GURPS Only the parts you need #10 - Powers
Hello. Welcome to Only the parts you need, a GURPS podcast. I am EnragedEggplant, and in this episode I would like to discuss powers - what they are, how to build them, and how to use them. I will provide a technical overview, and LegendSmith will talk about practical applications of powers in a future episode. The concept of powers was introduced in GURPS Basic Set, in Chapter Six - Psionics.
I have never in my life opened this chapter before preparing for this episode, because GURPS Powers and GURPS Psionic Powers go into this topic in more detail. And honestly, even if you gave Powers a read, it can be difficult to wrap your head around what actually is a power, how it works, and why does it even exist. First, what is a power? The definition in GURPS Powers states the following: A “power” is an exotic or supernatural gift that you can direct in different ways to produce a number of related effects. Each power consists of the following elements: Source. Each power has a source: the origin of the energy the wielder manipulates to produce its effects.
The examples are magic, divine, cosmic, psionic, etc. Many people equate sources with power modifiers that we will talk about later. This is not always the case, and I will explain why later. Focus. A power also needs a focus: the item it manipulates or the concept it revolves around.
This can be a form of matter or energy, such as fire, air, vacuum; natural phenomenon, such as weather, death, or disease; a supernatural phenomenon, such as astral projection, ESP, or the will of a specific deity; a class of targets, such as animals, plants, machines; or an abstract concept, such as probability, chaos, evil, or the future. Abilities. Each power has a list of abilities: advantages that make sense as manifestations of the power, given its focus. In addition, some skills make sense as abilities for certain powers, such as the chi skills from the Basic Set and Martial Arts. We will talk about abilities more in-depth later. Power modifier.
Each power also has a power modifier: a limitation or enhancement that turns an advantage into one of the power’s abilities. An advantage must have the relevant power modifier in order to be part of the power. GURPS Powers says that there can be no exceptions to that rule, but that’s not really true. This is a very deep topic that we will return to later. Talent.
Each power should also have a corresponding Talent that gives bonuses to success rolls made with that power’s abilities. Special rules. GURPS Powers offers a wide selection of special rules that can be applied based on the power source.
However, it is also possible to make these rules apply on a power-by-power basis, even if they share the same source. While looking insignificant, these rules can drastically change how the power works and make the power feel distinct. Technically, they are part of the power modifier, but many people fail to realize that. Let’s talk about the power sources.
They can be roughly divided into two categories: internal and external. A power with an internal source uses the wielder’s inner energies. The examples of such sources are biological, chi, and psionic. External powers either use ambient energies or channel an energy imparted by another being.
The example sources are magical, divine, cosmic, spirit. There are also sources that straddle the line between internal and external, such as nature. This division is no rule by any means, and the power sources are only limited by your imagination.
For example, what if a character worships a godmind that grants him psionic powers in response? Is that internal, external, or both? It doesn't really matter, but defining the source of each power is important for skills and abilities that analyze, detect, resist, or neutralize powers depending on their source. Also, if you are using any special rules concerning powers, they might depend on the source. The power’s focus dictates what the power’s abilities do, what they affect, and more-or-less what the power is.
It can be narrow, such as fire or gravity, or it can be quite broad, such as spellcasting. Sometimes, the power can have more than one focus, mostly in the case of divine powers. For example, in D&D, the dwarven deity Moradin grants his clerics powers over earth, protection, and some other minor things. What would be the focus here? I would just list it as “Earth and protection” and accept the power as quite a broad one without splitting it into two powers of Earth and Protection. But you might want to do that. It’s your game, after all! Also, sometimes the power source and focus are the same.
For example, if you are using spirits to affect other spirits, both the source and focus are “spirit”. Abilities are the core parts of each power. They all should fit the power’s source and focus, and the game’s genre, realism level, and level of secrecy. Usually, they also have some structural similarities. For example, they might all be physical or mental, or have success rolls against the same attribute.
In any case, to compile the list of appropriate abilities, go through the advantage section of the Basic Set and other books that offer new advantages, and write down all advantages that seem fitting. Some advantages might also need to be limited to fit the power in question. For example, Affliction is a very broad advantage that can accomplish a wide variety of things. For an Ice power it would be reasonable to limit it to imposing DX penalties and paralysis to represent freezing the victim. However, if your player comes up with an ability that is not on the list, you should consider allowing it, if it makes sense for that power. For example, freezing your victim’s heart would be a Heart Attack Affliction.
Even if it was not on the list of Ice abilities, it makes sense to add it. On the other hand, you should not make powers that encompass everything or almost everything, as that may result in things being quite bland. Some flexible magic systems suffer from this problem, when there is one optimal way of doing something, and the difference is just a change of color or flavor, like Mass Effect 3 endings. When compiling lists of abilities, make sure to not make certain powers completely overshadow other powers.
There must be an appeal for a character to use each power both from the in-universe perspective and from the player perspective. Also, when writing down the abilities, do not forget about skills that are supernatural in nature, such as Invisibility Art, Musical Influence, Enthrallment, and imbuement skills. GURPS Powers says that you should not do that, so maybe that is not a good idea. It’s up to you to decide. Moreover, it would be reasonable at this point to determine what advantages can be taken as “wild” advantages, that is, advantages that do not belong to a power. Talent is an important part of the power, as it acts as a bonus to all success rolls against attributes, secondary characteristics, or skills to use the power’s abilities.
This includes rolls to activate, attack with, control, or defend with those abilities. This doesn’t include damage rolls, reaction rolls (except those for Allies with Summonable and Patrons with Highly Accessible), appearance rolls for Associated NPCs bought as abilities, rolls required by limitations, or rolls made by the ability’s target. Even for passive abilities, it can provide a bonus to certain rolls. For more detail, see page 158 of GURPS Powers - it provides a lot of examples! Usually, the Talent costs 5 points per level, but the cost might be higher for especially broad powers, such as Magic. It is possible to take abilities of a power and not take the Talent, and the other way around. Also, keep in mind that Talent is much more important when using power skills.
Let’s talk about power modifiers now, as they are very important. Let’s reiterate: a power modifier is a limitation or enhancement that turns an advantage into one of the power’s abilities. The power modifier starts at +0%, indicating that the ability belongs to that power and that it uses the special rules assigned to it. Then, you have to consider countermeasures that are applied to all abilities in addition to whatever countermeasures already apply to them.
These can be anti-powers or mundane countermeasures. Mundane countermeasures, in my opinion, are the most difficult to understand part of the power modifiers. If the power does not work in a reasonably common environment that is likely to occur in nature, and enemies could exploit this weakness using everyday items and knowledge, but not specialized technology or other powers, then you add -10% to the power modifier. If an individual ability has Accessibility, Environmental, or Terminal Condition limitation that overlaps with this condition, then it cannot claim a further discount for this limitation. Basically, in this case mundane countermeasures are a common form of Environmental.
Personally, I’m not a fan of including these in the power modifier, I prefer giving such limitations to individual abilities. On the other hand, if the power is counteracted with such mundane things as, for example, just being wet, or does not work for five seconds after the wielder has been stunned (which can be achieved via mundane means), then I think it would be reasonable to include such things in the power modifier and call them mundane countermeasures. Anti-powers are defined much more clearly. If there are other powers that can negate your power, then you add -5% to the power modifiers, regardless of how many such anti-powers exist. This covers such advantages as Mana Damper, Static, Neutralize, and Affliction that takes away your power’s abilities or Talent, and spells such as Dispel Magic. Note, however, that it does not include Resistant.
In addition, if there is specialized technology that can shut down your power, then you add an additional -5% to the power modifier. This includes psionic shields, superpower suppressors, certain drugs, and so on, depending on the setting. Both of these anti-power limitations are cumulative with mundane countermeasures. Usually, when anti-powers are brought up, people think of specialized powers, such as Anti-Magic or Anti-Psi, but certain opposed powers do count as anti-powers despite not being specifically designed for that. This mostly concerns moral powers, such as Good and Evil or Order and Chaos that can negate each other’s abilities. Powers that do not have anti-powers do not add anything to their power modifier.
However, they still can be negated if the advantage in question has some built-in weaknesses. For example, Invisibility can still be negated with See Invisible. Powers that ignore even these weaknesses, add Cosmic, +50% to the power modifier.
This lets their abilities ignore the things that normally block, shut down, or nullify wild versions of those traits, unless those countermeasures are themselves cosmic. Furthermore, nothing can take away the wielder’s power – his abilities work on any world he visits, are present in any body he occupies, and so on. This power modifier counts as the first +50% of all Cosmic enhancements added to the power’s individual abilities. For instance, if the ability includes an irresistible attack, it costs +250% over and above the +50% in the power modifier, for a total of +300%. Many powers require you to take certain self-imposed mental disadvantages to represent a particular code of conduct that is required to use your powers. Such disadvantages are taken as normal.
Usually this is appropriate for divine powers, where you have to follow the patron deity’s dogma. Basically, this is the Pact limitation that usually adds from -5% to -15% to the power modifier. The list of valid disadvantages is quite short, but it can encompass a wide range of dogmas: Code of Honor, Honesty, Sense of Duty, Trademark, Intolerance, Fanaticism, Disciplines of Faith, and Vow.
In addition, you may modify it further. If upon transgression the power vanishes gradually, with enough warning to escape a dangerous situation, then you add +5% to the power modifier. If it turns against you, then add -5%. If atonement requires just a day of praying or meditation, or something equally minor, then add +5%.
If atonement takes a month-long quest or a major sacrifice, then add -5%. The total modifier for the required disadvantages cannot be positive. Then there’s the question of energy channeling.
Some powers channel inner energies, such as chi or psionic powers. Inner energies do not affect the power modifier, because you always have access to them. Many other powers channel external energies that might be blocked by mundane or esoteric insulators. This looks similar to mundane or supernatural countermeasures, but the difference is that countermeasures prevent the powers from affecting something, and external energies prevent you from using the powers.
If the power channels ambient energies that exist literally everywhere, then it’s a +0% modifier. If the power channels an energy that permeates everything, but can be blocked by an esoteric insulator, then add -5% to the power modifier. The most common example is mana. Magical powers that rely on mana receive penalties in low mana areas and bonuses in high mana areas, but low mana areas are much more common than high mana areas.
If the positive areas are as common as negative areas, then add +0% to the power modifier instead. If the power manipulates a natural energy that even mundane insulators can block, such as light, then add -10% to the power modifier. Finally, if the power manipulates sentient capricious forces, such as some fey or spirits, then add Fickle, -20% to the power modifier.
Aside from that, there’s many other things that you can include in the power modifier, such as Accessibility, Nuisance Effect, and FP or HP costs. If the power comes with an Energy Reserve and its abilities can only use this Energy Reserve instead of being able to use FP or Energy Reserve, then you should add -5% to the power modifier. I suggest giving GURPS Power-Ups 8: Limitations a read, as it includes many limitations that can be part of a power modifier. I find Accessibility that requires you to perform gestures, magical incantations, or have an item in hand to be very interesting, opening up a lot of flavourful combinations.
Backlash and Trigger are also widely applicable and customizable. Now let’s look over existing power modifiers and see what they are made of. Biological, -10%. Biological abilities cost 1 FP to use and can be neutralized by specifically tailored drugs; that’s technological countermeasures. GURPS Powers: Enhanced Senses also has Biological (Passive), -5% that removes the FP cost.
This is one of these cases when a power may have abilities with different power modifiers. Chi, -10%. Chi abilities channel your inner life force. You must take a -10-point disadvantage, usually Disciplines of Faith (Monasticism or Mysticism) or a comparable major Vow, to represent your training regime and code of conduct. Should you neglect this, your power fails you the first time you call upon it under stress. To restore it, you must take 1d days to rebalance your chi.
Until you do, you feel ill; the GM should choose one of these afflictions from Irritating Conditions: Coughing/Sneezing, Drowsy, Nauseated, or Pain. There is also a very interesting variant in Pyramid #3-105 - Chi-Sorcery, -15%. It adds Costs Fatigue, 1 FP, -5% to the power modifier and greatly expands the rules on chi rebalancing.
I strongly suggest checking it out if you want more flavourful details. Cosmic, +50%. Your power channels the energy of creation. Normal countermeasures against the wild version of your advantages do not work on your abilities, and you always have access to them. Divine, -10%.
This is actually three different power modifiers under a single name - for powers granted by good, neutral, and evil deities. A good deity requires you to take a -10-point disadvantage that represents its dogma or code of conduct. In case of transgression, the powers shut down gradually, but atonement requires a significant penance. A neutral deity requires you to take a -10-point disadvantage that represents its dogma or code of conduct.
In case of transgression, the powers shut down immediately, and atonement requires a minor quest. An evil deity requires you to take a -10-point disadvantage that represents its dogma or code of conduct. In case of transgression, the powers are revoked immediately and turn against you! However, getting back in favor is an easy task that takes about a day. In addition to all that, optionally, you may want divine powers to depend on sanctity.
This works similar to mana, but depends on how much is the location attuned to your patron deity. This does not affect the power modifier’s value because areas that provide bonuses are expected to be about as common as those that penalize you. Also, it is possible to consecrate an area with the Religious Ritual skill.
Elemental, -10%. This only includes mundane countermeasures or insulators. Magical, -10%. Magical powers channel ambient mana, with penalties more common than bonuses. There are anti-powers that counter magical abilities. Moral, -20%.
Moral powers come from some cosmic moral principle - Chaos, Evil, Good, Order, etc. They have opposing anti-powers. In addition, it requires you to take a -15-point disadvantage to represent your moral principles. If you falter, the powers are instantly revoked, and atonement requires a minor quest. Nature, -20%. Nature powers have a mundane insulator - they work worse in polluted natural areas or urban settings.
In addition, they are further penalized depending on the highest TL of items in your possession. In most adventures, where the party visits both urban and wilderness areas, the Nature power modifier usually averages in a penalty. If you are not okay with that, consider using the revised penalty range that can be found on page 31 of Pyramid #3-68. Psionic, -10%. Psionic powers can be negated by anti-powers and technological psychotronic countermeasures. In fantasy settings, GURPS suggests using psychobotanics to represent herbal concoctions that negate psionics, but provides no examples.
Spirit, -25%. Spirits are fickle, so they always require a reaction roll. They also require you to take a -5-point disadvantage related to spirit reverence. Should you transgress, the powers are revoked in the worst possible moment, but atonement is an easy task. Super, -10%. Basically, this is a variant of the Psionic power modifier.
Generic superpowers have anti-powers and anti-super technological countermeasures. There are other examples in other books, such as Electronic, Mechanical, Advanced Electronic, Mutant, Savant, Nanotech, Rage, and others. The power modifiers are only limited by your imagination. You should not forget that power modifier and power source are different things. For example, there’s a sample Teleportation power in GURPS Powers. It lists Magical, Psionic, and Super as appropriate power sources, but does not limit the power modifiers.
For example, the Sorcery power modifier works identically to the Magical power modifier with an additional cost of 1 FP. You can take Teleportation as a psionic power, and it will get a Psionic power modifier. You can take Teleportation as a magical power with the Magical power modifier. You can take Teleportation as a magical power with the Sorcery power modifier.
These will be three different powers. Despite two of them sharing a power source, they work differently. If you want to see pre-written powers, take a look at the sample powers section in GURPS Powers. There’s also additional examples in GURPS Supers, GURPS Horror, and some other supplements.
Finally, you definitely should read through the Powers in Action chapter of GURPS Powers. Not only does it describe in detail how abilities are used, it also provides an extensive list of optional rules. These special rules can be applied on a source-by-source basis or a power-by-power basis. They do not affect the power modifier, so try to keep things balanced when defining what special rules apply to what powers.
Among these special rules you will find rules for extra effort, crippling, power combinations, and other things that will add a lot of flavor and mechanical depth to the powers. For magical powers I would also recommend using variant critical failure tables from GURPS Thaumatology. Lastly, you probably should consider what powers can be learned after character generation, and what powers are only available at the start. A lot of people consider GURPS Powers to be just an advantage expansion book, but in my opinion, it is one of the essential books that should be purchased along with the Basic Set and Martial Arts. I think that’s all for this segment.
I hope that was helpful.