Abilities that Surprise the GM in GURPS

I really enjoy Mage: the Ascension, and a big part of the reason why is that the players are very surprising. The way magic works is so open ended that I find myself handling plans and situations I never would have expected. It occurs in the very short term (singular deeds during action scenes) and the very long term (plans that last a whole session).

GURPS is a very different kind of game. It is one of the best at giving options at character creation, and it is among the best for simulating detailed worlds or highly specific genres. At first glance it does not have any powers like magic in M:tA.  It appears too structured, and there are very few strongly open-ended advantages.  There are at least a few. I’m going to identify what some of them are, and fit them into some categories.

Social

Non-Social

Maybe

Contact Group

(individuals are more predictable)

Modular Ability

Blessed

Favour

Morph

Intuition

Gadgeteer

Serendipity

Lightning Calculator

Gizmos

Snatcher

Legal Immunity

Patron

Super Luck

Oracle

Special Sources*

Telekinesis

Racial Memory

 

Warp

Visualization

 

 

Wild Talent

*Special Sources:

Spirit Package: Medium and Spirit Empathy (so long as spirits are useful in the world)

Alien Package: Telecommunication (maybe), ultrasonic speech (maybe), Cultural Adaptability (xeno-adaptability). Gizmos or normal equipment could easily provide telecommunication, and (depending on the PCs job) the ability to do ultrasonic speech as well.

Animal Package: Animal Empathy, Tracking (a skill), and Naturalist (also a skill)

Explanation

I divided the advantages into three categories: social, non-social, and maybe. Social advantages are only as adaptable as the society or setting can be, and are therefore more adaptable as either TL or Mana goes up. However, in a low TL, low Mana campaign, the Animal Package under special sources might be useful. The fact that TL matters is why Gadgeteer and Gizmos went into this category.

The non-social advantages enable all sorts of wacky solutions to problems, and do not depend on being in a social environment that supports them. However, they also tend to be quite expensive. Arguably, the highly cinemeatic version of Gadgeteer could be put in this category.

The Maybes each are very open-ended, but largely rely on a permissive GM. Many of them are about acquiring information, so the character must be able to capitalize on this information through other means in order to surprise the GM in novel ways. Lightning Calculator could be used by characters with very high IQ and IQ skills to justify using IQ skills in very strange ways: using Physics to know how to most rapidly break down a wall, for example. Legal Immunity allows players to surprise the GM by performing deeds that would normally be completely out of the question. It only works if rampant criminal behaviour would be acceptable within the genre. Visualization can be surprising to the GM because the player’s description of how they visualize events can be thought of as an offer to the GM about what will happen. This provides a sort of social mini-game where the player wants to adjust the description so that the GM will want to make things occur exactly as the player described. This is not officially part of the ability, but it emerges quite naturally from the mechanics provided. The resulting ability to make suggestions to the GM using an in-game mechanic is very unique. It is among my favourite.

Invention

The invention rules enables players to surprise the GM all over the place, even without taking particular advantages. It does require a variety of specific skills, however. The higher the TL, the more that can be accomplished with Invention. There are no satellites designed to be deployed from orbit to beam power down to the away team? Invent it. Those satellites have now been invented, and the party is unable to think of a way to destroy an enemy base. Invent a weaponized version of those satellites. It’s really too bad the GM wanted the players to infiltrate the base and plant bombs, but those players sure are clever.

House Rule on Temporary Disadvantage Modifier

Many of these abilities are particularly expansive. To mitigate their cost, I would consider allowing “Cursed” to be attached to them as a Temporary Disadvantage. However, because the advantages can’t be turned on and off, it is instead tokenized. Each use of the advantage enables the GM to maliciously ruin the players plans, but this is a 1:1 trade.

What I like about this is that it gives the GM license to be as creative as they want when messing up a player. In such a way, the GM is allowed to be as creative at foiling the players plans as the players are encouraged to be when foiling the GM’s plans. I think it would be fun for the players to see how the GM maliciously harms their plans, just as it is fun for the GM to be surprised by the players. Tying this to the more expensive abilities makes them easily affordable in lower point games, also. Since a player could choose to take Warp or just build the world’s strongest soldier, reducing the point cost of warp to just 25% of the normal cost will make it far more inviting.

Here’s an example: A player uses Patron (temporary disadvantage: Cursed) to call in an orbital bombardment. Instead of infiltrating an enenmy base, they just blow it up. The GM is now allowed to completely hose that player’s plans once. This should be used to maliciously introduce complications into the players plans. The GM writes this down, smiles evily, and bides their time. Later on, that character is on a mission to defend a hidden base from an attack of crack comandos. The player makes all the best plans and decisions, but the GM decides to maliciously have the commandos run into a band of helpful locals. Do you remember the ewok battle in Return of the Jedi? The players are now basically the stormtroopers in that battle.

Settings and Adventures that Focus on These Powers

To best maximize the potential of these advantages, playing in a high TL is a must. A sci fi setting can still enable all of these advantages, with the exception of Blessed and Oracle (both of which can be replaced easily with intuition). A sci-fi setting will often be limited by the skills of the PCs to use either devices or social resources. Electronics Operation and the various Interaction Skills come to mind.

Different abilities work on different time frames. Patron and Gizmos could both be used to get equipment, but only Gizmos could be used in the middle of a chase scene. Patron is far more powerful, however, when there is sufficient time to use it. Keep this in mind when designing adventures.

Long Time Frame (Zoomed Out)

Short Time Frame (Zoomed In)

Both

Contact Group

Gizmos

Morph

Favour

Modular Ability

Serendipity

Gadgeteer

Telekinesis

Snatcher

Patron

Warp

Super Luck

Blessed / Intuition / Oracle / Racial Memory

Wild Talent

Visualization (but not combat, because it takes 60 seconds)

Legal Immunity

Lightning Calculator

 

This means that an adventure ought to have problems that occur on multiple time frames. Various technical problems work well for adventure stories, and can occur both in a very short and very long time frame. Exploration problems (like getting around a canyon, or opening a locked door) can also take a wide variety of time frames. Navigating social conventions can also be time consuming or very quick, and work well for dramas or intrigues. Reasoning and investigation also work for mysteries, and can be very quick or very long.

Of course, if a GM is willing to be surprised, there plans will need to be very broad. Otherwise they will be forced to improvise wildly.

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