abilities to ever grace the genre.

Old World of Darkness character sheets had a spot on them for something called “backgrounds.” Most of these were benefits like Allies or Resources, things your character had that existed outside their actual stats. One exception was Arcane. This background represented the mage’s ability to slip around unnoticed. It didn’t actually make them invisible, but people found it hard to concentrate on them. One rank would make the character easy to overlook, while five ranks made them practically non-existent. So far, so good.

The problem arose in Arcane’s mechanics. Not only did you add Arcane to all Stealth skill rolls, but you subtracted it from opposing Perception or Investigation skill rolls. In some cases, Arcane would count twice on a single roll. Adding insult to injury, it was cheaper to raise with starting points than the actual Stealth skill. If you wanted to make a sneaky character, Arcane was more efficient than the skill meant for that exact purpose. If you made a character with both Arcane and Stealth, you would have a master ninja to whom sneaking up and tying the President’s shoe laces in knots would be a breeze.

There was no corresponding bonus for detection skills. If you were playing a detective and trying to track someone who had Arcane, you’d be at a huge disadvantage with no way to make up the difference. It also gave a few miscellaneous bonuses like erasing security footage and covering up tracks, just to rub salt in the wound.

Gunslinger, The World of Darkness

world of darknessAfter that little flashback, it’s time to examine more recent additions to White Wolf’s lineup. New World of Darkness changed up a few things, including doing away with backgrounds and replacing them with something called “merits“. Merits include social benefits like Allies and Resources, but they also cover physical and mental abilities that don’t fit as a skill or attribute.

For the most part, these merits provide your character with a minor ability or small edge they wouldn’t otherwise have. Then, there is Gunslinger. This merit allows your character to fire two pistols at once. A little cheesy, but what’s the harm? It must be remembered that the New World of Darkness operates on the Storytelling system. In the Storytelling system, characters only get one attack per round. It isn’t like Dungeons and Dragons where attacks scale with level. In the World of Darkness, it’s one attack, always. Unless you have Gunslinger.

This three point merit lets your character make a second attack with their off hand pistol. A mild penalty is slapped on, 1-3 dice depending on other abilities, so it isn’t quite doubling your firepower, but it’s pretty close. The amount of damage a character with Gunslinger can inflict is frightening. If you’re building a gunfighter, there is no other merit in the book that will benefit you half as much.

It’s amazing how many systems miss the significance of having an extra attack when everyone else only has one. Legend of the Five Rings did this, as did Shadowrun. Unfortunately, White Wolf seems to have thought Gunslinger was a great idea, because in a WoD book released soon after, they put in something much worse.

Fighting Styles, Armory

ArmoryIn the Storytelling system, Fighting Styles are a type of merit your character can take in order to focus the way they fight into something a little more specific than “Melee Weapons” or “Firearms.” They were first introduced in the core WoD book, where they worked just fine. It wasn’t until the Armory book that things got out of hand.

Armory introduced eight new Fighting Styles, and three of them were some of the most overpowered options available to date. Those three are Combat Marksmanship, Sniping, and Fencing.

You might be wondering, “What could possibly make Fencing count as broken in a setting filled with guns?” The answer lies in the fourth rank ability, Moulinet. This ability allows your character to spend a willpower point and do extra damage on an attack equal to their dexterity, 3-5 on most characters who invest in fencing weapons. For reference, that same character who is very good at sword fighting will normally do 3-4 damage per attack, so this technique allows them to essentially double their damage output so long as they have willpower to spend. No other non-magical ability allows for such a drastic increase in damage output — except, of course, Sniping.

In the Storytelling system, weapons add bonus dice to the attack roll rather than doing a flat amount of damage. Each die has a one in three chance of coming up a success and adding damage. The fifth rank of Sniping allows your character to spend a willpower point to turn all of those bonus dice into automatic damage. A five die rifle goes from one or two added damage to a guaranteed five. Fencing at least requires the use of a melee weapon, while a character with Sniping can inflict their massively inflated damage from three miles away.

Combat Marksmanship is a different animal altogether. Gunslinger earned a place on this list by granting an extra attack. At rank five, Combat Marksmanship grants up to three. Again, there are some minor penalties slapped on, but the number of extra dice can get mind boggling. In a system of single attacks, the character with three or four attacks is king.

There isn’t room here to mention all the abilities granted at lower ranks of these Fighting Styles, but suffice to say they are all well worth their cost. What makes these abilities so overpowered, beyond their ridiculous bonuses, is that merits are the cheapest thing to raise on the character sheet. Even moderate amounts of experience will soon bring on a character with ridiculous capacity to dish out pain. Speaking of which…

Professional Training, Hunter: the Vigil

Hunter the vigilHunter is a fantastic game, easily my favorite of the Storytelling settings, which is why this particular merit sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s easy to focus on the rank five ability, ‘A Day on the Job,’ and it is certainly overpowered. This rank allows your character to re-roll all failed dice on a skill check by spending a willpower, increasing average successes significantly. That gets especially crazy when dealing with combat rolls, which tend to have much larger dice pools.

However, the overpowered nature of Professional Training goes much deeper. Rank one says that levels in this merit also count as levels in a different merit, Contacts. Your character gets a two for one deal, something I have never seen done anywhere else in the Storytelling system. Ranks three and four make buying your character’s most often used skills cheaper.

With all five ranks in Professional Training, your character will be like unto a god in combat, have five ranks in Contacts, and be able to buy their most important skills at a significant discount. The amount of experience efficiency here is staggering, but at least it still deals with only your character, which is more than I can say for the next entry on this list…

Retainer, World of Darkness

RetainerWe finish this journey with a trip back to the core Storytelling book, and a merit that doesn’t seem too bad on the surface. Retainer gives you a loyal follower to do your bidding, and haven’t we all wished we had one of those from time to time?

However, your minion gets more powerful the more points you invest. Things get really crazy when you hit the top levels. If you buy all five ranks, your minion starts with “five dots in a couple traits, and four in many others.” If applied to attributes, and we interpret ‘many’ as a majority, your minion will start the game with 38 attribute points. Your character starts with 21 attribute points.

While the book is not clear on how to generate your minion’s skills and merits, the implication is that they would have whatever is appropriate to their profession. Not only does Retainer give you a second character, but they are actually more powerful than your primary. I’ve had several players ask me if they can purchase a rank five Retainer and then play the resulting NPC. For a trip further down the rabbit hole, it’s not out of the question that your minion might be able to get a Retainer of their own.

What Can Be Done About It?

There are three options when facing an overpowered ability: live with it, ban it, or balance it. The first is to accept that some abilities are more powerful than others and move on. Simple, but it forces you to deal with all the problems an overpowered ability creates. The second is not allowing them in the game at all. It’ll solve the problem, but it may also limit the types of characters you or your players can create. The third option is the most difficult by far. Game designers tend to be pretty good at their job, and succeeding where they failed will require a lot of work, probably through trial and error.

Keeping in mind that different groups often require different solutions, I recommend a combination of options two and three. Some of the abilities on this list aren’t worth saving, and can be banned without hesitation. Not letting players recruit their own NPC will not hurt the game. However, abilities like Fighting Styles can be very enriching for a game, and are worthy of a little re-balancing if you have the time.


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  1. xxx-reaper

    Not even the most op thing in Hunter. Yes, yes rote actions are amazing. But so is being a super saiyan.
    ‘What are you talking about?’ You may ask, ‘Hunters are extremely weak.’
    Indeed you are right. Until you consider the ability to make endowments.
    Now endowments in their own rights are not extremely powerful. However with enough though and effort they can be devastating. Now making a strong endowment often takes time, effort and experience points. That is, unless you read the part where it is specified that Reliquary’s powers and prices may be use in supplement with endowment creation as well as dread powers. Now I will not say how, because it is too evil to let people do this, but there is a way by combining HTV core and Reliquary that you can create a 1 dot endowment with over 20 points available to add to powers and such with absolutely no drawbacks. Of course this in itself stretches the suggested max 5 frailties and 10 benefits. But with this little ‘glitch’ it is simple to create a hunter that sits in a room for about an hour every morning and meditates with his endowments giving himself unholy attributes to break his upward limit of 5 to his resolve and composure for 1 willpower per activation(turn) then draining all willpower from anyone nearby for 1 willpower, then proceeding to increase his armor (armor does not stack with -other- sources but it does stack with its own source) health and main fighting attributes and skills to ridiculousness.
    A concept character I created with around 30 practice experience earned (which is easy for a cell) could sit for around 100 turns and give appropriate bonuses to all of his stats to allow him to use combat marksman 5 and Professional training 5 to allow him to attack 30 times in a turn (because a clip can only hold so much ammo :p) with about 400 dice on the initial attack with a rote action. This damage can also be dealt as aggravated by creating yet another endowment that allows his rifle to deal aggravated damage for the next 6 turns as long as he activates this sometime before he wants to use the rote action. Then if he does ever take damage he can spend a point of willpower to downgrade any damage that may be rolling over into aggravated into lethal. And passing out is no concern when you have no upward limit to the amount of stamina you can have.
    But those are just my thoughts on what can really be considered OP. Oh and don’t get me started on what supernatural creatures can do…
    Sincerely: xxx-reaper

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      And really, who doesn’t want 30 attacks a round at 400 dice each? There are definitely some combos in WOD that allow for completely insane power gaming. My personal favorite is the one where you can use the Dread Powers section to create someone who takes damage to boost their physical abilities, and also instantly heals that damage. There’s also some Mage abilities that allow a character to just keep piling Spirits into their enchanted items, making the character a terrible snowball of bonus dice.

      For this list, I stuck just with abilities that were over powered just as they were written, if for no other reason than to make it a less research intensive read.

      • Matti Kauppinen

        In the mage books you can break the game very easily. In the new mage book, just have 2 mages, one using fate and mind buffing the other, who uses a ritual to amplify a light source. That spell doubles the intensity of the light for each succes, allowing you to use a laser pointer to destroy the planet only after 10-15 successes.
        OWOD (mage the ascension), just get followers (from backgrounds), with 5 dots you can get 200 lesser mages to follow you. Now just cast a lightning bolt with a ritual, and have your followers assist you. The ritual rules gives you a success for each lesser mage helping you, and one die from each of them. So 200 automatic successes, + 203 dice, equals around 600 wound levels worth of lightning in 15 minutes. Or 100 wound levels to 6 targets, or 50 to 12 targets, and then just repeat..

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Alternatively: Free Energy for all?

  2. oxinabox

    If you are complaining about fighting styles and gunslinger giving an extra attack,
    Why aren’t you complaining about every single Semi Auto or Full Auto Gun in the system? They also give out extra attacks, using basically the same rules.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      It’s true that Medium and Long bursts sort of give extra attacks, but those attacks must be directed against different targets, otherwise it’s just a die bonus. Basically, Medium and Long bursts offer a form of AOE. The Merits I listed allow for multiple attacks against a single, more powerful opponent.

      (Against a single opponent, Short, Medium, and Long bursts only give one, two, or three bonus dice.)

      In my experience, the second option is far more powerful. For one thing, because wound penalties only kick in at the last three health boxes (assuming the target even suffers from wound penalties), it’s always more efficient to focus fire one opponent at a time rather than spreading damage around.

      For another, in my experience anyway, serious fights in RPGs tend to be focused around one super powerful boss rather than multiple weaker opponents.

      • Splitting Dice Pools?

        Splitting dice pools gives you extra actions, whether they’re attacks, or dodges/parries. This incurs a few minus dice which are cumulative, but if your dice pool is high, and so is your strength, that’s a lot of dmg. 3 attacks with split actions with let’s say 5 strength, and 5 dex/melee becomes; 7 dice, 6 dice, 5 dice, plus your rollover, plus your weapon bonus, so we’re talking easily 30 damage in a round to one target if you assume 3 dice rollover each attack and a str+2 weapon. I don’t know if this is possible in the NWoD but it certainly is in the OWoD.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Yeah, they took out the multiple action rule in NWoD. You only get one unless you have a Merit or other power that grants a second.

      • Sionnachuighiim

        I think splitting dice pools had a penalty higher than just the cumulative negatives – you’re trying to defeat someone’s defenses with a cumulative penalty. Let’s assume a 3 Dex / 3 Dodge Essence 2 character in Exalted, who has a passive defensive score of 4. Your comparable 3 Dex + 3 Melee of 6 splits to a 5 and a 4, trying to pierce a 4 and 3 respectively as the flurry lowers their defensive score. It’s better than the 6 vs 4, but arguably not much better. (That’s of course before charms increase the die pool to 30 and 28.)

        In WoD, I’m not sure if defenses drop in response to multiple attacks, or if you only get a single Dodge against attacks in general.. it’s been awhile.

  3. Takashi

    retainer is able to leave you if you’re too demanding or he doesn’t respect you or if you run out of money to bribe/pay him.. so if you tried to rely only on him/her they could just leave or kill you.. just saying

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      It’s true that can happen, however, part of the merit itself reads “Regardless of the circumstances, this person is constantly loyal and follows almost any order without question.”

      You have to work really hard to get a five dot retainer to turn on you.

      • Takashi

        “You need to establish how this trusty companion was acquired. He may be paid exorbitant amounts of money that buy his unwavering loyalty. He might owe his life to your character (or to your character’s predecessors). Your character might blackmail this person or threaten his family with harm if services are not
        rendered. Or your character might have a supernatural hold over this poor person. Regardless of the circumstances, this person is constantly loyal and follows almost any order without question.” meaning if you abuse it he can demand more money (if the story teller wants to make sure it isnt abused) or he find he’s done enough to make up for saving his life, he gets around the blackmail (either through having someone get rid of it, or have his family relocated) and if its a supernatural hold ST can have another supernatural creature take control of him/her

        “If your retainer is ever hurt he may be incapable of service while recovering. If he is killed, he’s lost forever unless supernatural in origin. A retainer who possesses his own will and who is forced to perform a duty that offends his sensibilities or defies his morals may abandon your character”

        meaning the retainer can leave if he decides he isnt okay with what you’re doing

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        I feel like maybe we’re emphasizing different parts of the same texts? For me, the part that jumps out is “Regardless of the circumstances, this person is constantly loyal and follows almost any order without question.”

        So while you establish why the retainer is following you (My father saved his father or what have you), it probably isn’t going to be something that you can’t keep up. And you probably aren’t going to design a retainer with a moral code wildly different then your own, so I don’t imagine that many circumstances where you’d want to give them an order they’d objectionable?

  4. Teylen

    I feel you missed out on mentioning celerity in V:tM
    For each dot one full extra round in combat at virtually no cost apart from a single blood point. Occasionally it does raise the initiative too,..

    • Red

      Yep, celerity is a great way to break the game and turn battles into a logistical mess. V:tM has some other issues too, but celerity is the most noticeable. They did tune it down somewhat in VDA20 though.

      Mage has a lot of broken stuff, but at least pretty much everyone gets to do broken stuff too.

  5. Clare

    Which, in your opinion, are the broken classes and class options in D&D 5e? We have a player in our campaign playing a drow elf cleric using the Arcana domain from the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, and it seems overpowered to me. We also have at the table a rogue with the swashbuckler option.

    Meanwhile, I’m sitting there with a regular ole’ wizard and made the mistake of choosing the necromancy school because (shame on me for metagaming!!) we’re playing Curse of Strand and I figured it might come in handy against all the undead in that campaign. Kinda wish I’d chosen evocation school.

    We also have a ranger at the table who regrets choosing beast master, because it doesn’t seem to actually help much…I mean, really: until 7th level you expend an action to tell the critter to do something. Most of the animals have limited usefulness in combat. And it seems to me that being able to speak with animals automatically would be helpful because it could function as the ranger equivalent of “find familiar.”

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yeah the Beastmaster Ranger is terrible. The wizard is solid though, especially once you pick up shape change. It might be worth you taking a level of cleric so can cast spells in heavy armor (rules as written you’ll also be able to cast full cleric spells for your total level, but most GMs will house rule that.)

      In my opinion, and I haven’t read every single rule, the most powerful class is the druid. It gets tones of health through shapeshifting, and the ability to summon a bunch of giant owls that are crazy op.

      The Bard can also be really good by stealing the Warlock’s extra d6 of damage ability and putting it on Scorching Ray.

      Alternatively, pick up Daern’s Instant Fortress. It’s a reusable fireball that also summons a tower for you to hide in.

      • Clare

        Thanks, Oren, for your reply! I’ve been really enjoying your site! Geeking out about D&D is making me feel like a kid again: I have the original Dungeons & Dragons 5″ x 7″ paperback booklets and a d20 so oft-rolled that it is unusable b/c the numbers have worn off and the thing is almost spherical now.

        Thanks for the advice about Shapechange and Daern’s Instant Fortress. (Is D’sIF in a new version of the Player’s Handbook? I can’t find it in my copy.)

        I am actually multi-classing my wizard as a bard: she is now Wizard 7 / Bard 1. I did that mainly for the proficiency in light armor and the d8 hit dice, plus I really wanted the Vicious Mockery spell because it’s so hilarious (insulting a bad guy to death? yeah! ) and fits my character’s personality as it’s evolved during our game play. (She’s a scrappy little gnome). BTW, at 4th level I took the Magic Initiate feat instead of an ability score increase, so she has a couple cleric cantrips (Sacred Flame, Spare the Dying) and the 1st level cleric spell Guiding Bolt.

        Could you elaborate on how a bard can “steal the Warlock’s extra d6 of damage ability and put it on Scorching Ray?” I don’t see Scorching Ray on the list of bard spells. (Again, perhaps b/c I have an older edition of the 5e Player’s Handbook?)

        And finally, one last comment: my daughter, who’s playing the beast master ranger, has also multi-classed her character: she’s now Ranger 5 / Druid 3.

        Thanks again, Oren!

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          So the Bard build requires you to be pretty high level. At 10th and 14th level, bards get the Magical Secrets ability that lets them pick up two spells from outside their spell list. At 10th Level you pick up Scorching Ray from the Wizard spell list, and Hex from the Warlock spell list. Then at 14th level you get Bestow Curse from the Cleric list, and Haste if Bards don’t already get it.

          Both Hex and Bestow Curse cause any attacks you make against a target to inflict a d8 of extra damage, and Scorching Ray launches multiple attacks as you put it in higher spell slots.

          Of course that takes a lot of set up, so you only do it on boss fights.

          The fortress is in the DMG, page 160. That’ll be up to your GM if you can get one, but they’re super good. There’s also a way to make the Beast Master ranger good, but you have to be a small sized creature, and then get the Peteranodon as a mount and the Mounted Combat feat, then rain arrows down from on high.

          Now, it sounds like both you and your daughter are making your choices for RP reasons, which is fine, except that it’s making you feel less important than the optimized Drow Cleric. If that’s becoming a problem, and your GM isn’t interested in stepping in to level the playing field, perhaps ask if they’ll at least let you respec to a more optimized build. You weren’t wrong that the Evoker is the best Wizard specialty.

  6. Chris mata

    Great article and comments. NwoD is a great system. Gunslinger was a little strong for us but a good group that isn’t into breaking rules just to break them will have fun with it as written .

  7. Jesse

    Couple things I didn’t see anyone mention.

    Kung Fu in nWoD is pretty broken. At level 5 you can make 1 attack per dex point. So if you min/max you can make 5 attacks per round. You get a cummulative -1 on each attack after the first, and still need to worry about overcoming defense, but I’ve had a character with 5 strength, 5 brawl and kung fu making 5 attacks per turn averageing 30 dice per enemy. The only drawback is that the character has to do bashing damage, but If you take some punch katars from the Armory, you turn that into 30 die of lethal damage which can kill almost any single target in 1 round.

    Much more broken are Fate Contracts in Changeling the Lost. I don’t remember which level, but I think it is 2 or 3 lets you automatically get a success on 1 die. So for a minor action it’s good, for combat it’s bad because you only do 1 damage. If you use it again within 24 hours, you suffer a crit fail. Sounds pretty balanced until you realize you can use it on enemies. Turn that nasty badguy’s killer claws into 1 damage. Next round it auto-fails. That buys you 2 turns to take down any bad guy with some other ability.

    don’t even get me started on gheists. The book says they can’t die, and some of the graveyard powers give them miles of AOE on abilities.

    • chris mata

      I wasn’t aware of the kung fu problem. Like any system it requires GM oversight. It was my first non d20 system I ever ran and has a special spot in my heart.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I thought about putting Kung Fu on the list, but it’s basically a less powerful version of Combat Marksmanship. Probably still OP, but not quite the level of OP I was looking for.

      • Adam J. Thaxton

        Extra attacks have been removed from Chronicles/nWoD 2e.

        Sin-Eaters can still turn into nearly-invincible Optimus Prime cyborgs with drill arms.

        Demons have a hot-button that destroys their Cover (retroactively, backwards through time) but gives them simultaneous access to every power in the book and near-instant recovery of the energy supply they need to fuel it.

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