Designer's Notes: GURPS Powers

by Sean Punch

When I set out to write GURPS Powers, I realized that I had a daunting task before me: provide guidelines for creating almost every superhuman ability from nearly every genre that features such abilities (which, when it comes to RPGs, means most genres). Given that I had a finite number of pages to play with, I had to make a few hard choices before I even sat down at the keyboard:

"That should make things simpler," I thought. Oh, how wrong I was!

First, I wrote too much. Then, when I got to the playtest -- and it was a great playtest -- I discovered that I had also omitted too much. I added whatever I could get away with while making almost no cuts . . . despite the pressing need for them. Fortunately for me and my readers, editor Andrew Hackard was able to trim enough excess verbiage that everything could stay. Let the public record show that I owe this man a beer.

The upshot was that there were relatively few outtakes. However, the playtesters proposed a lot of great ideas that I simply couldn't act on -- either because the proposals were very involved and would take up too much room or because I had already included something that was just similar enough that I couldn't justify the overlap. As such, I'd like to dedicate the rest of this article to the playtesters. Almost everything here was proposed by them, except for the occasional shred from my first draft. I'm not going to single out anyone for credit, because most of the items below were group efforts.

One last thing: all of these items come with a warning! If we realized that something wouldn't fit, we didn't spend a lot of time playtesting it . . . which means that everything here needs tinkering and tweaking to make it work. With a little experimentation, though, you should find at least a few ideas that are useful for your games.

Chapter 1 -- Building Powers

Most of the discussion focused on Chapter 2, but we had a few oddball ideas for Chapter 1. Two of these concerned power modifiers.

Technological Powers

In a few settings, technology -- implants, nanotech, and so on -- is as valid a power source as magic or psionics, making "Technological" a reasonable modifier. As Gadget Limitations and Powers (p. 107) suggests, unrealistic and largely unexplained technology should simply rename the Super power modifier "Superscience" for this purpose and keep both its effects and its -10% value. More realistic technological intervention that stresses the user's system might use Biological under a new name; that, too, would be worth -10%.

However, in some settings it's valid to treat a whole array of cybernetic implants as a power and allow the possessor to grow more adept at using his artificial parts by buying a Talent. Simply use some of the modifiers suggested for Cybernetics (p. B46) as the power modifier. A typical power might consist of abilities that require weekly maintenance by the user. That's like Temporary Disadvantage, Maintenance (1 person; Weekly) [-5], making this a -5% power modifier. This can ultimately return more points than the Maintenance disadvantage because the effort required is per ability. A hero with 20 abilities must spend 20 hours/week with his tool kit! Most macroscopic implants are also subject to technological countermeasures that can detect them (such as X-ray scans) and interfere with them (EMP, jamming, etc.); that's worth -5% more. The total modifier comes to -10%.

Beneficial Modifiers

Most power modifiers are limitations, but it's valid for a power modifier to include a small enhancement -- or even be an enhancement overall -- if the power is more capable under certain conditions: in high-mana areas, when the stars are right, etc. Decide on the effects in terms of one or more general enhancements, and then reduce the enhancement value to 80% normal if the benefits are Very Common, 60% normal if Common, 40% normal if Occasional, or 20% normal if Rare.

The most likely enhancement is a conditional Reliable modifier (p. 109), which is worth a base +5% per +1 to use the ability. This becomes +4% for Very Common, +3% for Common, +2% for Occasional, or +1% for Rare.

Another common option is a reduction to the FP cost to use the power's abilities under the right conditions. This lowers all FP expenditures for any reason: regular use, extra effort, stunts, and anything else the GM comes up with. This is conditional Reduced Fatigue Cost, which is a basic +20% per level, so FP reduction is +16%/level if Very Common, +12%/level if Common, +8%/level if Occasional, or +4%/level if Rare. Note that this is very powerful, because it allows the user to use extra effort for free in some situations.

The GM can mix and match, if only to get a round multiple of +5%. For instance, a Divine power might be at -1 FP cost and +6 to skill rolls on certain high holy days and in a few major temples -- which the GM deems Rare -- for a +10% power modifier.

A genuine outtake was a formal system for pricing Talents. Mostly, everyone agreed that it was too much work to use -- and the numbers didn't seem very universal. Still, a GM who's willing to sit down and assign numbers applicable to his campaign might find it useful.

Pricing Talents

Talent costs a flat 5 points per level. Those who enjoy extra detail might want to increase this cost for exceptionally broad Talents or reduce it for unusually narrow ones. To do so, use the optional rules below -- not enhancements and limitations! No modifier of any kind ever applies to the price of a Talent.

Scope

The GM may wish to charge more for a Talent if the associated power has unusually numerous, flexible, or potent abilities. Talent should rarely cost more than 10 points/level, and should never go beyond 15 points/level.

Optionally, the GM can rate a power's "Scope" numerically and use this number to find the cost of its Talent. Determine Scope as follows:

  1. Start with the number of distinct advantages the power offers as abilities.
  2. Add 1 for each advantage that the buyer can purchase more than once, regardless of how often he can take it -- but only if each "copy" works differently. This normally means that the advantage has several sub-traits (e.g., Scanning Sense or Telecommunication) or a user-defined property (e.g., Detect or Resistant), or offers special modifiers that make each version of the base advantage a different trait from all the others (e.g., Affliction or Innate Attack).

    The following advantages count if the power permits multiple versions: Affliction, Binding, Detect, Enhanced Move, Innate Attack, Jumper, Obscure, Permeation, Protected Sense, Resistant, Scanning Sense, Shapeshifting, Telecommunication, and Terrain Adaptation.

  3. Add 1 for each advantage that has an open-ended number of levels or that otherwise lets the user spend as many points as he wishes. Add this only once per distinct advantage, no matter how many versions are available.

    Certain reasonably common abilities always qualify, unless the power specifies a cap: Affliction, Binding, Chameleon, Damage Resistance, Dominance, Enhanced Move, Growth, Innate Attack, Metabolism Control, Microscopic Vision, Mind Shield, Parabolic Hearing, Penetrating Vision, Shapeshifting, Shrinking, Silence, Stretching, Striking ST, Super Climbing, Super Jump, Telekinesis, Telescopic Vision, Temperature Control, Terror, and Wild Talent.

  4. Add 1 for each advantage worth 50 points or more in its most basic form, before any modifiers. For traits that come in levels, consider only the price of the first level. For those that list "Variable" cost, use the minimum allowed outlay.

    Examples include Clairsentience, Insubstantiality, Jumper, Mana Enhancer, Mind Control, Morph, Neutralize, Possession, Shadow Form, Snatcher, Super Luck, and Warp.

Example: ESP power in the Basic Set has 12 abilities: Channeling, Clairsentience, Danger Sense, Detect, Medium, Oracle, Para-Radar, Penetrating Vision, Precognition, Psychometry, Racial Memory, and See Invisible. One of these abilities allows multiple versions (Detect), one is open-ended (Penetrating Vision), and one is worth 50+ points (Clairsentience). The Scope of ESP is therefore 12 + 1 + 1 + 1 = 15.

See the Talent Cost Table (below) for the effects of Scope on the price of Talent.

Variety

Most powers include abilities that require success rolls against two or more of DX, IQ, HT, Will, and Perception . . . and possibly other scores. But if a power's abilities only ever call for rolls against one score (or skills based on it), then its Talent represents a narrower bonus than usual and the GM may wish to reduce its cost to 80% normal, as indicated on the Talent Cost Table.

The GM can safely ignore this discount if he feels that it's splitting hairs. Few powers can claim it in any event! Nearly every advantage calls for the occasional roll against a score other than the one that usually governs it; for example, Warp calls for an IQ roll to activate but requires a DX-based Body Sense roll to avoid disorientation. In particular, if a power includes any ability that allows use of the optional rules in Chapter 4 for active defenses, extra effort, or stunts, it should not get a discount.

Talent Cost Table

The following table gives the point cost of Talent based on the Scope of the associated power and the variety of die rolls affected.

Scope of PowerAffects Any ScoreAffects One Score
1-255 points/level4 points/level
26-5010 points/level8 points/level
51+15 points/level12 points/level

This entire process is optional. It can be tedious to count up abilities, figure out which ones are multifaceted or exceptionally potent, and consider all the success rolls they might require! The GM is welcome to declare a cost of 5 points per level for all powers and be done with it.

Chapter 2 -- Building Abilities

We had a lot of ideas here! Most concerned specific advantages.

Allies: Some Helpful Advice

What ability do you give a character who can summon something -- say, animals or demons? Allies with the Summonable enhancement. What about someone who has no limits on what he can summon? Modular Abilities (Limited, Only Allies with Minion and Summonable, -50%). That's expensive, though, and most summoners have a more limited catalog. A more affordable option is to take a separate Allies advantage for each creature or group of identical creatures you can summon and then make them exclusive via Alternative Abilities (p. 11). For instance:

Ally (Demon Lord; 150% power; 15 or less; Summonable, +100%)* [60]
Allies (Gang of Imps; 25% power; 10; 15 or less; Summonable, +100%)* [8]
Ally (Demon Knight; 100% power; 15 or less; Summonable, +100%)* [6]
Ally (Lesser Demon; 50% power; 15 or less; Summonable, +100%)* [3]
* Alternative abilities; only one can be summoned at a time!

Another Alternative to Invisibility . . .

One option we had to cut from Alternatives for Invisibility was Affliction (Area Effect, +50%/level; Based on Will, +20%; Disadvantage, Delusion, "You can't see me," +15%; Emanation, -20%; Malediction 1, +100%). It's basically an alternative to Invisibility with the Glamour limitation (p. 111), for those who'd prefer a Quick Contest to an unopposed resistance roll.

. . . and One for Illusion

A fun alternative to the Illusion advantage is the "Cosmetic Ability" perk. It takes a turn to use and looks just like one specific ability, which the player can design in as much detail as he wishes. However, it's just a light-and-sound show -- a set-piece trick, not a controllable illusion. The GM should restrict such perks to those whose powers have a source or focus capable of explaining the necessary special effects. The Illusion power (p. 129) always qualifies!

Jumper as Time Stop

We eventually settled on Temporal Stasis (p. 118) as our time-stop ability, but there was a proposal to create a new variant of the Jumper advantage to let the user stop time for himself:

Jumper (Time Stop): You can't travel through time, but you can jump out of time. Activate your ability normally. If it works, then you drop out of the normal flow of time. While out of time, you perceive the world as frozen. You can't affect it (and vice versa) -- only observe and move through it. You can interact with items you brought along, subject to the usual limits on carrying capacity; this lets you patch your wounds, reload your guns, read magical scrolls, and so forth. Time passes for you (you tire, grow hungry, age, etc.), but it's subjective. You can use your ability again to return to normal time at the instant you jumped. 100 points.

Yet Another Special Enhancement for Leech

This modifier for Leech came out of the same discussion as the one for Neutralize (below):

Boosts Abilities: Each HP you steal gives you a character point you can use to heal yourself or temporarily boost abilities. You store these points in a "battery" with a capacity of two points per level of Leech. Once this is full, you can still drain HP but gain no points. On your turn, you can take a Ready maneuver to drain this battery to heal yourself permanently: 1 point repairs 1 point of crippled abilities, 2 points heal 1 HP, and 3 points restore 1 FP. You can also spend stored points to improve abilities (anything but skills) temporarily. You can't reallocate points once used. Points drain away at the rate of one per second, unused ones first. You lose enhanced abilities as the points drain away. This modifier is incompatible with all other special modifiers. +100% if you can only heal or enhance one power, set at character creation; +200% if you can use the points freely.

The +100% version is probably overpriced, but the +200% version seems useful.

Thoughts on Modular Abilities

There's a little system for creating new forms of Modular Abilities on p. 63. I wanted to present the various cases in the Basic Set and Powers as illustrative examples, but there was no space for it. Here they are:

  • Computer Brain. Per slot: 6 points ("all the software on the net" is just about unlimited). Per point: 4 points (downloading is fast and hackers won't pay a cent, so external interference -- network conditions -- is the sole limit).
  • Chip Slots. Per slot: 5 points ("all software burned onto ROMs" is a huge category, but smaller than the one above). Per point: 3 points (swapping out is fast, but chips are expensive and can be yanked out).
  • Divine Inspiration. Per slot: 6 points ("anything my god allows" is close to unlimited). Per point: 4 points (the prayers are free and fast, but a god has veto power).
  • Super-Memorization. Per slot: 5 points ("any skill represented in a book" is more limited than "anything on the net," but still larger than a short list). Per point: 3 points (the only thing keeping this from being arduous and awful enough to rate 2 points is the unrealistically fast memorization time).

We also left out a radical proposal under Alternatives: "Wildcard Abilities." We didn't have time to explore it thoroughly, but the basic idea was to allow a hero to buy an advantage with an expensive form of the Cosmic enhancement -- worth at least +300%, maybe more -- that lets him use it as any other advantage, with several important caveats: the player would have to explain the emulated advantage as a feat performed with the enhanced advantage, the feat would require an attribute roll, and the point value of the emulated advantage couldn't exceed the point value of the basic, underlying advantage (or perhaps a multiple of this, if the enhancement value were very high).

For instance, Flight is 40 points, so Flight! might cost 160 points. It would permit the hero to do anything that's consistent with being amazingly adept at flying. A DX roll might let him push his speed beyond its usual limit (+40 points of Enhanced Move), use his amazing lift to move heavy objects around (+40 points of Lifting ST), or even suck things along in his vortex (+40 points of limited Telekinesis).

It would need tweaking for each campaign, but it definitely has potential!

A Variation on Power Theft for Neutralize

The following enhancement eventually became a variant of Power Theft, but some might find it useful on its own:

Power Boost: You can use the powers you neutralize to boost your own. You receive a pool of temporary character points equal in value to the abilities you neutralize. On your turn, you can take a Ready maneuver and allocate these points to improve your own abilities (anything but skills) on a one-to-one basis. You don't have to "spend" all the points at once, but you can't reassign allocated points. Determine duration normally. You cannot use Neutralize at all until this time is up; then you lose your boosted abilities but may use Neutralize again. +100% if stolen points can only enhance one ability, set at character creation; +200% if they can improve one power; +300% if they can boost anything.

Disadvantageous Alternate Forms

If you uncontrollably assume a form that you have no control over, then the "Were-Creatures" solution on p. 74 -- an Alternate Form with Uncontrollable Trigger and Unconscious Only -- is a little unfair. The easiest fix is to treat such a form as a disadvantage, worth -5, -10, -15, or -20 points for Rare, Occasional, Common, or Very Common trigger conditions, respectively.

The point value of the form isn't important . . . unless the GM feels it is. Turning into something extremely vulnerable, like a clam, can be a problem. Becoming the Death God can be useful if you abuse it properly; just be sure you're on enemy territory when the trigger gets pulled. As such, the GM might wish to add a percentage of the point-value difference between the shapeshifter's base template and the shifted template to the above cost -- perhaps 5%, 10%, 15%, or 20% depending on rarity; perhaps more.

We didn't get to playtest this, so it's very experimental. Have fun!

We also had a few really wild thoughts on enhancements and limitations.

More Abuses for Cosmic

Everyone liked the idea of using the Cosmic enhancement to create mind-blasting divine abilities such as a god's voice (see Powering Up for Rapier Wit, p. 70) or appearance (see New Special Enhancements for Terror, p. 84), and to let Payload stow things outside of reality (see Alternatives for Snatcher, p. 76). There were many other suggested uses for Cosmic. Some are hidden in the examples in Chapter 3, but others didn't make it in. Here are just a few of these:

  • Cosmic, +50% on Enhanced Move to allow acceleration to full speed in just one turn.
  • Cosmic, +50% on both Enhanced Move and any underlying movement ability to gain complete maneuverability: turn on a dime, never make maneuver rolls, etc.
  • Cosmic, +50% to be exempt from any one of the limiting rules in Chapter 4. For instance, it could eliminate the FP cost for Abilities and Exertion (p. 159).

Mega-Abilities

Beyond Cosmic, the GM might want to allow "mega-abilities" that use the Size and Speed/Range Table (p. B550) to calculate effect, as Powers does for Super-Speed (p. 42), Super-Effort (p. 58), and high levels of Injury Tolerance (Damage Reduction) (p. 118). It's hard to assign a fair price, but one possible mechanic is to charge a special enhancement -- perhaps as high as +400% -- on a trait that comes in levels and rule that this enables the user to perform greatly enhanced feats. At the cost of 1 FP per use (the GM decides what a "use" is), the user may look up the purchased level in the "Size" column of the table and find his effective level for that feat in the "Linear Measurement" column. So one level acts as three, 10 levels act as 100, 20 levels act as 5,000, and so on.

What kept this out of Powers was the amount of space it would take to give fair enhancement costs for all affected abilities and sufficient guidelines for FP cost. Altered Time Rate has no FP cost and needs only about +20% to be balanced, while Lifting Strength definitely needs its FP cost and +400% enhancement value. Who knows what's fair for other abilities? But the brave GM might want to play with it and find out.

Chapter 3 -- Examples

Dozens of proposed sample abilities and powers came and went during the playtest. Most of these have shown up on our forums since then. Rather than try to find them all, I'll just give two genuine outtakes.

Death Touch (+390%): Toxic Attack 2d+1 (Cosmic, Irresistible attack, +300%; Cosmic, Lingering special effect, +100%; Melee Attack, Reach C, Cannot Parry, -35%; Selective Effect, +20%; Variable, +5%) [49]. Notes: Injures a living target regardless of armor. Only supernatural healing can repair this injury; it doesn't heal naturally. Selective Effect lets the attacker "wither" body parts by touching and injuring a single hit location. 49 points.

Reinforced Skeleton: DR 1 (Accessibility, Only to avoid broken bones, -80%) [1]. Notes: An armored skeleton. Only a single blow that breaks the skeleton can cripple a limb or extremity; accumulated injury won't suffice. This has no effect on HP loss or maximum possible injury, but subtracts 1 HP per level from wounds for crippling purposes. For instance, a hero with 13 HP and Reinforced Skeleton 5 needs 12 HP in a single blow to cripple his arm instead of the usual 7 HP -- but blows to his arm still injure him normally, and injury past 7 HP is still lost. This trait provides no overall DR. 1 point/level.

Chapter 4 -- Powers in Action

A new concept that snuck into Powers was the idea of abilities that let characters "spend" character points to create lasting or permanent changes in the game world -- in the spirit of Player Guidance (p. B347). For instance, Regrowth (p. 71) has a "Doubling" special enhancement that lets the possessor spend points on the fly to gain new body parts, Create (p. 92) has a "Creation Pool" mechanic that turns points into more-or-less stable matter, and there are even guidelines under Wishes (p. 119) for an ability that lets a godlike being grant advantages to others . . . if they have the points.

Some of the playtesters wanted other character point-powered abilities, but we didn't have time to get into it. Here's how such a thing might have looked.

Character Point-Powered Abilities

Some abilities that show up in fiction for narrative and dramatic purposes have the potential to wreck a game. One way to control them is to fuel them with a precious, limited resource: unspent character points. Because the cost to use them is so dear, of course, such abilities ought to be a lot cheaper.

Build a character point-powered ability normally, then divide its point cost by five. However, it normally does nothing. The player must spend character points for each use. The precise cost is up to the GM. He might require one point per use . . . or one point for a dramatically appropriate use and more for less-fitting uses . . . or even points equal to the cost of the ability (that is, 1/5 normal ability cost). Finding the costs that work best in a given campaign is definitely an exercise for the GM.




Article publication date: February 3, 2006


Copyright © 2006 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 webmaster@sjgames.com.