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At first, I didn't know what "nova" meant, but I've seen it enough in context to infer that it means "doing a ton of damage in a short period of time." Later I discovered that the term isn't as common as I first thought. It must just be in the communities I'm involved with (D&D). Essentially a nova-based PC is one that can expend a large amount of a limited resource all at once in an attempt to do massive amounts of damage. This would commonly be used when building an assassin type character.

How was this term coined? How was it popularized?

I had guessed that the term was just metaphorically referring to a supernova, but it seemed to be used frequently enough that it may have a specific origin.

Here are a few examples.

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up vote 15 down vote accepted

The reason that this astronomical term is used to describe a particular kind of attack comes from the "nova flame" or "nova blast" of the Fantastic Four's Johnny Storm ("The Human Torch"). This was a power that could do astounding amounts of damage in a single burst, but leave the hero spent and powerless for a time. The term was picked up and used in Champions, and then spread from superhero RPGs to other forms of gaming.

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That power, on the other hand, comes from a Nova star. The Human Torch is not exactly the Origin, but one of the best examples of the usage of the term. – Thales Sarczuk May 12 '14 at 19:39
There was an extensive comment thread discussing that point that appears to have been purged. Suffice to say that for the specific use in the OP, I stand by my answer as most correct. – Jadasc May 12 '14 at 20:05

A nova is a star that is flaring brightly. The term originally derives from the latin novus, meaning new, with nova being the feminine form; the irony is that a star in nova is in fact not a new star, but an old one.

In terms of comic attacks, it's used for (usually) bright, showy, and either flame, energy, or explosive blasts. All of which are reminiscent of the stellar novas.

Note that a supernova is a terminal event; a non-supernova nova is a transient phenomenon which is usually not the death-explosion of a large star. A nova is usually a small dense star flaring due to accumulation of fusion fuel stripped from a larger, but less dense, companion, which flares at a certain critical mass.

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It's a very common term, actually. Basically when a Star has hit White Dwarf Status, and it accumulates enough hydrogen to start a chain reaction, it creates a huge Hydrogen/nuclear explosion. SuperNovas are powerful enough to oushine any other celestial object, for a brief time. Nova's have been reported for at least 500 years.

The term took off from the astonomical context, to be paired with any event which had a huge, instant out pouring of energy.

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supernova and nova, tho' related terms, are not in fact the same phenomenon. You've conflated the two processes. – aramis May 17 '11 at 18:31

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