GURPS Niche Protection – Capability vs. Execution

A comment that was recently made struck an idea in my head, and that was that what makes characters different is what makes the game fun. The differences in their capabilities.

That struck me funny, and it took me a moment to realize why. GURPS allows two different characters that have completely identical capabilities to play absolutely differently. It’s a matter of player choice.

You can have two characters with absolutely identical stats that play very, very differently depending on player choices of maneuver, and especially of Attack and Defense Options.

Player 1 might play aggressively, with lots of Deceptive Attacks, Committed Attacks, and never using Retreat except to close with the enemy.

Player 2 might play defensively, with Defensive Attacks, lots of Retreats, maybe even holding his weapon in a defensive grip. He can lower his foe’s defenses, but does so leveraging Riposte rather than Deceptive Attack.

Player 3 might use extensive use of Combinations (OK, that legitimately is something you’d spend points on), or always use Feints and Beats, followed by the nearly-suicidal All-Out Attack (Strong) to land that one killing blow (or Committed Attack (Strong) instead).

Point is, all of these could be done with the same character – a “generalist” – but depending on player choices and style, can have very different impacts.

I’m not going to claim that this is unique to GURPS. I suppose two Pathfinder characters with identical Feats might have the same choices – I’ve never seen that, though, so I can’t comment. But I bet you could hand out five characters to five players that are basically identical, and get at least three good emergent play styles, if not five.

15 thoughts on “GURPS Niche Protection – Capability vs. Execution

  1. I'll certainly agree that it's possible to do this, but I've found that it's really handy for players who aren't necessarily thoroughly involved to have something quick to grab onto, something that's useful to the party which they unambiguously do better than anyone else. Certainly when I work up characters for one-shot games at conventions, often played with people who don't know the system well, that's something I try for.

    1. I agree that it's both handy and desirable to have characters be good at stuff! My point was spurred by a thought in reaction to a statement that you HAD to have character differentiation on the sheet. I think that at least in GURPS this is very untrue. It's fairly easy to have characters that are undifferentiated on paper play out very differently.

      It will required a degree of rules knowledge, as you say, that is a cut above the usual. You need to know all of your options, and restrict yourself to a set few ways of doing things. This might be out of real player preference, or what is right for the character (I don't see Thor attacking 'just a little bit" for example).

  2. Would you agree if we leave the realm of melee and missile combat? What about spellcasters? Would you see the same sort of thing if you had two or three spellcasters with the same spellbook? What about someone with some other skillset, where the game doesn't have the same level of detail in their use?

    Understand, I agree with you broadly. Even in Basic D&D, you have two fighters with identical stats and they could be as different as night and day – maybe even easier there than in later versions of the d20 fantasy game family – by virtue of weapon choice and characterization.

    It surprises me that a game that for so many demands niche protection was inspired heavily by Tolkien – who gave us Boromir and Aragorn in the same party, and four mechanically indistinct hobbits, and nobody gave much of a fuss…

    1. Honestly, I think the broader the scope of the character, the easier it is to see differentiation. If your only choices as a melee fighter are to use All-Out Telegraphic Attack because you suck so bad that it's the only way you can do anything, well, that is going to play the same every time. If you have so many spells, or such high skill, that your options are no longer constrained by necessity, you'll start to get this sort of differentiation.

  3. Two identical wizards, played by two different people, are probably going to play very different. The wizard has 30+ spells, and each player is going to value those spells differently and have different feelings about the appropriate expenditure of FP/HP in a fight. One player might prefer to burn all his fatigue in a single fight stopping spell such as an area 5 Grease, while the other might drop a couple of Blurs on the big melee fighters and keep a reserve of FP for emergencies.

    1. Okay, how about areas without such specialization opportunity? Black bag man? Surgeon? Areas that are less well explored and thus less well detailed…

      Again, just putting on the fake plastic horns for this discussion. I'm curious if, once we get out of some of GURPS's sweet spots, we find that niches become more rigid.

    2. I think it's probably a mistake to try and take my thought that some identical characters can play very differently by player choice to say that ALL identical characters will play differently.

      There are obviously places where you don't have lots of agency, or choices in how you apply skills. Until we have the equivalent of an All-Out Lockpicking, or a Defensive Lockpicking (hmmm . . . I smell Pyramid article here) option, you're going to have areas where the only thing matters is having an ability or skill.

      So sure, I think the niches have rigid areas – that's not even bad – but combat at least, isn't one of them, nor is spellcasting, I think.

  4. I guess I see that as obvious, as the Capability section of the char sheet is Advantages/Skills/Spells, whereas the Behavior section of the char sheet is Disads. When I want to check for niche protection, I go to Disads first.

    1. And that's a fair point – what option a character CHOOSES to take should definitely be steered by this. Still, lacking guiding disads, there's a lot of room for Attack and Defense Options that will very much change how an otherwise identical character will interact with the environment.

  5. I think one reason GURPS characters are more this way than Pathfinder ones (or even more so, D&D 4e ones) is that GURPS isn't so much rules-as-exception. Anyone can all-out-attack, all-out-defend, feint, etc. In Pathfinder, these would probably all be feats that you need to take in order to be able to do them. If you took no combat feats, you are probably just going to be making the equivalent of regular attacks to center-of-mass.

    D&D4 is even worse, in that you basically have a menu of things you can do in combat–your combat powers are as specialized as spells, and like those you start with a small menu that gets bigger as you level. Anything not on the menu is basically "talk to the GM and improvise". Interestingly, older versions of D&D go the other way. Combat is so simplified that it doesn't really matter what you do–you're still going to be rolling d20 + modifiers and trying to get over your THAC0.

    For non-combat, non-magic characters, it probably works out more like spells–after all, spells are just a special kind of skill. A thief in GURPS can be highly skilled (relative to his point total at any case) in a wide range of thiefy skills, unlike a Pathfinder/3e rogue who usually can't max out all the relevant skills, even with 8+int skill points per level. A GURPS thief might be really good at climbing, jumping, acrobatics, stealth, and pickpocket. One player might prefer to parkour over the rooftops where the guards can't go, while another hides in the shadows and yoinks their keys when they pass. A Pathfinder rogue would probably be a specialized traceur or sneak-thief.

  6. I'd like to stress that too much niche protection may constrain gameplay. For example, in a campaign with a mix of social engagements, mass combat and old fashion monster bashing, there is a danger that all challenges of a given type go to the same players. Which is not always that fun if no one else can help out. I'm a big fan of a bit of generalism with a twist (at build time).

    This being said, GURPS combats have such a wide range of options that widely different characters will emerge with the same basics attributes and skills. I like to see this develop overtime as character advancement (I like the idea of acquiring techniques on a use basis). The role of a PC on the social map is important, often guided by disads and aided by skills. I think that the onus to define is more on the player rather than the character sheet specs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *