Sunday, June 5, 2016

Everyday Carry for PCs


When new players start to build a character in GURPS, one of the first questions they usually ask is "what skills should I take?". The GURPS community is all over that, usually with a link to two excellent list of "everyman" skills prepared by the estimable Dr. Kromm, one being for adventurers and one being for normal people in the modern world. And they really are great. But in my experience one of the next questions that new players ask is "what gear should I take?". I don't feel like we've done as well at answering that systematically.

That's partly because the question is really, really hard to answer generically. A Dungeon Fantasy hack and slash, an Old Western action one-shot, and a campaign about Ultra-Tech TL11 galaxy-trotting tourists have hugely different technology available and very different player goals. There's no one gear list, and all the decisions are subject to non-obvious facts about the technological and social context. So there's not much common ground.

For this post, what I'm going to be doing is adopting the principles behind Everyday Carry, or EDC. Everyday Carry is a philosophy based on knowing what you need and always having it on you. It emphasizes preparedness, self-sufficiency, and keeping vital gear close to hand. The terminology is mostly used by engineers, survivalists/preppers, and the kind of gun owner that uses the word "tactical" like punctuation. The underlying philosophy is practiced every old janitor or grandmother you know that always seems to have whatever you need in their bag. In short, it's an excellent lens to look at a PC's equipment lens through.

In the list below, I'm going to go through eleven needs that most PCs eventually wind up having. You don't need to carry gear to meet all of them, but you should have a good reason to skip addressing any of them. Finally, I'm going to address genre-or role specific equipment that might be essential in the right game or that one person in the party should be carrying.

The Big Eleven

1. Weapons: Tabletop RPGs have their origins in mass combat simulators. Even GURPS started off as an arena fighting game called Man to Man. The point is that most games are going to be somewhere on a sliding scale between “combat is the majority of every session” to “combat occurs every few sessions”. Even if you’re supposed to be a non-combatant or spell-caster, make sure that you have some way to usefully deal damage.

So what kind of weapon should you be carrying? That's far outside the scope of this article (but might be something I'll touch on down the road). So let's just consider stopping power vs wearability. Stopping power matters because the ultimate point of combat is to kill or incapacitate enemies, not to annoy them. It's hard to say how much stopping power is "enough", but as a rule of thumb, you don't want to be putting out much less damage than you're facing. Wearability matters for logistical reasons (can you climb over a wall with that?), social ones (Will the guards let you through the wall's gate with that?), and concealment (will the guards find that when they pat you down?). Balance according to campaign needs and your role in the party.

2. Light Source: Caves, basements, or outside at night. Eventually, your character is going to need to worry about seeing the nose in front of his face. At low Tech Levels you'll need to carry a candle, torch, or lantern and this category will overlap heavily with fire-making, below. In modern times you can substitute a flashlight.
"Revved up like a Deuce/Another runner in the night"

Some characters may have the natural ability to see in the dark, or simulate such though magic or high technology. That's a massive advantage, because they can sneak in the darkness without giving away their position, and stage fights so that enemies suffer lighting penalties while they do not. However, bright light may still be useful to blind enemies, signal allies, or ward off animals and supernatural threats. Get creative.

3. Communication: In low-tech societies, communication mostly occurs face to face, or through letters, and this category doesn’t have much to it. You should still give a thought to signalling. Carry a whistle can communicate that you’re in trouble to your party members, or maybe use a signalling mirror or smoke signals to convey messages over long distances.

If you have access to instantaneous communication at a distance via magic or technology, things change fast. If all of the PCs are in constant communication, scouting and coordination can reach amazing levels. And then you can contact friends, allies, and authority figures to really mess with your GM. AND in a TL8+ setting, you can access the internet for essentially any information you might need, on the fly. If you can buy a phone or radio, do so. And strongly consider a laptop if your character is at all research oriented.

4. Tools: Potentially the most varied category. Specialists might carry lockpicks and other thieves tools, a mechanics toolbox, a sonic screwdriver, or anything else to take technology apart and put it back together again. Any character can benefit from carrying a small knife or a multitool, and historically some variation on such has been one of the single most common items in anyone's pockets. A blade or a simple tools can be very useful for many things, including as a weapon of last-resort.
Occasionally mightier than the sword

5. Record-keeping: You can fulfill this need by carrying pencil and paper. Or carry some chalk if you fancy writing on walls. This allows your character to make notes and give or leave notes for NPCs. If you’ve ever hunted for something to write down a phone number on, you know how important this is. But at higher Tech Levels you can really have fun with this. Cameras can take pictures of people, activities, and documents which can be used to blackmail NPCs or bring them to justice. Video and audio recording can do that even better, and computer storage can let you copy reams of data without an NPC realizing anything. But at the very least, you want pen(cil) and paper.

6. Food and Water:
You want enough of this so that when the GM asks "did you eat?" you can say "yes", and not worry about it. How much is enough is going to vary depending on the setting. In a real rough and ready setting, you may want to give consideration to water purification and line and snares to catch food, while in a purely urban game you can live on fast-food and the occasional protein bar. Just don't be the idiot that starves when the GM asks if everyone remembered to buy rations.

7. Fire-making: In my experience, most PCs are going to need to light something on fire at some point in their life. In GURPS, fire-lighting equipment is considered part of Personal Basics, but make sure you've got this covered on your sheet. Flint or magnifying glasses work, matches or lighters are better. Of course if you're the Human Torch or a fire wizard, you might not have to worry about this.

8. First-Aid: Yeah, your party may have a dedicated healer. That doesn't mean you can ignore this. What if they get taken out? As a rule of thumb, more than half of the party should have the skill and hopefully the equipment to provide basic healing. This can be some loose bandages, a wand of cure light wounds, or a full-on crash kit for a specialist. The form doesn’t matter, as long as you keep your fellow PCs from dying.

9. Another Weapon: Yup. Combat is such a huge part of so many campaigns that we’re doubling down. Your PC should be carrying more than one weapon, and the second should fill a need that the primary one doesn’t. If you’re an archer or a pistolero, get a blade. If you carry an axe, pick up a sling. Or get something that exploits a different monster weakness (see below).
Included in High Tech!

Concealability is also very important here. The difference between a successful PC prison escape and an embarrassing failure is in the number of PCs that can steal or smuggle in a weapon. If your first two weapons aren't concealable, get a third that really is.

10. Money: Money is magic. Money buys everything above, and more besides. At some point, the GM is going to force to you to fork over your hard earned treasure to buy incidental goods and services, or bribe an NPC. Make sure you have liquid funds on you to do that. In small and large denominations, if your GM is a stickler about that.

11. Personal touches: You're playing a character, not a block of stats. Gear is just as much a valid way to express personality as anything else on your character sheet. A religious icon, a love letter, a deck of cards (which can see a lot of use, incidentally) or flask or pack of cigarettes can all tell you something about a character. A small item or two doesn't have to cost much or weigh you down, but it says a lot.

Other things to consider:

Grenades & Area Denial Attacks:
This is a broad category, including everything from explosives and grenades to smoke bombs to jars of grease to caltrops and bags of ball bearings. There are two defining characteristics: The first is that all of these are intended to attack a large number of foes by killing or injuring them, distracting them, or inconveniencing them. As such, they can alter the course of a fight, with huge payouts if placed correctly. The second is that the mindset behind them is distinctly non-civilian. If you're carrying these around, you're either entiring openly hostile territory or terminally paranoid.

Rope: A lot of old-school RPG players have a rope fetish that would make a shibari expert blush. It’s useful stuff if your PCs need to do any mountain climbing, prisoner restraining, or lashing stuff together. However contra Samwise Gamgee, it's not something that every PC needs. Duct tape can fill the last two needs in a modern setting, and handcuffs will work even better for prisoners.
The "combat ready package" for holy water. 

Monster Weaknesses: Garlic, holy water, silver bullets, cold iron knives. If you're fighting monsters with specific weaknesses of this kind, you should be packing, and preferably in a combat ready package.

Shelter: This is so close to the base of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs of needs that it's often hand-waved. But if you're going into rough country on foot or hoof, you'll want a way to keep the rain out and body heat in. This is going to be bulky, so look for good equipment to save on weight.

Navigation: Maps are great. PCs in modern and ultra-tech settings might be able to rely on their smartphones, but in other circumstances you're going to want some solid paper maps, and maybe some compasses and or even more advanced navigational gear if you're really going exploring.

Tracking and Surveillance:
 For PCs in the world of espionage and mysteries, it can be seriously useful to have a whole host of tiny electronic devices that record and broadcast location, audio, and video information. But don't forget that hacking a bad guy's cellphone can get you most of that. In a fantasy setting this might be replaced by a scrying pool or Magic 8-Ball. 

The Last Word:

I should emphasize at this point that I'm not offering a complete list of everything you should carry. If your GM is handing out useful exotic equipment, or you have a need for certain bits of gear or MacGuffins, then you should by all means carry them, even if it means leaving behind something listed here. The specific case trumps the general advice.

Likewise, I'm not saying that a character with a gear list that doesn't check off all (or any) of these boxes can't be useful and effective. Jackie Chan always seems to get by with just his fists and a lot of improvised weapons after all, and you may very well have an interesting and effective character concept that would never carry a weapon. What I'm providing here is a list of needs that you should think about filling, or think about why your character doesn't seem to want. Ultimately, the story is about the characters you bring to the table, and the gear is at the bottom of the character sheet for a reason.

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