Lately I’ve been discussing abilities in terms of their realism or credibility. I use such distinctions when devising character abilities.
For instance, anything a normal person could do, within training, is by definition ‘realistic’. Things that are of comparable scale and effect should also be in this category, even if strictly speaking a person in the real world could not do them (spell casting, I’m looking at you).
‘Larger than life’ describes actions or activities that normal people should not expect to be able to do. Some real people, people who exist in the real world, might be able to do them, but they’re going to be very uncommon. Even some things beyond human ability can fit this category if it is a reasonably logical, if not possible, extension of human ability. Anything described as “world class” might be in this category, and anyone in the top 100 of almost anything could be (unless that accounts for a significant percentage of the people who do that thing at all). For instance, I’d be willing to label Hafþór Björnsson ‘larger than life’ here, as far as physical strength is concerned — many people lift heavy things, but he trades world records back and forth with a handful of other people.
Similarly, Jackie Chan’s screen persona is larger than life. I want to say Jackie himself fits this category, but… I can’t. He is a very talented performer and trained to a degree beyond almost anyone you’re likely to meet (unless you’re heavily into martial arts), but I would say he’s never been in the top 100 in the world. At least, in terms of personal fighting ability. He was the first to do things as he did, which makes a big difference, but while Jackie can do many of the things we see in his movies, he cannot do them reliably… and often has gotten hurt doing them. He’s on record as saying part of the reason his movies look so amazing because he’s willing to spend a hundred takes to get the result he wants. Looks amazing, but cannot be done reliably: I would call this ‘realistic ability, presented in larger than life fashion’.
Loosely, things that look impressive (and mistakenly get ‘level 20 acrobat’ labels applied) can be considered ‘realistic’, things that make you think “there is no way… if I hadn’t just seen it I would not have believed it” might be ‘larger than life’. Again there is a matter of relative scale here, important when spell casting is involved.
‘Superhuman’ describes things that are outside human capability. Nobody in the real world can do such things, and probably not by an order of magnitude. I mentioned Hafþór Björnsson earlier… he is on record as being able to deadlift over 1,000 pounds. Superhuman strength could include being able to deadlift multiple tons. You know, rather than just half of one.
(Reality check: In the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, a character “can lift as much as double his maximum load off the ground, but he or she can only stagger around with it”, which sounds like a PR deadlift feels. Str 22 is sufficient to lift 520 pounds over head, or deadlift 1,040 — almost exactly Hafþór’s record deadlift — off the floor. Given natural 18 Strength, +2 race modifier, and a size bonus (Hafþór is a very large human, I can see a +2 in there) and things line up fairly well — Larger Than Life, but not Superhuman… and in RPG terms, notable compared to not-strong people, but not so much among those who depend on muscle.)
‘Superheroic’ is another order of magnitude: Spider-Man rather than Captain America… and that’s considering just physical strength, let alone his other nifty abilities.
At these tiers, it’s not just a matter of personal prowess. At the superhuman and superheroic grades characters should regularly be doing things totally outside what can be done in the real world… or at least, what can be done in the real world without augmentation (technology and the like give some massive power multipliers).
Finally, legendary is just that. It surpasses the superhuman and superheroic by another order of magnitude. Captain America can flip a car, Spider-Man should be able to throw a car, and the Hulk could casually juggle cars if his arms were longer.
What Does This Mean?
I think this means characters — at least, those who don’t use spells — have been getting ripped off. Once they get past the lowest levels, they should be capable of some insane feats and activities.
Getting another +1 on attack rolls, or even doubling damage, doesn’t do it for me, especially at the higher levels of training. It’s not just enough to make high check DCs (and D&D 3e’s Epic Level Handbook might make you think). That a high check result means you do better than a lower one is fine, but I think a character who invests in an ability should get results beyond what a simple check from a less-trained character can.
It looks to me like abilities — class features and feats — should both have modest bonuses and be gates to outcomes not available to lesser-trained characters. I’m thinking something like +1 per tier for the bonus (if feats and paths stack) or +2 per tier (if they don’t), just to keep things rational. Plus the extra ability.
So, a sword-based combat style might mean a bonus to attacks (nice!) and options (stunts or new abilities) not available to others. Possibly semi-stunts: abilities fueled by the stunt die but not needing doubles… perhaps something like AGE’s complex challenges where you need to build up enough success to activate.
… Yes. I can see this working.