Privileged Abilities

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Abilities that let agents perform actions not readily available to others.

Many games have different sets of actions possible for different players. The actions one player has, or possibly a few players have, are Privileged Abilities in that they allow different tactics during gameplay, and allow different forms of goals to be sought.


Class-based Tabletop Roleplaying Games such as Dungeons & Dragons and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay limit abilities so that they are privileged to specific classes. Computer roleplaying games, such as the NetHack, Torchlight, the Dragon Age series, the Neverwinter Nights series, and the Diablo series, continued to make use of Privileged Abilities by making certain actions only available to specific classes, for example, only allowing wizards to cast spells. This has also been carried over to some Massively Multiplayer Online Games, e.g. World of Warcraft.

Many First-Person Shooters, e.g. the Doom and Quake series give players a sort of Privileged Abilities in the various weapons they have access to. Half-Life 2 does likewise but also includes a gravity gun while the Portal series only lets players use a portal gun that can create inter-spatial portal between different parts of levels. The Legend of Zelda series, and to an even greater extent the Just Cause series, gives players the possibility of doing movement by using grappling hooks that nobody other inhabitants can do. One type of Privileged Abilities revolve around manipulation of game time: the Max Payne series gives players the possibility of slowing time for all enemies through engaging in bullet time while Braid and later installments of the Prince of Persia series lets players rewind time.

Online multiplayer First-Person Shooters such as Return to Castle Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory or the Battlefield series use the same method of dividing special abilities, such as repairing vehicles or providing air strikes, to specific classes. Return to Castle Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory further provides new actions as players gain experience in various activities. The Left 4 Dead series give the various "special infected" various Privileged Abilities, e.g. acids spits and the ability to steer ridden enemies, and the players with these abilities need to used them together to increase their chances of winning.

The Board Game History of the World uses Cards with special abilities that can be played only on certain turns in order to follow loosely the historical development of civilizations. In Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game players get special actions they can perform based upon which character they are playing. The Card Game Race for the Galaxy gives players different starting positions by randomizing starting Cards and this give players Privileged Abilities, at least to begin with.

Using the pattern

Privileged Abilities are privileged due to some Agents have Abilities that others do not. This can be done in two ways: one is that other agents simply do not have the Abilities and the other is that one has Improved Abilities whose effects cannot easily be compensated by skillful play. In Multiplayer Games, the other agents may be other players but the pattern can also be all types of games to differentiate between players' Abilities and that of Non-Player Characters or Enemies; this may include the NPCs having Abilities that players do not have. A particular case is that of a Game System Player, these docile players typically have Privileged Abilities due to their role as more or less passive threats to the other players. Privileged Abilities may also be used to differentiate between ordinary Enemies and Boss Monsters. Games with Game Masters provide these with many Privileged Abilities since these can access and modify game states and Game Worlds in ways players cannot. Entitled Players do the same but limit these. Disregarding Entitled Players and Game Masters, the design choices regarding Privileged Abilities can be divided into three main categories of which the two latter overlaps to a certain degree: the actual nature of the actions they provide, how the actions are made available, and which players have access to the actions. Putting strict limits on the number of times Privileged Abilities can be used make them Non-Renewable Resources.

Privileged Abilities can take many different forms. Privileged Movement is a common example, which can include being able to ignore certain Zones of Control or Obstacles, enter Safe Havens, use grappling hooks, do special types of Jumping such as double jumps or wall jumps (both found in the Super Mario series), use Quick Returns, drive Vehicles, initiate Quick Travel, being able to use or create Warp Zones (as Chell can do in the Portal series), or act as Spawn Points (as squad leaders in Battlefield 2). Giving players special actions in Combat, such as Combos, are also common. Others, somewhat more uncommon include Construction, Crafting, and other ways of creating or manipulating Resources, especially when these means becoming a source of Renewable Resources; restoring Health can be considered an example of this. Being able to switch between different Vision Modes (as is possible in the Alien vs Predator series or Batman: Arkham Asylum) does not directly provide new actions but can hugely change how players perceive Game Worlds and what they can do within them. Activate or deactivating Alarms is an even more uncommon Privileged Ability but when it exists often directly influences the overall gameplay. Trumps provide Privileged Abilities to a suit of Cards in games with Trick Taking. Games with Drawing Stacks are Discard Piles can have Privileged Abilities in letting players look through them, pick Cards or Tiles from any place within them, or take from the Discard Piles when in ordinary cases one should have taken from the Drawing Stacks. On a very general level, being allowed to treat actions as Interruptible Actions, being able to reverse Irreversible Events or perform Game Time Manipulation, being given Extra Chances, having Open-Ended Die Rolls, or the power to create Fudged Results are all examples of Privileged Abilities. In some cases, even the option of performing No-Op actions can be a Privileged Ability.

Some Privileged Abilities, for example being in control of Player-Decided Distributions of Rewards and Penalties, are not direct actions during gameplay but rather let players affect the evaluation functions of a game. Privileged Abilities can also be passive, in which case they do not give players new actions they can perform but rather let them do actions they already have in situations where other could not do them. The most common of this type of Privileged Abilities is probably to have lessened effects or complete Invulnerabilities to Penalties or Environmental Effects such as Damage (Team Fortress 2 shows how Invulnerabilities can be temporarily given to combatants without unbalancing the game as a whole through allowing medics to activate übercharges).

Certain Privileged Abilities relate to the availability of information: having knowledge about Secret Resources, being allowed to look at another players' Hands or having Units with less Fog of War or different Line of Sight rules than other Units for example. Another example of information-related Privileged Abilities are those that provide ways of viewing Game Worlds so that some game elements become Diegetically Outstanding Features (the eagle vision in the Assassin's Creed series is an example of this). These Abilities may be designed to be either active in the sense that getting the information is a gameplay action or passive in that they can always be accessed and mainly affect how players can perform other actions.

Privileged Abilities can either be present at the beginning of gameplay or made available as New or Improved Abilities (e.g. through Unlocking them or Alien Space Bats). Entering Chargers, Controllers, Environmental Effects, or Installations, or taking Power-Ups can give or modify these Abilities while in their vicinity, while having Territories with Location-Fixed Abilities, or simply Area Control of such Abilities can be another form of Privileged Abilities if the Abilities are not provided in many locations. In this case, the activation of Privileged Abilities is tied to specific locations in games and gaining the Privileged Abilities can become a question of knowing Strategic Locations. While Companions may have their own Privileged Abilities, some games (e.g. the Fallout series) gives players extra Rewards for acquiring Companions in the form of Companion-specific Privileged Abilities. Helpers with less agency than Companions do not have their own Privileged Abilities but can provide players with Privileged Abilities through offering services. As the effects of Power-Ups usually are under Time Limits, the effects they have on Player Balance can more easily be controlled than for other types of Privileged Abilities. It is quite common in Strategy Games such as the Civilization series to provide (temporary) Privileged Abilities by Unlocking specific parts of Technology Trees. Becoming Neighbors is a requirement for making the Privileged Abilities often found in Massively Single-Player Online Games which allow players to make Altruistic Actions in other players' Private Game Spaces. Privileged Abilities may also appear due to Penalties inflicted on other players that take away Abilities from them; the effect of losing your knights in Chess while your opponent still has them can be seen as your opponent having the Privileged Abilities of making knights move. A specific form of Privileged Abilities found only in Multiplayer Games is the Abilities to be able to relieve other players' from their state of Helplessness. Sanctioned Cheating is a special case where the players - sometimes at a potential risk - can give themselves Privileged Abilities through performing actions that are seen as at least somewhat doubtful.

The question of who has access to Privileged Abilities can be split into the questions of what Focus Loci provides the action and which players have access to the action. In games with Characters, the Privileged Abilities can be tied to these and losing the Characters results in losing the Privileged Abilities as well, but when players play these instead of use them, i.e. Player Characters, the Privileged Abilities may be used to make these exceptional. When using Avatars representing Characters as players' Focus Loci, the Privileged Abilities can be represented by Skills to allow further modulation of the Abilities. Making Privileged Abilities depend on the access to Game Items (e.g. Equipment, Tools, and Weapons) can provide thematic explanations to introducing the Abilities during gameplay and can motivate Gain Ownership goals. Transferable Items and Units allow the Privileged Abilities to shift between players by different forms of Transfer of Control, e. g., Stealing or doing certain kinds of Capture actions - Units can however also allow Privileged Abilities to create Competence Areas in Single-Player Games. For games with Role Selection, the actions allowed by a role may or may not be Privileged Abilities depending on if other players are allowed to do the actions as well. However, if any players are allowed to perform the actions additional bonus Privileged Abilities may be given to the choosers of roles as a way of encouraging people to pick roles rather than rely on others to choose them. The possibility of Player-Planned Development affects Privileged Abilities in that players may specifically aims for these, but the patterns also have a reversed relation in that the presences of one or more potential Privileged Abilities can present important choices that need to be done as part of Player-Planned Development.

The effect of which player has the Privileged Abilities depends heavily upon whether the game involves Teams. If so, Privileged Abilities of players can be matched by the same Abilities in the other teams to create Team Balance. This makes it possible for Teams to have Symmetry while providing Asymmetric Abilities within the Teams and allows individual players to have game-controlled Competence Areas and thereby Functional Roles. In games without Teams but with Cooperation, the pattern can also support Competence Areas (and Functional Roles), while in games with Conflicts it is more likely to affect Player Balance.

Possible effects on Player Balance by Privileged Abilities can be mitigated somewhat if they are part of the set of actions selectable by Budgeted Action Points or making them have Cooldown periods.

Narration Aspects

Privileged Abilities are very often used to distinguish Characters in stories, and through this can be used to create Predetermined Story Structures. Further, when given as New Abilities they can be important events that can also be part of Predetermined Story Structures.


Privileged Abilities give players Empowerment in games since they have Abilities that others do not. This is especially apparent in Self-Facilitated Games that make use of Game Masters, since the entire game state is controlled by them and all events in the game must be approved by them. When they are instead applied on Enemies, they can make these into Boss Monsters and can provide Varied Gameplay in that they can behave differently than ordinary Enemies and require Puzzle Solving since ordinary tactics may not be feasible.

By their very nature, Privileged Abilities create Asymmetric Abilities between players and modulate the value of New Abilities. This may easily affect Player Balance negatively. When unsupervised by the game system, this can create greater and greater imbalances as gameplay progresses, but by actively modifying what Privileged Abilities players have and when, e. g., by deciding the nature of Power-Ups due to the positions of players in a racing game, the pattern can instead be used to create Handicap Systems to support Player Balance. In games with Teams, this naturally can also affect Team Balance but can also strengthen the strive to have Competence Areas as well as give them Game-Based Social Statuses. Further, it can encourage players to work together to achieve Team Combos even if no Teams exist (i.e. it can work in any Multiplayer Game). Beyond this, the pattern can support stimulated Social Interaction, as players usually need to engage in Coordination to take full advantage of the set of actions they have. If the Privileged Abilities are matched between the teams, Team Balance can be achieved even though Player Balance may not be.

Red Queen Dilemmas can occur if players engaged in Competition can gain access to the same or balancing Privileged Abilities, especially if there are series of Privileged Abilities that have each other as prerequisites (e.g. Technology Trees).

Privileged Abilities that are present from the beginning of the game not only create Asymmetric Starting Conditions but also allow players to perform Strategic Planning. Those Privileged Abilities that are gained during gameplay in contrast increase the need for Tactical Planning since players need to adjust to changes in their own or others capabilities.

In games with Parallel Lives, having some of the game elements that represent the different lives have Privileged Abilities make them have different value to players and thereby affect the overall game balance.


Can Instantiate

Asymmetric Abilities, Asymmetric Starting Conditions, Competence Areas, Empowerment, Handicap Systems, Interruptible Actions, Player Balance, Predetermined Story Structures, Renewable Resources, Safe Havens, Strategic Planning, Tactical Planning

with Boss Monsters

Puzzle Solving, Varied Gameplay

with Competition

Red Queen Dilemmas

with Enemies

Boss Monsters

with Multiplayer Games or Teams

Team Combos

with Teams

Coordination, Game-Based Social Statuses

Can Modulate

Abilities, Abstract Player Constructs, Alarms, Avatars, Characters, Combat, Companions, Damage, Diegetically Outstanding Features, Discard Piles, Drawing Stacks, Enemies, Environmental Effects, Fog of War, Game Items, Hands, Health, Irreversible Events, Jumping, Line of Sight, Multiplayer Games, New Abilities, Non-Player Characters, Obstacles, Parallel Lives, Penalties, Player Characters, Player-Planned Development, Role Selection, Secret Resources, Self-Facilitated Games, Teams, Units, Warp Zones, Zone of Control

Can Be Instantiated By

Area Control, Chargers, Combos, Companions, Construction, Crafting, Entitled Players, Environmental Effects, Equipment, Extra Chances, Fudged Results, Game Masters, Game System Player, Game Time Manipulation, Helpers, Improved Abilities, Installations, Invulnerabilities, Location-Fixed Abilities, Neighbors, New Abilities, No-Op, Open-Ended Die Rolls, Player-Decided Distributions, Privileged Movement, Quick Returns, Quick Travel, Sanctioned Cheating, Skills, Spawn Points, Territories, Tools, Transferable Items, Trumps, Vehicles, Vision Modes, Weapons

Capture together with Transfer of Control

Multiplayer Games together with Controllers, Helplessness, or Tools

Can Be Modulated By

Alien Space Bats, Budgeted Action Points, Cooldown, Non-Renewable Resources, Player-Planned Development, Technology Trees, Unlocking

Possible Closure Effects


Potentially Conflicting With

Player Balance

Team Balance in games with Teams


An updated version of the pattern Privileged Abilities that was part of the original collection in the book Patterns in Game Design[1].


  1. Björk, S. & Holopainen, J. (2004) Patterns in Game Design. Charles River Media. ISBN1-58450-354-8.


Johan Ottosson