Sunday Review: GURPS Action 4: Specialists

This is the fourth and last book in the all-too-brief GURPS Action series. I reviewed Heroes, Exploits, and Furious Fists in separate posts.

Today I cover GURPS Action 4: Specialists. This 36-page book is something a bit different for GURPS, and that something is really cool. It’s not quite “Pointless GURPS,” which I covered when Sean wrote about it in Pyramid #3/72 (Alternate Dungeons). But it’s not not-that, either.

This is an approach I love, frankly. Chunks of easy to pick out building blocks that aren’t templates per se, but make character creation fast and accessible.

Now that I’ve revealed my bias and given the game away, let’s fill in the details.

Introduction


Much like Action 1, the introduction is short but critical. The mission statement bears repeating, and since it’s included in the preview, I can just quote it selectively.

There are many situations where the speedy approach is a little too
coarse-grained:

  • When a player desires a hero more individualized than Heroes and Furious Fists allow – often one that falls between two templates – but doesn’t want to wade through the entire Basic Set or risk omitting important abilities.
  • When a player is inspired by a favorite fictional character who breaks the mold (as so many action heroes do!).
  • When a player – particularly a late joiner – wants to carve out a niche by stopping specific gaps in a team’s abilities.
  • When the GM wants a power level different from 250 points, such as in an “origins” campaign about neophyte heroes, or in a one-on-one game that pits a high-budget action star against the world.
  • When action heroes need lower-powered NPC sidekicks . . . or enemies!

In short, this book will present modules that are partway between full-on templates and “here’s the book, make a character.” As someone that kvetches repeatedly about the “wall of text” format of GURPS’ templates, this may well be a great intermediate step that gives the readability I crave with the speed that is the template’s raison d’etre.

You Gotta Start Somewhere

The chapter lays out a 6-step program to getting your hero on. Pick a basic building block, add modules and skill sets, take quirks, nudge the character into legality, optimize and “trade up,” and finally spend your remaining slush fund points.
Basic Action Template

The first thing is to start with your default Action Hero, which covers all the genre assumptions and also ensures that you have the basic tools of the trade, so to speak. The template has, for example, Luck, which is clearly critical to an Action Hero. It also contains six (really, eight, but you must choose between two options, twice) skills that must be there to be a credible hero.
The presentation is wall-of-text for Advantages, but has some wonderful categories of Disadvantages to help you pick. This, right here, is worth the price of admission. Phrases include Timid, Honorable, Obsesses, and Violent, and usually contain options from -1 to -15 points or (rarely) more.
Frankly, the Advantages section deserves the same “descriptive” treatment that disads got here. It’s just the right blend of accessibility and readability.
The Needs of the Many

This broad section gives handy advice, and in many cases, a superior Basic Action Template option, for keeping the characters suitable to the game being played. We Have Standards addresses physical requirements that might be a cut above for special ops or law enforcment. No Section 8s talks about which disadvantages are, while in the book, somewhere between not recommended and ‘no freakin’ way’ for a action heroes. This is a section on saying ‘no’ gracefully, in a genre-appropriate way, and is very welcome. The Call of Duty talks about the care and feeding of Duty and Sense of Duty, and more extreme variants. Finally, Duly Empowered takes the perks of being part of a badass organization and suggests appropriate powers and privileges. This might be things like Military Rank, Legal Enforcement Powers, or Contact Groups.
A Very Particular Set of Skills
This section gives two types of awesome to buy: Skill Sets and Power-Ups. The latter are “implausibly cinematic” options for action heroes. The first are what it says on the tin: believable training and abilities in things that happen in the real world. Most modules cost 25 points.
Skill Sets

These brief packages are narrow applications of stuff you can do. Some overlap, and you can take one more than once. You get options like Academics (a boos to IQ – so it’s not just skills) plus basic competence in Research, Writing, and Teaching. It also covers the more expected sets, such as Airborne School, Close-Quarter Battle, and Infantry Training.
As noted in the lead-in to this chapter, but worth repeating: this is not the “generic soldier” grouping. Each one of these is focused, which means you pick several. A platoon leader in military operations in Iraq might have Command, Infantry Training, Close-Quarter Battle, and Urban Assault. This leaves off a ton of things that he might also have . . . but those four packages are 100 points, which makes this 200-point hero a credible man of action in his own right. Specialized, ’tis true . . . but the name of the book isn’t ‘Generalists.’
And note that these are fully exportable to any game. Take a BAT worth zero points and you get Joe Average with Training – who’s now 100 points and no longer Joe Average, but doesn’t have action hero levels of stats. This is a broad idea (skill sets) that I’d love to see expored and exploited further.
Power-Ups

The equivalent of Skill Sets, but with cinematic oomph. Some of these are more than 25 points. They include things like Trained by a Master or Catfall. Some must be paired with Skill Sets, so it may well make sense to either flip back and forth, or start with the desired cinematic power-ups, then add required skill sets, then add optional ones. 
A couple of them are interesting – Just That Good, for example, represent 25 points of almost anything goes. Extra stats, secondary abilities, and advantages that represent a generally superior human. I could easily see larger ones, GM-defined, like Just Damn Better than You, which might be ST +2, DX +1, IQ +1, HT +1, and +0.5 to Basic Speed, +1 to Will and Perception, for 100 points.
Spit and Polish

This section is about making rules-legal characters that are also properly fleshed out.
Loveably Eccentric suggests that it’s time to pick out your quirks, and makes suggestions that are thematic in nature. By the Book instructs you to go ahead and add up all the points allocated to your abilities, and then filter. Take duplicate traits and move points to the slush fund. Take traits whose point values aren’t rules legal (22 points on a skill, for example) and either drop or add (from the slush fund) to make appropriate costs. Skill and attribute and perk limits are addressed, etc.
Trading Up

Mathematically intensive but Just A Good Idea, the selection process thus far in the book produces very skill-heavy characters. Realistic and believable? Yes, certainly. But because GURPS puts so much emphasis on attributes (everything pretty much defaults to them), it’s wise to follow the stepwise advice given in this section and shifting points around. A decision tree is provided.
Spending the Slush Fund

The final section gives advice for spending the slush fund. If you’ve done a proper job of optimization or your other selections had lots of overlap, you likely have more than the 10-point allocation you started with. It’s also possible to have overspent, in which case there’s a box for that.
Mostly, you spend points on things already on your character sheet, or that aren’t but a prior selection has given dispensation for. Finally, it walks through customization by background and history, as well as encouraging or enabling swapping out basic BAT options based on an appropriate backstory. Care must be taken to not create knowing gaps – that will impact game play – in capabilility. Always avoid the Fun Vampire.
Boxed Text
As always, GURPS books isolate certain information into boxed text. These boxes usually fit broadly into the chapter in which they appear, but are either meta-game information or somehow a bit of icing on the rules cake.
This supplement is heavy on boxed text – there’s a lot of metagame and rules theory to discuss.

Power Levels (Chapter 1)
This bit of text, perhaps a half-page in total size, gives guidance on how to use the modular building blocks when creating heroes from 125 (Sidekicks level) to 400+ points (called An Army of One, but also called “basic starting level for Monster Hunters). Very, very useful.
The Slush Fund (Chapter 1)
Explains the purpose of the 10 points that are allocated in the Basic Action Template for “the slush fund,” which is to ensure that characters can be tweaked up or down to make them rules-legal Largely, I imagine, as a result of skill point cost ladders – the point cost increments go 1-1-2-4, and then four per level from there. So if you take “two levels” of a skill, your firs two levels cost a point each, then the third is 2 more points, and after that, you plateau. This nicely simulates a real-world thing that it’s easier to learn the basics of a skill than to refine details.
And when that’s done, it allows some healty customization of the final character. A bit more of this, and a bit less of that.

NPCs

This useful box gives advice on how to use the book to create fast – dare I say it? – specialized NPCs. In fact, there’s a real case that this is where the book shines. It would shine even more as a GCA plug-in. Need a quick SWAT team? Five minutes and you’re covered.

BATs? (Chapter 1)

This short box makes an obvious suggestion – not everyone needs to start from the same Basic Action Template. Using the rules in the book to tweak the rules in the book is delightfully recursively meta. But it works, and it’s good advice. Much like Furious Fists has options like The Big Guy and The Fast Guy, extending this to The Smart Guy and The Skilled Guy would make for an outstanding meta-template to start from.
Doubling Up (Chapter 2)

This box notes when it’s appropriate and when it’s not to take options more than once.
Advantage Bonuses (Chapter 2)

Advice on how to deal with the non-trivial number of advantages that actually boost skills. Examples are given, and important “if you got bonuses from X, the choices probably didn’t also put as many points in Skill Y” caveats.
Skill Sets as Suggestions (Chapter 2)

As one might imagine, the book is generically useful as a hit list for free-form character design as well. This box presents more- and less-open options for alternate ways of looking at point packages.
New Parks (Chapter 2)

A dozen perks, some that have been seen before, as-is, but all are simplified form Power-Ups 2: Perks. They are, however, new to the Action Series.
Packages as Level-Ups (Chapter 2)

This box gives advice for spending chunks of earned experience points or as a way of starting with a template from another worked-example game (such as Monster Hunters, After the End, or Action itself; these packages aren’t appropriate for Dungeon Fantasy).
Specialist Campaigns (Chapter 3)

This is a large, half-page box that gives advice on how to use Action 4 as the basis for character building when starting a campaign. It goes through most of the common options and questions and concisely gives advice. This can include special packages (“everyone must take this Spacer skill set, or else you will die in the first session sucking vacuum”) or even advice on vetoing character concepts, abilities, or implementations that clash with the group’s expectations.
In the Hole (Chapter 3)

What to do when you overspend and your slush fund is negative. It can happen, you spendy spender you.
Generalists (Chapter 3)
This roughly half-page box talks about being a generalist, and why, in a team-based adventure, that’s not a great idea. Nonetheless, GURPS being GURPS, you get options for how to do it well. Plugging gaps and creating broad-but-shallow areas of ability – “I haven’t hacked a computer since high school!” – that allow getting some use but not overshadowing main niche are both covered. So is a Jack of All Trades advantage that can be spendy, but useful.
Compatibility (Chapter 3)
This box focuses on the metagame of character creation. The use of this book either along side of, or in synergy with, other books in the Action series. There are so pros and cons here. On the one hand, you can miss stuff if you design your guy in a vacuum. On the other, it’s crock-able, so again, the GM and players are responsible for avoiding the “my suit is more advanced than yours in every way!” issue.

Yes, I realize that this is a total crock. I mean, just look at the Iron Monger suit compared to the Mark III). Still, fun quote.

Ballistic’s Report
When I interviewed Sean a few years ago, he noted that because of the half-point quantum of spending for a 150-point GURPS character in Third Edition, it was possible (stupid an unlikely, but possible) to be forced to make 300 individual choices during character generation.
Specialists goes the other way. By parsing out the choices into one large (what BAT do you use?), and relatively speaking, a few small (a 250-point character is the BAT plus six skill/power-ups) choices, you can very rapidly define a character who does what you need it to do, fits within the overall campaign, and can be accomplished in a few moments.
I won’t lie: if there’s a Fifth Edition, or if GURPS one day really embraces the worked-example model as has been advocated here and other places in the past, I think this is the right way to go. Pointless Slaying and Looting, mentioned earlier from the Alternate Dungeons issue of Pyramid, takes that to an extreme, but either that method or Pointless (which Christopher Rice embraced in Pointless Monster Hunting, Pyr #3/83) would be a great step up in approachability for GURPS.
I could make a WEG d6 Star Wars or a 1st level D&D character in a few moments. This method gives the equivalent – though with a bit of fiddle on the tail end – for GURPS, and I love it dearly for that reason.
That the book has portability to other modern-day campaigns and is engagingly written is somewhere between icing on a very tasty design cake and a second course. This is a fantastic book, and ranks as somewhere between #2 and #1 on my list of favorite Action supplements (likely order is still Exploits, Specialists, Heroes, Furious Fists, but Action 2 and 4 are very close to each other, and then Action 1, and then Action 3).
This book was clearly inspired by Sean’s experience in his modern-day secret agents campaign. He had similar “pick from a list” options there, and the utility of the concept as something born in play and adapted to design is clear – this book just works, and it works because it was designed and forged in the fires of the players’ hands, not in some abstract theory. Nothing wrong with theory, but this player-facing design shows its mettle.
A great book, with a lot of portability. On my Pyramid rating scale, I’d go +1 or even +2 for writing style, but take a point away and leave it at +1 due to wall-of-text in the template and lack of follow through with advantages on what was done with disadvantages. It gets maximum points for inspiration and eiphany, and drop-in content is 3 or 4 out of 4 as well. It’s a 4 for any new campaign, but it has explicit, we wrote it down for you utility in an existing campaign as well. Total is 8-9 on a scale of 1-10, and the overall feel of the book is 9/10 to me.

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