Gaming low-power, low-tech PCs, Part II


I’ve changed the title of this article and its Part I, to better fit what the articles are really about. Yes, they’re nominally a look at the Mad Lands setting of GURPS Fantasy II, but let’s think bigger. What I’m really writing about is how to keep PCs alive, and growing as characters, in any setting that sharply limits PC power without dialing down the threats they face.

So, while I focus on Madlanders as a perfect example of no-magic, no-powers people – “mundanes” – caught between hammer and anvil, what follows might be of use in any low fantasy game where monsters and wizards wield great powers that the PCs lack. Think “historical” Vikings facing barrow wights, or non-divine Greek heroes staring down Medusa. Or a game with no magic and powers on either side, just really big and nasty dangers threatening the PCs – say, a prehistoric setting. (Which brings me back to Fantasy II: when you think about it, the Mad Lands is just a few cosmetic tweaks away from being a great “caveman horror/fantasy” setting!)

15-second recap of Part I

GURPS Fantasy II offers genre gamers a unique challenge: Put aside the gear-laden, spell-hurling, independent fantasy adventurers aiming to exterminate all that moves in the dungeon, and instead try playing ill-equipped, magic-less, mundane homebody heroes just trying to keep the village safe.

That sounds like a fun game – and a tough sell, for two reasons:

1) Survival: Madlander PCs have no magic or special powers, and wield technology that’s primitive even by medieval fantasy standards. Yet the dangers the book throws at them would delight a deranged “kill-em-all” GM.

2) Advancement: Madlander PCs start as mundane heroes with no powers, wealth, or special gear – and by the time the tenth or fiftieth play session rolls around, they’ll still be heroes with no powers, wealth, or special gear.

The above shockers are attractions of this game world! Let’s not toss out its proposition of PCs tackling impossible odds for more important rewards than wealth and power. But to keep a campaign going for more than a few sessions, I’d ask two questions: How do we keep the PCs alive long enough to make a campaign of things, and how do we feed the players’ desire for some degree of PC power advancement?

Avoiding the awkward one-session “campaign”

If they’re to survive, Mad Land characters need to start the game a little more… badass.

No, not in the sense of fantasy black ops who spin-kick monsters into the next village. I only suggest that the strapping Farmy McFarmlad of generic fantasy, waving goodby to Ma and Da as he leaves idyllic Sheepshear Village for adventures most hearty, isn’t the template we’re after. A beginning Madlander hero stays on his farm, and yet by the age of “strapping” has already survived a crucible of horrors (with Ma turned into a Skinless years ago, and Da eaten by a killer whale). He should have the right butt-kicking stuff to show for it.

My suggestion here is perfectly predictable: Killer settings call for heroic character point totals. In other words, “low power” and “mundane” don’t need to mean low character points. Consider starting with a solidly heroic beginning character value, such as 150 points in GURPS 3e or 200 points in 4e. That allows good stats and skills – or with no powers, magic, wealth, armies, kingdoms, or other exotica to blow points on, great stats and skills.

I don’t see that as contradicting the admirable “let’s play real people” aim of a setting like the Mad Lands! I see it as a reasonable nod to what “real” people would be in a deadly setting where heroes earn their points every single day.

Shopping the half-bare aisles

Hmm, what to buy with that pile of points? More of what the heroes are already buying, of course, since they can’t buy much else. Impressive attributes need little justification in a place like the Mad Lands. I’d keep ST within reasonable limits for mundanes, but awesome HT seems perfectly suited to anyone surviving that deadly environment. High secondary characteristics, too, should get easy GM approval. Hit Points? A few extra would sure help. (You could even go for the argument that natural selection breeds Madlanders for extra toughness.) High Perception would be great, too; an unaware Madlander is monster bait.

Stock up on Will. With Lovecraftian psychological damage a risk of almost every supernatural encounter in the setting, ironlike Will should almost be required for adventuring Madlanders, and common even in nameless NPCs, to explain why whole villages haven’t gone stark bonkers. (A tangent: GURPS heroes in any genre, both PCs and pregenerated characters in books, are often too light on Will. Any character who willingly wades onto battlefields, delves dungeons, thwarts the Greys, outwits the Illuminati, infiltrates starbases, and/or stands up to tentacled horrors, again and again, should be dripping with Will. I see a hefty Will score as the key differentiator between capable, in-control heroes and the non-adventuring masses.)

Looking at Advantages, most everything marked Exotic or Supernatural is off limits to mundanes. That cuts out a lot! GMs should allow generous purchases of the everyday stuff that’s left, especially traits (including talents) that are vital in the setting. In the Mad Lands, that’s anything aiding combat and outdoor survival.

Setting-specific twists might further restrict purchases, though. In the case of Madlanders, even the most mundane-sounding trait can be tricky if it’s uncommon. Combat Reflexes, High Pain Threshold, and Fit are perfect, but eight levels of Night Vision? Well, if the GM says that sort of thing shows up regularly enough in Madlanders, then fine – but if your PC alone shows such ability, then sorry, you just might be a shaman. (You say you’re not? Well, that’s exactly what a shaman would say, isn’t it. Stab.)

Get ready to (part-time) rumble!

A key Mad Lands proposition is that the PCs are not professional fighters. They’re not soldiers, dungeon delvers, swashbucklers, or even lowly city guards. They’re hunters, fishers, and farmers, called upon to fight and adventure when they must, no matter how much they’d rather not. It’s a fun dynamic that works well in any low-power setting.

We’d expect such PCs to largely avoid monsters and dangers, which would suit Madlanders just fine – if only their world would allow them that rest. Well, so be it; if a setting forces even the common outdoorsman to master lethal weapons, then it’s time to go shopping again.

The best way to engage overpowering threats is at a distance. A Madlander hunter will want need great skill with the bow. Slings are also good; they’re not as deadly, but everyone can carry one at all times, and the ammo is free. PCs can back up those ranged abilities with axe expertise, for the inevitable close-in tangles with things that should be dead. (Don’t forget knives for real emergencies.)

The spear is a classic weapon for low-tech heroes: it’s good for both hunting and fighting, both melee and throwing, and doubles as a tent pole or climbing staff. Spears come in several useful lengths and even have a power upgrade option: drop some points into mastering the spear thrower, and you’ll skewer more monster at longer range.

Don’t overlook binding weapons like nets as great equalizers against too-tough foes. (Three out of four Madlander hunting parties recommend securely netting mutant bears before spearing.) Generous GMs might even allow Net a default from Fishing, giving fisher characters a skill to boast of on land. (Kindly remind the hunter types to keep carefully folded nets ready in pouches. You can’t just drag one through the woods.) The harpoon is another weapon fishers can bring to a fight: a securely harpooned and tethered monster becomes an easy pincushion for follow-up archery.

Our hunter/defender types won’t often march in battle formation with a leader shouting orders. As part of small shifting groups (and facing danger alone at times), individuals need to know when and how to fight. Load up on Tactics skill; I can’t imagine Madlanders surviving a year without fighting smart. (One Madlander villager in the book has Strategy skill, but I’d drop that; I don’t see opportunities for large-scale battles in the setting.)

There are many more great skills to consider. In short, think about what weapons will give PCs the most splutch for the buck, and encourage them to take an awesome level in a couple of corresponding skills. They’ll need it.

At the same time, work with players on identifying where not to spend precious points. For example, shields aren’t necessarily right for a low-tech setting with inhuman enemies. Madlanders are unlikely to be on the receiving end of ranged weapons often, and many of their monster foes will brawl in close combat, where a shield is a hindrance. Likewise, techniques aimed at armed foes, like Disarming, may not be too useful in the setting. (All of this changes, of course, in any campaign geared more toward human encounters.)

I’m also unsure about the Madlanders’ apparent penchant for swords, though more for reasons of background than battle tactics. A sword represents an awful lot of materials, time, and expertise for a small, primitive village. Spears and axes are so much cheaper, and multifunctional to boot.

Nobody was kung fu fighting

The question we’re all wondering: What martial arts styles fit those Madlanders and other low-fantasy characters? We’ve got super-tough PCs armed with plenty of points to spend on fightin’ stuff. Bring on the styles!

Martial Arts (MA) for 4e offers interesting starting points, including Hoplomachia and Viking Spear Fighting. But like most styles in the book, these are geared toward soldiers or other dedicated fighters. MA doesn’t much delve into combat packages for hunters who mainly target wild game, with defense against deadlier foes a secondary pursuit. Packages for such non-dedicated fighters would likely leave out fancy unarmed moves, martial mysticism, “exotic” weapons, and probably even shields. In the Mad Lands setting, anything involving horseback action or armed formations also looks unneeded.

Unarmed styles – even unarmed combat skills – similarly call for thought. Brawling and Wrestling are fine for any Madlander, and will be useful against the occasional outlaw, foreigner, drunk, or even weak monster. But where the setting’s real dangers are concerned, getting into close combat is lunacy. Testing Karate or Judo on a Headless will leave you limbless.

Seen from that standpoint, no style in MA looks like a perfect fit for our hunter/defenders. Which is maybe as it should be. The fighting skills of a non-warrior, even if impressively high-level, don’t necessarily constitute a codified martial arts style. In game terms, I suggest building a hunter/part-time village defender using appropriate combat skills, techniques, and perks, but without the GURPS 4e invention that ties such skills into a single entity: the Style Familiarity perk (MA p. 49). This fighter lacks a codified stance and tactics that can be anticipated by others in the know, which is actually a small benefit. But she also loses out on the style benefits of Cultural Familiarity, the associated Claim to Hospitality, and the added ability to buy Style Perks. This all seems very appropriate for our hunter/defender, and it saves her a character point that she can drop into another vital survival skill.

So don’t be too eager to buy a style. Remember that PCs without a style can still buy perks, just not as many: a suggested 1 style perk per 20 points in combat skills (from MA), plus 1 per 25 character points (Power-Ups 2 – Perks). The latter presumably allows style perks, too, so you’ve got plenty of options to perk up style-less PCs.

Unfortunately, the lack of a style means no cinematic perks, or other abilities that clearly evoke a specific, fancy martial art. Then again, there’s no need to get too restrictive in a high-challenge game. Remember that some “cinematic” abilities barely fall on that side of the line; let the PCs have cinematic skills, techniques, and perks that are borderline realistic and sound fun. (Maybe even Weapon Master. It may not come via a storied martial arts guru, but hands-on hacking at homicidal nightmares is its own effective teacher.)

Rounding out abilities

Survival calls for much more than combat skills. Fantasy II‘s sample characters offer plenty of ideas for survival skills, though in keeping with the theme of this article, I’d avoid weak, 1-point purchases of key skills like Survival and Area Knowledge. Unless the low level is part of the character concept, even a young Madlander should have beaucoup points in such skills. Each PC should also consider an outstanding level in at least one other skill useful on adventures or in the village: a medical skill, craft skill, social skill, or miscellaneous outdoor skill. Similar suggestions should hold in non-Mad Lands settings.

Below is a suggested Madlander shopping list for combat and survival skills, techniques, and perks. The format is similar to that for martial arts styles, but it’s not a style (which I don’t recommend for the setting!), nor even a package; it’s a big grab bag of ideas. It includes examples of cinematic items just plausible enough for use by “mundanes” (GM willing, of course).

  • Core survival skills: Survival, Area Knowledge, Naturalist
  • Core hunter skills: Running, Hiking, Traps, Stealth, Tracking, Camouflage, appropriate combat skills
  • Core fisher skills: Fishing, Boating, Seamanship, Swimming, Navigation, appropriate combat skills
  • Other useful skills: Knot-Tying, Jumping, Climbing, Observation, other skills of use in personal or community life
  • Core combat skills: Spear, Thrown Weapon (Spear), Bow, Knife, Tactics
  • Other useful combat skills: Broadsword, Net, Spear Thrower, Sling, Staff, Fast-Draw (Sword), Fast-Draw (Knife), Fast-Draw (Arrow), Thrown Weapon (Harpoon)
  • Techniques: Close Combat (any long weapon), Feint (any weapon), Hook (Axe/Mace), Off-Hand Weapon Training (Knife), Low Fighting (any weapon, for fighting small animals, etc.), Sweep (Spear)
  • Cinematic skills: Kiai
  • Cinematic techniques: Dual-Weapon Attack, Springing Attack
  • Perks: Grip Mastery (Spear), Strongbow, Sure-Footed (whatever is appropriate for local terrain; include Naval Training for fishers), Weapon Bond

In non-Mad Lands settings, important combat and survival skills may also include Animal Handling, Riding, Shield, and other armed and unarmed combat skills, along with related techniques and perks (such as those involving horseback combat). In any case, the above list is a good starting point for the combat and physical survival needs of any low-power, low-tech PCs.

Next up

The summary so far: If you toss PCs into a deadly setting without magic and powers, compensate with plenty of character points and the freedom to spend them on awesome levels of “mundane” survival and combat traits. Those abilities are well-deserved!

There’s still more to go. Coming up: Thoughts on tweaking the setting itself to keep PCs alive and advancing, without sanding down the actual danger level. Possibly after an unrelated post or two. Come again!


  • Douglas Cole

    One thing came to mind about low-skill gaming and, especially, bows and ranged combat.

    I kinda went to town on this subject over at my blog, but short version is bow skills are likely too expensive to safely strike from a distance at low skill levels. You’re going to have to get close to engage point targets that are aware of your efforts to pincushion them.

    • tbone

      Well, what I’m suggesting is that, if the setting is a really tough one and the PCs don’t get special goodies like magic, powers, and tech, then low-skill gaming is what to avoid. Give ’em plenty of points to spend, I say, and encourage Bow-18 and upward!

      That’s where your article is great. For the inexperienced GM thinking “These Madlander PCs don’t need special-ops point totals; surely they can take down packs of monsters with Bow skill around 14…”, your numbers show just how wrong that is. In clear tactical terms, too: If Bow-15 can make a monster-stopping (?) vitals shot only 50% of the time at 5 yards… a paltry distance that the typical baddie can completely close in its next turn… then the campaign may fold much quicker than expected due to all PCs unwillingly joining the ranks of Mad Lands monsters.

      A GM planning a killer setting should take a read of your article and consider whether the numbers leave the PCs a fighting chance or not. (That’s the sort of thinking that spurred my articles. I see those Mad Lands monsters with their ST 30 or 40, I mentally juggle what’ll happen when they descend in a pack on low-skill PCs with bows and spears, and I think “this just isn’t going to work!”)

  • Matthias von Schwarzwald

    I just can’t resist. Sorry.

    Nobody was kung-fu fighting
    No kicking fast as lightning
    But it was still a little bit frightening
    ‘Cause they still fought with expert timing

    • tbone

      Or this:

      Nobody was kung-fu fighting

      No kicking fast as lightning

      But it was still a little bit frightening

      ‘Cause of the soundless biting

      (For those without the book: You see, “soundless” are one of the book’s monsters, and their attack is a paralyzing bite. . . . )

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