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In most apocalyptic settings(specially those with a zombie-kind of plague) the main character(s) only have very mundane means to deal with their problems and those always have a catch: any gun they use has a limited supply of ammo, their sharp objects get dull after a while or they break like any other object used as weapon for too long.

And don't even start with the basics like gathering food, medicine, finding or building somewhere safe to live, hygienic necessities and etc.

I want to create an apocalyptic(or post-apocalyptic in this case) setting where some characters actually have something akin to paranormal/supernatural powers, but here is the crux of my problem:

1. Which kind of powers could work well in a "realistic as possible" scenario like this?They can be either scientific or more fantasy-like but must sound/seem realistic.

2. How can I give them powers that are useful but not enough to make them seem like an overpowered character? Because I want them to have an edge, but not enough that they can only rely on their powers.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to World Building SE, Gray Labrys. $\endgroup$ – EDL Dec 24 '19 at 4:05
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One of the best "super powers" to have in a Zombie Apocalypse would be disease immunity. If everybody else get's infected after a single bite or scratch but your characters only get slightly sick and then recover it would give them an edge.

Also seeing you are already in the sci-fi territory. Maybe go for a zombie boost? each time they get infected and recover they get certain traits(or enhancements of them) like:

  • Requiring less sleep/becoming less tired while doing activities.

  • Envoirmental resistance (Never seen a zombie complain about the cold or heat).

  • Heightened senses like being able to hear better or see better in the dark.
  • Wounds heal faster.

You could also add drawbacks to this like brain damage causing heightened aggression/paranoia/loss of sanity.

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Basic human skills and basic human weaknesses.

Imagine you were with people in this world. Real people. Who would you want?

  1. Really smart. This person figures things out. She has insight and makes connections. Possibly she might not know very much because she is 11.

  2. Knows a lot.. This person has read a lot and remembers it all. He knows what you can eat, how to fix things, where things are, what happened. It took a long time to learn all that stuff and his disadvantage is that he is 91 years old.

  3. Really strong. Dude is really strong. Really. He can lift huge things and throw them around all day. But he is stoned all the time and even when he runs out of weed, it turns out he does not need it. He is still stoned.

  4. Really fast. Lady is quick as can be; chopsticks and fly by the wings out of the air fast. Olympic sprinter fast. And she thinks fast and comes to decisions fast. Too fast.

  5. Good guy. No-one thinks this dude is going to hurt them, or steal from them, or try to have sex with them. He is really nice. People like to be around him and are comfortable around him. He is a good guy to have on your team because he brings people together. But he doubts himself.

  6. Bad girl. Everyone thinks this lady might hurt them, or steal from them, and they hope she wants to have sex with them. She is a Machiavellian schemer and conniver and she can see the angles. They want to be on her team because they worry about points 1 and 2 and they are thinking about 3. What is her weakness? Even though she is on your team, she still might hurt you and steal from you and have sex with you.

The powers of these people are their characters and inborn abilities. They are fun superheroes to write because they are real people writ large, not fake pyrokinetics and shapeshifters. Their abilities are the human abilities and they will not run out.

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    $\begingroup$ 1 and 2 are hard to write about. The author is presumably neither a super-genius, nor possesses encyclopedic knowledge of survival skills and such, and it is a turn off for readers to have a character said to have awesome skills and intelligence who gets facts wrong and who makes stupid decisions. $\endgroup$ – Richard Smith Dec 24 '19 at 4:40
  • $\begingroup$ You missed number 6 Stupid fool, this one gets nearly everyone killed! $\endgroup$ – user6760 Dec 24 '19 at 4:52
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    $\begingroup$ @RichardSmith - I do not need to know how to brew beer, or fix a tractor, or build and fly a spaceship to write a character who can do all four. You do not need to get granular with the details if you do not want. As for writing a character who is smarter than you, I recommend reading Sherlock Holmes to see it done well. The Holmes character has been written by many authors and he is smarter than any of them, and yet he is lastingly popular. Plus the originals by Doyle are out of copyright and free! pagebypagebooks.com/Arthur_Conan_Doyle/…. $\endgroup$ – Willk Dec 24 '19 at 16:35
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To be honest, as long as there aren't any active zombies running around, conventional super powers like FireFist, LazerEyes or StormBringer don't help you a lot. At least not if you want as many people to survive as possible.

Conventional super powers all make a single person a better warrior/killer. Yes, that will definitely help them combat zombies and predators (human as well as animal). However, in the mid- to longterm they will have the exact same food / shelter / knowledge problems as normal people, and they can't keep more than X non-powered people protected. (X depends on how dangerous your post-apocalyptic world is - probably less than 10 if you have active zombies running around).

Helpful superpowers in an apocalypse when you want a large community to survive (bonus: most of them are inconspicuous in modern-day society - they only become valuable in apocalyptic scenarios):

  • Healer: stop zombification. Fix broken bones. Stop wounds from becoming infected. Keep people from being in too much pain. Heal flesh wounds. Cure diseases.

  • Water purifier: Finds water, and cleanses it to drinking water. In large quantites. If your apocalypse brings down the electrical grid for a long time, then say goodbye to running water. Sewer treating plants will also stop running, and just guide all the sewage into the next best river.

  • Finder: Tell them what you are looking for, and they will find it for you (or tell you that there is none of that within their x mile radius). Where is a shovel? Food? shelter? dry tinder? ammunition? Guns?

  • Peace Keeper: Exudes waves of harmony. People inexplicably feel happier and better in their presence. Helps survivors with their trauma, keeps violence to a minimum, helps people unite behind a common purpose.

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If you want to keep your superpowers "realistic", then you should confine them to things which can be with near-future-science handwaving. This results in two basic categories of superpowers:

  • Biological: Through some sort of bio-experiment, engineered disease, gene therapy, or whatever, the individual has gained some power.

  • Technological: Through advanced technology the individual has become some sort of cyborg. Maybe they have robotic eyes, maybe they have nanites in their blood.

Here are some subtler "powers" which I'd still classify as "realistic"

  • Superior senses: The individual can hear better, smell better, and see better. Able to see in very low light and have dog-level scent tracking abilities, these types of people are useful. The disadvantage is they can't turn down their senses. Loud noises, flashes of light, or intense scents can incapacitate or stun them.

  • Magnetic: The individual's blood contains manufactured nanobots which absorb energy from the blood like regular cells and can, at will, generate a magnetic field. This field is strong enough for users to climb sheer metal walls, hang on ceilings for a limited time, an never drop their weapon (provided it's metal). In certain cases, they might be able to reduce the force of metal objects impacting them. Unfortunately, due to the the way magnetic fields propagate, the range is extremely short and can't be used for pulling things towards you or pushing them away at any speed.

  • Neuro-distributed: Theses individuals have had a restructuring of their neural tissue, especially their brain. The "thinking stuff" (gray matter) is no longer concentrated in the head but rather in all neurons through the body. This means that head wounds aren't as critical as on a normal person and that that they have vastly superior reaction speeds. The disadvantage is that these people often have somewhat distracted personalities and have trouble learning new things compared to a regular person

  • Pain-blocker: Through an altered adrenal gland or whatever, these people are able to disable pain at will. This can be both useful and dangerous as while someone disabling pain can move around until the second they die (provided it's physiologically possible), this power doesn't actually make them tougher or hardier. People with this power often die because they ignore a pain which they shouldn't have.

  • Bend-boned: These individuals have highly elastic bones. This enables them to squeeze through tight spaces and makes them essentially incapable of breaking a bone. These people are also capable of falling great heights without severe injury. The disadvantage is that although they're just as strong as regular people, the bendable bones means they can exert less force and carry less weight before their bones start to bend and make walking/lifting difficult.

  • Strong lungs: Through a mutation in blood / nanobots in the blood, the individual's blood is capable of holding 10 times more oxygen than a regular person's blood. These people can hold their breath for a very long time, reduce their heart-rate, and run for longer than a normal person. Essentially, they never get out of breath even if lactic acid builds up in their muscles making them fatigued. The disadvantage is that only very few blood types (if any) can be transfused to them and any transfused blood will take a while to become saturated with new nanobots/mutated cells.

  • Quick thinker: In times of duress (or with sufficient training, at will) chemicals get released into the brain of the individual (biological or technological) which slow that individual's perception of time. Similar to adrenaline, this effect typically does not last long and it takes a while for the chemicals to "recharge". While they are experiencing this, the individual isn't actually able to move faster but they have ridiculous reaction speeds (from an external observer) and can think out a situation. For example, in combat someone could shoot very accurately in quick succession by fine-tuning their aim in when they're slowed.

  • Pheromone control: These individuals have control over their own scent. This can be useful to avoid being tracked by scent (by animals, humans, or zombies) but it can also be used to befriend animals. With practice, these individuals can smell likeable to stray dogs or can emit smells to ward off predators like bears or mountain lions. Also, if they want, they can smell nice which can be a useful interpersonal tool in the deodorant-lite apocalypse.

  • High registrar: These individuals are able to pitch their voice up to ultrasonic levels and hear at them too. This allows covert conversation between people who have this ability. With training, rudimentary echolocation is possible. The disadvantage is that bats and other creatures which emit very high pitched noise can be distracting to them.

  • Navigator's sense: These individuals have an enhanced inner ear and are able to sense magnetic fields, and thus always be able to find north. They also have an excellent spacial memory and can instinctively know the exact distance they've traveled. Basically, these people cannot get lost.

  • Skin-repigmentation: Similar to a cuttlefish or a chameleon, these individuals can change the texture and color of their skin at will. For example, they can imitate wood, bark, stone, moss, and more at high fidelity. This makes them very good at hiding and sneaking about. This power's effectiveness is reduced by skin covering clothing which means that it's more practical in warmer climates and not too practical in combat where armor is worn.

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This leans towards fantasy, but what about having some characters that experience premonitions? They aren't faster, stronger, or smarter, they just have a sense of looming danger or foreboding. They can be anyone, especially those who you would not expect to be skilled survivors in this scenario, adding interest. This gift would help with survival and can allow for additional conflict and plot development. Other characters without this gift would be suspicious, doubt them, but learn to trust and depend on them. Real life examples of premonitions are always fascinating. It's also been used successfully in some great fictional works (like Watership Down).

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