When a story contains a vast variety of Elemental Powers to choose from, the most powerful are inevitably the least complex. For example, individuals with elemental control over technology, rubber, string, plastic, fish, etc., have less to work with against those who have elemental power over such basics as light, darkness, energy, gravity, life, death.
The reasoning behind this could be that as the concept/element becomes simpler/broader, it encompasses more, giving its controller a larger dominion. This is especially true considering that Artistic License – Physics is often involved anyway; the more defined something becomes the less room you have to fudge the rules. This is the reason Lightning Can Do Anything after all. On top of this, the less complex the concept, the closer it is to a facet of reality rather than an idea of man's.
See also Rock Beats Laser and Heart Is an Awesome Power. Contrast Elemental Rock–Paper–Scissors, which is where the weakness/strength relationships are between the broad powers only. Can be a cause of Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards, since "skilled with a bow" is narrower than "magic". What Kind of Lame Power Is Heart, Anyway? is often an exception to this rule (broad but useless). Heart Is an Awesome Power is applicable, too: the user's creativity invents more uses for the power. This Looks Like a Job for Aquaman is this trope's logical conclusion: a power so complicated it's only useful in circumstances so specific they're contrived. Odd Job Gods are the divine equivalent, as the more powerful gods are in charge of the simpler/broader domains.
- In One Piece all Devil fruits are named after a basic concept (Quake Quake, Dog-Dog, flame-flame) with logias, representing elements considered the strongest category. However the paramecia category is the most diverse (pretty much being the "anything goes" category) and fruits can grant powers simple enough like being made of rubber, or incredibly powerful like creating earthquakes with every punch. There's also the Zoan type, which come with all the abilities of an animal which their users can transform into, like a phoenix's regenerative abilities. There is however a great element of Elemental Rock–Paper–Scissors involved, a great example being the rubber-man protagonist being immune to a direct application of 20,000 volts from the thunder-man.
- JoJo's Bizarre Adventure averts this more and more with each subsequent part. Jotaro's Star Platinum is rather simple in concept. Compare that to his daughter's stand Stone Free, which teaches the lesson that there are MANY things that can be done by turning your body into string.
- Played straight for nearly every Stand past Stardust Crusaders that doesn't belong to a major protagonist or antagonist, however. Almost all of them have extremely specific powers (placing a padlock on your that is weighed down by your fears, creating a "Groundhog Day" Loop, writing a directive on your opponent's soul, etc.) that the users have to use exceedingly creatively to get any real use out of in a fight.
- Inverted in Naruto, where the more complex elements (both in what is required to use them and what they are capable of doing) which are formed by a combination of the basic five are consistently shown to be vastly more effective, mostly due to the numerous special abilities those elements confer but also in absolute terms. The list of characters who have the ability to use these elements is short, but everyone on it is a certified badass.
- In A Certain Magical Index, most everyone has, at the core, a rather simple power. They proceed to use these powers in interesting, complex ways to do some pretty amazing stuff. For example, take Mikoto "Railgun" Misaka, whose power is generation and control of electricity. With this ability, she can: zap people (basic), launch small metal objects at over three times the speed of sound ("railgun"), control and manipulate metal (magnetism), hover when over bodies of water (electrolysis), cling to walls (magnetism again, assuming there is some metal in the walls), hack electronics by thought (computers are just really complex sets of electric impulses after all), and read minds (copy the electrical impulses of another person's brain into her own).
- Accelerator might just push this further than Mikoto. His power is "vector manipulation" on vectors that touch his body; for those unfamiliar with physics: a vector is a a measurement of direction and magnitude (can be loosely interpreted as force). This means that when something touches his body, he essentially then gets to decide where it goes and how hard/fast it goes there. He then goes on to apply this in doing everything from running, to stamping so hard he causes the earth to erupt, to kicking a rock so hard it breaks the sound barrier, to dropping out of a plane that's several thousand meters in the air into a pool of lava with no parachute, to causing a dust explosion (he presumably did this by changing the vectors on some particles touching him to move so fast that the vibrations ignited the flour in the air), to stopping the earth's rotation temporarily, to reflecting sound waves off him so he can walk in silence. On top of this ( at least until he gets shot in the forehead) his powers are set to subconsciously make every harmful vector that touches him go in the opposite direction, meaning that he's more or less invincible to any kind of attack, no matter how powerful.
- Inverted in Hunter × Hunter, where placing additional rules, restrictions, and drawbacks causes the ability to become more powerful or allows access to stronger powers. For instance, Chrollo can steal people's abilities, but he must fulfill four conditions to do so and another three conditions to use the stolen ability.
- Neil Gaiman's The Sandman features the seven Endless who are all Anthropomorphic Personifications of concepts starting with the letter D. From oldest to youngest: Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, Desire, Despair and Delirium. None of them are really "more" or "less" powerful; they are all omnipotent within their sphere of influence. However, Death is the one that would be least fazed by the other Endless, since even they admit she will almost certainly "exist" in some form long after the rest of them.
- Empowered's Syndablokk averts this entirely. He's a C-List super, but that's because he holds back; his power is elemental control of ARCHITECTURE. Villains have a 0% chance of touching him in a city, near a freeway, or basically anywhere. He never uses it except when really, really pressed, because of the massive collateral damage buildings-wise.
- Magneto has full control over one of the four fundamental forces of physics, and is consistently portrayed as one of the most powerful human beings in existence.
- In Teen Titans, Beast Boy's power is "shapeshifting into animals", taking on both their form and natural powers. The range, mechanism, and limitations of his power have never, in the fifty years since his debut, been really examined, leading to what is basically one of the most versatile movesets in all of DC. Here's a few applications of his broad power:
- Typically he shifts into normal earth organisms, but he's turned into normal animals of unusual size (like a man-sized spider or a room-sized octopus), alien creatures (both in the Titans cartoon and the Who is Wonder Girl? arc), extinct creatures (including dinosaurs), demonic monsters (when under demonic influence, usually Trigon's or one of his children's), chimerical or amorphous monstrosities (when consumed with insane rage), mythical creatures like dragons or phoenixes, fictional and imaginary creatures like the Jabberwock (as per a future incarnation of himself named Menagerie), and in some cases multiple animals at once (like swarms of flies).
- At least one interpretation of him can actually use multiple animal powers at once, such as replicating like an amoeba when he's a bull (that would be "Animal Man", from Titans Tomorrow).
- Should his powers allow Beast Boy to turn into other humans? Wolfman and Perez say yes. Is he allowed to turn into other humans? Wolfman and Perez say no. (Next question: Can he become Kryptonian?)
- Given that he can turn into bacterial life forms, his powerset doesn't actually rule out transforming into plants or fungi. He just never does it, and perhaps it's never even occurred to the writers.
- Note, this is without getting into the secondary powers he's exhibited, like superhuman strength, speed, and senses. Following the events of The Judas Contract, he also was shown to use Mento's psionic helmet... which can only be used by people with inherent psychic abilities.
- A Fistful of Sky has the LaZelle family who develop magic gifts around puberty that tend to specialize in various areas. On one side of the scale is Jasper, who gets the lame and extremely specific ability to be magically good at musical notation. On the other end is Gypsum, who gets the power to curse, which when used properly, can pretty much control anything.
- Alcatraz plays this straight with several of the main characters, notably the Talents of anyone in the Smedry family: The main character has the Talent of "breaking things", which gets used creatively throughout the series. His grandfather has the Talent of "being late", which, when used creatively, allows him to dodge bullets, delay the effects of torture and survive assassination attempts, just by arriving too late for it to affect him.
- In The Passing of the Techno-Mages trilogy, Galen develops his spell language in terms of mathematical formulae, making it less of an art and more of a science. He orders the known spells he translates from other mages' languages in several groups based on the progression of terms. Then he discovers that, instead of coming up with more complex spells, he could try breaking down the basic two-term spell even further into a simple one-term spell. The result - a Sphere of Destruction that can make anything within it cease to exist. No one else can replicate his achievement (on their own, at least), as the spell languages of others are more artistic than functional. Later, he tries the same thing with the other progressions and comes up with other extremely-powerful spells, such as an organic (Shadow) skin that absorbs energy, energy beams shooting out of his palms, etc. He finally realizes that he can become even more powerful by casting a zero-term spell; which results in the implants working in harmony with him. Only one other mage manages to accomplish this latest feat and only on his deathbed.
- In Wrong Time For The Dragons by Sergey Lukyanenko and Nick Perumov, magic is subdivided into Elemental and Totem (imitating various animals). Of the two, the elemental mage clans are considerably more powerful than the totem clans.
- Simon R. Green
- Lampshaded in one of the Hawk and Fisher novels, in which the sorceress Mistique criticizes an opposing wizard who's specialized in controlling wood, claiming he was limited by that choice. When someone points out that she, herself, only works with mists, she remarks that you can do a lot with mist.
- In Nightside, the protagonist has the ability to find things- not only is this very handy in his day job as a detective, but in a fight he can "find" (and relocate) bullets from enemies' guns, or even air from enemies' lungs. There's also Tommy Oblivion, who can persuade anyone of anything in a rational debate.. including persuading all of reality that he escaped pursuers by reasoning that the possibility of escape existed.
- The Gaia Memories in Kamen Rider Double get much more powerful the more vague their "title" is. For example, memories like 'Cockroach' and 'Money' typically give only one ability to the Monster of the Week, but more abstract memories like 'Nazca' or 'Utopia' have long lists of powers they grant their users.
- Misfits defies this trope. While we do not meet any real elemental powers, the user of the comparatively pathethic power of lactokinesis (control over dairy products) quickly becomes one of the most dangerous and despicable villains in the series after he starts suffocating people with their lunch and lobotomising the unkillable Nathan with mozzarella.
- Averted in the tabletop RPG Nobilis. PCs can have control over very specific things, but their utility is dependent more on how much control the user has over the domain rather than the encompassing nature of the domain. An example of that straight from the rulebook is that a character that has dominion over Emotion might only be able to affect emotion related to artists. One with the more specific control over Fear might be able to control darkness and monsters. In addition to this, your powers tend to only be as useful as you are creative. An example of play in the book had the power of treachery convincing bullets and guided missiles to turn on the people who fired them. 3rd edition averted this trope even harder by introducing Persona miracles that let you play with the boundaries of your Estate, granting its qualities to things not within it. So, you might think "Hope" is a weak estate, but if the Power of Hope believes one Hope's most important properties is that "hope springs eternal," then with a Persona miracle, they can apply that to a person's life and make them immortal. Even a character with authority over something seemingly weak or limited, like "Whimsy" or "New York City," could be terrifying with creative use of Persona.
- Averted in most points-buy based superhero RPG systems. A power that allows a player to control a vast variety of effects, such as Time Manipulation, Matter Manipulation, and such tend to be MUCH more expensive than those that are more focused, such as Metal Manipulation or (to borrow from the original DC Heroes game) Omni-Arm - the ability to control the shape and structure of one's arms. This means the character with the more 'complex' power, with limited focus, can buy that power at a much higher rank than those with the broad, far-reaching effects.
- A broad version of this in the Nightbane RPG: Nightbane buy their Talents(Powers) through permanent expenditures of the very P.P.E. pool they use to actually use them. So a Nightbane with a large array of Talents will not have the power to use them all that often.
- Averted in Fate/stay night. Most spellcasters have one of the five basic elements, but hybrids of multiple elements can generally create more powerful effects. Shirou and Sakura have the bizarre elements of "Sword" and "Imaginary Numbers" respectively, both of which turn out to be insanely powerful - the former leading to Power Copying and Storm of Blades, and the latter to Eldritch Abominations.
- Golden Sun: The game uses a complex Equippable Ally system that controls not only the Class System, but Summon Magic and stats as well. It's possible to give every PC a broad range of multi-element Psynergy, but doing so means you can't use Djinn without messing up the stats and classes. It's far more efficient to give each PC the Djinn of his element for the whole game.
- Mostly averted in the inFAMOUS series, especially in Second Son. Delsin is able to make use of an obscure element like neon just as readily as something common like rock. Conduits absorb their element of choice and then can usually find a variety of lethal ways to expel it, so as long as they can find sources to recharge between fights it doesn't really matter how narrow their focus is. An audio log notes that the DUP experimented with various elements and settled on rock, but this was largely because they found it to be more intuitive for training large numbers of troops rather than because it was more powerful than some of the alternatives.
- Happens to a degree in Drowtales. Most Drow and other fae races have an affinity to a certain type of magic and these can vary from the basic - rock, air, water, fire - to the more specific - bones, blood, wood/plants, ice, pressure, summoning, empathy - among others. Due to the rules of magic within the universe, you need something to work with to achieve anything. Obviously, you're usually surrounded by rocks and air, so Fae with this affinity don't need any tools but those working with fire, for example, need to carry a source. This goes from carrying a lantern or a fire pot to hiding a spark plug in their gauntlet. Additionally some basic powers are effective counters against more specific ones - one comic demonstrates an ice-specialized caster freezing a blood-spitting attack, since blood is mostly water. Air powers are good to shield oneself against fire attacks with little effort. The more powerful casters are able to overcome some of the limits of their skills, but not without strong expenditures of power.
- Trinton Chronicles has the base super-powers of fire, ice, time, and electricity but tosses it up a bit with more oddity characters who have things like summoning, glass manipulation, acid control, poison creation, paper control, or the power over luck.
- Seen with some of the various mutants in the Whateley Universe, whose powers naturally come about by random genetic chance. The school tries to teach every student to make the most out of whatever it is they got, be it the ability to shoot harmless sparks from one's fingertips and nothing else or being the reincarnation of a powerful ancient faerie queen on good mystical terms with the very elements themselves. (It's worth noting that some powers aren't actually as narrow as they may appear. The Avatar trait, for example, in and of itself is just the blanket ability to more or less safely 'merge' with a spirit and acquire its powers — and while most Avatars seen to date do seem to have a single quasi-permanent partner, nothing says it has to be a committed relationship for life.)
- Static Shock uses this, as the average villain of the week has a narrower power, while Static himself has lightning powers with Lightning Can Do Anything in full force. Two of the major villains have Darkness and Fire. In the comics, he's fought people with powers over Rope and Cars.
- Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra feature "benders," who control one of the classical elements: Water, Fire, Earth, or Air. At first it seems pretty basic: firebenders control fire, waterbenders control water, and so on. But then Fridge Logic ascends to canon and we learn that firebenders can generate and redirect lightning; earthbenders can bend the impurities in metal; waterbenders can control many fluids, such as blood in a person's body (since blood is partly water); airbenders can pull the air out of a person's lungs and asphyxiate them. All of these require a very high degree of control that most benders don't have the willpower, creativity or time to pursue, but the obscurity of such skills just makes them more dangerous. By that token, there is another element from which all the others spring: spirit, also called energy or chi, the simplest and most dangerously powerful art. Traditional bending can injure you badly if it backfires; altering the spirit requires total concentration and a lot of raw power simply to avoid breaking one's self, but success can shake the foundations of the world. Only Avatars appear to have the requisite skill and power due to their accumulated mastery and inherent spiritual link.