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Nipping Problem Allies in the Bud

With few exceptions, I haven't had players try to abuse the Ally rules. Instead, they've come up with an innocently unique idea for an Ally, and it later turned out to be a complete point crock. This article is intended as advice for GMs, illustrating where Allies can cause a problem and how to nip said problems in the bud with no hurt feelings.

The sections Non-Sentient Allies on the Cheap and Inverted Values contain house rules. Everything else is a discussion of the official rules as written.

Player-Designed Allies

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about Allies is that they are NPCs and, as such, are created and roleplayed by the GM, not the player. While some GMs allow players to build their own Allies, always remember that doing so is the GM's sole prerogative, and even a player-built Ally is subject to change at the GM's discretion.

Why do I stress this? Because players have a tendency to build Allies which are not only loyal but always put the PC before themselves and are completely free of any flaws or issues which could cause the Ally to work (or be turned) against the PC. And this isn't even intentional (usually) -- it's just that the player is thinking of the Ally as an advantage and wants to build them as such.

It is the GM's responsibility to remember that Allies are people. They're NPCs. And as such, they have their own hopes, dreams, and so on. They are the stars in their own stories, and should have traits which reflect this fact, not a list of traits optimized to best serve the PC. I'm not suggesting that players shouldn't get the full value for their Ally -- after all, they paid for him! But Allies, even Minions, will have flaws, desires, hidden secrets, and so on.

The best way to handle this is for the player to submit a paragraph or two about the Ally to the GM, including any "absolute must-have" traits (within reason) but focused on the Ally's background and personality. The GM can then build the Ally and run him like any other NPCs. Note my phrasing, here. Among other things, that means there's no reason why the player should ever see the Ally's character sheet. If they have a history together, the GM should be fairly open about the Ally's strengths and weaknesses, but this should be expressed as, "He's quick to react in a fight," not as an explicit mention of whether he has Combat Reflexes, Danger Sense, or just a good Basic Speed.

Hidden Familiars

This one seems to come up primarily in supers games, perhaps because of the "everything goes" approach in most campaigns. An example is the battlesuit with a built-in AI -- it fights at your side like a normal Ally or you can climb into it and enhance your own abilities. Or the silver skateboard which responds to your mental commands and slams into enemies in combat, but is also used to augment your unimpressive running speed.

These are what I've come to call "hidden familiars", after naloth pointed out the fundamental problem here. If an Ally has his own fantastic abilities, that's fine. But if he also grants you fantastic abilities, you have to pay for them as discussed under Familiars (p. B38). Buy them with a -40% limitation, "Granted by Ally", and give your Ally the Special Abilities modifier.

Only abilities that are obviously granted to the PC and the PC alone should have to be purchased like this. A silver skateboard is a very personal conveyance, and one which doesn't have any particular limitations in its use . . . if it weren't also sentient, it would obviously be purchased as Enhanced Move with gadget limitations, so here you would purchase the Enhanced Move with the Ally limitation. If the skateboard also had DR, the PC wouldn't have to buy that -- if the DR happens to protect the PC from a landmine explosion, that's no different than a normal Ally happening to be in the way of some shrapnel. When in doubt, don't charge, but trust your judgment. Ask yourself if the Ally would obviously be a gadget if it wasn't sentient -- if the answer is yes, then charge away.

Non-Sentient Allies on the Cheap

As written, the rules allow one to buy a non-sentient Ally such as a car or plane. I don't have a problem with this -- it makes sense for several character concepts to buy such a vehicle as an Ally instead of Signature Gear, especially when it can do impossible things (like a flying car or invisible plane.) Some people recommend buying such things as gadgets, but I've tried that and it can be ridiculous . . . leading to odd builds involving Enhanced Move with Affects Others and gadget limitations, DR which only protects against attacks that go through the vehicle, and so on.

No, an Ally often makes sense in these situations, though GMs need to be especially alert that such things don't become "hidden familiars" (above). My only problem is that the way to buy such a non-sentient Ally is to buy IQ, DX, Will, and Perception down to 0. (Yes, DX as well. There's absolutely no reason for your vehicle to have a DX score if it has Controls; its handling is determined by the Handling Bonus/Penalty on its Enhanced Move.) This is 500 free points (400 in a canonical game), which is sort of ridiculous, especially in a low-point game. A 150-point PC can take a 5-point Ally and have 650 points to spend on him right off the bat.

As a result, I suggest the following house rules, which I've implemented in my games. Essentially, they boil down to the old maxim, "A disadvantage that doesn't disadvantage you is not a disadvantage." Specifically, if the PC will be using Controls to override the vehicle's IQ/DX, it's not fair to give points for selling back those attributes. Thanks again to naloth for suggestions and refinement of these concepts.

1. A non-sentient Ally has IQ, Will, and Perception "n/a", worth 0 points. The drawback of lacking a conscious mind is offset by the complete immunity to mind control, possession, etc. Even Cybernetic abilities cannot affect it, as there is no AI or computer mind to affect.

2. A non-sentient Ally cannot sell back its Basic Speed.

3. A vehicular Ally (sentient or not) always has a Handling rating equal to (DX-10), with a maximum of +5 but no minimum. The appropriate modifier must still be taken on Enhanced Move. The Handling Penalty limitation is worth no more than -25%, for a Handling of -5 or worse.

These simple rules go a long way toward preventing abuse and keeping powerful vehicles at a reasonable price. And to forstall the obvious response, yes, these rules make an IQ "n/a" Ally much more expensive than an IQ 1 Ally. This is quite intentional. An IQ 1 or IQ 4 Ally can and will go wandering off and get into all sorts of trouble. It isn't guaranteed to be in the same place it was when you left it. And it's also significantly more expensive if you take it as a Minion. It all balances out.

Possession and Puppets

Transhuman Space: Changing Times covers this perfectly, so I'd just like to make sure everyone knows what the ruling is on this. If you have a character with Possession and several bodies bought as Allies that he can jump into, the most expensive one is considered your "normal body". You buy all of the other bodies as Allies.

So if I build a crippled, weak genius who can jump into the body of his accountant brother, housewife mother, or his two-fisted strongman adventuring father, I have to build this PC as if he were always in his father's body, buying the bodies of his brother, mother, and himself as Allies and probably Puppets.

While this may seem weird at first glance, it plugs a huge potential hole in the system in which a player can build a character with hundreds of points in physical disadvantages and nothing but mental abilities and a single Ally Puppet with nothing but a big, strong, strapping body -- easily doubling his point value (or more). Fortunately, this is now officially illegal.

Inverted Values

Have you ever noticed that negative characters end up reversing the way the Ally rules are supposed to work? A -50 point PC would spend more for a -100 point Ally than for a -25 point one! Heck, even at low levels the values are just odd . . . in a 20-point game, is a 30-point Ally really worth ten times as much as a 5-point one?

As someone (I don't recall who, unfortunately) once pointed out on the Pyramid boards, below 100 points, the difference in values becomes far more significant than the proportion between values. As such, in a game with a power level of less than 100 points, it gives better results to change the Allies (and Dependents) charts as follows:

  Point Total     Ally Cost   Dependent Value
PC-100 n/a -15 points
PC-75 1 point -10 points
PC-50 2 points -5 points
PC-25 3 points -2 points
PC 5 points -1 points
PC+50 10 points n/a

The term "PC-75" means to subtract 75 points from the PC's power level. So in a 50-point game, a 0-point Ally would have a base cost of 2 points.

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