“Roll it,” the GM commanded with little expression in his voice as he passed over the three numbered cubes to his overpowered player.
The player scooped up the dice from the GM’s palm and cupped his hands together around them. He gave them several seconds of a good shake in his grasp before letting them tumble out over the table. Everyone around the table watched on as the dice fell into a stable resting place. Everyone looked on save the GM who already knew they wouldn’t come up a 17 or worse.
“Twelve!” the player said with great enthusiasm.
“Another 300 damage head shot…”, the GM remarked as he flicked the marker for his NPC off the board.
The GM had a sigh while he quietly lamented allowing the sniper to have 25 skill in rifles.
Such problems are not uncommon in GURPS. Whenever a game lets players and GMs alike tinker it can yield results that allow a character to be quite competent. In fact, it can lead to players having characters that completely dominate every scenario thrown at them. Such character are often thought of as overpowered.
If this situation happens to you, then this is the article for you. I am going to examine the problem of overpowered characters and steps GMs can take to ensure a thriving game free from thoughts of overpowered.
Overpowered Begins With You
Before I talk about possible ways of dealing with the overpowered player I want to first emphasize it is important to realize handling overpowered players requires self reflection. Often times a GM may feel that a player is overpowered when everything is working just fine. The goal of a session for GURPS is not always to bring challenge in the form of absolute difficulty to your player base. The goal is that everyone involved in the game session is enjoying themselves.
Sometimes it is the encounters with little challenge the players enjoy the most. Players may invent their own challenges during such sessions. One session I ran successfully had players fighting grossly under powered enemies. Their enjoyment wasn’t in the fact there was no risk or harm, but in the fact they could try different techniques and methods that would normally be too risky to use in a normal fight. Essentially they got to troll the encounter and that let them have fun like never before.
So the first question you should ask is, “Is everyone having fun?”
If you answered yes to that question, then there may be nothing to fix! Your fun does matter as a GM. So always include yourself in that question.
Character Creation Creep
Anxiety tends to be the root of why overpowered characters end up in the game. It’s more common in tabletop gaming than people realize. When you put people together on a team and tell them to build a character the rest of the team is going to rely on, there may be an anxiety to make sure you perform as best you can. There is also an anxiety in GMs to tell their players “no” when allowing character creation to unfold. This is especially true for newer GMs in GURPS.
In my world as a GM, Overpowered only has one definition at my game table. One player has a character design that makes other players not feel important to the story. Sometimes buffing the weaker characters or helping people rethink their designs can solve the issue of overpowered. This is not always the case. There may truly be some design that is far too potent to allow.
DO NOT BE AFRAID TO SAY NO!
I have capitalized and punctuated that statement so it stands out broadly. If you are too afraid to tell your players they cannot use a power, advantage, skill, skill level or attribute level, even if you’re just not comfortable with it, then you had best practice saying it in a mirror. I will give you a very simple example of how one might completely dominate an 150 point grounded TL8 game.
I will use 60 points into HT, 15 into Combat Reflexes, and 72 points into Rifles. For disadvantages I will use those points to round out a few other skills and I’m done.
I just gave myself 29 rifle skill and a HT roll of 16 which gave me 6.5 speed which is pretty good initiative and 10 dodge. It also means I’ll survive quite a lot of punishment if worse comes to worst. With 29 rifle skill I can pretty much head shot all day, hit chinks in armor, and spray fire down a swathe of enemies. This is because my GM didn’t say no to stuffing all my points into an unreasonable level of skill.
I’m sure veteran GMs can come up with tons of ways to deal with this situation. This example isn’t for your consumption. This is for people who need some advice. I doubt the veteran GMs would ever allow this character to begin with.
GURPS isn’t meant for every option in the books to be available at every session. It assumes and requires a GM to be willing to say no to a concept. Even certain rules in books aren’t meant to all be enabled at once. If you think a rule would break things, change it or leave it out.
It’s important you guide players away from concepts you envision working in your game. If you have players that fight you on this, they might seem like jerks on the surface, but they might simply be anxious too, which leads to my next creation point.
Players Feel They MUST Be Overpowered
A game means a winner and a loser in a lot of people’s eyes. They feel like the ultimate loss in table top is total party kill, or TPK. When you have two to six people working together to accomplish an arbitrary story they are walking into blind, there may be some who fear being the weakest link. If death is losing, and life relies on everyone being competent enough to work together, then it becomes natural for a player to say “I need to be as strong as possible!”
In fact, the first thing 95% of new players say when I introduce them to GURPS is “What’s good to take on my character?”
They don’t ask how to create a vision of a well balanced character, they question what makes a very competent character. It’s in this moment that the GM can bring the tone of character building to the direction they want. I always tell players “Don’t worry about being powerful, it’s my job to tailor encounters to your power. Try to focus on the theme you want and personality you want.”
When players understand that the point of the game is to fill a role, then they are less likely to try to have 29 sniper skill. They might say 13 or 14 is enough because they want all the skills a trained sniper would have and plenty of background skills too.
It’s always good to address the players as a group together instead of building characters alone. This isn’t always a possibility in some game sessions, but it can help them build camaraderie at the onset. That might help them all feel more comfortable backing down from the munchkin design.
Countering High Skills
High skill level should never frighten a GM. If your player characters have skill level ranging from 18 to 30, consider why you have them accomplishing goals for someone with skills 10 to 15?
GMs may not be aware they are making the challenge easy on the players. Often we look at skills as static numbers you just roll against, but modifiers are extremely important. If I have surgery 25 I can probably do spinal column surgeries no problem. So the GM may feel such a skill is never a challenge.
Why not have the surgeon work with shoddy tools, minimal light and distractions all around him in the form of zombies trying to break into the surgery room? Now that 25 skill is suddenly 12 effective skill. A normal surgeon would kill the patient, but somehow he rolled an 11 and was praying to the dice gods the whole time.
If my gun skill is 29, of course I am going to be able to hit someone in the head at 10 yards. What about an enemy who is speeding by on a motorcycle in high winds at over a mile away? This would make the shot at least -20 to hit.
When people have high skill they should be in high stakes situations to challenge that skill. This isn’t always obvious to people when they read GURPS, but Basic Set Campaigns already painted that picture for a challenge on page B.346.
-10 – Impossible. No sane person would attempt such a task. The GM may wish to forbid such attempts altogether. Example: A Driving roll to steer a car with the knees while firing a bazooka two-handed during a chase through a blizzard.
When you have skill levels that high you should be doing the insane, impossible and utterly fantastic. The GM should be looking for ways to make the situation hard for the skill if the GM wants to challenge the skill.
Countering High Damage
The obvious countermeasure to high damage is to not be hit at all. There is no damage roll for attacks that do not connect. As I mentioned above active defenses and obstructions such as cover, smoke, and darkness may impede the ability for an individual to hit. This may not be ideal if only one individual is in the party with high damage.
Hit points is another option to counter high damage. but just as above, giving targets too many hit points may make individuals with lesser damage feel completely ineffective. This is also true of high armor or damage reduction.
You may also create obstructions that someone with high damage can feel empowered in front of without trivializing the content of the encounter. Imagine you have the Hulk in a party. Putting walls he has to bust through in order for the rest of the party to continue with the fight will make his high damage feel useful for aiding the party while the party doesn’t feel he overshadowed their abilities. Environments should never be discounted as a means to challenge.
Sometimes the method of countering high damage is to do the exact opposite of countering the high damage. Instead of making individuals who can receive a great deal of punishment, make many enemies that don’t require much injury to be taken out. Then everyone can be effective and it’s not designed to be trivialized by one individual who can dish out punishment.
Another option is to examine the damage source for the high damage individual. There’s nothing wrong with mixing in bullet resistance, laser resistance, impaling resistance and other ideas into a character. Making that one source of injury ineffective can be enough to keep everyone sufficiently challenged. You’d be amazed how scary a five HP swarm can be to people without a means to do AOE damage.
Countering individuals is sometimes a matter of just giving them an enemy to fight that was meant for them specifically and dividing up the party accordingly. They don’t always need to have a group of enemies and then toss them in a pot together. It’s a common trope in media that teams will divide to face the foe they are most effective against. You might try it!
Countering High Active Defense
If an individual has high active defense it can seem like enemies are missing far too often. This might be a case of your enemies simply being completely under skilled for the challenge at hand. Improving skill will let them use concepts like deceptive attacks and feints. The Martial Arts book also outlines techniques which can help like Counter Attack or the Feint technique.
Rapid fire is a great means for lowering defense. Every successful hit means someone must roll higher on active defense to avoid injury. In modern campaigns this is easy to achieve. In fantasy you might have one man army rules with volleys of arrows or spells and abilities which use rapid strikes.
The danger of being surrounded in combat is ever present. Run around attacks incur a -2 defense to ordinary people, side attacks -2 and some positions a player can’t defend at all. A GM should not be afraid to use surprise attacks to challenge an individual.
There is also intimate knowledge of rules that can aid. Even I still find rules that surprise me for effectiveness. Consider the article on Teeth within Martial Arts P.115. Hitting with biting attacks allow a character to grapple with it. This may not seem all that amazing until you introduce concepts like attack dogs into a fight. The attack dogs lower the active defense of your characters to subsequent attacks.
Area attacks, cone attacks and explosive attacks are useful for high active defense. If one cannot reach cover or dodge out of the area they are going to be hit.
GURPS Powers talks about teams of individuals coordinating attacks to lower defense. These rules might be useful for highly trained enemies that work together quite regularly.
I’ve made use of cosmic rules in small amounts for campaigns. In a campaign I run based off doom, the souls had an emanation of hell fire which didn’t allow active defense and was 1d burning damage which ignored armor (It was cosmic fire). The players were forced to destroy the enemies before they got close.
Countering Too Much
Every character’s high skill level, high defense and high offense costed character points. If you always counter the points they spent then it will feel as though they never spent the points to begin with. Challenges do not always require direct counters, but just adding in more of the same. Your goal should be to make points feel like their worth it. Try to flip the script.
Instead of imagining that a player is potent so you must counter it, try to encourage players to think they are potent so they should try to challenge themselves! Make difficult scenarios that might seem overwhelming and let players figure out how they are going to overcome it. The discussions and tactics may surprise you. This often requires a GM to give some information on what a player will encounter ahead of time.
The challenge that makes people think is usually better than the challenge that makes people roll. Players often enjoy flexing their planning and tactics at the table. Even still, some just like putting out big numbers and there’s nothing wrong with letting them.
As I said before, if everyone is having fun, then you have done nothing wrong.
The GM should never feel powerless. You create the world and cosmos the players are within. You can invent any scenario you can imagine. Hopefully this article gives food for thought for those who have always struggled with that potent player at the table. Just keep in mind, a little counter goes a long way!