Setting Help - Metaphysics of Superpowers

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Setting Help - Metaphysics of Superpowers

Post by Ares » Fri Aug 11, 2017 2:59 am

So, it should be no surprise to anyone that I love superhero settings, comic books, the whole nine yards, and more than once I've come up with my own settings. And one aspect of my latest ideas for one is to explain the metaphysics of said setting, the "rules" that govern how superpowers work. And I've basically got two different ideas that boils down to how much "magic" is involved with superpowers.

The setting would be a "standard" superhero universe in the DC or Marvel mold, but with a effort made to make it feel more "international" in the sense that Japanese heroes would seem more like the heroes from manga, anime and tokusatsu series, Chinese heroes would be like the ones seen in their television and manhua, etc. And there'd be an effort to make aspects such as the supernatural, martial arts, magic and such as fleshed out as the superhero and sci-fi aspects. Some effort would also be put into determining how the law handles superheroes, what kind of effect superheroes would have had on the law and society over the last 100+ years, so forth and so on.

And one thing I'm mulling about is how to explain how superpowers work. Because while most settings tend more towards handwaving things, I'm at least somewhat interested in a consistent rule structure for how the abilities work while also keeping things loose enough to allow for the more fun aspect of superheroes, things like being able to lift large objects without them breaking, running at superspeed without shrapnel and sonic booms killing everyone, so forth and so on.

Of this, I'm of two minds.

Option 1: The Pseudo-Science Energy Field Explanation - The idea here is akin to something I read in PS238, where there is some sort of vague universal "energy field" that powers superhuman abilities, including those found in aliens and the like. Mostly this field doesn't react much with the physical universe, but there are certain types of matter that can 'harmonize' to it. While some inorganic matter can do so, organic life has a higher percentage chance of doing so. And usually through a combination of evolution and stress, certain beings can tap into said energy field to gain superpowers. Gaining power from the field will usually involve some kind of "trigger" or "energy conduit" that will influence the powers.

However, for most part, the powers one can get are somewhat "fixed", in that you're likely to see repetitions of similar powersets over and over, to where there are basically several dozen identified "power types". Most of said power types depend on whether your abilities are "internal" or "external", and what the "trigger" was.

For instance, the "Brick" powerset of superstrength, invulnerability and super leaping would be an "internal" power where the "trigger/energy conduit" was "gravity", where the character has some degree of control over their mass and gravity. This results in their body structure being incredibly dense but not much heavier than a normal person, lets them lift immense weight and hit incredibly hard, but due to their own gravity field they can lift large objects without them breaking (they use their own gravity field to lift the entire object), slow down fast moving objects like trains without ripping through them (the gravity field and their mass allows them to resist an object in motion without being simply shoved back or ripping through the object), etc.

The "Speedster" powerset would be another "internal" power where the "trigger" is "kinetic energy", allowing them to move at incredible speeds, but their ability to influence kinetic energy allows them to by-pass a lot of the issues of superspeed. Their kinetic aura allows them to absorb friction and convert it into running energy, the aura "softens" the flow of air around them so they don't create sonic booms or kick up shrapnel in their wake unless they want to, their aura absorbs some of the impact of falls and crashes, etc.

The "Flying Brick" powerset would be another "internal" power, but be a more rare hybrid of both "mass/gravity" and "kinetic" energy types. In effect, the mass/gravity aspect makes the character stronger and tougher, while the kinetic aspect similarly adds to the amount of damage they can resist and force they can apply. However, combination of mass/gravity and kinetic energy also allows the character to fly, usually with some increased sensory abilities as well.

"External" powers would be when a character taps into an energy type like electricity, gravity, kinetics and such, only instead of having an internalized power they tend to project and manipulate it externally.

The energy field would tend to allow for a bypassing of some of the laws of physics that would impede superpowers. A lot of the more advanced super-tech would also be based around tapping into the field and using it to get around some physical restraints.

Option 2: The Mythology (Science + Magic) Explanation - The other option would be to go what I call "the Mythology" route. In essence, Science is the ability to observe the universe, understand the repeatable effects, and use that knowledge to create technology to better yourself. Magic is closer to Plato's idea of "Ideal Forms", where there is a metaphysical ideal of concepts and shapes "strength", "power", "fire", "chair" and the like, of which everything in our universe are reflection of said ideals. Magic is then about understanding these concepts in how they relate to ones soul and spirit and being able to draw upon them through training and rituals.

Superpowers are at the exact point where science and magic meet, essentially the "mythology" aspect of heroes from myth. They exist in a grounded universe, but they tap into these higher ideals, often through some act that connects them to said ideal. Barry Allen gets struck by lightning and is connected to the concept of "Speed". Bruce Banner gets hit by a gamma bomb and his anger connects him to the concept of "Strength" and "Power". The power exists in a kind of middle ground between magic and science, not being completely either, but more of a hybrid of the two. They will often lack the flexibility of a true master of magic, but they are reliable and repeatable, scientific in their own way, but having a fair bit of wiggle room when it comes to regular physics due to the quasi-mystical nature of their powers.

Super-technology would then likewise be a type of "magic-tech" that exploits this to get around physics issues, albeit how much one considers it magic or technology depends on the user. Hank Pym and Tony Stark would consider their creations scientific, the alchemist Diablo would consider it magic, and Dr. Doom would consider them all idiots and acknowledge it as both. So things like the Weather Wizard's wand or Captain Cold's gun would get around their physical laws due to their quasi-mystical nature.

Not sure how interesting either idea really is, but I thought it might be interesting to run by you guys, see what you think.

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Re: Setting Help - Metaphysics of Superpowers

Post by Jabroniville » Fri Aug 18, 2017 8:42 am

Hm, figured after glossing this over a few times, I'd actually take a crack at it:

While I don't really go for a "universal method" of reasoning for superhero powers (barring shared origins), but I like the first idea more than the second, largely because the second is a bit more "metaphysical" compared to my usual wheelhouse. Though I kinda like how the guys can have "conceptual" powers in the latter version- reminds me of the ideas people have shared about Mutants and how their powers are often related to exactly what they needed at any given time (Scott Summers developed powers to save himself and his brother; Cannonball's powers saved him from a mine collapse).

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Re: Setting Help - Metaphysics of Superpowers

Post by Ares » Tue Sep 05, 2017 5:11 am

I've thought about this a little more, and I'm thinking of maybe combining the ideas into one.

The major conceit of the idea is that "superpowers" and "superheroes" are born in that space where science, magic and mortals all blend together, creating "mythology". Mythology has always been about heroes performing amazing feats, sometimes through skill, sometimes through amazing powers of their own, sometimes due to fate and luck. But mythology is basically that space where science and magic meet with a human being right in the middle.

In the older days, there were generally less "super" heroes because the only thing to give out full on powers were magic or training. You had to get superpowers either from having some godly heritage or the magical equivalent of a lab accident, bathing in the blood of dragons, drinking the wrong potion, or being blessed by a wizard. In the modern era, science actually creates more opportunities for heroes to exist by exposing them to extraordinary circumstances to empower them.

Hero System's 5th Edition Champions had something similar where the idea was that superpowers and supertechnology could only exist if there was enough background magic in the universe, turning a radiation accident that would normally give you cancer into something that would give you superpowers. In periods of low magic, superpowers can't function beyond "mystery man" levels.

My thinking is that the two explanations above might wind up just being two different explanations of the same phenomena, depending on whether the person explaining it is a scientist or a mystic.

A scientist would reveal that studies indicate there is a sub-quantum energy field (SEF), possibly that of the multiverse itself, that is connected to all matter and energy. The SEF can be influenced by the thoughts of sentient beings to some extent, and certain beings have the potential to "harmonize" with the field. In times of stress or danger, or through scientific experimentation, it is possible for a being to to fully "sync" with the field, which alters them in a way to protect themselves, usually using the triggering event as a catalyst for determining the change. Someone exposed to radiation might internalize that energy and gain the ability to generate and control it. Someone being crushed to death might gain superstrength/durability via the mass/gravity archetype. Someone drowning might gain the ability to control water or breath underwater.

There would be repeatable "archetypes" that pop up, and while they could have minor variations between them, for humans and aliens without a genetic disposition towards certain powers, the archetypes would be recognizable and could be categorized. Speedsters all operate in a similar way, because they've all internalized kinetic energy manipulation. Size, shape and density shifters all control their mass, either shunting it or creating temporary "phantom" mass via the SEF source. Fire, electricity and cold controllers operate in the same way. And since the force that causes this is sub-quantum in nature and responds to sentient thought, it bypasses a lot of known physical laws to get around the issues of superpowers.

Super technology is likewise all about tapping into the SEF phenomena to get around certain physical limits. However, it often requires rare materials and expert designing to do so, but the result can be quite impressive. Cold guns that seem to have more precision than a simple trigger could allow, wands that control the weather and allow for things that don't exist (solid rainbows, clouds that can be ridden on), and explain why "cybernetically contolled" technology seems easy to create with regards to it.

A mystic might instead say that superpowers are a result magic influencing the world. Magic is a neutral force, but it tends to be drawn to people with strong will, desires, motivations and the like. In the past, these individuals would find themselves drawn to the circumstances that would make them heroes or villains, being drawn to the teacher that would make them a supreme martial artist, the crystal skull that would turn them into a lich, the magic sword that would make them a hero, etc. What science has done is created more opportunities to empower such men. Magic twists an almost fatal accident into a situation that creates a superhero. The radioactive spider bite empowers rather than kills. The genius inventor gets just the inspiration he needs to create a battlesuit. The lightning bolt makes one a super speedster rather than a corpse. The magic takes the elements that would have killed them a mythical hero.

And naturally the superheroes fit into certain archetypes. Magic is largely about archetypes, symbols, icons, etc. The gods of strength, speed, invention, fire, cold, light, all are recorded in various mythological texts and books of sorcery. Magic simply uses those templates to empower people.

The greater human population and advancement of science has likewise created more opportunity for these empowering events to happen. The accidents, the experiments and the technology are all scientific in nature, but magic twists the science slightly to create a hero whose origin is in science, but whose powers have a touch of the mystic to them. That's why their powers often circumvent scientific law. Rather than operating on pure science, the magic makes them somewhat akin to the powers of White Wolf's "Scion", where the Legend and Mythic nature of a power trumps scientific law. Science might say that a superstrong type is using a combination of sub-quantum born personal gravity and mass powers to lift an object without it crumbling under its own weight, but a mystic would say that is simply the magic at work. The same magic that let Heracles hold up the sky is at work there.

Superscience technology is likewise a type of magical technology, perhaps unknowingly tapping into magic to bypass physical laws. After all, how else do you explain a "high tech wand" that controls the weather?

Both views would be supported through their own research, both are likely to start a fight with each other if they ever tried to debate each other. Which one is right? Maybe they both are, maybe they're like the old story of the Blind Men and the Elephant, where they each only have a little bit of the truth. For most superheroes it doesn't matter, they just know their powers work the way they do, and they can use them to help people.

Now, I know this might all seem a bit pointless, but it was primarily just a thought experiment. I like putting in this kind of thought for a superhero setting, as I think it creates a kind of verisimilitude where there's at least some explanation for how these things work. Jim Butcher's "The Dresden Files" was a big influence on me, and the idea that magic actually works in certain ways, with actual rules so outlined that they can become plot points, appeals to me. So I thought I'd apply that rational to superpowers and see what I could come up with. Hopefully it wasn't TOO boring.

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Re: Setting Help - Metaphysics of Superpowers

Post by RUSCHE » Thu Sep 07, 2017 12:31 am

In one of our old settings using the Old marvel system we used the idea that everyone had some level of personal reality warping. We did a point base vs random roll . We used the rational that the more powerful characters just were better at manipulation of their personal warping fields. Simple I know, but hey it was the 1980s.

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Re: Setting Help - Metaphysics of Superpowers

Post by Flynnarrel » Wed Sep 20, 2017 6:46 pm

If you haven't read the Grimnoir Chronicles by Larry Correia I highly recommend it. I like how he handled the 'source' of superpowers in his world.
"Something pithy this way comes."

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Re: Setting Help - Metaphysics of Superpowers

Post by Ares » Sun Oct 21, 2018 7:56 pm

So I finally think I've figured out how I'm going to handle superpowers in my settings, and actually try to have at least a loose pseudo-science explanation for how the abilities work. I'm going with a variant of the Mythology option I mentioned above.

Essentially, this setting will require there to be a lot of magic and a lot of science on a planet for naturally occurring superpowers to occur with the kind of frequency of a superhero setting. In the sci-fi/galactic space portion of the setting, superpowers are much more rare due to a lack of magic, while the main fantasy world is too dominated by magic without science to balance it. Basically, when both forces are relatively balanced, it creates the ideal situations for superpowers. Science provides the wide distribution of technology and possibilities for empowering events, while magic allows those events to grant power instead of instant death, and mess with the physics of the person so that the powers work within the setting.

I've also come up with a kind of loose pseudo-physics for how powers work. Basically, the empowering event that grants someone powers will be the basis for someone gaining power. The science/magic combo that empowers people basically reaches out around the person during an origin event and uses that to empower them. But in addition to whatever triggers the event, there's also frequently two forces always in effect: gravity and kinetic energy. As such, those two forces are often incorporated into the powers during activation to an extent, most frequently kinetic energy. As such, most superpowers have some degree of kinetic energy manipulation involved with their powers, especially powers that manipulate and control energy.

The kinetic aspect is what allows someone to "shoot" their power, and adds a "force" aspect to things like fire blasts, lightning blasts, ice blasts, and also makes it easier for these beings to fly by acting as a kind of propulsion to the powers. It also works to cancel out the equal/opposite reaction when someone shoots an energy blast at something, allowing them to resist being thrown off their feet every time they shoot a wall that doesn't break immediately. It also negates some of the impact of high-kinetic attacks, helping heroes survive a bit more.

Gravity/mass often comes into play with characters who have Brick-based abilities. They essentially have a kind of subconscious control over their own mass, density and personal gravity field. This lets them lift large objects without it breaking, lets them leap incredible distances, makes them resilient to harm, prevents them from sinking through the floor when they lift something big, and lets them be either the immovable object or the irresistible force. Even guys who do things like turn into metal or stone have something like this working for them.

Flying bricks have a combination of both kinetic and gravity/mass abilities, where they work to compliment each other. The gravity/mass makes them dense, durable and strong without affecting their weight, while the kinetic energy lets them fly, resist kinetic damage, etc.

Someone who just goes full on kinetic energy usually winds up becoming a speedster, with the kinetic aspect working around a lot of the issues superspeed would cause, similar to the Speed Force.

And since kinetic energy and gravity/mass are everywhere, it results in brick, flying brick and speedster powers being generally the most common in the setting.

It also explains why super-technology often isn't as powerful as natural superpowers: they have to work technological solutions to issues that the science/magic hybrid energy balances out on its own. Iron Man armor has to have things like inertial dampners and compensators when a flying brick's powers just handle it on its own. But at the same time, you can get things like Captain Cold's Cold Gun or the Weather Wizard's Wand if those devices also tap into that same kind of science/magic force as well.

I know it would be easy enough to just sweep this kind of thing under the heading of "genre conventions", but I don't know, I like having at least a throwaway attempt to justify how powers work.

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Re: Setting Help - Metaphysics of Superpowers

Post by Poodle » Fri Aug 16, 2019 9:05 am

In my world superpowers are impossible by the laws of physics UNLESS the heroes are stealing energy from another place. It all started with the supercollider creating a weakness between dimensions. People with the right DNA can manipulate the extra energy coming through. The downside is that the other dimension is starting to lose energy. Heroes store it. Dwellers from the other side are finding ways through to kill Superheroes to reclaim the energy they are using. Because their sun is growing dim they have adapted to living in a cold dimly lit world. They are pale and can't stand direct sunlight and they drain people of living energy. That is not even talking about other races from the other side. Voila, vampires and Cthullhu in a superhero world.
Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world. -Albert Einstein

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