Thursday, August 18, 2016

Gamemaster's Guidepost: Building Player Characters to the Concept

One thing that I pretty much always do in all games I run is building player characters "to the concept" vs. "on a point budget." As you can imagine, this threw some of my players in my Aeon campaign for a loop. Matter of fact, one player said:

"Wait, you want me to build this character for [X] points and then we negotiate for whatever else I might need?"
"I've...never done that before. How do we go about this?"

After that and a few email exchanges the player had their ideal character - everything they needed, but not everything they wanted. They suggested (along with a few others) to do a blogpost on the process, so here I am...a'posting. Now, I've talked about points and power levels before.

Building to the Concept
GURPS, being a point-based system sets a point budget for starting characters. The idea is that everyone has equal points to the characters should be fairly balanced. While this is somewhat true,as anyone who has run GURPS for any length of time can tell that you can build a murder machine on 150 points and someone who sucks at combat but is wealthy on 300 points. It just all depends. This is why I build "to the concept" vs. a point budget. Point budgets (in my opinion) are only for certain games or styles: Horror, Dungeon Fantasy, etc. They act as an artificial constraint forcing you to buy certain things and create your character a certain way. And this is fine, but the types of campaigns I tend to run are very much in the cinematic way (as in, it feels like a movie or TV show). This necessitates another way of building characters, a method involving the give and take between the GM and the player.

The Basic Rules
The GM needs to decide what point range his campaign will span. In general, 50% in either direction is good for most campaigns, but superhero or fantasy games can go well above that! You still need to decide on a point budget - this represents the average player character in your game. THis range of points is called "the Tolerance."

For example, the GM may decide to run an Avengers-like game. He decides the average point budget is going to 1,000 points, with a minimum of 500 points and a maximum of 2,500 points. That's a range of 50% to 250%, with an average of 1,000 points. The GM tells everyone to start with a 1,000 points and go from there.

Concept: Give and Take
Next, the GM should get with all players (individually or together) and ask them for as detailed a pitch as they can give about their character. This assumes that all are mature, responsible gamers, not point-counting munchkins! The GM should then ask as many questions as possible (having a set list of questions is a good idea!) about each concept and request modifications so that the character better fits the campaign and his vision of the world. This sort of give and take from the get-go ensures that all player characters are appropriate to the campaign and that the players are happy with their characters.

Next, each player lists "What The Character Must Have," "What He Needs," What He'd Like," and "What Would Be Cool."

What You Must Have
These traits are imperative to your character concept. You cannot adequately portray the character concept without them. This is like flour, eggs, sugar, and milk when baking a cake. You can't have a cake without it.

What You Need
These are traits that help your character concept come to life. You could live without them, but the character would be as much fun. This is like vanilla flavoring or shortening when baking a cake. You can make one without it...but it might not taste too good.

What You'd Like
These are traits that would be useful and help you with your character concept, but they're not integral to it. They're like icing on a cake. It makes it taste good, but you can still eat the cake without it.

What Would Be Cool
These are traits that would enhance your concept, but aren't really needed at all. They're like sprinkles on your cake. Sprinkles are awesome...but they're sprinkles. You don't need them to enjoy good cake.

Finalizing the Character
Once you have all this information you start the process of GM-Player negotiation you help the player finalize his character. This usually involves tweaking the character a bit, adjusting attributes, skills, etc. Once the character sheet is finalized, the GM checks to make sure that the character's point budget hasn't exceeded his "tolerance range." Afterward, it's like building any other character in GURPS.

Picking Over the Bones
When it comes down to it, this sort of character creation feels like it belongs in a more freeform or indie game, but it works so well in GURPS if you let it. It's basically the only way I run games anymore. It lets my players do the things they want and it gives me control over exactly what is being done. This combines to create a perfectly delicious gaming sandwich: you get the free form creation along with the near-perfect game mechanics of GURPS.


  1. I love using concept building for character creation. It works best if the players and GM are all relatively experienced so they have an idea of where to look in GURPS. But, I've been thinking about how to make the process more explicit in order to make it easier for new players and GMs.

    In my experience, I can get players to a pretty decent character build if they can give me 3 or 4 bullets of character concept. Less than 3, and the character feels flat. More than 4 is possible, but it requires a more experienced player in order to keep all those aspects of the character in mind.

    So, I'd add that participants who are newer to concept-based character building should articulate three or four "hooks" for their character, which will form the basis of the "must have" and "need" categories.

    Does that number range match with your experience?

    1. *Sometimes* Occasionally, it's more or less depending on the concept or the campaign.

  2. Chris, great post! I've always preferred the concept style of character building over points or random, like the old TSR Marvel RPG. Great way to describe how to do this in GURPS.

    1. Thanks. I was considering giving a running example, but I felt it was clear enough to just go as is. :-)

      Seems lots of folks like certain parts of freeform/indie RPGs, but love other parts of GURPS. Something in there, me thinks.