Let's assume that the world is a (rather crude, video-game-like) simulation and that each sentient being is just a program running in the system. The universe resembles our own on the macroscopic level, although it is vastly simplified on the molecular level - more like a physics engine from a video game than any kind of "realistic" simulation.

The world is internally consistent, there are clearly defined "laws of nature" that can be studied and experimented upon, generally a scientific approach is possible and a "modern", science-based civilization has developed. Supernatural effects are rare and hard to replicate, so they are usually labeled as myths and ignored by the scientific community. Gods do exist (they are independent AIs maintaining the system), but they mostly work in cover and try to "impersonate" natural events.

This is a setting for a planned RPG campaign, and I try to sort & classify possible sources (or types) of supernatural abilities that characters could have or obtain - mostly to boil them down to manageable set of rules, but also for internal consistence of the setting.

I am not interested in subtle details like visual style, but rather in a general classification - where did the power came from, how easily is it used, what could be the consequences of error (if it can fail at all, maybe it's something that "just works").

So far I have identified three possible sources/types of power:

  1. Special privileges granted by the system. Various priests, shamans, cultists etc come to mind - the power is a contract, a gift from greater power/AI, and it can be revoked at any time if the benefactor wishes so. Usually the power "just works" if you follow the instructions (prayer, magic formula etc).
  2. Consciously hacking the fabric of reality. The hacker might be a rebel, but may also be an official "debugger" of some kind, testing the system from within. Either way, using the power is extremely dangerous - even with skill and knowledge the result is always chaotic and unpredictable, especially if the system is "live" and constantly patched/modified.
  3. Some kind of glitch in the world's engine or data. Technically this is not even a "supernatural" ability (although it looks like one), but rather a special exception in the laws of nature. It also "just works", it feels as natural as any other skill or ability (for instance breathing).

Are these really all possible options? Did I miss anything? Maybe there's some other source/type/style of power that I forgot to include?

NOTE: This question has been edited a few times, each time changing its scope "a bit". I'm sorry for the confusion.

  • $\begingroup$ If you want this to be science-based, so that the magic and super-powers are not really supernatural, then I'd recommend adding the science-based tag. If you want real magic and super-powers, then there are no limits and the question becomes meaningless. $\endgroup$ – trichoplax Jan 13 '15 at 0:01
  • $\begingroup$ I'd recommend narrowing this down beyond "rather crude, video-game-like". Video games are a very wide field, and rather crude doesn't specify whether it's the visuals or physics or both that are crude. $\endgroup$ – trichoplax Jan 13 '15 at 0:03
  • $\begingroup$ Discussion on meta $\endgroup$ – trichoplax Jan 13 '15 at 0:09
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    $\begingroup$ Related: Hacking the universe $\endgroup$ – trichoplax Jan 13 '15 at 0:09
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    $\begingroup$ It might be worth rethinking the question and asking how to achieve the styles you want, rather than the open-ended question of what styles are possible. This is a setting where any style can be justified by tweaking the rules of the simulation. $\endgroup$ – trichoplax Jan 13 '15 at 11:10

If you look at other genres that have superpowers and observe their sources, it may give you a better idea of how you can categorize those sources in the world you're building.

Innate: Starting with the basic, these powers are there from birth. Examples include Superman (Kryptonian DNA) and sorcerers from Dungeons and Dragons (magic is in their blood).

Bestowed: These powers are given by someone greater, usually with an agreement that they be used in a particular way. Examples include Wonder Woman (Aphrodite's Law) and D&D clerics (powers granted by their gods).

Cursed: These powers are much like the bestowed powers, except they come from some kind of calamity. Examples include almost all super villains it seems like, Spider-Man (spider bite) and the Fantastic Four (cosmic radiation).

Independent Object: Sometimes the powers aren't within the user, but within particular items that the user wields. Examples include Green Lantern (his ring) and D&D wizards (spellbooks/spells).

I think that sums it up. So an attempt at translating them to your world:

Innate powers would be powers that the players gain through being themselves and leveling up. So those would be part of their proper programming. Bestowed powers would be the "special privileges" granted by the God AI. Cursed powers would be the result of your "glitches" -- something happens that wasn't supposed to, and as a result, a (probably temporary, unpredictable, or watered-down) power is granted. Independent objects be anything that the user wields in-game, including weapons, scrolls, potions, armor... and I personally believe your "hacker tools" falls here.

As a side-note, it might be pretty interesting to see what happens when, once the players are comfortable in their world, a real-life human begins messing with the program. Rearranging code, changing variables, etc -- A conscious choice made by the creator of the program (you) in an effort to somehow "improve" the gameplay experience.

is my list complete? or are there any other points that could be added to it?

I think it's a pretty complete list. You've covered most of the tropes surrounding power sources.


Before we start, I would like to keep in mind, that for any given program number of things that can go wrong outnumbers things that are supposed to happen. Yes, that includes even good old Hello World!.

Now, what subset of those situations could be useful for you... let's see...

  1. Bit flipping: every once in a while a bit in memory is randomly flipped. Your characters may know a certain hardware design flaw and exploit it by performing a certain action, which increases this chance, and maybe even anticipate the result.

  2. Access memory of other process: Something along those lines: https://stackoverflow.com/questions/1989783/how-is-it-possible-to-access-memory-of-other-processes It's pretty much a nuclear option, if you can edit your enemy in real time (for example polymorph him into a puppy).

  3. Locking up resources: Start allocating resources you don't intend to use, so others can't access them. For example to people fighting against each other using this technique can grow (taking up more and more RAM), until one of them takes all available memory and his rival if hit in the face with OutOfMemory exception.

  4. Dereferencing NULL: Sort of a doomsday device. Your mad villain may try to construct a legendary NULL POINTER and use it to destroy the world (stop the simulation)

  5. Creating hash collision: First of all, mandatory reading if you don't know what hash functions are: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cryptographic_hash_function Now that you know, you can assume, that each person in your world uses his hash as personal ID. Someone with ability to change his own properties to collide with someone else's hash can pretend to be anyone. Sort of like Mystique in the X-Men, but instead of changing shape, you change your hash.

  6. Sending signals: Someone might have an ability to send signals. They can be used to kill someone, put him in suspended animation, or even for sending simple messages to your allies (if you previously agree that, for example, SIGUSR1 means "Help me!"). Also, the kill signal has no effect on a zombie process.. Use it. It's gonna be awesome.

I hope you'll find some of my ideas useful. Have fun :)

  • $\begingroup$ Hmm.. I should not have added "low-level" to my question. I was interested in a higher level of abstraction. Nevertheless, this is a good list of technobabble that I could use in story, so +1. $\endgroup$ – user6434 Jan 15 '15 at 8:25

That is a surprisingly open ended discussion!

The first challenge is to define "supernatural" in a simulated environment. Consider a modern OS where you have JavaScript on a web page which is in a restricted sandbox, a web browser which has access to full user-space privileges like file access, and a OS with kernel-space privileges like scheduling and user logins. Supernatural within such a system might be a word describing tiers of behavior, not just one thing. Super natural just means "beyond natural."

One division in super powers which is realistic is to divide it into privileges which have been granted (glitch, superuser, etc.), and privileges which can be acquired by anyone who knows a series of actions which grants them that privilege. Consider the popup advertisements in modern day HTML: they know they cannot popup immediately on a modern browser, but they know if you click on them, they can do it. Any popup can do it, if they know the trick. Compare that to a file which has been given setuid privileges, which means its actions function at a superuser level, but it is not easy to bestow setuid on another file.

Another reasonable division would be predictable behaviors vs. unpredictable behaviors. A game where you can reliably teleport 4m forward is very predictable. Once you learn how to do it, you can do it repeatedly. A stack-bashing buffer-overflow is very unpredictable because it operates in a way very distinct from normal behavior (in fact, those building buffer-overflows have to carefully craft them so they survive the hack). Unpredictable behaviors could literally do anything, but are more dangerous.

A final consideration I would throw into the mix is the "user," if one exists. You specifically wondered whether glitch & special privileges are distinct. One of the major differences between them is that special privileges are usually granted in a user's interests, while glitched are usually not in the user's interests. This means use of a glitch might invoke the wrath of a user on you as they seek to remedy the issue.


I understand that you have in mind sentient bots in a game-like environment under control of higher AIs (gods). I'm assuming that it resembles 3D MMORPG, but ideas can come from convenient interpretation of all games. Somebody more experienced in video games should be able to give better examples.

Ad. 1. something like gamemasters in Tibia: Special privileges are something like creating or destroying items or even living entities by using command (that works only for their possessor). I.e.: Gifted wizards can use different spells (Spells can have different styles if given by different god. In practice I would expect a standard system, but higher AIs creating their own interfaces are justifiable too and more interesting.). There can be also magical gestures or moves (combo-like sequences).

Ad. 2. Bugs that come to my mind are Pokemon Glitches. One example can be Mew glitch analogue: To cause it, you must suddenly go somewhere else while beginning to do something specific (in Pokemon, you fly away beginning a battle). For example, you fall into manhole while you are getting into a car. Than you get something. This can be something valuable, something more powerful than otherwise possible or something behaving very strange, like making everything you hold near it disappear, merging with other things or becoming something else.

Sometimes part of the world can become invisible, like in Minecraft. Besides, storing big number of things can cause something strange, for example, after putting 256th thing on a shelf, this things can disappear, but one more gold bar can appear on the next shelf.

In practice, in a modern system this would probably be less common and much more complicated, but we can use rule of cool again.

Ad 3. For example, small objects can stay in the air after being released, and jumping on them can allow to climb. Some things can be hold without touching them. Animals or "Unreal people" (NPCs/stupid (non-sentient) AIs) can be too stupid to do something with a bucket on their head and just behave as if they do not see anything (like in Skyrim - can somebody find this video). Children can be truly immortal.

  • $\begingroup$ These are good ideas for narration (thus my upvote), but they don't answer my problem. You gave examples for sources from my list, while I basically ask "is my list complete? or are there any other points that could be added to it?". $\endgroup$ – user6434 Jan 15 '15 at 9:52
  • $\begingroup$ @Krzysztof Sikorski Sorry. Now I see that that was your question. So: I don't see other possibilities. 1) Intended exceptions, 2) irregular glitches and 3) regular glitches plus strange rules. Of course regular magic would be another variant of the third type. $\endgroup$ – BartekChom Jan 15 '15 at 9:59

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