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
For 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
After 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
In 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 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
We 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.