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The GM of a GURPS game I'm playing in has set the game's point level at 150. However, he has also made the option available to take 250 or 75 points at the beginning, with the understanding that the character would receive more or less character points over the course of the game so that we'd all be about the same power level at the end.

This doesn't sound like a good idea to me. I suppose it wouldn't be a huge problem if the high-level and low-level characters had different specializations, but even then the 250 pointer is likely going to be carrying any other characters on his shoulders unless the GM intentionally sets things up so that the lower-power character is the only one who can save the day.

Does anyone else have more experience with this technique?

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This doesn't sound good to me either... Why not keep starting points and point progression the same and keep everyone on an even footing? –  Jonathan Hobbs Jul 29 '13 at 1:56
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The only way I could see this working is if it's pretty important to be able to adapt in game and take skills important to the plot - but 250 is a lot to spread around, and even if it works out that suddenly everyone's kidnapped on a spaceship and only those with 'room to grow' can get those skills, then it's a reverse hosejob... –  mxyzplk Jul 29 '13 at 2:14
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The only benefit I can see in taking 75 character points is that you can more easily react to the environment. By having more character points to spend after you have some information allows you to optimise for the campaign. Overall, it sounds pretty terrible. In the end, it's only an issue if anyone accepts up one of the alternate offers. They might see the same flaws in the scheme. –  Hand-E-Food Jul 29 '13 at 4:24
    
Even with adapting, I'd be hardpressed not to pick 250 - you can plan for a lot of contingencies with an extra 100 points. –  Allen Gould Jul 31 '13 at 18:50
    
Sems like it could be fun. Rather than every character being the same level of power, you have Stanley Tweedle and Zev. :-) –  Greenstone Walker Aug 5 '13 at 4:33
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7 Answers 7

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I have never tried this in GURPs, but I have played other games where there were large discrepancies in the starting powers of the characters. I have tried mixed old World of Darkness games with different species and different versions of DnD with widely separate starting powers (in fact, this almost happens naturally in later versions of DnD if you have skilled optimizers next to non-optimizers) and a few others.

Generally, it has been my experience that widely different power levels do not work well together. Someone will end up feeling overshadowed or someone will end up carrying most of the load, and it makes the campaign very hard to design for from the GM's perspective.

I know of two exceptions where it works quite well though.

For a new player, especially if they are a guest.

If you have an existing campaign going and you are bringing in a new player, especially someone who is new not just to the campaign but to roleplaying in general, then it can make sense to make them somewhat more powerful than the others. This makes it easier for them to have a chance to shine and it makes things more "fault tolerant" since the character has enough power to survive novice player mistakes.

I'm not actually recommending this as it can cause problems down the road as that player becomes more comfortable with role playing but still has the strongest character. But it can help introduce someone to roleplaying in a positive way, especially if that person is a guest that won't be able to play through the whole campaign or if it is meant to be a short campaign anyway. I've been on the receiving end of this when I was much younger and a new player and it was quite pleasant for me.

If someone wants to play a weaker character for narrative reasons.

I like gishy characters (fighter/mages). I will take a gishy character even if I know full well that it is suboptimal, as long as its not so suboptimal that I expect it to cause real problems in the power level.

In World of Darkness, the character types are not all made equal. Mages for instance tend to be more powerful than vampires and everything is more powerful than ghouls. But some people will knowingly take a weaker character type because they like it better. As long as the power discrepancy isn't so big that it will cause problems and as long as the player realizes what they are doing, this can work very well and keep everyone happy.

In general

In general, I really think the power levels should be close to equal. There are some exceptions, but those exceptions work best when the differences are small rather than huge and when everyone at the table understands what is being done and agrees to it.

I haven't played GURPS, but that looks like a pretty big power spread and I'm not sure how well it would work.

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I think saying "power levels should be close to equal" is trivializing how GURPS works in its point structure. Power levels in what? Granted, 75 to 250 points is a large point spread (more if disadvantages are taken into account), but I think I could create a 75 point character that can be competitive with a 150 point character in the right circumstances. –  bryanjonker Jul 31 '13 at 20:09
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@bryanjonker Perhaps, I've never used GURPS. I stand by my belief that characters should generally be close together in power. I know how to achieve that and when to make exceptions in things like DnD and WOD, but I have no clue how to handle it in GURPs. –  TimothyAWiseman Jul 31 '13 at 20:14
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Makes sense. I guess I'm just pointing out that in GURPS, points alone does not dictate power level. To use a D&D example, if everything is immune to normal weapons, the 3rd level fighter with the +1 sword is going to do a lot better than the 10th level fighter with no magic items, even though the 10th level is technically "more powerful", overall. And in GURPS, everything is based on where the points are spent. –  bryanjonker Jul 31 '13 at 20:40
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I've done something similar. I'm thinking the GM is trying to get around the "everyone is an expert in something or has some type of power" syndrome that happens in GURPS ("you had 150 points, you had to spend it in something"). I don't know if I would recommend it. Some things to be aware of:

  • One-trick pony: If you focus on one specific action (like combat with a single weapon), you can get a lot with 75 points. Have two dump stats, buy a few levels in DX or IQ, get a few specific advantages, and spend about 50 points in a few skills and maneuvers.
  • Epic disadvantages: Some disadvantages are just not feasible in a 150 point character. By modifying the starting cost, this allows players to experiment with Cursed, for example.
  • Magic / Supernatural abilities: With a high mana area, you can build a powerful, versatile character with 75 points -- IQ 20 (40 points), Magic +3 (35 points), and with the -45 in disadvantages, take lots of spells with a base of 13 (IIRC). Supernatural abilities can trump normal abilities (although you'll probably only get one or two; they tend to be expensive).
  • Modifiers: If you take a 150 point character with -40/-5 disad/quirks, and slap a -40% modifier across the board, you've gained about 75 points. That modifier may be uncontrollable / unconscious, which the player can buy off over time. Modifiers can go all the way to -75%.
  • Not all advantages are created equal: Depending on your environment, a low-level advantage or disadvantage will be stronger. A lot of social advantages are nullified if the characters are away from society. Allies, enemies, etc. won't come into play if the characters are isolated.
  • Scenario interaction: As you said earlier, the GM can rig the game in the lower character's favor. 8 points in a skill can trump 60 points in intelligence, if it's the right skill. Likewise, a 75 point character with Rank may force the higher-point characters to carry him.

I would recommend that, as a player, you run by your character concept and final writeup with the GM, and ask if it seems overpowered or underpowered compared to everyone else. With a good GM, he or she may suggest you take certain skills / advantages / disadvantages that will balance the characters. Also, find out if the maximum disadvantage point cost is a percentage of your original starting points, or if it is fixed.

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This is one of these tropes which makes a pretty good amount of sense in literature but isn't so great in RPGing unless everyone is seriously on board with it. The GM seems to want to have the power imbalance because it's "realistic" and because it allows, at least at the beginning of the game, for a situation where there are main characters and minor ones.

The problem with this is that in an RPG everyone is a main character, or at the very least every PC is the main character in their own story. That doesn't mean that you can't have sidequests that are about one PC and not the others, or that some PCs shine in some situations that others don't, of course. It does mean that if you make a game with this kind of power imbalance, you're pretty much asking the 75-point players to be super-specialized at the possible expense of having a well-rounded backstory and/or being able to play a character who can actually function outside of a mental institution.

The flip side of this is that to me a 250 point character living in a 75 point world will find the obstacles a bit on the boring side in all probability. Sure, everything will equal out by the endgame (or so the GM insists) but until it does, I have to imagine that the 250 point guy is going to be wondering why he's hanging out with the 75 point dudes at all...

All that being said, virtually anything can work if the vision is good enough and is shared by all the players.

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As a player, I would take the 250-point buy in a heartbeat. If all players are going to end at the same point value, that means that I'm going to spend more time at a more powerful level. And the difference between 250 and 150 (let alone 75!) is massive in GURPS.

Now, if they offered the choice of a higher end point in exchange for the opening handicap, that could be an interesting question...

Aside: if the concern is to preserve the cinema-style "Frodo and Gandalf in the same campaign" feel, there are a lot of advantages that aren't strictly power-based. For instance, if Frodo doesn't have massive points in Common Sense and Luck, I'll eat Gandalf's hat. :)

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I have experience with similar but somewhat different approaches and situations in GURPS.

First, as others mentioned, the system as described is not balanced, unless the progression continued beyond the point where the characters reached equal value... unless there is more to it, such as:

  • some other effects of the choice
  • a major shift planned part-way through the campaign, where for example, it's really helpful to be able to spend points on things that weren't available, or weren't known to be a great choice, before play started

If the GM is quite experienced and balance-sensitive, there may be more to the choice than you are aware of. If he's not very experienced or is weak in math or game balance theory, then he may just be making a mistake.

Some examples from experience:

  • Some campaigns involve changes of circumstances where the players get opportunities to use points in very important/significant/fun/cool/useful ways some time into the campaign. e.g. Supernatural/magic/high-tech training opportunities that weren't available before, or a powerful threat appears that is vulnerable to certain skills the players hadn't thought to start with, or opportunities to gain great advantages such as patrons or allies or whatever.

  • Sometimes an experienced GM may offer such choices with other hidden meanings to them. I.e. the 75-pointers actually have some other advantages, or the 250-pointers some heavy disadvantages, which is secret and so not being revealed before play starts (or even during).

  • The GM might have future campaigns in mind where characters can be reused, so the curve will actually go beyond the point where the characters are equal in points.

  • It can be quite interesting to offer players a range of deals for character creation, if there is some balance or interesting choice to be made. For example, the 75-pointers may be allowed to choose from a wider range of traits, while the 250-pointers may need to have certain backgrounds and limits.

  • While it is generally true that a lot more can be done with 250 than 75 or even 150 points, it's also true that different types of designs can still have different strengths, and in GURPS a 250-pointer is not so far removed from a 75-pointer as to be hugely more powerful (not in the way power levels affect other game systems). I have played in and run games with such differences, and while the effect is noticeable, it doesn't have to be a huge problem if the GM is good and the players are good and/or not too competitive.

  • I have also noticed that often players will have more fun, and be more into their characters, when they have to start with a limited character, as opposed to trying to relate to a starting character who has a lot of high abilities, but the player has no first-hand experience of how they got those abilities.

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Narrative advantages like Luck, Serendipity, Destiny, or Higher Purpose provide a useful way to balance out characters with less in character capability. Their role in the story is as important as the other characters important because that's the way the story goes rather than because of their innate ability (Physical or mental advantages) or their relationships with NPCs (Social advantages).

GURPS Power-Ups 5: Impulse Buys has some new ways to use narrative advantages by turning them in to regenerating sources of points for use with the mechanics for spending CP in play (You can spend a "Serendipity Point" instead of a CP, and it will come back later). If narrative advantages as they normally work don't appeal to you, this may help.

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It sounds like a bad idea, because for most of the campaign, the group will be very unbalanced. And you can never be sure you'll even reach the point where everybody is roughly equal.

That said, I can see a few advantages for the lower starting position:

  1. Easier character creation, particularly for new players. Less skills and powers to understand.
  2. Adapt to the campaign. A 250 pt character could have a lot of points invested in something that turns out not to be very useful. A 75 pt character with bigger rewards during the campaign can more quickly adapt to changing situations, availability of new skills and powers, etc.

I doubt these advantages outweight the disadvantage of being underpowered for most of the campaign, though. Well, for new players, I think starting lower may really be a good idea, but it'd be nice if they started to catch up by the time they really got a handle on the system. Once they're comfortable with the system, it can get frustrating when they're still way underpowered.

Adapting to the campaign is only useful if the campaign throws the characters in completely different and unexpected situations. Maybe an initially modern campaign where the characters are suddenly transported to the distant past or future; then being able to pick up new skills faster than anyone else can become quite an advantage. Or maybe it turns from action to intrigue. Maybe magic or super powers suddenly appear in the world. Or, of course, they discover the strengths and weaknesses of their major adversary.

But these advantages are very circumstantial, and the difference between 75, 150 and 250 points is enormous.

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