Bam! Pow! Ouch! Damage, Healing, And Fatigue For GURPS Supers
by Stephen Dedman
One of the problems with any superhero roleplaying game is gun control.
For example, Fantasy Games Unlimited's superhero game Villains and Vigilantes tried to solve this with characters who were incredibly difficult to kill, and guns that were wildly inaccurate, fired once or twice per fifteen-second combat turn, and did only slightly more damage than an average man's fist . . . which was so little damage that it was impossible to kill even an ordinary non-super with a single shot, though you could knock him out.
GURPS tends towards the other extreme, where guns are far more effective than in most superhero RPGs, and unless all of the player characters buy at least 30 points of Damage Resistance or similar defense, any zero-point thug with an AK-47 may still be a more than a match for them. However, if they do, they may also be immune to any other 5d attack, including other supers' fists or energy attacks. They can buy Damage Resistance or a similar defense "against bullets only," but although this is cheaper, it is even less realistic as a power and may require GM fiat on what is and is not a bullet (Prodd pellets? Cannonballs? Gyroc rounds? Gauss gun ammo? Rocket-propelled grenades?). Similarly, super-characters with high levels of ST may find that the most effective use for this is to reduce the recoil of high-powered firearms, enabling them to fire an assault rifle with one hand and a shotgun with the other, a la The Terminator. While this may fit a "realistic" campaign, it doesn't reflect the four-color world of many comics.
The "stun damage" rules in GURPS Supers are a better fit for the comics world, but as the books say, they're also totally unrealistic and require more bookkeeping. Fortunately, some of the Optional Rules for Wounds and Healing (p. CII150-158) can be adapted to make for more playable Supers and cinematic Martial Arts campaigns that better fit the comics and Hong Kong action movies. These modifications may also be appropriate for cinematic boxers or pro wrestlers, or even an Old West or Fantasy game where you want the obligatory tavern brawls to be harmless fun while the sword fights or shootouts remain lethal.
According to statistics compiled by the NYPD and FBI, 92% of all fire-fights occur within 20 feet, with only 6% out beyond 150 feet (sniper attacks). Nearly all NYPD officers killed in firefights were within 10 feet of their assailant, and most NYPD shootings occurred with gunman and target within seven feet or each other. 52% of these shootings took place in the dark, the average number of shots fired was four, and even at these ranges, only 11-16% of shots hit their target.
Oddly enough, a perfectly average GURPS character -- with no Guns skill, operating on default, firing a handgun at a man-sized target 6' away, in good lighting, and without taking time to aim -- has a 16.2% chance of hitting the target (25.9% with a shotgun). The problem in most Supers games is that Guns skill is cheap; half a point spent on the skill will increase that average character's chance of scoring a hit to 50% (62.5% with a shotgun) . . . and most NPC gunmen won't be operating on default.
There are a few ways around this. One is to assume that the majority of NPC gunmen have low levels (or none) in Guns skill or Fast-Draw, and may be using weapons in bad repair. After all, successful criminals will rely on Intimidation more often than combat.
Another is to use the rules for Flinch, Buck Fever, and Bullet Shyness (p. CII64). Buck Fever is particularly useful, especially if the super is an imposing or frightening figure: a negative modifier equal to the super's Reputation would be appropriate in many cases and would help explain the longevity of some famous super-normals. Faced with an opponent capable of a punishing ranged attack, many shooters will also be making pop-up attacks (p. B116) rather than standing in plain sight.
Finally, don't forget penalties for bad light. Remember that many of the less invincible superheroes only operate at night. Superman is able to fly around by daylight wearing bright primary colors because bullets can't hurt him; the super-normal Batman works the dark alleys on the other side of town, wearing dark monochromes with a target over his well-armored vitals. For a character with Night Vision who obsessively patrols after dark, assume that there's a bad light penalty of 1d+1 at most times when he's active.
To make the "Different Damage Types" rules on p. CII152 fit the Supers genre better without needing Stun points, change bullet damage from crushing to cutting. This is even easier to justify if you replace the word "cutting" with "tearing," as bullets tumbling through a body act more like a chainsaw than a fist or club: after all, gun enthusiasts talk about the "penetration" of different bullets and loads, and even in the comics, fists rarely leave entrance and exit wounds.
As this makes guns more, not less, lethal, it's a good idea to reduce bullet damage by 1 or even 2 points for every 1d of damage crushing damage listed: e.g. a Glock-17 or other pistol firing 9mm Parabellum would do 2d or 2d-2 cutting damage, and an M-16 would do 5d-5 (4d-2) or 5d-10 (2d).
One of the benefits of this is that most armor in GURPS worldbooks give the same level of protection against both cutting and crushing attacks, though often less against impaling. Therefore, the "real-world" armor that many superheroes are likely to wear will offer the approximately same level of protection against firearms. The Damage Types listed on the Defense Table (p. CI49), however, lists Cutting/Impaling attacks together, so a Super can buy a high level of defense against knives, swords, guns, and other lethal weapons that most comic-book superheroes prefer not to use, but still be vulnerable to another Super's fists (treat as a Major Vow, equivalent to "Use No Edged Weapons," or treat as part of a Code of Honor or Pacifism: Cannot Kill). Guns remain just as lethal against unarmored opponents, so you don't have to sacrifice realism.
Whether or not you use Stun Damage for crushing attacks in this system, the "shoot to kill" rule (p. CII150) is still useful as a means of making hand-to-hand combat less lethal . . . at least for the superheroes' targets. Whether or not metavillains use the same rules is up to them: NPCs with the "Villain's Code of Honor" (p. Su15) would probably do so except in response to a lethal attack.
If you want to make sword-fighting, musket fire and other low-tech combat more lethal, use the Infection rules on p. B134 for any wound that breaks the skin . . . but replace the HT +3 roll to avoid ordinary infection with HT plus the TL of the First Aid or any other medical attention the wounded character is likely to receive before septicaemia becomes obvious. Thus, an Ice Age hunter (TL0) would roll against HT +0, a medieval knight at HT +3, and a U.S. Civil War soldier at HT +5. (Up to TL6, surgeons were still famed for the speed with which they could remove potentially gangrenous limbs.) Feel free to tamper with these numbers in the interests of historical accuracy; many aspects of medical care were handled better at TL1 than in TL3 Europe. (Islamic medics of the time were much better, and the TL4 "renaissance" in science owed much due to the rediscovery of TL1 texts in Arabic translations.)
For long fights where characters blaze or slug away at each other, hoping for a critical hit or just slowly wearing each other down (very common in Supers combat where characters may have high DR or active defenses that make them almost impossible to hurt), modify the rules on p. B134. Instead of reducing applying fatigue after each "battle that lasts more than ten seconds", apply it to each character after HT actions. This will have negligible effects on combat between 'average' people, but will enable supers with high HT and normal Move to outlast ordinary foes. It will also mean that supers able to perform multiple actions in one turn (those with Move of 12+ and/or martial arts skills of 16+) are likely to drop with exhaustion sooner. Also, if a character is attacking and/or parrying with a weapon which has a Min ST which exceeds his own ST, add the difference to his fatigue points spent in that combat.
As an alternative to the Stun Damage rules, use the Flesh Wounds rules (p. CII151) -- but only for crushing damage. Alternatively or additionally, use the Advanced Healing System (p. CII154); crushing damage wounds may range from Superficial to Serious, but are never Critical unless a character has announced that he is "shooting to kill".
Also, as suggested on p. CI7, base hit points (and, optionally, Height and Weight) on ST, not HT. For super-strong Supers characters (a staple of the genre), this will make hit points cheaper than Damage Resistance. Even strong "normals" such as the Fox could have extra hit points without needing to pay the cost for Unusual Background.
This will also make characters with the Growth super-advantage (p. CI56) more "realistic" -- they'll have more hit points as they gain in ST, so wounds will proportionally do less damage (to a character with Growth/1, a 6" blade is merely a 3" blade, and a .44-calibre bullet becomes a .22). This rule is also useful for quickly designing creatures that are much larger or smaller than humans, as the GM will only have to work out (and remember) one figure for both ST and hit points.
All rolls to avoid unconsciousness, shock, and the like should still be made against HT, not ST; fatigue should also come from HT, not ST. Blow-through damage (p. B109) and general damage penalties (p. B126) should still be based on HT, but Automatic Death can be based on -5 × hit points, rather than HT (another advantage to having high ST-based hit points).
Of course, if a super-normal PC still insists on charging machine-gun nests with no protection except a belly-dancer costume and the Overconfidence disadvantage, there's not very much you can do to save her except using the "silly" rules on p. CII76. If even this doesn't work, just remember the old saying: Dice don't kill characters. People kill characters. People with dice just kill more of them.
Article publication date: September 27, 2002
Copyright © 2002 by Steve Jackson Games. All rights reserved. Pyramid subscribers are permitted to read this article online, or download it and print out a single hardcopy for personal use. Copying this text to any other online system or BBS, or making more than one hardcopy, is strictly prohibited. So please don't. And if you encounter copies of this article elsewhere on the web, please report it to firstname.lastname@example.org.