Choose Your Power Level

One of the features of the GURPS game system is the concept of variable power level. Because character creation is done using a points buy system, in which players spend a pre-allocated budget of Character Points in order to build exactly the character they are imagining, one of the first questions the Referee has to answer is, “How many points?”

For me, this question always seemed a little arbitrary: at first I perceived this as simply following the standard advice in the GURPS Basic Set and to aim for around 150 points for beginning characters. It has only been recently, as I returned to the game with the explicit intent to learn the system, that I have begun to discern both the subtleties of this concept and the opportunities it offers.

Last week, I embarked upon an experiment to deepen my understanding of GURPS. In short, I am planning to run a couple of “one-shot” adventures using the already-written “genre treatments” offered by Steve Jackson Games. You can read about this in my previous post.

Looking through the character booklets for “Monster Hunters“, I was struck by the impression that a considerable portion of how you adapt GURPS to your chosen World will come from the decisions you make about starting Character Points.

GURPS Basic Set suggests a range of different power levels and how they might be relevant. For example, ordinary people would range between 25 and 50 points, whereas “leading roles in kung fu movies, fantasy novels, etc.” would be Larger-than-Life (200-300 points). I feel that, for most of my games, the sweet-spot would probably be the 50-100 character point range, labelled as covering Competent or Exceptional people:

Competent (50-75 points): Athletes, cops, wealthy gentry… anyone who would have a clear edge over “average” people on an adventure.

Exceptional (75-100 points): Star athletes, seasoned cops, etc. With a little experience, these individuals could become full-time adventurers.

GURPS Basic Set: Campaigns (4th Edition), page 487

So what? Well, the most jarring thing about most roleplaying games is the prescriptive and usually over-looked manner in which default assumptions about Power Levels are just handed to the group. For example, in the long history of Dungeons & Dragons, the power level of the campaign is only manipulated through choosing which Level of characters to play with. This creates the illusion of choice but delivers a static gradient which is, in truth, defined by the start and end points.

In original D&D, there was very low starting power at Level 1 and no upper limit specified. In appears, however, that when Gary saw groups reporting (for example, in the Alarums & Excursions fanzine) Level 100 or higher characters, he was not happy. He seems to have set about restricting the upper level of play, although the BECMI version of D&D retained some pretty explicit tiers of high-level play, e.g. Immortals. It is interesting to note, in 2020, that in the latest edition of D&D, the power bar starts pretty high and climbs through 20 levels, no further. Perhaps it doesn’t matter if you are happy with those parameters and assumptions. For me, it jars against my creative desires.

In GURPS, I get to choose and tinker with the precise details of the Power Level of the characters. I also get to choose whether to include Magic or Psionic Powers. Or any other element of the game, for that matter. Do I want to exclude Skills? That’s doable and very easily. This is a creative freedom that at first intimidated me but now, I realise, offers genuine customisation of my game.

And I don’t have to use the same Power Level in every game. Monster Hunters, we have decided, will be a 200-points game with no Magic or Psionics or other weird powers… at least in the first one-shot. I might choose differently next time: maybe 400 points, as default in the Monster Hunters supplement; perhaps I will introduce the Magic. I dunno. The point is, I get to choose. We get to choose, as a group.

I am only just beginning to value this as a feature, not a bug, with GURPS.

Game on!

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