Gamemaster’s Guidepost: Metagame Traits or Impulse Buys?

“It’s all in the reflexes!” Maybe, most likely on your character sheet it’s “all in Ridiculous Luck.” GURPS has quite a few “metagaming” character traits that allow you (the player) the ability to influence a character’s outcomes. Call it Player Agency, “being the star,” or whatever – having these traits allow you to change the narrative so that it’s more advantageous to your character. Like, +Douglas Cole, I often find inspiration for my blog by scouring the forums and finding something interesting. In this case, Anders started a thread “Luck or Impulse Points” asking which he should use for a low-powered campaign he’s starting. I won’t lie, I’m a bit biased, when GURPS Power-Ups 5: Impulse Buys came out I quite literally whooped and jumped for joy. One of the things I always liked about GURPS 4th edition (and other “action point” game systems like Shadowrun) was the “Influencing Success Rolls” rule from GURPS Basic Set: Campaigns. My players just ate that rule up whole, they loved it. I even came up with a base system for “Karma” that allowed players to expend “karma points” to do the same things that you could with unspent character points – it mirrored GURPS Power-Ups 5 quite a bit in that way. I’ve since revised it to work with with the existing cannon and I might get it published or release it here one day. Anyways, as a GM, what should you use for your campaign? Both methods have their strengths and weaknesses.

Metagame Traits
GURPS has several metagame traits and they all do different things depending on which one you purchase.

Luck allows you to reroll a die roll to try and get a better one. Serendipity let’s you influence the narrative by having something “good” happen to your character. Daredevil let’s you take insane risks and possibly profit by them. Destiny ensures your character has a “good” ending. Visualization gives you a bonus to die rolls for a particular action. Super Luck is nothing less than direct manipulation of reality.

Unluckiness causes one bad thing to happen to you every game session. Cursed means the GM can hose you maliciously whenever he likes because…well…you’re cursed. Destiny ensures your character has a “bad” ending. Weirdness Magnet gets a bad rap as “easy points,” but really…it isn’t, not if the GM is doing his job right. But that’s a whole other can of worms we’re not going to get into.

Strengths of Metagame Traits

  • They’re self-contained, basically what’s on the label is what’s in the jar.
  • They’re in the Basic Set and need no additional book.
  • They allow specialization of specific feats. If you want lots of rerolls, buy Luck. If you want deus ex machina, buy Serendipity, and so on.
  • They allow for “bad luck” in the form of disadvantages like Unluckiness.
  • Some traits have a “Wishing” enhancement allowing you to affect others with your gifts, though this tends to cause them to turn into more character-oriented “luck powers” than keeping them as a metagame trait.

Weaknesses of Metagame Traits

  • They’re limited in what they can do. 
  • They’re expensive/cheap for what they do.

Impulse Points
Impulse points are discussed briefly on p. 18 of GURPS Power-Ups 5 under Other Kinds of Points. Basically, they function as unspent character points, but recharge from session to session. The GM can either give a out certain amount for “free” or have players buy them. The cost is 5/level if they refresh at a rate of 1 point/session or 10/level if they refresh fully every session. Like character points you can spend them on anything from Impulse Buys (except new traits) and allow you to do a large number of things. If the GM likes, he can also allow different kinds of Impulse Points in the form of “Destiny Points,” “Wildcard Points,” and so on (see p. 18 of Impulse Buys). This might confuse things however.

Strengths of Impulse Points

  • They’re flexible.
  • They’re a single trait (they don’t clutter a character sheet up).
  • They work like unspent character points so you don’t need to learn separate rules for different traits.

Weaknesses of Impulse Points

  • They require a lot of work on the part of the GM because he’s going to have to figure out which Impulsive Feats he’s allowing – and which ones he is not.
  • There are no disadvantageous version of Impulse Points. You can buy down or choose not to buy Impulse Points, but there is no version of Unluckiness in the system

Picking Over the Bones
I personally think that if you’re going to allow Impulse Points you should disallow all other metagame traits. THis makes it easier on you as a GM and your players. In the past I’ve used “Disadvantageous Impulses” by creating a disadvantage that’s worth the same amount as Impulse Points to fill the one gap I think there is in the system. Such a trait is used for your antagonists and should affect you more than your allies and are functionally identically to those gained from a Disadvantageous Destiny (see p. 5 of Impulse Buys). Heck, you can have both positive and negative Impulse Points because while they do the same thing, they do it differently. You could for instance have “Impulse Points (2 positive, 1 negative) [10]” meaning you get two Impulse points to spend on things…but your GM gets 1 to spend against you. Another thing I’ve done in the past is to allow multipliers depending on how deep in the plot the players are. If they are ultimately supposed to defeat the undefeatable fortress then making each Impulse Points count as two or giving them two extra at the beginning of the session is going to ensure that happens. On the flip side, if something is supposed to be difficult you can out and out disallow Impulse Point spending or make them count as a fraction of what they are (“Sorry, but for this session each Impulse Point counts as only a half a point.”) – just make sure you do such things as evenly as possible. Overall, I’d use Impulse Points because of their flexibility and I’ve completely disallowed metagame traits in my campaigns except as “probability manipulation,” it works better I think.

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  1. I think it'd be easy to institute a negative version of impulse buys, but you'd have to change the assumptions of the system. If players can purchase successes with their unspent character points, GMs should be able to "purchase" failures with character points, giving them to a player in return for flubbing their roll with a GM Fiat.

    To keep character values from inflating, though, you'd probably have to reduce the amount they normally get each session.

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