Thursday, January 7, 2016

Player Tips: Running a Utility Character in GURPS DF

This post starts with some conversational war stories, and then segues into GURPS advice. It might be useful for non-GURPS games, because it's pretty general, but your mileage will vary if you're running a different game system.

At our last game, there was a bit of player discussion about the utility of, well, utility PCs. That is, non-front line fighter types.

The occasion was Hjalmarr dying, at least temporarily, and his player considering some other types. These included a cleric and an assassin (a combatant, but a backstabby-specialized one). We briefly had some mention of past thieves and clerics.

Really, though, that session was a pretty good example session of the usefulness of the non-fighters. For example:

- I rolled an 18 on the weather table, and further rolled that it was all-day weather. If it wasn't for the druid and Weather Dome, this could have severely impacted the group. Instead it was just a ration drain and a delay.

- Survival and Naturalist and Navigation were critical expedition skills this session, like all of the other Lost City sessions.

- the PCs utterly failed to detect a trap (default Traps is no substitute for a trained thief).

- the PCs had to resort to magic to open a locked door and utterly failed to open a locked chest, resulting in setting off a trap, because they lack Lockpicking.

- Lack of a healer was a serious issue.

Had the party also had a thief and a cleric, none of those would have been an issue. Conversely, had the druid not showed up, they'd have been compromised by the "the gods hate you" level of rain and storm.

A few years back I blogged about this from one angle:

Thoughts on Dungeon Fantasy & non-front line fighter types

Today I want to give some advice to people running such characters.

In my experience, utility characters benefit from doing the following things.

Defend Yourself

A non-front-line fighter really needs to be able to stop at least one or two attacks, even if only for a few seconds. Being vulnerable to a one-shot kill because you lack defenses puts a strain on your allies. It also means their effectiveness in combat is restricted by your weakness. If you can reasonably expect to survive a shot or two, you let them do their job.

A few good ways to do this:

- get good Active Defenses. Dodge as high as you can, as it's the most versatile. But also Parry and Block. Make sure you can at least stop a single attack.

- have some DR. You don't need a lot, although it helps to have as much as you can. It's best to keep your encumbrance level reasonable so you aren't even very slow or very exhausted or both after a fight.

- have some supernatural help. Invisibility, Missile Shield, Luck, Bless (not that I use Bless in my game), points saved for Impulse Buys, etc. are all good ways to minimize risk.

- have some mundane help. Smoke Nageteppo, a good Stealth score (and a covered light source), hirelings or allies, and just plain good Move are all useful.

- At worst, up Acting and play dead! It's fishy if you just "die" instantly upon seeing the bad guys, though. (DF2, p. 11)

- Know your options - what the defenses do, and how All-Out Defense and Defensive Attack work. Feverish Defenses, too, if you're using extra effort in combat (my group does not.)

These can keep you safe for the seconds it takes a front-line ally to intervene. You'll still be fragile - DF is high powered, and offensive powers tend to nasty. But these will help.

Contribute to Combat

Even if you're mainly a utility character, you still want to have some contribution to combat.

This can be:

- a ranged or missile attack. Get a sling, bow, thrown grenade-type item, darts, whatever. If it's lethal and quick, that's perfect. If not, it'll still help. If it's weak, it's mostly useful to see who has Missile Shield and Reverse Missiles up! But it'll still be useful. Add Poisons if you're my kind of scum. And overpowered crossbows you can't reload yourself are just a fun kind of thing to tote around, if you can make the shot count!

- a combat-useful spell. For casters, find a cheap and quick offense spell and make use of it. Regular spells such as Frostbite or Dehydrate (or Daze and Sleep on the higher end) can be resisted but (depending on the spell) you can sometimes rip off a 1 or 2 pt version quickly. Or going for a buffing spell to help your friends. Even a minor buff (Shield at +1 DB, or Haste at +1, or Armor at +1) is helpful. Some Area spells can help shape the battlefield and keep the back safe - Wall and Dome spells can block up corridors, Illusions can misdirect, etc.

- combat-useful skills. Tactics can help you shout suggestions. Leadership helps against scary monsters by aiding ally's Fright Checks. First Aid or Esoteric Medicine can work in one second with a roll at -10 - but don't critically fail!
Knowledge skills are good here - spent a turn looking and see if your Hidden Lore, Naturalist, Occultism, Thaumatology, etc. can tell you what you are facing. Knowing it's a golem, not undead, or that it's a terrible & dire wombat and not your standard dire wombat, is helpful. Use Animal Handling, Psychology, Religious Ritual, or Singing (as appropriate) to taunt monsters, or Intimidation to scare them. (DF 2, p. 9-12)

- direct combat actions. Thieves and assassins do well with backstab (DF 2, p. 11), especially if they buff it up with Backstabber. (DF 11, p. 35) Casters do well with Missile and Area spells. Clerics can have True Faith (with Turning).

If you pretty much stand around a fight waiting for it to be won or lost, you're probably not pulling your weight as effectively as you can. It's tempting to get caught up in a circle of, "I'm almost useless in combat, so I won't do anything in combat." You know, "Don't just do something, stand there!" Finding low-risk ways to contribute to combat is a good idea. A healing-focused cleric or a thief or a utility wizard isn't going to be able to deal with a worthy or boss-level foe directly, but you can help contribute to the cause.

Exploit Your Niche

If you're a utility character, you have a non-combat niche. Make as much use of it as you can. Whatever it is you do well (spot traps, open locks, talk to animals, exorcise curses, map, sell stuff in town, negotiate with monsters, etc.), make sure you do it. Get skilled at it (no one likes hiring a burglar who can't sneak, or a guide without Area Knowledge, etc.) Don't be obnoxious about it, any more than combat folks should try to fight everything. But make sure you know what you're capable of and try to exploit your skills to aid your group. If you don't do this, you're in danger of just being dead weight (if you don't aid in combat, or are weak enough to need constant protection) or just a weak combatant (if you do.)

Outside of your niche, just see where you can help. There is one especially helpful Power-Up to help you help others: the Team Player advantage (DF 11, p. 16). It's ideal for guys who also seem to help friends or make Complementary Skill Rolls.

It all comes down to, just try to find a way to contribute outside your niche without being a drain.


  1. Doesn't come up so much in DF (really a niche option) as modern games (where it works very well), but I'd add reload.

    If for example your party has a ranged weapon duel with crossbows or other ranged contraptions don't be afraid to duck behind cover and pass up the loaded up weapon to those with higher skills then reload their empty and repeat.

    Not sure if any weapons would benefit from a dedicated loader, but even handing your weapon to someone who's dropped theirs is an option.

    Also as far as I can see RAW doesn't require a skill roll to reload so until the GM catches up (and even after if you successfully argue it) you can have your femme fatale reloading the SAW and passing it up to the one man army.

    1. In a DF game, it's rare that reloading is useful - the weapons that take reload times also take strength (crossbows!) or so much strength if you're strong enough you wouldn't be a rear-ranker (crossbows, again.)
      In a modern game, yeah, very good suggestion.

    2. Yeah rare, but I imagine even an opponent with four strong reloaders for his crossbows giving him a ROF of about 1 would be an interesting one off.

      The other one is being a brace (using your shoulder) if that's allowed. That's even Mad Max approved.

    3. We do the bracing thing - it's cool WWII Wehrmacht toy soldiers approved, too!

      The sharpshooter(s) with reloads I've done. Without a scout, that kind of thing is annoying at worst and lethal at the best. With a scout, it's literally a 1 second distraction. If the opponent had Missile Shield it would be longer. :)

    4. Maybe in a game with mystic knights using crossbows though I'd have to see if they get better synergy with bows etc. Better to hand your loaded crossbows to him rather than shoot yourself because he can do mote tricks just at lower ROF.

    5. Yeah. I don't know because, well, no Imbuements in the game.

      One thing with the "maximum ST crossbow" thing is that you can't get hypnotised by the potential of a one-shot weapon. 3d impale is really nice, but when the front-line fighters are doing 2d+8 through 4d+10 cutting or crushing damage per attack at a rate of 2+ attacks per second, and Scouts doing 1d+6 or more 2+ shots be second, it's not a big deal. It's useful to either use to pick off a specific target or take advantage of an opportunity. It's helpful as a defensive weapon or to nail someone who foolishly left themselves exposed to you. But it's not a tide-turner.

  2. You can ALWAYS help in combat. Mako in Conan: "I killed him... with my spear!!" or my personal favorite, Jeffrey Tambor in Hellboy. While Hellboy is fighting a super-killer clockwork assassin, the desk jockey has picked up some loose gears and throws them at the bad guy like frisbees to distract him. "I may be an old cigar smoking bureaucrat, but I'm sure as hell not gonna be a spectator in my own death" is a great attitude, at least in games!

    1. "I'm sure as hell not gonna be a spectator in my own death" is the way to go. You don't half the party fighting, half the party standing around discussing what the other players should run next if they die fighting. There is always something to do - even if it's just watch the rear or study the opponent's tactics.

      Speaking of Mako, it wasn't "I'm busy in melee" Conan that figured out the bit about the horn.

  3. This post just makes me want to run Galoob again and build back up towards that massive crossbow for Vryce to fire.

    1. Yeah, but why? Vryce is a massively powerful melee character who is also pretty good with a sling. You're a slight goblin with a solid crossbow skill. Why do you want to do the reverse?

    2. The true optimization would be ST20 plus crossbows that only Vryce can load, but Galoob can fire. Have him load up a one or two before.

    3. In fact at ST 27 with lifting ST and other try trick that crossbow could do 3d+ For a pretty an ok option for low ST utility characters with crossbow skill and 6lbs (or pistol crossbow at 4lbs if that can be done)

    4. They already do that, that's why I'm asking why he'd want to do what he's suggesting.

  4. Tricks for a Wizard:

    1. A Staff with the Staff spell gives you an extra 2 hexes of reach on spells. This often lets you attack from the back rank against opponents who can't get to you at all, or can only hit you back by running around your meatshields for an ill-advised Move and Attack.

    2. You want Tactics skill. (Shame it's not on your template, but you can probably learn it at some point.) With your IQ, even 1 point gives you a decent skill level, and then whenever you're out of FP to blast things, you can give helpful advice and +1 bonuses. It's not Great Haste, but then it doesn't cost 5 FP either. Of course it also gives +1 to surprise, on top of the likely +1 for your high IQ if your group is smart enough to put you in charge. (Unfortunately one of the meatshields probably has Combat Reflexes and Tactics for +3, so you also need to learn Combat Reflexes to reach +4 and be guaranteed your rightful place of leadership.)

    3. If there's enough headroom, Levitate up a bit and nobody can hit you in melee. Add Missile Shield and you're pretty safe, unless they've got magic. Now do whatever seems fun. Fireballs if you have the time and FP, flasks of Alchemist's Fire if you've got money to burn, or maybe just rocks. Ask your GM how big a rock you can get for $2, the price of an arrow. Then order a Cornucopia Quiver that makes rocks that size. Then work on your Dropping skill. (Yeah, it's not on your template, but after you squish 20 or 30 mooks I bet your GM will let you take it.)

    1. Those are good. Some quibbles: #1 assumes your opponents are human-sized or restricted to reach 1 attacks, or can't flank you. #2 assumes terrestrial opponents in a large, open area. #2 is especially tough in a dungeon!

      FWIW we only allow staves to give a 1-hex closer reach, unless you're actually striking someone with them. None of this "stick your staff into his hex, and now it's -0 to cast." We do -1 for any distance that isn't touching.


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