Flash Cards and Callbacks

by mshrm

After my recent grumbling about how hard it can be to keep track of all the little details of the hundreds of spells in GURPS Magic, the players delivered. The Player of The Knight of the Blood Oath (henceforth to be known as TPoTKotBO, for the sheer joy of useless acronyms and CamelCase) suggested the idea of flash cards with spell summaries, and Jed’s player (sadly, “TPoMJW” just doesn’t have that necessary flow, so for no particular reason, we shall dub him “The Rt Revd”, in the Anglican style…) broke out the office supplies and did ’em up.  I’ve seen blurry pictures of color-coded index cards, so far, but I’m looking forward to checking out the actual cards in the flesh.

I’m assured that the six-pound limit from the Body of Air is marked on the card for the spell.

Now, here’s where I risk the wrath of “The Rt Revd”.  After the fact, I got to thinkin’…

I’ve heard a variety of complaints about GURPS. One that seems to have some amount of objective substance is the one about the callbacks. The Body of Air spell is an example.  You see the spell on the character sheet, and you can tell from the name what it’s supposed to do, more-or-less, but there’s some little question about the effects. In our case, the question was “How fast can Alric fly when he’s a cloud?” So, you pull out the PDF, or the physical volume, of GURPS Magic, and you look up the spell.

… which directs you to B262, where the Body of Air meta-trait is defined. And even then, to get our answer, we would have had to go back to B56, under the Flight advantage, where we find the “Basic Speed x 2” formula.

(In actual fact, during play, I waved my hand and said “Yeah, a guy made of air can fly; yeah, a flying guy moves at double speed; yeah, no trouble catching up to and keeping pace with the halfling”.  One of the players made the page-turning trip, for unknown reasons, a few minutes later, and confirmed my memory.  Luckily, I got that’n right. If there had been a serious wind, though, I wouldn’t have correctly remembered the effects of Lighter-Than-Air… or that it’s even included in the meta-trait’s Flight.)

To be clear, when it comes to the books, I entirely support the callback model. If it weren’t for that reference chain, the Body of Air spell would have to include the text of the Body of Air meta-trait, and the meta-trait would have to include the bit about Flight (and Lighter-Than-Air). The spell would double or triple in size. Since you’d expect the same thing to happen to all the spells, the book itself doubles or triples in size, which really means it never would have been printed in the first place. Anyway, at that point, every spell would look like it had its own unique set of rules, and the system would devolve into chaos. I’m a lot happier with the current method of organization, which lets me wave my hand and say “Flying is generally double ground movement, so we’ll go with that and press on”.

That’s how we do it in the world of software, too, so I’m likely biased. 🙂  Write it once, then refer back to that one instance.

Thing is, the callbacks only need to exist in the source material.  When it comes to actual play, with actual characters, I think there’s usefulness to be had by…. well…. “compiling” the character sheets (or spell lists, or whatever).

For instance, let’s take the flash cards. They’re a first step at compiling the general rules from the books into the specific list of supernatural things that Jed can use on short notice. If need be, like if he picks up Wild Talent and starts pulling new spells out of the thin air, we can always go back to the books, but the majority of cases are pulled out into the short list.

Just in case you think the melee guys are getting off without any homework:  fighter types can do the same kind of thing. I’ve long advocated that the players write down their favorite moves in combat, with all the modifiers and effects worked out and added up. Then, in the heat of combat, they’re not looking at the entire list of options, most of which aren’t useful for the character in question. If Needles ever finds himself in a situation where he wants to do a Beat, either he’s torturing small woodland creatures and we can safely go to narrative-style, rather than bothering with dice and one-second turns, or he’s in such dire straits that there’s no help to be had. Alric isn’t going to care about the penalties for parrying flails, but TKotBO needs to make a note of it — and mention it to me each and every time, lest I overlook it, honestly. Gabby would likely benefit from a list of options like “Stab three guys in their throats” and “Stab one guy in his throat three times”.

Furthermore, I would say it’s a good idea to chase all the page references down. Going back to the flash cards for Jed’s spells, I would think it would be worthwhile to mention how to calculate the speed of flight, and at least a mention of wind affecting Lighter Than Air fliers’ movement rates. Whenever a question comes up in play, whenever some fine point has to be looked up, the answer to that question should be a candidate for adding to the character’s notes.

You can see something along these lines in the monster stats in DF. They won’t direct you to the Affliction advantage, but they’ll tell you that failure by 5 inflicts this additional effect. They’ll tell you this attack hits on a 12 and gives a -3 to active defenses, rather than stating the 18 skill and a preference for Deceptive Attacks.

I think my players have seen great benefit from the two-page combat summaries we’ve got laying around.  (Originally downloaded from The Mook, now tattered and torn and badly in need of having a new set printed and laminated.) I think they would get even more benefit, if we boiled those two pages down into the half-dozen moves that they’re most likely to use.