PRT Power classifications analysis: Part 1

Honestly, Worm's canon set for PRT power description designations seems flawed in ways that are a bit eyebrow raising. The crux of the issue is that Worm can't seem to quite decide whether a rating is:

A: a quick and dirty shorthand for a set of related concepts that certain tactics are usually useful against or

B: a rating is essentially a "scientific"/mechanical description of how a given parahuman's power works.

Striker is the best example of this inconsistency. As a combat rating, it is clearly conceptualized as: this parahuman's power makes them dangerous in close-quarters combat, most obviously in the fact that we are told that certain forms of super-strength are considered to be Striker powers rather than Brute powers. However, Striker gets applied to pretty much any parahuman whose power requires they touch something to initiate the power, regardless of whether their power makes them more of a threat in close-quarters combat, because of the 'scientific'/mechanical thing. Othala is an excellent example, being labeled a Striker even though her power is granting beneficial effects to allies by touching them. She's functionally a civilian if she has no allies to empower. As a less extreme case we have Flechette, whose ability to imbue "physics breaking" effects into objects by touching them actually does make her a threat in close-quarters, but the Striker rating is based on the fact that she touches objects to imbue this effect, not on the part where her power can be used to weaponize basically anything in her reach. Both character's Striker ratings have nothing to do with the combat concept of Striker, and everything to do with a kind of mechanical focus.

A comparison can be made to to how nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors are both nuclear. They're both nuclear because an understanding of nuclear physics is what led to their creation, and they rely on the same basic mechanical principle... but one is a bomb you drop on your enemy while the other is a way of generating electricity for your cities. If you're a foreign nation considering attacking a country with nuclear missiles and nuclear reactors, facilities for launching nuclear missiles are not equivalent, when thinking in terms of strategic threat considerations, to nuclear reactors. You attack the former to prevent them from launching them at you. You attack the latter to cripple infrastructure.

The fact that they are both nuclear something-or-other is not the primary focus when thinking of their use in warfare. Which is fine, because the label of 'nuclear' was never intended to be that kind of descriptor.

Which comes back to my issue with the ratings in Worm: they're consistently claimed to be combat ratings -used in the field to decide what kind of tactics you should employ when fighting a given parahuman- but all too often they're applied in an equivalent manner to the nuclear weapon/nuclear reactor example. You're a Striker because you touch things to use your power, regardless of whether you fit the combat profile "Striker" is meant to prepare people for.

Looking at the twelve ratings individually...

Mover

Mover refers to any parahuman with powers that represent a noticeable step up in their mobility, most straightforwardly "superspeed" but also including effects such as flight, teleportation, moving through walls, or anything else that lets you get places faster than an ordinary human with equivalent gear.

There's a temptation to think it odd or even inappropriate that Mover isn't broken up into a "goes fast" category vs a "can travel where others cannot" category, but in practice every canon cape that justifies a Mover rating has both: either they're so fast it translates into extra mobility (Such as running across water or up walls on pure speed) or their abnormal mobility is, itself, faster than human speed even before you look at the terrain navigation advantage. (There are no capes that fly at a speed equivalent to a jog -In Worm, if you fly your flight is at something like car speed) So even though, hypothetically, there could be capes that fit one component but not the other there aren't any, and there's no reason to break up the category unless and until a fair number of capes appear that demand such a breakup.

Nor does Mover attempt to bind a specific mechanical notion to this combat behavior. It thus dodges the combat/mechanical confusion.

So Mover works just fine as a PRT descriptor.

Shaker

Shaker has a somewhat vague canon description. The primary common ground in Shaker-rated capes tends to be that they effect their environment, in a large-scale, long-term way, but we're never given a clear, strong description of what constitutes a Shaker, nor are we given an idea of what kind of tactics PRT troops might be expected to employ as a general rule of thumb when dealing with Shakers in Worm. PRT Quest finally gives a firmer description of the rating, as well as tactics for the rating, but it's still pretty vague, and I don't really think the tactics given make sense.

Overall, I think the Shaker rating works okay. I have noticed Wildbow tends to get caught up on whether it affects 'terrain' per se, with capes who really ought to justify the rating for their battlefield control failing to get it because they don't manipulate the ground people walk on, but it's a small gripe. It's mostly notable because Taylor is Worm's main character, and is an example of "Should have Shaker: doesn't." Otherwise? I probably wouldn't have noticed it at all.

Brute

The Brute rating applies to pretty much any cape who has superhuman durability and/or strength. If you can bench-press a bus, you're a Brute. If you can shrug off a bus hitting you in the face, you're a Brute. Rapid regenerative abilities tends to get lumped in here too, but I think that basically makes sense, even if it might be upsetting for a PRT trooper who shoots a Brute-rated cape, expecting them to shrug off the bullets, and instead they spray gore and seem to drop dead. They'll still be getting up in a few seconds, just like if they were a cape where bullets didn't penetrate their skin, so it's essentially consistent, conceptually.

My primary issue with the Brute rating is that there's no purely defensive rating in the larger set. Capes like Alabaster exist, and are known to the larger world, where their powers make them hard to kill but they aren't any stronger than an ordinary joe. If capes like Alabaster didn't exist, Brute would function perfectly, given the canon statement that some capes with super-strength but no durability advantage get rated Striker. However, there are several "tough and nothing else" capes, and the setting has no descriptor for them at all, which seems problematic. A Blaster-rated cape who could shrug off enormous firepower but lacked any enhanced strength seems like one where labeling them Brute/Blaster would lead to troopers making poor decisions, coming away with the impression that they need to keep out of the cape's arm reach for fear of super strength, never mind that the cape has no such ability.

Thankfully Brute dodges the combat/mechanics confusion.

Aside from the lack of a distinct "Superhumanly tough" category, this basically works. It wouldn't even require a big change: just say that "Brute" alludes specifically to the durability, and always use Striker to represent superhuman strength. Possibly re-name the Brute category to more clearly convey that it's about durability.

Striker

Striker is conceptually simple: the cape's power requires physical contact.

In practice, the Striker rating is one of the most horribly misused ratings by canon, coming in third after Master and Trump, and is, in fact, the rating that prompted this post. Canon can't seem to decide whether Striker is a 'scientific' description ("Power works by touching things") or a PRT tool for combat doctrine. ("Don't let this cape touch you")

The former seems to be the justification for the rating being applied to capes like Othala, which runs contrary to the latter: a PRT trooper has nothing to fear from Othala touching them. What they should be focused on is isolating Othala from her allies, not preventing Othala from touching her enemies. I really think canon should have stuck stringently to applying Striker to "Cape is dangerous if they make contact/get extremely close" and never been applied to the myriad capes whose power only works on things they touch. There's far too many capes given a Striker rating in canon where "Be afraid of them getting too close to you" would be the exact wrong thing for a PRT squad to be acting on, and they should instead be isolating the cape from allies or objects.

Aside from that and the possibility of shifting super-strength from the Brute rating to the Striker rating, I think Striker basically makes sense as a PRT rating.

Breaker

Here's three different descriptions of Breaker, all of which are canonical and in disagreement with each other.

1: The parahuman has the ability to "break physics".

This is the official description given within Worm (Cite), and it's completely useless. First and foremost, pretty much all parahuman abilities violate our current understanding of physics, rendering it redundant with just labeling someone a parahuman. Secondly, it provides literally zero combat value: okay, Bob Breaker is a Breaker. And? What do I do with this information? Thirdly, it's not even helpful within the more "scientific" viewpoint, as it doesn't do anything to narrow down a parahuman's class of ability, conceptually.

How about number two?

2: The parahuman has a fixed number of states they may switch between, called "breaker states", which have their own powers.

This is the official description (paraphrased somewhat) given by PRT Quest for the Breaker classification. (Cite) It also, in a document that provides guidelines for how PRT personnel should use a rating in combat, explicitly denounces itself as a meaningful rating: it provides no tactics to employ against Breakers beyond "if possible, engage them out of their Breaker state", it provides no tactics for higher Breaker ratings, and in fact it bluntly states that all you should do is consult the ratings given for their individual Breaker states for deciding tactics. This tells you that the Breaker rating has literally zero reason to exist, going by PRT Quest's description, certainly not any reason to ever give someone an actual Breaker number, since it isn't used for anything.

It also has the unfortunate flaw that Worm applies the Breaker rating to myriad capes who in no way, shape, or form fit the given definition, most notably Flechette. This renders its value very dubious.

3: The parahuman induces a temporary state change in themselves, other people, or objects, which will end without the parahuman's continued intervention and/or after a time period.

This is my description of what all capes Worm canon actually gives a Breaker rating do. My suspicion is that it was Wildbow's internal concept that never quite made it into the written work, and unfortunately I think Wildbow has suffered from what I call drift: he has come to believe that he had always intended the second definition to be true, never mind its complete failure to fit one of the most prominent canon Breakers. (Again, Flechette)

The only canon parahuman given a Breaker rating that arguably deviates from description #3 is Night, and it's very much debatable, particularly as we are explicitly told by Tattletale that her description of what's going on with Night isn't remotely the truth.

I personally prefer this definition for two reasons: it actually fits canon parahumans consistently, and it has the advantage of providing some actual tactical information to PRT personnel. Not a lot of information, mind, but some: "The effects the parahuman induces are not permanent."

In summary:

Description #1 is meaningless and useless no matter how you look at it.

Description #2 pretty much tells you the rating has no reason to exist, and contradicts actual Worm canon on myriad levels.

Description #3 is my best approximation of how canon actually applies the label, and it's unfortunately of questionable utility from a PRT threat assessment perspective.

As such, I don't think the Breaker rating makes much sense to actually exist as a PRT rating pertaining to combat doctrine.

Master

The Master rating is applied to capes whose power grants control over some form of minion.

The Master rating is probably the single most horribly misused of all the ratings in canon. It gets applied to and kept on capes whose powers offer no such ability, such as Rachel (It's canon that the PRT figures out her power doesn't control her dogs, quite early on. The Master rating is never removed), it gets left off capes whose power does let them produce or control minions of some kind, such as Parian and Ursa Major, and most problematically it offers no distinction between control over humans vs control over other things.

For example, Taylor herself gets a Master rating for her control over bugs. That's conceptually similar to someone like Heartbreaker taking control of humans, but the practical implications are completely different. For a cape like Heartbreaker, Cherish, or Valefor, tactics are going to be centered around avoiding letting them take over your people, extensive measures must be put in place to prevent infiltration because anyone can be compromised at any time, and the cape's human minions must be assumed to be innocent victims, complicating any operation since their soldiers effectively double as hostages. It's ugly all-around, and requires extensive, specialized measures to minimize loss of life.

Meanwhile, you can just kill Taylor's bugs without guilt, and measures to prevent mind control of your personnel are irrelevant against her. Responding to Taylor -or Rachel- is completely different from responding to someone who mind controls human beings, and in fact stepping up your anti-mind control security can be outright counterproductive against them. It's particularly telling that canon refers to "Maste/Stranger protocols", and they're entirely about mind control and other forms of superpower-based infiltration or psychological manipulation. They're not protocols for fighting "capes that employ minions".

The Master rating is probably the power most guilty of, on the one hand, having a strong, clear, consistent relation to battlefield protocols (Hence "Master/Stranger protocols"), and on the other hand getting applied based on the mechanics of how a power works ("Provides control over other entities") rather than the combat doctrine involved. In practice I find it very difficult to believe the PRT did not break Master up into two ratings: one for capes who can control humans, and another for capes who have non-human minions of some kind.

Stranger

The Stranger rating, like the Shaker rating, is vaguely defined. It appears, in practice, to cover any effect that influences people's minds/behavior without providing any ability to acquire minions out of this mental influence, but we never get a clear description from Worm of what the rating is. PRT Quest provides a somewhat more specific description, but it's literally "The power lends itself to infiltration." This is vague, and, as is typical of PRT Quest, contradicts Worm's usage of the term. August Prince, for instance, is given a Stranger rating in Worm, but his power doesn't lend itself to infiltration, not any more than a more straightforward form of nigh-invincibility would.

There's also the oddity that for some ungodly reason Night is rated as a Stranger, when her power is literally "Turns into a monster when humans can't see her". I personally suspect concept drift, that Wildbow had a vague idea of his intentions with Stranger and a vague idea of Night's powers -he's explicitly admitted he decided Night and Fog existed and were named Night and Fog before he had an actual power in mind for either of them- and in the end the two drifted apart, because not only is it plausible but Night's power doesn't fit to A: the other examples of capes that get Stranger ratings in canon nor B: the description provided by PRT Quest. "Turns into an invincible deathmonster when nobody can see you" isn't really any more infiltrator-y than "Is an ordinary person when nobody can see you".

My inferred description of Stranger works quite well as a tool for informing combat doctrine, and the PRT Quest description's primary flaw is how it has contradicts Worm canon. In both cases they hold up as plausible PRT tools, and avoid the combat/'mechanics' problem.

Tinker

A Tinker is any cape who produces absurdly advanced technology in spite of lacking an appropriate industrial base and without any regard for whether they know enough Physics, Chemistry, etc to pass elementary school.

Arguably Tinker could be interpreted as a specific form of Thinker, but that only really works if you think of these ratings from a "scientific" classification mindset. From a PRT standpoint, Tinker is very distinct: Thinkers are more aware than they should be, Tinker's have gear that does who-knows-what.

I do have a suspicion that WIldbow developed the Tinker concept first, invented the ratings system later, and sort of kludged Tinkers into the rest of the system. Tinkers are weirdly separated from other cape types: you don't really get a continuum like you do with other ratings. You either are or are not a Tinker, full stop, and most canon Tinkers have no other powers at all. It's only later Tinkers that start having powers other than "Is Tinker", the ones introduced after the rating system is explicitly presented to the audience in full. And not even all of them. The overall picture is odd, but nothing problematic as far as in-universe stuff goes.

All that said? I think Tinker works as a PRT rating, especially since canon repeatedly gives Tinkers "sub-ratings" to represent the kinds of abilities they're getting out of their gear.

Thinker

Thinker covers any cape whose power provides an information or decision-making advantage. (In practice, there's not much of an observable distinction between knowing things you shouldn't know vs making a decision that only makes sense because of information you don't actually have) There's even a line somewhere that superhuman senses -such as improved hearing- fall under a Thinker rating.

I think Thinker works as a PRT rating. It does a fine job of keeping away from the 'scientific' model of 'this is classed this way because it works a particular way', and provides useful feedback of how to interact with the cape in the field.

Blaster

Blaster is pretty much any cape who can attack at a distance greater than around arm length, usually by launching some form of projectile.

There's some capes in canon I would expect to be rated Blaster that don't, and other capes that get rated Blaster where I'm not clear why this is, but overall Blaster is ironclad as a PRT rating: the cape can hit you from a distance even if they are unarmed, so plan for that.

Changer

Changer covers pretty much any cape who can change their appearance.

Changer is a rarely assigned rating and the only utility the rating seems to bring to the table -"People might not be who you think they are"- seems to overlap with Stranger. It's not even applied to Lung (Among other examples), so it doesn't seem to be a "shapeshifter" rating so much as a "disguise-superpower" rating. Capes using their ability to alter their biology or similar tend to get Brute or Breaker ratings in canon, unless they can use the effect to disguise themselves somehow, in which case they may also get Changer.

Ultimately Changer is a rating that doesn't seem to make a lot of sense as a PRT designation, being redundant in practice with Stranger. As a "scientific" classification it makes a bit more sense, but this isn't what the ratings are supposed to be about.

PRT Quest's description basically reinforces my opinion.

Changer

Can alter their form, appearance, and/or natural abilities through some manipulation of their bodies.  Does not include new powers beyond natural weapons, armor, or durability.

Sustained focus fire is recommended.  Low-ish priority, all numbers assumed to be equal.

Threat level 2+:  Team is notified as to Changer classification.  Basic ‘eyes on’ protocols initiated, with team members maintaining constant eye contact with one another, and eyes on the changer.  Changer is never assumed to be unarmed.

Threat level 5+:  Full eyes on protocols and verbal passwords put into effect.  No facility, locked down or otherwise, is assumed to be impregnable.

Threat level 9+:  None

The basic description alludes to potential for natural weapons, but the actual threat level protocols focus on Changers being an infiltration hazard. In practice I feel the Changer rating can be functionally covered by Stranger and Brute, especially if you accept the PRT Quest Stranger description's focus on infiltration, rather than on mental effects. At that point Changer doesn't seem very meaningful, and the fact that PRT Quest provided no special protocols for extremely high end Changers is telling to me as well, as it implies Wildbow either couldn't think of anything distinct about high level Changers or couldn't think of anything threatening about high-level Changers, as distinct from low-level Changers. Both of these suggest the concept is extremely narrow even inside Wildbow's own head, as opposed to appearing limited because he's not clearly articulated what's inside his head.

Trump

Trump seems to encompass two distinct concepts.

1: Capes whose powers change get classified as Trumps.

2: Capes whose power interacts with other powers get classified as Trumps.

The Trump rating has never made a lot of sense to me. These two things, while simultaneously found on a few capes -mostly just Eidolon and Glaistig Uaine, but Grue can be counted later in canon- call for very different reactions from PRT troopers. The second category pretty much means cape allies cannot be counted on or may turn out to be a liability, whereas the first category means you should always assume you haven't seen their full range of abilities, and that whatever has been written down in more detailed reports is not necessarily the whole picture either, even if the cape is extremely well-known and well-documented.

Hatchet Face, for instance, is labeled a Trump on the basis that his power shuts off other cape's powers. Against ordinary folks he's just a low-level Brute. Against capes he's their worst nightmare. But his power is straightforward, predictable, unvarying -he can't manipulate his nullification field or do anything unexpected with it like turn it into a power-enhancing field. He only fits category 2, not category 1.

There's also the sub-point, implicit in the name, that Trumps are assumed to counter other capes/powers. Othala gets classed as a Trump, for example, and in no way does so, and there are other capes whose powers directly interact with powers without necessarily hampering them. I'm largely willing to ignore this, as "interacts with powers" and "counter capes" both lead to "Assume cape allies are unreliable or a liability", so it would be redundant to break Trump into three categories, from a PRT threat rating perspective, but it's still worth commentary.

I think Trump should have been broken up into two ratings, to cover these two different concepts. It would make a lot of sense, in-universe, for it to start as this unified rating, derived from Eidolon and Glaistig Uaine fitting both and both being one of the only cases of either category (Trumps are supposed to be rare, overall), but I would expect the PRT to split it off into two ratings for the purpose of helping the troops on the ground.

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In my next post, I cover what I would do if I were tasked with generating a PRT threat assessment category list, to provide a contrast that helps illustrate my points.

Comments

  1. Flechette isn't a Breaker. I think you misremembered this bit from 9.2:

    "Flechette wasn’t a breaker, though her power came close. Technically, she was a striker, a cape with the ability to apply some effect by touch or at point-blank range. The striker classification could include certain breaker effects as they were applied to things other than the cape themselves, but not always."

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    1. I'm fairly sure she gets called a Breaker later on. You might be right that I'm misremembering that quote, though. I do know there are other, less prominent capes, who get labeled Breaker even though they don't have a 'breaker state' of any kind. Maybe I'll look into that later and edit the post to use of one those cases as the example, instead.

      I'm a bit unclear what your other comment is trying to say regarding Master/Stranger protocols.

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  2. I *think* Master-Stranger Protocols are supposed to apply to capes with *both* Master and Stranger ratings? E.g. Regent's power is undoubtedly useful for infiltration, so he'd be a "Master-Stranger" and fall under the protocols.

    But if so, this is poorly communicated in canon.

    Really interesting theory that Tinker was invented first. Never occurred to me before, but I bet you're right.

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