Don't Forget Your Boots

Meandering aimlessly around the GURPS landscape


No Discount Brains In The Apocalypse! (or, “How Alric Got Ripped Off”)

One of the players asked why I’m not reducing the price of IQ, even though I’m taking away some of its utility by basing Perception on HT, after being mightily persuaded by “Playing With Health” from Pyramid 3/83: Alternate GURPS IV. In a nutshell, it’s because I think IQ’s still a bargain at regular price.

(Up front, I’ll admit I don’t think any of these arguments are original to me. These are discussions that have been floating around for a long, long time.)

Overpriced IQ?

OK.  Let’s start with a regular ol’ point of IQ. Costs 20 points. A point of Will comes with that IQ, for free. Will costs 5 points per level. You also get a bump in Perception, which also costs 5 points per level on its own. Sell those both back, and you’re effectively paying 10 points for a Talent that raises all your IQ-based Skills. That includes knowledge-based skills (like Paleontology and Occultism), practical hands-on skills (Poisons, Explosives), esoteric skills if you can get ’em (Power Blow), skills concerning operating and repairing technology (Computer Operation, Electronics Repair), social skills (Fast-Talk, Diplomacy), and combat-affecting skills, particularly the one key skill that affects initiative (Tactics).

By way of comparison, Alric was happy to pay 10 pts/level for Outdoorsman, which adds to Camouflage (IQ), Fishing (Per), Mimicry (IQ), Naturalist (IQ), Navigation (IQ), Survival (Per), and Tracking (Per)… and nothing else. Oh, yeah, he gets a Reaction Modifier from Timmy after pulling the kid out of the quicksand, too. Meanwhile, Jed buys a point of IQ without the Per or Will for 10 points, and gets a bump in Camouflage, Mimicry, Naturalist, Navigation, Fast-Talk, Hidden Lore, Tactics, and approximately 87 different spells.

I think Alric’s getting the short end of that stick.

And that’s not even getting into defaults. Once you’ve got IQ over 15, it turns into a super-power from the defaults alone. (Come to think of it, wasn’t that part of “Lucky Girl”‘s powers, from the Supers 1200 game? She had great defaults?) A character with a 17 IQ can walk in off the street and make a living as a falconer (Falconry-12, defaulting from IQ-5) without ever having seen a living bird up-close. Just from picking up hints from comic books and Wild Kingdom, apparently. That same person could take her default Streetwise-12 downtown and start a career in wet-work, using her default Stealth-12 (yeah, Stealth has a default from IQ), Disguise-11, and Poisons-11, even if she’s fresh off the bus from Kansas. If she gets hurt, she’s got First Aid-13 (and Physician-10!) to fall back on, from watching Quincy and ER.

I’ve seen that TV show before.

The higher the TL, the more dominant IQ becomes. When we first started up the Space Cowboys game, I was amazed to see the average IQ of the PCs jump by 2 points. Nerds rule in space, it’s a natural law. IQ is the attribute of technology. The more gizmos available, the more room for IQ-based skills to make a difference.

Nerds. RULE. In. Space.

Much more than a smidgen of IQ isn’t realistic. People just aren’t that omni-competent. It’s not even all that true to fiction, either. I can’t think of many characters that are well-educated, keen-sensed, strong-willed, and socially adept, all at the same time. I feel it’s more satisfying to use Talents to boost a character’s key Skills in a targeted fashion, rather than raw DX and IQ.

I guess you could say that my goal here isn’t to make HT more attractive, it’s to nerf IQ.

Will too?!?

In fact, I’m wondering if perhaps I should go a step further, and split Will off from IQ as well. For arguments in favor, see the advice offered by the Reverend Pee Kitty (aka Jason Levine, Assistant GURPS Line Editor and author of a bunch of GURPS books) in the first of his house rules. He starts Per and Will at 10, and still leaves IQ at 20 pts/level.

I’ve said a lot recently about expecting Fright Checks to be common in the upcoming post-apocalyptic game. Fright Checks are based on Will, and with Will being based on IQ, the setup seems to favor geeks with nerves of steel. It might be worthwhile to divorce the concept of willpower from that of intelligence when creating characters for such a game. If nothing else, it would clean up that odd back-and-forth with animals, where the template sells back lots of IQ, then buys all the sold-back Will over again.

And… that still leaves IQ worth 20 points, in my opinion, just as a basis for Skills and rolls to escape mental Stun.

The Bargain Gunslinger

With Guns and so forth based on Perception, and Perception based on HT, and both HT and Perception being so much cheaper than DX, shouldn’t I be worried about crack shots that can spot a mosquito at a half-mile on a foggy day and who laugh off rattlesnake poison?

So… this guy?

Maybe I should be, but I’m not.

It’s a question of what the players are going to emphasize while making their characters. As it stands, across all genres, I see a heavy emphasis on DX, because that’s the one that controls the skills that let you hit stuff. If a character is going to have more than one or two good physical skills, that character will have a high DX. In genres where there’s technology to fiddle with, there’s a sudden rush to IQ. I don’t believe that moving a handful of combat skills, no matter how desirable, is going to change that. There are just too many useful skills that are still under those two Attributes.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a PC in one of my games with points in Perception, aside from the ones based on templates that did so. I have seen several folks who were really happy with the 14+ Perception that they got for free when they raised their character’s IQ to “smartest person who ever lived” levels.

Practically speaking, it’s a moot point. Nobody’s going to have Guns-21, because for this game, I’m turning on a bunch of the buzzkill “realism” switches. I’m following the suggestions from GURPS Tactical Shooting, on page 42, where the average armed citizen is operating at default and most trained police officers might have 1 or 2 points in the Skill. Unless there’s some world-class anti-terrorism task force in Portland that I’m not aware of, the highest skill level in town is likely to be a 15.

Plus, the PCs only have 50 points to work with (plus Disadvantages, of course, but those only go so far), and I don’t think any of my players expect me to set up an apocalypse that takes nothing but Guns skill to defeat. (I’m sure they all remember the time in the Space Cowboys game when the question of “Do we all go to jail, is our cargo confiscated, and is the ship impounded?” was settled by the outcome of a single Housekeeping roll.) I’m expecting more points in Guns than is strictly realistic, but I don’t expect anybody to go crazy. If anything, the players’ chatter has me expecting characters calculated to have remarkably high Scrounging and Urban Survival. Probably Stealth, too, they really like their Stealth.

Anyway, gunfire attracts zombies. Well-known fact.


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!



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