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Friday, 15 January 2016

Duty calls

GURPS 4e is the rule set of choice in my gaming group. I don’t like everything about it (fights take up way too much time without actually feeling terribly exciting) but there’s lots of interesting debate to be had when you shine a light into the obscure nooks and crannies of the system.

Just one example. Characters can take a Duty. This is a disadvantage of variable points value; by taking it you get points to spend on attributes or skills. The more likely a Duty is to apply during a game, the more it’s worth. You get extra points if it’s extremely hazardous (ie you are at constant risk of death) and also if it’s involuntary. An involuntary Duty is one where the character has no choice in the matter. Their actions are coerced by threats to loved ones, mind control, or a curse.

One of the players in our Victorian campaign took a character who was a lieutenant in the Royal Navy. He argued that the Duty should count as involuntary and extremely hazardous:
"Since the penalty for abrogation of this duty is court-martial, punishable possibly by death (and the utter shame and ruin of his entire family and tarnishing of the reputation by association of his circle of friends) I think his duty is pretty much involuntary. 'Enforced by threats to you or your loved ones...' – GURPS 4e page134."
My counter to that was that the whole point about involuntary Duty is it's enforced – the cartel have a gun to your wife's head, the terrorists have strapped a bomb to you, that kind of deal. If you ask a British RN officer in the 1890s why he is carrying out his duties, he's not going to say, "I don't want to, but the British government are holding my life and family honour to ransom." So it's voluntary. The GURPS Compendium explains it pretty well:
Duty (Involuntary; an extra -5 points) Some duties are enforced by threats, threats to loved ones, or by exotic methods of mind control. Such a forced duty can result in difficult decisions or surprising insights for the affected character. An involuntary Duty would not include military service by draft (although service by impressment, as practiced by the British navy of the 18th century, would qualify), nor any other "normal" service. Only cases where life or sanity are directly at stake qualify.
The player disagreed. (When do they not, when character points are at stake?)
"It is involuntary! What you're talking about is Sense of Duty, which makes him feel he wants to do it. But he has no choice, and if he should be given an order with which he disagrees, or is too afraid to carry out, the true nature of the duty is clear. It's not just imprisonment or a broken relationship with his patron he has to deal with afterwards. Plenty of the fellows who sign up for the armed forces will attest to the level of choice they have. If it were WW1 and he were in the army, I don't think you'd try and sustain your case. The overwhelming horror of enforced duty tearing against the survival instinct is pretty well documented."
Sense of Duty is indeed another, quite different character trait in the GURPS rules. It’s mental, not social, and bears on whether you feel you ought to carry out the duty. This is where it gets interesting. Because all duties must have some degree of either voluntary or involuntary internal compulsion. That’s what the extra -5 points for an involuntary Duty is all about. But does the GURPS rulebook insist that all voluntary Duties are accompanied by a Sense of Duty? No. It is perfectly possible to take a voluntary Duty without having a Sense of Duty.

And quite right too. I know people who were in the British armed forces, ordinary squaddies who joined straight from school. If they had failed to do their duty they could in theory have been court-martialled and imprisoned, but I don’t think that was any kind of motivating factor. They did their duty voluntarily and effectively without any overwhelming sense of duty (a typically British mentality!). They were conscientious, but when they got a better offer they quit the services and did that instead.

The acid test for an involuntary Duty would be "can you resign?" In almost all modern armed forces you can. Being press-ganged on a pirate ship or British navy vessel of the mid-18th century are notable exceptions. A Royal Navy lieutenant of the 1890s is not, if you’ll pardon the pun, in the same boat.

It begs another question: why are involuntary Duties worth -5 pts more anyhow? A person who is coerced into doing his duty is less effective than somebody who does it voluntarily. Also, involuntary Duty could be lifted by removing the coercion. "We have your wife and kids safe, sir. You can put down that gun." So you'd think involuntary Duty would be less of a disadvantage, points-wise.

The player had also claimed his Duty as a naval officer to be “extremely hazardous”, which the GURPS 4e rules define thus:
Extremely Hazardous: You are always at risk of death or serious injury when your Duty comes up. There are significant penalties if you refuse to take these risks: dismissal in disgrace, imprisonment, perhaps even death. The GM has the final say as to whether a given Duty is “extremely hazardous” in his campaign.
You can see why that would be worth extra points, at least. And certainly if the lieutenant failed to do his duty he would face the possibility of disgrace, imprisonment or death. (In point of fact, the standard penalty for failure to do one’s duty in the Royal Navy is up to two years’ imprisonment, but that only if the court finds you deliberately at fault.)

But that’s mere plot detail. What interests me about this is the whole question of volition when carrying out a duty. Reading Sassoon on his moral objections to the Great War, or Max Hastings on his various relatives' reactions to fighting at the front shows there's a stew of motivations and conflicts going on there. Did the Twin Towers attackers act voluntarily? If you asked them, they'd probably have said yes, this way lies paradise. But the truth was, how could they back out? To do so would mean not just facing retribution from their al-Qaeda commanders - that's nothing, it probably never crossed their minds - but the much scarier prospect of sweeping away a whole bunch of simplistic beliefs on which their entire identities were built. So I'd say they probably had both involuntary (sic) Duty and Sense of Duty. Humans are wonderfully screwed up pieces of work, aren’t they?

There are a lot of interesting and complex aspects to dutiful behaviour, and we can hardly expect a set of game rules to get to grips with them. But it’s fascinating to come across these questions, discovering all kinds of philosophical and moral matters lurking amid the numbers and mechanics, and the fact that I am continually able to do so is one of the things I love most about role-playing.


  1. I've never been a fan of the Disadvantage = Extra Creation points concept. I much prefer the way that the New World of Darkness handled "Flaws" as they called. Essentially, whenever your Flaw came up in a relatively significant manner, you got extra experience. This encouraged people to actively play their Flaws instead of just hoping the GM lost them in the shuffle.

    1. Interesting point, John. That does sound much better. A problem in our campaign is that many of the disadvantages PCs took early on, such as the "delusion" that supernatural forces are real, are in fact turning out to be the way the world actually works. So those characters got extra points for being right all along!

      The other problem with mental disadvantages in GURPS is that they just get overlooked. We've got characters who are supposed to freeze in moments of danger, suffer from paralyzing claustrophobia, and so on. But if those were implemented in practice we'd need to run through a pre-flight check as long as a 747's at the start of every encounter. So in fact the claustrophobic character suffers no penalties and shouldn't really have got any extra points for it. Whereas in NWoD's Flaws system, players would have a good reason to remember their shortcomings and roleplay them.

    2. You might consider the idea of having Disadvantages be "loans" of experience instead of straight out purchases while also including the Flaw aspect. Say that people with Disadvantages/Flaws get some of their experience points "garnished" into a special pool to pay back the points they were loaned. However, whenever they voluntarily activate or include their D/F in a significant way that adds to the story, they can gain extra experience. Once their "debt" is paid, they can drop the Disadvantage or keep it around to use to get extra points. This way you put the onus of bringing up the D/F on the player instead of on you.

      BTW, even if a delusion is "real" it can still be a disadvantage. Maybe David Icke is right about the Lizard people hybrids, but most people still think he's a nutbar.

    3. That's true, but if we were in an actual war against secret lizard people, my "delusion" that he's crazy would be the actual disadvantage, so... Oh, well that's why I hate having the rules intrude on how you play your character!

    4. I always fall back on the idea that in order to be a Flaw/Disadvantage, something has to actually be "disadvantageous." So, for the purposes of your campaign simply believing in "the supernatural" is not a disadvantage. Believing wrong stuff about the supernatural (due to a delusion) would be. If your campaign centers around David Icke's "Lizard War" and one of your player characters thinks the hybrids are just pawns of the Vampire Overlords who run Hot Topic, that's a genuine Disadvantage, especially if he/she goes around burning Hot Topic stores to free the humans from the vampire curse.

  2. Oh, what I wouldn't give to sit in on one of your sessions ;) Admittedly, GURPS has never been my favorite system. But it's the people, not the system, that make it at the end of the day.

    1. So very true, Ashton, and I'm incredibly lucky with my group - good friends enjoying a shared story together, what could be better?

  3. I am not sure which of your players is trying to run that one past you, but they are engaging in duplicitous persiflage. Since you have to volunteer for a commission in the Royal Navy it is in its very essence not involuntary. They took this duty on themselves entirely voluntarily, and they can resign any time they choose except while actually in action.

    The hazardous line is equally wierd. Unless your Victorian history has slide wildly off course, there are very few jobs safer. This is the era of British naval supremacy: where exactly is the hazard coming from? You would really have to fail truly appallingly to face any serious consequences. I might as well claim my job is extremely hazardous because I have to cross no less than three roads to get to it. I might get knocked down!

    I do like disadvantages, but you have to be able to trust your players to remember them when they come up. Also, I do tend to avoid things like duties. The problem is, if the duty does not align with the adventure the PC is right out of it, and if it doesn't its no problem! If it constrains one PCs actions in the adventure, it presents a challenge to the others too, and they don't get any points for it. I believe disadvantages are best restricted to things that affect one player only. Things that affect the entire group are plot points.

    1. To be fair to the player in question, Alistair, his backstory was such that he didn't have a lot of choices other than the RN, though he certainly wasn't coerced. And he's commanding a small vessel in the South China Sea, so there may be some danger, though it's far from life-or-death on a daily basis.

      That does throw up another problem. The only time the character will interact with the rest of the group is likely to be on leave, when his duties as a naval officer won't come into play.

      On the other hand, at least things like Enemies, Duties, and so on drive the adventure forward. I really have a hate on for niggling mental disadvantages that almost always get forgotten. They should be role-played anyway. If I play a character with agoraphobia, I don't need or want a dice rolling telling me when it has an effect!

  4. If mental disadvantages are niggling and getting forgotten, then they should be disposed of. Disadvantages should drive the game forward: if they don't, then they are pointless, and should give no points (heh). I find it a general rule that if something is no contributing to the game, then it is a waste of time.

    I guess another question is why players think they need to take disadvantages if they then ignore them? Just to wangle a few more points? Surely there are better ways of doing that. Do they want to play a higher points game, or is it just the challenge of trying to squeeze out as much as they can? Or possibly they just enjoy the debates?

    Perhaps you could set your own points value based on how much you think the disadvantage would advance the game? That sounds like the ideal solution from the standpoint of someone who does not actually have to put the time in to do it.

    1. Actually I'm really tempted to experiment with a GURPS variant of the Flaws system that John mentioned - for mental characteristics, at least. Generally speaking, the assumption in GURPS that you can set points costs to these things is a fiction anyway (even if it were desirable to model them that way) because the negative value of fear of spiders, say, is going to depend on how often the referee throws spiders into the game.

      In the specific case of a Duty, I'm still not at all clear why GURPS even bothers to give a different cost for voluntary and involuntary duties. And since the degree to which either affects the game is, again, highly arbitrary, I think they should be left to the player rather than the rules.

      And that leads in to the wider question of why systems like GURPS want to put numbers to those aspects of the game at all. A distrust of players' willingness to get into character? An attempt to put more control into the hands of the GM/referee (something I deplore)? In the old days we "just played" :-)

    2. Btw I just came across a typically cockeyed GURPS disadvantage: Callous. "You are merciless, if not cruel." And? Well, apparently this makes it harder to teach others or to make Psychology skill rolls aimed at helping others (which, being callous, you probably wouldn't do anyway) but gives +1 on Interogation and Intimidation. And it's worth 5 points. So, if you want to play a callous character, that's 5 extra points for free. Ridiculous.

  5. Callous as written is really an Advantage with some minor problems. It's be better if whoever had it took a general social penalty to everything except Intimidation and Interrogation. Like, "That Callous son-of-a-bitch? I wouldn't piss down his throat if his lungs were on fire!"

    As far as Duties and adventuring go, it shouldn't be a case of either/or so much as also. Like, during an adventure where the group is hunting pirates, the ship officer also has to rescue the Lady Smellington and bring to her father's house in Hong Kong or somesuch.

    Disadvantages of all kinds should make player's adventures harder, but not really impossible. A person with a Fear of Heights won't necessarily refuse to climb up a mountain (if that's only way to get were the adventure is) but they make take a penalty while they're climbing ("Oh shit! I looked down!")

    With Mental Disadvantages especially, the players really have to "want" to play them, which is why I suggest the "loaned points" idea. Say you have 3 characters. C1 has 100 points plus 50 in Disadvantages. So does C2, while C3 has a 100 points and no Disavantages. Say that you give out an average of 4 xp per game/session or so but take back 2 points to pay back the "loans." Meanwhile you also offer up to 3 extra points for Disadvantages that come into play.

    C1 doesn't play his Disadvantages, so he gets maybe 2 xp per game.

    C3 has no Disadvantages and gets 4 XP a game, but starts 50 xp behind everyone else.

    C2 consistently plays his Disadvantages every game so he gets 4-5 xp and is pay off his loans. Once the loans are paid, he'll be getting 6-7 XP.

    1. GURPS does vaguely make a stab at assigning social penalties to a disadvantage like Callous, but the problem I have with that (apart from the need to check through every single special case involving every character in every interaction) is that not everybody will respond the same way. Donald Trump seems to have Callous, for instance, or at least pretends that he has, and it creates a negative reaction in me but a positive reaction in his supporters, who admire a hard-talking stance.

      Good solution to the Duty problem, but it's still a hassle for the referee when the adventure is taking place well away from wherever the character's duties apply. Our South China Sea fellow, for example - he's only going to interact with the other characters when on leave in Britain, when RN duties are unlikely to overlap with whatever they're doing. But, since the Duty is worth points, I shall have to bend things to bring it in somehow - maybe a choice between helping the other characters when they really need it or showing up for a dress parade.

    2. I'm getting dragged into my usual tirade against the gnarly nooks of the GURPS system here, so I ought to round this off by saying that my point wasn't so much that the GURPS mental disadvantages are unworkable and silly (they are, but that's a whole other post) but that considering any aspect of role-playing rules can lead one into some very interesting places. Except maybe for alignment!

  6. If the South China Sea thing is uch a pain in the ass playwise, give the guy a transfer to the Home Office in London (or wherever else the other PCs are) and put him on "detached duty" but with the extra things to do in terms of whatever else the adventure of the moment involves.

    1. That character is only an example of the general questions regarding Duties in GURPS. True, you can always move a character into a job/location that makes them accessible. But do you try to think of ways that make the Duty conflict with the current adventure? That's what's implied by the Duty being a disadvantage, but it's a headache to contrive those conflicts and they often bring nothing to the adventure. Multiply by several characters, each with different Duties, and it's just a chore for the referee. But if those Duties hadn't earned extra points, but we're just part of the character being role-played, then they could provide conflicts of interest from time to time without having to be shoehorned in - which is how it should be.

  7. One thing it'd say for your current game is remember that you as the GM aren't on the hook to some "XP loan shark" in terms of Disadvantages. Not every Disadvantage, whether a Duty or not, has to be prominent in every adventure. You've got copies of your PCs' sheets, so just use them when you plan an adventure. If somebody's Duty looks like fun to work in, do it.

    For my part, I'd just "forgive" and drop Disadvantages that aren't being played and dole out compensatory points equal. Just dump the Disadvantages that aren't being played and other give you trouble. Say you forgive 25 points worth of Disadvantages on "Bob" and 15 each on "Carol" and "Ted" but nothing on "Alice." Bob lose 25 points of Ds, Carol and Red lose 15 and gain 10 points to spend while Alice gets 25 to spend. After you assess the new characters, your tailor your opposition to meet their new power level.