New Abilities

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Abilities gained during gameplay that allows for new actions to be performed.

Many games provide players with additional actions that they can perform after they have started playing. These New Abilities often give players more freedom in the games and allow them to be more empowered as gameplay continues.


Tabletop Roleplaying Games such as Dungeons & Dragons make use of character levels and when players reach new levels, players are awarded with New Abilities. This has been carried over to Computer-based Roleplaying Games such as the Neverwinter Nights and Dragon Age series, and the Fallout series where players get perks at every other character level gained. The Legend of Zelda series does likewise but ties New Abilities more to the possession of new tools.

The FPS Game Return to Castle Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory allows players to gain experience in several different skills during game play. When players "level up" in a skill, they gain New Abilities connected to that skill, e. g., being able to call air strikes based on observation with binoculars, fully reviving team mates with health injections, or having more ammunition in supply packs.

Becoming a zombie in Zombiepox does not automatically mean game over, since players can cure themselves by finding brains. However, when being zombies the players' avatars gain the ability to spread the zombie disease just like other zombies, which does not aid in their long-term success in the game.

Picking up power-ups in the Mario Kart series gives players New Abilities for a certain limit time or limited number of uses.

Using the pattern

New Abilities in games are most often given to provide Varied Gameplay (e.g. by giving players access to new Weapons), but can also be added because they are needed to overcome particular challenges already decided upon. Besides what Abilities should be given, the primary design choices for New Abilities lies in if the Abilities are linked to specific Focus Loci or more generally to players, if players can affect what Abilities is gained, and if the Abilities gained are Temporary Abilities due to having Time Limits. Although any Abilities may be New Abilities, Privileged Movement and Quick Returns can be mentioned since they are New Abilities but may be mistaken for Improved Abilities. The difference between New Abilities and Improved Abilities can be defined in several different ways: if the new actions are activated in the same way as the old, if the consequences of the actions affect different parts of the game state, or if the explanation given by the Alternative Realities differentiates them. However, the distinction between them may be blurry for players and it may be prudent to consider both patterns when designing one or the other.

New Abilities given to specific Focus Loci such as Avatars and Characters can be tied to acquiring specific game elements such as Controllers, Equipment, Tools, Weapons, new types of Ammunition, and Vehicles. All of these can thereby be used to instantiate New Abilities with the exception of Ammunition which due to being a Resource instead can given variants through New Abilities. The New Abilities can also be motivated as personal development in the form of new Powers or Skills, possibly as the effects of gaining Character Levels. When the use of Abilities is tied to the use of Resources, simply gaining access to a Resource one didn't have before makes one have a New Ability. Gaining Companions and becoming members of Factions can also do this in a roundabout way since this may let players have access to new services from Non-Player Characters that are members in the Factions. All these ways but the last can be used to make the New Abilities a form of Limited Resources and allow Transfer of Control of the New Abilities through for example Trading or Stealing. Other ways of introducing New Abilities depend more on tying them directly to the Game Worlds, for example through introducing Controllers or by creating Environmental Effects that are defined by the New Abilities they provide. This makes the New Abilities into Location-Fixed Abilities in the Game Worlds and makes players have to move the Avatars or Characters there to get the Abilities. The placement of Power-Ups in Game Worlds provide similar options but here getting to particular places (at the right time) becomes important and one then gets the New Abilities with a Time Limit. These approaches can be used for Units as well. When done so, they increase the value of individual Units, but unless the New Abilities are also Temporary Abilities due to Time Limits, this may make them more into Characters than Units. Games which allow the Capture of enemy Units through Transfer of Control can give players New Abilities through these "converted" Units. Non-localized ways of giving New Abilities are through Crafting, Character Levels, Evolving Rule Sets, or results of Investments such as advances in Technology Trees, and these options can be applied to Abstract Player Constructs, Characters, or classes of Units. Varying Rule Sets can also do this on a temporary basis.

While the above shows how New Abilities can be given to several types of Focus Loci, Cards and Bookkeeping Tokens can be Focus Loci that give players New Abilities by being put into play (and thereby affect how player can interact with Game Worlds). For Cards, players can be given these New Abilities through performing Card or Deck Building.

New Abilities may be preordained by Predetermined Story Structures, forced upon players due to Role Reversal events, or they may be given the Freedom of Choice to select which to get from a set of Abilities. Giving players a control over what New Abilities they gain and letting the information about the possible New Abilities be made available in advance allows for Player-Planned Development. In games with Team Play, this also allows Team Development. While any New Abilities can be Privileged Abilities until other acquire them as well, New Abilities can be designed to be Privileged Abilities by only letting one or a few players get the Abilities. This may be done through the game elements providing the New Abilities being limited in number.

Like Privileged Abilities, New Abilities can affect Player Balance negatively. This may be countered by the Balancing Effects of linking the New Abilities to Ability Losses of another type, forcing players to perform Risk/Reward and Trade-Off choices. Another way to provide Balancing Effects is to have the actions provided by the New Abilities extend a set action that need to be paid for by Budgeted Action Points - so using the New Abilities means not using old ones. Putting Time Limits on how long players have the New Abilities - as is often done with Power-Ups - is a third way of balancing New Abilities.

While New Abilities are often given as Rewards (or more precisely Facilitating Rewards), having diseases and the ability to spread them is an example of how New Abilities can be Penalties; this can be found in Zombiepox, Team Fortress Classic and caused the Corrupted Blood incident[1] in World of Warcraft.

Diegetic Aspects

To let other players know what New Abilities players have acquired one can change the representation of Avatars and Units accordingly. Generally, New Abilities fits less well with a game's Thematic Consistency than Improved Abilities unless they are presented through game elements, Abstract Player Construct or Character Development, or have been part of Predefined Goals.

Interface Aspects

In computer-based games where players have a Freedom of Choice in what New Abilities to get from raises in Character Levels, this is typically done in Secondary Interface Screens.

From a pure interface perspective, placing Bookkeeping Tokens can instantiate New Abilities.

Narrative Aspects

As stated above, New Abilities may be part of Predetermined Story Structures but can also create narratives through the Character Development they embody, especially when they can be seen as the effects of Character Defining Actions for Characters.


New Abilities - quite obviously - give players new Abilities in games. They do this through changing what action the players' Focus Loci, e.g. Avatars, Characters, and Units, can do. The ability to have more influence over the game state makes goals of acquiring New Abilities into implicit if not explicit Supporting Goals of Gain Competence, Gain Ownership of Tools, or acquiring new Competence Areas - Power-Ups are examples of game elements that make these goals explicit especially since the New Abilities also typically are Privileged Abilities. As they give players increased Freedom of Choice and the New Abilities may be Privileged Abilities, receiving them is almost always considered a Reward and can give players the feeling of Empowerment. This may give players an Exaggerated Perception of Influence even if no actual influence exists, as for example in the cases where Red Queen Dilemmas exist due to the New Abilities are matched by New Abilities of Enemies.

The timing of when New Abilities are made available to players are often critical to when and if phases of Expansion, Exploitation, or Game World Exploration occur (it does not affect Extermination to the same degree since players typically have those abilities at hand already).

Giving New Abilities as the gameplay unfolds can help players have Smooth Learning Curves and provides a means to support Increasing Rewards and Varied Gameplay over a game session. They can temporarily lower players ability to have a Determinable Chance to Succeed. New Abilities given to Characters are a form of Character Development (and if the Abilities are chosen these choices can be seen as Character Defining Actions) and likewise a form of Abstract Player Construct Development when given to Abstract Player Constructs. In games with Teams, New Abilities also creates Team Development and possibly Functional Roles through Competence Areas. This Abstract Player Construct or Character Development can in turn provide the development of Paper-Rock-Scissors and Red Queen Dilemmas structures but also problems with Player Balance in Multiplayer games] (and Team Balance in games with Teams).

New Abilities can provide Balancing Effects when whom they are given to and what actions are given is based upon players' current gameplay ranking.


Can Instantiate

Balancing Effects, Card Building, Competence Areas, Deck Building, Determinable Chance to Succeed, Empowerment, Environmental Effects, Exaggerated Perception of Influence, Gain Competence, Increasing Rewards, Penalties, Powers, Privileged Abilities, Predetermined Story Structures, Red Queen Dilemmas, Rewards, Supporting Goals, Varied Gameplay

with Abstract Player Constructs

Abstract Player Construct Development

with Ability Losses

Risk/Reward, Trade-Offs

with Bookkeeping Tokens or Cards

Focus Loci

with Characters

Character Defining Actions, Character Development

with Freedom of Choice

Player-Planned Development

with Teams

Team Development

with Time Limits

Temporary Abilities

with Tools

Gain Ownership

with Units


Can Modulate

Abilities, Abstract Player Constructs, Ammunition, Avatars, Character Levels, Characters, Expansion, Exploitation, Game World Exploration, Focus Loci, Freedom of Choice, Investments, Power-Ups, Role Reversal, Skills, Technology Trees, Units

with Abstract Player Construct Development or Character Development


Can Be Instantiated By

Bookkeeping Tokens, Cards, Companions, Controllers, Crafting, Equipment, Evolving Rule Sets, Factions, Gain Competence, Privileged Movement, Quick Returns, Resources, Tools, Varying Rule Sets, Vehicles, Weapons

Capture together with Transfer of Control

Can Be Modulated By

Budgeted Action Points, Balancing Effects, Freedom of Choice, Location-Fixed Abilities, Privileged Abilities, Secondary Interface Screens, Time Limits, Transfer of Control

Possible Closure Effects


Potentially Conflicting With

Player Balance, Team Balance


An updated version of the pattern New Abilities that was part of the original collection in the book Patterns in Game Design[2].


  1. Wikipedia Entry for the Corrupted Blood incident.
  2. Björk, S. & Holopainen, J. (2004) Patterns in Game Design. Charles River Media. ISBN1-58450-354-8.