Invocation-based Disadvantages for GURPS

One of the issues I’ve got with making characters in GURPS is the bonus points you get for Disads.

Now, don’t get me wrong. For a point-based game, getting more points for being more limited than other characters is a fine design decision. In the point-based currency of character generation, you’re accepting more power when you can apply it for the cost of being able to apply it less frequently, or less effectively when you do apply it.

Or, it simply makes you more badass at the “cost” of behaving in a way you’d behave anyway. Or at least your character would.

Take Sense of Duty: Companions. This is basically the “don’t be an ass-hat” disadvantage. Apparently it’s needed for some groups. I’m not playing or running games to stab my co-conspirators in the back (if I wanted that, I’d play Munchkin or something). So SoD: Companions is kind of a requirement.

Now, it doesn’t have to be that way. +Tim Shorts had a couple fairly legendary characters in the Monday night game in +Rob Conley‘s Majestic Wilderlands campaign who, in the final analysis, didn’t fit in well with the party. They wind up leaving the campaign, which was darn grown-up of Tim. Tim, of course, did not leave the campaign, but he instantly saw that the game was going in a direction he couldn’t see his character participating in.

In any case, back to GURPS and Disads. I like the concept, but the number and quantity of them that are often plunked down on the character sheet – many just to meet the disad  limit total – can get hard to manage. And if the player isn’t constantly on top of his own disad pool, then either he’s walking away with free points (though even a 15-point disad is basically +4 to a skill, or getting 1 or 2 minor Advantages, or +1 to ST and Perception – it’s not a ridiculously decisive boost) or the GM gets to keep his or her brain wrapped around 30 different choice-limiting aspects of the party in front of him.

I use aspect deliberately here.

One of the interesting and successful game design decisions for FATE is that if you accept one of your aspects as hindering you, rather than helping you – an invocation by your foe, for example – you get an extra FATE point that allows you to invoke your own stuff later. It’s referred to as “accepting a Compel,” I believe, and it works quite well within the confines of the system.

I actually think it’d work very well as an alternative disadvantage system for GURPS.

As time has gone by, the presence of Luck (always there, for re-rolls) and the use of Character Points or “bonus” points as used in Monster Hunters and Impulse Buys has given an entirely different currency for games. In +Mark Langsdorf‘s and +Nathan Joy‘s games, the care and feeding of the bonus points given for Wildcard skill use was an important – and fun – metagame activity.

Allowing a few Disad slots that when invoked were rewarded with a bonus point would seem to be a good way to blend the long-time-standing metarule of “Disads that don’t hinder you are worth no points” with giving the players the agency to actively advocate for bringing their disad to bear.

You might not even have to worry about costs. If you have a Disad that’s worth a whole bunch of points, it’ll probably come up a lot. And give you a bunch of bonus points to spend.

Possibly too many. That’s easily taken care of, though. Increase the exchange rate of bonus points to re-rolls or other metagame goodness. 

You might need to invoke Honesty three times to give the result of a single bonus point. A point of Luck, or a bonus point given by spending 12 points in a Wildcard skill, would each give three of these new-fangled FATE-style points, so that those advantages/benefits did not change value. 

Instead of each player trying to gin up 35-75 points of disadvantages and five quirks, you’d have a system where you only count the “positive” points in character generation. So the base capability of each character would be built on (say) 200 or 300 or 450 “positive” points – which is probably about the typical total for 150, 250, and 400 point games anyway. 

Then you’d slap down 3-7 behaviors or constraints – physical or mental – that influence your character. 

Want to have Code of Honor (Ranger’s Creed)? Great. Write it down. Every time it comes up in a way that significantly constrains your character’s behavior, you get a bonus point. “Law-Abiding?” No problem – when you need to break the law and can’t . . . bonus point. 

What about physical disads, such as one leg or blindness? Aren’t they just a bottomless pit of bonus points? Probably not – ask Daredevil. But if they are that crippling, then your character is either going to be pretty short-lived or perhaps it’s the wrong character type for the campaign?

But more on point: the one-legged thing will apply when you have to sprint down a corridor and a rust-monster has eaten your metal crutch or prosthetic. Blindness may well be invoked every time you get into a fight. So if you’re in a lot of fights (and rolling vs. -10 to be useful), the GM tossing you a re-roll the next time you have to hack a computer is probably not wrong.

I like the concept. I think it keeps chargen a bit more balanced. I think it would allow certain disads and quirks to become emergent in play (or submerge as they’re not used) and be appropriately player-driven rather than GM driven. 

When the one-armed princess has to swing across a chasm while holding the unconscious prince in her . . . um. Legs? Tie him on to her waist? That’s something the player will bring up, since she wants to be properly “paid” for the hindrance.

Limits? Sure. Not all behaviors are going to be part of the concept or rewarded with points. Just because something happens that goes against what you’d like to happen doesn’t mean the GM pays you for it. Sometimes things are constraining to everyone.

But when a situation arises that uniquely constrains you, then the bonus point invocations come out, and by this time in the 4e game development pathway, there are pleny of other motivational and metagame currencies that can be used within the GURPS framework to support alternative Disadvantage concepts like this one.

Makes me want to try it if I can ever carve out the time to run a game again.

It also occurs to me that it’d be fairly easy to add this to D&D as well. If you spend a bonus point, you get Advantage on that roll. This could be tied easily and with mechanical weight to the Background, Ideals, Flaws part of chargen, again in a way that is player-facing and motivated. You could also use a “compel-like” mechanic where if, because of your self-imposed limitation, you accept Disadvantage on a roll, you get a bonus point that you can use to gain Advantage later.

8 thoughts on “Invocation-based Disadvantages for GURPS

  1. I think that GURPS 4e made it less of a no-brainer to fill up to the disad limit as the first thing you do when designing a character. In 3e, sure, but 4e cuts down on the feeling of "free points" for many of the usual disads.

    But I think we're more in agreement when I say that there's also a reason for having a disad limit. Every advantage and every disadvantage is a way of claiming narrative time and the GM's attention. Being the guy who knows people pulls the adventure in the direction of solving problems that way, but being the guy who makes a crude approach to the high-society lady or starts a fight in every bar he goes to pulls overall narrative direction towards that PC's way of doing things just as much.

    GURPS Action has something similar to what you propose (p.20, "Disadvantage Limit" box): voluntarily take impairment from a disadvantage for a particular scene, and in return don't worry about it for the rest of the session.

    1. I think that your point about not filling up to the disad limit is more true in 4e than 3e, but my personal experience is that once you have a general flavor of who you are as a character, the formal disads tend to go away and you just play your paper man. At that point, it's all about the positives. For games where the general townsfolk don't run screaming in fear from a PC barbarian shaped like a giant hermit crab (in fairness, I don't think that character took points for it, so it was purely cosmetic), the extra wiggle room on point budget is pretty much the sum total of the disad limit. Again, in fairness, Mark and Nate both chop the disad limit down HARD in their games – I think the character I'm generating now is max 35 points of disads vs a 200 point budget.

      So yeah, I very much favor a disad limit, not just in quantity of points, but number of disads as well, just because out of sight, out of mind.

      Action, once again, proves to be the treasure trove. There's so much unappreciated awesome in those volumes, it's a darn shame it didn't take off like DF did.

    1. I write what I play. I stopped playing in GURPS games for a while, and was mostly in S&W and D&D5. Ergo, my blog turned to that.

      I'll be playing in Mark's mashup Dungeon Fantasy meets High-Tech starting this Wednesday. So you'll get to see session reports, rules WTF moments, and "how does this house rule work at the table" posts, all about GURPS.

      So: yay! More GURPS is on the way.

  2. In my experience Sens of Duty: Close Friends & Companions is a delayed death sentence, not a mandatory "don't be an asshat" disad. SoD means that time that it's live on your own or die at the side of your friends, you choose that – even though you all know it's not going to save either of you. It significantly restricts your decisions when, in a cold analysis, it's better for everyone to not stick it out. I see why a lot of groups require it, but it's really a lot more than some -5 bandaid to keep people from backstabbing their buddies. "Doesn't backstab his buddies" is probably the default – SoD is the upgrade "put your buddies first" and things like Callous or Loner or Selfish are the things that act as the negative of it.

    Anyway, I like the idea of invoked disadvantages, but I'm struggling to find a system I like. This is cool, but not really what I'd want. I don't want to be handing re-rolls out like candy in return for you taking Greedy and acting like it. In many games I run, re-rolls are a significant and powerful advantage you need to pony up for.

    At the same time, an X xp for Y times you invoke it or X xp for Z points in the disad you invoke is a fast route to xp inflation and people only taking traits that are easy to invoke once a session or more.

    I keeps hoping someone will find some ground where it does have a positive effect but doesn't require either floating xp rewards to it or giving a non-xp re-roll benefit. Some game types can't handle either of those.

    1. I'd like to try the "exchange rate" thing for a few sessions. See how often people invoke their Disads over the course of many sessions starting with an exchange rate of 3 or 5 or even 10. So if in a four-hour session, you're invoking a disad (say) once every 15 minutes of play, you'll be getting 16 points. If you want that to be 1 to 2 rerolls, you'll need a 10:1 exchange rate (and every 5 points of Luck probably gives you 10 points per session, no rollover, of spendable bonus points, likewise every point in a Wildcard skill gives you about 1 spendable point per session).

      If the invocation rate of disads is more like one per hour, then exchange rates of 4-5 points per reroll might do it.

  3. I have considered, but not implemented, a similar system in the past.
    I was going to go with:
    1. Choose 0-3 "characterization" disads, subject to DM approval, up to your disad limit. "Characterization" means these are limits that can be handled primarily by roleplaying rather than rollplaying. (No more than 3 per PC because keeping track of lots of disads is a pain). You get no points back for these, BUT:
    2. In any session where your disads come up in a way that limits you, you get one or more bonus points – (1: minor hindrance or good characterization, 2: Major hindrance or awesome characterization, 3: You probably should have ~died.)
    3. You may also have up to 20% of points budget in "handicaps" – disads where most of the limitation is purely game mechanical. These work according to the normal rules.

    I chickened out the first time I wanted to try this, and the second time I went with something even more severe. (~You start with a random disad from this list and may gain more in play, but the game was very constrained.) If I ever go open ended again, I will certainly try it.

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