Designer's Notes: GURPS Supers
by William H. Stoddard
GURPS Supers is designed to work with GURPS Powers the way GURPS Fantasy works with GURPS Magic. One book defines a range of capabilities that characters can acquire; the other analyzes a genre where those capabilities are useful, and suggests ways to run campaigns in that genre. GURPS Fantasy focused on historical high fantasy and quest stories; GURPS Supers focuses on four-color adventures and battles with supervillains.
But making this focus work was a bit of a challenge. Even with all the new options in GURPS Powers, its basically realistic approach to exotic and supernatural abilities wasn't an easy fit to the sheer scale of high-end supers—not without spending tens or hundreds of thousands of points in creating them! In fact, the playtesters' reaction to the first draft focused mainly on its not being "super" enough—for example, on its super-strong characters not being able to fight tanks, let alone battleships. After long debate, and many queries to GURPS line editor Sean Punch, we came up with a set of additional rules that brought higher power levels within reach. Many of these rules take off from the Super-Effort option for Lifting ST in GURPS Powers, offering the same option for Binding, Compartmentalized Mind, Duplication, Striking ST, Telekinesis, and various other abilities. Another set, inspired by the Quick Gadgeteering rules, defines ways for characters to achieve one-time super-feats in emergencies. These and other new rules produce a version of GURPS where things work the way they do in superhero comics.
As a test of concept, I decided to build a template that could go up against tanks: The Archetype, inspired by Superman, Captain Marvel, and the many heroes modeled on them. The design came out to 2,000 points, so I took that as the high end of the power spectrum for templates, and built lesser templates on 1,000, 500, or 250 points, to cover a range of power levels. Since I had to verify how such a character's abilities would play out against a tank, I included the analysis in Chapter 7, and I turned it into a new opening vignette for that chapter, a fight between Stalina, the Woman of Steel, and a German tank force during World War II.
So, as an example of character creation in GURPS Supers, here's a full character writeup for Stalina!
ST 33/320 ;† DX 14 ; IQ 14 ; HT 20 .
Damage 3d+2/6d (33d/35d with Super-Effort); BL 218 lbs. (10 tons with Super-Effort); HP 33 ; Will 20 ; Per14 ; FP 40 .
Basic Speed 10.00 ;‡ Basic Move 20 ;** Dodge 14.††
6'2"; 180 lbs. (SM 0).
Languages:French (Accented) ; German (Broken) ; Russian (Native) .
Appearance (Attractive) ; Charisma 1 ; Damage Reduction (100) (Super, -10%) ; Damage Resistance 100 (Super, -10%) ; Doesn't Breathe (Oxygen Storage ¥25, -50%; Super, -10%) ; Flight (Cannot Hover, -15%; Super, -10%) ; Legal Immunity ; Longevity ; Nictitating Membrane 15 (Super, -10%) ; Regeneration (Slow; Super, -10%) ; Resistant to Metabolic Hazards (+8; Super, -10%) ; Sealed (Super, -10%) ; ST+13/+300 (Super, -10%; Super-Effort, +300%) ; Status 2 ; Temperature Tolerance 16 ; Very Fit .
Perk: No Visible Damage ; Penetrating Voice ; Striking Surface .
Speed (Super, -10%); Speed Talent 1 .
- Hyper-Reflexes: Basic Speed+1.5 (Speed Power, -10%)  + Enhanced Time Sense (Speed Power, -10%) .
- Super-Flying: Enhanced Move 4 (Air Speed 320; Speed Power, -10%) .
- Super-Speed: Basic Move +10 (Speed Power, -10%) .
Clueless [-10]; Code of Honor (Soldier's) [-10]; Duty (Red Army) (15) [-15]; Hard of Hearing [-10]; Sense of Duty (The Russian people) [-10]; Truthfulness (12) [-5]; Workaholic [-5].
Quirks: Genuinely likes and trust Joseph Stalin; Humble; Loves march music; Quotes Communist Party catch phrases. [-4]
Aerobatics-15 ; Area Knowledge (European Russia)-15 ; Brawling-16 ; Current Affairs (Headline News)-14 ; Engineer (Combat)-12 ; Flight-21 ; Forced Entry-16 ; Games (Chess)-12 ; Housekeeping-12 ; Leadership-14 ;‡‡ Mathematics (Applied)-12 ; Military Science-13 ; Observation-15 ; Philosophy (Marxist-Leninist)-14 ; Running-21 ; Singing-20 ; Soldier-11 .
Techniques: Human Missile (Aerobatics)-15 .
† Includes +13/+300 points of super-strength bought as an advantage. ‡ Includes +1.50 Basic Speed from Speed Power. ** Includes +10 Basic Move from Speed Power. †† Includes +1 from Enhanced Time Sense. ‡‡ Includes +1 from Charisma.
When the Tunguska explosion took place in 1908, the young naturalist Semyon Alexeievitch Vlasov was close enough, and dedicated enough to the progress of science, to travel to its center—where he found a sphere of a mysterious alloy holding a female infant, apparently human. He raised her as his adopted daughter, Alissa Semyonova Vlasova, keeping her origins secret. Unfortunately, after the Revolution, no secrets were safe. Alissa matured slowly, and was still seemingly a young child, though already inhumanly strong, when Joseph Stalin learned of her, and saw her as a potential weapon. The child grew up on an isolated base in the far north, raised by scientific researchers and military trainers. She had no normal human contacts after her father's "accidental" death in 1922, other than Stalin himself, who deliberately played a paternal role in his visits to her. When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, he asked her to fight for her country and the Revolution, and she agreed, naming herself after him. Her existence was kept secret as long as possible, but in 1943, as the war turns against the invaders, Stalin has decided to send her into action openly as a propaganda move. The Russian government was unaware that German intelligence has already learned of her existence, and German technology has designed weapons intended to counteract her powers.
Stalina's battle with a German tank force in GURPS Supers takes place at this point in her life.
* * *
Once I was satisfied with the new version of the Archetype template, I rebuilt the other templates on 250, 500, or 1,000 points, keeping the Archetype at the top of the spectrum at 2,000 points, and adding a new template, the Weatherworker. But to make room, I decided to cut one version of the Mesmerist template, as being a bit too far from classic comics heroes: the hero whose theme was social influence. I also cut the powers that supported that template. For GMs who want to explore characters along the lines of the Envoy in the Wild Cards universe, here are versions of both.
Sources: Biological, Divine, Magical, Moral, Mutant, Psionic, Savant, Spirit, Super, or Weird Science.
Focus: Social interaction with your own species.
This power enables you to get other people to do what you want. It may be based on subtle modulations of your voice, on pheromones, or even on the sheer animal magnetism of your presence. In any case, it requires face-to-face contact to establish the initial relationship; you can't reach out over a distance and snare people you've never met - though you may be able to reach people who are already bonded to you. Abilities of this power that directly affect other people should be Sense-Based.
Allies (recruited as groups from passersby), with Environmental, Minion, and Summonable; Cultural Adaptability; Empathy or Sensitive; Elastic Skin, with Glamour; Fashion Sense; Gizmos (borrowed from passersby), with Environmental; Illusion, with Mental; Indomitable; Invisibility, in the Deception variant; Legal Immunity; Mind Probe, usually with Onset; Mind Reading, usually with Onset; Modular Abilities, Social only; Security Clearance; Social Chameleon; and Terror.
Physical attacks are always inappropriate. You "attack" people with Afflictions that cause incapacitation, irritation, mental disadvantages, or DX, IQ, Per, or Will penalties, or with Rapier Wit. Afflictions must be Based on Will. Some versions of this power, especially those based on animal magnetism or other mysterious forces, allow Leech, usually against FP or IQ.
Attributes: ST 10 ; DX 11 ; IQ 16 ; HT 11 .
Secondary Characteristics: Dmg 1d-2/1d; BL 20 lbs.; HP 10 ; Will 16 ; Per 16 ; FP 11 ; Basic Speed 5.50 ; Basic Move 5 .
Advantages: A total of 10 points from Acute Detection [2/level], Animal Empathy , Fit , Reawakened , Sensitive , Single-Minded , Special Rapport , or Voice .
Powers: Influence (Influence Power, -10%); Charisma 3 .
- Identity Theft: Elastic Skin (Glamour, -25%; Influence Power, -10%)  + Mimicry (Glamour, -25%; Influence Power, -10%) 
- Persuasive Inquiry: Mind Reading (Exposure Time, 1 minute, -30%; Hearing-Based, -10%; Hearing-Based (Reversed), -10%; Influence Power, -10%)  + Mind Probe (Exposure Time, 1 minute, -30%; Hearing-Based, -10%; Hearing-Based (Reversed), -10%; Influence Power, -10%) .
- Power of Suggestion: Mind Control (Extended Duration, x30, +60%; Hearing-Based, -10%; Independent, +70%; Influence Power, -10%) .
- Recruitment: Allies (21-50, 25% point total, 15 or less; Environmental, in crowds or populated areas, -20%; Influence Power, -10%; Minions, +50%; Onset, 1 hour, -20%; Summonable, +100%) .
- Social Blending: Cultural Adaptability (Influence Power, -10%)  + Honest Face  + Social Chameleon .
- Venomous Tongue: Rapier Wit .
Two of the following abilities:
- Emotional Induction: Mind Control (Area Effect, 4 yards, +100%; Emotion Control, -50%; Influence Power, -10%; Vision-Based, -20%) .
- Entrancement: Affliction 4 (Based on Will, +20%; Contact Agent, -30%; Incapacitation: Ecstacy, +100%; Influence Power, -10%; Melee Attack, Reach C, -30%) .
- Frightfulness: Terror -9 (Accessibility, -10%; Influence Power, -10%; Nuisance Effect, Obvious as cause of panic, -5%) .
- Inconspicuousness: Invisibility to Electromagnetic Vision (Can Carry Objects, Heavy encumbrance, +10%; Glamour, -25%; Influence Power, -10%; Switchable, +10%) .
- Reprogramming: Mind Control (Conditioning Only, -50%; Exposure Time, 1 day, -50%; Extended Duration, Permanent, +150%; Hearing-Based, -20%; Influence Power, -10%) .
Disadvantages: A total of -30 points from Charitable [-15*], Chummy [-5] or Gregarious [-10], Loner [-5*], Pacifism [Varies], Supersensitive [-15], or Xenophilia [-10*].
Wildcard Skills: Fake! or Psychology! (VH) IQ -16.
Ordinary Skills: Any three of Autohypnosis (H) Will-1 -15, Carousing (E) HT+1 -12, Diplomacy (H) IQ-1 -15, Expert Skill (Psionics) (H) IQ-1 -15, Judo (H) DX-1 -10, Observation (A) Per -15, Savoir-Faire (E) IQ+1 -17, Sex Appeal (A) HT -11, Shadowing (A) IQ -16, and Urban Survival (A) Per -16.
*Multiplied for self-control number; see p. B120.
In this design, the limitation "Hearing-Based" applies to powers for which the mesmerist has to talk with the subject. The limitation "Hearing-Based (Reversed)" applies to powers where the subject has to answer by speaking, rather than having his mind read. "Exposure Time" involves situations where the mesmerist has to interact with the subject for a minute, an hour, or a day before the power takes effect: for Persuasive Inquiry, the mesmerist has to chat with the subject for a couple of minutes to start getting answers to his questions, while Reprogramming takes a full eight-hour day of intense interaction.
* * *
Another topic that got cut in final edit was an idea that Brian Rogers suggested during the playtest: the concept of flux levels.
There's a long-established distinction in GURPS between traits of characters, which cost points and travel about with the character from setting to setting, though their application may change in different worlds (for example, Magery 0 costs 5 points where the setting has Very High Mana, Normal Mana, or No Mana), and traits of worlds (such as mana level or gravitational field), which are external to the character and don't cost points. In one case, a rule may apply to one character, but not to a different character in the same world; in the other, it may apply to all characters in one world, but not to the same characters in a different world. But there seems to be a third basis for deciding whether to apply a rule: play style. If a campaign is in cinematic style, or four-color style, the GM will apply different rules, such as making wildcard skills available or allowing characters to turn injuries into flesh wounds; but those rules will pervade the entire campaign - characters who enter a different world won't suddenly find their wildcard skills not working. So GURPS Supers treats style as a third factor, distinct from both characters and setting.
Brian suggested that some GMs might want to run campaigns where different styles applied in different parts of the campaign world. He suggested defining a quality called flux, which altered the superheroic nature of a setting in the same way that mana alters the fantastic nature of a setting. In a no-flux area, for example, wildcard skills wouldn't work; no one would have superpowers; and none of the cinematic options for combat, gadgeteering, or other activities would be available. In a normal-flux area, things would work the way they do in four-color comics. In a very-high-flux area, everyone would have at least minor superpowers, and would have nearly unlimited fatigue points to power high-end uses of those powers. In comics terms, this would define a spectrum from the noir near-realism of Sin City to the wide-open humor of Normalman. A GM could say that his entire campaign had low, normal, or high flux, but he could also have different flux levels in different places.
In some campaigns, the players would be aware of the different flux levels, but the characters wouldn't. When the heroic Archetype visited the grim streets of the Nightstalker's city, he could lift a compact car, but not a skyscraper, and wouldn't try; and if he hit normal people with his full strength, they would end up in the hospital or the morgue. When the Nightstalker went to the Archetype's brightly lit city, he could be smashed through a wall and come back to trade punches, and he wouldn't say, "Wow, if I were back home, that would have turned me into a thin smear on the bricks." Changing the setting or the choice of focal hero would change the style to match.
In other campaigns, traveling to a different dimension, or even a different city on Earth, would change the flux level, and the adventurers, or even ordinary people, would be aware of the difference. (The concept of "axiom levels" in the game TORG worked along roughly similar lines, though with four variables rather than one.) Ordinary people might travel to superheroic cities, gain superpowers, have adventures, and then have to decide whether to go back to their normal lives. Superheroes and supervillains might agree to meet in no-flux sites where they couldn't use their powers against each other, letting them negotiate peacefully. Corporations might seek out promising young researchers to attend schools in normal-flux areas where they could learn wildcard skills, and then move them into laboratories where they could do gadgeteering or even quick gadgeteering. A campaign run with these rules would have a somewhat postmodern feel, with characters being consciously aware of the narrative conventions of the worlds they inhabited.
Handling this sort of mixture demands a lot of judgment calls; it's much trickier than running a campaign with one style, whether realistic, cinematic, or four-color. And the concept of "flux" doesn't have as many literary or folkloric precedents as the concept of "mana." For both reasons, we decided not to make flux levels part of the standard rules of GURPS. But it s an ingenious idea, for which Brian Rogers deserves recognition, and I offer it here to any GM who feels experimental.
Article publication date: August 3, 2007
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