That was one of the original character concepts for the Old Weird West game that kicked off the ongoing fascination with 4th edition GURPS. For some reason, this old discussion has been floating around in my brain, the last couple days. Possibly, I’m thinking in that direction because I’ve been watching the Dungeon Fantasy PC’s mental and social Disadvantages work themselves out over time. It reminds me of this old conversation that never went anywhere, really; the player considering the grizzled prospector with the heart of gold eventually settled on the lawman with amnesia and a murky past. At any rate, I figured I’d share, and get it out of my head, once and for all. 😉
It’s a common enough character trope: the character who comes across as distasteful at first meeting, but comes to grow on you. “Gruff but lovable” was how it was first described to me, as I recall, but that’s just one variation. The cliche “hooker with a heart of gold” is another. It’s any character who ends up being more likable after getting to know them, after an initial negative reaction.
Mechanically, in GURPS, being “likable” boils down to “having a positive Reaction modifier”. The reverse is true, as well. A negative net Reaction modifier means that the character isn’t likable… or worse. Those with a bad enough penalty risk prejudice or even being taken as hostile monsters and attacked on sight.
The meat of the trope is the switch from a negative net Reaction modifier at a first impression, to a positive net modifier after getting to know the character. So, when building the character, you pick up traits to cause that change over time.
Case in point: Let’s say you’re making the grizzled ol’ prospector for an upcoming game of GURPS Apple Dumpling Gang.* The prospector is Unattractive, giving a -1, but has a Sense of Duty to kids, for a conditional +2 from kids when in a pinch. The first time the kids run in to him, they’ll make their Reaction roll at -1, and likely not much care for him, compared to the Attractive (+1) schoolmarm. On the other hand, when they’ve discovered the schoolmarm’s Secret: Kidnaps Kids To Work In The Old Silver Mine, converting the secret into a Reputation worth -2, and the ol’ prospector puts himself at some personal risk to hide them from her, he’ll be at a net +1.
Obviously, this is an overly-simple example. GURPS offers the tools to build some real nuance into a character, so there’s lots of possibilities. There’s modifiers for the up-front reaction, like Appearance and Charisma. There are traits that require triggers, like Sense of Duty and the Reaction bonus from most Talents. You can fine-tune Reputations and Secrets to represent hidden virtues and skeletons in the closet.
When the snoopy kids find the old man’s box of photos from The War, will they find “Reputation, +3, War Hero, known only to a small group: those who remember The Battle Of The Blarg” to outweigh his “Odious Personal Habit: Shakes cane and tells kids to get off his lawn”, or “Secret: War criminal” to offset his Charisma and Diplomacy bonus? (Showing that the same method, of having Reaction modifiers that evolve over time and with the addition of knowledge, works just as well in the other direction, turning an apparently-lovable character into a hated enemy.)
In the comics, Wolverine keeps meeting young women with the Empathy advantage. (In the Marvel Universe, at least, it seems that being less than five years old automatically confers Empathy… with a possible exception for the infernal.) They initially react poorly to his Callous disadvantage. Later on, he often ends up fighting against impossible odds on their behalf, demonstrating that Sense of Duty, and winning back the battle for the net Reaction bonus.
In the movie Tales From The Crypt: Demon Knight — oh, hey, if you haven’t seen it, then (mild) SPOILER ALERT, though really, the thing is nearly twenty years old now**, so I think you’ve out-waited the rush — there’s a great set-up where you see (what you’re led to believe is) the desperate outlaw on the run from the cool, collected sheriff. Appearance modifiers and perceived Status are definitely in play. I would argue that under the circumstances, one should somehow define a white cowboy hat as a +1 bonus. Of course, it’s a bait-and-switch. Again, the potential victims start feeling a +2 for the guy with the Sense of Duty, after he goes to bat for them. Once they hear who the cowboy is and what’s really going on, his -4 Reputation (“The Devil”, or close enough) kicks in. Victims’ opinions of the two change.
All of this only applies to NPCs. PCs can’t be influenced directly by Influence skills, and they don’t make Reaction rolls. The player makes the decision as to who likes who and why. That said… you would expect the PCs to go with the flow just from pure role-play. Let’s say you’re playing a fighter, you’re under siege by a very angry dragon, and you’ve got two hirelings. One has Greed and Cowardice and runs as soon as you take your eyes off him, taking a sack full of loot with him. The other has Sense of Duty (The Boss) and stands beside you as a stalwart ally, come way may. Who do you reckon gets an effective Reaction bonus, when y’all get back to town?
* I would totally play GURPS Apple Dumpling Gang. I would play it vigorously.
** Mind the mummy wrappings, if you stir up the dust we’ll never be done sneezing.