Character Creation Options

Most people assume that GURPS character creation requires counting points. If they like that approach, they tend to enjoy GURPS. However, for players that dislike the kind of character creation that point buy systems encourage, they find GURPS intimidating, tedious, or overly complicated.

The reality is that there are a lot of ways to build a GURPS character. This post will discuss several popular character creation mechanics. Each method has its strengths and weaknesses. By choosing a mechanic that best fits the kind of game and participants that you have, you can create a more satisfying gaming experience.

Point Buy

GURPS Basic Set: Characters
GURPS Basic Set: Characters

Point buy is the default method of GURPS character creation. The GM sets a point budget, determines what traits are available or restricted in the campaign, and lets the players build their character within those guidelines.

Point buy is the most flexible method for character generation. In theory, the players can build whatever they want as long as they are willing to pay the cost. In practice, it’s not quite that simple: the GM can impose a surcharge for exotic traits like an Unusual Background cost, and the GM has to be willing to rule out abilities that conflict with the campaign assumptions or undermine other characters’ roles. But, even with these caveats, point buy is incredibly flexible.

Point buy also suits players that enjoy the character building game. For players who love the puzzle of optimizing their build and for power gamers that thrive on creating the most effective character possible, the point buy mechanic allows them to run wild.

However, the point buy approach places specific demands on the players and GM. First, the participants need to understand GURPS’ rules well enough to know how to find the traits they need (or to build the ones that aren’t available out of the box). For some games, this isn’t a difficult requirement. But, in other games, that complexity can overwhelm the participants.

Second, point buy works best if the players use similar levels of rules sophistication in building their characters. If one player has munchkin-ed their character via skill levels, talents, higher purposes, and other bonuses, and another player is building their character with a minimal working knowledge of the rules options, there’s potential conflict looming. The detailed, mechanically precise character needs to be confronted with limitations and precisely crafted challenges in order to take advantage of its design choices; by contrast, the minimal character would be torn to pieces in a campaign that used the same level of rules minutiae. It’s possible for the GM to balance those perspectives, but it is a challenging balancing act, especially when you add player temperaments to the equation.

Finally, point buy takes real world time. Each point is potentially another decision about how to build the character, and there are lots of interrelated tradeoffs to consider. It takes players a while to work through their character with that level of precision.

Because point buy is so rules- and detail-oriented, it can be a burden for many new or inexperienced players. It’s a very powerful approach to roleplaying, but it’s also intimidating.

Templates

GURPS Template Toolkit 1: Characters
GURPS Template Toolkit 1: Characters

Templates are a streamlined version of the point buy approach. Templates provide prepackaged combinations of traits that go well together, allowing players to choose the template package as a whole. Some templates allow players to select among a couple of choices within a grouping: for instance, take three of the following five skills. Other templates leave the player with a handful of points to spend outside of the template’s parameters. It is very rare for templates to make all the choices for a player, so the player can still customize their character based on the template choices.

Character templates appear in the vast majority of GURPS publications, including the Basic Set. The most extensive treatment of templates is the Template Toolkit 1: Characters supplement, but they also figure prominently in the first volume of each worked genre line (Dungeon Fantasy, Action!, Monster Hunters, and After the End).

Templates sacrifice some of the flexibility of the point buy approach for a streamlined character creation process. Instead of choosing among hundreds of options, the player can create a character with a dozen decision points. This makes templates extremely attractive for quickly starting a game.

Another advantage of the template approach is that it is one of the few character creation methods in GURPS that produces balanced characters. In general, there is no way to ensure that two 300-point characters are balanced. Even though the characters are built on the same budget, they may be designed for radically different kinds of games and hence built to face entirely separate kinds of challenges. Well-crafted templates, however, can focus the character options into a handful of ideas that are equally capable within the context of the game campaign.

However, templates require prep work to set up. There are lots of published GURPS templates, including key character archetypes in the Dungeon Fantasy, Action!, Monster Hunters, and After the End lines, and if those templates fit the campaign concept the prep work is minimal. If the templates need to be created from scratch, however, the GM needs to invest a lot more effort.

In addition, templates still require relatively detailed rules knowledge. Players can’t evaluate the choices on a template if they don’t know what the traits mean. Depending on the template complexity, this can impose a substantial burden on players.

Buckets of Points

Pyramid 3/65: Alternate GURPS III
Pyramid 3/65: Alternate GURPS III

The buckets of points approach aims to streamline the decision-making involved in the point buy method without requiring the upfront work of template generation. The GM sets a point budget for characters, but then sets additional limits for how many points need to (or can be) spent on specific elements of character creation. For instance, a 250 point character could have 150 points allocated to the attribute bucket, 50 points allocated to advantages, and a final 50 points available for skills.

The bucket of points approach is described in Pyramid 3/65 Alternate GURPS III, and Sean Punch outlines a number of options for using this approach. The GM can make the point buckets cover all the character points available, or the players can be given some points that can be spent in any category. Some GMs may want to permit exchanges between the categories, while others may want the categories completely independent. There are options for how to handle disadvantage points, awarded character points, and even subcategories of buckets.

The major advantage to the buckets of points approach is that it requires far less prep time than template creation. Buckets of points also preserve the flexibility of the point buy approach.

The disadvantage to the buckets of points approach is that it still relies on rules knowledge by the players and GM to determine what to take within their point budgets.

Aptitude Slots

Pyramid 3/72: Alternate Dungeons
Pyramid 3/72: Alternate Dungeons

There are also approaches to character creation that de-emphasize the points mechanic. One example of a points-free approach is aptitude slots. Instead of making the players choose among traits with different point values, the player has a certain number of aptitude slots to allocate for his or her character, and the aptitude slots each represent a roughly equivalent number of points.

This approach stems from the “pointless” method introduced for the Dungeon Fantasy and Monster Hunters lines (published by Sean Punch in Pyramid 3/72 Alternate Dungeons and by Christopher Rice in Pyramid 3/83 Alternate GURPS IV, respectively). There are differences in terminology between the two versions, but the basic idea is that aptitudes of roughly equal value are presented to players, and the players decide to take aptitudes until their character runs out of aptitude slots.

The pointless aptitude slots approach is great for simplifying and speeding up character creation because it reduces the number of complexity of choices that the players face. For Dungeon Fantasy or Monster Hunters, the setup work is also done; GMs can tinker with the list of aptitude options, but they can also work straight from the articles.

For other genres, the aptitude slot route requires some GM time. Aptitude slots are probably faster to create than templates but slower than buckets of points; the actual result will depend on the GM’s experience more than anything else.

Like templates, aptitude slots have the potential to enforce balanced characters. However, templates are easier to balance because they can restrict the player decisions more precisely.

Plug-and-Play Characters

All of the options so far are either built on points explicitly or group traits together based on roughly equal point values. However, it’s not necessary to have characters that are based on points at all. Plug-and-play characters ignore point cost entirely; they simply give the player a set number of slots to fill, and the player can put whatever is appropriate into those slots.

The best example of a plug-and-play character that I know about is the Seven-Minutes GURPS Character by Warren “Mook” Wilson. The player chooses from three sentences to describe his or her character’s attributes, and plugs in the appropriate numbers to the character sheet. Then, the player plugs in three descriptions for advantages and one disadvantage description (which don’t have to perfectly match “official” GURPS traits). Finally, the player plugs in four skills (including one wildcard) to finish off the character.

Plug-and-play characters dramatically simplify the choices that players need to make in order to create their characters. They also are more forgiving for players who don’t know GURPS rules inside and out because they don’t require players to translate ideas into official GURPS builds. As long as the player and GM have a shared understanding of what the descriptions mean, they can play the game. Finally, they are very quick to create, both during character creation as well as during the GM prep; creating the right number of blanks only takes a few minutes and the seven minute estimate for actual character creation is a realistic possibility.

Plug-and-play characters provide a lot of player flexibility, but in a very different way than point buy mechanisms. With point buys, player flexibility comes from their ability to create their character within a point budget – they can spend their point budget on anything within the rules (unless the GM vetoes it). By contrast, plug-and-play characters permit flexibility in the sense of not needing a published trait; the player can create whatever trait they want for the character. But this descriptive flexibility comes at a cost of having a more limited number of choices than in all but the most stingy point budgets or templates.

Because plug-and-play characters have a limited number of choices, the characters tend to be one-dimensional. They don’t have to be—and GMs can permit players to fill more slots in order to create more well-rounded characters—but the shorter the template, the more likely that the character represents a single niche.

Plug-and-play characters require a strong guiding hand from the GM during character creation in order to make sure the descriptive elements are reasonable given the campaign setting and the roles of the other PCs. This is a slightly different kind of burden than in point-buy campaigns. In point-buy situations, the GM needs to understand GURPS rules well enough to prevent excessive munchkin-ing or abusive combinations of traits. With plug-and-play characters, the GM needs to be able to develop a shared understanding with the player about what those descriptions mean and what the player can expect to do during the campaign. They are related skills, to be sure, but there are differences of emphasis.

There’s also a potential problem in that plug-and-play characters may not necessarily translate into “real” GURPS characters built using the official rules. However, that concern is probably minor. Plug-and-play characters will play just like normal GURPS characters. The biggest difference is in the point costs; similar-looking plug-and-play characters can have radically different point costs because of how the descriptive elements correspond to official rules. However, there’s no rule that PCs have to be built on similar point budgets, and even equal point-cost characters can be unbalanced. So, this concern doesn’t have much practical impact.

Finally, crunch-heavy game mechanics need some extra thought in plug-and-play characters. Do magic users need to spend a skill slot on every individual spell? How powerful is each spell? Does each psionic ability need to be enumerated, and what is the cost to activate that ability? What exactly can a ninja do in battle, and how does that affect his or her opponents? These issues probably require some discussion between the players and GM before the game starts to make sure everyone is on the same page.

Conclusion

These five methods for building GURPS characters offer a lot of options for players and GMs. There’s no right answer for how to build a GURPS character; the key question is what method matches the needs of your players and GM.

If your biggest need is for players to build their characters quickly, without a lot of rules knowledge, then plug-and-play characters are the best choice. If your players have a little bit of rules familiarity, then templates and aptitude slots are almost as fast as plug-and-play characters. The bucket of points method requires both time and rules knowledge, and the point buy method is the worst choice for fast and new-player-oriented games.

If the limiting factor for your games is your GM’s prep time, then your best option is point buy, followed closely by plug-and-play characters and bucket of points options. Aptitude slots and templates will require more GM time, especially if the GM is building the choices from scratch.

If your players want to leverage their knowledge of the rules, enjoy crunchy games, and see character building as a puzzle to optimize, then point buy mechanics are perfect for your game. The buckets of points approach can give the players most of the flexibility of the point buy experience while providing some boundaries on their choices, which can help avoid munchkin-ing. Templates and aptitude slots take away a lot of the building fun from players, and plug-and-play characters will leave these players very unsatisfied.At the end of the day, the best character creation method is the method that gets the players to the table and lets them play the game that they want. By understanding the strengths of several different character creation options, you can make it easier to choose the right method to start playing!

3 thoughts on “Character Creation Options”

  1. Nice overview of character creation methods! It’s important for GMs and players to be aware that GURPS is more than willing to meet them halfway regardless of how they like to put their characters together.

    1. Thanks! I do think this is an area where GURPS could be written better. Point buy is a great mechanic for some genres, but it’s an intimidating default character creation method. Since GURPS has given up the fiction that point values are automatically balanced (and rightly so!), the default character creation system should acknowledge that reality.

  2. Thanks for posting this. Having played GURPS for ages, I hadn’t known there were points-less methods of character creation, which gives me ideas even for other games.

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