Every PC Is Expendable, or, Why We Template

by mshrm

My ruling is, every PC needs to stick to the template, mostly. I’m biased towards the original set of “classes” from GURPS Dungeon Fantasy 1, but I’m open to anything from any Dungeon Fantasy supplement or issue of Pyramid. (One exception: I’m not allowing the profusion of specialist clerics from GURPS Dungeon Fantasy 7. Clerics can either be holy or unholy, or they can be “neutral” and actually be a Druid.)

I’m OK with a bit of deviation within the template, like moving discretionary points from one category to another. If, say, you’re making a Barbarian, and you’ve got 28 points in Advantages and want to spend the other 2 in Skills, go right ahead. I’ll also allow things to be swapped in to the template, if we discuss it beforehand; this is how we got a Holy Warrior with One Eye, when that Disadvantage does not appear on the Holy Warrior template. (It’s worthwhile to note that One Eye does appear in the list of suitable Disadvantages in the second chapter of DF1.)

If you want to buy things from the lists from Power-Ups and The Next Level, that’s fine, too. Each character has access to the list for their template. Anyone who takes a “multi-class” lens can choose from the items available to either “class”, once they’ve paid for the entire lens.  If the character is a Knight with 10 points invested in becoming a Knight-Bard, that character can choose anything from the Knight lists, or the remaining items from the Knight-Bard lens. Once the lens is paid off, that character can advance as either a Knight or a Bard, and take items from the list of either class.

Perks and Quirks are such a personalized thing, I’ll allow a lot of latitude there. Just follow all the usual rules about the limits on Perks based on points invested in combat abilities and so forth.  (To be honest, I usually apply those rules by guesstimation. If you’ve got three or fewer, I’m likely to call it good. If you’ve got six, I’ll start adding up totals.)

Compared to the usual “anything goes” style of characters in previous games, this is restrictive. Here, I aim to explain why.

First, the minor point:  “Why no specialist clerics?”

Because I’m aiming for a feeling that’s half the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon and half 1st edition AD&D. As I recall, we didn’t get specialists until 2nd edition. (Am I wrong on that? It’s been so long…)

Because, in my experience, when you start splitting religion too fine in a setting, you end up with religious wars between factions. I want to keep the focus on the good-versus-evil conflict, there, not the political maneuverings of the Church of Thor to undermine the support for the Temple of Athena.

Because, there aren’t seven different kinds of Knight and twelve different flavors of Bard, so why put that much emphasis on just the Cleric? When it comes to fluff and background, the characters can claim whatever god or gods they want, with whatever traditions. There are many orders within The Church. But, at the end of the day, it’s the Good Church against the Demon Worshipers, and the mechanics support that.

Now, the main point:  “Why lean so hard on the templates?  If I want to play a dwarf with Dwarfism who traveled back in time with TL 6 equipment riding a genetically-engineered psionic dinosaur, what’s to stop me?  GURPS can handle it! Freedom!”  (You’ve got to read that last bit the way they did it in Braveheart, donchaknow.)

Well, sure, GURPS can handle it, but I don’t know if I can. Here’s why.

First, the templates are really well-made. I mean, seriously, kudos to Dr Kromm (Sean Punch) and everybody who worked on them. You can tell some deep thought went into them. When it comes to poking around in the dungeon – the problem space we’re talking about – they’re really well-optimized. Everybody has a niche, and it’s easy to avoid stealing each other’s thunder. Personally, I have my doubts that my players and I could do better. I figure, if we start tinkering, we’re likely to break something, and if we go out on our own, template-less, we’ll end up overlooking something important. Maybe the character will be missing some vital component (like boots!) or maybe it will overlap with somebody else’s job, but it’ll end up inferior. (Yeah, I’m a pessimist.)

Second, if everybody is following the templates pretty closely, I don’t have to closely examine every character sheet. I’m going to reminisce a bit about the Supers 1200 game, since we’re done with the retelling. Back when we were making those characters, I had to double-check, over and over, to make sure they wouldn’t just explode into red mist in the first combat. Even though the game was consciously anything-goes, I also had to make sure that nobody was trying to slip through anything too outrageous. As I recall, we had to go through several iterations as I built up the checklist. I don’t want to spend that much time and effort on a character for a dungeon delve. Supers live forever.  Life is cheap in the dungeon.

It’s not just that I’m lazy, either. (Though, I won’t fight against the accusation…)  It’s a matter of priorities.  I’ve only got so much time in the day, being mortal and lacking time travel technology. I’ve got to split my time and energy a lot of different ways. I’ve got something that resembles a real life: work, kids, a significant other who deserves attention, a mortgage to pay, exercise to be taken…  I want to extract the maximum bang for my gaming buck, here. That’s among the main reasons why we shifted from story-driven games to the dungeon delve: because it offered a greater return on investment.

I’ve got a choice. I can spend an hour on stocking the dungeon, extending the maps, coming up with better set-piece battles, writing up monsters than I can re-use, filling chests with interesting treasure, generating clues and maps and traps and tricks… and that time goes towards more fun for the entire group.

Or, I can spend an hour on Bob’s unique, special snowflake of a character, who will be a perfect expression of Bob’s artistic aspirations… and who will, within the first 15 minutes of play, likely as not, grab a doorknob, fail a HT roll, die of poison, and be looted by the other PCs.

(cue sad trombone music)

And the trouble doesn’t end there, because now, Bob is sitting there without a character. (Unless we spent a lot of time writing up a lot of special, unique characters who might never actually see the light of play.) Now, I can either tell Bob that his gaming day is over, or I can tell all the other players to take a break while Bob and I work out a replacement character.

I would much rather stick to the templates, and use my time for the benefit of the entire group. Then, when Bob’s not-quite-perfect-but-close-enough-for-our-purposes character dies, Bob can go off alone and bust out a character in minutes. By the time the party has looted the dead guy, the new guy can be ready to be dropped in. Play continues for all. PC death is a speed-bump, not a show-stopper.

Templates also help to organize intent. I remember several times, introducing GURPS to folks for the first time, back in the day, when they would ask “What kind of character can I make?” and I would answer, “Anything! Anything at all!”  The deer-the-headlights looks were terrible… So, over time, I’ve developed my “Just say no – to everything!” philosophy. If you can do anything, you’ll be overwhelmed by choices, but if the options are cut down to just a few, you can move forward.

If everybody’s working off the same short list of templates, the PCs will become distinctive in their personalities and their roleplay, rather than their stats. For example, when setting up for the Space Cowboys game, I had a list of things I gave a hearty “NO!” to, before character creation even began: no aliens, no super-science, no magic, no cinematic skills… and we ended up with a group of characters with personalities, instead.

Seriously, though, I don’t think it’s all that restrictive. Remember, I’m trying to re-create the games I played in junior high. That means 1st edition AD&D. Back then, you got to roll some dice, arrange the scores if the Dungeon Master was feeling magnanimous, pick one from the “race” column and one from the “class” column. That was it, unless you made a spell caster and needed to pick spells, and even that wasn’t much in the way of customization; I seem to recall a lot of random rolls being involved in the spell-choosing process. (“Chance to know”, right?) Compared to that, or the amount of options available when making a character for Diablo or Final Fantasy or World of Warcraft, I’d say the DF templates give a fair amount of room for customization. I know I’m not worried about having two Swashbucklers in the party, since there’s plenty of room for them to distinguish themselves.

In the end, the templates are all in service to the driving goals of the DF game:  Streamlined. Efficient. With laser-like focus on the action, in the dungeon.

Everything that doesn’t serve that goal gets pitched overboard.