Friday, 11 July 2014

On unique abilities

This post is inspired by a combination of listening to more KOTN Numenera and a comment of Dan's on a post a few months back:

If a player tries to do something with a very limited ability, the GM is usually likely to let them get away with it, because that ability is seen as being low-utility and because a lot of GMs like to "reward creativity" (whatever that means). By contrast if an ability is very broad in scope, the GM's natural instinct is to rein it in. "Yes I know you've got a skill in Doing Anything but I can't just let you roll it for *everything*."

This is, once again, not a criticism of the KOTN playstyle, just some observations. I'm sure I've seen similar cases before, this is just the one that caught my attention.

One of the characters has the Talks to Machines focus, and I'm pretty sure at least one of the other podcasts I listened to also features this ability. Something I can't help noticing is the contrast between its description and how it tends to work out in play.

Distant Activation

You can activate or deactivate any machine you can see within short range, even if normally you would have to touch or manually operate the device. To use this ability, you must understand the function of the machine, it must be your size or smaller, and it can’t be connected to another intelligence (or be intelligent itself).

This is a pretty useful ability, so obviously it comes up for quite a lot of use. Now, I only noticed this recently and don't really fancy relistening to everything to get some stats (the disadvantage of audio over text, I suppose) but there's something interesting about what happens when a player tries to use it: very frequently, the GM calls for a roll.

It doesn't sound unreasonable, and I'm not sure that it is, but I'll point out that there's nothing in the text which indicates a roll is called for. What this power lets you do is turn a machine on or off without physically touching it, providing it's not an AI or interfaced to an AI.

But being able to turn machines on or off is a very useful power, and obviously some machines are advanced or complicated or plot-relevant and it makes sense to call for a roll to turn those on or off at a range, so...

...does it?

It seems intuitive, but why? Why should this ability require a roll, bearing in mind that the mechanics do not at any point ask for a roll? It's actually fairly limited to begin with, assuming you're reasonably sensible about "understand the function" and the size constraint. Compare it to the Leads ability "Command", which lets you force a creature to obey one non-damaging order - my gut feeling is that it's unlikely anyone would demand a roll for that. And I'm certain that if you took an ability that lets you spend 1 point to add to your melee damage, nobody would demand a roll to use it successfully "because this creature is hard to damage".

I think partly this kind of feeling comes from the fact that Distant Activation grants you a new ability, rather than enhancing an existing one. Another aspect is, as Dan says, its broad applicability - there are a lot of machines out there, and activating machines could help you overcome puzzles in a way that inflicting damage more effectively wouldn't. Essentially, this ability grants you a new tool to overcome obstacles or achieve ends, rather than enhancing an existing one, and I think this is where the instinctive conservatism creeps in.

Increasing damage doesn't feel like a game-changer because it simply makes an existing ability more mechanically effective; combat is slightly less of a challenge, but then there are many mechanical factors that can make a combat more of a challenge in return. Giving commands to a creature is a significant ability, but there are other ways to influence creatures to do something you want - persuasion, threats, tricking them with body language or feints, setting up situations in which they'll do what you want, and so on. I suspect also that getting somebody to do one limited action for you is of more limited use than you might think. Often there's no advantage over just doing it yourself, and at other times the advantage you gain (perhaps by disarming an enemy in a fight) has to be balanced against the action spent giving the order.

Distant Activation mostly allows you to do, at a short range, something you could probably do with physical contact. There are a few exceptions: it can open a door from the wrong side, or even detonate (or deactivate) a bomb, even if you don't have the clearance normally required. In general though, what it's going to offer is an alternative way to do something you normally could anyway, such as create a distraction, open a lock, or avoid detection. You could use it to turn off certain kinds of weapon, or detonate a grenade, although in the latter case you'd be blowing yourself up as well.

One of the difficulties is that this power very quickly gets fuzzy in a way that some others don't. Adding damage is just adding damage, non-damaging orders offers room for grey areas but is fairly explicit. In play though, people immediately jump to using Distant Activation on parts of machinery, such as electronic locks on a bulkhead door. Can you use it to start a car engine? I'd say not. Turn on a lightbulb? What about activating one lightbulb from a set? Can you fire a loaded mortar with it (I think so), or the cannon of a tank (probably)? How about deactivating the cooling fan in a mainframe? Or closing the protective shutter on the end of the death-laser approaching you?

If you think about it, Distant Activation applied strictly isn't that much of a game-changer compared to many other abilities. Phasing through solid objects is a huge advantage and a relatively common sort of power. Sensing thoughts is amazing. Travel powers like flight, tunneling or teleportation can completely alter the challenge posed by a problem. I'm inclined to say that the best way to ensure Distant Activation and other such unique abilities don't end up unbalancing things is to carefully apply the restrictions and abilities built into the power, rather than calling for additional rolls when it seems inconvenient.


  1. How confusing.

    I suppose what the GM *might* be thinking is that a roll is a reasonable way to deal with the "you must understand the function of the machine" criterion, which otherwise would seem to be an overly fiaty way to deal with it (how much do you have to know to understand the "function" of a machine - do you just need to know vaguely what it does?) Similarly, I'm a bit confused by the "connected to another intelligence" criterion. Can I make a gun go off in somebody's hand?

    But yes, in general it does seem like an example of the GM instinctively reining in an otherwise very broad power.

    1. Damnit, I replied to this and Google ate it.

      I think it's reasonably straightforward most of the time: common machines can be identified (kettles, lights, electronic locks) but mysterious black boxes would require some interaction and rolls to understand. I suspect the main idea here may be to avoid the power killing technology mysteries? The fuzzy line for me is whether "function" mostly means "what it's for", "what its immediate effect is" and "how it produces the effect", but I think that's really one to use common sense and negotiation for each case.

      In terms of the second, I think it's pretty clear that it means a direct connection rather than proximity. So turning off a cyborg's arm is out, as is disabling CCTV connected to an AI. Whether this is good or not is harder to say - it will make things more consistent in terms of how entities behave regardless of their exact substance, which will probably avoid too much head-scratching. So you can't turn off the AI's cameras, any more than the tentacle monster's many eyestacks or the senses of an individual swarm creature. You can do those things in other ways though, so I think primarily what this does is reduce its use as a direct attack power.

      I think the gun example is tricky for another reason, which is the realistic side: modern guns don't really tend to have active or inactive states and it's getting into telekinetic territory. What about a crossbow? Bear trap? How much physical moving about of stuff do you permit rather than essentially tripping transitors? I dunno.

    2. I've not listened to the podcasts, so I'm not sure how it works out in practice. How often does the GM call for a roll in straightforward situations (kettles, lights, locks etc?).

      The guns thing opens a whole new can of worms, which is what actually counts as a "machine" and what counts as activating or deactivating something. Can you turn a dimmer switch up and down? Can you affect things with non-binary states?

      Again I can see a roll being used to resolve these kinds of questions. I'd be peeved if the GM made me roll to use the power in a way that was obviously permissible, just because it might be OP.

    3. Sorry, I genuinely can't remember at this point and I neither want to guess wildly nor listen to it all again at the moment.

      That's definitely a good question, because while you can take it to extremes that are obviously ludicrous, it's actually not that clear what "activation" or "machine" mean here. Nobody's likely to really try deactivating an inclined plane, but how about a gas tap? I'd call that telekinesis myself but without more definition on what the skill should do there's no reason to think it's less activatable than a gun, and it definitely has more of an "active"/"inactive" divide.