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I'm thinking about designing a game based on Shonen battle anime, and one of the aspects I'm having difficulty modelling is the range of power scales. The anime I'm referencing (Dragon Ball, Naruto, My Hero Academia, etc) typically have heroes that start at normal human (or near normal human) level, but eventually reach world-destroying levels of power. Eventually these characters can punch a mountain into dust, move faster than the eye can see, and tank nukes without blinking.

However, from a design perspective, I'm noticing a lot of problems with this.

  • First, if your character's power jumps massively from level to level, that creates an extremely narrow band of potential combat encounters. If your enemies aren't in that narrow band, the battle will be a stomp (in either direction).
  • Second, I'm not sure how to handle it from a die-rolling perspective. If we have a fixed number of dice, then the modifiers would get need to get insanely large (to the point of the dice themselves no longer mattering). On the other hand, if you use a scaling number of dice it would get unwieldy to roll and add dozens of dice, etc.
  • Third, I think this would require extremely tight balancing to ensure that characters in the same party remain at a similar power level (especially if some are optimizing and others aren't). Players who make less optimized decisions can fall behind in any system, but I think this could greatly exacerbate the problem.
  • Finally, while a similar level of scaling makes sense for things like strength, speed, durability, skill, etc., it doesn't make as much sense for more role-play focused stats and abilities.

My question is, is it possible to design systems, mechanics, etc. that handle this type of scaling, and do it well? Or should I just abandon the endeavor?

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    \$\begingroup\$ I voted to close, as this looks like a "Shopping" question, which are off-topic here. This FAQ has the following quote : "The following kinds of questions are off topic : [...] - Which game does (thing) the best?". This kind of open-ended discussion might be better fit for a chat room, or another forum. \$\endgroup\$
    – Matthieu
    May 3, 2023 at 7:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ "If your enemies aren't in that narrow band, the battle will be a stomp" That is how it works in shonen, yes \$\endgroup\$ May 3, 2023 at 22:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ Reminder to everyone that answers to the question belong in answer posts, not in comments. \$\endgroup\$
    – Oblivious Sage
    May 4, 2023 at 12:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm voting to close this question on the grounds that it's too broad and unfocused. I know it looks like it's just one question ("Is it possible for a single system to handle a huge range of different power levels?"), to which the answer is "yes" - but explaining why in any kind of comprehensive way would require discussion of the different ways TRPGs can be designed, definitions of balance, different philosophies of game design, GM-facing guidelines and tools that a game can potentially have, along with relevant examples... It'd take a book to do all of that, or at least a long essay. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    May 4, 2023 at 22:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ I have to second that opinion. This is the type of question that prompts a discussion, not an answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ifusaso
    May 5, 2023 at 3:27

6 Answers 6

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Hero System and GURPS can both handle such transitions, quite well. Their mechanics are not the same, but the reasons they can do this are fairly similar.

  • Neither is a class/level system. Both are based on buying characters' abilities with "points", which can be used to buy stats, skills, and powers. Experience points are simply more character points. The GM has to approve all purchases by players, which makes it practical to keep some of the players from raising their characters' power levels too far above those of the other players.

  • Rather than using a linear dice mechanic (e.g., d20 or d100), or a dice pool, both use a bell-curve mechanic (3d6 roll under).

  • For both rule systems, the balancing can be handled on a case-by-case basis, rather than having to design all of it into the system.

  • Both systems handle mental and physical qualities on the same scale, except for Strength, which is far more open-ended.

The price you pay for using these systems is that character design requires more arithmetic than D&D, and character sheets can be a bit more complicated. The GM also has to do more work: they can't just delegate everything to the system designers.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Calling Hero sheets "a bit more complicated" than D&D ones feels like a massive understatement! \$\endgroup\$
    – Draconis
    May 3, 2023 at 21:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Draconis: Carefully designed superheroes are usually complicated. Using Hero for more normal people with skills and equipment, not so much. \$\endgroup\$ May 3, 2023 at 22:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ Fair point. But if the intent is to reach world-destroying levels of power, I imagine the complexity will rise quite quickly. \$\endgroup\$
    – Draconis
    May 3, 2023 at 22:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ I have a hard time seeing how the mechanics you mention actually solve this issue. While bell-shaped dice curves have their advantages, I actually would expect them to make this kind of scaling harder due to their inherent non-linearity. I suppose I can see how buying abilities "a la carte" allows for a higher power ceiling than fixed levelling systems, but for the most part it seems like you are just saying it's up to the GM to make sure things stay balanced \$\endgroup\$ May 5, 2023 at 21:53
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Relative rather than absolute power

The Amber RPG encodes power levels ranging from helpless mortals to demigod entities.

It revolves around comparing character scores relatively to one another to determine the outcome of encounters, rather than pointing to a list of possible concrete effects on the world based on their absolute value and rolls. Effects are narrated in a free-form way and left to the GM and players best judgment.

Multi-faceted conflicts

As an interesting twist that might answer your 3d bullet point, fights in Amber are also multi-dimensional in that characters are allowed to shift a conflict from grounds where they are at a relative disadvantage (e.g. warfare) to other skills that will give them an edge (e.g. magic). This makes conflicts less predetermined and can emulate Shonen scenes where the more resourceful character often wins.

Bidding and chip stack

Another mechanic that would lend itself well to the idea of a vast power scale while remaining challenging is bidding/betting, as used in games like Undying. The power level of each character is determined by their token stack, which they can go all-in with - meaning the character with the most resources could potentially beat anyone, but not everyone at once, or all the time (assuming these resources take some time to regenerate). The game tension revolves around risk-taking and not only who has the most powerful stat line.

Character progression

If PCs in your game are able to go from nobodies to superheroes in a few sessions, I don't see an easy way around bullet point #1. It's almost a feature of the game so the GM will have to constantly adapt the NPC power level no matter what (although facing the occasional ridiculously underpowered opponents is a Shonen trope and can be fun as well).

However, in terms of experience, a system focused on only a few skills or pools of tokens will do a much better job at bouncing the PCs up in power over the course of a campaign. The more stats experience points can be scattered across, the more potential for "jack of all trades" horizontal skill progression rather than raw power jumps and the more disparities will appear between PCs.

Staying open-ended

While these example systems don't provide the GM with tools to gauge the power level of each character on a detailed scale of effects and set hard, number-backed limits to what PCs can do, the works of fiction you mention do go pretty far in epic, planet-wiping scenes. It would seem odd to resort to minute character sheet math and consequence charts or such finite lists to play out what happens.

A successful game of the genre will probably give players a lot of agency in what their characters can achieve and reward creativity over optimization within the boundaries of a system - after all, don't anime heroes break the rules of their fictions all the time?

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Of course it is possible!

The most well known role-playing system in the world does it! I'm talking of course about DnD. You start as a trained mortal, when a group of civilians can pose a threat to you, and attacking a pack of wolves is more or less a death sentence. By level 10 you can single-handedly conquer a city. By level 20 you can challenge the gods. In my book that count as a huge range of different power levels.

As for your four issues: DnD has a problem only with n.3 - the difference between optimized and non-optimized characters tend to be huge at higher levels. But that is something solvable on session 0: you can either agree on the extent of optimization, or if the differences in power levels even pose a problem (I have enjoyed playing both the strongest character in the party as well as the weakest). But optimization is an issue with every system there is, unless you use pregenerated characters. Some options will always be better then others, so the only solution to that problem is the removal of options - something I don't suggest.

DnD by itself probably isn't the best for shonen genre (I would probably pick GURPS if I were to run such a game), but the system works for desired power-scales.

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This can't be system agnostic

Every system needs its own different solution for this. How you solve for it in a d20 system (like DnD) is different than how you solve it in a d10 system (like Vampire the Masquerade) or a Fudge system (like Fate), but in general, any system can solve it.

D20

For example: in d20, you can pretty much scale up success/failure infinitely, but your HP and damage dice get way out of hand when talking about really high CRs. So the best way to reduce dice is with damage multipliers and baselines. Consider a 40d6 damage attack. While this attack can theoretically do 40-240 damage, due to the law of averages with that many dice, you will almost never hit outside of the 120-160 range; so, you could dramatically simplify the role by doing something more like 4d10+120 damage. Or if you want a much bigger range 4d6x10 will give you a wide range of damage with very few dice. You can closely estimate just about any DnD damage role with 4 dice or less as long as you use the right added and multiplied damage.

D10

Whitewolf solved the D10 limitations in Aberrant using Mega-Attributes. In D10, you roll a number of d10 equal to your skill+attribute pool for a roll of what is normally 2-12 dice. Normally, for each 7 you roll you get a success point, and the more successes you roll the more powerful your success (or bonus damage in case of attacks). So, to introduce superman like strength they let special Mega-Attributes change how you count up certain rolls with things like lowered minimum targets, and multiple successes on higher rolls such that someone who rolls 6, 8, & 10 with mere mortal attributes, gets 2 success (enough to perform a moderately hard task), someone with a mega attribute might get 6 shifts of success (enough to perform a feat of super human difficulty) on the same roll. This is still a form of addition & multiplication, but applied to how you measure your dice instead of to raw values.

Fudge

Fudge is the hardest common dice system to really do this with IMO because your number of possible outcomes of a roll are already so low. The way this works is you roll 4 special dice with 2 sides that are +1, 2 sides that are -1, and 2 that are blank. Then you add the outcome to a skill value that is typically between 1-4. Fudge is kind of nice because it creates such good bell curves as opposed to d20 where you have linear differences, but it does not scale well because the scope is so small. Sure you can make someone have a skill of 5,6,7... but once you do this, you make all sorts of roles impossible to fail once they drift out of the +/-4 split.

You generally don't want to fix this problem by rolling more fudge dice because that will bias your rolls even harder towards zero. Instead, increasing the power range with fudge requires dice with more sides. I developed a fudge dice roller a few years back that uses d10s with +/-1,2,3 and 4 blank sides that extends rolls to +/- 12 instead of +/- 4 which is far better for having a lot of power classes. Since you are still rolling 4 dice, you don't get a significantly bigger range of common results than normal fudge dice, but it opens up those very rare, 1-in-10,000 strokes of luck which allows a particularly weak opponent to still have some measurable chance of success against a superior foe.

Highly Abstracted Powers

I don't remember what it is called, but I played a Super Hero system once where your powers were abstracted to the point that there was no meaningful difference between one kind of power and another, and tactics were based on creating winning circumstances for your hero more than an actual tit-for-tat combat system. Basically, the game gives you a few dice which each represent a different aspect of the circumstances you are fighting in. I don't remember them exactly, but it was something like 1 die representing how well you fight alone/with other/etc. 1 for how well you face a single/multiple enemies. One for if your environment suits your superpower. Thinks like that. So you try to set up a circumstance that favors your hero, you role all of your circumstances using dice ranging from d4s to d20s and then you pick your highest role as the outcome. This system says absolutly nothing about how you win a roll, only that you do or your don't; so, if a normal human gets a good roll, it might not mean that he punched out the Hulk, it could depending on the circumstances mean that he talked him into calming down, or tricked him into running off a cliff or something like that. This system was good because you did not have to worry about two heroes with incompatible skills fighting each other giving one a ridiculous advantage because how it was won was a matter of storytelling, not dice rolls.

Balancing Powers:

It's not enough to have crazy wide power ranges, you have to ballence them too. Balancing powers in systems that allow very wide skill gaps and/or mega-skills typically fall to the DM's ability to create a diverse range of problems to solve. Put Batman, Superman, and Dr Strange into the same party, and it gets very difficult to imagine an enemy that will challenge the whole group without someone getting OSKed (barring movie magic plot armor). The trick here is not to not make all three guys fight the same fight, but to create scenarios where there are simultaneous problems to solve that no one person can do alone. Batman will never punch out Kalibak, but what he can do is take care of that pesky kryptonite preventing Superman from doing it himself while Dr Strange fights to close off the portal to Apokolips.

Or... you can actually introduce plot armor as a game mechanic. Some TTRPGs have some variation of fate tokens that allow a player to negotiate favorable settings and outcomes, and getting/spending these tokens becomes easier if you are a playing a deeply flawed, non-meta character. So, if you are playing Batman in the above scenario, and Kalibak corners you, you could spend a fate token to declare "I'm just a worthless human, not worth Kalibak's time". If the DM accepts that you've made a reasonable declaration given who the two characters at play are, he would do something like have Kalibak assign one of his weaker minions to deal with you while he turns away to deal with problems more befitting his station... but if superman gets cornered, there is no reasonable plot line in which Kalibak would just write him off; so, Superman's player could not spend a fate chip to break agro.

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Superhero RPGs are your big source of inspiration for this.

Another answer has already mentioned Hero and GURPS, but I'll say that Superhero RPGs in general attempt to solve this problem. They are, after all, attempting to emulate a genre where a peak human martial artist in a bat costume teams up with a Greek demigoddess and invincible, superstrong flying alien, or a slightly superhuman soldier teams up with a normal guy in power armor and a literal Norse god.

In general, the main trick they tend to use is collapsing character stats using a logarithmic scale, so that each additional point of Strength makes you exponentially stronger narratively, but only gives you another +1 bonus to the dice roll.

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While it hasn't been thoroughly playtested aside from making some characters and getting some feedback on clarity of systems, I started something similar a while back. The solution I came up with for the "stomping" problem was something akin to "Acceleration".

Shonen Anime LOVES this kind of trope. Protagonist fights villain way stronger than them and it starts with punches, harder punches, add some powers, "this isn't even my final form", powerups, etc. I dealt with it via "acceleration". The idea is similar to old school RPG's with AP (action points).

Essentially, round 1 all parties get 1 action point, round 2 its 2 ap, etc. stronger attacks and transformations would have higher AP values and thus couldn't be used too early in the combat. No Turn 1 nukes. obviously the longer combat continues the stronger the villian or hero becomes as they can use stronger attacks.

Never managed to get it really playtested but it was an intriguing thought we were working around developing.

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