Balancing what exactly

I nipped back to the States for GenCon, to learn it’s culturally way too soon for me to set foot back there, but also to have some good times. I did see the full solar eclipse, but alas, gained no super-powers.

For those reading the blog mainly for politics and/or comics, I promise, this series about the oldest versions of the role-playing games Champions and GURPS: Supers will come to an end in another post or two. But I do solemnly swear that I’ll wrap it up with material that’s relevant to those things. For those coming in recently, and who might be interested, the series so far includes Exhumed, still lovely my dear, Very special effects, Being, having, and nothingness, Dynamic mechanics, Where are you going, where have you been, and Kill, kill, kill. This one develops some of the previous points to focus on that curious innovation of the time, the concept of buying one’s character’s features with disadvantages.

Buying your character’s features almost completely ad-lib had been born – if I’m not mistaken – in The Fantasy Trip: Melee in 1977, but in 1981, Champions added the notion of a budget that was increased with negative points, here termed Disadvantages. I’ve spilled considerable verbiage in the past couple of posts to describe its many virtues, but inside it there’s also a hidden, conceptual falsehood: the notion that the good is being matched or balanced in some way by something bad, especially in comparable quantitative terms. This is, bluntly, not true.

The so-called Disadvantages in both Champions and GURPS: Supers outline the hero’s problems, positions, and relationships. These aren’t lack of benefit for a superhero comics protagonist at all – they are, instead, the maximum benefit he or she could possibly have. I point specifically to the jolt provided to the idiom by the Flash in the late 1950s, as re-imagined by John Broome and Carmine Infantino; and by the stupendous development of that jolt in The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and a varying range of others by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and Jack Kirby. Say it again: these are not bad things about these characters; they’re what make them good. They are the story’s frame and fuel.

I want to set aside the issue of setting up Disadvantages badly, that is, pro forma and without regard for this very thing. That kind of vague mess is easy to spot, as I can attest after enduring years of people filling in the blank with blanks like code vs. killing for no discernible reason or purpose, “Hunted: Villains,” secret identities without a shred of job or lifestyle, non-descriptions like “Overconfident.” It’s also reasonably easy to attend to.

Instead, I want to focus on the confounding factor specific to role-playing: the concept of effectiveness, that a hero without enough “disadvantages” is too effective. It presupposes some quantum of perfect effectiveness which is not too little to be fun and not too much to … something. What is that something? Then, as now, player agency is easily mixed up with how much one’s character impacts the fictional situation, and protecting that agency is often wrapped up in real-person power struggles. Add to that the desire, on anyone’s part, for this process to yield a rising dramatic arc, and instead of respective contributions you get all manner of reactive, passive-aggressive horse shit.

I bring this up to state that whatever the positive/negative relationship of “good” points vs. Disadvantage points may be, it’s not gonna solve that. Let’s assume perfectly functional attitudes and aims of play along the lines of soap opera + smackdown superheroes – why should any particular set of powers-building, effectiveness-increasing points be mathematically matched to some value of allegedly balancing “bad” points in a way presumed to balance them – especially when the latter aren’t bad at all, but are to a very real extent the engine of the cool stuff we want  to do?

Not quite alike

I keep saying these are pretty much the same game, except for the important points I raised in Very special effects. Here’s another difference, at first glance merely a technicality, but at least indicative of something deeper. The basic relationship among what my stuff costs, how many “buy” negative points do I have, and how much am I worth is parsed differently.

In both games, there is a baseline set of “free” points – sort of a buffer or cushion upon which the “I buy this” points and “here’s my budget” points rests. In first-generation Champions, it’s 100 points. In GURPS: Supers, it’s 400. All points gained from Disadvantages are in addition to that cushion

Each game has the “free” baseline I mentioned above, then a set number you’re supposed to get in addition but have to “buy” as points of Disadvantages.

  • In first-generation Champions, if you get 150 points via Disadvantages to add to the 100 point base, you’re called a 250-point character. In other words, you cite the “positive” total.
  • In GURPS: Supers, you get 400 points “free” for your baseline, then you can get 100 points via Disadvantages and 5 more from Quirks. In Champions, this would be called a 505-point character, but in GURPS: Supers, you do the subtraction and call it a 400-point character.

That might seem trivial, a mere matter of which algebraic unit you care to call “my character,” but it applies more deeply as follows. The various texts for this iteration of Champions didn’t explicitly state the whole negatives-worth-the-positive notion, at most sort of gesturing that way. Instead, a Disadvantage counted not so much as an undesirable thing but – as acknowledged in the text I scanned and included in the previous post – as a relevant, unavoidable thing. The numbers terminology reflects that: you weren’t “paying” for the good with the bad, you were increasing total value with interesting complications. Whereas GURPS: Basic (1986) very much conceived a Disadvantage as a disability, a stigma, a serious mental or behavioral incapacity, or a danger. If not, no points. Again, the numbers terms express that perfectly. If you wanted to be “returned” to an implied correct-and-proper total, then you needed the bad, literally to bring you down.

But GURPS: Supers (1989) had to backpeddle on that, in part because it did (I must say) cleanly lift certain concepts from Champions, and in part because no one into superhero comics could possibly deny, nor would want to lose, the fervent social soap opera part of them. So among the one-armed and schizophrenic and alcoholic disads, appeared a bunch that were much less … well, disadvantageous, and more along the lines of shaping someone whose attitude, situation in life, and unique impact on a crisis were fun to play. Also, in fairness to the newer text, the listed array of independent differing values does a better job in arranging all the interesting vectors of opinion a hero of this type might have.

It borks the logic, though. How can having, for example, a really cool Enemy be considered a bad thing which devalues your character in the game’s currency? How can my character Fireballs’ Honesty (in GURPS, this means law-abiding), which is nicely criss-crossed with his mischievous side, be a bad thing when it intersects with team leader Stink Bug’s brooding, honorable standards? (Yes, I made up Stink Bug. He’s awesome.)

I recall in the 1996 game Feng Shui, by Robin Laws, the text says to go right ahead and take off your character’s leg or otherwise cause6him or her hassles with some specified condition or situation. And? And nothing, you wanted it, so enjoy. That made a lt of sense to me.

In recent years, for Champions 6th edition, Steve Long finally said it the way it was from the beginning: these aren’t Disadvantages at all, they’re Complications, and if you want some, more power to you (literally), because we all agree that we like our heroes this way. The points shift a little too, which isn’t relevant here, only to say that there is no more implication of “balancing” and “paying” in order to have a viable character.

Magnitude doesn’t matter

Here’s a character I made to illustrate the “not balancing anything” point: Zap. Briefly, he’s in the mold of the original Nova (1976), the Impact version of the Fly (1993), or today’s Khamala Khan – a really nice mid-teen who’s landed with hefty, somewhat troublesome powers without overriding origin-esque personal trauma. I’ve built him with 250 points (150 points of Disadvantages), the recommended starting value. I’ve also provided an extra 50 points of Disadvantages for a hypothetical example of starting at 300 points. I want you to look at the difference between the two sets of Disadvantages as they pertain to playing this guy out of the gate.

My thesis is that instead of “balancing” the extra power for the 300 point starting version, the additional Disadvantages are counter-productive. Furthermore, that this is not because the character’s effectiveness is crippled, but because the framework provided for character crisis and developing during play, evident in the 250 point version, has been rendered a diluted mess. Instead of a focus on control over powers and the resulting hassles with relationships, he’s neurotic, hounded, and tormented too.

What I’m saying is that the raw quantitative value of Disadvantages gains its actual value in play not from the “badness” that counterbalances or somehow reduces the character’s in-game effectiveness (if anything, it’s the Limitations on the powers that do that). Instead, the points “stop,” i.e., the recommended 150 points, where they genuinely shape who this character is, making a coherent handful of potential for what might happen now. It’s arguable that 150 is a bit too many, and I have myself struggled to get that far when my character concept seemed nicely done at about 100 points of Disadvantages … but I’ve also seen a character snap into conceptual place beautifully when I pushed a player just a little to fill in that same blank. That total – wherever your sweet spot may be for a given character – has literally nothing to do with reducing or matching or balancing whatever powers and things happen to be on the point-buy end of the character sheet.

Developing and changing disadvantages

Art by John Mietus

I’ve written about this a couple of times so will recap only slightly: instead of spending experience points for more powers or whatnot, you can spend them to buy off Disadvantages. The implication is that since the latter are bad, well, getting rid of them is just as good (worth spending points on) as buying new powers. However, consistent with my claim that many people did not see Disadvantages as bad at all, I don’t recall anyone actually doing this.

Instead, the more common practice was to rearrange and redefine them to reflect developments that happened in play or which you’d like to springboard into play. Change your Secret Identity (15 points) into a Public Identity (10 points), and ramp up a villain who hunts you to make up the difference – that kind of thing. Overcome or reduce your fear of fire, get a ladyfriend who follows you around filming her documentary. You can see I did this in the contrasting future-Miasma examples in my previous post.

I’m sad to say that I, personally, didn’t use this rules potential hardly at all, as I described in Cloaky Spookydark. Nocturne, at 300 points, should have had a radically different profile of Disadvantages than he started with – not because the originals had been ignored or discounted, but because they’d been addressed and evolved. The total would have been about the same, but the components would have included:

  • Hunted: clueless occultist fan base
  • DNPC: son (this would have replaced being hunted by his sister; the kid is theirs and was heavily implied to be all sorts of evil, so making him a Dependent is way too much fun)
  • Public Identity instead of Secret
  • Reduce the “struggling with the evil inside” thing to 10

In other words, he’d have become a more public, better adjusted character with his family emphasis given a new angle – exactly what happened in play.

That vigilante game idea: It’s sorta taken off and has a name now. I even have an artist who wants to go berserk with it. Read more about the latest playtest and get the draft to try out yourself at my Patreon – thanks!

Next: Best with badness (September 3)

About Ron Edwards

Game author, publisher, consultant, teacher

Posted on August 27, 2017, in Supers role-playing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 34 Comments.

  1. Great column as usual, Ron

    Generally speaking, I agree with you on the following points, based solely on my own experience playing and running Champions.

    1. It’s rare for anyone to take less than the maximum allowed amount of Disadvantages. It’s foolish not to, since you’re stripping yourself of potential power otherwise. (Particularly when you realize that any given Disadvantage usually only affects game play occasionally, whereas the Character Points you got from it get you powers and abilities you can use all the time.) In theory, a character built on 100 Character Points with no Disads is of equal effectiveness to a character built on 250 Character Points, 150 of which “come from” Disadvantages. In pratice that’s absolutely not the case.

    2. As you note, many Disadvantages simply aren’t as disadvantageous as others. Blindness or lack of a limb are a lot more severe than most Psychological Limitations, for example. (At the very least, you often have to spend the points you get from the Disad buying a power that partly or fully compensates for the Disad — witness all the points Daredevil spent on Enhanced Senses to overcome his lack of sight.) Some GMs ride herd on this sort of “rules abuse” more stringently than others.

    And of course, many Disadvantages are crucial to defining the character as his powers and abilities. Can you imagine Superman without his Code Versus Killing, or Spider-Man without Aunt May and his other Dependent NPCs? Points from those sorts of Disads are in many ways “free,” since you want the complicating factor they bring with them.

    3. I am hard-pressed to think of any situation where I, or a player in my game, bought off a Disadvantage with Experience Points. Changing them while keeping the point totals the same, sure — you mentioned that and pointed out the benefits to character development. (IIRC, Aaron Allston’s Strike Force has some additional discussion about this in the context of that campaign, but my memory may be playing tricks on me.)

    4. Stink Bug is awesome.

    In some cases in early play, Disadvantages were a drawback less for the player than for the GM. I am thinking here particularly of Hunteds. Each Hunted has a chance, defined by the rules, to show up in any given scenario. I have vivid memories of situations where the GM had to start each game by rolling each PC’s Hunteds — and then figure out, on the fly, how to incorporate the ones that showed up into his planned scenario. My friend John Grigni was especially good at this, but the fact is it’s a hassle. With more experience in play, we adjusted Hunteds to become the focus of scenarios on a sort of rotating basis, and also developed ways for a Hunted to “impact” a scenario or a character’s life in ways other than fighting him (e.g., having him show up to romance a hero’s girlfriend).

    In the 6th Edition, I changed things to try to focus more on what, generally speaking, Disadvantages had come to be regarded as. First, I changed the name to Complications, which I think better highlights their role in play and in character creation/development. Second, I significantly reduced the number required. My intent with the latter move was to keep players from having to take Complications just to get the points, even if they weren’t appropriate to the character concept. With a smaller number required, I think players are more likely to focus on the ones that matter — the ones they’d take as part of their character even if they didn’t get any points for them. I have no idea if that tactic worked, but I hope it did.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hey Steve! I think there’s a subtle difference with 1-3e (“first-gen” Champions in Ron’s parlance) and later. Remember in first-gen, there were “diminishing returns” on Disadvantages; the two most expensive in a category were at full value, the next two were half value, the next two were one-quarter, and beyond that were zero. So even within a GM-set maximum value, two characters could have different “active point” totals worth of Disadvantages, and lower point-total characters really were less disadvantaged overall. I remember games in those days where we were given total point ranges; 200-250 and 225-275 were common. (I don’t remember where the “sweet spot” was, or if I ever calculated it; I suspect that 150 points worth was it, and that’s probably why that was the default maximum in 4e.) I think in practice some of that ended up being “free points”, especially DNPCs, but for sure Psych Limits, Physical Limits, Susceptibilities, and Vulnerabilities were unavoidable and front and center always.

      Just for the heck of it, I once created a 3e character that was 100 base with about 315 total points, and I was pushing a lot into the half and quarter values. That wouldn’t have been a fun character to play, and I never did play it, but it could have been done.

      (I think this works well with the other first-gen limiting factor, which was END Cost; Powers back then had a higher base END Cost, and a different method for buying it down. You could spend points on upping your END and REC, or spend points on reducing your Powers’ END costs. Between this and diminishing returns on Disadvantages, I recall a more heterogeneous design space, which I’m pretty sure made it harder to GM but allowed for fun surprises.)

      Liked by 1 person

    • My eventual solution to the rolling oh-for-God’s-sake Hunted thing was simply to use the Hunteds’ values as my “casting clout” constraint – that guy was 14 or less, so there you go, he’s a major villain and is always up to no good somehow. So we seem him a lot. The difference between these and villain that I wanted to feature but weren’t Hunteds is that they always had serious personal ties to the heroes. I really went for those family and/or occult and/or SF-history connections.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Ron, I was going to ask you more about CvK, but I’m not sure that there’s anything left to say that you didn’t in the last installment. In terms of Disadvantages, of late I can’t really understand how it is, barring the assumption that the default game mode is murderhoboing your way out of any given situation. But I guess we covered that last time.

    Steve, 6th Ed.’s Complications was a great development, finally acknowledging exactly what Ron is talking about here. Thanks for that.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I don’t mind repeating myself a little to link the threads together. I really want to highlight the notion that so much of this discussion is cleared up by realizing that “Disadvantages” was a misnomer from the start and we are all better off by knowing that. Any psychological “code” for a character isn’t a disadvantage, because it’s about what he or she is like, and since I’m the guy who wrote it onto the sheet, I must be the guy who wants to play the character that way.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The articles from Different Worlds containing versions of the X-Men, New Teen Titans and DNAgents are interesting.

    A lot of the characters within the teams have more or less the same Hunteds.

    This makes a kind of sense – in a team game, all the characters are going to be affected by each others’ Hunteds – so why not share them?

    Read strictly, it increases the probability of each Hunted appearing, but you could alternatively choose to roll for each one once, and perhaps use the individual probabilities to help shape exactly what the Bad Guys are up to.

    The other alternative is to strictly limit each PC to one 8- Hunted apiece. That way, each player has input into the design of the campaign, without any particular one overshadowing the others.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There’s an interplay among “important to me/my character,” “important to what’s going on for everyone,” and “a problem for me/my character” which at the time, early 1980s, was getting weird. I see the Champions rules as the first genuine attempt to get all of them into the vocabulary of play. The 8-, 11-, 14- strike me as a design attempt to modulate the intensity of these things, somewhat crudely framed as “appears in play.”

      At least from my perspective, and even my perspective from that time, the concept of undesirability as a “price” you pay for some otherwise-denied benefit, was broken. I discovered to my delight – which had not occurred with fantasy role-playing for me in the preceding 8 years – that people could, in fact, play such that the villains were important to them and to their characters, were important to what’s “going on” in the sense of any cool bangs the GM did, and were a problem for the characters in strictly fictional terms.

      No problem for me, the player. No undesirability whatsoever. Exactly what we wanted. Therefore the 8-, 11-, and 14- became expressions of how much we wanted it, for a particular villain.

      It also helped that by “Hunted” we quickly switched from “assaults me or my DNPC, ranting about revenge,” to “trying to get me on his or her side” or “determined to save me in his or her inimitable fashion.” I don’t think we ever graded into non-threatening Hunteds – they always thought violent coercion or really messed-up manipulation were OK in a pinch – but it wasn’t the distracting, put the “real” story on hold for this damn fight scene, situation that seemed to crop up for others.

      Let’s consider as well what that alleged price “bought.” More powers? I don’t see it. We had a great time playing at all power levels, including one game that started at 220 points instead of 250, and graded well into the 350-400 range. And no game I ever played in or read about permitted starting characters at any point value based on how many Disadvantages you racked on; instead the common practice was to specify a single value or a narrow range for a starting character’s total points.

      I’m more and more convinced that the alleged point-parity on “sides” of the character, the good one and the bad/constraining one, has been an illusion from the start. Not only is there no equals sign, there aren’t two sides.


    • Oh yeah – I’ve mentioned that Different Worlds article before, but as it happened, I read it briefly in a store well before I got interested in Champions (1985). So it wasn’t part of my seminal comics/RPG/Champs training, and after getting a copy later, I decided that I regarded it as an interesting artifact rather than a fixed directive about how to use and conceive of the rules. I even fancy that several textual bits in the 3rd edition core book openly disavow a number of details from that write-up.


  4. gamingballistic

    The way I’ve always explained GURPS disadvantages (which means I’ve been explaining them this way since 1989) was that a “disadvantage” is a constraint on the character’s behavior that will come into play with some frequency. Code of Honor might prevent you from backing out of a bad deal with a villain because you promised you would carry through the mission. Code Against Killing forces you to let her walk away when a decapitation really, really is called for. Bloodlust (which I’ve seen done in some very clever ways) is going to land you in jail one day, and will give you, quickly an unsavory rep. “Never leave a man behind” constrains you to do just that, taking that big penalty to Move in order to get your buddy out.

    They are *absolutely* juicy roleplaying fodder and to a large extent define your character, as you’re self-imposing things you either *won’t* or *must* do. In exchange for those constraints come extra points.

    One of the better Pyramid articles out there is Sean Punch’s “Pointless Looting and Slaying,” from Pyramid #3/72. It’s worth a read to see how the “point balancing act” has been tamped down by the line editor himself. Were I magically in charge of a GURPS 5th Edition, I’d lobby hard to make that article (or its generalized form applied to all genres rather than just Dungeon Fantasy) the default.

    Course, I’d get rid of ablative hit points, too. But I’m wacky that way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Do you mind if I provide a possible counter-argument or partially alternative view? I ask because, well, internet.


      • gamingballistic

        Of course! Sad that you even have to ask: If I come on your blog, and make a comment, I’m inviting reply!


        • Sad perhaps but prudent. It’s been a tough 20 years.

          I want to question your concept of constraint. Not as an expression of the GURPS rules, because the way it’s phrased matches perfectly to my reading of those rules. It’s totally thespian: this is how I’ll play, do not pass Go, done. This is – I think – very GURPS. If there’s any single preference for play I can see expressed across that game’s many texts, it’s a deep aversion for surprises.

          So I’m not questioning your interpretation or explanation, but instead calling attention to a couple other ways to do it.

          For example, the notion that the Code – or any code, or any behavioral descriptor on a character sheet – is not there as a hard constraint. Instead, it’s what the character has always done so far, and would do reflexively, but in circumstances or stresses as yet unforeseen, might not. And part of play is to find out what those circumstances or stresses are, without pre-planning it.

          I acknowledge that I didn’t like this argument much when I was GM and the player had just slain a foe right past the Code vs. Killing on his sheet. I’d been playing under the assumption that the villain’s annoying, thoughtless, and generally endangering behavior was properly countered by some imaginative heroic activity which the player should come up with. The player, however, had reached his limit with what the villain could/should be permitted to do, and maintained that enough was enough – all Codes had their limits, and a real hero knew when his or her ideals didn’t apply. To him, to do otherwise meant his hero was a blithering idiot. And, he maintained, the story of play

          Yes, I didn’t like it … but it stuck with me that the player was certainly not wrong in principle. Did he get to play his character or not? Does “play” mean like an actor or like an author? Was “the” character on the sheet or expressed through play? To shift genre for a second, if “Samurai Code of Honor” means that the player, and the rest of us at the table, know exactly what the character is going to do under stress of any kind at all times, what kind of protagonist is that? That’s the behavior of a foil, not a main character … certainly not of any main character in any samurai movie that we’re allegedly using as an inspiration.

          A somewhat more formal or at least more organized version can be found in the idea that the categories (different Codes, et cetera) are expected to be played as written – until some time as when they’re not, at which point we all realize that’s not what your character is like “after all,” and we change the sheet accordingly.

          This is the topic I was hinting at a couple posts ago when I referenced the crisis of alignment prior to the superhero games. I recall reading the AD&D DM Guide (1979) most carefully, and being surprised to find that player-characters were in fact perfectly in their play-rights to violate a listed alignment. The only issue was whether they were going to do it a lot, and if so, consistently enough to warrant questioning if they “really were” that alignment, then … simply changing it to the one they were expressing.

          Wow, I said. So I could start as a Lawful Evil guy, and after a while, learn a thing or two maybe, and shift to (say) Lawful Neutral simply by acting that way consistently, and hell, maybe even Lawful Good. Or vice versa. There was an Experience Point penalty, but so what, this was drama & stuff. Right there in Gary’s inimitable words!

          But as I’m sure you’re anticipating, the culture of play had been set in stone: Thou Shalt Play in Alignment, do not pass Go. “You can’t do that, it’s against alignment” had become a mighty arrow in the quiver of who’s in charge at the table, silly rules text or no silly rules text.

          Which does GURPS: Supers as a text support? It’s kind of interesting. Contradicting my earlier generalization about the game, the rules for changing Disadvantages seem quite responsive to play: much as one loses 20 points or whatever, via the suddenly-acquired Missing Limb disadvantage, if one gets an arm chopped off; one might get the Bloodlust disadvantage (losing the points, which is a nominal concern of no practical significance) simply by acting bloodthirsty consistently. If that’s what you want, then play it – s’all good, we’ll put it on the sheet when the rest of us figure out how it is.


  5. gamingballistic

    I can’t seem to reply directly to your comment talking about constraint, alas.

    A few things, I guess. I’ve never played Disads/Constraints quite as “do not pass go, do not collect $200” as you suggest, since most of the disads can have a susceptibility roll or self-control roll (this is on p. 121 of the Fourth Edition Basic Set, and I recall something like it from my 3e days). The “use the listed costs” value for Self-Control is 12 or less on 3d6, that is, you act however you like 75% of the time . . . which is pretty minimal as a constraint.

    In actual play, though, I’ve mostly seen it done and done it myself as you described: they’re *guidelines*, and if you go against one of your “usually, I . . .” constraints then you wind up roleplaying it out.

    Since all things must be referenced to The Dark Knight Returns, Batman tries to break his notional code against killing to snap the Joker’s neck. Well, mostly. “Paralysis, really. You didn’t have the nerve . . .” That sort of thing happened all the time, and either the player will toss the dice (I want to act against my usual way), or just say “I’m going to deviate from my usual way of doing things here, but don’t worry, I’m going to be properly angsty and broken up about it for the next three sessions.”

    My current editor for my big RPG project (Ken Hite, Dragon Heresy, respectively) has given me a mandate for future writing: don’t use conditionals. So if I’m writing a rule, and that rule imposes a constraint on the character’s behavior, it’s going to be written as “this is the way it is.” Now, it happens that GURPS in particular, and Champions as well, last I played it, has mechanical support for “usually but not always,” and explicit guidance (in 4e, at least) that self-imposed disads can be bought off at any time with earned points (and I, and my current GM, will frequently allow going into point debt if such a change is right for the character).

    So while I see your point about how things can be interpreted, I can say that at least in my own experience, that’s not how we applied the other rules (self-control, self-imposed disads) that have been in the text. (Though maybe GURPS before 3rd edition didn’t have that; it was before I got a hold of it in ’89)

    The ONLY time I really felt the bite of “do I have to act this way?!” was when taking the place of another player who was out, and their character had a set of fairly restrictive disads (intolerances, bloodlust, fanatacism, and stuff) where he really HAD put “resists very rarely, 6-” on the sheet. I pointed out to the GM that this combo would mean this character was very likely to commit horrible atrocities. “Yeah, that’s how [Bob/not-Bob] played him.”

    I generated a new character with more flexibility for the next game.

    Final point! Also consider that GURPS (and Champions) feels it has a mandate or responsibility to be able to portray things like *programmed* behavior. Like Robocop with his hidden directive not to harm any OCP executive. That *is* a hard, mostly unavoidable constraint on behavior (until he can convince the CEO to fire the bad guy . . . ).

    So, in summary:

    * Mostly self-imposed codes of conduct were played in my groups over the last 30 years as guidelines rather than rules, as you note. In fact, the assumptions seem to suggest that “full point cost” is really only an imposition on play choice one time in four.
    * Sometimes they’re NOT guidelines, and the game needs to support that too.
    * The wherewithal to buy off disads permanently, or swap one for another, has always been there, and I have used it and seen it used at the table before.

    Most of that is picked up in your final paragraph: yes, the rules are responsive, both in character generation OR in play. They’ve been that way for a while. Folks can choose to play that way, or treat disads as handcuffs . . . but it’s their choice.


    • I wonder if GURPS 3rd lightened that principle up a little. The texts I used tended to be stern about it: “this is what you said and got points for, this is how you play it.” I don’t recall that Self-Control rule at all, let alone quantified, not even from my recent re-review of the books. I’ll check them out again to see if I missed it, but I doubt it – I suspect it showed up in one of the early genre books instead, Horror maybe.

      With, of course, the opposite message being implied by the rules for changing disadvantages (if we apply them to Mental ones), which necessitate playing against the written-on-the-sheet terms for a while. In my texts anyway, there’s an iffy relationship between instructions for play and instructions for change.

      I like your Robocop example, because just as you included in your description, it turns out not to constrain him – he finds the workaround. This is important, because superheroes do this all the time and I suggest it’s even tagged frequently as the mark of a “true” hero that he or she does not get trapped by his or her stated values, but always finds a way. And when such a “value” is basically hostile mind control, which is what that directive is, then he or she finds a way to work around it or shake it off. Sometimes a sneaky way and that’s heroic too.


      • gamingballistic

        Checking my 3e stuff in “skim fast” mode, I think this is true. A lot of the disads have variable costs, frequently based on how often it pops up. Lots of variable strength (-5, -10, -15 point shyness or phobia) too. The Compendium 1 tacked on an actual chapter on modifying ads and disads, the beginning of the enhancement/limitation trend that went big in Fourth Edition.

        While I realize you’re doing a retrospective, the Fourth Edition probably deserves more attention than it’s getting. A lot of the things that might have grated from a 1989 perspective are, well, 30 years old now, and have been altered or tweaked with the perspective of various editors and line editors.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Oh yeah – when you hit the limit for embedding replies, keep replying to the last post that permits it (even if it’s yours), and they’ll line up vertically and chronologically.


  6. Thinking about “are disadvantages disadvantaging”…

    If comics are soap opera + action/adventure stories, RPGs are soap opera + skirmish wargames. Or at least they were in their origins.

    The question of balance, I think, arises from the wargame part. In this context, things like Code versus Killing genuinely are disadvantages – they force sub-optimal tactical choices, even to the point of getting a character killed. It’s only on the soap opera side that they are good things.

    Thinking further, this ties in neatly with my tendency to be generous about giving characters zero point stuff. If it doesn’t affect the wargame, it doesn’t cost points.


    • The point where that hits a crisis is when the group wants the fights to arise from the soap opera and to be part of resolving or developing it. In other words, not a plus as you wrote it, but as a bracket of one inside the other.

      Comics themselves succeed at this only every so often. Lee was a master of it – that’s why I credit him with much more than merely dialoguing others’ storyboards; it’s evident that Kirby and Ditko couldn’t do that precise thing by themselves. The Claremont-Byrne X-Men is a picture-perfect display of how it can slip-and-slide into effective and ineffective almost per issue, and the correspondence with role-playing tables throughout the mid-80s-to-mid-90s seems exact to me.

      When a fight is a subset or one of the events of the soap opera, then the concept of optimal victory changes. It’s no longer about putting the opponent down as thoroughly as possible with minimal loss to oneself. It’s about whether you’ll get what you want out of the situation, including the significant component that the opponent appreciates you, understands you, or comes to agree with you, or adjusts their viewpoint in any way.

      Tactics in those circumstances don’t look optimal at all from a skirmish-wargame viewpoint. They’re no less violent and spectacular, but full of surprises, including agreements and disagreements criss-crossing among members of the nominal sides.


  7. Santiago Verón

    There’s an Argentine character called Nippur from Lagash, an ancient Sumerian whose adventures were published between 1967 and 1998, according to Wikipedia: . He’s got an iconic eye patch. When I started studying comics, it amazed me to find out the character actually loses the eye around his tenth year of publication. I can’t imagine him having two eyes, but as it turns out, an enemy took out his eye and then trained him, so he could fight the famous Nippur in his prime. (Maybe I misremember and his enemy found him just after he lost his eye in an accident.)

    So! I wonder, in Champions terms, what if I want something like that to happen to my character, after a lot of sessions playing with my friends? Can I get extra points if I add Disadvantages? Let’s say I want my character to lose both eyes and gain the ability to fight blind, is that a way to get it done?

    Sorry for going into hypothetical territory again 😦 it’s OK if you can’t answer.

    Liked by 3 people

    • FIrst, as usual, that is an amazing character, and thanks again for expanding the range of our topics here.

      For the rules – something struck me as worth mentioning. When the first version of Champions appeared in 1981, role-playing as you and I think of it had existed for less than seven years (outside of very isolated circumstances), and most people, with me as a fine example, had been playing these games for less than five years. One might have conceived of play continuing for ever and ever, and in fact that was the prevailing assumption, but hardly anyone, if anyone, had actually done that yet. Especially not for superheroes.

      Whereas by the time GURPS: Supers appeared (1989), it seems not much later, but in practical play terms, an eon had passed. I had, myself, played what easily corresponded to the run of the Avengers from Thomas’ Sentinels all the way through Englehart’s Celestial Madonna, and I know that was quite typical.

      Therefore it shouldn’t be surprising that the first-generation Champions texts had literally no discussion of what you’re describing. Such things were handled mainly by jury-rigging the texts I presented in my post about change, and remember – in that game, the concept that adding Disadvantages lowered a character’s total points did not apply. I think if we had done it, we would have taken the necessary points from other Disadvantages, lowering or removing them, so the numbers stayed the same. Why? No real logic – it was merely consistent with how my group and I thought about those numbers.

      Whereas GURPS: Supers, armed with those years of experience and opportunity actually to see real play generate plot-based changes, is much more explicit. Yes, you’d lose the eye, you’d gain the corresponding disadvantage, and your character’s point total would be lower. (Not that the latter was ever considered bad or undesirable; points in these games aren’t like levels and carry no particular quantum-based meaning.)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Santiago Verón

        Thanks a lot! Whoa, I can’t believe we’re talking so early into the history of RPGs.

        You mention shuffling around points for disadvantages. But, can’t you add for the positive part of the character instead? The way you do in character creation? You get a disadvantage, you get new character points for powers or whatever.


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