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I'm well aware that point-buy systems (HERO System, GURPS, Mutants & Masterminds, Wild Talents) tend to have a set of common pitfalls associated with them. Players will usually choose Combat abilities over Non-Combat while those that don't will be under-powered outside of combat. There's generally a few viable builds, and the rest are inefficient compared to them. Characters built using these systems can easily be built entirely as combat monsters without any attention given to non-combat at all. My question is this: How do I, as a GM, avoid the pitfalls common in these systems when running them?

Houserule and other technique suggestions are welcome.

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6 Answers 6

up vote 25 down vote accepted

Communicate.

Let the players know what kind of campaign you're running. How relevant is combat? Will there be social encounters at all? Will they be frequent?

Even better, listen to the players to find out what kind of game they would like to play. They want a game of brutal dungeons and challenging combat to gain ever more powerful items? Then they better build their characters as combat monsters because you will be throwing the full Monster Manual at them.

Both you and the players need to know what game you want to be playing. Point-buy is a way to tailor a character to a specific type of play, and everybody should know what the type of play they're tailoring their characters for. The team may even want to tailor the characters such that there is a specialist for every type of encounter - in that case you just have to make sure that there are opportunities for everybody to shine.

In short: as a GM, make sure everybody will have fun, and the best way to achieve this is to play to the audience, with the occasional curveball thrown in.

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I can't upvote this hard enough. Most of my point-buy experiences come from Exalted, where Social-Fu is very much a thing (including literal Social Martial Arts styles!). Any Exalt who focuses on an area of expertise can be nigh-unmatched... but might have trouble outside their comfort zone. Knowing the campaign is very important! –  Brian S Mar 18 at 14:58
    
I haven't played exalted, but how do you envision a Social Martial Arts Style? How does that work in-universe? –  TimothyAWiseman Mar 18 at 16:04
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@TimothyAWiseman I haven't even heard of it before, but I hope it's something like this –  Izkata Mar 18 at 18:58
    
@TimothyAWiseman, have you ever watched Ranma ½? Anything can be a martial arts style. Even eating food. :) –  Brian S Mar 20 at 16:17

Siloing

"Siloing" is a design term for sectioning off powers or points to be used for a subset of things - thereby limiting how much min-maxing can happen. Usually in point build games, the problem is that people pour ALL of their points into combat and ignore everything else.

The simple house rule is to silo the points: "You can spend 100 pts on attributes and combat skills, 50 on social skills and 50 on non-combat skills" or something similar.

I usually lump attributes with combat skills since they tend to overlap greatly, although you might do something like go "80 pts between combat skills, Strength and Dex stats, 60 points on social skills and Will, etc." and section off the stats with their skill types.

It's also important to look for skills or powers that are actually crossovers - "Intimidate" might be a social skill, but it really probably belongs in combat. Magic skills might be "mental" but you should probably drop those into combat as well. This prevents folks from doing workarounds to play the same min max game.

In point build games, I HIGHLY recommend limiting some skills/powers as unavailable, limited to a certain maximum rank, or only available as a package - "Sure you can get Super Ninja Fighting Style, but you also have to get Secret Ninja Lore Skill, Alliance with the Ninjas Background, and Oath of the Ninja".

Limiting Disadvantages

I also highly suggest limiting disadvantages, since in most point build games those become the cheap out to getting extra points. Options include:

  • "You can only take X amount of disadvantages" (still open to abuse)
  • "You can only take a single disadvantage. Just one."
  • "You can take up to X amount of disadvantages - but I get to pick which ones after you tell me how many points you want. I will choose viciously."
  • "You can take from this list of approved disadvantages"

Wow this seems like a LOT of work

Yep. The problem is that most rpgs put combat as a regular thing, and even players who aren't combat junkies don't want their characters to die, so they usually load up on combat stats as well.

Once play starts, it becomes a vicious cycle- the characters are good at combat, so they tend to lean towards resolving things with combat, as a GM, you want to challenge them at what they're good at, so you throw combat their way. Since combat is happening a lot, they put more points into combat...

You can silo out XP and advancement the same way, or give only or give more XP for non-combat solutions.

You can see that if you take the houseruling far enough in the other direction, you basically end up with "Build your own class system", but generally a solid amount of siloing/package builds/limiting or forbidding certain options can do the job. The more options the game system has, though, the more painful this process is.

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This is a good option and I have been in games that use it. But, it is somewhat heavy handed. I would only result to this if talking to them about the type of game and pointing out that non-combat options are important too didn't work. –  TimothyAWiseman Mar 18 at 16:07
    
@TimothyAWiseman: It helps if not all of the points are silo'd. If the players have 100 points, make 40 for combat, 40 for noncombat, and 20 wherever the player wants. Or 30/30/40. Far less heavy handed. –  Mooing Duck Mar 18 at 20:40
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@MooingDuck Agreed. Still, I think it is better to start with "communicate about what the game will be about" and only move to siloing if either that doesn't seem to be working or the players specifically ask for guidelines. –  TimothyAWiseman Mar 18 at 21:17

Confirm Characters Can Perform Tasks Beyond Murder

The primary issue in a point-based game is not that players make characters that are combat monsters but that players can't make characters that are anything but combat monsters.

Champions is a great, highly detailed cinematic combat system. GURPS is a great, highly detailed mostly realistic combat system. But in both cases the role-playing parts are afterthoughts compared to the combat parts. Unless you add Ultimate Skill to Champions or Social Engineering to GURPS, the characters' noncombat options appear extremely limited, even to experienced players... and, sometimes, especially to experienced players who'll try to talk the DM into allowing +4d6 to Presence Attacks or the Intimidate skill as a method of social interaction, for example.

While both Champions and GURPS have, like, hundreds of pages detailing what the characters may do, it's up to the GM to tell the players what their characters can and should do. The games tell readers what effects abilities may have in different genres, but largely leaves implementing the abilities to the GM.

The GM's job, then, is implementation.

The GM must give players a list of things their characters might be doing when they're not fighting. It doesn't have to be--and probably shouldn't be--a list of how the characters do those things, but instead lists ideas as to what the GM's genre expects characters to be doing.

Contemporary Game Example

  1. Compose a press release.
  2. Educate one's peers.
  3. Increase one's popularity.
  4. Interrogate a suspect--nonviolently.
  5. Interview a public figure.
  6. Navigate office politics.
  7. Participate in a sport.
  8. Perform non-emergency surgery.
  9. Protect a company from a takeover.
  10. Represent a criminal defendant.

Because there's usually at least 2 if not hundreds of different ways in a point-based systems to model performing a specific task, it doesn't matter how the noncombat task gets performed just that it is or can be performed. If the PC does it with superpowers or natural talent or default rolls or skills or whatever, that's okay. A detective, journalist, or doctor who uses his super-senses to solve mysteries, his telepathy to gather news, or his healing eye beams to cure the sick is still a detective, journalist, or doctor.


On Siloing
Unlike @Bankuei I've found siloing troubling. In my experience, it's a sure way to have either players who were bitter that they couldn't spend their points the way they wanted to spend them or characters who were outstanding at stuff they never used or couldn't use effectively because the rest of their character didn't back it up. But shifting the burden from the GM ("You must spend this amount of points on these things") to the player ("Your character must be able to consistently perform an interesting in-genre noncombat task like the ones from this list") creates agency and garners buy-in.


Show Players Sample Characters
Build a team of starting characters that fit your campaign's expectations. Then show these to the players, pointing out how each performs in combat and out. Post them online for reference. Then, on another batch of character sheets, show them the same team but as experienced characters a year into play and explain how the added points were spent and why they were spent that way.

In a point-based game its deeply important to make expectations clear--both for starting characters so they aren't just combat monsters who're bored when not fighting and for advanced characters lest players spend all their accumulated experience points on Energy Blast.

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This answer is excellent, and it's a nice alternative to the system altering siloing would require. –  shatterspike1 Mar 19 at 4:34

Is it really a problem if there are only a few builds in common use? I always assumed that part of the idea was that action type heroes tend to cluster around a few archetypes, and the optimal builds are more or less meant to represent that. So you might find an intellectual brawler, if that interests someone to be, but the vast majority of them are going to be burly, tank-like clods who give short shrift to mental and social attributes. Many of them probably can't even spell "negotiate", much less do it.

That is, you need not think of optimized builds as game-breaking monstrosities that exploit the rules, but rather as being the way 'average' people filling whatever combat or military role actually are. The optimized build will be the default, the target, rather than the exception, and challenges can be tailored to their power level. That doesn't mean a player can't play, for example, a swordsman who uses brain rather than brawn to beat enemies, but it does means that such a player will actually have to live up to that and think of clever ways to win fights instead of cake-walking through them, since he doesn't have a prayer of winning in a head-on battle.

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The problem isn't so much that the builds are gamebreaking as that they're very much not diverse; if diversity is the point of a point build system, it kind of defeats said point. Optimization is fine as long as there are enough roads to optimize down. –  shatterspike1 Mar 18 at 17:03
    
I would say rather that customizability is the purpose of a point build system, rather than diversity - but just because you can do things uniquely, doesn't mean that it will be easy. Think of how, say, 99% of investment bankers study economics or finance, or how most legislators have law degrees. You can do these things differently, but it's harder that way because there are advantages to specialization. Same with orthodox vs unorthodox builds. –  Robotman Mar 18 at 22:57
    
With what's being talked about here, customizability IS the means by which diversity is introduced and doesn't have much of a point outside of that. If you want to customize a character but only a few builds are viable, you're better off playing a class and level game with some customization options rather than a point build system. So yes, this is a real flaw. –  shatterspike1 Mar 18 at 23:43

Presuming your goal is to run a balanced game and make it so that social NPCs can actually buy one or two ranks of combat skills and use them as more than a story thing. If you're really afraid of players min/maxing, there is one method I like to prescribe with a healthy dose of scaling:

Step 1: Survey Have your players actually fill out the survey/quiz/game of questions that usually accompanies any given gaming system. Figure out the person they want to make and depending on the minimum number of character dimensions required you can grill them for more.

Step 2: Template This is where you need to decide what on a character sheet will be useful in a game. Template their characters by building them for the party. The scaling bit comes in here because you can only spend a few so that they have a minimum diversity of skill set, to half of the points for really picking up the things that anchor their background to the gaming world, all the way to spending almost every point and leaving them a handful for extra little flavors they might decide on once they see what you've done.

Advantages to this method include forcing the players to buy the contacts and resources that they might otherwise take for granted (and instead spend on combat), and avoiding the classic "I don't have [Skill] so I'm gonna insta-die, why does this roll keep coming up?"

The line for disadvantages starts at the whiners who don't share your vision for how the character interacts with the world. It continues with the game taking unexpected turns but usually these are hedged out if you've run the system a time or two and found your rhythm.

Step 3: Tweak Unless you've got a dedicated group of players who will play whatever goes in front of them, haggling for abilities and points and changes. When it comes to templates and builds it's usually worth bartering in some discounts on abilities you added in even knowing it was more disagreeing with the concept than in alignment. The more you hog of their starting points, the more you can loosen the belt and let them buy what they want. Just don't go too far if it's not meant to be a high powered campaign.


To suggest an alternate method, you can always give a minor discount on certain abilities. Let them make their characters from scratch with full points, but knock down the cost by one or two for abilities that get less play. Maybe 1/5 of my players actually choose to buy monetary or social advantages because they expect unending and far reaching travel. Why pay full price for a plush villa in the Golden Meadows of Alfaheim when the party is digging ditches to mount fences against goblins in Grungetown? What use is your spy network poised over the Capital City's nobles when the group spends all of the time crawling through SkullCrusher Mountain? When you know the players have to stay away from their advantages or give them up altogether, discount the cost of the advantage. You want them to have rich histories instead of making front line grunts so give them a reason not to discount the advantages from the get-go.

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I can only speak for GURPS, but I suspect that some of this advice translates to other systems.

There are multiple non-combat skills that are essential for a (modern-time) combat monster. You will probably rely on firearms, so you need to have a high Administration skill to request new ammo (and to fill out your post-combat reports). When you're out in the field, you will need to use Scrounge to find replacement ammo.

You will occasionally need Intimidate, Act or a variety of Savoir Faire, to interact with guards, infiltrate, intimidate and generally get about without always getting killed.

If you're playing a secret agent (in the rather non-realistic James Bond fashion), you will also require both a high Carousing skill, as well as the Alcohol Tolerant perk.

Finding a use for any specific non-combat skill should be easier, with these examples. I've had a character who made good use of "Hobby Skill (whittling)" in a magic-heavy campaign, to make symbolic representations for the hermetic magician to use for scrying.

In my experience, opening this field up gives sufficiently many well-working options that a few things happen. First, there's no "one optimal build". Second, the exploration required to find "the optimal build" (or narrow set of...) is sufficiently computationally expensive that it plain doesn't happen. When every skill, in a list of several hundred, is (potentially) making your character more optimal, finding the trade-offs is less pleasant than letting "build a character with skills that talk to how you want the character to be" win over "build the most effective character".

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This doesn't actually answer my question. –  shatterspike1 Mar 18 at 16:59
    
@shatterspike1 hoped it would answer at least a part of it ("make things outside combat skill useful/necessary for combat-oriented characters"), but I am happy to delete it if you think it doesn't even fulfil that role. –  Vatine Mar 19 at 10:28
    
I'm sorry, my earlier comment was probably terribly uninformative and a little rude. My question wasn't just about non-combat skills how they were chosen over combat skills, it was more about character diversity and how only a few optimal build paths usually exist in such systems, and how to make it so that these paths weren't necessarily the only choice, or make more choices viable. Even in a situation where "Combat Monster" isn't the most viable build path, replacing it with "slightly less powerful combatant with best non-combat skills" doesn't alleviate the problem too much. –  shatterspike1 Mar 19 at 16:38
    
@shatterspike1 Ah. I have generally found that once you open the field up in this fashion, the "there is only one optimal build" narrative tends to change to "oh, I can get a decent-working character the way I WANT it?" –  Vatine Mar 20 at 10:33
    
That might actually be true in GURPS, I'm thinking more specifically of HERO 5th, where the best build path was over-focusing Strength and Speed to the exclusion of nearly everything else. –  shatterspike1 Mar 20 at 17:29

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