With this article I’m kicking off a series on examining power levels within games. However, before getting into mechanics and tiers of power, we’ll take a slight detour and
examine power level at the source – the underlying fiction that mechanics are trying to represent. To that end, I’ve devised three tests that check for certain capabilities that fictional characters possess. Based on whether they can pass the test at all, and then how well they did so, we can better classify them into separate power level tiers (though keep in mind we won’t delve too deeply into those, the only important thing is the relationship between the tiers and which is higher or lower, not how they are positioned on an imaginary scale in a vacuum).
A separate article will deal with the disambiguation of a few terms related to power level, and the different kinds thereof, but for the time being I’m hoping this catchall term is enough to start the discussion. Most of you intuitively know what it means, even if you haven’t delved deep into the theory of this vast subject.
Now, if you will forgive me, I will set the stage in a very self-indulgent way. Since it’s a bit longer than it should be (and by that I mean way longer), it has been put in a spoiler for your convenience and you can skip this little satirical commentary on “standard”
boring heroic fantasy if you wish.
As the all-important persona that you are, you have been accepted into the Citadel on the 7th level and granted an audience with the King. The Once-white-but-worn-out-over-time City, the greatest fortress in the Kingdom of Rodnog, has been surrounded by massive hordes of enemies, spanning across the horizon as far as the eye can see. You and your companions enter the Great Hall to find yourselves among a fascinating crowd. Noble kings and queens of allied nations, legendary generals, mythical heroes of feats uncountable, the wisest and most powerful mages there ever were, mystical creatures of powers untold, all sorts of paragons of might and magic. And you, a champion of the realm, two-time saviour of the world (they all refuse to acknowledge that one time where everybody else was frozen in time and you were teleported to that distant plane by these omnipotent beings to fight the one evil they could not defeat and you totally defeated it and gained the boons of celestials, which are not worth jack shit on your own plane but just they wait until you get in trouble somewhere else) and all around revered person across the lands of the good guys.
Suddenly, the ground shakes. The room immediately fills with silence. The ground shakes again, rocking the Great Hall, little pieces of granite and dust rain from the columns and ceiling. You hear a worried “no, no, no, no, no, no, no…” as a mage rushes for the massive doors and blasts them open. He sprints through the court, past the Once-white-but-you-know-the-rest tree, and makes short work of the massive runway to the edge of the cliff. After some mumbling and shuffling around, you and most others follow suite, catching up to him in a couple of minutes. You stare down the black sea of enemies below and notice, in the distance, a split in their ranks where thirteen cultists are spilling the blood of eager volunteers around a massive circle in the ground. With each sliced throat thrown into the circle, the land shakes, dirt and stone flung upward, cracks in the earth now spitting wild gusts of flame and smoke. All of you look around, to each other, then to the King. With a stern grimace, he says “We must stop the ritual or the lands shall become feasting grounds for the Lords of Hell… or something”.
(Image credit: Stills from the motion picture “The Lord of the Rings (2003)” as seen on YouTube in a video by Kimer Lorens.)
Below you, on all levels of the city, massive horns of war are being blown. The front gates open and the armies of the Allied Forces start to pour through. Without hesitation, the King draws his sword, which he conveniently carries on his person in a meeting, and jumps from the cliff, slamming into the black mass three hundred metres below in a classic superhero landing pose, creating a shockwave that knocks back enemies when he lands. A pristine suit of armour grows around his body, pulsating waves of all sorts of energies radiate from him, his sword lights up, and with the roar of a thousand dragons, he charges through the swarm, cutting enemies like butter and being an overall badass. Behind him, his soldiers have finished squeezing three-at-a-time through a one-man-wide opening in the massive castle gate and, inspired, charge after their glorious King.
Wasting no time at all, the others around you follow him and start making their way down from atop the cliff, carelessly jumping off from a thousand feet as if it were no trouble at all. The mage pulls back for some distance, then starts running and throws himself in the air while mighty flames erupt from around his feet and wrists. He falls for a brief moment until he reaches escape velocity, then blasts off to the skies to fight the incoming wave of bats and wyverns and frost wyrms and all sorts of nasty evil air support the bad guys can think of. A tiny, gentle, graceful, young, beautiful lady with way too much eye shadow suddenly pulls daggers from nowhere and jumps along the cliff, slowing down her speedy fall by embedding steel into rock because that’s how physics works now, then shortly after joins the all out battle below, which an assassin such as herself would totally do. The mighty mountain of muscles and brains (but mostly muscles) behind you simply jumps twenty feet into the air then falls and slams its massive body into the ground, á la King style. It shakes off the pain the ground felt from its thousand foot fall and starts smashing things that move.
The sorceress to your left slowly rises into the air and begins gracefully descending downward, blackening the sky with clouds that appeared out of nowhere and showering the enemy hordes with lightning and molten rain. The angel to your right jumps and takes flight, a shining beacon of hope soaring above the battlefield on wings that would totally support the weight of a humanoid… yea, she is mostly just soaring there purposelessly, but there is no doubt in your mind she will come down to sacrifice herself to save a secondary character and inspire them, lighting the spark within, to charge forth like no man has ever charged (forth) before and kill the last cultist just in time. Behind you, the brooding elven archer cocks his head as if listening very carefully to something in the distance, then suddenly shoots an arrow with a silken rope attached to it high into the sky. Five seconds later it lodges itself into a screeching succubus who changed her flight path to get out of the way of a flock of battle griffins and the archer totally foresaw that. He now jumps into the air as the rope stretches, rides it down to the battlefield with the succubus struggling in the air just long enough so he can land softly on the ground, then being able to support their weight not a second longer, she collapses in the dirt and dies from her wounds.
All around you portals open, nymphs glide on tornadoes, the cliff is moved and frozen and baked in fire, warriors and monks throw themselves off just to look cool, old wizards with walking sticks summon mighty (flying) steeds out of nowhere, assassins slip into gusts of shadow and re-appear behind their enemies, elves mumble words of power and zip past you, running so fast downward that they can’t fall, some of them simply take flight because why not, a woman from the east uses her bladed fans to glide through the air to the ground below and you, you sit there, thinking… “Well damn, I appear to be in a pretty high-powered setting.”
The story, all names, characters, and incidents portrayed in this text are fictitious. No identification with actual or fictional persons (living or deceased), places, buildings, and products belonging to an existing IP is intended or should be inferred, with the exception of elements borrowed from J. R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth fantasy setting. No orcs were harmed in the making of this scene.
Did that sound just a tad ridiculous? I sure hope so. However this scenario perfectly illustrates just how powerful a character can be when their abilities are taken to their theoretical extreme. It’s not very hard to go completely overboard even with characters you intended to have a lower ceiling, to be more toned down than the standard heroic genre expectations as we have come to know them in this day and age.
For those that didn’t bear with me, to sum up the Minas Tirith test:
Character stands atop the edge of the cliff of the White City as it is being laid siege by orcs. Can they jump down straight into the fight?
It’s important to note that the Minas Tirith test itself does not separate characters into different tiers of power level, not alone and certainly not immediately. That will be more feasible when all three tests are used in conjunction. Instead, it’s made very open-ended as to allow room for a character’s abilities to be pushed to their theoretical maximum (a.k.a. their power level ceiling) when applied creatively enough. When that is done, if they pass (a.k.a. if you can answer with “yes” to the question above), then this places them into the conversation. Yet there’s still room to gauge relative power level even between those that pass, based on an assumed ease and speed with which they do so.
Having already mentioned “theoretical extreme” thrice (counting this instance) regarding fictional characters and their powers/abilities, so let me take a moment to clarify what that means. Essentially, it’s “raw power level”. I said in the beginning that a separate article will deal with the nuances of the power level discussion, but as a quick primer, “raw power level” is different from “actual power level” in the sense that it looks at the character’s potential while ignoring and/or downright removing the things that are keeping them down from reaching the peak of their power when their abilities are abused to their potential extreme. In other words, the extended creative application of every ability and bringing every possible way to interact to its logical conclusion based on the established rules.
The archer character from the description (in spoilers) is a perfect example of this principle in play. Theoretically, yes, it’s teeeeeechnically possible to have excellent visual and auditory perception as to pick up the exact movement pattern of a flying creature. To know its habits well enough that you can predict which way it will change direction as a response to an event you have witnessed occur a moment prior (with your excellent perception). It’s somewhat trivial for a skilled archer to hit something if they know when and where it will be. And it’s at least conceivable to know its lifting capacity and that in its struggle to remain in the air the lifting force it produces will be enough to counteract the accelerated descent your weight adds to the creature’s own weight just enough as to barely feel the impact of landing from such height. But… I mean… come on.
Why Minas Tirith specifically? While it was initially chosen as a bit of whimsy that fit the first criterion this test is centred around, I quickly fell in love with it as it allowed me to expand the test to be much more nuanced (explained below). Its being a very recognisable name for most people lends itself perfectly to the purposes of this article as it front-loads a ton of information that doesn’t need to be spelled out – immediately establishes the genre as fantasy, lends itself perfectly to many tropes, familiarity with the setting paints a vivid picture immediately, the part with the enemies laying siege is somewhat important, etc.
However, the primary reason is that even when taken at face value, the test allows us to gauge raw power level very quickly efficiently. Speaking of which:
At face value, the Minas Tirith test involves jumping from a high place. Yes, there doesn’t even have to be much more than that to make the test good at separating high powered characters from low powered ones. It’s a simple test, but quite efficient. Mostly because of the implications of being able to pass it. Not only are there many different ways to do so (immense strength bordering on indestructibility, flight, teleportation, etc.), but all of them elevate a character above the rest of their peers and into a tier of their own. Best of all though, each of these things has tremendous implications for that character and what else they are capable of, yet they are often incomparable directly with each other.
Meanwhile, as it serves its “prime directive” so to speak, the test offers many nuances beyond what you find at face value, if only you bother to look at all the context and the implications. From willingness to jump into a battlefied into an all out open engagement, the ability to traverse terrain in various ways, making optimal use of your surroundings (terrain and entities alike), and many others. Heck, being invited up there already has a ton of connotations on its own.
This is all well and good, but how do you actually use the test by itself?
Since it’s an indicator for raw power level, it really is up to any one writer and/or designer how they are going to use the information about the character that they put through the test. It may be desirable the character is powered to this degree, or it might be an indicator that something went wrong and they were given abilities of a higher raw power level than intended. This entirely depends on the goals for the particular piece, mechanic, or overall setting that the characters inhabit and the story/gameplay that they are meant for.
Hell, a couple of the characters from the colourful description (that you may or may not have skipped on your way down here) were characters I actually had in my book. I was about to hinder then severely, until I took a more deliberated approach. In one case (the sorceress) I found out that this was what I wanted for her as a place withing the fiction (power-wise) and instead I moved to using her much more sparingly in the writing. Meanwhile, the other character (whom I shan’t point out at this point in time) had to be hit with a wave of nerfs to his abilities because that’s not what I wanted for him.
Since devising this test, and the other two, whenever I make a character for any purpose, I run them through the gauntlet to see where they end up in relation to other characters, and whether that’s an intended outcome or not.
While I am in no way claiming that having characters which pass the Minas Tirith test immediately cheapens the consumer’s experience, you can easily observe the strong correlation that exists between the amount of such characters and the quality of the environment they are in. The type of the setting also serves an amplifier to that. Some, like pulpy heroic settings, lend themselves much much much better to this kind of characters, and can easily accommodate a larger number of them together. Others, such as gritty drama-based environments, can only tolerate so many (if any at all, mind you) of them before completely obsoleting everyone and everything else.
Also keep in mind that the above is only true for the Minas Tirith test. The other two test for different qualities and types of power level, and only in conjunction do they paint of a complete picture of a character and how to hit or miss any one specific goal with these tools.
That’s all for now! Check back for part 2 and part 3 of this series, which complete the power level tests for fiction and allow us to begin exploring the mechanics of power level in general.