Thursday, March 10, 2016

GURPS 101: Patching Holes - Don't Over-Patch

The GURPS 101: Patching Holes series is meant to help players avoid specific weaknesses on their characters. It also is intended to help players identify a series of increasingly broad and effective solutions to a specific vulnerability or issue.

This post is meant to tell you when not to "patch holes" in this fashion. And it's meant to address some of the issues that come from over-doing "patching" by getting too focused on the specific problem.

A "hole" is a specific weakness a character has. Especially if that weakness isn't intentionally built into the character but represents a poor choice by the player. Or it represents a misunderstanding of how to lower your vulnerability to that particular issue.

Don't Patch Everything!

First off, a character with no holes, no vulnerabilities, no disadvantages to lead him astray, and no weaknesses to anything specific is either one of two things: boring, or equally mediocre at everything for a given point level.

Secondly, if you have many holes to patch, you need to start looking at broad solutions to the problem. If you're weak against death, resisted magical spells, disease, poison, and consciousness rolls, plus you're often stunned and knocked down, you need HT. You don't need Hard to Kill, Magic Resistance, Resistant to Poison, Resistant to Disease, Hard to Subdue, plus High Pain Threshold. You need a higher HT. You may also want one or more of those, but you've lost sight of the forest because of your focus on the trees.

Generally, if you have two or more "patches" that have the same root attribute, secondary characteristic, or advantage at their base, consider just improving the base. If you have three or more, you almost certainly are better off improving the base!

I see this pretty often - HT 13 [30] with Hard to Kill 2 [4], Hard to Subdue 2 [4], and Fit [5] - for a net HT 16 for either rolls to avoid death or a base 16 to resist unconsciousness. That's more useful in a narrow sense than, say, one more point of HT for a HT 14 [40] and Fit [5] and slightly cheaper, too. But it's also less broadly effective - you gain one point on each of the two specific rolls you bought advantages for, but give up a +1 to everything that involves HT and 0.25 added to your Speed, as well.

In a phrase, don't over-patch. Don't be overly focused on improving one area.

Don't Patch Too Deeply

This is a related issue - trying to ensure you cover too many cases, or one case too deeply. Sometimes it's a case of not realizing when you've past "cost effective" into "wasting points" - a real issue in a point-buy game system!

Too much.

If Fearlessness 1 is useful, then 3 is better and 5 is great. Why stop there - 10, 15, 20!

No, stop there.

You want enough of a trait to either make the weakness go away entirely, or make it less of a weakness. Only patch enough to make the character do the thing you want to do better, better.

If you want a complete solution, go for that. Don't spend more points on the narrow solution or the wide solution than you could get if you just bought the complete solution. This isn't to say Fearlessness 10 [20] is useless, for example. But it's definitely less useful than Unfazeable [15]. It's not as useful as Unfazeable [15] with Fearlessness 2 [4] just for those Cosmic Terror-having elder things the GM keeps having pop up out of R'lyeh in front of you.

That said, as a GM I deploy plenty of monsters with Magic Resistance 10. That's a very high, very specific countermeasure. I don't use anything higher - it's more point efficient, and therefore a better choice to retain fidelity to the game rules - to buy immunity-type powers instead!

Too many layers. Defense in depth is a great battle strategy - don't pile everything on the front line and hope no one breaks through. Instead layer your defense so what penetrates the first layer must penetrate a second line before it can move on.

Don't try to make sure you have kick after kick at the can for everything. If you really want a do-over if things go poorly, buy Luck [15] and just get a do-over. That kind of defense in depth is generally superior to layering many different bonuses or many different chances to accomplish the same defensive goal.

This is also the Perfect Defense Fallacy in action. With a limited point budget, anything you spend ensuring that even edge cases don't affect you, or to ensure that you've got a fallback for your fallback, comes out of your broader capabilities. Generally this results in a hole elsewhere. For example, a character with near-perfect combat defenses who is no less vulnerable to magic than a man off the street. Or a character with total resistance to magical domination but a gigantic hole in the form of a (6) self-control roll on an easily exploited disadvantage.

Plus GURPS rarely allows for total and automatic success in an adventuring situation. If it's worth seeing if you can succeed or fail, generally a 17-18 will always fail. Or a 3-4 will always succeed, and might get past your "perfect" defenses. Will 20 is nice, but a 3 on a Will-resisted spell against you automatically overcomes your resistance (p. B241). Don't make the perfect be the enemy of being a capable character elsewhere.

Don't get caught in this trap:

Step 1: Ensure total and perfect immunity to everything.

Step 2: Game ended before I could achieve Step 1.

A word on house rules.

GURPS 101, for me, isn't about house rules or clever solutions. It's the basics you really need to know as a new player, but don't always realize until later.

That said, I expect a lot of comments about a specific house rule on this post, so I want to address them right away.

Some groups house rule that you can "trade in" combinations of secondary characteristics for a higher level of a base stat. The most common example is Striking ST 1 [5], Lifting ST 1 [3], and 1 HP [2] for one point of ST [10], as they're almost identical in function. But this isn't a rule in Basic Set. Not only that, but some traits don't combine so well. Hard to Kill 1 [2], Hard to Subdue 1 [2], and FP 1 [3], plus an extra 3 points seems like it adds up to one point of HT [10], but it doesn't - the problem is that Hard to Kill comes with an additional capability - appearing dead while alive and unconscious - that is not rolled into HT at all. A character "trading in" in this manner is actually giving up an ability. So be careful making partial purchases to patch a hole on the expectation you can "trade up" to a better base ability. Only do so if the GM and other players have agreed on this approach before you start buying.


  1. Step 1: Ensure total and perfect immunity to everything.

    Step 2: Game ended before I could achieve Step 1.

    This is great! "Perfect is the enemy of good enough."

    1. Thanks. It's compounded by "Ensure total and perfect immunity to this one thing, before I move onto the next." There isn't an end to it, and you get overwhelmingly better at one thing while not actually be better overall.

    2. Also, players often use earned experience to patch over what has just tripped them up. If people got mind-controlled, they'll buy Will. Deceptive Attacked, they'll boost their defences. It's a natural enough response; I think the answer is mostly to stop seeing the relationship between players and GM as an adversarial one.

    3. That is definitely true. I actually had to stop someone from immediately blowing all of his saved points on Fearlessness after two people failed Fright Checks in my current DF game. I point out that both failed because they rolled automatic failures, anyway, so it wouldn't even help. But "short term fix for the last trip-up" is common.

      It's not only a case where people see a situation as adversarial. It's also not seeing failures and difficulties as an inevitable part of the game. It's also seeing a problem that occurs occasionally as a major and consistent problem to be faced. Failed a consciousness check once? Don't rest until that can't happen again! Once had to roll against a rare disease at HT-5? Get Immunity to Disease or bump your roll to at least a base 21 so you only fail on auto-failure rolls of 17-18. Etc.

      It's odd because for certain areas, it's reversed - any success is seen as proof you've got it covered. Failed Survival 3 times out of 4? That 4th time proves you have enough skill. Made that one Fast-Talk roll? You've got enough skill to depend on it in all circumstances. And so on.

  2. Whether or not a GM allows trading in, this is one area where I think its a good idea NOT to allow this kind of purchase in the first place.

    In regards to something like the ST example (and Im assuming DF here) Only allow up to X% percent of one level to be spent on related advantages before you just take a level. So levels of lifting ST, striking ST or HP is fine, maybe a combo of two of lifting, striking or HP, but if the GM sees you are taking all three they just tell you not to do this in the first place. (ALSO in DF once ST is maxed out all these options make sense to take so that's another time to allow them)

    Along with 2+ techniques for each skill and a couple other areas it will almost never be point efficient to make this kind purchase. A switch that has option for completely inefficient buys for experienced players is fine, but otherwise its just a trap for those who aren't familiar with the rules.

    1. I'd generally still allow the purchases, but it's always worth asking why it's wanted - the GM to the player, and the player to him or herself. Is this something worth investing in? Is this the focus I really want for my character? Am I just over-reaching to a failure by dumping points in an overly-specific solution? Am I so focused on "patching" that I'm not actually developing a solution?

      Point traps can happen, but a GM needs to be involved. Not saying that you're suggesting this, but it's worth saying anyway - the GM should always be aware and involved with what goes on the character sheet.

      I still let my players do what they want, inefficient or not. It's not my paper man, after all. The HT/Fit/HtS/HtK example about is lifted right off about 3 character sheets in my current game. But I'll try to tell them it's a sub-optimal choice at best, possibly a waste of points, and might even be a fun-killer.

  3. As a GM, I actually /prefer/ incremental purchase of attributes to hoarding points over multiple sessions for a large buy. Which part is purchased first also informs the character's identity a bit.

    I also break down most 10+ points advantages so they can be purchased in bits (e.g. Danger Sense costs [5/8/10/13/15] for Per-4 to Per). i started players at ~165 points with partial DF templates, so this was a great tool to hint at the feel of the full template.

    1. That's fine - it's just that it's not the basic standard of GURPS, and GURPS 101 is all about the basics of the rules in the books. I understand the upsides of the approach, it's just that you need to be sure the GM is doing that before you go out and start to buy pieces and expect to assemble them into the whole.


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