Idea Pot: Earn-as-you-go disadvantages for GURPS

In a game like GURPS, what do you get for saddling a PC with a disadvantage? A more interesting character, of course, but also a more immediate benefit: instant character points you can spend on stuff that makes you awesome.

Not everyone’s crazy about how that works, though. Like this SJG forum commenter:

I don’t like buying disadvantages at character build time… I’d much prefer a system (or option) which rewards disadvantages as they come up during play rather than as a big chunk of bonus points beforehand.

Hmm. Could that work in GURPS? I think it could. Even better, I think it could work alongside the game’s tried and true handling of disadvantages, with players mixing and matching the two approaches as desired – even within the same character.

A new way to disadvantage


The standard method: “Here’s your disadvantage and a sack of points, good fellow! (Now roleplay that disad or else...)”

When you take a disadvantage, you’re handed a purse full of points, up front and instantly. The catch? You’re expected to play that disadvantage… and if you don’t, the GM is urged to dock you some character points. You’ve made a bargain that you have to keep, and keep on keeping, at the risk of lowering your character’s point value.

It’s not a bad deal, as decades of players can attest to. But there may be a more forgiving way to handle disadvantages:

The earn-as-you-go method: “Here’s your disadvantage – and nothing else. (Now why not use that disadvantage to earn some points?)”

The proposal: You take a disadvantage – and that’s all you get. No points come with it. Instead, whenever you properly play that disadvantage, you earn character points, beyond the normal points for the session. (Apparently you’ll find this approach in RPGs such as New World of Darkness, as noted in a comment on this post at the Fabled Lands blog.)

That means you get extra character points whenever the GM feels you played the flaw in a way that’s appropriate, fun, and involved real consequences (i.e., your Bad Temper made you snap at the Royal Chamberlain, not at a passing chambermaid). (Suggested rule of thumb: Playing up a disadvantage earns you 1/10 of the disadvantage’s value at the end of that session, or twice that if you really let the flaw dramatically hose you.)

Under this method, you choose when you want a disadvantage to have its normal effects, and when you’d like it to quietly stay in the background of a scene. You can opt for the latter as much you like, avoiding the disadvantage’s danger or inconvenience – but you’ll miss out on earning those sweet extra points.

Appropriate disadvantages

What disadvantages would be eligible for earn-as-you-go?

Good question. As the player gets to choose when the disadvantage comes into play, an important consideration should be whether the disadvantage is one that could “come and go” in a reasonable way (for story purposes, anyway, if not necessarily literally).

Natural fits

Earn-as-you-go would work great with any disadvantage that uses a self-control roll. When you choose to give the disadvantage free rein, play it normally and check the self-control roll. When you choose to ignore the disadvantage in a scene, assume that you aced the self-control roll. The same “it just didn’t come up this time” logic would also work with disadvantages that have a frequency of appearance roll, like Dependents. 

Even when self-control or frequency rolls don’t apply, earn-as-you-go should work with any disadvantage that could reasonably “power-down” at times. Earn-as-you-go Jealousy, for example, is easy to describe as a shortcoming that you can squelch when you have to, or that comes and goes with your mood swings.

Not-so-natural fits

Earn-as-you-go is less appropriate for flaws that couldn’t reasonably take a breather. Jealousy may wax and wane, but full-blown Pacifism (Cannot Kill) in one battle, followed by a bazooka rampage the next, is getting weird. This holds even more true for always-on physical disadvantages: outside of a strange game, you can’t reasonably alternate between One Eye and a normal pair of peepers as you please. But if you really want the option of ignoring One Eye’s ranged attack penalties during crucial battles… well, the GM can rule that foes will always recognize you as Patch-Eye Pete (no getting around that!), but when you choose, you just happen to get lucky with your musket and shoot as well as the two-eyed pirates around you. That allows effective earn-as-you-go One Eye.

Such creative interpretation won’t work with every disadvantage. In any situation in which Blindness would matter, for example, it’s hard to imagine brushing off the condition even for a moment. Likewise, the GM should disallow earn-as-you-go whenever it would create hassle. It’d be a lousy way to handle the “disadvantage” of low ST, for example. “Well, it’s not that my character’s weak physique actually comes and goes; it’s just that, for story purposes, we could treat it that way…” Yeah, we could do that, but it means tracking two sets of thrust and swing damage scores, two sets of encumbrance values, and so on. Let’s not.

In short: when earn-as-you-go seems a poor fit for a purchase, disallow it and use standard, points-up-front purchasing only.

Point cap and conversion to classic disadvantage

Earn-as-you-go calls for an important limit: a disadvantage can only earn you points up to its value, i.e., the number of points you’d have received up front for a standard disadvantage. (Otherwise, you’d have a heck of a point racket going on: take a minor disadvantage or ten, and rake in a windfall of bonus character points every session, forever!)
Once you’ve earned full points for a disadvantage, you earn no more. Your earn-as-you-go disadvantage then converts to a standard disadvantage in all respects – including the standard stricture that you must now roleplay it full-time or risk losing character points!

Earn-as-you-go in play

Added ideas and considerations:

GM approval and GM override

Earn-as-you-go for any disadvantage should be subject to GM approval at character creation – and to GM override at any time! Despite any earn-as-you-go designation, if the GM decides that your Dependent aunt will pop up this session because he’s made her part of the storyline, then like it or not, Aunt Zelda is going to happen. If the GM says your Klutz disadvantage will apply during your passage through the Narrow Hall of Priceless and Eggshell-Thin Ming Dynasty Vases, then so be it. Be a sport and go along, players. Ham up the chance to earn some bonus character points, and let the shards fall where they may.

Keeping the books

How to account for an earn-as-you-go disadvantage on the character form? Nothing fancy is needed, I’d think. You could circle or underline your Fanaticism’s written point cost to mark it as earn-as-you-go (i.e., [-15]); place tiny tally marks next to that to indicate how many points you’ve earned from the disadvantage so far. Or write [0/-15] as the cost; when you earn 2 points for appropriately roleplaying Mr. Crazy Eyes, update that to [-2/-15].

Whatever the notation you use, once you’ve earned the full 15 points from Fanaticism, it becomes a standard disadvantage. Change the listing to the standard “Fanaticism [-15]” and begin playing the disadvantage normally.

Buying off earn-as-you-go disadvantages

Buy off earn-as-you-go disadvantages like any other: get GM approval, come up with a rationale if required (“I attend a sleep clinic so I can buy off Light Sleeper”), and pay the points you received for the disadvantage. If you’ve received the full 5 points for earn-as-you-go Light Sleeper (converting it to standard Light Sleeper), you’ll need to pay 5 points. If you’ve only earned, say, 2 points so far for Light Sleeper, pay 2 points to buy it off. (If you haven’t earned any points yet but decide you want to dump the disadvantage, the GM should be lenient. You’re simply changing your mind about a selection that’s had no effect yet on the character or the game; no harm done.)

Alternate handling of disadvantages

Earn-as-you-go should remain valid under alternate treatments of disadvantages. For example, After the End 1: Wastelanders offers the “Ham Clause” option, by which a player can effectively “roleplay” a languishing disadvantage by treating it as an abstract penalty on success rolls during an important scene. A GM could use this option with earn-as-you-go disadvantages, too, letting the player earn character points in exchange for suffering penalties during a scene.

Not right for every game

If the game’s scheduled to run just a session or few, earn-as-you-go isn’t a good choice! The game will likely end before you’ve earned your disadvantages’ fair point value. Or it may end before you decide to even play the disadvantages (in which case, what was the point of “taking” them?). I see earn-as-you-go as a good choice for a planned long-running campaign.

“Is earn-as-you-go right for me?”

An earn-as-you-go disadvantage is a temporary arrangement. It’ll eventually convert to a standard disadvantage, netting you standard points and hitting you with the standard requirement that you must now fully roleplay the disadvantage. (You’ll presumably be fine with this, as you shouldn’t be taking any disadvantage that you won’t enjoy playing!)

The good and the bad

Earn-as-you-go disadvantages present a serious downside: you miss out on getting their points up front. And the less you roleplay the disadvantages, the longer it’ll take you to get those points.

But there’s also a great benefit: less pressure to roleplay any earn-as-you-go disadvantages. You won’t need to repeatedly scan your character form, anxiously looking for opportunities to roleplay each disadvantage and ward off GM disapproval. You can even ignore a disadvantage entirely (GM willing!) until an ideal situation presents itself.

In short, earn-as-you-go should cut the stress of roleplaying unfamiliar disadvantages, as well as the risk of losing points for doing so poorly. You essentially gain a “grace period” during which you can treat a disadvantage lightly, or even ignore it, while you get comfortable with how it plays and what it means for your character. By the time you’ve earned its full points, you should have a great feel for playing it.

A newbie-friendly option?

The benefits noted above should make earn-as-you-go disadvantages attractive to inexperienced roleplayers (including an experienced gamer who’s new to a tricky disadvantage). The newbie can take a “test drive” of sorts, invoking a disadvantage when it looks fun and dramatically appropriate, or setting it aside when it feels too risky, or when the player isn’t sure how to handle it.

Earn-as-you-go should also promote roleplaying in newbies by linking good play to a direct reward of extra character points. Newbies are sure to enjoy that (initially) higher stream of rewards, and should welcome the extra time they have to decide how they’ll spend the points earned from disadvantages.

What do you think?

This is a brand new idea for me, so I make no claims of worthiness. Do earn-as-you-go disadvantages look like a useful tool in the GURPS character toolbox? Have you already tried something similar? What say ye?


  • martinl

    I actually think you are making this too complicated.  It can be as simple as:

    1. No disads give points on PC creation.  Choose what you like.

    2. You get points when disads inconvenience you. “Always on” disads always affect you as usual, but that just means you don’t get to choose to see someone when you’re blind if you are willing to give up the points. You just don’t, and if your PC survives you can get some points.

    3. Multiple disad occurrences in a session don’t stack, you just get the best reward. This cuts down trainwrecking your PC to make a point fountain. Folks who think they can ignore disads AFTER the first time one comes up lose out on roleplaying XP.

    Common side-order: ADDING disads in play if they fit your PC is much more palatable in this system.

    • tbone

      Hm, I don’t see anything complicated (nor anything simpler in your version, actually). All I’ve suggested is:

      1. If you (and the GM) like, designate a disadvantage as “earn as you go”.
      2. Take no disadvantage points up front; instead, gain an extra point or few when you let the disadvantage hinder you in play.

      3. Do so until you’ve gained the full value of the disadvantage; treat it as a normal GURPS disadvantage from there.

      The rest is just discussion: Why you would or wouldn’t want to do this, whether the method would mix well with standard GURPS disads (answer: yes, IMO), what sort of disads are best suited to the method, whether any special considerations are needed for buying off such disads (answer: no), how to note such disads on the character form, etc.

      The idea itself is really simple.

  • RyanW

    There’s a way I’ve been wanting to try out that lets you freely ignore the point cap: “earn as you go” disadvantages don’t give you character points at all. They give you impulse points (from Power Ups 5).

    Taking it a step further, that lets you pretty much ignore the “roleplaying” type disadvantages and just describe the character’s personality. If they play a character’s burdensome flaws consistently (which could mean suffering problems caused by giving in to their flaws or their struggles to resist them), they earn impulse points, even if they aren’t playing to the text of any specific disadvantage.

    • tbone

      Letting disads (when roleplayed) award impulse points, not character points: That probably works great! That is, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard of RPGs – maybe lots of ’em – that use some sort of mechanic like that. (Including inspirations in D&D, I think?)

      As you say, that works even when disads are just broad personality notes, not specific game-mechanical things. Play the character in a way that’s fun for all and that meshes with the described personality, and get some impulse points.

      If the rewards are impulse points that have to be spent (i.e., they’re not character points that can be spent on cool new powers; they’re impulse points that can only be spent on transient effects), then as you point out, there’s no point cap sort of thing going on, and (if I’m understanding correctly), “point value” of a disad has no meaning; disads are all equal as hooks for earning impulse points by invoking the disad.

      Sounds like it’d work great for some disads. Others might be tricky; in line with my article, some (like many physical disads) just don’t lend themselves to a “roleplay it when convenient” approach. I should look into some of the games that take this approach to disads, to see how they handle the details.

      • RyanW

        Oh yeah. That’s exactly how I was envisioning it. Using traditional disadvantages that are literal reductions of capability or can directly restrict or compel the character’s actions alongside “earn as you go disadvantages” as descriptions of the character’s usual behavior.

        You get roleplaying rewards for playing a consistent and interesting person, not for being nearsighted and having to roll to get out of bed in the morning without throwing your back out. You could easily create a character with connected traits between the two categories. Addiction plus Denies he has a problem, or Social Stigma (Minority Group) plus Devoted half-orc rights activist.

        • tbone

          I suppose one potential issue is this: A theatrical-minded player has a giant list of “play to earn” disads and eagerly injects as many as possible into every scene to earn buckets of impulse points, while the GM has a limit in mind on how many impulse points he wants to give out in a session. Potential mismatch of expectations, and a disincentive for the player to play the disads once the GM has reached the point of “sorry, gotta cut you off there, buddy”.

          Then again, maybe it’s not an issue. If all is managed well, the disad-loving player will be hosing himself so much that he’ll need to spend that waterfall of impulse points almost as fast as he earns them. (And even if the player does hit a GM-imposed limit on reward points for the evening, continuing to play the disads should be its own reward, following the idea that players should only take disads that they want to play.)

          All in all, it sounds like good stuff that rewards roleplaying, though probably best for more experienced, non-munchkin-y groups. But again, I should look into how other games have done similar things, and what potential problems they’ve warded off.

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