Roleplayer
Roleplayer #25, August 1991

Larger Than Life

Point Management for High-Powered Campaigns

by C.J. Carella and Joanne Fry

The standard beginning point value for GURPS characters is 100 points, "hero material." This standard setting is not adequate for all campaigns or players, however. Worldbooks like Special Ops, Cyberpunk and Martial Arts recommend higher beginning values. Under some circumstances, players may complain that to meet the requirements of a campaign they need to optimize their characters in unrealistic ways. And attempts to recreate some fictional characters with 100 points may fall far short of the mark.

Simply giving out more character points will create new problems, however. With 150 or 200 points, character optimizers will have much greater opportunities for abuse. PCs may all end up having DX and IQ at 16 and a couple of skills at level 25. The GM may have to work twice as hard to present new challenges in the game, and balance will go out the window.

This does not have to happen. If the GM thinks things through and establishes some solid ground rules before letting his players have 250 points per character, potential abuses can be prevented. High-point characters, whether cinematic or realistic, can provide an exiting change of pace for players and GM, without becoming unbalancing or abusive. Outlined below are some suggestions that will help minimize the problems outlined above.

"What Do You Need All Those Points For?"

There are many reasons for increasing the point level of a campaign. The most obvious one is, of course, to have more powerful characters. Determining power is not merely a matter of totaling a character's points, however. A 200-point physicist with IQ 20 and scientific skills at 25-30 can be chopped into kindling by a 40-point combat-optimized fighter. The total amount of points a character has is not half as important as where and how those points are spent. This should be determined by the reasons the GM has for allowing more than 100 points for character creation.

A good rule of thumb: if there is no good reason for increasing the point level of a campaign, don't. Dumping extra points on the players for no good reason is a bad idea: potentially abusive players will be able to play with the extra points, to the detriment of the campaign.

Required Advantages

In some campaigns, all the PCs may be required to buy certain advantages. For example, a GM wants to run a GURPS Japan campaign where all the PCs are high-ranking noblemen. This means that the PCs will have to spend a lot of points in Wealth, Status, Patrons and possibly Allies or Ally Groups (see GURPS Conan). Besides having these advantages, however, the PCs should all be capable statesmen, administrators and warriors. One hundred points might be spread too thinly to fulfill all these requirements. In this case, the GM might give the characters 150 points, with the proviso that at least 50 of those points must go into status-oriented advantages. The PCs' attributes and abilities will still be well within the bounds of realism, and they will not have to resort to point-juggling to fulfill the requirements.

Another example: medieval knights need to have 20-30 points in Wealth and Status, but they have been trained since childhood in the use of weapons and horses. A life-time of physical labor should have produced above-average attributes (ST and HT particularly) and good skill levels (13-15). In most cases, 150 to 200 points are necessary to design a credible knight with all required advantages and skills.

In this case, the extra points are going into predetermined areas. The potential for abuse is limited. Still, the PCs are getting more points than usual; the GM must make sure that they are used in the intended way.

Versatility

Some campaigns may require that the PCs are highly proficient in more than one field. For instance, the members of a Special Forces team must all be highly trained fighters and they must be experts in a particular area. The reasoning behind the high point levels allowed in Special Ops is a combination of this and the Required Advantages reason outlined above. Most of those extra points must be spent in Advantages like Military Rank – and on dozens of skills that must be bought at certain levels. In this campaign, the age limit on points spent on skills is usually eliminated. This represents either characters who have been intensively trained, or very experienced adventurers who have already spent a lot of time on the field.

This option is also good for small gaming groups. An adventure designed for six 100-point characters is going to be tougher to complete if there are only three players. Three 150- or 200-point characters, on the other hand, could play roles that would ordinarily be filled by several different characters. For instance, a thief-type would also need to be a strong and tough swordsman, and the mage should be able to carry some armor and be able to swing a blade, because they will not be backed up by two or three fighter-types.

There is more room for misuse if this is the reason for setting a higher starting total. While the characters must be able to do several things well, they can be optimized so they can fulfill the needs of the campaign while leaving plenty of points for unreasonable attribute and skill levels. Attribute control (see below) plays an important part there.

Recreating Fictional Characters

When trying to duplicate fictional characters, players usually feel that 100 points are nowhere near enough. Depending on the world, the average fictional main character has anywhere between 150 to 1,500 points. Conan, for instance, hovers around 500 points. In general, a faithful representation of a fictional hero will need more than 100 points (remember that 100 points represent "hero material," not a full-blown hero).

Fictional characters, on the other hand, tend to be more balanced than an optimized high-point roleplaying character. Conan, for instance, has a much higher ST than DX, something which most optimizers would switch. Many of the extra points fictional heroes would get are distributed in ways that make them more realistic, not more effective. Also keep in mind that most fiction-to-RPG conversions will be highly subjective. Some players would argue that Conan has ST, DX and HT 20; others would say ST 15, DX 12 and HT 12. There is a great deal of leeway, and GMs can control the conversions to suit the campaign.

The Cinematic Campaign

As outlined on p. B183, this campaign type concentrate on great challenges and heroic roleplaying. The goals and obstacles will be larger than life, and the PCs should be equally heroic. These campaigns are the most likely to use a higher point total for characters. Also, point optimization is less likely to unbalance the campaign. Since the PCs will be fighting against almost impossible odds, they will find it harder to take control of the game.

Still, if stats and skills become too inflated, the GM may find himself using modifiers simply to insure the characters do not make every roll. Even a cinematic campaign needs some balance.

Thus, even in this campaign, some restrictions on point allocation may be necessary.

Preventing Point Optimization

Optimizing is a time-honored tradition in some campaigns. The goal is to get the most effective character for the available points. The most extreme optimizer will concentrate totally on effectiveness (effectiveness usually meaning deadliness in combat, although other types of effectiveness, like knowing a bit about everything, is also common) to the detriment of roleplaying. The end result is usually a cardboard cutout with great numbers and the roleplaying potential of a turnip.

Munchkinism can happen at any starting point total. A 100-point fighter with ST 12, DX 17, IQ 10 HT 12, full disadvantages and quirks and ten skills with ½ point spent on each is optimized: in a few playing sessions he will become the terror of the realm, and will make life hard for players with balanced characters (who cannot compete with him) and the GM, who has to devise challenges that the munchkin cannot waltz through and that are not too tough for the rest of the PCs.

The situation only gets worse with more starting points, of course. The suggestions outlined below are designed to prevent this. They assume that at least one of the GM's players will be a munchkin. In a gaming group where this is not a problem, they would be unnecessary. Regulation is required only where abuses exist. Still, the temptation to create super-characters is strong; a good set of home rules will eliminate the problem before it appears.

Attribute Inflation

GURPS relies heavily on the attributes of the characters. In some RPGs, having several attributes at superhuman levels will not greatly affect the performance of a character. GURPS assumes that the inherent physical and mental abilities of the PC will have an immediate impact on his effectiveness. The two attributes for which this is most true are DX and IQ, which form the base for most skills. Munchkins will try to "max out" either or both of those attributes, which will in turn allow them to cheaply acquire a lot of skills at high levels, and to enjoy high defaults in skills they do not have.

Attribute inflation is the most potentially unbalancing problem in a high-point campaign. There are several ways to curtail it, however.

Attribute Ceilings

This solution is suggested in the Basic Set and several worldbooks: limit the number of points that may be spent on basic attributes. The recommended ceilings for different campaigns range from 80 to 150 points. With those totals, it is difficult to buy superhuman attributes levels unless points are concentrated on one stat. The 80-point ceiling is almost too restrictive; the 150-point one leaves a lot of room for maneuvering. 100 points is a happy medium.

By itself, however, a ceiling may not be enough. Even at 80 points, a character may have one stat at 16 and all others at 10. In a Space campaign, he can become the deadliest laser-pistol duellist in the campaign world.

Level Limitation

Another solution is to set a maximum attribute level for the campaign. GURPS Cyberpunk suggests 15 as a maximum. Depending on the campaign, lower or higher limits may be set. This worldbook also recommends allowing only one attribute at the maximum level. The two limitations combined work best.

Or, instead of setting arbitrary limits, the GM could charge an Unusual Background advantage for high attributes. There aren't that many DX 17 people walking around. The high cost of the attribute reflects this, but an additional UB "charge" will reduce the point total of attribute-heavy characters and will encourage the players to spend on skills instead. Attribute fanatics will still have the chance to buy high attributes, but it will cost them.

For example, the GM could require a 10-point UB for every DX or IQ level above 14. If both IQ and DX are above 14, charge an additional 5 points for each. ST and HT, being less influential, can be acquired at any level without any UB (this is not necessarily realistic – ST 18 people are as rare as DX 18 ones – but the objective is to maintain game balance, and a DX 18 character is more abusive than a ST 18 one). So a DX 17, IQ 15 character would effectively have 60 points less than a character with DX 14 and IQ 13, not counting the higher attribute cost: this will balance the high defaults and cheap skills the high-attribute character will get.

The Combination

Setting a point ceiling and attribute maximums or Unusual Background costs will minimize attribute inflation. Most of the extra points will be spent on advantages and skills, which are less likely to be abused.

Advantages and Skills

Advantages are less likely to become unbalancing, but some situations may require regulation. Fighter characters that have Toughness +2, Combat Reflexes and High Pain Threshold might be charged a "killing machine" 10-point UB. With more points for skills, Eidetic Memory becomes a more "profitable" advantage. GMs might forbid the 60-point level (or the whole advantage) or increase the cost accordingly.

Skill levels should be adjusted according to the campaign needs. Johnny One-Skills who concentrate a high percentage of their points on one or two skills should be discouraged. On the other hand, this type of abuse is more easily dealt with during gaming: all the GM needs do is devise situations where the ultra-high skills are not useful, thereby neutralizing the munchkin's unfair advantage and at the same time making his character less effective than his fellow players' more balanced ones.

A Question of Balance

As a last point, it should be remembered that balance is not an indispensable requisite for a good campaign. There are many successful RPGs that seem to thrive on unbalance. The only thing a campaign absolutely needs to be is fun. If you and your players all thoroughly enjoy a campaign where 10,000-point PCs with godlike powers shatter planets with their fists, then there's no problem. It's only when imbalance interferes with the fun of the campaign that the GM needs to step in and lay down the law.

(Back to Roleplayer #25 Table of Contents)


Copyright © 1997-2014 by Steve Jackson Games. All rights reserved.

Steve Jackson Games | GURPS | Roleplayer Index