GURPS Rules for Cinematic Play
by Chad Underkoffler
A common (but debatable) complaint about the GURPS system is that it doesn't adequately permit highly cinematic or four-color play, or to do so, require ridiculously large point values. This article provides suggested rules to address those debated points. If you're interested in cinematic play with frenetic action and four-color heroics, look no further!
CP! (Cinematic Points!)
The first change from the standard procedure is to award character points throughout a session, in addition to the normal experience awards at the end of an adventure. These points can be saved as usual for character advancement, or can be spent in play to generate a number of high-octane effects by the players in a cinematic campaign. When used in this fashion, character points are called Cinematic Points! (CP!s), and the player can shift the odds to his character's (or even another's) benefit, change the circumstances of a situation, or boost a character's abilities for the duration of an action or scene. While the GM has the final approval or veto of a CP! expenditure, it is recommended that the GM allow any change that does not utterly or irreparably damage the playing experience. So long as the change is fun and not illogical or incongruous (in the GM's opinion), it should be fair game.
GMs should not generally use this ability for NPCs, except in the case of Master Villains (and that to a limit of 3 CP!s per session, usually for escape or survival). However, players are free to use CP!s to affect NPCs, again subject to GM approval.
A fun way to represent earned CP!s is a physical token. A particular color or type of die, paper clips, pennies, glass beads, go stones, checkers, pretzel sticks, Oreos, etc.; any reasonably uniform token will do. A token will:
- Be a visible reminder of how well the player is running his character in a cinematic sense (look at that pile of dice!),
- Aid the player in remembering that he has options to pursue in case of trouble (it's easier to recall when there's a pile of poker chips in front of him), and
- Inflame the sense of competition in the other players around the gaming table, encouraging more cinematic play (his pile is bigger than mine!). Note that this could be a drawback for players who dislike feeling pressured into one-upsmanship.
Note that edible tokens are a dangerous proposition -- a player may consume all the M&Ms awarded instead of spending them on cinematic goodness!
CP! Spendthrift vs. CP! Miser
GMs should encourage players strike a balance between spending of CP!s in-play and saving them as "extra" character points for experience. Note that some players are naturally spendthrift (they use CP!s as soon as they get them) and some are naturally miserly (they will not use CP!s under any circumstances). The characters of spendthrifts will naturally be doing more impressive feats during the course of the adventure, exhausting all CP!s they glean in a session, while the characters of miserly players will neglect flash and dazzle in favor of hoarding CP!s for building a stronger character. This isn't necessarily a problem: for some, action is their reward, for others a strong foundation is their goal.
However, if the majority of players fall to one end or the other of this spectrum, there may be concerns the GM should address. A spendthrift group will improve slowly, especially if the characters are able to spend unspent character points in addition to CP!s. In that case, the wise GM might consider increasing the number of CP!s given in a session or denying the use of unused character points, so that there will be character points earmarked for character improvement. A miserly group could advance too quickly for the GM to provide adequate challenges, so the GM might consider reducing the number of CP!s given during play, or ruling that unused CP!s convert to 1/2 or 1/4 their value in character points.
Pooling CP!s for Teams
GMs may choose to allow PCs to "pool" some or all of their CP!s for use by anyone in the group. Whether usage is on an as-needed, first-come-first-serve, or vote-by-majority basis is up to the contributors to the CP! pool. This option can add to a group's esprit de corps, or can degenerate into sulky arguments. GMs be warned: know your group before allowing them to do this, and discuss the ramifications of issues like "what happens to unspent CP!s in the pool at the end of the session?" beforehand. (Options for resolving this could include a range of choices from simple division amongst the players to a group-vote on Most Valuable Player Character, with the pool being the prize purse.)
- Push My Luck!: If the GM permits this option, a PC may go into temporary CP! debt, acquiring -5 points of temporary Disadvantages per 1 CP! of debt. These disadvantages will last until the CP! debt is paid back; and will not be able to be otherwise alleviated.
For example, Mark Solar, Space Ace, is in a bloody dogfight with the Jovian Max through the rings of Saturn. Through the course of the combat, he's exhausted his entire store of CP!s; and the Max has finally gotten a good position on our hapless hero. If he could Make It Count! to the tune of 2 CP!s (+6), he would be able to pull off a dangerous spin-thrust-rotate-burn maneuver and lose the Max in a cluster of ice asteroids. Mark decides to Push His Luck! He attempts his daring maneuver at +6 to his Piloting skill and succeeds - but at the cost of sending a power surge through the life support circuits of his G-Suit! The whole-body electrical burns have given him a temporary version of Low Pain Threshold, which will haunt him until he's able to repay his CP! debt.
Getting Fancy with Cinematic Stunts
One way to augment the effect of the various extra-normal abilities in GURPS (Magic, Psionic Powers, Racial Advantages, or Super Powers) is to allow powered individuals to use CP!s to add temporary Enhancements or momentarily reduce Limitations to those abilities. (For a useful list of Enhancements and Limitations, see pp. CI-109-112.) One CP! is worth a +10% modification under this scheme, and can go a long way towards making magic, psionics, or super powers more flexible in a Cinematic or Four-Color idiom. Use of CP!s in this fashion is called a Stunt.
Super, Psionic, and Racial Advantage Stunts Imagine that the Insubstantial Doctor Spectre is using his Fright Vision to mentally assault Laser Lass, chortling all the while. Normally, Laser Lass cannot touch the fiend while the Bad Doctor is in his ghostly form. But today, driven by anger and fear and concern for the bystanders watching the battle, she reaches down deep and refocuses her Laser abilities to pierce through Spectre's Ectofield! She spends 2 CP!s for the Stunt of Affect Insubstantial (normally, a +20% Enhancement). She blasts Doctor Spectre with her beam, and suddenly, the shoe is on the other foot. "But no one can touch me!" he wails as his concentration falters...
For Supers-specific Enhancements and Limitations, see pp. SU48-54. Psionic Stunts and Racial Advantage Stunts work similarly to Super Stunts. For Psionics-specific Enhancements and Limitations, see pp. P27-30; for Racial Advantage Stunts, use pp. CI-109-112.
Applying Enhancements to the results or effects of magical spells is a quick and easy way to allow special effects not covered by Special Delivery Damage! or Make It Count! (i.e., other than a simple success or damage modifier). Another option would be to allow characters to use CP!s to influence the process of spell casting. Some suggestions are:
- Permitting the caster to ignore a single "ritual" requirement (like having hands and feet free or needing to speak) for 1 CP!
- Halving the Fatigue cost of a spell for 1 CP!
- Letting PCs spend 1 CP! for a limited version of Second Wind! That only restores Fatigue -- but no Hits for 1 CP!
- Reducing the casting time for a spell to Concentration for 2 CP!s.
CP!s should be given by the GM throughout play for especially exciting, risky, entertaining, or amusing PC actions. A recommended breakdown of rewards appears below:
Reason for Award
Rolling a critical failure; taking a purposeful, substantial risk; amusing in-character witticism or action.
Rolling a critical success; taking a purposeful, tremendous risk that moves the action of the game forward; memorable quote or stylish action; causes laughter and approval of players and/or GM.
Taking a ludicrous and entertaining risk in character; an amusing quote or action that will recur again and again in gaming war stories; causes game-stopping hilarity or applause of players and/or GM.
These CP! awards are in addition to the normal character point awards given at the end of sessions, adventures, or campaigns as experience.
While players may simply tell the GM what they wish to spend their hard-won CP!s on and erase them from their character sheets, that can be pretty dull. Instead, GMs should encourage their players to describe, in detail, how their CP!s are taking effect. Entertaining descriptions of CP! expenditures are not merely their own reward -- they could lead to plot complications, character development, or even further CP! awards. If players are reluctant to do this (from shyness or lack of inspiration), the GM may do so for them -- but then can feel free to add a plot complication or an additional requirement to the expenditure.
Example: While climbing the Empire State Building in pursuit of a giant chimp, Jill has failed on her Climbing roll. Her player decides to spend 1 CP! on Scenery!, to allow her a chance of survival. If Jill's player says "I grab for a flagpole as I fall past it," the GM may say that Jill has snagged the flagpole safely. If Jill's player says nothing, and leaves it up to the GM to invent said flagpole (or ledge, awning, or gargoyle), the GM is perfectly within his rights to ask that Jill make an Acrobatics roll or a DX-check, to permit Jill to grab the flagpole... which then buckles under her weight, or allowing Jill to land on the flagpole roughly, knocking the wind out of her and stunning her for a round. If pay your points without describing them, you take your chances.
Cinematic Rules, or Things to Do With CP!s
How cinematic should your game be? Will it be an over-the-top science fiction blockbuster, or a stylized noir thriller? By selectively choosing which of the following rules to use, the "cinematic" level of the campaign can easily be varied to reach the desired level of high adventure.
Especially potent cinematic actions are marked in red. Rules that are effective for a single action or throughout a scene are marked in bold; rules that can be effective for a single action only are marked in italics, and rules that are only effective between scenes or are a scene of their own are marked in bold-italics.
A "scene" here is defined as a short collection of related actions or events in a logical progression. Scenes in movies are divided by dissolves, wipes, or cuts; scenes in television shows are often divided by commercial breaks or shots of stock footage; scenes in theater can be separated by the opening and closing of a curtain or a change in scenery; and scenes in books are often indicated by page or chapter breaks. A punch in the middle of melee is simply an action; but scamming your way past the lobby security guards, from entry until the elevator doors close behind you, is generally a scene.
- Boomerang Payback!: The character can dish it out as well as he can take it! Any turn a PC takes damage, he can "save" that amount to add to the damage roll of his next successful attack. Note that the character is still wounded, and possibly suffering from Shock penalties. The returned damage does not have to be in the same format of the damage received. If Marshall Dolby gets winged by slugs from Black Garret's hogleg for 3 points, he can add that 3 points to the damage he rolls for his powerful right cross to the bandit's jaw.
- Dramatic Entrance/Exit/Pose!: "The door crashes open! There, heralded by a flash of lightning and a boom of thunder, cloak flapping in a gust of wind from the storm, Lady Vouzandra stands, her saber unsheathed. 'You!' she roars, pointing her blade at the Count..." By spending 1 CP!, a character may make an impressive entrance, stunning (or causing Fright Checks) any onlookers momentarily.
- Flesh Wounds! (p. B183): Any time when combat is not actually going on, a PC can be healed back to full HT (or Hits) by spending 1 CP! A later version of this rule (found on p. CII-151) modifies Flesh Wounds to heal all damage except crippling injuries, all fatigue, and (if that optional rule is being used) all stun damage. Depending upon rules in play and the frequency of CP! awards during a session, GMs may have to further modify this rule to prevent abuses - perhaps 1 CP! heals 1/2 or 1/4 damage instead of full hits.
- Flurry of Blows!: In combat, a PC may spend 1 CP! to gain an extra attack, but not one they've used already. If Doc Wild punched Jack Moonbeam, then spends a CP!, he may not punch again, though he could kick Moonbeam, do a leg sweep on him, tackle him, push him out a window, clock the villain with the barrel of his autopistol, etc.
- Flurry of Blocks (Parries, Dodges)!: In combat, a PC may spend 1 CP! to gain an extra defense, including one they've used already, even against the same attack. If Jack Moonbeam failed his Brawling parry while mixing it up with Doc Wild, he may attempt another!
- I Am The Wind!: By spending 1 CP!, the PC may move cinematically to a distance of twice their Move. This includes, but is not limited to, swinging from chandeliers, quickly vanishing from view right from under the noses of others, running through a hail of Tommy gun fire unscathed, appearing out of the shadows behind a foes, leaping to escape an explosion, and so forth.
- Lucky/Unlucky Shot!: For 3 CP!s, a PC can shift the result of a skill or Attribute roll by one category (critical failure, failure, success, and critical success) for good or ill. If Machine Gun Mary gets Sally Clash in her sights and scores a successful hit, Sally's player can change that to a miss. If Sally then lands a grenade at Mary's feet, Mary could spend 6 CP!s (whoa!) to convert that throw to a critical miss -- the grenade bounces, rolling back right in front of Sally! Too much backspin on that pineapple, Sal!
- Make It Count!: When it's crunch-time, a PC can buckle down and really concentrate on the task at hand. By spending 1 CP!, he can add 3 to his effective skill level for the next action or scene. When Soapy Sam really needs to sweet-talk that guard or the whole caper will be blown, that's the time to make it count.
- Props!, Scenery!, and Extras!: For those times when the right tool is not at hand, the PC can find it with Props. Wish the road ahead of your getaway car was a bit more winding? Change it, with Scenery. Never a cop around when you need one? Sure there is, with Extras.
Props! are objects that can be picked up, moved around, or controlled by a PC -- tools, small appliances, containers, and so forth. Scenery! is the location and appurtenances thereof -- chandeliers, rugs, furniture, quality of highway, kitchen sink. Extras! are the folks wandering around -- pedestrians, EMTs, waitstaff, theater ushers, etc. Note that summoning an Extra! should usually take place between scenes or as a scene of its own; however, some GMs may wish to allow Extras! to walk-on in the middle of another scene.
Objects, location alterations, or people that would definitely be in a location (a wrench in a body shop, a hay bales in a barn, or a barkeep in a Western saloon) can be "revealed" by the PC spending 1 CP! Things, place changes, or individuals that could be in an area (car keys to the car in the body shop, a block-and-tackle setup in the barn, or a piano player in the saloon) should cost 2 CP!s. Objects that probably wouldn't, but still might in theory be in the area (a monster truck in the body shop, a hidden root cellar in the barn, or a Texas Ranger in the saloon) costs 3 CP!s. Outrageously out-of-place stuff (a jet-fighter in the body shop, a dinosaur mural painted inside the barn, or an astronaut in the saloon) just can't be there, no matter how many CP!s are spent.
- Roll With It!: "Grasshopper, in storm be like reed, not like oak." Whenever PCs are hit for damage, they can instinctively roll with the blow, eliminating 1d damage per CP! spent. Alternately - and especially for Ludicrously Large Amounts of Damage from explosions, vehicle crashes, and artillery strikes -- damage taken may be reduced to 1/5 the total by spending 2 CP!s.
- Scene Blocking!: For 2 CP!s, a character may manipulate the position of one character within a scene. "As the door opens, the guard catches you in front of the file cabinet with the beam of his flashlight." "I call Scene Blocking! -- when the guard opens the door, I'm actually beside the file cabinet, partially hidden by its shadow."
- Second Wind! (p. CII-151): Works exactly like Flesh Wounds! (above), but can be triggered in the middle of combat, for 3 CP!s.
- Slo-Mo Sequence!: The film starts to slow down and time seems to stand still as the character moves with blinding speed! For each 3 CP!s used, the PC gains an additional action. Not just useful in combat, either -- handy for athletic competitions, last minute grabs for allies falling to their doom, or escaping from pursuit.
- Special Delivery Damage!: The character knows just where to punch, kick, or aim to do a little bit more damage, just has their dander up enough to put some real hurtin' on their opponent, or maybe the Forces of Right are on their side. For each CP! spent, the character may add 1d to their next damage roll.
- Sure, I Can Do That!: Has a character been presented with a situation -- say, skiing down K2 while avoiding gunfire from AK-47 wielding ninjas? -- and discovered that they lack the relevant skill (in this case, Skiing)? Well, fear not, Action Hero(ine)! All you need to do is spend 1 CP! to allow a roll (against IQ for mental skills or DX for physical skills) to cover for the lack of a particular mundane skill for the duration of a scene.
- Take That!: You don't just have leverage, leverage is your homeboy. A PC may double the Knockback of a strike in combat by 1 die per CP! spent. Useful for "accidentally" knocking pesky Mad Scientists into the calderas of active volcanoes.
- Time-Compression Montage!: The film starts to intercut rapid scenes of intense training or fevered construction -- or the story goes into a flashback, detailing past events or information -- and then snaps back to the present. By spending 3 CP!, a PC can instantaneously undergo training in the middle of a session or "discover" a previously hidden Advantage or skill (provided he has the unused character points to spend on improvement, of course). This rule is also useful for constructing or repairing machines before the next scene -- when you absolutely, positively, need a cannon that shoots cabbages right now!
Using CP!s for Short-Term Advantages
The above choices are not the only things that PCs can do with CP!s; they can summon up the brass for a lot of flamboyant actions. As a guideline, 1 CP! can grant a temporary, limited use of an Advantage equal to roughly 5 points -- as always subject to the GM's veto. This benefit can last for a single action or scene, and is cumulative with any existing Advantages.
Not every Advantage is amenable to this treatment, though. Advantages like Clerical Investment, Destiny, Flight, Magery, or Psionic Powers are generally outside the boundaries of this use of CP!s; however, on a case-by-case basis and given suitable dramatic reason, campaign setting, or play style, the sky is the limit! (Also see Weird Advantages, below, and the Getting Fancy with Cinematic Stunts boxed text.)
Eyes and Ears Peeled
Gain +1 to Sense rolls per CP! spent
Turn Up the Charm
Gain +1 to reaction rolls (possibly, Charisma-affected skills, too) per CP! spent
In the Zone
Gain benefits of Combat Reflexes for the duration of a scene at a cost of 3 CP!s
I Know A Guy
Gain a one-use Contact for the scene for 1 CP!
For 2 CP!s, memorize a page of text, a string of numbers, a diagram, or other reasonable amount of information permanently
High Pain Threshold
My Grandma Hits Harder Than That!
Can avoid shock penalties for a blow by using 2 CP!s
I Have A Hunch
Need a clue? Spend 3 CP!s and let the GM drop a hint (using the Intuition rules on p. B20)
Force a reroll for a cost of 1 CP! (This Cinematic Action is discounted de to its single-shot nature. Compare with Luck, p. B21.)
Subtract 2 points from the effective skill of the spell cast per CP! spent
Shake It Off
Add 5 to HT when rolling to recover from a crippling injury or lost hits for 1 CP!
You Know Me
Target knows of the PC, who gets a +1 to Reaction Rolls involving the Target per CP! spent. (This can offset negative reaction modifiers.)
PC musters up all their willpower and gets +1 to Will Rolls per CP! spent
PC receives a lucky influx of cash equal to 5% of the campaign's starting Wealth level for 1 CP! (GMs should use great discretion in allowing repeated use of this Cinematic Action.)
GMs may choose to allow PCs to spend CP!s to temporarily boost a Weird Advantage, be it Magery, a Psionic or Super Power, or a normally incongruous (or abusive) Advantage like Destiny or Sanctity. A good guideline to follow would be to have the player describe, in even greater detail than normally required for a CP! expenditure, exactly what is happening with that Advantage, why it's happening, and what they believe the effects should be. This should provide even more plot twists and complications for the canny GM to play with, and may have long-term ramifications for the entire campaign!
Example: Ketil the Laugher, a PC, has been captured by a Troll Witch, and wants to spend some of his CP!s to escape. If the Troll Witch simply must release Ketil because his Wyrd (Destiny) of "Will die in combat against a giant" demands it, what role does the episode of the capture now serve in Ketil's overall Destiny? Does something the Troll Witch do to Ketil make him better equipped to meet that Destiny? Perhaps she carves a rune of her own design on the Viking warrior's chest, then unfortunately turns her back on the young Viking, allowing Ketil to break free and grab his sword... Afterward, Ketil discovers that he can now sense when giants are near...
Cinematic Points! can also be spent, once per session, to reduce the effect of a Disadvantage. This doesn't remove the Disadvantage, even temporarily (Blind characters are still Blind, for example); it just eliminates the penalties associated with it. Does a Lame character need to sprint to make that last chopper out of the LZ? Spend 3 CP!s to let him hobble on that crippled leg at full normal Move. Police detective with Bad Temper needs to keep his cool in front of the Commish? Spend 2 CP!s. Woman doctor in the Old West needs to impress the Mayor of Podunk City, NV? Spend 2 CP!s to remove the penalties for Social Stigma.
Note that if a player is repeatedly spending CP!s in sessions to ameliorate a Disadvantage, it is in their best interest to simply save those points and buy off the Disadvantage normally.
Making Access an Advantage
Some GMs may not be comfortable with unilaterally applying these rules across an entire campaign, but could see their way clear to allowing certain characters to have access to them (i.e., some or all of the PCs and signature NPCs). The advantages below offer ways to restrict access to CP! usage. Load 'em up, and prepare for thrilling, larger-than-life adventure!
15 points + 5 points/CP!
This advantage is only appropriate in a cinematic campaign.
Sometimes, circumstances around you arrange themselves to your benefit. You outmaneuver obstacles in your path. You reach down deep inside to make a change by sheer willpower or derring-do. You are a Cinematic Hero!
The Cinematic Hero! Advantage allows the PC to spend Cinematic Points for dramatic purposes - to juggle the odds in their favor, to pull off audacious feats, or to recover from injuries that would kill a more "realistic" character. This costs 15 points.
For every 5 additional points spent on Cinematic Hero!, the character starts each session or adventure with 1 Cinematic Point (CP!) available for immediate use, to a limit of 3 CP!s. These points refresh between sessions, and are in addition to any unused points from previous sessions.
Special Ability (variable)
5 points + Variable
This advantage is only appropriate in a cinematic campaign.
You have a special ability that you can activate irregularly, usually when it counts the most. It's not something you can particularly rely on, and takes a lot of effort to unleash, but when you do, it gets the job done.
The Special Ability Advantage reflects the "finishing move" of video game, comic book, or anime reality (examples of Special Abilities include the finishing moves of characters in Mortal Kombat, the Human Torch's "nova blast," and the blazing sword of Voltron). A character with the Special Ability advantage can purchase an Advantage (this includes Occult, Racial, or Super Advantages) at 1/5 normal cost, which will then only be triggered with an expenditure of CP!s (1 CP! per 5 points of the Advantage's normal cost). The character may spend CP!s earned in play or unspent character points gained from experience awards for this ability. Particularly nasty GM's may allow a desperate character lacking CP!s to "sell back" Advantages or skill levels (or even take on new Disadvantages!) in play to glean the necessary power to activate their Special Abilities.
Example: Linda has Special Ability (Sonic Blast). This costs her 9 points during character generation. She may use her Sonic Scream at any time by spending 4 CP!s. If she does not have any CP!s (or unspent character points), she cannot activate this power, unless her GM allows the "selling back" of Advantages/skills or the gaining of new disadvantages.
Article publication date: August 9, 2002
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