What not to do with Powers
This is just a little help section I'm doing to help people keep a check on the characters they make for freeform RPGs, especially those involving any sort of super powers or special skills. In rule-based, there's some sort of mechanism to control power, conflict between chars, etc., but in a freeform, it falls to the GM to regulate the abilities of characters, might seem like nothing, but that can eventually lead to trouble, arguments and fights that can, at best, break the flow of the RP.
Some of it may hit close to home for some people, but you should realize that, if it does, rather than taking it as an offense, you might want to take a look at your chars.
None of this is written in stone, but I've been a GM long enough and have read through hundreds of applications to know better than to dismiss any of this stuff. A lot of this stuff can be used successfully in many characters, but if your character has two or more things here, I'd recommend you tweak it something mighty. This guide is not so much a "Don't do this under any circumstances" but more of a "You can do this, but balance it out."
Also, required reading; Role Playing for Dummies, particularly the Either/or Rule.
I want < I need < I must
While in rule-based RPs there's an easy way to maintain balance, in a freeform RP it falls to each player to keep things in check. We all want our characters to be cool, powerful, etc. As you assign powers, abilities or skills to them, you must remember this, what your character "needs" always supersedes what you want for said character. And more importantly, what "works" for the RPG. When you create a power with a scientific foundation, the laws of physics you picked are more important than what you want that power to do, and what works best for the RP is even more important than the laws of physics.
Less is More
The more powerful the character, the less interesting it is. It's true, don't try to deny it. A character that has to get by with a crappy ability, that's not a trained killer and still has to overcome dangerous situations with wits and more than a little luck is infinitely more interesting than the super powerful guy who is always in control. You might think that broad, versatile powers are best, that's pure crap. Specific, focused abilities and powers are easier to understand and RP, leave it to your character to decide how to use that specific power in a versatile force. A character with too many powers or with a power that has more than one or two variations is not a character, its a prop with superpowers. "AND" is a bad word in regards to power, use "EITHER/OR" instead.
Keep your character's powers simple, if you can't explain them in a single sentence (not all the specifics, but the effect of the power in general) then you have a problem. One important part of defining your character's abilities so it's fun to play and for others to see you play it are weaknesses and limitations. Limitations and Weaknesses are best done thematically, and should usually outnumber the bonuses the ability or power grants. A character that can control electricity could be in danger when wet, a character that teleports and uses shadows could be seriously impaired by a flashlight, a superstrong character should usually be either bulky or slow, a superfast character would be frail, a character with telekinesis or heightened mental abilities would be subpar in the physical department. It's very important to mind these weaknesses, more than the power, they'll be the ones that define your character and define the situations in which he/she will find itself in.
If you have a character that read minds, make it so he can only read one person at a time.
If you have character that can teleport, give him have a limited range of teletransportation.
if your character controls some sort of energy, make it a defined and specific energy (none of that, sometimes it protects, sometimes it destroys crap, it's the clear sign of a noob).
A superfast character might have trouble turning.
Things as simple as that will make the character much more enjoyable.
Keep things simple, keep things specific, keep things focused. Golden rules for making abilities.
How do I know when a limitation or weakness I've assigned to a character corresponds to the powers he has?
That question is easily solved by taking into the account the conditions under which the power and the weaknesses work. Here are a couple of things to watch out for, if you have any of these, either get rid of them, or considerably reduce the magnitude of your character's abilities, powers.
1. It's TOO powerful - BULLSHIT! Keep in mind, what works in the RP supersedes anything else. When faced with conflict, the "too powerful" character will find that now his weakness is just another power on top of the one he had. If the WEAKNESS BECOMES A STRENGTH under other circumstances or a change in the conditions, THEN IT'S NOT A WEAKNESS. This might work under some circumstances tho, a character that creates explosions, for example might hurt allies, this is a weakness that remains a weakness regardless of the conditions, so it's good. This may also work on characters who are hurt or are not immune by their own power, someone who controls electricity but is not immune to getting shocked, for example.
2. It can't be turned off! - In reality, this could and would be horrible, but in-game, it usually doesn't work, what's more, it tends to get very annoying. The reasons are the same as the first "weakness that is not a weakness", if the conditions change and this stops being a weakness, then it was not a good weakness in the first place. In the same way as in the first one, this can work in some situations, and can still be used as long as your reduce the magnitude of the power in question. This one tends to work more than the others, but it works best when coupled with crappy powers or not considered a weakness at all.
3. It's controlled by emotions/it's involuntary - Another one that could work on reality, but totally sucks as a weakness in RPs, also a noob favourite. The fact is, you, as a player, control your character's emotions, meaning that the conditions for this weakness are ALWAYS in your control. I'd recommend you either totally discard this one as a weakness, keep it, but don't kid yourself into thinking it represents any real vulnerability or limitation to your character. You can be the best RPer out there, but subconsciously, we all want our characters to shine.
4. It's really specific... except it's general - "My character controls energy, that's all. It's thermal energy, he uses it to burn others... but it's also kinetic energy, he can use it to manipulate objects, and also as a shield, and also to accelerate himself, and it's both offensive and defensive. But it's just energy." No.. just... no. Keep it specific all the way through, it's either offensive or defensive, it's either kinetic or thermal and it's either energy or matter. If a specific power has a dozen applications/variations/forms, then it's not a specific power. You can use this, but again, it's not a weakness, seriously, balance it out or get rid of it.
We all want and are tempted to do powerful character, I know. But keep it in mind, what works supersedes what we need, and what we need supersedes what we want.
What weaknesses would be good? Keep in mind five things;
Range; What is the effective range of the ability? A character that can read minds is pretty powerful, a character that can read minds only of those he touches is way WAY better.
Time; How long does it last? An impenetrable shield is overpowered, an impenetrable shield that last only 8 seconds and can only be used once a day is pretty balanced.
Magnitude; How powerful, plain and simple. How fast he can go, how much energy he can release. Keep in mind that character get tired, so maybe go "he can go REALLY fast, but gets really tired quickly." and STICK TO IT.
Control; Not the control your char has over the power, the control YOU, the player, has over the character. If the weakness is based on conditions you decide (emotional state, mental state, etc) then it's not a weakness. If it's based on conditions decided by everyone RPing (time of the day, temperature, rain, sunshine, etc) then it IS a weakness.
Theme; Keep it in theme, Strong = Slow, Fast = Weak, Fire = Water. Try not to deviate from the theme. Even if it would make sense logically, if it's not what works in the RP, it's best if you don't. They might seem like cliches, but they're cliches for a reason.
Keep it in the family
Magnitude is a big part of any powers abilities, if your power can make explosions, how big? If your character can swordfight, how well? Specific powers can be given good variations through magnitude, that way you don't risk the pitfalls of character making. You don't introduce another power, you don't introduce another manifestation of your power, you keep it specific. What you do do (heh heh.. doodoo) is introduce a variation through more of the same ability. What is important to remember is that any increase in magnitude should be in keeping with the theme of your character's powers.
The most important rule about it all, KEEP IT SIMPLE, KEEP IT SPECIFIC. Say your character controls electricity, say he can create electric shocks, direct it, etc. It's simple and it's specific, he can shock someone, fry circuits in technology, etc. Now, we want to give it some variation, we can just extrapolate that very same power, we could, for example, make it so he can create a railgun-like attack by using a coin and his electricity. Or give him some degree of magnetism (not TOO much, you don't want to create a whole other power). What you would not do, however, is have him be able to control machines, for example, or make it so he could become super fast by stimulating his synapses. These, while plausible, break the character theme and are rather bad choices.
For another example, if a character controls energy, make it a specific kind of energy, and you can obtain variety by the application and magnitude of that energy. If your character can create flame and heat, you can extrapolate that into some sort of laser (concentrated heat) or even a jetpack kind of flame, but not have him freeze things or make a physical shield of barrier. Those would, again, be terrible choices and would break the theme of the character.
Repeat after me children, keep it simple, keep it specific. If you start having too many applications of the power, if you break the theme of it, you have a problem.
The illustrated man
Last section refers to both powers and regular abilities characters might have. Learning how to do anything and becoming good at it takes time, and it takes constant dedication and practice. If you find your character is skilled in using firearms, an accomplished musician, a capable fighter and a talented dancer, all at 18, and still able to perfectly use his powers, then you have a problem. Just as with everything, this can be pulled off, but just the same as with powers, mastering anything means a shortcoming in something else. Try to balance things out and think that there's a reason why most masters at anything are relatively old, because practice makes perfect, and it also takes time. An avid reader might not be experienced in sports or have time to hit the gym, people who benchpress usually develop back problems and have stunted growth, people who have mastered a variety of art might not have had time to develop their social skills.
Seriously, 90% of all characters I've seen are excellent artists in some discipline or another, everyone's an artist nowadays. I find a character who sucks at music but still tries and makes a mean fajita way more interesting.
With abilities, skills or powers, keep in mind that it's all a tradeoff. And if your character has a certain ability, make him look the part (physique du rol*), one of the basis of writing a good character must also be applied to RPing.
Physique du Rol - Looking the part. Playing on the character archetypes to transmit a lot of information about a character simply by the way it looks. Physical stereotypes are usually a good starting point for characters, unlike what most people say. That way you can comunicate a lot of info about a character to the reader simply by the asociations the reader makes between a certain character archetype and its characteristics, if you have a looooot of time to develop the char (a main char, for example) then do what you want, if you don't have all that time physique du rol
X-Men RP * X-Men Characters