Thursday, June 16, 2016

The strategic view – Fixing Skills (and Combat) in my campaign

Woe is me! I have lied to you! Previously, I told you that I was going to discuss several concepts of the GURPS mechanics separately, going into detail on them one by one. But as I was researching this article, it became more and more apparent to me that my skills and combat problem are partially one and the same, so I am going to discuss them together here.
Originally, this post was going to discuss which skills I was and wasn’t going to use, because I was running into some problems with skills in my game and how they affected the game. But then I realized that the skills I am using in my game are perfectly fine. The list of skills given by Monster Hunters are actually quite nice, I was just applying skills wrongly, but on top of that, it was also affecting my combat!

So what is my problem with skills and combat?

The magic bullet
I have 250 point characters in my campaign, which are basically underpowered characters for a Monster Hunters campaign. But the problem is that my players so far have been owning everything I have been throwing at them because two players have built a combat monster. These two players (A sniper and an explosives expert) can take on most threats with relative ease. Skill 18 in sniping, with enough time to set it up, versus monsters that are meant to be beatable usually result in a splattered brainpan within the first two seconds of combat. The magic bullet has become to stall a monster long enough for the monster to snipe him to death.
Part of the problem is that I am not utilizing penalties properly, but there is something more insidious at work here, which has to do with my understanding of GURPS and how encounters in GURPS work.
My players are catching on to this, and several players are complaining that their characters are under used. To specify:

The useless mechanic
I have a useless mechanic. No, literally. One of my players plays a mechanic and he barely has anything to do. His character has skills like electronic ops and hacking, which would normally be very useful in a spygame campaign, but somehow he has been underutilized. This is not because his skills are bad, it is just that I am not giving him the right challenges.
And both of these things made me think I have been missing something in my games. And then I read Mailanka’s and Douglas Cole’s discussion about combat.
I have been using GURPS wrong, and the ironic thing is that I knew this since my first GURPS game!

A blast from the past - My first GURPS game
Many moons ago (Or 6 years ago), Mailanka and I had just seen the Expendables, and I wanted to run a one-time game based on a similar premise. Mailanka was the one who suggested I’d run it in GURPS, because I already had some experience with it through his Sci-Fi game.
So I grabbed GURPS Action, put together about 12 different heroes, prepared some combat encounters based on my experience as a Dungeons and Dragons GM, and ran the game for a bunch of gamers.

And it sucked. Hard.

The premise was your basic action movie, where I had some basic by the number goals for the players to achieve.  But the combat wasn’t very much fun, I took too long to introduce the players, and there were just too many people at the table.

But there was one bit where the game actually was a lot of fun!

The faceman of the group had failed an infiltration roll, when trying to obtain information from the big bad. The result was that he was stuck in a fancy restaurant, with the big bad who was on to him, numerous goons around him, but too many people in the restaurant to start a full-blown shootout. The players had to extract the faceman, obtain the information and avoid civilian casualties.
And in hindsight, this lead to some memborable sequences, where a phone was bugged to gain access to the information required anyway, the other characters distracted the goons and got the guests of the restaurant out of the building before starting a shootout.

The next time I do an Action game, I think I will base it on a Taylor Swift song

And why was this last scenario fun?

It wasn’t a single combat! It was a set of challenges, where everything tied together. You can immediately see the consequences of each action. Just leaving the building would result in goons chasing the faceman down, not engaging the big bad in conversation would have prevented the players from learning crucial information and starting a shootout would’ve resulted in a lot of innocent people getting hurt or worse!

How does this tie into Mailanka’s and Douglas’ discussion?

The many arenas of GURPS
As stated before – GURPS is not Dungeons and Dragons, and I have to get this into my thick skull.
Like many I come from a D&D background, where each combat has to be a new puzzle to solve for the players – to rephrase:

The social contract in D&D is that each combat can and has to be won. 

I’ve heard stories of GMs who even reset the combat for when players failed to figure out the clever trick to winning the encounter. Combat is the primary source of gameplay in D&D (especially in 4e). It is great at providing this gameplay, and all the other mechanics are there to support this. Of course you can (and should) roleplay in D&D, but most of the mechanics tied to roleplay are fairly simple, this is because they are not part of the social contract.

Thinking about this and by reading Douglas’ and Mailanka’s articles, I realized that the social contract in GURPS is as follows:  

The social contact in GURPS is that the campaign, as a whole can be won.

To clarify, in GURPS combat is much more as a means to an end. Combat happens usually because you, or the opponent chooses to pick that avenue. You choose to engage in combat because you believe it is your best chance of achieving your goal. Combat is just one of the many arenas in which an encounter take place. And there are more ways to win, involving many strategies, because you are trying to win in the long term. 

To write it out, the social contract in GURPS implies the following
  • Encounters can be lost
  • Encounters can be held in many different arena’s
  • You should be able to win the campaign even after losing multiple encounters

And this is where my magic bullet and my useless mechanic come in.
I need to define the arenas in which my campaign takes place. Each arena should be a strategy which can be used by both players and their opponents to win a fight.
For my GURPS Monster Hunter campaign, the following arenas become clear:
  • Combat
  • Research
  • Social
  • Infiltration

By specifying these arenas I can see where each skill on each character fits in, and how I can attack and challenge my players.

As an example, the sniper is great at combat and infiltration, while the mechanic is good at research and infiltration. So if these two players pick their avenue of attack, they would be wise to pick an infiltration approach.

However, if I want to give these characters a tough time, the villain should pick a social encounter for them to deal with, because neither character is great at that aspect.

Bringing it to the table
Now I know what I am doing wrong – I know what I can do to fix it.

First of all, when preparing my sessions, I need to always have multiple avenues of attack for the players available. I can easily think of several challenges using the arenas defined above for each session.

This ties nicely into my ad-hoc sense of game mastering. There is little to prepare, except for knowing the avenues of attack and what challenges they will pose. So with each session, I will have to make sure that most avenues of approach are available, and that the player’s enemies also use the different avenues of attack. This will force me to discard scenario’s where there is too little to do. On the bright side, it also means that there will be a lot more player interaction.
So no longer am I just allowed to airdrop my players in the Ecuadorian jungle because several characters will be useless there.
But on top of that, I need to think long-term. If I know how the world ties together, I can more easily see how one encounter affects the other. I will need to devote another post to this concept – which I am going to be tying it into the conspyramid mentioned by Kenneth Hite in Night’s Black Agents! 

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