In Praise of Average

I’m a big fan of players starting with a lower baseline of power and ability in any game intended for the long-term. Because I am increasingly disinterested in short-term, one-shot, or single-session play this means I am easing power levels downward in my games. Another way of looking at it is that I prefer to start with an “Average Person” and see what interesting things players can do.

In GURPS, the average human being is defined with the mid-range values for Attributes on a 3d6 roll, namely 10. In other words, you are Strength 10, Dexterity 10, Intelligence 10, and Health 10; you roll 10 or less on 3d6, which is about 50/50 odds. Simple.

The first effect is that having any increased Attribute, training in a Skill, or amazing Advantage feels significant. For example, increasing Dexterity or Intelligence to 11 means you just got 12.5% better at everything related to that Attribute. The Success Roll odds become 62.5%. Going to twelve even more so, rising to 74.1%.

The second effect is that you have to start relying on the others around you to cover your weaknesses. Finding companions who can do things better than you makes your success odds in the game improve. This sounds obvious but given that cooperation in play is a big part of the joy of RPGs, this is important. I feel that this is a good way to begin a campaign because you foster teamwork through the hard realities of the rules.

Remember: in GURPS, anyone can try any task (excepting those which require specific training). Thus, my Mr Average with Dexterity 10 but no skill in (say) Climbing can attempt it… but at Default (DX-5 = 5 or less, 4.6%). Getting just 1 point of skill in Climbing makes it a 9 or less. But help from a better climber who can scoot up and drop him a rope to climb means he can realistically follow: Climb 10 [2 points] scaling a vertical stone wall has a -3 modifier… but it’s just -2 with a rope and 5-10 times faster; 8 or less is 25.9%.

The third effect is that even mundane adventuring challenges (the GM gives bonuses for favourable challenges) become problems to work. The character who has even a single point in that skill you need in this situation becomes the hero of the moment. When no one has that training, the most naturally gifted can at least have a go.

More than all of this though, I like the idea of taking Average Josephine and giving her player a few character points to make her abilities something interesting. Being the Shield Maiden with High-Pain Threshold matters at this level – hugely! She can take a hit and ignore the pain (among other things).

I believe we can benefit from dialling towards the human norm and seeing what interesting stories might arise from competent, slightly above-average folk with some training instead of even minor-league superheroes. The key benefit is learning to appreciate how each step up in power feels and plays, allowing us to calibrate expectations and master the game.

Despite the rhetoric about wanting to play special characters and mundane being boring, my feeling is that victory is all the sweeter when you start with some limitations. Playing with Josephine Average and her companions will be a rich and demanding experience, requiring some ingenuity and creativeness to succeed. That path leads to greater enjoyment.

All the usual caveats apply. There is no bad-wrong-fun in how you choose to calibrate your GURPS power level, at least to my mind. The point is that I’m much more interested in hearing about how you overcame that dragon with a small band of villagers armed with spears and daggers than I am in hearing the tale of blowing it away with a single flick of your super-powered wrist.

Game on!

4 comments

  1. I hesitate to leave a comment that adds nothing of substance and just exists to cheer the post, but that’s what I’m doing. I really like the idea of scaling away from the flashy superheroics that are currently popular and moving toward a style of play that is focused more on ingenuity than spectacle (which is not to say that spectacle can’t be ingenious, only a comment on where the focus lies). I think that part of the reason that the 0-level “funnel” style of games like DCC has struck such a resounding chord among players is a similar impulse.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oh, perhaps I have something of substance to add after all. One other effect of such lower-powered games is an increase in importance of minor advantages and even Perks. I thought of a lesser form of High Pain Threshold, for example, at 5 points, which halves Shock penalties and provides +1 bonuses to the various other areas the Advantage covers. Call it “Pain Tolerance”. Perks that provide +1 or +2 bonuses in limited situations become more significant ways of differentiating characters. What would a Perk-level version of High Pain Threshold look like, I wonder?

      Liked by 2 people

      • Thanks, Chris, for reminding me about Perks. I tend to overlook them and it’s a symptom of the higher-points play to discount small bonuses. You are quite correct to point to Perks as a great way to differentiate characters. Good stuff.

        Liked by 2 people

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