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

This is the wrap-up of thoughts on keeping a campaign going when the threats are high-powered but the PCs are low-powered – that is, when the PCs are “mundanes” with no magic, no special powers, and little technology. Again I use GURPS Fantasy II‘s Mad Lands setting as a prime example, but the considerations will hold in other settings, especially low fantasy or non-fantasy (e.g., historical).

Part I was a short look at the challenges of keeping such a game going. Part II suggested beefing up the PCs to match the challenges – specifically, understanding “low power” to mean character sheets that may lack spells and energy blasts, but are still packed with great physical abilities and skills. This final Part III looks beyond the characters to the rest of the setting, seeking aids to PC survival in a grueling campaign. Many of the ideas will be well-known to experienced GMs, but could be helpful to newcomers.

Flipping the combat switches

Without magic, powers, and guns, PC will often tackle dangers with hands-on physical action. As Part II noted, they need physical abilities that will let them succeed at this. They also need success-friendly rules.

Take a good review of the game’s combat rules and options – its “switches” – to find the ones that look fun and can be exploited by PCs. In GURPS, good examples are the options for hit locations, combat techniques, and special weapon abilities (entangling, hooking, etc.). Look to Martial Arts for many more, including added techniques, expanded maneuvers, combinations, active defense options, and extra effort in combat. As an example, the rule for holding foes at bay (MA p. 106) sounds like a lifesaver for spear-wielding Madlanders. Make sure players know all the options and are well-versed in – or have early opportunity to learn – smart GURPS combat strategies, such as Wait maneuver strategies or using weapon Reach to best advantage. Encourage use of the Teamwork perk to get the PCs fighting as an unstoppable unit.

Switching on these combat options gives PCs tools they can wield in battle to partially offset their lack of heroic powers. But watch out for options with the opposite effect. Detailed rules for crippling, bleeding, and so on are more likely to work against the PCs than against their monstrous enemies. (Rule of thumb: If the option lets you do something, it probably favors PCs. If it brings in bad stuff that happens, it probably favors the enemies. For example, a rule that increases crippling wounds doesn’t hurt monsters in the big picture; there are always more monsters on the way! But a crippled PC is a unique loss.)

Now that you’ve given players a big toolbox of combat options, think twice before diluting their benefit by flipping the switch from tactical combat to basic combat. Abstract fighting skews the battle toward stats vs stats, which puts a Madlander PC at a huge disadvantage against a Headless with ST 40. Tactical positioning, on the other hand, lets thinking players turn the battle map itself into a weapon. They might even fully neutralize a foe’s key advantages through clever positioning, using movement, surround tactics, and long weapons to always stay outside that Headless’s clubbing range.

A final switch to consider is cinematic combat rules. Most of those on BS p. 417 look too silly for “grim” fantasy like the Mad Lands, but Flesh Wounds could fit in. Consider Extra Effort in Combat (BS p. 357), too. Any rule allowing PCs to save their hides by spending FP or character points gives them a needed lifeline without breaking the “low-power game” format.

Gear up

Low technology and a lack of magic puts a big limitation on special gear, but even “real” tech leaves room for fun. Let discerning PCs seek higher grades of gear, such as very fine weapons or strong composite bows. Feel free to stretch low-fantasy technology a bit to make up for the lack of high-powered stuff. A low-fantasy world may not have TNT or wands of lightning, but it could allow semi-realistic weapons like Greek fire. It could easily offer powerful natural poisons as an equalizer against huge beasts. (You don’t necessarily have to worry about the ethics of poison in a setting against tough odds. Fantasy II‘s description suggests that Madlanders wouldn’t hold, or even comprehend, qualms about “unfair” tactics against monsters and shamans!) Have fun making up other ideas to enhance physical power. (I’ve been known to allow pretty questionable technology in low fantasy, like a limited cache of oil-filled, exploding sling ammo. Which is a bit much for some settings, I know, but it is fun…)

Unusual materials fit nicely into a low-power game. Fantasy II mentions a tree with extremely hard wood; that sounds good for spears and traps that can stand up to any beast. Or imagine a hard-to-get seaweed that can be woven into ropes or nets too strong for even the most powerful monster to break. Or mysterious meteoric ores usable in light, strong armor. Rare animal hides suited to superior leather armor or scent-masking camouflage. Powerful herbs, perhaps hoarded by another village reluctant to give them up. Pits of tar for making Greek fire. Potent monster-slaying venom, brewed from rare deep-forest insects that can be attracted by lighting torches at night… which might also draw less welcome creatures…

As those ideas suggest, low-fantasy “tech” materials should often be hard to acquire. That makes them not only survival aids but also “treasure” rewards and “item quest” targets of more conventional fantasy. As stand-ins for magic items, they even offer an element of an arduous “enchantment” process, in that they’ll typically need to be brought back to home base – through more dangers, of course – and delivered to the right craftspersons who can turn them into amazing gear.

Items that directly power up the PCs are lots of fun, and don’t have to rely on magic. Fantasy II lists some medicinal preparations made from tubers; with Madlanders’ knowledge of foraging and root farming, they could also know recipes for drinks that restore Fatigue, or concoctions that temporarily confer extra Strength, extra Perception, Combat Reflexes, Unfazeable, or maybe even Night Vision. The GM could allow a non-magical version of the Herb Lore skill, with perhaps Naturalist, Chemistry, and Cooking as prerequisites, as a way to make any “potion” that could conceivably work via natural effects. (Looking at potions from Magic‘s Alchemy rules: concoctions like Endurance, Tranquility, and Pain Resistance, yes; elixirs like Beast Speech, Flight, and Transformation, no.)

Don’t forget that home base itself counts as “gear”. Start the game with a physically defensible home base, or put the PCs in charge of building one, and they’ll have a last-ditch shield against enemies. In the Mad Lands, villages appear to be open ground that any monster can walk into, which seems an oversight to me. I’d have every village build a wood palisade guarding access from the land side (the sea side doesn’t need the protection), or site itself on defensible high ground, or at least build a fort for holing up. Approaches would be trapped, of course, and walls would offer plenty of protection for bowmen and spear throwers. Acquiring special materials for boosting defenses forces PCs to head out again on dangerous missions, but they’ll be rewarded when they see a siege break on the fortified gates. Although all of these defenses will still be of no use against the Mad Lands’ gods, it’s hard to see how a village could survive “normal” monsters at all on an undefended plot of ground.

Monster busters

While Fantasy II doesn’t encourage dedicated “monster fighter” characters, it’d be naive to think that players won’t gravitate toward that. Sadly, it’s a job with poor survival (and campaign) prospects. Rather than paring down monsters’ stats, you can saddle them with weaknesses that turn the PCs’ knowledge into a weapon. Besting a monster by exploiting a vulnerability is always fun, all the more so in a low-power game.

Fantasy II does saddle its monsters with some good weaknesses, but are those enough? Headless are dumb and have lousy TH in combat, but can make up for that latter fault with All-Out Attack and Telegraphic Attack. Skinless are vulnerable only on cold days (when they would presumably have the sense to stay away from PCs). Both have amazing HP, and the ST to kill a PC with a single blow. I’d want to add a few more tactically targetable flaws. Perhaps the dim-witted Headless have an animal-like fear of fire. Contact poisons might have extra effect against Skinless (with simple itching powder driving them to agony). Undead are said to “vanish” in seawater; would hurled flasks of seawater make a good weapon against them, like holy water in conventional fantasy? (To prevent overuse, stipulate that the bottled seawater loses potency after some time.)

The GM could give players hints about general weaknesses on rolls against skills like Hidden Lore and Occultism. Those particular skills aren’t kosher in the Mad Lands, but another skill should perhaps be omnipresent in characters there: an oral Literature or Hobby skill representing knowledge of the Madlanders’ copious tales. Monsters, gods, shamans, and other horrors seem to figure prominently in the stories; on a skill roll, the GM could let a PC recall a tale that offers a hint to a monster’s behavior or weakness.*

Consider letting PCs become experts in fighting specific beasts or monsters. Animal Handling helps with animals, but I’ve drafted a Combat Familiarity advantage to better game such expertise against any sort of foe. In the Mad Lands, the Combat Familiarity types Bears or Wolves would be a great trait for hunters; Humanoid Monsters would be a specialty that no villager hopes to earn but many end up acquiring anyway. (The weirder creations like Footless and Boneless could be lumped into a single Non-Humanoid Monster type.)

Finally, let Tactics skill matter, with real in-game effects per MA p. 60. Generously hand out combat tips on Tactics rolls, especially for newer players. Also, although it’s not in the GURPS books, consider optional specialties of Tactics to boost PCs’ skill with key operations, such as Ambushes, Retreats, Pursuit, and Sentry Placement. Another possibility: allow creature types, per Animal Handling or Combat Familiarity, to act as Tactics specialties. Such specialities give the whole team a combat boost, while letting different PCs shine depending on the situation.

Help is on the way

One more way to keep vulnerable PCs alive in a tough setting: toss in NPCs to beef up the ranks, especially ones who have key strengths the PCs lack (but who will still let the PCs lead). These don’t have to travel with the party. A learned sage back at the village can help PCs prepare for setting out, while an expert armorer and inspired physician can repair the PCs’ weapons and bodies when they limp back. With a bit of cinematic taste, home base could even have a gadgeteer able to outfit the PCs with the latest in smoke pots and grapple arrows. It’d be very much in line with the Mad Lands setting for such NPCs to freely assist the PCs, asking little or nothing in return. (The setting cleverly lessens the PCs’ poverty in this way: they may own next to nothing, but what belongs to the village belongs to the PCs too.)

Staying in the Mad Lands for a moment, keep in mind that other villages can help. It makes sense that villages would establish formal and informal meetings to share survival information (and fulfill other social purposes). Traveling to other villages to ask about sightings of suspected Fleshless communities and to share information on the weaknesses discovered for some at-large Heightless, all while trading a few goods, makes a fine adventure framework for PCs. (Of course, if the Heightless know that the PCs are setting out to spread that information, the little guys will just have to make sure the heroes don’t get far…)

What else is available to help? It’s clear that Madlander PCs will never have familiars or other magical help, but I’d recommend that they don’t leave home without the next best thing: dogs. A well-trained attack dog or two gives a PC party a snarl to scare off lesser foes, combat muscle to harry bigger ones, and great early-warning senses to unmask sneaky ones. Trainers will be valued village members, and may find their Animal Handling skill useful in dealing with wolves, too. Best of all, a favorite canine companion gives the players something else to care about!

Character advancement

As I noted at the start of Part I, there are two concerns with a deadly setting where PCs have no magic, powers, or high technology. One is how to keep the PCs alive, which I’ve mulled so far with plenty of words. The other is how to keep the PCs growing so the players stay interested. Fantasy II admirably suggests roleplaying- and story-based rewards for play, instead of treasure, wealth, and power. I’m on board with that, but let’s face it: typical players also want their PCs to grow in power over time. How to do that when the setting offers no wealth, magic items, spells, armies, castles, or other goodies to collect?

Given all the preceding text, this is easy to address: Take the many PC power enhancers introduced so far, and keep ’em coming as the game rolls on. Be generous with character points rewards, as appropriate for the setting’s massive challenges. Let skill levels and other traits rise to amazing levels over time. See that there’s plenty of opportunity to acquire nifty items of gear like those described above. Continually expand on clever tactics, enemy weaknesses, and other knowledge that players can gather to take on ever-bigger challenges. These things will please players who are used to this sort of character advancement in other settings.

Even after all of this, long-running PCs in a low-power game won’t have amassed the sort of power available in fantasy games with real magic, powers, technology, and wealth. Instead, they’ll have tales of great deeds accomplished without those high-powered crutches. Plus, of course, the rewards of richly-developed characters, relationships with fully-fleshed NPCs, and the gratitude of a village that really feels like home. Most importantly, they’ll have survived yet another day in a world out to get them. In a crazed place like the Mad Lands, isn’t that enough?


I like low fantasy, as well as mundane, low-tech non-fantasy. There’s no do-it-all magic or amazing tech to pull PCs’ fat out of the fire. Just their own brains and brawn, with their skin on the line.

To play in such a low-power setting while keeping the challenge level high, here are my summarized thoughts on how to keep PCs alive and players interested:

  • There’s one area where “low-power” doesn’t need to mean low: character point value. “Mundane” PCs in a deadly setting deserve to have lots of character points.
  • Be generous in letting PCs spend points on “natural” aids like attributes, secondary attributes, and non-exotic advantages. They’ll need ’em.
  • Welcome a bit of constructive munchkinism. Work with players in determining what combat skills will be most effective. Encourage impressive skill with a few, including at least one important combat skill.
  • Kindly steer players away from skills and advantages that won’t help PCs much. 
  • Let PCs show off their combat prowess. Use tactical combat and other options that turn high skill and clever tactics into huge advantages. 
  • Consider cinematic rules that aid PC survival without wrecking the “low-power” atmosphere.
  • Allow for plenty of variety and grades in weapons and other gear. Stretch reality a bit with “low-fantasy” gear, including “natural” technology to power up the PCs.
  • Place amazing materials in the game world as survival aids, “treasure”, and objects of quests.
  • Power up the PCs’ home base to create a (relatively) safe refuge.
  • Give tough foes exploitable weaknesses, and give PCs ways to learn about these.
  • Consider rules for expertise in fighting specific foes.
  • Make Tactics skill, and tactics in general, matter. Consider optional specialties for Tactics. 
  • Give the PCs help from NPCs, whether on adventures or “back home”. Let NPCs provide needed abilities. (Don’t forget animal friends!)
  • To advance PCs in power, keep any of the above benefits above coming at a good pace as the campaign progresses.
  • Finally, emphasize the non-“power” benefits of successful play: character development and relationships, the satisfaction of survival against the odds, and one heck of an epic tale!

* While we’re discussing Mad Lands monsters, permit me a tangent on the bad guys that seem particularly problematic to me: the Heightless. The standard way of dealing with them – capture and long imprisonment – seems workable, but wouldn’t be too exciting in play. Killing a Heightless with its single magical weakness sounds much more fun – but how in the world are the PCs supposed to discover a fatal weakness as esoteric as “if a beetle crosses its left boot”?

As in the Rumpelstiltskin tale, there needs to be some (difficult!) way for PCs to discover the secret. Assuming it knows its own weakness, a Heightless itself might unwittingly offer clues. They’re clever creatures; a Heightless that knows it will be killed if struck by a nut will always take precautions. Smart PCs will ask why the little monster gives trees a wide berth, or walks in the woods under an umbrella.

In the absence of good clues, perhaps knowledge of the weakness can be awarded by a god or shaman (at terrible cost). Or perhaps a captive Footless, if asked, will babble a dozen ways to kill the Heightless, one of which might be true. Or perhaps the captive Heightless can be asked about its weakness, “Twenty Questions”-style  – if the questioner knows its secret True Name. Which can only be obtained by asking a ghost. And the number of questions that a Heightless is bound to answer is connected to the number of kills it’s made – meaning that if the PCs run out of question attempts, they can acquire more only by allowing the Heightless to kill more… (Hmm. Let’s not go too far with the difficulties, or “bag it and drop it in a hole” will remain the preferred solution!)


  • Esteemed Visitor

    I remember reading our GM copy of Fantasy 2 a long time ago. Like you, we never played a campaign with it. A little too offbeat, maybe, but we all thought there were some fun ideas in the book.

    Maybe in 4e the ST scores of monsters could be reduced, because ST scales differently. What do you think?

    • tbone

      Sure, ST could be cut down without affecting measurable power. The Headless with ST 40 under GURPS 3e can now have ST 20 under 4e, with no reduced ability to uproot trees, toss PCs, or bench weights down at the E Vipi Wexube Health Club.

      They’ll do much lower damage in combat, though, and the lower ST suggests HP reduced from about 40 to about 20, too. That change may be great for reducing the deadliness of monsters, without many of the other things I suggest.

      There’s always this approach, too: Leave them with ST 40! They’ll have awesome damage and HP, as the book’s author intended. PCs will need lots of survival aids, per my text. Oh, those Headless will be able to lift 16(!) times what a human can – pretty crazy, even if such feats are mostly just spectacle in play.

      Whether to adjust Mad Lands monster ST for 4e is a big GM switch that deserves mention. Thanks!

  • Joseph Paul

    I am likeing some of what I am seeing here. I have an SF campaign/setting that starts out pretty mundane (low TL 9) and then pits the base culture against higher tech opponents while introducing new physics that can change the game from gritty to four colour/space opera. Rationalizing that competition in the base culture will cause a rise in skills and stats (even if gained via genetic manipulation or bio-grafts) that should help with meeting new challenges.

    I am going to look at the tactical combat options, other combat switches, the state of medical aid, a package of gene fixes that may be common in that culture, as well as skills and advantages representing the creme de la creme of the culture for the opening missions. Advanced and weird materials are the maguffins in play and confer advantages at some point down the line.

    Anything else that would help with a gritty SF setting that isn’t already in the low tech write up?

    • tbone

      Most of my SF gaming has been suitably high-tech, as expected of the genre. With magical tech available, SF settings seem unsuited to the topic of the article – except that, as you say, the opponents in your game have even higher tech. So that places your sci-fi PCs squarely back in the position of (relatively) low-tech…

      Well, let’s see, then… Thinking a little, I come across one additional focus I’d suggest for PCs facing higher-tech foes. The same approach real-world fighters adopt against higher-tech foes: guerilla warfare. Like “backward” forces battling US or Soviet armies in decades past, I assume that your PCs would fare poorly in a straight-up, head-on battle against their better-armed foes. Without knowing detail about the campaign, I’m guessing their smartest approach would be to learn the guerilla way: sneak in, hit hard and fast, and disappear just as quickly.

      Doing so, they just might succeed in bringing down a stronger and better-equipped enemy. Could be fun!

  • Sharpe

    Love the blog! I’d play or GM an online campaign with you in this setting in a heartbeat.

    -RD Sharpe, a.k.a., “Stripe” on the SJ Games forums.

    • tbone

      Thanks for the thoughts! A shame we can’t sit down and hammer out some PCs this very weekend. : )

  • Esteemed Visitor

    Maybe quite late to do so, but I do still have one comment;

    Namely, bleeding, crippling, and similar rules can be an advantage for smart players too, especially against bigger, stronger, and tougher enemies. Aim for the one unarmored spot, strike the achilles heel to hamstring a monster, go for the eyes to blind it, use poison to do damage far out of your weight class, injure it some and then run away while it bleeds out and risks infection, set it on fire. That sort of thing.

    It’s how wolves and similar pack hunters take out prey far bigger than themselves.

    • tbone

      You’re of course correct: Players can make great use of rules for nasty occurrences like bleeding and crippling. If the game emphasizes tactical options as part of the fun, then the more options the merrier. Apply the rules equally to all combatants, and let the mayhem fall where it may.

      My point – which maybe wasn’t too clear – is this: If the bad outcomes are most likely the result of choice, the rule likely favors the PCs. Called shots on limbs to cripple a foe are a perfect example: as you note, players are likely to use the option on foes, intelligently and ruthlessly. Foes, on the other hand, won’t do the reverse to the PCs nearly as often (at least under most GMs I see, who expect the PCs to win and don’t try to murder them as efficiently as possible).

      The same would be true for a bleeding rule, if it were a rule that generally remained unused (which isn’t too realistic, but may be a good thing for simplicity) until a fighter specifically sought to inflict it (via called slashes to key targets, etc.).

      But if the bad outcome is more likely to just happen, with choice not often involved, I think it makes life harder for the PCs. I base this on the idea that the foes are generally slated to lose anyway (how many monsters and mooks die for each PC death?); bleeding may bring an Ogre down a little faster, but in any typical game, the PCs were going to defeat it anyway. No difference made. But the same rule now creates a new means of PC death that otherwise might not have happened.

      Likewise for crippling: If the GM uses (for example) lots of random hit locations, with crippling likely to afflict any combatant, then yes, foes will sometimes go down faster – but they were doomed anyway. What matters is that PCs now go down quicker too – and even when winning the fight (as expected and normal in the game), may suffer permanent injuries.

      In short, where special injuries and other bad outcomes are concerned, I think tactical “it happens if you choose it” rules favor PCs, whereas “it just happens” rules make life harder for PCs. It’s something a newbie GM might not be aware of.

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