Don't Forget Your Boots

Meandering aimlessly around the GURPS landscape

Tag: templates

Alric’s totally living the dream

A while back, I mentioned to Alric’s player that I had seen some talk on the forums, claiming that the Barbarian template was troublesome. The thinking went, the Barbarian has to spend 40 points on Outdoorsman, which increases the skills Camouflage, Fishing, Mimicry, Naturalist, Navigation, Survival, and Tracking, yet none of these skills are terribly pertinent to dungeon-delving. The conventional wisdom with some around the forums seems to be that if you’ve got a Barbarian in your party, you have to go out of your way, as the GM, to throw wilderness-based challenges in their way, to give the poor savage something to do. I asked if this bore any resemblance to his experience, playing a Barbarian.

He gave me a look like I had just sprouted horns.

I would have thought, if any set-up would be rough on 40 points of Outdoorsman, it would be ours. The dungeon is a three-hour hike for people on foot in no particular hurry. The party’s standard procedure is to have a leisurely breakfast, mosey up to the dungeon, take a half-hour break with a light snack, do the day’s delving, and hike home: burdened with loot, often nursing injuries, and still home in time to have an early dinner. The path’s not only short, it’s basically paved. There are sections with stairs. Dungeon-delving in Tembladera is more like a trip to the amusement park than a safari. Wouldn’t you expect Nature Boy to feel a little under-utilized? If so, you couldn’t tell it by our barbarian. Alric has really made his money’s worth from his talent.

More than once, and as recently as last session, he has used Mimicry as a complimentary skill to Animal Handling. He’s better with big cats, but still, so far, nobody’s had to fight any animals, not even the dire kind.

Alric’s orienteering skills have come in handy more than once. His Navigation skill is what got them back to the main road after the party left the dungeon through the killer halfling’s privy. Last session, it’s a big reason why he was able to get Jed back to town before his mortal head wound killed him. There’s been a lot of talk, lately, about scoping out new routes and finding new entrances, and for both, the party will be relying on Alric’s navigation skills.

There have been a lot of Naturalist rolls, for information on this or that. Even in the dungeon, there’s mundane plants and animals. Even if the thing you’re trying to identify isn’t subject to Naturalist, it’s still useful to know that:  “That howl did not come from the throat of any beast of this earth!”  As far as more material uses, I seem to recall, early on, before the party could afford potions, there were a few rolls to search out the ever-present, ever-vague “healing herbs” to help with First Aid rolls.

Survival is always useful, even just a few hours outside of town. I remember, the first time the party sat down to rest and regain Fatigue, it was mentioned that having a snack could speed things up. They did a survey: half the party had a meal or two of unpalatable iron rations, and the other half hadn’t packed anything.  (I guess they expected catering.) The next time they sat down to rest, that same trip, Alric was able to pull out several meals’ worth of something freshly scavenged. This past session, it was Alric’s Survival skill that let him light a fire to prepare for improvised surgery. If it had come to it, that would have been a consideration in figuring out the penalty for lack of equipment.

The thing is, for the most part, these are all rolls that Alric’s player himself prompted. When I placed dogs, for instance, I wasn’t thinking that they would be a good “spotlight” moment for the character with Animal Handling. That never even crossed my mind. What I was actually thinking about was one of my first fights as a GURPS player.

Way back then, in a fantasy campaign, the same one I stole the cannibal elves from, the party was sneaking around at night in an urban environment. We disturbed a watchman, who set the dogs on us. Two or three big German shepherd types. I don’t recall what happened with the others, exactly. I seem to recall a mad scramble for the fence line, to start. I missed it, because my character ended up grabbing his dog by the front legs and “dancing” with it, to keep it away from tearing out his throat. Envisioning the situation, I tentatively asked the GM if there were any way to keep the hold and kick the dog in the ribs. (I was coming out of my World of Darkness phase, so I was willing to try new and different things in combat, but kinda assumed that they would all come down to ask the GM, then roll and shout.  At least I had experience of systems besides D&D, or I wouldn’t have even tried for the grapple…)  Of course, there was, and my character did so repeatedly, which eventually encouraged the beast to flee the scene, limping.

… and that’s all I had in mind when I set up Ghorbash with a pack of dogs. I figured, that he figured, he would open combat by siccing the dogs on the party, then he’d charge into the confusion and break their formation. Didn’t pan out that way… thanks to Alric and his way with animals. He intimidated them, rocked them back on their heels, and thereby let the party take control of the fight.

Some day, I expect the party will decide they’re big and bad enough to go over the mountains and into the jungle, to hunt dinosaur, giant ape, and wild cannibal elf. On that day, I expect they’ll put Alric front and center… and not just because he’s a good, thick meat-shield with an axe taller than some of the other PCs.


Pondering Magical Styles For Tembladera

I picked up GURPS Magical Styles: Dungeon Magic a while back.  It lays out a group of seven magical styles suitable for Dungeon Fantasy. The idea is that a wizard might join one of these seven orders and specialize in the spells they’re interested in — war magic, mind control, whatever — and thus gain access to enhanced abilities within their sphere of knowledge. Each style has its own system of prerequisites for their particular way of teaching the spells. The groups are handily color-coded by robe, which is nice.

I find myself wanting to make these styles available in the Tembladera game. I only hesitate from fear of being labeled a cleric hater.

You see, some time ago, after a bit of inconvenient agonizing on my part, I came down against the idea of specialist clerics. In my world, religion comes in two flavors: holy and unholy.  There’s holy clerics, members of the approved church that keeps its temples inside the walls of civilized towns, and there’s unholy clerics, who are devil worshipers driven by greed and a desire for personal power and who congregate in foul places far from the right-thinking citizens. Places like the dungeon, of course.

There are many gods in the holy pantheon, just as there are many demons being worshiped (literally!) underground. One might be particularly dedicated to one god or another, as a “color” decision, but it doesn’t affect the available spell list for clerics. In the end, it was a question of predictability. I didn’t want to end up with conversations starting with “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mention, I’m not one of those healing clerics. I’m the other kind.”

And yet… here I am, considering the addition of seven entirely new spell trees for the wizards. Do I just hate the cleric, or what?

I don’t think that’s it. I think the underlying reason is actually the same: predictability.

As it stands, the wizard is the wide-open master of magic. Oh, yeah, they don’t get the spells for critters or crops, they can’t heal, they can’t teleport… so what? Their spell list is still the most wide and varied. Their skills and abilities are aimed at handling supernatural threats and opportunities in a way that no other spellcaster can truly replicate. When it comes time for a wizard to spend experience, there’s no telling what direction they’ll head in, subject to the restrictions of prereqs.

But if that wizard is a yellow-robe, you can bet that point will most likely end up causing things to explode. If the wizard is a black-robe, you can expect some kind of curse. And so on, and so forth. Choosing a style is a declaration of how that character will approach the entire world of magic.

Unless I misunderstand, the styles don’t actually limit the spells available to the wizard.  Instead, they offer advantages to heading in a certain direction. They’re carrot, not stick. A stylist doesn’t sacrifice all flexibility in choosing spells.

From a big picture point of view, the styles wouldn’t limit choice. If one wanted to build an illusionist or a fire-wizard using the base template, one could. The styles just offer a framework and an in-game aspect to the choice.

Predictability is also served from having NPCs who are followers of the styles. The PCs might be able to see the accouterments of enemy spellcasters and identify them with Heraldry. (Or, after a while, through bitter and hard-won players experience: “The last three times we ran in to a guy wearing a silver robe and a ram’s head helmet with bronze horns, he threw blue lightning and we all lost our hair. ‘Ware lightning, folks.”)

Finally, I think it would serve my ever-looming Laziness disad.  I get to choose from a stock list of spells without feeling like having cookie-cutter wizards is a problem. Score! 😉


Every PC Is Expendable, or, Why We Template

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.


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