A routine device in anime (and, presumably, manga) is that one never reveals one’s true power. There are levels above levels for major characters to try to make fights as epic as possible as a protagonist and antagonist keep upping their power levels.
The most obvious example is the Dragonball franchise, with other examples including Naruto, Bleach, and YuYu Hakasho. Actually, there tend to be two effects going on. One is that characters hide their power level while the other is that they jump in power levels in the middle of fights.
Meanwhile, with RPGs, if a character has a reliable ability, then a player has every incentive to fire it off as often as possible. More generally, there’s no reason to hold back.
But, I like the style in holding back. It’s not terribly epic to start a fight off with a Spirit Bomb. D&D 4e’s mechanics of limiting how often abilities can be used by session, scene, etc. is a way for a RPG to discourage people from resorting to the big guns at the beginning of a fight. In a way, once per day spells also have some of that effect as wise adventurers conserve resources and fight efficiently, though my recollection on AD&D fights was to open with the biggest area of effect attack possible to massacre as many enemies as possible, leaving open the possibility of resting long enough to rememorize spells. Such limits can also cause players to hold off too often, conserving needlessly and not being rewarded for conservation of resources.
Besides the limitations of per day or per session, there are ways games try to make ultimate abilities less reliable to discourage. That, to me, is even worse. As unreliable as abilities are in anime at finishing fights, they are still rather reliable for causing huge explosions.
It doesn’t have to just be anime style play, of course. The most awesome sword duelist, pretty much any superhero, other things with powers like V:TM vampires, et al, have little reason to hold back in RPG play. A villain can toy with opponents, but players like using their abilities.
And, I want them to have the option of using their abilities. I just want to give them a reason to not use them ad nauseam.
One mechanic I got enthused about was to have PC powers that got bonuses for every session they weren’t used. The more you Kamehameha, the more mundane its effects become to reflect how the more mundane it has become as a tactic. If you are desperate, you can always tap into all of your powers, but if you save it, risking being less successful in the short term, it gets ridiculous.
A more convoluted way to do this but one that might fit better is to have PCs have unknown powers that they can define as needed. The less often they tap into these secret powers, the more powerful they become. Alternatively, once a power gets defined, it becomes a standard power, where the first use of a new power (or upgraded version of a power – Spirit Shotgun or whatever) is when it’s at its strongest.
While I haven’t put mechanics around it, my players’ Solomon Kane characters have powers along these lines. The most commonly used is Tlacateotl’s (Joshua’s) One With God mystery Edge. Because they are poorly defined, not gamist enough, I don’t think they are much appreciated by the players. When I looked to port SK over to using Roll and Keep, I did a much better job of applying actual mechanics to these mystery abilities so that it didn’t come across as being so arbitrary.
I thought I had come up with another way to mechanize boosting powers, but I can’t recall what my thinking was off the top of my head. Other ideas for this concept would be appreciated. A realistic way, though way too much burden on the GM is to create challenges that counter PC abilities based on how often they use them. So, if you Hollowify at the beginning of every fight, the enemy goes defensive to waste time until it wears off, for instance. Not only does the accounting discourage me, but the balancing job is that much more painful. Still, there is some element of this encouraged in Champions supplements, where supervillains develop far more effective counters to the superheroes standard tactics.
Meanwhile, there’s also rising to a new power level without the effort to conceal one’s full strength. Many games have ways to manage this, from drama chips to Void Points to Fate Points to bonus dice to whatever. However, it doesn’t have the same feel to me as someone who suddenly becomes far more capable because the situation demands it.
Now, there is a problem with individual PCs dramatically getting stronger because, as is the usual case, we aren’t writing a story, we are playing a game. It may make for an epic story that anyone can suddenly go Super Saiyan 2, but it probably makes for crap play. Even an epic situation where the party is down to its last member in a fight to the death, as what happened yesterday in our Conan play, if that member achieves a new power threshold, what happens afterwards? Leave everyone else behind?
Clearly, making power jumps temporary helps avoid this problem. The question is how to do it in a way that seems dramatic rather than “I spend a Void Point. Crap. Luck/Honor Roll.” or “I have 8 chips left, I spend them all.” Though, drama isn’t the only issue. Taking the latter example, the other players were chipping in their chips to do cooler stuff/survive/whatever earlier, so why wasn’t this character doing the same?
One thing I always like is the idea that you can tap into your life force/soul/rage/whatever to achieve a higher level. SK has Righteous Rage, which is the right thematic effect and a more substantial bonus than what I usually see in games mechanically, but it’s random when it occurs and, given how many Bennies I give out, it can happen way too often to be dramatic; in other words, it happens either too often, not often enough, or at the wrong time. Maybe, with something like Righteous Rage, I can give the player the option of saving it for the next time the player spends a Bennie in combat, so that the player can time it for the most brutal of fights.
Anyway, if we mechanize burning off your own life force, say, with permanent attribute destruction, then you run into the problem that players are disinclined to make such sacrifices, as campaign play is about advancing characters to more powerful states. Now, there might be some balance point where temporary attribute damage works as a mechanic. I don’t think players are nearly as bothered by being weakened for a month than for being permanently pushed back from other PCs.
This is likely to be a huge pain in the ass, however, to balance. In d20, lose 2 STR for a month does what? What if you are superdesperate and scale to lose 10 STR? Similar problems with turning down a die size in SK, sacrificing a Ring in L5R, etc. How do you make it so that the PC can still lose, should win (since we are talking about climactic situations where PCs should, on balance, win), doesn’t get off to lightly but also doesn’t get punished too hard? I guess that’s always a GM problem when coming up with suitable challenges.
I don’t notice my players or my fellow players thinking along the lines that I do about trying to generate epic situations (as opposed to epic situations just arising randomly), but player input might help immensely for coming up with mechanics. Certainly, I’m much better with mechanics as a player than as a GM.
There’s a separate topic on making starting characters much more badass that does have some overlap with these ideas that I guess I’ll write about when I get around to writing up my thoughts for what mechanics to use for a L5R campaign.