Sunday, July 3, 2016

Review: GURPS Powers

Ah, the familiar, comfortable,
"Pictures as cover art" cover.
GURPS Powers is again, one of those fundamental books that everyone that plays a large slice of GURPS games will probably need. I feel like I'm preaching to the choir a bit when reviewing a book that is so absolutely fundamental: probably most people that read this blog already like GURPS, and if they already like GURPS, they probably already like Powers, but that doesn't mean there are no stones left to turn over. With that in mind, I hope to communicate to novice GURPSers why this book is so important, and for experienced GURPSers, some more hard critiques, which, as this book is pretty old already, have probably been patched out of existence anyway. Let's get it started then, ladies and gentlemen.


First page of the table of Contents.
The PDF version of the book I have is 244 pages long. There is a 5 page preamble, 3 page glossary, and a 4 page index, giving 232 pages of raw juice. The first chapter, 33 pages is about putting together a group of abilities called a power. The second chapter, a whopping 82 pages is about building the abilities that constitute a Power. The third chapter, 30 pages has example powers and abilities. Chapter 4, 28 pages, is the more nuanced mechanics of special abilities and how they interact, while Chapter 5 is a 24 page soft chapter on guidance on how to run a campaign with high power levels and exotic abilities. The last chapter is a bunch of seeds and thoughts for adventures and campaigns that run on powers.
Second page of the table
of contents.
The book is very well illustrated, fairly well organized, and addresses the content that it sets out to address and then more. The book is largely new rules and guidance, a decent amount of content, and not a lot of fluff - that is, the book stays generic and tries not to make assumptions about rules in a given universe as much as it can get away with that, which makes the book especially portable. The book is, however, heavily dependent on the Basic Set, especially the Characters volume, as the (in my opinion) most important part is an expansion of the rules for creating and customizing advantages.
Overall, there are a lot of parts of this book that are incredibly important, and some that are very easy to skip over due to irrelevance, and that's fine - the idea is that the content is generic so there is a lot that I don't touch simply because it has no relevance for the type of games I get involved in. Some sections though are so absolutely crucial, I have this book open almost every time I stat out an ability. Overall, this book is basically foundation for those that like to tinker with creating new advantages and disadvantages, exotic and even somewhat mundane. Let's take a closer look at the content now.

Building Powers

The term "power" has a semantic meaning in GURPS that might not be readily obvious to an outsider, or at least, it wasn't to me. A power constitutes all of the abilities that come from a specific theme or power source. Superman doesn't have a flying power, a running real fast power, and a being really strong power. He has a biological power that grants him the abilities to fly, be really fast, and be really strong. This chapter is for putting together all the elements that describe a power in GURPS terms. It guides you through questions like "what abilities could this power give me?" or "what are the conditions under which this power thrives or is rejected?" Mechanically, the questions asked here boil down to creating a power modifier, a modifier attached to advantages that gives all the baggage, good or bad that comes with that power to that ability. Magic for example, a common power modifier has the following pros and cons to it:
  • The list of abilities that one can learn are almost limitless (pro)
  • External mana levels influence the potency of the ability (kinda a double edged sword)
  • Magic can be defeated with specific anti-power abilities that specifically target magic. (con)
Those big properties and a few minor properties are all tied up in the -10% discount that all magical advantages have, and this chapter has a kind of rubric for determining the values of modifiers for each power. Coincidentally, a large majority of power modifiers conveniently come out to -10%.
A power also has a talent which is similar to the concept introduced in Basic Set but a power talent does have some nuances laid out here.
The next part of the chapter gives guidance on choosing appropriate abilities based on a power source, eg, if you suddenly get bitten by a radioactive spider and get spider powers, what abilities go with that? It breaks the abilities down into several categories in order to help guide making a more balanced character who isn't all "50 ways to kill a bad guy."
We get a few sample modifiers  next, and as I said, the large majority, interestingly, come out to -10%. 7/11 named, as a matter of fact.
The next interesting section talks about how powers interacts based on their relationships, and how their abilities overlap and might counter each other. Then there is a section on power origins and how a character might acquire or develop special abilities.
This chapter is a mix of soft guidance and some harder mechanics. For the most part, the first part of the chapter is mostly important if you have an idea for a power so unique it doesn't already exist in GURPS. That said, most powers are generic enough among the ones included that they already cover large swathes. The last sections of the chapter is guidance on how to handle the discovery and development of powers. All of it is interesting food for thought, but I found a lot to be either self evident or irrelevant, so I would scan it for the sections that seem the most interesting to you.

Building Abilities

This chapter is the reason to buy this book. It is also the biggest piece of the book taking up almost 50% of the page count. That said, being an index, it is actually the most straightforward section as well. The chapter starts off with a discussion of a large majority of the advantages from the Basic Set, and gives some ideas for typical customizations for most of them, a couple of new modifiers (very useful) and advice for choosing similar but distinct advantages based on what the players really want. I like that each advantage also includes suggestions for the most thematically appropriate powers as well. Starting at p.90, some new advantages are introduced, some really important game changers, some not so much, but they all fill blanks left by the Basic Set
We then have a nice section on the modifiers from Basic Set as well, with some more detailed explanations and clarifications. This is probably the most important section of the chapter for me personally, and it does a great job, and several of the new enhancements and limitations have been useful to me.
The next section, that honestly, I don't give enough respect to is Special Effects, which really takes an ability from some numbers on a piece of paper to something that is living and breathing. Thinking about the teeny boons and drawbacks of an ability like light effects and signatures. The mechanics are a little fast and loose for me, but it is an important thing I feel like I've been neglecting.
The chapter ends with a lot of helpful advice on putting together abilities, because there is no exact correct way to do things, and often there is more than one way to skin that cat.
This chapter alone is worth the price of admission and I really don't have anything bad to say besides an expansion on the Special Effects section would be helpful.


This chapter includes several statted out powers and advantages with all of the components determined that the book has spoken to so far. Each power entry includes sources, foci, a short summary, a costed out talent, appropriate advantages, and typical power modifiers.
The power examples are pretty exhaustive and thoughtful and are a pretty good place to look if you want a kind of template that almost approaches an exotic character you have in mind, but then you can take it further and customize it even more with the guidance and rules in the first chapter.
Then you have a ton of statted out abilities that have all the modifiers already attached except for the power modifier giving a very good library of abilities ready to use almost right out of the box, and templates for similar abilities as well.

Powers in Action

This chapter speaks to some of the unique nuances of how powers work in play and tries to address some of the more tricky edge cases that might arise as well as the fundamentals. Honestly, this is a chapter I glanced through quickly as a lot seemed either too in depth for me, or irrelevant, but some rules I found interesting in this section include Extra Effort on p.160, coordinated attacks on p.165, and using powers to defend on p.167.
The section on Stunts is a really interesting thought, but I have yet to see it in play. It tries to speak to the non-linear applications of abilities that will "eventually" show up in play. If you have a player that can do x and a player can do y, can the players combine them to do z? (I can create metal, he can create air pressure, can we make a shrapnel grenade?) Temporary Enhancements includes interesting rules for going above and beyond in certain situations, and I feel like can be useful for many players and situations, and defaults on p.173 are something I actually could have used a few times before (should have read this chapter more carefully!)
The section ends with some interesting guidance to make powers more mechanically distinguished as well, focusing on the most common ones, all of the options sound like something I need to take a closer look at in the future.

Power Games

This chapter is a guidance chapter for GMs for games where powers are a central element. It starts with determining the origin story of powers, and includes several suggestions. Then it gives suggestions on power levels and the impacts of high versus low point games. It gives ideas on how powers can develop over the course of the game, or the impact of powers being common knowledge or hidden. It speaks to managing characters of extreme efficacy and especially different competencies, and how to manage spotlight hogging or power-gaming. It talks about how to make things challenging for characters that are especially capable, and abilities to keep in mind that can completely short-circuit difficult situations. The chapter ends with advice on how to manage a powers campaign and how to keep it fun and challenging while still allowing players to do awesome things.
I like the chapter, but I have yet to need to explicitly reference it. It is a good thing to glance through I think, but not all that hard to read straight either if you are in the mood for that. It's pretty subjective I think, so even though I disagree with a few of the opinions, I still think it is written well. Approach it with an open mind, keep the wheat, throw away the chaff.

Empowered Genres

This chapter is somewhat of a focused application of the previous chapter's advice to put it one way. We look at several popular genres and look at all the points of concern and confusion brought up in the previous chapter and think about how that advice applies to it.
This chapter is the one I have glossed over the most, as it is all hyper focused on several genres, many of which I have yet to run or no interest in participating. The Mythic Fantasy section was pretty helpful though, and gives a lot of good well formatted advice. What I have read was interesting, and I feel like I should give this chapter another look in the near future.

Other Thoughts and Conclusion

You can tell from the way I wrote this that I did not read the book from cover to cover. I have read the sections that do matter to me though. This book is definitely critical for two of my favorite ability systems in GURPS though, Divine Favor and Sorcery, so it is paramount for having a good time. I'd say anyone that wan't to have any supernatural abilities in a GURPS book needs to have this book. The only exception might be if all powers are handled through the Magic system, or you don't mind only using the pre-statted abilities you can find in many GURPS books, but if you have even a smidgen of a thought of creating your own abilities, you need this book.

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