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Fiddly to the Rescue: Part Two


We saw in last month's column how a little Fiddly could help in major areas of even a proven game. Staying in that vein, we'll see how a different game could benefit from the same sort of Fiddly.

Steve Jackson Games' GURPS system is presented as a universal engine to be used with whatever sort of setting the gaming group wishes to use. A primary difference between GURPS and the D&D games is that of not using archetypes in character generation. To tie this into what we've discussed previously, the lack of archetypes would seem to indicate that GURPS should be using more characteristics than D&D.

No More Archetypes

The GURPS system defines the skills of characters in cafeteria-style fashion. Players spend points "purchasing" the skills desired, and at the level of capability desired. Although players may design the character with an archetype in mind, the skill-purchase system allows a grittier approach to characters. Gone are the larger-than-life, four-color heroes. (The mechanics also reflect a grittier approach to play, but that's not very important in this discussion.)

We've left behind the necessity of focusing the strength of the individual archetypes in single characteristics. Players can define characters as clear specimens of an archetype, but doing so in a skill-purchase system involves more details and greater variety of skill levels than in the D&D system. This greater diversity of detail should be supported in the area of characteristics, also.

GURPS, however, offers only four characteristics with which to support the system approach to character definition. These characteristics work to support three fundamental areas of focus: Strength supports physical might; Intelligence supports intellectual development; and Dexterity supports physical acumen. The Health rating supports no particular focus of itself, and works to the benefit of mainly those characters depending heavily upon physical might.

It is easy to notice the conflict between the few characteristics and the extreme flexibility and gritty detail provided by the point-based skill system. The latter supports a grittier style of play than the former, and an argument arises as to how well the parts of the system match. If all can be said to depend upon the merest handful of characteristics ratings, why bother with all of the detail in the skill system; simply provide broad groupings of skills--Soldiering, for instance--which also covers a great deal of ground in rating the capabilities of each character.

Back Into the Breach

The best fashion in which to Fiddle with the GURPS engine matches the basic flavor of the game and provides yet more flexibility to the system. The practice of adding characteristics is officially frowned upon, but within the purview of individual campaigns, such is irrelevant. (Fiddly is often subversive, anyway.) The use of more characteristics also serves to help prevent min-maxing among the less fortunate gamers.

The basic flavor of the GURPS engine is that of flexible design and a high level of detail in character creation and development. As many die-hard GURPS players have explained, they tend to spend the same basic amount of points on characteristics from character to character because they know the basic abilities those will provide. Soldier characters get higher ST and DX and magicians get higher IN and so forth, but the amount of points spent on characteristics stays much the same. Buying the characteristics is glossed over so the real fun--the meat of the process--can begin and the skills can be chosen. The appeal of the system lies in the realm of manipulating details.

That basic appeal can be enhanced through the addition of adding characteristics to the mix. When players are confronted with an additional two or four characteristics to consider, the choices at the beginning of the process demand more attention. The nature of the choices made there have ramifications further along in the process. A player could certainly invest in both Dexterity and Agility to arrive at a character much the same as using DX singularly, but other players can choose to emphasize AG over DX and end up with a quite different character from the beginning. Such choices enhance the flavor of the game.

The flexibility of the system can be enhanced by the use of additional characteristics. Using the GURPS rules straight up, one finds that the four basic characteristics must serve regardless of the setting. Placing the PCs in a plain-vanilla, pseudo-medieval, fantasy setting works decently. Placing a campaign in a mystical, magical place wherein _everybody_ uses magic to varied degree, and the characters cry out for a new characteristic linking them firmly to the setting. If all can use magic, what in the core system works to truly delineate amongst all the people? Yes, the Magery advantages allow for three levels of ability, but the setting demands more shading of ability. One could create complicated rules to govern this, with limits on skill levels, etc., but matters are much easier governed with the addition of another characteristic controlling magical ability.

The decision to add characteristics involves a great deal of work beyond the basic choice of what characteristics to add, but such is the loving labor of Fiddly. Each of the skills must be assigned a controlling characteristic, an exercise best not done on the fly during play. The ramifications of using each characteristic must also be explored, with an evaluation made of whether the characteristic is balanced in use in comparison to the others.

When All is Said and Done

Fiddly involves taking a construct and making it better. Granted, the concept of "better" is subjective in many instances, and a game's designer may cringe at some of the reconstruction of his or her design. A Fiddly craftsman, however, seeks to gain an understanding of the design at hand and Fiddles with a specific purpose in mind--that of strengthening basic facets of the game.

Some games have been developed with the thought in mind that simplicity of play is the most important limit to design. GURPS used this as the motivating force in using only four characteristics. The audience of players following the GURPS line, however, don't seem to mind greater complexity, and the basic appeal of the system seems to be that it offers greater complexity than some other games. The addition of characteristics to the GURPS rules or individual campaigns would not lessen the appeal of the system to its players, and such would strengthen the game.

Larry D. Hols

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