Gamemaster’s Guidepost: Starting Point Totals

Want to strike fear into the icy heart of any GURPS GM? Say the following words: Starting. Point. Totals. What I’m about to say is probably going to be viewed heretical by some, but in my experience running GURPS, it seems to be true. Point totals DO NOT MEASURE CAPABILITY/POWER. Trying to use point totals to equate to raw power is a holdover of many gamers, thanks to leveled/class systems and our D&D days. It would be nice to be able to say that 25 points equal X amount of effectiveness…but you just can’t do that within a game system that allows as much freedom as GURPS does. This can be an utter nightmare for new GMs and is part of the reasoning behind Action, Dungeon Fantasy, and Monster Hunters. Those game lines intentionally pare down what is allowed and puts it into bit-sized manageable chunks. If you’re a newbie GM – try running one of those lines as one of your first GURPS games, you’ll thank me later. Even there, you can only guesstimate at power/capability. Again, this is because of the sheer freedom/flexibility of the GURPS game engine – you can do anything and being able to do anything makes it hard to figure how a given character build might react in any situation. I’ve seen others try to cobble a system together (and the closest I ever found to a workable system is what Nymdok eventually came up with on the forums as well as Matt Riggsby’s N-notation from GURPS Dungeon Fantasy Adventure 1: Mirror of the Fire Demon) – most of the time they just don’t work.

         This means that deciding what your starting point total for a campaign is  going to be problematic. The rules on p. B487 are more like guidelines, rather than hard and fast rules. This ends up making some GMs choose the wrong point total for their campaign and then beating their heads against the wall when they can’t make it work. For example, p. B487 lists “Heroic Levels” as 100 to 200 points – most GMs see this, and they think “Heroic? John MacClane, Aragon, whatever.” It’s not helpful that the next line (Larger-than-Life) goes on to list action movies, kung-fu flicks, and “leading” roles within film, fiction, video games, or whatever media floats your boat. In my experience, most people skip that next line thinking they can pull off what they’ve seen in movies with 100 to 200 points and really, you just can’t. Not unless there are a ton of optional Cinematic rules turned on (but that’s an entirely other ball of wax). Suffice it to say that when most GMs think “Movie X” or “Novel Y” they are thinking “I can build these guys on 150 points.” Again, this leads to GM frustration and wanton modification of the rules to fit the game engine to the inspirational source. This never ends well, not when you decide to go about reducing the point costs of traits, making things work differently than they were intended without a thorough playtest (though if that’s the point of the game – full speed ahead! New rules demand games to test them in), etc. What always boggles me is this: If you’re going to modify the game engine so it fits the source material due to what is perceived to be inflated point totals…why not just give the points to begin with? Why make your life as a GM more complicated then it needs to be? The answer is usually “game balance!” however, that tends not to hold up well when you’re breaking something that works and turning it into something that may not work. I guess what this whole post is try to say is this: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Want to run a cool Space Opera Barsoom-style campaign? Don’t limit your players to 150 point characters. Give them the points they need to emulate the fiction. I promise you, as a GM, as a game designer, as someone who has been telling stories for a long time, you won’t be sorry. So again, emulate the source of fiction using the game engine – don’t try to make the game engine emulate the source. That’s just asking for trouble. Finally, don’t try to keep the point totals of characters the same after the game begins. That too, is asking for trouble. After a GURPS game begins it becomes the “Who’s Line Is It Anyway?” of RPGs – that is, the points don’t matter (and they don’t).

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  1. I'm not clear on what you're trying to say here. It seems to start off as 'point totals don't tell you much about the effectiveness of your character' and then switch to 'point totals determine the effectiveness of your character, but you may need more points then the core books suggest.'

    On another point, reading this has made me realize that one reason I've been leery of DF is that my experience with D&D has taught me that more powerful characters means exponentially more complicated bookkeeping for the DM. Would you say this is true for GURPS, or not?

  2. Apparently, this post could use more clarity. The only point I was trying to get across, well the major point was this: Don't try to emulate Batman on 250 points. Don't try to play Mal on 100 points. You see? I see this mistake all the time. "I want to run GURPS Firefly!" Cool. Awesome. GURPS can do that. But don't then turn around and say, "But you're all starting at 100 points – for balance." It just doesn't work. As for your second question, GURPS front-loads complexity. It may take you 2-4 hours to make a good character (or about 90 minutes now with all the DF supplements), but once that's done bookkeeping is a BREEZE. If you haven't tried DF – please do, it's a wonderful framework that really does emulate the old feel of games. Also, go buy my stuff. For reasons. 😉

  3. I maintain that DF characters for a "beer and pretzels" style can be made in 30 minutes, then refined during the first session. This makes 'em great for beer and pretzels as well as a "disposable heroes" style of play — with higher character death tolls.

    That said, I've seen this as well. The best campaign solution I ever found was in a "sidekick" game. The main character was a minor lordling complete with a small landhold. Every PC was built on 150 points + whatever social advantages made sense. This allowed "balance" in PC's personal abilities, yet built in imbalance in social standing. Of course real balance doesn't even exist in character creation. One of the PCs was the village smith. Strong guy, sure, good at his job, sure. But far, far less combat effective than the warrior types without a specific "niche".

    It required quite a bit of effort to find a niche. Eventually, given that everyone else played some type of warrior or wizard, we developed the smith's "peasantness" — that is, his ability to talk to more common folk in a way that the fighters and wizards just couldn't. Interestingly, this worked and worked well. So really, so long as "strong guy" and "peasant-ish" guy were preserved, his point value did not matter.

    That's the big point — there needs to be a role for every character. Point total doesn't matter so long as it doesn't feel like their characters are just standing in the shadow of the other PCs. They need something to do that keeps the player engaged. And if there's going to be a significant amount of combat, they need to have fun with it even if they aren't the best at it.

    I've played 100 point starting characters (in 3e) alongside 300+ point characters in a long standing campaign. I still had fun because I was playing a ranger, and although several of the characters had tracking at the same level as I did, they weren't equipped for scouting, nor could they be in two places as once. In some sense, because my newer PC was the "disposable" new guy looking to prove himself, I had plenty to do, and some of the challenges really required that I know when to run — which I did.

    That style of play works, too. But it's harder, since some of the other characters could do everything I could just as well, yet it wasn't their primary role. So long as the rest of the players and the GM realized that I, the new player with the much weaker PC, needed something to do, it worked well (and they all did). Good times were had by all, and they came in to save the day for their new hireling.

    That said, 100 points, 200 points, or even 300 points aren't going to allow you to be Rambo…

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