Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Gamemaster's Guidepost: I Put a Spell on You



Note: I commented on a forum thread about the Cursed disadvantage a while back and though I'm loathe to do a lot of cross-posting, I think this is one of the times I just swallow that bitter pill and do it. I've added a bit to my thoughts from there.

"Soooo... you're that brave bastard who wants to take the Cursed disadvantage for your PC. Hold on, I need to put my Party Hat on, 'cause this is gonna be fun." No, I don't say that aloud when a player asks me about Cursed...but I think it. For -75 points you too can be screwed with by the GM like he was an 11-year old GMing DnD for the first time. Well, it's not always like that. Sometimes there is a damn good reason for a player character to have Cursed I've been running GURPS for about...ummm, 17 years (off and on at first and then near-exclusively since 2006). In that time I've been in games where people have taken Cursed, but only ran three games where someone had it. All 4th edition. In each of those games it was taken by three different players who knew fully what they were getting into. They were in it for the story - not the points.
         One had committed a awful crime and was cursed by his strega grandmother to "suffer without equal" in order to keep the rest of his family from killing him. The player took it all in stride and when he finally atoned the curse came back one more time and he died while making sure the other characters escaped a trap that should have killed them all.

         One was just "born under a bad sign" and made it through twenty-three sessions before the player said "I need to retire this character," which I agreed to. We'd talked about possible outs, but eventually we came up with a EPIC way for his character to go out and to help restart a flagging campaign. Basically, the character committed suicide - something he'd never do under any circumstances. My other players grew obsessed with finding out why and after nearly twenty sessions they discovered there was no "why." Stuff just happens sometimes. It didn't help that the player absolutely refused to explain why when they questioned him about it (for nearly 6 months he did that!). It added a hint of normalcy to a otherwise gonzo game.
         The last was a dwarven warrior who betrayed his oaths and got his entire clan killed - he ran away when they needed him most and the gods cursed him. He actually got it removed after he faced his fears, helped take back his homeland, and freed his remaining kin who "languished in durance vile," but he was one-armed, dragon-scarred, and broken by the end.

Cursed is a perfect role-playing tools as long as a) your players know what they are getting into; b) the disadvantage was taken as part of the character concept - not for the point value; and c) the GM is willing to handle it as it can be time consuming and annoying when done right. A few examples of Cursed in play might be...

  • "Oops, you forgot to reload. You're out of ammo - so's you're backup. Time to scrap." 
  • "Your car catches on fire - one in a million factory defect. You need to bail out going 40 mph or take burning damage." 
  • "Sure, you made your Active Defense roll, but your shield breaks." 
  • "You have a magnificent night with the woman of your dreams...but it turns out she was looking for a one-night stand - and she's married - also her husband is the governor and knows what you did. Cheers."
  • "You slayed the dragon. Just then its mate arrives with a few friends."
  • "Oh. Look. A grenade. *sounds of explosions*"
  • "The beer is delightful and has a sharp tangy aftertaste. Before you can articulate why, the bar maid you left at the altar tells you she poisoned you right before you pass out saying "I drank what?""
  • "You walk into a gas station and everything is fine until a nervous-looking guy walks in and screams "Stick your hands up! This is a robbery!" but not before the clerk fires off several rounds from his shotgun getting the robber and you. Make a HT roll."
  • "It starts raining, but due to a strange quirk in the local climate it only rains on you. People observing this get weirded out by what's happening."
...and so on. Basically, your character is Peter Parker - just without cool spidy powers. But how far should you go? You ever have a terrible GM? Just a godawful jerk with a chip on his shoulder but no one wants to GM so he's stuck doing it and he resents everyone for it? We've all met that guy or at least heard about him. Imagine what that guy would do - then go one step beyond that. I use that methodology and just so the game isn't "all about" the Cursed character I roll a 1d6+1 and that's how many times the character gets screwed that session - and they build up (I tell the player straight up "Something bad is going to happen X times - remember to remind me if I forget"). A few guidelines for mishaps using these "curse points" might be...
  • 1 curse point: Something believable and probable happens that's inconvenient - but not dangerous or at least too dangerous (car breaks down, the merchant does not have what you are looking for and really need no matter what, instant Poor reaction roll, etc.)
  • 2 curse points: Something believable, but outre happens (gun jams in a firefight, grenade you just threw is a dud, you get confused by the police as some wanted criminal, etc.)
  • 3 curse points: Something unbelievable happens (your car catches fire while you're in it, a turkey falls on your head from a airplane transporting it from above - you get a Active Defense at -4, everything you own is damaged from what the insurance company calls a "act of God" or "force majore," and so on)




Picking Over the Bones
I've never had even one complaint when I frame it like that to the player and it turns something that's normally "Nah, I'm good" into "Maybe...if the character is right for it." It's like Weirdness Magnet (which I really need to do a post on too) - it can WORK, but you gotta make it work for you. If you the GM don't want to enforce the disadvantage the way it has to be to be worth its cost you should flat out disallow it. If a player is taking it because he gets a huge boost in points you make sure he realizes that he's going to get screwed several times a game. But more than that, the GM has to be prepared to make sure that the cursed one doesn't become the center of attention detracting from other players. It's one of the reasons why I came up with my "curse point" system - this allows the GM to make sure the player is getting the full impact of his disadvantage without becoming a spotlight hog.

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