Don't Forget Your Boots

Meandering aimlessly around the GURPS landscape

Category: PC Options

Steampunk Jetpack

One of the player’s stated goals for Knuer, the techie, is to own a jetpack. He’s an airship pilot, and he needs options for when the time comes to bail out from a burning balloon. Since I need to get comfortable with the GURPS Monster Hunters inventing rules, let’s run through some options.

The standard MH rules have a modifier for “every decade… from general consumption”, which starts racking up quick when you’re talking about a starting year of 1851, especially when folks want to be able to create TL 5+1 WWII-era guns or TL 5+3 difference engines. Therefore, I’m going to instead be using the standard -5 per TL modifier from GURPS Basic Set: Campaigns, page 475.

Let’s see if we can sneak up on this “jetpack” idea, since there might be easier, more steampunk-y options along the way. What we’re looking for, really, is some kind of man-portable emergency flight technology.

We could start with the TL 7 hang-glider from GURPS High Tech, page 232. The modified base cost for a folding TL 5+2 hang-glider would be $8,000, for a complexity modifier of -1. Knuer could roll Scrounging -1 to come up with the parts, or just pay $80 out of pocket. Then, with no more than a couple of hours’ work, he would roll Inventor! at -11, with success meaning accepting a bug in the prototype and a critical success meaning no bug. If he could make a Weird Science roll, he would roll Inventor! at -6, but might have to accept a strange side effect. (Of course, all of these rolls could be affected by spending wildcard points and so forth.) Once built, the prototype would only work for (1d + margin of success) minutes before being at risk of failure.

For comparison, let’s run through the Quick Gadgeteering rules from the Basic Set: A TL 7 hang glider, by price, is Average complexity. First, Knuer would need to make a concept roll, using Inventor! at -2. Assembling a prototype would require 1d-2 hours. Again, he could Scrounge for the parts, but at -2. Failing that, he could pay $6,000 for a facility suitable for inventing hang gliders, and $80 for the materials to build a prototype. He would need to roll Inventor! at -12, or -7 with Weird Science, to successfully build the prototype, but success by anything less than a margin of three would introduce bugs. Barring trouble from those bugs, the prototype would be as durable as any other piece of equipment. In time, he might be able to set up a production line to build hang gliders for sale to the public.

However, Knuer wants powered flight, so let’s run through the calculations using the ram-air parachute from HT, p. 232, a TL 8 gadget with a modifier cost of $28,000. Using MH rules, that’s no more than 3 hours of work, Scrounging -2 or pay $280, roll Inventor! at -17 or -9 with Weird Science.

The Basic Set rules say the ram-air parachute is still Average complexity, meaning the concept roll would still be at -2, and the facility cost would remain the same, but the cost per prototype would jump to $280. The roll to create the prototype would be at -17, or -9 with Weird Science.

Finally, what about a TL 9 helipack (GURPS Ultra-Tech, p. 231)? With a starting price of $320K, MH rules give a base time of 1d hours and a complexity modifier of -3, plus -20 in Tech Level modifiers. If Scrounging -3 doesn’t work, it’s $3,200 in parts. Roll Inventor! at -23, or -13 with Weird Science.

By the basic rules, the helipack is a Complex invention, with a base -4 modifier. The facility cost is $22,500 and each prototype will cost $3,200. The roll to create would be at -24, or -14 with Weird Science.

So: it seems that the MH rules are for field-expedient, “MacGyver-ed” creations. If you want an invention to last, you’ll need to invest in expensive production equipment. And, even spending wildcard points, given his 18- skill roll, Knuer is likely to use Weird Science and end up with an air-ram parachute… but coal-fueled, ghost-attracting, and whistling like a tea kettle.



Not Every Pirate Can Sing A Shanty

There are some Skills that deserve an honorable mention in the life of a buccaneer, which I overlooked the other day.

Pirates were famous for their music. Sea shanties* would coordinate the labor of groups of sailors. They would play musical instruments when attempting to intimidate their targets. I would expect Singing and Musical Instrument to be well-represented among the Skills of the crew. Either one might be useful as a complimentary skill for Seamanship or Intimidation.

Considering the important role that music plays in most ritual magic, I could see both Singing and Musical Instrument to be helpful to a bokor. I don’t think I would go so far as a complimentary skill roll, but appropriate music might count towards “traditional trappings”, which can substantially reduce the amount of energy required by a ritual.

One of the players asked about Heraldry. My first thought was, if a pirate can tell an English flag from a Spanish one, how much more detail does he need?

Turns out, the real world was more complicated than that.

Still, I don’t recall Jack Sparrow wasting too much brow-sweat on the difference between the flags of Genoa and Naples. When it comes to broad questions of “Is that ship with us, or against us?” or “What language should we use to yell at them?”, I doubt I’ll require anything more than a Perception check to get a good look at a flag. If you want to be sure to be able to tell Prussia from Royal Prussia, or to know why any ship flying the flag of Saxony is suspicious, go ahead and put a point into Heraldry.

That’s for the flags of nations, mind you. Pirate captains had their own flags, as well. One might also identify those with Streetwise, Area Knowledge (Caribbean), or any of several flavors of Current Affairs.

There’s another way 17th-century sailors could identify friend or foe at a distance. Ever hear someone say “I like the cut of your jib” or the like? A jib is a kind of sail, a triangular one ahead of the foremast. Different countries favored different ways of rigging them. The “cut” was the same as in “the cut of one’s clothes”, referring to the way the sail was shaped. The shape of a sail would be visible from much further than the details of a flag, so a knowledgeable sailor could tell a ship’s nationality from the shape of its jib. A roll against any of the “sailor” skills — Boating, Seamanship, or Shiphandling — will reveal the nationality of the crew, even if a ship is trying to conceal its allegiance.


* Yeah, I see the bit where Wikipedia says there have been work songs since who-knows, but the true “sea shanty” didn’t really come into its own until the early 1800’s. I’m hanging my hat on the bit where it says you might find traces of them as early as the mid-1500’s. When history adds color to the game, it’s allowed to come indoors. When it starts tracking too much realism around, out it goes!

A Pirate’s Life For Me

A question came up concerning the upcoming Pirates campaign:  Will it be like the Space Cowboys game, where there were certain jobs on the crew that had to be filled or else everybody dies stranded in the cold vacuum or, even worse, goes broke… or like the Dungeon Fantasy game, where there’s a defined mission but how you accomplish it is up to you… or the apocalypse game, where part of the fun was throwing together a bike mechanic, a clown, a bookbinder, and an elderly gardener, and throwing them to the wolves? Will the players need to coordinate to make sure everybody has a job, and all the work gets done? Or can they take a more free-wheeling approach?

The answer is, a little bit of both. Let me explain…

Pirate society — at least, the GURPSified, romanticized pirate society I’m aiming for — is going to be made up of a few broad classes of characters. There will be a few cabin boys, powder monkeys, and addlepated mascots, coming in around 25-30 points, or even less. Nobody will listen to them, and they’ll be largely disposable. Next, there’s the bulk of the crew, the able seamen, the ones who do all the climbing and lifting that goes on in the background. They’ll be somewhere around 75 points, give or take. When it comes time for group decision-making, they’ll be doing the voting, but they’re unlikely to come up with any plans on their own. They need leadership. Finally, there’s the exceptional characters, 100+ points, who make up the skilled crew and the folks who stand out from the crowd. The leadership, in other words. This is where you’ll find the PCs. Whatever their apparent rank, they’re 150 point characters, so they’re certain to shine brightly.

Any ship worth using for piracy in the 1660’s is going to have several dozen crew. GURPS Low-Tech Companion 2: Weapons and Warriors suggests a sloop of war as a common ship among pirates, carrying a crew of 70. With a crowd that size, there’s no need to have a PC covering every noteworthy position. The less-exciting jobs can be left to NPCs. (As an added bonus, there should be plenty of semi-nameless NPCs hanging around to be promoted to full PC status, in case of sudden, unexpected PC loss!)

Since the NPCs will be handling the boring work, I expect the PCs will gravitate towards the exciting jobs. When it comes to piracy during the Age of Sail, that means boarding, above all else. The whole draw of a pirate game is the possibility of swinging ship-to-ship with a cutlass clutched between your teeth and a flintlock in both hands, clinging to a ratline with your peg-leg and sheer wickedness. Who’s going to pass that up to play the ship’s accountant? Therefore, I expect certain skilled jobs to be restricted to NPCs, for those who wouldn’t be taking part in any villainous derring–do, like the ship’s surgeon. Those guys are probably half-captive anyway.

Specific jobs on a pirate crew are somewhat fluid. If you’ve got the skills, you’re in the running for the gig. For whatever reason, it’s a cliche that anybody who knows their way around a kitchen can gain a position of respect among a pirate crew, by taking over cooking duties from whatever hapless slob got stuck with the job last. The crew could even vote in a new captain. PCs need to be defined by what they can do, not their title. In particular, no PC can drop points into Rank and claim the captaincy. There’s no “captain” template, there’s just the person in charge when the cannons start firing.

So. Let’s get down to brass tacks, shall we?

At the beginning of the first session, the PCs will be among the crew of one Captain Courvoisier, an older buccaneer who has been heard to fondly mention his looming retirement. Anybody who wants a particular job on Courvoisier’s crew needs to take the appropriate skills. If two people want the same job, and there’s no other way to settle it, we’ll handle it the pirate way, and open with a duel… 😉

I doubt anybody will want the position of carpenter, or sail maker, or surgeon. It’s unlikely that the position of master gunner would be interesting, but with all the cannon and explosions and so forth, it might be. Finally, on a properly run ship of the Royal Navy, there would be a dedicated navigator. A pirate ship might, or might just have a person or two with points in Navigation (Sea), handling those duties in addition to their own.

Then there’s the leadership team. The captain is in charge overall, so long as he keeps the support and confidence of the crew. The captain needs the skills of a boarder, being expected to lead from the front. The quartermaster is in charge of stores and loot, and is supposed to represent the crew to the captain. The bosun is in charge of the ship itself and its maintenance. (The bosun’s the one who’ll tell folks to swab the deck. The quartermaster’s who’ll flog the sailor who tells the bosun where to go.) The bosun needs more core seamanship skills than the others, but what all three need is social skills. A charismatic captain doesn’t need to know the stern from a hole in the ground, but an unpopular captain won’t stay in charge for long.

Speaking of social skills, Long John Silver went from ship’s cook to pirate captain. Plenty of PC-grade characters start off in the galley.

Most of the pirates on a ship will be just plain sailors, with a sprinkling of cabin boys. (And cabin girls, I hear, in the case of one PC.) They’ll need solid seamanship skills to play the role. Given the point totals, I would expect any PC starting at this level to be quickly promoted to a position of responsibility.

There’s one other position that’ll be filled on the campaign’s pirate ships, even though it’s not a traditional navy post. Many ships will carry a bokor, a sorcerer skilled in the ways of voodoo. Like the captain, a ship’s bokor might not have any great skills as a seaman. Instead, the bokor’s job is to handle the spirits. Specifics vary from sorcerer to sorcerer. One might whistle up the wind, while another might scry for rich, easy targets. Aside from helping, in whatever way, with the taking of prizes, a bokor is expected to be the ship’s expert in all things uncanny.


Every-Pirate Skills (and other traits)

There are certain Skills that are all but ever-present in a pirate-themed GURPS game.

Seamanship is the most common Skill aboard a pirate ship. Having points in Seamanship is what makes a person a useful crew-member. Since we’re talking about a 17th-century sailing ship, a point in Knot-Tying should be considered a prerequisite for Seamanship. A member of the crew who is going to go aloft in the rigging would be wise to invest in Climbing, as well.

The counterpart to Seamanship is Shiphandling. It’s the skill of directing the crew. Page 220 of the GURPS Basic Set: Characters tells us that one needs points in Leadership, Navigation (Sea), and Seamanship before buying Shiphandling. Only a handful of people will need this Skill, but it’ll be a key skill when it comes time to take a prize. Similarly, Freight Handling would be of great use to the crew, but only a few members would need points in it to supervise loading and unloading of cargo.

While Navigation (Sea) will tell you where to go, Weather Sense will tell you when it’s best to stay home.

A knowledge of smaller boats is likely to be useful and common. Boating (Unpowered) is required to take out a rowboat, while Boating (Sailboat) is necessary if under sail. Smaller boats can often transition back and forth from one specialization to the other, so it’s best to invest in both.

If a character is going to aim the cannon, that character needs to put points into Gunner (Cannon), while those using mortars will want Artillery (Cannon). Loaders and assistants don’t appear to need either Skill, though it could be helpful. A skilled crew might improve rate of fire, for instance.

Now that we’ve sailed up to a target and unloaded the cannon, it’s time for boarding. Most pirates are going to want some sort of combat skill for when the fighting moves from ship-to-ship to hand-to-hand. (Also useful for settling fine points of justice between sailors.)

The favorite ranged combat skill is Guns (Pistol), for flintlock pistols, with Guns (Musket) close behind, for longer arms. A TL4 sharpshooter might have Guns (Rifle), but they would be more commonly found on land. At TL4, it was expected that a gun would be fired and then be used as a melee weapon for the rest of the fight (see GURPS Low-Tech pg 63, under “Musket or Rifle” and “Pistol”), so a pirate might also want Axe/Mace or Two-Handed Axe/Mace for the follow-up.

The classic pirates’ weapon is the Cutlass, customarily used with the Shortsword skill. It also offers the option of a hilt punch, using Boxing, Brawling, or Karate. Other melee weapons commonly used during the Age of Sail include the boarding pike (not the Pike from GURPS Low-Tech, which has a Reach of “4,5”, but the Spear, with a maximum effective Reach of 2), the boarding axe (certainly used with Axe/Mace skill, but could use the weapon stats of a Hatchet, Axe, Small Axe, or even a Pick), and all manner of knives and improvised clubs.

Historically speaking, few 17th-century sailors knew how to swim. Cinematic pirates, on the other hand, all seem to be Trained By An Otter, and it works well for them.

Pirates who find themselves marooned on some deserted shore had better hope they have points in Survival (Island/Beach) or possibly Survival (Jungle). Knowledge of several languages is also quite common among pirates.

Regarding traits beyond Skills…

Sense of Duty (Brethren of the Coast) [-10] and/or Code of Honor (Pirate’s) [-5] are highly recommended. Remember, this isn’t an attempt to be true to history. The pirates might be unwashed, violent thieves, but they’re the Good Guys!

Most pirates aren’t rich (yet!), and the usual pirate load-out (cutlass, pistol or two, rags, bare feet) isn’t all that expensive. A Wealth level of Struggling or worse is recommended, but not required.

One who has been convicted of piracy, but not hung for it, might have Social Stigma (Criminal Record). They’re also likely to be sporting a stylish brand, just like Captain Jack Sparrow.

Speaking of which… being a pirate puts one firmly on the wrong side of somebody. In this case, that means Enemy (Spanish Navy, 9 or less) [-20] at a minimum, for nearly any conceivable PC. The price is based on “a city police department” from GURPS Basic Set: Characters, page 135, figuring that’s the default value for “wanted by the authorities”. A really famous pirate might bump up to a -30 point Enemy, if pursued by entire fleets or especially powerful ships. Off-hand, the only way I can see for a member of a pirate crew to avoid taking the Enemy would be if they could claim to be serving under duress. Such a state of grace wouldn’t last long. It’s hard to claim one’s innocence when caught red-handed, forcing captives to walk the plank.


Medicine For The Mundane

We’ve had a few campaigns using GURPS Fourth Edition, but as I look back, none of them have had much in the way of normal, mundane, long-term healing.

In the Weird West game, there were only ever two kinds of fights. There were brawls, mostly with fists, where any injury could be put right with a First Aid roll and a good night’s sleep. Past that, there were serious fights, starting with six-shooters and scaling up all the way to aerial bombardment, where if you weren’t dead when the smoke cleared, you were probably unscathed. The Space Cowboys campaign was the same way: the progression went from “unhurt” to “scuffed and bruised”, then suddenly jumped to “atoms scattered in the vacuum”. Even with a doctor as a PC, we still didn’t have much detailed healing.

Both times we’ve played Supers, defensive powers and abundant regeneration meant that few PCs had to seek medical assistance. In the lower-powered, grittier game, there was one PC who had an extensive subplot involving recovery from injury, but that was only because he was mostly mechanical. His problem wasn’t finding a doctor, it was coming up with the cash flow to keep himself in spare parts.

In Dungeon Fantasy, of course, nobody ever went to the doctor, they just gave an ample donation to the Church. Actually, as it happened, after rapidly going through a series of clerics, my guys just had the alchemist/bard brew up healing potions. A limb or two was crippled, but then immediately fixed through Applied Theology.

When you get down to it, the most experience my group has had with the GURPS rules for mundane medicine and healing is watching TKotBO stop a wound from bleeding through the application of a spinal adjustment. (His specialization for Esoteric Medicine was “Chiropractic”.) Since the number of broken limbs is starting to exceed the number of PCs in the apocalypse campaign, I thought it might be a good time to review.

First Aid

First Aid is what’s done while the wounded are still laying on the ground. It’s what you get when your care provider is a Boy Scout, rather than a doctor. It’s also what my players are most familiar with: the skill that stops bleeding and restores a few HP while resting after the fight. When confronted with a crippled arm, First Aid puts it in a sling.

So, when thinking of the apocalypse party, remember that Farrah has a broomstick tied to one leg, from hip to ankle, and Cauliflower Jones has one arm tightly tied to his chest. They’ve received First Aid treatment, and that’s about as good as it gets.

Trained medical professionals can do better than just First Aid. First, there’s the Diagnosis skill, which is used to determine what’s wrong with the patient, when it isn’t obvious. (Like in the case of our apocalypse-survivors: their problem is, they’re all busted and banged up.) More immediately useful for our heroes are Physician, Pharmacy, and Surgery.

Physician is the skill for tending the sick and wounded, and for deciding what drug a patient needs. Pharmacy is the skill for making that drug, if it’s not already available. Surgery is the invasive skill of digging in there and trying to fix things, hands-on.

How does this apply to our heroes of the apocalypse? Medically speaking, they have two challenges before them. They’re suffering from lost Hit Points, and they’ve collected multiple crippled limbs.

Hit Points are regained naturally, with a HT roll after a “day of rest and decent food” (B424). If you spend the day wrestling zombies, searching ruins, and hiking trails, all on short rations, you don’t heal. On the other hand, if you’re under the care of a physician, the doctor gets a Physician roll to restore another HP. (And you could get a bonus to the HT roll for natural healing, which is nothing to sneeze at when you don’t have HT 14.) Considering that the average character has HT 10 (50% success rate), and a licensed doctor is going to have Physician 12-15 (74-95% success), a hospitalized patient is going to recover over twice as fast as one relying on bed-rest alone.

The crippled limbs are another problem. Most of them are only temporarily crippled, so once the HP are back, the effects of the injuries go away, too. There are a few lasting injuries, though, with recovery periods measured in months. An operation using the Surgery skill can change the recovery period to weeks, instead!

There you go, easy-peasy: all the PCs need to do is spend five or six days in a well-equipped hospital!


Nerd Rage! or, Fighting When You Don’t Know How

The PCs in the current mid-apocalyptic campaign start with only 50 points. They are not fighters. No one has Combat Reflexes. Several characters have instances of Squeamish, Honesty, and various flavors of Pacifism. A couple have combat-oriented skills of questionable utility. What skills they have are hampered, either by improvised weaponry, or low damage, or unwillingness to use the skill to its full lethal potential.

This is all according to plan, but it takes some adjustment. We’re coming off a run of Dungeon Fantasy, where if a character can’t deliver 3d cutting every turn or so, they’re off the front line, and if they can’t take 3d cutting without breaking a sweat, they’re considered squishy. The scuffle at the end of last session really demonstrated that combat with knights and swashbucklers is a lot different than a fight between nerds and slackers.

First, your band of non-fighting, modern-day pencil pushers and couch potatoes is going to have a harder time landing a hit. DF characters have combat skill levels of 14, 17, 21… where normal slobs roll against their DX of 10 to land a punch at default. To review: a skill of 14 means a success 90% of the time; skill of 12, a 75% success rate; skill 10 means 50-50 chances; skill 8 only lands 25.9% of the time; skill 5 is about 5%, or the same as “roll a natural 20”. To put those numbers into character context, Rho the short-lived priest of Anubis started out with Axe/Mace at 14. An average mid-apocalyptic Portlander throws a punch at a 10, kicks on an 8 or less, and swings a baseball bat with a skill level of 5 (all defaults from DX 10).

Next, average non-fighters tend to not do a whole mess o’ damage. In the world of DF, even a wimpy spellcaster hanging out in the rear is going to have ST 12 and a small mace. The apocalypse PCs tend to hover around 1d-2, 1d-3, at best. We had an excellent demonstration, last session, when the scrappy Farrah was landing punch after punch on her adversary, only to roll 0 damage time after time. (I fully expect to hear “I would like to roll Scrounging to improvise some brass knuckles,” next session — assuming they aren’t all wiped out by the oncoming tripod.)

There are plenty of familiar combat options for DF characters. (“Shoot it in the eye” comes to mind, followed closely by “Stab it in the eye” and “Cleanse it with fire”.) But what’s J. Q. Citizen supposed to do when it’s the end of the world and things get confrontational? I’ve been flipping through the books, and here’s some thoughts.

All-out… something

If a character performs a regular Attack maneuver, they keep their active defense. When a DF barbarian uses a regular Attack to lop off an orc’s head, that barbarian is ducking and dodging and keeping an eye out to both sides. If the dead orc’s comrade pops out from behind a tree and throws a spear, the barbarian gets a chance to dodge.

I don’t see non-fighters doing that much multi-tasking. When Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris face off, there’s lots of punching and blocking. When Bubba Lee and Charley get into a brawl, there’s a lot more missed wild swings and cowering. I envision non-fighters as doing a lot of All-Out Defense (Increased Dodge) as they approach and look for their opening, followed by some kind of All-Out Attack when they think they’ve found it. That AOA is necessary to offset either their poor chance to hit or their poor damage.

My players are fond of using Extra Effort to get effects like All-Out Attacks without sacrificing their defenses. I expect this is the difference between a well-fed, well-rested combatant, and one who hasn’t eaten for some days. As their available Fatigue shrinks, they’ll change their ways…

The sucker punch

Applied when you’re the only one who knows there’s about to be a fight. This is where you Evaluate three times, then hit the target.

By the rules as written, that’ll give a +3. One could combine that with an AOA (Determined) and aim for the target’s face, for a net +2. That would give the hypothetical average character a 12 to hit, which isn’t bad at all. If you can take the victim by surprise — probably a question of Acting rolls or the like — they won’t get an active defense. If you can deliver any damage at all, you’ll force a knockdown roll, which could lead to a stunned (-4 to defenses) and prone (a further -3 to defenses, among other things), if not outright unconscious, victim. In the movies, this is when the poor guy on the ground starts getting kicked…

Body check

The slam never got much love in the DF game, but I think it deserves a second look, through the eyes of the unskilled fighter. It defaults to DX, no training required. A normal, ST 10, Move 5 character is going to be doing 1d-2 (still better than a 1d-3 punch) with a running slam, while the somewhat huskier characters with ST 11-12 will be doing 1d-1. You could also add extra damage from an AOA (Strong). If you do at least as much damage as your target, the target has to make a DX roll to keep their feet! (And we know what falling down means, with the kicking…)

Let’s say a ST 12 bruiser does a slam at Move 5, using an AOA (Strong), against a hapless ST 10 target. The bruiser is rolling 1d+1 for damage, while the target is rolling 1d-2. In five out of six match-ups, the target is rolling DX to keep its feet. On average, the target is taking 4.5 points of damage, verging on “major wound” territory, while the bruiser is taking 1 2/3. If the bruiser’s got a bit of armor… say, some appropriate sporting goods…

Stand behind something and chuck rocks at ’em

A classic favorite of disorganized mobs surrounded by rubble. The default roll to hit a person with a thrown rock is DX-3, or a measly 7 for the average character. An AOA (Determined) can bump this to an 8, which may not seem like much, but it’s the difference between a 16.2% success rate and 25.9%. The real secret to landing a thrown rock is to bring along a couple of dozen buddies to all throw rocks at the same time.

For maximum damage, a normal, ST 10 character is going to want to look for a 10 pound rock, which can be thrown up to 8 yards for thr+1, or 1d-1, damage. Lighter ammunition improves distance but decreases damage.

What we did about Wealth

After the apocalypse, nobody’s got a job. There is no such thing as a steady income.

For this particular apocalypse, I didn’t want any PCs with the super-power that is money. All along, the discussion has been about a world where one PC might contemplate killing another PC over a can of creamed corn. The stakes are never higher than when they’re lowest, y’know? It gets hard to set up that kind of scenario when one PC shows up hauling a wagon load of canned vegetables.

Digression:  Actually, the worst is when the game’s been going for a session or two and the players are really getting into the groove of their characters’ plight, and then the new, rich PC enters. I remember one time, way back when I got to play in other people’s games… It was D&D, and the gimmick was that our characters woke up in a field, naked, with no signs of nearby civilization. The traditional “Robinson Crusoe” scenario.

We played it out for a few sessions, working our way up from nothing. We found shelter, improvised clothing and equipment, started working on a steady supply of food. There were ups and downs. Some starvation. Sunburn on inconveniently-exposed hit locations. Best weapon in the group was a crude staff, best armor was a smelly bear skin.

… and then the cleric arrived, a local on a pilgrimage, well-equipped for a solo march through uncharted territory. He was wearing mail (and pants!), carrying actual weapons (made of metal!), and had a big pack full of provisions (iron rations!). He learned why one always travels with a rogue when he walked into one of our survivalists’ larger snares. One moment, he’s walking along admiring the beauty of the gods’ creation. Next moment, he’s disoriented and upside-down, and there’s a wild man with a beard running at him, winding up with a piece of firewood like he’s swinging for the fences, and clonk

Cleric wakes up some time later, bound in crude ropes, stripped to his loincloth. He’s surrounded by an unkempt group of cave-murder-hobos, squabbling over who gets his pants. One is already wearing his tunic. Another is getting the feel of his mace. They’ve all already gorged themselves on his food. (“Never thought I’d miss the taste of iron rations!”)

So, sometimes, when things get desperate, having a lot of wealth is just a target on a character’s back.

Back to the point: How did we handle Wealth during character creation?

We’re defining starting wealth in terms of what a character has on ’em when the fit hits the shan.

Everybody gets an outfit of clothes suitable to their nominal Status. Since one of the marks of an apocalypse is the failure of society, and Status is one’s ranking within society, nobody needs to pay for Status. Yes, this opens up a potential “exploit” in which a PC gets a more valuable suit of clothes, just for saying “I was rich and powerful in the Before Times!” Interestingly, those who were rich and powerful in the Before Times tend to have skills like Makeup or Propaganda or Savoir-Faire, while those less well-off tend towards skills like Urban Survival and Two-Handed Axe/Mace and Knot-Tying. Just sayin’.

Furthermore, a starting PC gets a base $250 in everyday carry. (Of course, those are GURPS dollars.) The amount was determined by the price of a TL 8 cell phone in the Basic Set. A starting character with no points spent is supposed to be the equivalent of a healthy 18-year-old recruit on the first day of Basic Training, and I see that character as having nothing in its pockets except the latest IPhone.

Regarding cell phones: take special note of the rules for cheap equipment being either clunky or fragile, from GURPS High Tech page 10. (Expensive equipment is also an option, but for whatever reason, nobody seems to care.) PCs can stretch their starting wealth by trading that “latest IPhone” for an older, chunkier phone, or for one that’s easily broken and prone to failure. The PCs thus far have a distinct preference for big phones.

Starting wealth is modified as usual by Wealth Advantages and Disadvantages, with one caveat. All that’s at stake here is starting wealth. As noted above, nobody’s going to have a monthly income. Therefore, all Wealth-related traits take a -50% modifier, since they have no effect, good or bad, on one’s wealth after the game begins. Yes, this means a PC can invest 5 points (of a starting 50) in Comfortable wealth and only get back $500 in starting equipment. That extra $250 can buy an awful lot of creamed corn, y’know.

Wealth is after TEOTWAWKI, not before. A homeless person with a tattered sleeping bag, an improvised tent, and a pointed stick is more wealthy, after the fall of society, than a person carrying an armload of gold bricks. Especially when they’re both being chased by hungry zombies.


Even more frightful…

As one would expect, there’s a lot of discussion about Fright Checks in GURPS Horror. I think I’ll be incorporating some of the options into the upcoming post-apocalyptic campaign.

First, we’ll use all the options in the “Not Just Stunned” sidebar from page 141. In short, if you roll a “stunned” result on the Fright Check Table, you can substitute some equally useless, but hopefully more amusing, behavior in its place. At best, this might mean “panicked flight”, where appropriate, but usually it means “burst into tears”, “close eyes and repeat ‘This isn’t happening’ while rocking self in corner”, or the like. Knowing this group, if you come up with a good way to demonstrate abject terror, you’ll likely get voted extra points for it.

Or, for example…

Furthermore, it’s always acceptable to dig the hole deeper. It’s always permissible to take a worse result than what’s rolled. For example, if you roll a 17 on the table, but really don’t want to faint, you can offer to take a 22 or 23, stay on your feet, and pick up a new mental Disadvantage!  (Which I’m sure sounds like a great deal to somebody. “I can skip the fainting and stay in the fight? Sign me up!” Now, let’s consider some possible 10-point Disadvantages:  Cowardice. Confused. Partial Amnesia. A whole world of Phobias, starting with a fear of weapons and heading rapidly downhill from there. Which is worse in a fight, losing 5 seconds to stun, or taking 5 seconds to strip off all of one’s clothing?)

Second, I think we’ll be using the optional rules for Stress and Derangement, from pages 141-2. The idea is, as you fail Fright Checks for one reason or another, you’ll accumulate Stress and/or Derangement. Stress is just nerves, gained by being scared, removed by calming down. When you’re investigating the spooky thumping and the cat jumps out at you, you gain Stress. Derangement is deep-down mental damage, the kind you get from suffering prolonged torture or accepting the Collect Call of Cthulhu. If you accumulate too much Stress, it can spill over into Derangement, much like Fatigue loss can lead to loss of Hit Points. Derangement can be “healed” naturally, but just like Hit Points, if you’ve down too many, you’ll want the care of a professional. If you accumulate too much Derangement, you start accumulating Disadvantages.

Both Stress and Derangement count against you when making Fright Checks. Once something damages your calm, it’s hard to maintain composure in the face of even more shocks. Terrify a person long enough with respite, and you’ll drive them mad.

(Now, the question is, does this tweak to the rules prompt anyone to play a character with psychiatric skills? It’s almost a given that we’ll see some kind of doctor, or veterinarian, or former combat medic, or somebody familiar with bandages, in the first cohort of PCs. Will the players be as worried about their characters’ mental health, as their physical? Will we see more priests, social workers, mental health professionals? Nah, I bet we just see a lot more horrifying backgrounds.  “Grew up under the stairs like Harry Potter, see,” they’ll say, “but in a south Alabama funeral home, not a London suburb. Fed nothing but dirt and moonshine. Taught myself to read from the Shooter’s Bible. My buddy, here, was raised by wolves.”)

Finally, just to pull in another book, GURPS Tactical Shooting has some thoughts on Fright Checks in grittier games. There’s a section I’ll be using, on page 34, that talks about replacing Delusion results from the table with other Disadvantages of equivalent point value, chosen to simulate the effects of PTSD. More important than that is the section preceding, “Cool Under Fire”, which mentions situations that might prompt a Fright Check from some characters. I think my favorite is “being the target of a near miss… from any attack”.

Fright Checks get applied at the GM’s discretion, when something comes up that might frighten the characters. It’s a subjective call. A character depicted as a normal, unassuming citizen might have to roll when confronted with a corpse in broad daylight. The inevitable combat medic wouldn’t. Both would roll if they opened a closet door and were suddenly wrestling with good ol’ Uncle Bob’s gory zombie. The first time a character kills a zombie, it’s a task and a trial. Some folks panic, or flinch, and they die. By the time a character’s survived, say, five seasons, zombie-killing gets to be as routine as chopping wood.


Ground Rules For The Apocalypse

I’ve been pondering on the ground rules for the post-apocalyptic game for a long time, just kicking different things around. Here’s what I’m thinking, at this point. Some of it’s old news, some of it’s new thoughts, and a lot of it is just a gelling of vague ideas into solid decisions.

The general vision of the game is, it’s the end of the world as we know it (or, TEOTWAWKI, because it gets repetitive typing “apocalypse” over and over). We’ll pick up some time before The Last Good Day Ever, do some “day in the life” stuff so everybody gets a feel for what civilized life felt like. Some number of characters will live through The Really Really Bad Day. Survivors make their way in an uncivilized world that’s been radically altered by events.

My vague hope is that they would start trying to kick-start the human race again, maybe plant some crops and so forth, but I’m not too worried about it. I figure that’s such a long-term goal, we might never even get there. Still, I would be tickled all the way down to the ground if they were to, say, end up weighing the relative merits of pickling the okra for the winter versus trading it, fresh, for homebrew beer made by the settlement down the river.

The nature of the Bad Day should be a surprise, so I’m going to try really, really hard not to give it away. I might not decide until the time comes, just to be sure. I have previously sworn, though: I shall not run a Zombie Apocalypse. There you go. Big shades-of-green rainbow and everything, “I establish my covenant, never again will I run a game where the human race gets wiped out by the risen dead. Not even those 28 Days Later scalawags.” Stuff that’s similar to zombies is still on the table. Hypnotized crowds, shell-shocked victims, things of that nature, all possibilities. Just no zombies. So, having promised that, rather than give away any secrets, I’ll use the zombies in any examples.

PCs start with 50 points, no more than 5 quirks, and unlimited Disadvantages.

Unlimited Disadvantages?!?  Yup, I’m not putting any particular cap on how many Disads a PCs can have. If you want to play the blind monk from World War Z (the book, not that other thing), or the hapless pater familias herding around a bunch of screaming, sniffling potential hostages, or a clumsy, under-educated, socially-awkward heroin addict with a bad knee… well, more power to ya. I wish you all the luck. I reckon these things are self-correcting.

Now, this specifically doesn’t mean, take a long list of pointless 5-point disads hoping they’ll never come up. I’ve already sworn, the next time someone brings me a character with “Phobia (Sex)”, I’ll throw ’em out of the game, just on general principles. You can take any Disadvantage you want, but I aim to enforce those Disadvantages ruthlessly. To kinda riff off Steven Wright for a moment, if you’re bold enough to bring me a character sheet with “Intolerance (Jewish cowboys)”, then you can be sure that your character’s very life will depend on working closely with a guy named Bucky Goldstein.

(Me, I just don’t get the list of 5-point disads that come up once, maybe. When I build a character, I want a big, splashy Disadvantage, something I can chew on as a role-player. In fiction, you get the best scenes when the disads kick in. The defining moments, really. Bob, from Walking Dead, trying to decide if he should reach for the bottle or not. Bullseye, dangling over the abyss, choosing between self-preservation and his hatred for Daredevil. Two out of three heroes of ancient Greek myth, and that time they were too proud for their own good…)

I’m skeptical of claims that one can role-play 100 points worth of “color and personality”. The goal isn’t to open the floodgates of goofy comedy characters, it’s to allow enough latitude for some character concepts that might otherwise get overlooked. Like, normal slobs, folks who want to get out and exercise more but never do, the people with glasses and bad knees. Not the usual Hollywood heroes.

Acceptable, even likely, PC. May not put points into Engineer (Spaceship).

Speaking of comedy characters… Look, I live in Portland. (Even worse, I plan to locate the game here in town, at least to start with.) I’m thoroughly aware that the world is full of interesting characters.  If you bring me the character sheet of a tall-bike-riding mountain-climbing luchador who raises chickens in his backyard, participates avidly in roller derby, and makes specialty cheese for a living, well, I can’t very well say anything other than “Howdy, neighbor, did they put my bills in your mailbox again?” And admire the useful post-apocalyptic skill set, of course. But, I can say that the game world won’t appreciate your special, unique snowflake any more than it will a more restrained character. A unicycle will not magically outrun the zombie horde just because it’s an amusing visual. That luchador mask will not be taken as a charming affectation, but as a sign of mental instability; it will provide no armor, but might just obscure one’s vision at an inopportune moment. So it goes.

Just like the Space Cowboys game, the assumption is that a baseline character will have Reluctant Killer. A character with Combat Reflexes will need an explanation for how it was earned. I intend to fully embrace all the “killing changes a person” tropes. (Note to self:  figure out what’s being rolled when one movie character has another at gunpoint, and the target looks deep into the gunman’s eyes, and says something along the lines of “You ain’t got it in you, I can see it in your eyes.”  I wonder if it’s not simply a case of noticing Callous.)

Supernatural traits of all kinds are forbidden. No vampires (but there’s this Delusion…). No ghosts. No aliens. Alien abductees are fine, let me show you this nice Delusion with optional Odious Personal Habit. No psychic powers. Fortune-telling is fine, but it’s the “cold reading” sort, not the spooky precognition. No cinematic action hero Perks. No Gunslinger, nor Trained By A Master, nor Weapon Master.

Luck isn’t supernatural. Ridiculous Luck is.

I’ve already promised one player that he can play two dogs, a big one and a little one. I’m open to the possibility of offbeat-but-not-unnatural characters. If we end up with a party made up of three dogs, two cats, an elk, and that Elvis impersonator, I’ll hang it up and we’ll play Car Wars for a while. 😉

Actual PC prototype.

Did you notice how it’s “two dogs”? That’s consecutively, not concurrently. The hope is that this campaign will have a high “life is cheap” factor. Yeah, yeah, Gabby’s been walking around Tembladera muttering about how there can be only one, but cast your mind back:  remember how Rho died from falling down a hole?  The post-apoc characters aren’t going to be 250+ points, they won’t have access to magical healing, they likely won’t have a bunch of armor, and they live in a world with ready access to firearms. (Unless the zombies eat all the guns, anyway.) We’ll start with a three-character minimum. That’s one to play, and two backups, to be brought in as soon as is practical after the first one dies horribly. Those hoping to game the system are welcome to lead with their sacrificial mook of choice.

We’ll take a page from Dungeon Fantasy, and skip most of GURPS Martial Arts, as far as character creation. No points in Techniques, no Styles, no Style Familiarity perks. If you want to play a master of some particular martial art, take Karate and/or Judo and give it a name. This isn’t going to be the kind of apocalypse that has kung fu warriors wandering the land, righting wrongs and borrowing couch space in the dojo from each other. Though that does sound pretty cool. Maybe next time.

For that matter, all the other traits that would short-circuit the apocalypse are at least closely-scrutinized, if not outright forbidden, as well.  No Claim to Hospitality. No Signature Gear, no Gizmos, no Doodads. I’m not entirely certain how we’ll be handling Wealth, but at this point, I’m leaning towards “it only affects Starting Wealth” and “when I say ‘Starting’, I mean ‘right after TEOTWAWKI’, and when I say ‘Wealth’, I mean ‘whatever you’ve gots in your nasty pocketses’.” That could lead to a person of high pre-TEOTWAWKI Status being build with a low Wealth, if all that person has is a suit of attractive, and impractical, clothes, while a Boy Scout with a packed knapsack might need to buy up Wealth. It might also require the invisible, but heavy, hand of fate making some economic readjustments, but I’m comfortable with that.

The genre leans towards guns, weapons of opportunity, and boards-with-nails-in. We’ll be heavily using both GURPS High-Tech and GURPS Low-Tech, when it comes to equipment. Of particular interest is the “Improvised Weapons” sidebar on pg 63 of Low-Tech. If anybody starts improvising armor out of salvaged phone books or anything like that, we’ll dig out LT’s make-your-own armor rules. That should cover just about anything anyone might want in the way of available gear.

In stark contrast to previous games, I will not be allowing quirks to be filled in after the points are awarded.  It’s a pay-as-you-go world. You get a point for a Quirk when you’ve recorded it on the character sheet, not before. Way too many character sheets have ended campaigns with “Unused quirk #1-5” still listed. Furthermore, I’m going with the definitions listed in GURPS Power-Ups: Quirks on page 4:  if it’s not a tiny disad, or some active bit of roleplaying characterization, it’s not a Quirk. No more “always well-dressed” or “says ‘Giggity’ a lot” for free points.

It’s hard times all over.

Tell ’em, Dusty!



Why no mandatory Sense of Duty?

At one point, early on, when I was seeing the amount of treachery and back-stabbing going on, I speculated about the possibility of making “Sense of Duty (Adventuring Companions)” a required trait. I had done such things in the past.  The “Supers 1200” game had a package of required traits just for being on the team, and a recommendation for Injury Tolerance: Damage Reduction that was so strong as to be a requirement. (“If you do not have this, you will die in the first two seconds of your first real superhuman combat.”) The “Space Cowboys” game had the loose arrangement that all PCs were either family members, or hired hands, which had consequences for what traits one could purchase. I didn’t enforce a rule that any family member had to be dedicated to the family’s well-being, but that’s how it worked out. The players enforced their own rule, there.

When it came to Dungeon Fantasy, though, all I did was speculate, the one time. I never actually instituted the requirement. I felt it went against the sandbox nature of the experiment. The idea is to give the players as much power to decide — as much agency, as they say — as possible. In the words of Uncle Al, “Do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.”  My goal is to set up an interesting series of environments and inhabitants of those environments; how the PCs interact with those environments is entirely up to them.

So it follows that if the PCs want to find comical ways to step into the grave, they should have that freedom. If the party is fighting itself, as well as the monsters, I expect an overall drop in treasure extracted, as well as life expectancy. If the party is working well together, covering each other’s weaknesses and reinforcing each other’s strengths, using sound tactics, they’ll walk right over any monster I throw at them, and get rich doing it. I don’t need to wave the all-powerful wand of the GM to make that happen, it just emerges from the variables naturally.

One example came up, this past session, when the seasoned pros told the new recruit the tale of how Needles gave up a fortune by trying to keep the treasure to himself.  Acting alone, he was able to score 25cp, all for himself. Tax-free, you might say. If he had shared the loot, the gem likely would have been identified as magical, sold for ten thousand copper, with a share coming to 2,000cp each.

There’s a reason Jed’s new mantra is “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

In the meantime, since they can’t count on the Immutable Word Of Ghod* to say that every applicant is trustworthy, the party has again started enforcing its own rules. They’ve hammered out something resembling a charter, with the ground rules that the party operates by. Rather than hoping that every party member has uncharacteristically warm feelings for one another, they’re going to spell out expectations and police themselves. You can bet, if PC X is caught stealing from a fallen comrade, rather than honoring that comrade’s will (“I leave all my stuff to my next character…”), PC X will shortly wind up dead at the bottom of a pit, and PC X+1 will get the story of how PC X was swallowed whole by a purple worm, instead of any inheritance.

* * *

* This should go without saying, but:  They really shouldn’t trust everything I say, just ’cause I’m the GM. I’m an unreliable narrator, at best. I’m just reporting the evidence of their character’s senses. I try to shove off as many rolls as I can to the players, but I always try to roll the “what do I know” and “what do I see” rolls in secret, so I can give them false information if they crit fail. My NPCs lie. My truthful NPCs are often wrong. I just promise not to lie about the meta-game stuff, like “town is safe” and “stick to the templates”.

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