Creating special abilities
This page is going to assume you've already read all about special abilities -- if you haven't, I'd start there and then come back here and we can break down some more of the philosophy around creating them.
Requirements, not restrictions
Special abilities tend to work best when you don't try to put restrictions on them. If a player wants to make a special ability called Godmode that makes them immortal. That should be on the table no matter how gamebreaking it appears. Protagonists who can shape the world to their whim can create a compelling story.
Just make sure you and/or your player check in with the rest of the table-- they may not want to play a TTRPG where somebody has cheat codes on. As long as you make sure that everyone is on the same page and having fun, that's what matters.
If you're wondering if there's some kind of behind-the-scenes formula for making a balanced special ability, the short answer is: there isn't. At least not up front.
The longer answer is there isn't, but not for a lack of trying. After all, if you have a special ability that turns all of your d12s into d20s when you Attack an undead enemy, how useful that special ability is depends entirely on how often the GM pits you against undead enemies. If you have a special ability to fly, how useful that special ability is depends on how often you need to and couldn't otherwise.
Rather than try to balance special abilities from the get-go, I'd encourage balancing special abilities as you go. If a special ability feels too strong? Give it an extra requirement, or make one of its requirements more costly! If a special ability feels too weak? Give it an extra effect or strengthen one of its existing effects without requiring the character to upgrade it.
Rather than (or sometimes in addition to) costing ability points, you can give special abilities requirements that must be met for you to be able to use it. The more requirements a special ability has, or the more costly the requirements, the more powerful the special ability should be. Often, requirements will be things like:
- Wielding a specific tool, like being required to use weapons specific to your art to use a martial arts technique
- Being in a specific situation, like being required to be Defending against a Close-Range Attack to perform a counter
- Taking a specific amount of time, like being required to spend some downtime to create a potion
- Fulfilling a specific narrative goal, like being required to memorize a character's mannerisms to disguise yourself as them
You can make a special ability more flexible by making it stronger if more requirements are met. These optional requirements are often things like spending extra ability points, taking additional time, or fulfilling an extra goal. For instance:
Craft a Disguise If you've spent at least one period of downtime every day for the last seven days observing a character, you can disguise yourself as that character. You automatically pass as them visually and at a distance.
If you've spent at least two periods of downtime each day observing them, you better understand their mannerisms. You automatically pass as them when interacting with all but their closest friends.
Creating multiple types of ability points
Characters don't necessarily have one source of powers. A magical blade fighter that uses their mana to use special abilities related to their magic power might also have flourishes that they use to perform special abilities related to their sword mastery. A cyborg psychic might have both ammunition for their arsenal of weapons and psi points. An inventor may have any number of different ability points, each representative of their different inventions.
You can give your character an additional type of ability points whenever you would increase the number of ability points you have. Instead of increasing the number of ability points you have, just create a new pool of two ability points of the new type. When you can increase the number of ability points you have, you only gain that many ability points in total-- you must choose which of your types of ability points increase.
Customizing ability points
If you're feeling particularly creative, you may want your special abilities to be powered by something other than a pool of points. They could be powered by a pool of dice, a set of leveled slots, or a deck of cards that does something different depending on what card you draw. If you or your GM have a creative idea for how you want to power your character's special abilities, go for it.
If you choose to do so, keep in mind the capability of characters with ability point pools. A character with a deck of cards that do different things likely shouldn't start with more than two cards, and should gain additional cards or improve existing cards in a way similar to how a character with ability points would gain additional points in their pool and improve their existing special abilities.