Thursday, June 19, 2014

Thoughts on Technique Mastery and other GM-tool perks

So Douglas Cole and I had some discussions by email about something, and Technique Mastery came up. I ended up writing something that might seem a little rant-ish, but it's intended more like "peer into the mind of a rules writer."

I'm partly responsible for "Technique Mastery" being in the GURPS canon. While writing GURPS Martial Arts, I pointed out to Sean Punch that we needed to model the one "one-trick pony" guys from the movies. The ones who have poured their lives into mastering some technique that is otherwise limited to only the base skill. That guy from the kung fu movie who knows that one kick, the master of the Snake's Strike exotic hand strike, the guy who can throw anyone, if he can get his hands on them.

But, along with some other perks, it's sometimes used a bit more expansively than that.

There are some perks I feel are related - including Technique Adaptation, Weapon Adaptation, and Extra Option. Probably Rules Exemption, too. All of those, along with Technique Mastery, allow you to be an exception to the rules in some way.

The thing about those is, they're GM tools. They're meant to be allowed in limited ways, with select options, in a rather reserved fashion. Used willy-nilly, with open season on all abilities . . . yeah, you can do some crazy stuff.

Technique Adaptation is pretty much there to fit those guys who learn concepts, and then can spend points to apply those concepts broadly. If you have Technique Adaptation (Feint), well, you can learn the Feint technique with anything, even stuff you didn't learn in a style. No real issue, there, although you may not want to allow every possible Technique Adaptation out there, if only because some don't fit so well (Low Fighting and Feint, fine, Return Strike, maybe not.)

Weapon Adaptation is great for adding a single weapon to a style's skills without requiring a separate skill. Learned to use heavier swords to fence, did you? Well, stick a backsword into Saber, it's fine. Learned to use a halberd with your Knife skill? It gets called out for extra attention for a reason. Still, a GM needs to take a look and decide how okay it is. Not all results of sticking a weapon into a different skill will give logical or balanced results.

Extra Option is great for that guy who seems to exceed reality, whether through mild supernatural abilities or just out of color. Rules Exemption does the same, forgiving you dealing with some issue everyone else has. But again, it's not blanket permission sans GM approval.

Technique Mastery especially gets pulled out, almost each and every time someone mentions maxima on techniques at all. I think Technique Mastery is problematic only if:

- you assume the GM says "Yes" to everything, or that there is no GM approval necessary at all.
- you assume it gives you +4 to everything (it doesn't, it's +2 if the max already exceeds the prereq - something sometimes overlooked)
- you assume anything written as a Technique is valid, period, no exceptions.
- you assume you can back-write your own techniques to get around the "not written as a technique" thing.
- you take a very narrow vision of "core use" of a skill, to allow yourself to exceed the maximum.

The bit about GM approval is important. Just like player-designed Techniques, player-designed advantages, and player-designed martial arts styles, there is the assumption that the GM checks it, clears it, and approves the results of allowing it. Without that, yes, exceeding the normal maxima for techniques is potentially going to cause problems. That's why the maxima are there in the first place - they represent some combination of simulation and game-balance concerns that levels off at a certain point. This class of perks is allowing you to say, screw those limits, I'm an exception. Bad things can happen as a result of that, but they are there to provide a framework for when you allow them and how much you should allow the maxima to be stretched.

It's a great tool for modeling movie characters, and for fighters who have a signature move in real life that is clearly above and beyond their overall skill. Or for characters who ape either one - you too can be one of the Shaolin Soccer dudes or play a guy like Crocop - but it's not all of what it gets made out to be. It's not a free pass to improved maxima for everything. And it requires GM judgment, something sorely lacking in the "I broke the game system, HA!" type of gamer.

I think the thing with Technique Mastery is - by default, the GM should say no, unless there is a compelling reason to say yes. Much like Weapon Adaptation, Technique Adaptation, Rules Exemption, or Extra Option ("I can get bulletproof nudity for one point!"), the default should be "GM must say yes" not "the rules must explicitly say no." They are tools to allow GMs to create special circumstances in their games, allow for specific fighters to ape something from fiction ("I am the master of the Floating Butterfly Fist - aka Exotic Hand Strike!" or "Our fencing style uses anime-sized swords!"), and model fighters who apply concepts outside of their normal niche ("We understand Ground Fighting so well, I can learn it for anything!") or characters who exceed reality ("He dodges better with the shirt off. Weird.")

If GURPS was written as an adversarial GMless PvP wargame, those perks would likely not exist. They require a GM's hand and thought about the consequences of them. This isn't really a flaw, in my opinion - perks like that are there to enhance a GM's ability to run a good game, not as an exploit to get one over on the system.

Those perks are great, and I'm glad GURPS has them, but they aren't meant to be used for everything, always. Allow the rules to change for one character, and expect some consequences. They can be good, or bad, depending on what you want and how far you let it all go. It's a tool.


  1. Champions, you may recall, has the notion of "stop sign powers" - they have a little stop sign next to them, to call them out. They're the powers that, in the wrong hands, break the system or can be utterly destructive to the campaign framework. I've often wished GURPS had a similar quick, visual cue that you've entered "GM approval required" territory, alongside the physical/mental and normal/exotic icons.

    1. Yeah, I forgot about the Champions stop sign. I agree that would be useful. GURPS says flat out that all traits need GM approval (on p. B33). But a sign to GMs saying "this might do more than is obvious at first" would be a good thing. It helped in Champions as you say.

    2. There was something like that in GURPS Power-Ups 4: Enhancements. A number of little eye symbols indicated the degree to which a GM ought to mull whether something might be game-breaking.

    3. Right. And it's not like the perks I mentioned are game-breaking, but they can have an effect worth considering. Allowing someone, say, prereq+4 in Aggressive Parry is a lot different than allowing someone prereq+4 in Back Kick, and it's worth thinking about what it means if you allow it.


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