Roleplayer #23, May 1991

Super-Pansies: Diagnosis and Treatment

Making It Without Mega-Powers

by David Ellis Dickerson

It happens in the comics all the time, and it can happen to you in GURPS Supers. You have this great idea for a character: The Black Kestrel – a street-smart kick-boxer who flies by parawing. He has a terrific-looking skintight ebony bodysuit, an imposing appearance, he knows how things work on the seamy side of the streets, and with his guilt-ridden background and passion for justice, he looks like a tough hombre indeed.

His only problem: he's not tough at all. Bunsen Boy can cook a normal in one turn, if he's so inclined. Dead-Lifter can one-punch an elephant. Even Mind Mistress can completely wipe out (for combat purposes) one opponent every few seconds by using Telecontrol. But even with his ST of 15 (which looked pretty tough at the time) and Karate-20 (which cost 40 points), he does only 1d+5 damage per turn (which becomes 2d +1 – an average of 8 points per blow).

Mind you: with Karate-20, he hits all the time. His problem is that he can't do any damage. Any common thug with $200 can buy a Second Chance Standard Kevlar vest (p. B211; PD 2, DR 14) and be completely immune to Black Kestrel's most powerful kick. When the whole team fought Doctor Armor last week (DR 20), Black Kestrel never had a chance to do anything. After his fifth impotent combat round, he finally went into another room and read Ulysses.

He can't get the Trained By a Master Advantage; he's supposed to be a street fighter, not a Shinto warrior. And he doesn't want to load himself down with a lot of gadgets in a utility belt, either; his character is supposed to be a purist, not trusting in machines to get a hero's work done. So how is he going to have any fun during an adventure, when The Climactic Combat is a part of almost every good scenario?

Characters like this are easy to make in GURPS Supers. I call them super-pansies. (But not to their face. "Character-intensive" is a good euphemism.) These are PCs who, like Black Pearl in the Supers rulebook, have a very thorough, well-constructed character conception which leaves them with very little offensive capability.

Characters like this are common in most comics. The Justice League had Elongated Man, who stretched and that's all. The Defenders had Nighthawk, who flew and had ST 20 (Only At Night). The Legion of Superheroes had Invisible Kid (guess what he could do?), and the Avengers had Tigra, who had tiny claws and was kind of agile. These poor, underpowered heroes had to fight alongside teammates such as Wonder Woman, The Hulk, Superboy, and Thor, respectively. There's plenty of comics precedent for being outclassed by your fellows.

Knowing this, however, doesn't make it any easier to take – or any more fun to play. If you recognize Black Kestrel's symptoms in your own super-team, it's time for fast action. Frustrated players soon leave, and then what's to prevent the bad guys from taking over?

What The Player Can Do

First, check all the advantages you can get from the combat rules. With Karate-20, Black Kestrel has a good chance of hitting a specific part of the opponent's body – and a thug wearing a Kevlar vest can still get a broken leg! Aiming is an especially good tactic if your opponent isn't wearing a helmet: even at -7, Black Kestrel has a better than 80% chance to successfully hit while aiming for the opponent's brain, and stands a very good chance of stunning or knocking out the target on a successful hit.

If you have any mode of travel other than running (e.g., swinging, gliding, etc.), find out how much damage you can do with a slam attack. Even if you can't do a lot, you can still knock the opponent around, which can give your friends a positional advantage.

Second, see if you can manipulate the environment. Can you grab a fire extinguisher and fire it in the opponent's face? Can you topple the opponent by pulling the rug out from underneath him? If you've resigned yourself to not being on the front lines, you can probably run around quite freely behind the scenes during combat, which gives you freedom to cause whatever mayhem you can with the props available to you. If nothing else, you can always jump from behind and cover the foe's eyes!

The trouble with these solutions is that none of them make your hero stand out. If you can hit someone's brain, a gunman can do it better, since gun skills are quite cheap, and guns do more damage than fists. If you can pull on a carpet, the team Tank can pull much harder!

Of course, there are times when a strength under 20, combined with great control, can be useful. Black Kestrel is a lot less likely to mash someone by accident than Monster-Man, if you're using realistic rules. But if you're playing a cinematic game, Monster-Man can love-tap normals through walls without killing them.

What The GM Can Do

If you, as a GM, have a PC in your group who is constantly being overshadowed because he's non-essential in a typical super-brawling climax, there are a number of things you can do to rectify things. But you'll need the player's cooperation.

First, be sure the character's origin is precisely detailed. Work out who the hero's relatives, friends and enemies are, and what motivates him to fight crime. Try to develop a timeline of all the things that have happened to the character since he first put on his mask. Throw in some melodrama: betrayals, mysterious aggressors, family secrets, vows, and the like. Ideally, you should have back-grounds and origins for all your players' heroes, but here it becomes paramount. If a character is going to be weak, he'd darn well better be interesting.

Then, your job is to make him interesting to the other players. Not necessarily impressive – interesting. Example: The "pansy" hero is a new player, joining late, and the GM decides that the rest of the party will meet him when their paths cross as they're both tailing the same murderer. If the party meets him in a bar with a rough reputation, and the unconscious bodies of thugs litter the floor, while the hero greets them, casually dusts his sleeve, and says, "They didn't answer my questions, so I'm afraid I lost my temper," that's dramatic. But it also begs comparison, and another player might spoil the impression by saying, "If I'd been in your place, I would've taken out the walls and ceiling, too." When the spotlight is on the newcomer, you don't want to leave room for one-upmanship.

Instead, make this a moment for the character to display an idiosyncrasy or two. You don't even need a high body count. If the party comes into the same bar, and there's only one unconscious thug, but he's been encased in rope from neck to feet, and the hero lights a hookah, saying, "Do you think he chose to be stubborn, or was he predestined?" you won't need to worry about one-upmanship. The newcomer is not so much a straightforward threat as he is a menacing curiosity. The party may be thinking, "He doesn't look so tough," but their main concern will be, "Who is this guy?"

This should be a rule of thumb for all your adventures: Give the weaker PCs a better-than equal chance when it comes time to roleplay. Powerful heroes can be assured the limelight every adventure, as long as there's combat. Weaker characters need to be impressive (or at least interesting) in other ways – and they need to do it at least once every adventure. Bored players don't come back.

One reason the hero is weak is because he spent points on other things – probably skills. So this is another thing you, as GM, can do to make the character feel more useful: give him lots of opportunities to use his skills.

After all, the villains are designed to challenge the strongest heroes. It's only fair to plan some parts of the adventure to use the skills that are unique to the weaker heroes.

Is Kodiak the threat this week? let Black Kestrel (who has Research and Criminology) check out where he's been and where he's likely to go next – and let him make his report to the other players. Does he have Wilderness Survival? Maybe it's time for the Super-Plane to conk out over the Yukon. . . If the "investigation" abilities include some psionics, so much the better.

But watch out for "creeping thiefism." This term comes from the practice in early dungeon-wandering games of bringing a thief along merely so he can detect traps and open locks for everybody else. No one likes their personality to be taken for granted. In order for the weaker heroes to enjoy using their skills, they have to be involved in the results. The ideal skills for a "pansy" hero to use during an adventure are those which involve him in decision-making. If he has Piloting, his player should be the one moving the plane's counter on the map; no one else should touch it. If he has Criminology or Interrogation, let him decide what specific questions he wants answered. This is why the player should make his own reports. If Black Kestrel rolls the dice for Research, and the GM says, "Good! You guys all find out that Solitaire has a history of medical depression," Black Kestrel hasn't done anything except roll dice. He's still detached and on the sidelines. In general, plan for at least two or three involving skill rolls per adventure.

There's one final thing you can do to make an otherwise useless character play an important role: make the PC the adventure! Remember how the player gave you his background and his enemies and relatives? Suddenly, this hero's personal life is in super-peril. Villainous threats arrive with the daily mail, signed "Your Old Associate." A relative is kidnapped or a showdown is declared; anything to hint at this character's richly-detailed, carefully sculpted, melodramatic past. Then, even if the hero doesn't have the firepower to deal with the threat alone (i.e., he needs his friends' protection), he's still the center of attention, as the party asks him, "Who is this woman, and why is she stalking you? How did you get involved in this? Do you think she's serious about her threats, or should we just wait and see?"

The best thing about this kind of adventure (and it works best as a series of encounters stretched out over two or three evenings, just as these sorts of comic-book stories are most satisfying when they're at least two issues long) is that it gets everybody involved. Everybody's emotionally engaged, because it's a personal attack on the entire group, and everyone's physically engaged, because a drawn-out, let's-research-and-prepare type of adventure gives everyone a chance to be useful while gathering infor-mation, either as brains or as muscle.

Other advantages follow this. When players get involved in an interesting hero's background, it encourages them to develop their own background and roleplaying abilities. Eventually, one hopes, they'll be clamoring to investigate their own pasts, suggesting intriguing sub-plots and getting truly involved in the campaign's development. But if you play your cards right during an adventure series like this, you also no longer have to worry about a weaker character's "proving" his worth to his comrades; he will automatically be important to the group, by virtue of their having fought for him. Which is not to say he'll never be frustrated in combat, or that he'll never feel outgunned in a pinch. But it does mean that he'll come back every week, if only because his character has helped to make the history of the campaign.

(Back to Roleplayer #23 Table of Contents)

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