Steve Jackson Games GURPS – Generic Universal RolePlaying System

Commentary: A New Way to Look at Character Points

by Scott Paul Maykrantz – posted 11-11-90


(Note from SJ: The opinions in this article are far enough off the GURPS mainstream that they didn't seem appropriate for ROLEPLAYER. On the other hand, it's an interesting piece, and makes some good points – so here it is.)


The GURPS system has a few flaws when it comes to Character Points (CPs hereafter). As we all know, CPs are used to calculate the value of a character, a sum that allows us to compare the overall ability of one character to the overall ability of another. A 100-point character is considerably more capable than a 25-point character.

But there are other uses of CPs in GURPS, uses which add needless complications to an otherwise simple, comprehensive game system.

For Example . . .

In Roleplayer #13, the "GURPS Q & A" section included a deceptively tricky question. It concerned a character being unaffected by his Enemy if he were placed in an environment in which the Enemy could not get to him. The advice was to "give the player an equivalent Enemy in his new setting." But what if the adventure's plot doesn't include an equivalent Enemy? If you add the new Enemy, you will have to alter your adventure to fit the rules. But shouldn't the rules fit the adventure instead?

A better answer to the question would be to play the adventure in the new environment and ignore the Enemy disadvantage until the character gets back to his original setting. The character is simply worth more Character Points. If the Enemy was worth -20 points and the character is normally worth 100 points in his original setting, he is now worth 120 points in the new setting. Another Example of Needless Complications

Let's say you are the Game Master of a GURPS Fantasy campaign. One of the players has a a character named Theo, a young mercenary. Theo has encountered and befriended a master swordsman NPC, Sir Darius. Theo and Sir Darius get along so well that Sir Darius offers to train Theo in the Broadsword skill. As the adventures continue, the master swordsman teaches his student during every available moment, spending many late nights practicing.

After six weeks (game time) and several adventures, Theo has had more than enough lessons to warrant an increase in his Broadsword skill. Theo's skill level is already rather high – to reach the next level, he must invest 8 Character Points. But he has earned only 3 CP since his training began.

Logically, Theo's skill *should* increase – he has had enough training. But he doesn't have the CP to spend. The usual solution to this problem is to allow Theo to "owe" CPs; Theo acquires the higher skill level and spends what CPs he has. The difference is "owed."

But what happens when you compare Theo's CP value to the CP value of another character? Suppose Theo runs into a rival mercenary, a fighter who has chased him across the continent to settle an old score? As the GM, you'll want to compare Theo's total CP value against the rival mercenary's CP value, to make sure the fight between the two characters is fair and fun. Do you add the "owed" CPs to Theo's total CP value, or not?

This may seem rather trivial, but consider the number of player characters in your campaign. A campaign with five active PCs might force you to list five different CP values, and an additional five "owed CP" values.

The situation becomes even more complex when attributes are increased during play. To improve an attribute, you must "spend character points equal to *twice* the beginning point-cost difference between the old score and the new one" (p. B81). So, if Theo were to increase his current ST 13 to ST 14, he would have to spend 30 CPs. But this expenditure only increases his total CP value by 15 CPs. If Theo's player used those 30 CPs on any other character improvement (buying off a disadvantage, improving a skill, increasing a level of an advantage, etc.), he would improve Theo's value by 30 CPs, not just 15.

A New Way Of Looking At CPs

Is there a solution? Try this:

For Game Masters, ignore any use of CPs *except* when you are comparing the overall ability of one character to another, or when a player creates a new character (which usually happens at the start of the campaign or when a dead PC is replaced). This completely eliminates the use of CPs as "experience points"; see below.

As a GM, you have to make sure your adventures are challenging to your players – not too easy, not too difficult. CPs are useful in this regard. (Of course, you won't use CPs all the time when you design the basic difficulty of an adventure – some challenges such as traps, riddles, and use of logic cannot be compared to a CP value.)

Players, on the other hand, should ignore any use of CPs except when designing a new Player Character. As a player, you will have to count CPs when the GM tells you to "create a 100-point character" for the campaign. But, once you have introduced the character to the ongoing game, you don't ever have to look at CP values again!

Skills, skill levels, attribute levels, advantages, and disadvantages are changed by playing the game by events that occur during play. Each increase in overall character ability requires lots of adventuring – not a bad price to pay! Each change alters the total CP value of the character, which the GM will use to make sure the opponents they run up against are equal to their ability. The players do not have to "earn" CPs – they just play themselves into situations that will improve their characters.

Use the Improvement Through Study rules of pp. B82-83. If you use the suggestions in this article, ignore the first sidebar on p. B81 (but use the second sidebar on that page). And change the cost for improvement of attributes on p. B81 – they shouldn't cost *twice* the difference of the beginning value and the new value; they should only cost the difference.

Instead of trading earned CPs for money (p. B83), allow players to occasionally collect a sum of money when they need it – when the player tries to abuse this good fortune, refuse the privilege. You can use the Quick Learning Under Pressure rules in Roleplayer #18, but ignore any references to "earned CPs" – the character that Learns Quickly just increases his total CP value. Advantages and Disadvantages

Don't try to juggle CPs when advantages or disadvantages change. If your character is wounded from a grenade and loses some of his hearing, he will have the Hard of Hearing disadvantage. The effect on the character's total CP value is listed with the description of the disadvantage (-10 in this case). Does this give you extra points to spend on skills? No. Does the new disadvantage have the same value as it would if you bought it when you first created the character? Yes.

If you acquire a new advantage (you might have that loss of hearing replaced with bionic ears that give you a +4 to all hearing rolls), don't pay for it with earned CPs. Simply increase the value of your character. By acquiring the new advantage, your character is worth more CPs – now his opponents and challenges will be proportionately more difficult.

If this "free increase" in character development makes you uneasy, note that the average adventurer will acquire new disadvantages (decreasing his overall CP value) more often than he has occasions to acquire new advantages. For every opportunity the PC encounters to improve his Acute Hearing or Charisma, he'll run into over a dozen events that can cause him to take a new disadvantage – he could have only One Hand after being defeated in a sword fight, become Addicted to a rare drug after being injected by a villain, or battle a Thing Man Was Not Meant to Know and survive with a Phobia of Monsters.

The Wealth advantage is particularly easy to handle using this new outlook on CPs. Adventurers are notoriously mercurial when it comes to their financial health – one day they are poor and looking for work, and the next they have discovered incredible treasures, making them rich! By ignoring the use of CPs as payment for character development, you change the overall CP value of an adventurer who has found the mother lode.

This means that a 50-point street urchin PC who saves the princess and is crowned Prince of the Realm as a reward will go from Dead Broke (-25 points) to Filthy Rich (50 points) in one fell swoop. Now the street urchin is worth 125 points! The GM should design this character's next adventure with the new CP value in mind – now that the former street urchin is Filthy Rich, he can take a small army of bodyguards with him everywhere, hire a mage to teach him how to cast spells, etc.

Of course, these solutions won't work well unless the players and the GM have a certain degree of maturity. Everyone should be playing to have fun, not for competitive reasons. If your players love to try to "cheat the system," you'll have to stick with the use of earned CPs and the other needless complications. What About Experience Points?

Handing out "experience points" at the end of a gaming session and/or adventure is part of nearly every RPG system. Should GURPS require the use of CPs as "experience points?" No. Here are three reasons. Make Character Development Part of the Adventure

Most Game Masters require players to place their characters *into* the situation that allows the character to improve himself. As illustrated in the example with Theo and Sir Darius, if you want to increase your Broadsword skill, you have to find someone who knows it and will teach you. And if your space pirate is going to increase his Running skill by using ultra-tech training equipment, he has to have enough money to pay for the equipment (or to rent time to use it). He also has to get to the planet where this training equipment is located.

Do you let your players get away with character improvements just because they have the CP to spend? If you do, you could be missing out on some great opportunities for adventure. If you are going to play the adventure, why not play the *other* exciting events in the character's life? Make the process of finding a teacher and learning from that teacher an adventure in itself! This can be the reason the player characters started the adventure – they were looking for a tutor!

The opportunities for improvement should become more rare as the campaign continues. As the PC get stronger, smarter, and more adept at their chosen skills, they should find fewer places to study and fewer tutors with greater skills than their own. This is a logical limitation to character development – soon, the PCs will be forced to improve through self-taught lessons (see sidebar, p. B83). Players Don't Need a Reward for Playing

Do players need a reward after each adventure to keep playing? Of course not. Everyone plays roleplaying games to have fun, not just to see how many "points" they can "score." Well, almost everyone . . .

But won't this get out of hand? Without limits on development, every player will just say "my character spends ten months with his personal tutor, training intensely." Can he get away with it? Only if you let him.

As a GM, your job is to make sure the players have fun. If they can get away with anything, they will get bored very soon. The game isn't fun when it is not a challenge. Remind the players that Broadsword-26 will only make combat trivial, totally lacking in excitement. Any time spent training is time that could be spent adventuring. While the PC is training for ten months on a remote island, the rest of the world can go through a lot of changes. When he gets back, he might wish he had spent less time away. Character Conception

Characters in GURPS campaigns are based on conceptions, not point engineering. After a few improvements, additional changes are impossible without reworking the basic conception of the character.

For example, suppose a player has a pirate character in a Swashbucklers campaign, Blackie de Vega. Blackie is strong but clumsy, with a full set of seaman-related skills and combat skills, but little knowledge in other areas. He's tough (high HT), not too bright (IQ 9), and has several "fatal flaw" disadvantages that fit his character type (Compulsive Carousing, Bully, etc.). After Blackie's current skills reach level 15+ and his ST and HT are 18 or more, few changes are possible without altering his basic nature. His disadvantages are part of his personality, part of his "charm," so they can't be removed. Blackie wouldn't learn other skills – he doesn't have a need for any skills he doesn't already have. So Blackie's player no longer seeks to improve Blackie . . . and the campaign continues.

In addition, a character can quickly "outgrow" his genre as his CP value increases. In a SUPERS campaign, this is not a problem – if you start with a 500-point character, adding another 100 points will not change that character so much that he becomes invincible (especially is he fights 750-point villains). But in almost every other genre, an extra 100 CPs will change a lot. If the GM is running a "100-point character" fantasy campaign, is there room for one 200-point PC when the others are worth only 100 points? To avoid this, feel free to discontinue the development of a PC when the character's conception is threatened.


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