Wednesday, June 22, 2016

On the Cost of Advantages

Christopher Rice over on Ravens and Pennies is in full rant-mode regarding the cost of advantages, and he's right.  Go over there and read it.  Done? Great!  The only problem I have with his post is that, in my opinion, he doesn't go far enough.  I'll explain in a minute, but let me first shout "Hear hear!" for a bit.

The Dogmatic GURPSer

GURPS is a great system, but I often feel there's a fetishization of the rules as written at times.  Because we have the ability combine any power or trait to give us exactly what we want and there's a certain amount of cleverness in doing so, we like to show off our achievements.  A lot of GURPS fans will smile if I mention the psychokinetic blueberry muffin.  People like it because it reminds them that GURPS can do anything.  "Yes," we say, "GURPS can stat up a psychokinetic blueberry muffin." And, by implication, your system, whether it be D&D or Call of Cthulhu or Rifts or Shadowrun, cannot.

Except that's wrong.  That was true in the 90s, but it's not true anymore.  See, I can give you a psychokinetic blueberry muffin in Nobilis too, or Fate, or any number of those hip new indie games.  Why?  Because they've stepped away from this idea that everything has to be balanced around combat.  But GURPS hasn't.

Is that psychokinetic blueberry muffin actually balanced?  If you brought it into a DF game?  How well would it do?  In an Action game?  What about a Monster Hunters game? How about a wuxia game?  A game of intricate fantasy politics?  What about a cyberpunk game?

We seem to have the opinion that if it's in a GURPS book, if it has a price-tag and appropriate modifiers, then when we're finished applying everything, GURPS will have magically "balanced" it for us, and everything will be great, by definition.  But the systems above don't require all the complex math GURPS does to achieve the same results, and you'll note that the psychokinetic blueberry muffin is often a bad fit, so what gives?

What is Balance?

For most GURPSers I talk to, balance is like air: they just breath it, and they don't really notice it, until it's gone, and then they throw a fit.  Most of them live in DF, Fantasy worlds, Action, or similar environs where GURPS works well. There's a lot of balance there, so they have no complaints.  "It works for me." But I live in the airless worlds of sci-fi, with its unusual scenarios and extremely advanced tech, and let me tell you, from out here, GURPS doesn't look so inherently balanced anymore.

Let me show you what I mean. Let's envision a cyberpunk game that circles almost exclusively on netrunning.  The players are all a bunch of hackers who join up in cyberspace to hack into mainframes, gain access to secret files, and piece together the Big Conspiracy.  Sounds fun, right?  We can use material out of GURPS Cyberpunk and the Cyberpunk issue of Pyramid.  I actually have something like this in the works for later called Cyberscape, so for me this isn't exactly hypothetical.

So, you're a player in this.  What sort of character would you build on, say, 200 points?  You'll need a lot of Computer Operations, Computer Programming and, of course, Computer Hacking.  You might even expand out into social engineering with Fast-Talk, Acting and Administration (to understand the org structure).  You might invest in Expert Skill (Computer Engineering), Connoisseur (Computers) or Electronic Repair (Computers).  You might even consider Expert Skill (Conspiracy Theory) and Intelligence Analysis to put it all together.  And do you know what all of these skills have in common?  They're all IQ skills.  A hacker is a deeply intellectual character.  So intellectual, in fact, that you might as well buy down your ST or your DX, perhaps even take Overweight. Of course, we can say that these count against your disadvantages, but these will rarely impact your gameplay.  If your buddy takes Short Attention Span, Confused and Shyness, that impacts his ability to be a good hacker.  If you take -2 ST, -1 DX, and Fat, it doesn't impact your ability to be a good hacker.

How balanced does GURPS look now?

I find most people don't really understand balance because it's a complex game design issue, and most people aren't reading Raph Koster or Sirlin for fun.  They "know" balance when they see it.  Let me propose a description, then: when you play a game, you want to have a series of challenges that invoke interesting choices.  Those choices need to be more-or-less equally interesting and multiple paths towards achieving your end need to be equally interesting.  Ideally, your choices should create an interesting emergence that takes a while to fully learn and explore.  It is seeing this emergence crop up and this sense of succeeding while learning and exploring that, ultimately, makes a game fun.

A poorly balanced game is one where an obvious solution begins to emerge too early.  7th Sea is all about stats.  Scion is all about Epic Dexterity.  Exalted 2e is all about Perfect Defenses, who has the most motes and tedious, interminable rounds of endless combat full of increasingly exhausting stunts.  People turn away from these games (or hack them, consciously or unconsciously) because they're not fun.  A game of GURPS Cyberpunk where it boils down to "Who put the most points into Computer Hacking" is similarly not fun.  It's not balanced because there's only one strategy that works, and the players who hammer on that strategy over and over again win and those who do not lose.  Lame.  A well-designed D&D game where your particular build is as viable, but completely different, from your other party members' builds, and interact interestingly with the designs of the monsters that you're facing, forcing you to adapt to a new style of play to defeat these particular monsters?  Fun.

Of course, fun is entirely subjective, but just like art has basic guidelines of what tends to work and what doesn't, so too does game design.  It's art, not science, but if you understand that core principle, it'll serve you well. I know it's a controversial one, especially since many people don't like the gameplay that D&D creates, but the principles I outline above don't necessarily have to create a D&D-like game. The same principle applies to a deeply social game where you get interesting and unexpected interactions between characters because of their social background, their class, their beliefs, etc and you need to master those interactions to achieve the outcome that you seek, and so on.

What is GURPS?

GURPS isn't a game.  It's a system (It's more Gary's Mod than it is Half-Life).  It's a structure of building your own gameplay, but you have to understand that the system has strengths and weaknesses.  It's very well geared to handle "man to man" combat, as that was the system it grew from.  It handles DF and, over the years, Action like a champ.  But it doesn't handle Supers, epic Sci-Fi, cyberpunk, political games, etc, as well out of the box.

That means you need to be able to adapt GURPS to the game you want.  And you can!  It says so right in the book, and that's what Christopher is ultimately talking about, which is why he's right.  I might quibble on the definition of balance, but the heart of what he says is dead on.  You price your advantages based on what you need out of your game.

Of course, GURPS is a few more things, which partially explains the fetishization of system: It's universal.  That is, what works in a cyberpunk game works needs to work in a supers game, more or less.  This worked better in the 90s, when we mistakenly believed that all RPGs were basically the same, and has been blown apart in these crazy Indie years, which rightly point out that there are far more gameable genres than we accepted in the 90s, and pricing DR or Broadsword skills are pointless in a cute slice-of-life game about a psychokinetic blueberry muffin, or in a highschool musical-drama, or in a game where everyone is playing the voices inside a bum's head.  Nonetheless, it's the system we picked, and for our purposes it works for the genres we generally apply it to.

So, we're forced to work at least somewhat within the system, to color in the lines because a system is sort of like a language: We use it to communicate our ideas.  For example, I was able to explain the balance problem to you using the cyberpunk genre and to use the mechanics of GURPS to show you where it doesn't work.  And I can solve it using accepted GURPS practices too: I can set a limit on where you can spend your XP ("This is physical XP, this is mental XP"), and I can set limits on the kind of disadvantages you can have ("You may have as many mental or social disadvantages as you want, but no more than -20 points worth of physical disadvantages").  This is called the "Buckets of Points" solution, and its in one of the pyramid articles.

But note that it's not in the core rules.  Kromm didn't look within the system to find a fix to that sort of problem, but instead created a new one.  This is the core of what Christopher is talking about: You can't always find a solution inside the game.  Sometimes, you have to apply it from without, which means, in this case, making up an advantage wholecloth.

The Economic Of Points

This still leaves us with the problem of "How much should X cost?" The answer is not found within the system, though you are free to use it, and most people will accept it.  The answer is found within your heart and the heart of all of your players.  Your cold, dead, miserly heart.

See, GURPS is ultimately a game about budgets and resource management, at least when it comes to character creation.  How much do you really want that advantage?  Would you be willing to accept these terrible disadvantages to pay for it?  Or maybe give up these other advantages for it?  Given a limited budget, how many points would you pay for X?

Would you pay 15 points for Combat Reflexes?  Yes, most people would say yes.  Would you pay 25 points for Extra Attack?  Most people would point out that 6 levels of weapon skill is just as expensive, and gives you +3 defense and +6 attack when you're not making a rapid strike.  Okay, but would you pay 5 points for an Extra Attack that you could use up to 3 times a day (-20%) while wearing a unique(-25%) magical (-10%) amulet (-30%)?  Some players might take you up on that.  

So, this isn't to say to that modifiers don't work, but what about when you're coming up with something entirely new?  How do you price it?  You price it based on what you would be willing to pay for it.  A too-expensive trait will be rarely taken (which is why some traits are so expensive, because the GURPS team wants people to take them rarely), and a too-cheap trait will be taken all the time (which is why some traits, like HT and Combat Reflexes, are so cheap, to encourage you to take them).  GURPS tends to frown on abilities that could easily short-cut most classic, 90s-style adventures (like Warp), and supports abilities that improve survivability.  There are a few advantages that improve survivability but most people won't take them because they're too expensive (Regrowth) or largely flavor (Unaging), which is why some people complain that they cost too much, while other advantages could short circuit your adventure but are relatively easily in the reach of the players (Like Mind Control, which is why people say that it's too cheap).  Given that the Rules as Written gets it wrong, I wouldn't worry too much if you get it wrong.  Let your instincts and your sense of "What would I be willing to pay for this?"guide you.

Some GMs make the mistake, though, of thinking that these point economics will inherently prevent problems.  They won't.  If an advantage is problematic, it's problematic at any point cost.  For example, if mind reading will ruin your cozy mystery, then the answer is not to charge more for it, but to disallow it.  GURPS also really recommends only allowing certain traits, which is something a lot of GMs (especially novice GMs) tend to forgot.  Someone always wants to "allow everything!" and then are surprised when the game falls apart.  An expensive trait might be rare, but it'll still be present. If you allow Warp, you should be aware that someone might take it.  If you're not okay with that, don't allow it.

This sort of thing is what Chris means with "Trust your gut and playtest."  You'll see the same sort of fluffing around in my Psi-Wars, and you'll definitely see it if you read between the lines on Kromm's work, or PK's work.  They look at something and if it's completely new, they'll eyeball it, give it a cost and move on, often based on experience.  You can do the same.  And if you're wrong? It's not the end of the world. You'll learn  and gain more experience and move on.

I think the real reason we fetishize rules is that they give us an excuse.  We can hide behind them.  When a player demands to know why a trait is so expensive, we can just shrug and say "It's GURPS, ya know, waddyagonnado?"  But it's not just GURPS, it's your game, and you can, and should, do with it what you want, what you need, to make that game great.  If that means you took a risk and it didn't work out, then the next game will be better for it.  Once you understand that rules are just tools, and that even the best systems are flawed, but there for  you to use to build gameplay, then your games can really begin to soar.

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