Thursday, June 8, 2017

GURPS Day: How are high point total campaigns possible?

It's kinda like that.

So I'm just curious. How are 300+ character point campaigns even possible? I'm a "lower decks" kinda guy myself (between 100-130 points), and haven't ever considered one of those ultra-powerful types of parties. Given what I know of the GURPS 3d6 mechanics, however, how does that even work? Unless one limits the players to purchasing more breadth of Skills rather than height, it would generate Skills and Basic Attributes so high that only a 17 or 18 would indicate failure. I'd think whoever goes first in a round would pretty much accomplish every goal before anyone else had a chance, and in combat, you'd get strike/successful dodge/strike/successful dodge ad nauseam against NPCs. Unless the GM contrives clumsy penalties that mediate every dice roll. I'm sure there are supplements out there specific to high-point campaigns, and I wondered if the mechanics change somewhat in consideration of such super-powered settings. Otherwise, it would be like an AD&D campaign in which only a natural 20 or natural 1 ever indicates anything besides a miss or successful Saving Throw.
-Thomas W. Thornberry 
Douglas Cole, of Gaming Ballistics, spread this around  the GURPS day list, and it personally struck a chord with me, not just because I so regularly run and play in these sorts of games, but because he talks my language.  Breadth? Height? Bell Curves?!  Let's do this!

Beautiful Curves

I tend to favor any RPG that has a bell curve over one that doesn't, because bell curves work the way people think probability does, namely that an average result is average and that an extreme result is extreme.  For example, the intuitive D&D player might complain if he keeps rolling below 10 that this is "unlikely", while a roll of 10 on a D20 is just as probable as a roll of any other value on a d20.  By contrast, in GURPS, ten really is average, and more likely to show up.

But bell curves have a bit of a flaw in that they must be carefully managed.  All the exciting drama turns around the top of the curve.  Too low, and you'll almost never succeed and even a +1 modifier won't do much to help you.  Too high, and even a -1 modifier won't do much to hurt you.  Fate and Fudge have "The ladder" for this very reason, and nWoD broken down often precisely because, without appropriate application of penalties (which the systems makes difficult to apply retroactively), it breaks down into "You always succeed" very quickly.

So Thomas is right that characters with high point totals need to face serious penalties or they'll be uninteresting.  An exciting game sees a character with an effective skill of 10 trying very hard to avoid a -1 or -2 penalty, and doing the work to gain a +1 or +2 bonus, not a character with skill 20 shrugging off that -1 or -2 and ignoring the +1 or +2.

Or is it?

It's a Hard Knock Life

GURPS loves penalties.  I mean, it really loves penalties.  It will grudgingly give you a +4 if you're doing anything uninteresting, but then it will hammer you with all kinds of penalties as soon you try to do anything interesting.  This last is very key.  The typical gamer, at least the one I've experienced, doesn't picture his character as much like himself, but more like a hyper-idealized version of himself, informed by years of watching ridiculous movies, shonen anime, or reading comics.  They want to play hypercompetent characters.  They want to do ridiculous things, and normal people can't. This last wouldn't be such a problem except that GURPS is generic and universal.  "Universality" means that a game with a realistic and reasonable character should use the same rules as James Bond, that the should even be able to play in the same game.  The difference between James Bond and Moneypenny is that the former has more points.

Good luck!
Let's talk about penalties for a second.  Many GMs like to just roll dice and compare them to skill.  In such a game, sure, high point totals break down into "You succeed; you succeed; oh no, look, you... succeeded!" But as I said before, GURPS loves penalties.  Let's look at gun combat as an example.  Let's say you want to shoot someone a mere 10 yards away: that's a -4!  If you're skill 12, you're already having a hard time, but if you're skill 20, it's pretty easy (16 or less).  And, of course, you can aim (for, say, +2), but that takes a second.  What if you don't have a second?  And what if you need to be on the move and your gun has a bulk of -2?  Now your skill 12 guy is at 6 or less, while the skill 20 guy is at 14 or less.  And what if he has a vest, so you want to shoot him in the head?  Then you need to apply a -7.  The skill 12 character cannot possibly do this, and the skill 20 guy has been reduced to a 7 or less.  That's pretty improbable!  Of course, we can buy gunslinger to remove the bulk penalty while we move, or to gain an accuracy bonus if we stand still, but that, first of all, costs a lot of points and, second of all, only raises us to 9.  If you want to be John Wick, we'd need both gunslinger and skill 20-25 to effectively pull it off.

What about hand to hand?  Imagine for a second that you're a kung fu fighter surrounded by 5 opponents.  If you have Karate 12 (which, for a DX 10 person, costs 12 points) and Judo 12 (another 12 points) and combat reflexes (15 points) for a basic defense of 10.  When your first opponent attacks you, you have a 50/50 chance of being hit.  If you retreat, that goes to 13, which is pretty reasonable, but once you have to parry the second attack, you can arguably use your second hand for another 13, and then on the third attack, you're at a 9 or less, and then your next parry will against a target who is attacking from your side, so you're at -2 (7 or less), and then your final defense is at 3 or less, or more likely a 6 or less with a dodge.  You're going to get hit, but that's reasonable, because nobody reasonably expects a kung fu hobbyist to take on 5 guys who are surrounding him.  And on the attack, you'll only succeed about 75% of the time, and your opponents have a decent chance of parrying, so even if you got a chance to make an attack first, you need to A) land the hit B) prevent your opponent from defending and C) make that hit count so that your opponent goes down (ST 10 is 1d-3 on a punch, up to 1d-1 with DX+2 in Karate).

More like that, yes
Let's take a look at the same sort of fighter, but with Karate 20 (with DX 10, which is unlikely, but our lowest cost, comes to 44 points), Judo 20 (the same), Combat Reflexes (15) Trained by a Master (30 points), ST 15 (50 points, base punch of 1d, or 1d+2 with his Karate), and let's give him Acrobatics 20 (also 44 points), Power Blow 20 (44 points with Will 10, but who keeps their will at 10), and Luck (15).  This comes to a minimum of 250+ points.  This is effectively what 300 point martial artists look like.  His first parry will be at 14 or less, 17 or less on a retreat, which is likely to succeed.  He can do this twice (once with each hand), and then his next defense is at -2 (12 or 15 or less), and then his final defense is at -4 (10 or 13 or less), and he can make this one acrobatic for +2.  If he fails one of those defenses, he can use Luck to keep himself in the fight.  When he retaliates, he can afford to make a -4 deceptive attack pretty easily, dropping their defenses by -2.  Once he lands his punch, he'll typically do about 5 points of damage which, incidentally, is not enough to actually stun an opponent.  What if we really need to off at least one guy?  We can use power-blow instantly (On a 10 or less!) for an increase of ST to 30 for an average of 16 damage (3d+6, thanks to our Karate skill), which will definitely take a single guy out, and probably knock him back 2 yards, and probably knock him down even if isn't stunned, or unconscious (perhaps he was wearing armor).  You can even make multiple attacks: a rapid strike is at -3, rather than -6, so you can attack two with a deceptive attack on a 13 or less, which is pretty doable.  Suddenly, going up against 5 guys seems pretty reasonable, even easy.  You can dance between their attacks, retaliate against two opponents and definitely take at least one of them out.  You start to look like a real kung fu hero!

But what about non-combat stuff?  Like picking a lock?  Well, again, GURPS loves to pile stuff on.  Let's say we're in a pair of handcuffs, behind our back, and we need to pick them.  According go high tech, attempting to do anything with our with our hands is a minimum of -1, -4 if it's only our hands.  If we want to pick locks "blind," we're at -5, so we're already at -9!  Picking locks takes a minute, but what if we don't have a minute?  What if we need to be free now?  That's -10.  And what if we don't actually have a lockpick, just some bit of wire we managed to pick up from our captors?  That's -5.  So we've racked up -24(!!!) in penalties!  You can't possibly do this with skill 12, never mind skill 20.

So this idea that you have to make up penalties is clearly bunk.  GURPS will happily do it for you.  Lots of them.  Endless penalties that stack and stack and stack until your "heroic" character is practically hobbled.  But that's okay, because...

Have a little ambition

A lot of RPGs play in a very "reactive" way, in my experience, with D&D probably the greatest offender in this regard.  The game assumes a series of challenges in sequence, perhaps with some choices a long the way.  The game sets the average difficulty at the PC's competence (so that the average character has a 50/50 chance, with characters incompetent in a particular field more likely to fail, while characters specialized in this are more likely to succeed), and you roll to see what happens.  You succeed, or you fail, and the game shifts based on that success or failure.  For example, to move on, you need to seduce the queen, which is DC 15; the barbarian has Bluff 0, while the Bard has Bluff 10, so the Bard gives it a go.  Many modules get written this way.

GURPS, in my experience, is far less curated and far more dynamic.  Because it uses less abstract rules and more "realistic" settings with "rules that cover anything," players can typically try anything, and they usually do.  If the difficulty of picking your handcuffs proves too difficult, you can stall for time and get someplace where you have some privacy and then make an Escape or Acrobatics roll to bring them to the front (removing working blind), which reduces the penalties to -6, which is pretty doable (especially if you're skill 20).  Or, if you're a virtual god of lockpicking (or you have special tricks, like High Manual Dexterity, Sensitive Touch, 360 vision, or a cybernetic lockpick or good holdout and a hand-cuff key), you don't have to.

A modestly skilled opponent doesn't try to face off against 5 guys at once, but a highly skilled character can.  Being high point total typically opens up more options.

Breadth or Depth

So, Thomas mentions breadth vs depth, which is also a good discussion.  The fear in a high point total game is that characters can afford to be very deep, but very deep characters must turn every situation into the one thing they know.  I've already shown that a skilled martial artist is already almost 300 points, and he isn't even "ridiculously" good yet (no skills at 25+ or complex technique arrays or unique power, or wide variety of cinematic skills).  He's pretty basic.  So 300 points "deep" isn't that deep.  But not every thing will turn on a fight.  For example, if you handcuff the martial artist, he's pretty hosed (perhaps he can use power-blow to snap the handcuffs, but that's essentially his only option, and he can use acrobatics to pull the cuffs up front, so that helps a bit).

The advantage of breadth is, again, that it opens up more options.  If you have a more modest fighter who also has fast-talk, escape, lockpicking, observation and stealth, and you put him in prison, sure, he can fight once he gets out, but he has all kinds of interesting options to get out.  He can try to trick the guards, watch unobtrusively for escape opportunities while pretending to sleep, he can hide, he can pick the locks, he can squeeze through bars, and so on.  I often find breadth becomes exceedingly important in Action-style scenarios where circumstances can change pretty dramatically from moment to moment, and you need some sort of tactic to handle it, because even at very high point totals, you won't have all possible skills at solid levels.  You'll only have a few preferred tactics and approaches at decent levels.  That is, you'll be "somewhat deep" in a few areas, and the more areas you have, the easier it is for you to shift the situation into your preferred model of gameplay.

Even if you want to confront a deep character on his own ground (like create an interesting martial arts opponent for the specialized martial artist to fight), you have several tools to do it.  For example, there are lots of ways to change the dynamics of a fight.  What happens if you don't fight five guys, but three ninjas at night, during a storm?  They have night vision and you don't, and they have excellent balance, meaning they won't slip.  How do you handle the disparity?  Or what if instead of fighting 5 decent guys, you fight 20 incompetent guys?  Sure, they suck but they only need to land one punch and they can swarm you.  How do you keep them from just dogpiling you?  How do you stay mobile?  Or you can make a single equivalently powerful character, but who is focused on different things.  What if he has skill 20 karate like you have, but has Feint +4 and Pressure Points, so with a little patience, he can bypass your defenses and then begin to inflict penalties against you.  Or, perhaps, an opponent with DR 5 (Tough Skin), High Pain Threshold, ST 20 and Aggressive Parry, which will likely force you away from punches and into locks and grapples while being careful to not attack in a way that he can smash back against.

A really good metaphor for how to handle high level play is to think about how comic books work.  Typically, comic books challenge their characters by:
  • Overwhelming them with numerous opponents
  • Hitting them with a character who is just as powerful, but with a unique strategy that acts as a puzzle for the hero
  • Directly hitting at someone's disadvantages
  • Putting the character in an unusual situation where he can't use his standard operating procedures (though not necessarily "he can't use his powers," just that he needs to use them differently and cleverly)
That's how you tend to handle most high point games.
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