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Friday, 10 August 2018

Bundles of neuroses

The other night I got a close-up view of a massacre.

Not in real life, thankfully. It was the finale of a Victorian-era campaign I’d been running for over a year. The player-characters caught up with some people who were responsible for a series of horrible deaths in the name of mad science.

The PCs found the scientists unarmed at an Arctic base and they blew them away in cold blood. An old man, a woman, and a child who happened to be in the way. One of them shot in the back, too.

So they saved the world, but in hunting monsters they had indeed become monsters themselves.

Now, I’m not complaining. I love that the heroes of the piece might turn out to be stone killers. Afterwards I mentioned to the players that refereeing a session like that like is having a front row seat at a really gripping movie, but actually it’s much better. Movies these days, impressive though they may be with their CGI-candy, too often lay themselves down in the well-worn story patterns taught in screenwriting classes, like old dogs with a favourite spot before the fire. I want to be surprised, even shocked. I want characters who act in unexpected, complex, and non-trope-driven ways. For that you need a roleplaying game.

There’s a but. We use GURPS for most of our games these days. The reason is that 4th edition is well-designed (at the core anyway; all the special cases slightly break it) and has the breadth to cover everything. The characters go to buy hunting rifles for their trip to Norway, or need to check fatigue for trekking through a marsh in a thunderstorm. Fine, there are rules already written for that, so I can just focus on the game.

The trouble is that GURPS doesn’t easily make provision for the character who develops in an unexpected direction. You have to set out everything about the character before you start playing them. In the case of my campaign, one of the characters had Honesty, which in GURPS 4e doesn’t just mean an inability to lie but indicates that you are rigidly law-abiding and, says the rulebook, “you may never commit murder”. Yet that PC did commit murder in a form that should appall any Victorian gentleman. And so did others of the PCs who had traits like Code of Honour (Gentleman’s), which in GURPS are classed as mental disadvantages and are worth extra character points.

I wouldn’t want to straitjacket the players by forcing them to stick to the stereotypes encouraged by the GURPS rules. Enforcing that would be barely any advance on D&D's boneheaded alignment system. As I said, the fun is in seeing the surprising yet inevitable way players respond to their experiences. Bloody and brutal murder seems inconceivable in the lounge of the Reform Club, but out on the rim of the Empire Victorian and Edwardian gentlemen had their own Mỹ Lais. How dull if a player had to say, “My character sheet has Law-Abiding for -10 points so I stop before committing the murder.” Might as well just let the sheet turn up and play the game, in that case.

Diehard GURPS players will say this is already catered for by the rules. You can spend future character points to buy off those mental disadvantages that no longer apply. But… ugh. That’s spreadsheeting, not roleplaying.

This is of course the old debate about how PCs should be created, which was discussed in some detail by Tim Harford in a guest post on this very blog.
“This discussion has been called ‘DAS vs DIP,’ or ‘Design At Start’ versus ‘Develop In Play’. GURPS is both the archetypal design system, and the classic method of producing full formed characters. I turned my mind to the problem of Develop In Play with GURPS characters and it turns out to be almost impossible to do this without chucking out the whole character system. Many other systems turn out to be strange hybrids in which—for instance—attributes are rolled, but skills are chosen within some kind of budget. This is less logical, but fits much better with a Develop in Play approach.”
The sensible answer is simply not to allow mental disadvantages in the game. As Tim said in his referee notes at the start of the Redemption campaign:
“GURPS mental disadvantages are all caricatures, so I want to avoid using them. This will save us all the hassle of dealing with the inevitable string of stubborn, overconfident, impulsive characters with pirate codes of honour. Another reason to avoid the official mental disadvantages is that characters tend to settle in over time, and the original set of disadvantages tend to be inappropriate.”
To which I would add that mental disadvantages, because they are slapped down on a sheet before you begin to inhabit your character, usually get forgotten anyway. I’ve lost track of the number of times players have said, “Oh, I forgot to tell you I have Claustrophobia. I probably should have mentioned that in the mines back there,” or, “Would my PTSD flashbacks have had any effect when we had that desperate gunfight three sessions ago?”

So my ruling from now on is that nobody will get points for mental disadvantages. Bad traits are part of the fun of playing the character. They’re their own reward; you shouldn’t get points for them. And in any case, characters need to be free to change, otherwise we’re allowing the gaming side of the hobby to smother the roleplaying.


  1. Isn't this just another way of saying "Merits and Flaws systems suck"?

    1. I'm not so much against the physical merits/flaws. You have to start somewhere with a character. It's the idea of defining the personality of a PC through rules, and having to set those before you start playing, that I don't think works.

    2. I rather liked the way that World of Darkness did Flaws in their first edition. They don't give you character points initially. They instead give you experience points that you can use to improve your character but only if they come up in play in a way that actively causes trouble for the character. If you don't raise or play the Flaw, you don't get extra XP (and the GM will eventually just remove the Flaw if it isn't played often enough).

    3. That does sound better, and I might try using it for GURPS physical disadvantages. If I ever run a game using GURPS again, that is. Currently Sagas of the Icelanders is doing everything I need with a lot less fuss.

  2. Would you ever care to share a pic from one of these sessions Dave? Without unnecessary invasion of privacy, it would be a great peek into how you run these.

    1. I'll get somebody to snap a pic at our next session, Michael. It's nothing very exciting to look at, though, just a bunch of guys (and sometimes a girl) sitting around a table with some dice.