Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Review: Power-Ups 9: Attributes

Recently SJGames released GURPS Power-Ups 9: Attributes and my Patrons asked me to review it, so here's my review: Never have I seen a bigger mea culpa from a company, except perhaps White Wolf republishing their old versions of the World of Darkness.  But this should not be a mark of shame on SJGames; instead, the fact that this book exists should make you proud of SJGames. They have heard your endless complaining about attributes, listened, and offered up an entire smorgasbord of options you can use to fix them.

That might seem like an odd review, but upon reading it, that was the unshakeable feeling I had.  It felt like reading someone's commentary on a collection of threads about the problems with attributes.  "IQ is underpriced once you buy back Per and Will," "Nobody would ever buy a 15 point talent when an attribute is so much better," "There are too many skills!" "It doesn't even make sense that Basic Speed would be attached to HT!" "I liked how HP was handled back in 3e better" and so on.  In the past these sorts of things would have been addressed, typically by GURPS fans, as "Well, it makes sense because X" or "You're not allowed to buy that back because there's a hard disad limit" and other such defenses.  This offers no such defenses, though it does sometimes offer the context as to why a decision was made.  Instead, if anyone ever even thought of an objection to an attribute, this book attempts to address it, and other issues beside.  It rips open the entire foundation beneath attributes and exposes them, sometimes more than I would have ever thought necessary.

This gave me mixed feelings about the book.  On the one hand, kudos to Sean Punch. Seriously.  In my experience, the RPG world is full of egotistical authors that bristle at anyone questioning their genius, while Punch says "Oh, YOU DON'T LIKE HOW WE HANDLED ATTRIBUTES? That's cool, here's why we did it, and here's 50 ideas about how you could do it differently, and some tips on how to integrate those changes into the rest of the system." Amazing.  On the other hand, this claws at the thin tissue of lies that suggests GURPS is a "universal" system. If I start making changes this substantial to my game, is it GURPS anymore? Can you pick up your character from your GURPS game and come play in mine? On the other hand, could you ever?  I know some people tried that, with mixed results, with D&D games, but I don't think GURPS every really pretended to be universal in the sense of total compatibility between games, just total support for all genres.  In that sense, this makes it a great supplement.

I will say that unlike the other Power-Up books, this isn't something you'll reference. It reads more like a discussion, like an extended forum thread or a pyramid article, a guide on how to hack your GURPS game.  Once you've gone through it, you should have a pretty good idea of what it's about, and if you're putting together a new campaign, you might revisit it once and see if it has any ideas on how to handle an attribute in your game or if you find you've run into a trait problem.

I immediately began using it in the context of Psi-Wars, and it removed the last mental block I had to lowering the cost to ST.  It also generated quite some discussion as to whether we should change IQ and DX too, and this sort of underlines one of my core complaints about this book, though it's not the book's fault: a lot of what it suggests are so sweeping that if you implement them, you'll have to throw everything you've built so far out the window and start from scratch; worse, the book is persuasive, which left me feeling like I was running a sub-optimal game for running GURPS-as-written, which is probably the biggest... what's a word for an advantage that's also a disadvantage? In any case, by unflinchingly ripping open the guts to GURPS, it reveals a lot of problems you probably hadn't considered, and once it's been seen, it can't be unseen.  You'll be a lot more aware of the warts of GURPS after this book.  It's a book for the brave and for the game designer, not for the guy who just wants to run some campaign and doesn't care how good the rules are and he quite likes GURPS.

Thoughts on Attributes, Skills and Talents

One common complaint I hear is that GURPS has too many skills, or that high-cost talents are never worth it. This book addresses neither directly, but indirectly, I think it proves it. The last chapter breaks down how many skills are associated with each Attribute, and it clocks them in at 91 for DX and 144 for IQ!  It makes a timid suggestion of every 5 points of attribute should be associated with 46(!) skills.  If you ever needed proof that a 15-point talent (which caps out at 18 skills) was overpriced, this is it.

When it comes to the notion of GURPS having "too many skills," I often see people suggesting that they should cull it, or replace it with Wildcard Skills.  They seldom do so, though, and I think I know why.  In both cases, they worry about unbalancing the system; wildcard skills are too expensive to really allow a character to have more than one or two, and if you reduce the number of skills (or reduce the cost of wildcard skills), then you jack up the ratios between skills, talents and attributes.  For this, though, I think Power-Ups 9 proves that there are too many skills associated with each attribute as it is.

Power-Ups Talents lists the suggested value of each talent as:

  • 5 point: up to 6 skills
  • 10 point: 7 to 12 skills
  • 15 point: 13 to 18 skills
And anything with more than 18 skills as too broad for a talent.  However, if we follow the logic, we come to a 20-point "talent" covering "up to" 24 skills.  Of course, as you get to broader and broader talents, you lose a lot of your value.  What are the chances that you'll want all 24 skills all the time? Unlikely. You become better off focusing on the more narrow skills because you're more likely to get bang for your buck.  But even so, this gives us a pretty good idea of how many skills should be associated with a 20-point attribute: ~24, not ~90 to 144.  This means that if you want to wildly reduce the number of skills, feel free!

So here's an abbreviated list of skills for you:

Abbreviated Skill List:

  • Acrobatics (H)
  • Beam Weapon (E) (Includes Gunner (Beams))
  • Bow (A) (Includes Crossbow)
  • Driving (A)
  • Escape (H)
  • Fencing (A)
  • Flail (H)
  • Guns (E) (Includes Gunner)
  • Impact Weapon (A)
  • Innate Attack (E)
  • Pilot (A)
  • Pole Weapon (A)
  • Riding (A)
  • Shield (E)
  • Sling (H)
  • Steal (H) (Includes Filch and Pickpocket, might also contain Sleight of Hand)
  • Stealth (A) (Includes Shadowing and Camouflage)
  • Sword (A)
  • Throwing (A)
  • Tonfa (A)
  • Unarmed Grappling (A)
  • Unarmed Striking(A)
  • Whip (A)

  • Acting (A)
  • Animal Handling (A)
  • Artillery (A)
  • Computers (H) (Includes Computer Operation, Programming, Hacking, etc)
  • Connoisseur (A)
  • Diplomacy (H)
  • Disguise (A)
  • Electronics (A) (Includes all Electronics skills; you can specialize by type if you like)
  • Expert Skill (H) (Catch all for all the various nitty gritty lore skills, like Anthrolopology or Biology, etc)
  • Fast-Talk (A)
  • Forgery (A) (Includes Counterfeiting)
  • Gambling (A)
  • Games (E)
  • Hidden Lore (A)
  • Hobby Skills (E)
  • Holdout/Smuggling (A)
  • Intelligence Analaysis/Criminology (A) (Basically all skills for integrating and finding clues)
  • Law/Belief Systems (H) (Includes philosophy, theology and law; you roll against this to know what you can and cannot do)
  • Leadership (A)
  • Lockpicking (A)
  • Medicine (H) (Diagnosis, Physician, First-Aid, Surgery, Pharmacy, etc)
  • Merchant (A)
  • Navigation (A)
  • Performance (A)
  • Politics (A)
  • Professional Skill (E) (Dropped to E; also includes Soldier and Crewman)
  • Repair (H) (All the repair skills, including mechanic and electrician, etc)
  • Research (A)
  • Rituals (H) (Including Ritual Magic, Religious Ritual, and any highly precise ritual)
  • Savoir-Faire (E)
  • Strategy/Tactics (H)
  • Streetwise (A)
  • Traps (A)

  • Reading People (H) (Includes Body Language, Lip Reading, Detect Lies and Psychology)
  • Scrounging (E)
  • Search (A)
  • Survival (A) (Includes Urban Survival)
  • Tracking (A)
  • Weather Sense (A)

  • Intimidation (A)
  • Mental Strength (E)
  • Mind Block (A)

  • Body Control (H) (Includes Breath Control, Autohypnosis, Body Sense, anything that has to do with understanding and manipulating your body)
  • Climbing (A)
  • Flight (A)
  • Jumping (E)
  • Lifting (E)
  • Running (E)
  • Sex-Appeal (A)
  • Sports (E)
  • Swimming (E)
I've tried to base this list off what I tend to see come up in RPGs, or based on better ways to handle it. Why does GURPS insist that Biology and Computer Programming are separate skills but Epidemiology or Computer Security are just Expert Skills? Wouldn't all such highly expert-based skills be expert skills?  I've also collapsed broad categories into a single thing ("Sword" and "Impact Weapons") as those are categories GURPS themselves use, so why not use them here? I've removed skills that people treat like perks, like Area Knowledge or Fast Draw.  A lot of the skills here typically have specializations; I suggest keeping that as is. If you would allow a talent to apply to all the specializations, then allow the attribute to apply.  I didn't worry about obviously supernatural skills, like Psionic skills, cinematic "Chi" skills or magic spells. Those are "add-ons" that not every campaign would use.

In this version, DX is pretty spot on for a 20 point talent, Per and Will for a 5 point talent, and HT for a 10 point talent. IQ is still overly broad and probably still clocks in at 20-30, but you can ignore that if you like. I make no statements about how to handle things like whether IQ should contain Will and Per, or whether DX should still contribute to Basic Speed, etc.  I've created this as a template for how you might shrink skill lists, that's all.

On that note, you doubtless look at this and see skills I missed, or find some of the skills overly broad.  I think that's fine.  The point is that this shows you what a skill list, more in line with the actual costs of skills and talents, would look like.  If you find you need to expand them, then perhaps you understand why SJGames thinks 144 skills for IQ isn't a terrible idea.  If you find you'd expand some but eliminate or shrink others, that's also fine.  This is not meant as the master list of all necessary skills. It's meant as a starting point for your own ideas.

Some suggestions for skills: I think a skill should be something you're willing to invest multiple points in (fast-draw and area knowledge are bad skills, because hardly anyone dumps 20 points in them to push them up to skill 18 or whatever), and they should be broad enough to tolerate techniques (no "one use" skills, like Breath Control or Meditation). In a more collapsed skill list system, I suggest removing the idea of skills defaulting to other skills as much as possible; skills that default to one another suggest a group of related proficiencies that could be collapsed into a single skill; people who want to differentiate themselves (a doctor who is a better diagnostician than he is a surgeon) can do so with techniques.

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