In the heat of combat, the last thing you want to do is pause to look up a a rule. GURPS has detailed weapon statistics that players can write on their character sheets before the game, but sometimes the GM needs to improvise. The PCs accidentally alerted the night watch and you need a polearm’s damage? A character turns a length of rope into a makeshift lasso? When the GM needs to come up with damage numbers on the fly, it can be helpful to make a ballpark estimate of how much damage an attack should generate.
This post provides order-of-magnitude estimates for how much damage weapons do. This is a deliberate oversimplification meant to give GMs guidance when figuring out reasonable estimates: it rounds numbers from the Basic Set, skips over rules in supplement volumes, and doesn’t look at special kinds of damage like armor divisors, fragmentation, and cyclic damage. Using this scale, GMs can choose damage rolls that pass the eyeball test.
Damage Roll Estimates
1d-3: Attacks that deal this level of damage are minor. When relevant, any kind of armor can absorb this magnitude of damage. Any injury that gets through won’t have much effect unless the character is damaged repeatedly.
Bite (average strength)
Fire (momentary exposure)
Punch (average strength)
1d-2: This category is a little more dangerous. Weak armor may not absorb all the damage, but the injury isn’t usually severe on its own.
Bite (above-average strength)
Kick (average strength)
Punch (above-average strength)
1d-1: This level of damage starts to leave an impact. A high roll can take out nearly half of a character’s HP without protection, and multiple hits will quickly accumulate the injury even under the best of circumstances.
Bow (average strength)
Fire (sustained exposure)
Kick (above-average strength)
Knife (average strength)
1d: Attacks at this level can knock out a normal, unarmored human in two hits! Even a single hit can cripple a limb or cause major injury.
Bite (extraordinary strength)
Bow (above-average strength)
Knife (above-average strength)
Longbow (average strength)
Poison (strong, e.g. arsenic)
Punch (extraordinary strength)
1d+1: Armor is almost mandatory to withstand these attacks. Unprotected characters can expect to lose limbs or collapse from shock.
Axe (average strength)
Bow (extraordinary strength)
Crossbow (average strength)
Kick (above-average strength)
Longbow (above-average strength)
Spear (average strength)
Sword (average strength)
2d: These attacks can fell an unprotected human in a single blow, and even armored characters will be in trouble if they suffer multiple attacks!
Axe (above-average strength)
Crossbow (above-average strength)
Knife (extraordinary strength)
Longbow (extraordinary strength)
Poison (severe, e.g. cobra venom)
Quarterstaff (average strength)
Spear (extraordinary strength)
Sword (above-average strength)
3d: At this level, even basic armor may not be enough to keep a character alive. Unarmored characters will need a great deal of luck to withstand an attack and continue functioning.
Axe (extraordinary strength)
Crossbow (extraordinary strength)
Quarterstaff (extraordinary strength)
4d: Unless you are extraordinarily well protected and lucky, your character is out of the battle once one of these blows lands.
Poison (deadly, e.g. cyanide)
Beyond 4d: Attacks that do more than 4d damage tend to be either superscience weapons, futuristic technology, or weapons designed for heavy targets rather than attacking individuals. You can scale the numbers as large as needed, but it may make more sense to give the weapon an armor divisor or affliction rather than just increasing the numbers.
In the examples above, “average,” “above average,” and “extraordinary” refer to the human norm (specifically ST levels of 10, 12, and 15). It’s not uncommon for realistic animals to reach ST levels of 20, and of course fictional creatures can have far higher strength levels. In those cases, extrapolate as necessary!
The damage rolls were chosen based on the GURPS logarithmic progression. GURPS uses a six step progression in several places, most notably the Size/Speed/Range table, to scale modifiers among several orders of magnitude. The progression goes: 1, 1.5, 2, 3, 5, 7, 10, and then repeats with the new order of magnitude as the base level (so 10*1.5 = 15, 10*2 = 20, etc.). The damage rolls listed yield an average damage that roughly tracks this progression.
With the Dungeon Fantasy Boxed Set Kickstarter active, this post will discuss why Dungeon Fantasy is an awesome game. GURPS Dungeon Fantasy is easily the bestselling gaming line for GURPS, and dungeon delving fantasy games in general make up the vast majority of the RPG market. It’s no accident that dungeon dives are so popular, so let’s discuss why!
This post will discuss why dungeon fantasy is awesome in two ways. First, I’ll discuss why the genre of fantasty-based dungeon adventures is so popular. Then, I’ll explore why the GURPS version of that genre, the Dungeon Fantasy line, stands out.
Fantasy Dungeons are Fun
There are a lot of varieties of dungeon-based fantasy, but most games revolve around some core similarities:
Larger-than-life heroes: The protagonists of dungeon fantasy games are Heroes with a capital H. They are capable of great feats and take on challenges that would kill lesser mortals. The power scale for dungeon games characters ranges from starting adventurers that already stand out as exceptional when compared to most people, all the way up to demigods that directly affect the forces of creation. As larger-than-life characters, players can imagine themselves as true champions in the world.
Life-and-death encounters: One of the key elements of the dungeon delving genre is combat against evildoers. Your adventurers can wipe out the orcs guarding the prized treasure, or they can go toe-to-toe with the supernatural beasts that have awakened in the deep. Players get a vicarious thrill from showing off their abilities in the face of deadly threats, and the dungeon fantasy genre provides endless encounters for characters to demonstrate feats of bravery, daring, and awesomeness.
Fantasy settings: Dungeon delving games generally take place in fantasy worlds inspired by great works like Beowulf, The Lord of the Rings, and The Wizard of Earthsea. In these worlds, humans are joined by other races like elves and dwarves, suggesting that the world is much larger and more mysterious than our own. Magic is real, and players are empowered to participate in a world that is affected by supernatural forces and creatures. The world is populated by mythic beasts like dragons and vampires, which pose challenges worthy of their larger-than-life protagonists. These environments carry rich tropes from world mythologies and primordial imagery that can embody the deepest human emotions. Put simply, fantasy brings to life millenia of human storytelling.
Dungeon delving adventures: The dungeons that the adventurers explore are themselves exciting because they build on the quest archetype. Dungeons can hide buried treasure, supernatural forces that must be defeated, and everything in between. Dungeons also bring danger. Explorers can be threatened by the physical environment, by the creatures that roam the depths, and by traps set to protect the prizes buried far beneath the surface.
Awe-inspiring missions: The goals of dungeon diving are exciting. Character can explore for lost treasures from legend or can search for magical artifacts that can shift the world’s balance of power. They can also hunt villains that embody evil, or even attempt to prevent earth-shattering disasters and conflagrations.
GURPS Dungeon Fantasy Rocks
The Dungeon Fantasy line within GURPS is a phenomenal representation of the dungeon exploration genre. There are a lot of reasons to choose GURPS as your system for dungeon adventures.
New Player Friendly
If you are new to RPGs, GURPS Dungeon Fantasy is a great entry point to the RPG hobby:
Simple core mechanics: GURPS runs entirely on a simple 3d6 system. Roll 3 normal dice, add the result, and compare to your target number. Some of the game rules add details to this mechanic; for instance, the GM can modify your target number if the task is easier or harder than usual. But, the basic system is incredibly simple to understand.
Quick-start character templates: The character templates are straightforward. It’s easy for brand new players to be up and running quickly because they only need to make a couple of decisions in order to customize their character. Many RPGs require players to flip through multiple chapters of the characters book in order to create their adventurer; GURPS can lay out all your choices in short blocks of text.
“You describe it, you can try it”: GURPS is designed to enable players to describe what they want to do, and the GM can interpret that action into the game mechanics. For instance, characters don’t need to have a special ability in order to grapple or slam into their opponent; if the player wants to wrestle an opponent, he or she can attempt a skill roll. The character sheet becomes a reference tool instead of a crutch; the character’s options are as wide as the player’s imagination.
Player choices matter: every RPG needs to balance luck with player autonomy. GURPS errs on the side of making player choices matter. The 3d6 system creates a bell curve, so extreme results are rare. In practice, that means that players are less likely to be overcome by bad rolls of the dice, and it engages players by showing that they can directly influence the fate of their characters. Preparing for a challenge, making a smart tactical choice, or earning a bonus makes a bigger impact than raw luck.
For Experienced Players
Don’t be fooled into thinking that Dungeon Fantasy is just for new players! Because Dungeon Fantasy is built on the GURPS system, it has tons of options to meet every player’s needs.
Variety of character choices: The templates for GURPS Dungeon Fantasy permit the players to choose a wide range of character builds. The Kickstarter package includes nine racial backgrounds and eleven character professions; the full published Dungeon Fantasy line goes up to hundreds of worked character options.
Active defense: GURPS features active defenses; when a character is attacked, they get to choose how to defend themselves and attempt a skill roll. This adds a level of tactical thinking that is absent from RPGs that just roll against a passive defense (like an armor class level). In GURPS, players have meaningful decisions about how to stay safe in combat. Deciding to block an attack with a shield is mechanically different than trying to dodge an attack, and those differences make combat feel more interesting.
No second-class skills: Many dungeon diving RPGs place a premium on combat, and other adventuring activities get short shrift. Because GURPS is a skill-based system, combat skills like Brawling or Missile spells are governed by the same mechanics as non-combat skills like Diplomacy, Streetwise, and Hidden Lore. That means that your game is not limited to hack-and-slash playing—unless you want it to be!
Extensive supplements: The GURPS Dungeon Fantasy line is one of the best supported RPGs out there. SJ Games has published literally dozens of volumes that add options for characters, monsters, treasure, magic, allies and henchmen, adventures in town or in the wilderness, and more. In addition, the monthly Pyramid magazine publishes dungeon fantasy articles on a regular basis. Odds are good that GURPS has a dungeon fantasy supplement for whatever direction you want to take your game.
Full GURPS compatibility: Because Dungeon Fantasy is built on the GURPS ruleset, players can tap the full breadth of GURPS resources for their games. If you want to include gadgeteering or high technology into your dungeon game, the GURPS technology volumes stand at the ready. If you want to customize the magic system to use rituals, petitions to the spirit world, or rune-based invocations, you can incorporate rules from the Thaumatology line. GURPS Martial Arts unlocks tons of combat options; Social Engineering brings a similar depth to political intrigue, negotiating, and other interpersonal encounters. In short: if you want to take your game in a new direction, chances are good that GURPS has a way to do it.
Universal system: GURPS is a universal system, so it can run scenarios that are published for any game system. If you find an interesting adventure, it doesn’t matter if it’s designed for a different game. You can run it in GURPS.
The big news from Steve Jackson Games is the Dungeon Fantasy boxed set on Kickstarter. Dungeon Fantasy is the most popular genre line for GURPS, and sword-and-sorcery, hack-n-slash gaming is the single most popular form of roleplaying games in general. This boxed set should appeal to the vast majority of roleplayers, and this set in particular is designed as a standalone GURPS kit that is built for both new roleplayers and existing gamers.
This Kickstarter is incredibly exciting for Just Roll 3d6’s audience.
The box is designed as an entry product for Dungeon Fantasy games. You don’t need any other GURPS products to run the games, making it perfect for new players.
The five books in the box are comprehensive enough to run your game well past the beginner stages. You’ll get a wide variety of adventurers, combat and exploration rules, a huge manual of spells, a full book of monsters to throw at the heroes, and adventure hooks to keep even the most experienced gamers hooked.
The rules in this set are streamlined to make GURPS more accessible. Some of the detailed options have been pared back so that it’s easier to jump into a game. From improved character templates to a rewritten and refined magic volume to game mastering advice, the books are designed to make GURPS easy!
The boxed set includes a ready-to-run adventure, taking adventurers through a hack-n-slash quest that showcases why dungeon delving is such a roleplaying staple.
The set appears to be a great value. For just $50, you get five full-color rulebooks, combat maps and character figurines, and dice. Many RPGs charge that much for just the printed player’s manual! The Kickstarter has add-on options for a gamemaster screen ($20), PDF versions of the books ($35), and electronic versions of the entire existing Dungeon Fantasy line, as well as Pyramid magazine articles on Dungeon Fantasy available a la carte or in bundles.
Shipping costs can be high for international customers, but the PDF-only option for $35 is a great alternative. You’ll get all 400+ pages of content that can easily be referenced on your tablet or shared with your virtual gaming table.
If you are at all interested in GURPS or dungeon-dive roleplaying games, you should back this Kickstarter. The success of projects like this is important to show demand for more GURPS products, as well as to demonstrate the market for other RPGs content. In short, funding this project is a vote for the continued development of all RPG content. SJ Games has clearly taken the time to produce a well-designed product, and it deserves support from the RPG community.
Most people assume that GURPS character creation requires counting points. If they like that approach, they tend to enjoy GURPS. However, for players that dislike the kind of character creation that point buy systems encourage, they find GURPS intimidating, tedious, or overly complicated.
The reality is that there are a lot of ways to build a GURPS character. This post will discuss several popular character creation mechanics. Each method has its strengths and weaknesses. By choosing a mechanic that best fits the kind of game and participants that you have, you can create a more satisfying gaming experience.
Point buy is the default method of GURPS character creation. The GM sets a point budget, determines what traits are available or restricted in the campaign, and lets the players build their character within those guidelines.
Point buy is the most flexible method for character generation. In theory, the players can build whatever they want as long as they are willing to pay the cost. In practice, it’s not quite that simple: the GM can impose a surcharge for exotic traits like an Unusual Background cost, and the GM has to be willing to rule out abilities that conflict with the campaign assumptions or undermine other characters’ roles. But, even with these caveats, point buy is incredibly flexible.
Point buy also suits players that enjoy the character building game. For players who love the puzzle of optimizing their build and for power gamers that thrive on creating the most effective character possible, the point buy mechanic allows them to run wild.
However, the point buy approach places specific demands on the players and GM. First, the participants need to understand GURPS’ rules well enough to know how to find the traits they need (or to build the ones that aren’t available out of the box). For some games, this isn’t a difficult requirement. But, in other games, that complexity can overwhelm the participants.
Second, point buy works best if the players use similar levels of rules sophistication in building their characters. If one player has munchkin-ed their character via skill levels, talents, higher purposes, and other bonuses, and another player is building their character with a minimal working knowledge of the rules options, there’s potential conflict looming. The detailed, mechanically precise character needs to be confronted with limitations and precisely crafted challenges in order to take advantage of its design choices; by contrast, the minimal character would be torn to pieces in a campaign that used the same level of rules minutiae. It’s possible for the GM to balance those perspectives, but it is a challenging balancing act, especially when you add player temperaments to the equation.
Finally, point buy takes real world time. Each point is potentially another decision about how to build the character, and there are lots of interrelated tradeoffs to consider. It takes players a while to work through their character with that level of precision.
Because point buy is so rules- and detail-oriented, it can be a burden for many new or inexperienced players. It’s a very powerful approach to roleplaying, but it’s also intimidating.
Templates are a streamlined version of the point buy approach. Templates provide prepackaged combinations of traits that go well together, allowing players to choose the template package as a whole. Some templates allow players to select among a couple of choices within a grouping: for instance, take three of the following five skills. Other templates leave the player with a handful of points to spend outside of the template’s parameters. It is very rare for templates to make all the choices for a player, so the player can still customize their character based on the template choices.
Character templates appear in the vast majority of GURPS publications, including the Basic Set. The most extensive treatment of templates is the Template Toolkit 1: Characters supplement, but they also figure prominently in the first volume of each worked genre line (Dungeon Fantasy, Action!, Monster Hunters, and After the End).
Templates sacrifice some of the flexibility of the point buy approach for a streamlined character creation process. Instead of choosing among hundreds of options, the player can create a character with a dozen decision points. This makes templates extremely attractive for quickly starting a game.
Another advantage of the template approach is that it is one of the few character creation methods in GURPS that produces balanced characters. In general, there is no way to ensure that two 300-point characters are balanced. Even though the characters are built on the same budget, they may be designed for radically different kinds of games and hence built to face entirely separate kinds of challenges. Well-crafted templates, however, can focus the character options into a handful of ideas that are equally capable within the context of the game campaign.
However, templates require prep work to set up. There are lots of published GURPS templates, including key character archetypes in the Dungeon Fantasy, Action!, Monster Hunters, and After the End lines, and if those templates fit the campaign concept the prep work is minimal. If the templates need to be created from scratch, however, the GM needs to invest a lot more effort.
In addition, templates still require relatively detailed rules knowledge. Players can’t evaluate the choices on a template if they don’t know what the traits mean. Depending on the template complexity, this can impose a substantial burden on players.
Buckets of Points
The buckets of points approach aims to streamline the decision-making involved in the point buy method without requiring the upfront work of template generation. The GM sets a point budget for characters, but then sets additional limits for how many points need to (or can be) spent on specific elements of character creation. For instance, a 250 point character could have 150 points allocated to the attribute bucket, 50 points allocated to advantages, and a final 50 points available for skills.
The bucket of points approach is described in Pyramid 3/65 Alternate GURPS III, and Sean Punch outlines a number of options for using this approach. The GM can make the point buckets cover all the character points available, or the players can be given some points that can be spent in any category. Some GMs may want to permit exchanges between the categories, while others may want the categories completely independent. There are options for how to handle disadvantage points, awarded character points, and even subcategories of buckets.
The major advantage to the buckets of points approach is that it requires far less prep time than template creation. Buckets of points also preserve the flexibility of the point buy approach.
The disadvantage to the buckets of points approach is that it still relies on rules knowledge by the players and GM to determine what to take within their point budgets.
There are also approaches to character creation that de-emphasize the points mechanic. One example of a points-free approach is aptitude slots. Instead of making the players choose among traits with different point values, the player has a certain number of aptitude slots to allocate for his or her character, and the aptitude slots each represent a roughly equivalent number of points.
This approach stems from the “pointless” method introduced for the Dungeon Fantasy and Monster Hunters lines (published by Sean Punch in Pyramid 3/72 Alternate Dungeons and by Christopher Rice in Pyramid 3/83 Alternate GURPS IV, respectively). There are differences in terminology between the two versions, but the basic idea is that aptitudes of roughly equal value are presented to players, and the players decide to take aptitudes until their character runs out of aptitude slots.
The pointless aptitude slots approach is great for simplifying and speeding up character creation because it reduces the number of complexity of choices that the players face. For Dungeon Fantasy or Monster Hunters, the setup work is also done; GMs can tinker with the list of aptitude options, but they can also work straight from the articles.
For other genres, the aptitude slot route requires some GM time. Aptitude slots are probably faster to create than templates but slower than buckets of points; the actual result will depend on the GM’s experience more than anything else.
Like templates, aptitude slots have the potential to enforce balanced characters. However, templates are easier to balance because they can restrict the player decisions more precisely.
All of the options so far are either built on points explicitly or group traits together based on roughly equal point values. However, it’s not necessary to have characters that are based on points at all. Plug-and-play characters ignore point cost entirely; they simply give the player a set number of slots to fill, and the player can put whatever is appropriate into those slots.
The best example of a plug-and-play character that I know about is the Seven-Minutes GURPS Character by Warren “Mook” Wilson. The player chooses from three sentences to describe his or her character’s attributes, and plugs in the appropriate numbers to the character sheet. Then, the player plugs in three descriptions for advantages and one disadvantage description (which don’t have to perfectly match “official” GURPS traits). Finally, the player plugs in four skills (including one wildcard) to finish off the character.
Plug-and-play characters dramatically simplify the choices that players need to make in order to create their characters. They also are more forgiving for players who don’t know GURPS rules inside and out because they don’t require players to translate ideas into official GURPS builds. As long as the player and GM have a shared understanding of what the descriptions mean, they can play the game. Finally, they are very quick to create, both during character creation as well as during the GM prep; creating the right number of blanks only takes a few minutes and the seven minute estimate for actual character creation is a realistic possibility.
Plug-and-play characters provide a lot of player flexibility, but in a very different way than point buy mechanisms. With point buys, player flexibility comes from their ability to create their character within a point budget – they can spend their point budget on anything within the rules (unless the GM vetoes it). By contrast, plug-and-play characters permit flexibility in the sense of not needing a published trait; the player can create whatever trait they want for the character. But this descriptive flexibility comes at a cost of having a more limited number of choices than in all but the most stingy point budgets or templates.
Because plug-and-play characters have a limited number of choices, the characters tend to be one-dimensional. They don’t have to be—and GMs can permit players to fill more slots in order to create more well-rounded characters—but the shorter the template, the more likely that the character represents a single niche.
Plug-and-play characters require a strong guiding hand from the GM during character creation in order to make sure the descriptive elements are reasonable given the campaign setting and the roles of the other PCs. This is a slightly different kind of burden than in point-buy campaigns. In point-buy situations, the GM needs to understand GURPS rules well enough to prevent excessive munchkin-ing or abusive combinations of traits. With plug-and-play characters, the GM needs to be able to develop a shared understanding with the player about what those descriptions mean and what the player can expect to do during the campaign. They are related skills, to be sure, but there are differences of emphasis.
There’s also a potential problem in that plug-and-play characters may not necessarily translate into “real” GURPS characters built using the official rules. However, that concern is probably minor. Plug-and-play characters will play just like normal GURPS characters. The biggest difference is in the point costs; similar-looking plug-and-play characters can have radically different point costs because of how the descriptive elements correspond to official rules. However, there’s no rule that PCs have to be built on similar point budgets, and even equal point-cost characters can be unbalanced. So, this concern doesn’t have much practical impact.
Finally, crunch-heavy game mechanics need some extra thought in plug-and-play characters. Do magic users need to spend a skill slot on every individual spell? How powerful is each spell? Does each psionic ability need to be enumerated, and what is the cost to activate that ability? What exactly can a ninja do in battle, and how does that affect his or her opponents? These issues probably require some discussion between the players and GM before the game starts to make sure everyone is on the same page.
These five methods for building GURPS characters offer a lot of options for players and GMs. There’s no right answer for how to build a GURPS character; the key question is what method matches the needs of your players and GM.
If your biggest need is for players to build their characters quickly, without a lot of rules knowledge, then plug-and-play characters are the best choice. If your players have a little bit of rules familiarity, then templates and aptitude slots are almost as fast as plug-and-play characters. The bucket of points method requires both time and rules knowledge, and the point buy method is the worst choice for fast and new-player-oriented games.
If the limiting factor for your games is your GM’s prep time, then your best option is point buy, followed closely by plug-and-play characters and bucket of points options. Aptitude slots and templates will require more GM time, especially if the GM is building the choices from scratch.
If your players want to leverage their knowledge of the rules, enjoy crunchy games, and see character building as a puzzle to optimize, then point buy mechanics are perfect for your game. The buckets of points approach can give the players most of the flexibility of the point buy experience while providing some boundaries on their choices, which can help avoid munchkin-ing. Templates and aptitude slots take away a lot of the building fun from players, and plug-and-play characters will leave these players very unsatisfied.At the end of the day, the best character creation method is the method that gets the players to the table and lets them play the game that they want. By understanding the strengths of several different character creation options, you can make it easier to choose the right method to start playing!
Balancing combat in GURPS can be challenging, especially for new GMs. Running combat encounters is much easier when the GM knows how to abort a battle that is overwhelming the player characters.
Sometimes, the players deliberately bite off more than they can chew; in those cases, it makes sense for the battle to carry a lot of risk, and the GM is justified in letting the players suffer the total party kill that they have brought upon themselves. But most of the time, TPKs emerge by accident; the GM miscalculates what the PCs can handle, and the resulting carnage is a serious disappointment. GMs therefore want to minimize the risk of accidentally annihilating the party.
There are some obvious ways to bail from combat if an encounter is too deadly: having the NPCs suddenly pull their punches, adjusting stats on the fly, or fudging dice rolls. However, these actions can leave both the GM and players feeling cheated. It’s nice to avoid a total party kill, but it’s better to not put the players into that situation in the first place.
Fortunately, there are also ways to escape from combat situations that don’t undermine the narrative of the game. This post will discuss some of those techniques for GMs to end the combat without breaking the game’s immersion.
Negotiating a Cease Fire
Not every combat needs to continue until one side dies or passes out. One side may recognize that the other side wants something other than their death, and can offer to negotiate in exchange for safety. Or, the participants may be governed by a code of conduct (or legal norms) that accord privileges to those wishing to negotiate a stand-down.
In Pirates of the Carribbean, Jack Sparrow is captured at gunpoint when he remembers that the pirate code entitles him to parlay. He invokes his right to negotiate with the captain and is guaranteed safety until the negotiations are concluded. Jack is not out of the woods—and in fact his negotiations do not end well—but he averts his nearly certainty death at the hands of the crew.
The GM should make sure that his or her players know negotiated surrender is an option. But, the GM can also take the initiative in calling for negotiations. When the NPCs are firmly in control, negotiating for their goal is less risky than chancing a lucky shot from the PCs. As a result, the NPCs may have an incentive to de-escalate the situation and make the PCs bear the burden of their loss in the terms of surrender.
To set up a negotiated settlement, the GM should think through what motivates the NPCs. If the NPCs are simply cannon fodder for adventurers, then negotiation isn’t likely. However, if the NPCs have their own goals, pressures, and responsibilities, then there is room to negotiate a solution that moves the NPCs closer to their objectives.
Changing the Environment
Most new GMs think about the combat environment as a constant: once the space is set up, the characters make the action happen. But, the environment doesn’t have to be fixed. A power outage can cause the lights to go out, letting some characters escape, or the ledge suspended over a chasm can crack, threatening the safety of the characters standing there. Even something as simple as the passage of time can have an effect: when the sun rises, undead may have to retreat to the shadows.
If the PCs are truly overwhelmed, the GM can strategically change the environment to give them the initiative or provide a route for escape.
Changing the environment works best when the GM doesn’t save it for emergencies only. If the GM only changes the environment when the PCs are up against the wall, it feels like a cop-out. But, the GM can make environmental changes regular parts of the combat experience. Mist and smoke can obscure the battlefield as combat goes on; the walls can start to crack from the force of repeated impacts. Rivers can flood, fires can spread, reinforcements and allies can show up, and mana levels can ebb and flow. Having the environment change every round or two of combat makes battles feel more dynamic.
A savvy GM will mix up the impact of environmental changes. If the environment always benefits the players, it feels gimmicky. But if the changes sometimes benefit the opposition, they makes combat feel more uncertain and tense. Some environmental changes can be neutral, forcing both parties to adapt their tactics; others can be curve balls that change the whole dynamic of the encounter.
The GM can also gain credibility when changing the environment by linking environment changes to combat events. A boulder is unlikely to appear out of nowhere and cut off the pursuers—but if the characters were setting off explosives, suddenly the resulting avalanche is a creative effect of their actions.
Shifting the Threat
When one threat is poised to wipe out the party, the GM can breathe life into the encounter by shifting the threat to an even greater danger.
In The Fellowship of the Ring, the party seems doomed when they are surrounded by goblins deep in the mines of Moria. But, when the goblins hear a noise from the depths, they run away in a blind panic and leave the party to their own devices. Why? Because it turns out that goblins are not the worst thing in the dungeon—not by a long shot. The dungeon is also inhabited by a Balrog, a demon that so outclasses the goblins that they will flee for their lives even in the face of overwhelming victory against the party. With the goblins dispersing, Gandalf is free to lead the group on a wild race to escape the Balrog and find safety.
This trope of shifting the threat occurs in many works. For instance, in Jurassic Park, the protagonists are trapped by velociraptors in the Visitor Center, and they seem doomed until a T-rex breaks in and takes out the raptors. A variation of this trick occurs in Star Wars IV: A New Hope; the Tuscan Raiders that have captured Luke are scared away by the sound of a desert creature (that turns out to be a ruse played by Obi-Wan Kenobi).
Shifting the threat is a little bit of a deus ex machinca, so it needs to be used with care. It works best when the now-vulnerable antagonists have reason to think that the new threat is more dangerous, and it keeps the tension high if the PCs face greater risk as well. Note that the risk doesn’t have to be the same: the Balrog is threatening as a magical creature, while the goblins simply posed a mundane threat. What matters is that the stakes feel raised.
A little bit of foreshadowing can also improve how shifting the threat is received. The tyrannosaur is set up as a dangerous predatory early in Jurassic Park, so the T-rex’s attack doesn’t come out of nowhere.
To prepare the game for a possible shift in threat, the GM can think about who or what else is involved in the game world. Are there mutual opponents that can intrude? Do the antagonists have their own rivals that may interfere? Setting up these kinds of interconnected plot lines also makes the world feel three-dimensional, which enhances the atmosphere of the game.
Playing into Overconfidence
Finally, the antagonists do not need to go for the killing blow right away. Villains are frequently victims of their own hubris. They stop to gloat, to share their plans for inevitable victory, and to force the protagonists to watch their triumph.
If it fits with the personality of the NPCs, this option can be used to end a combat scene without a TPK. The player characters can be surrounded and lectured by the antagonist, who accidentally reveals a secret that the PCs can exploit. Or, the PCs may simply have enough time to catch their breath, recover a fatigue point, and overwhelm the opposition with a surprise all-out blitz.
Antagonists will frequently choose to capture the main characters and lock them away rather than killing them outright. GMs can easily use that option in order to end the combat and steer the campaign into a jail break scene. Depending on the genre of the game, it may be appropriate to include an interrogation session or an attempt to torture the PCs for further information; in other genres, the PCs may discover additional captives that can be allies in their escape attempt. Sometimes, the PCs may be able to bribe a guard to help them sneak away; other times, the captors are simply inattentive or overlook crucial details. Any of these options creates interesting possibilities for the game to advance.
Summary: Keep the Story Going
These four techniques to abort a combat scene all give GMs the ability to adjust on the fly if an encounter is too challenging for the PCs. The important thing is that all of these methods keep the story going. By adding twists to the situation, the GM can make the story more compelling. Having these techniques in your back pocket is a far better solution than simply fudging die rolls.
GURPS is a skill-based system, but sometimes it is helpful to simplify the skill system. Whether you are playing with newer players who might be intimidated by a long skill list, creating NPCs on the fly that need appropriate skill levels, or simply want to make sure that you didn’t overlook something on your character sheet, wildcard skills are a way to do that.
GURPS Power-Ups 7: Wildcard Skills, by Sean Punch, greatly expands on the Basic Set‘s rules about wildcard skills. In the Basic Set, wildcard skills are introduced in a brief sidebar as skills that cover “extremely broad categories of abilities” (p. B175). In this volume, Punch elaborates on what wildcard skills are, how to incorporate them into the campaign, and what kinds of wildcard skills are possible.
Power-Ups 7: Wildcard Skills is 39 pages and is available from Warehouse 23 (SJ Games’ online store) for $7.99.
The first chapter, Defining Wildcards, makes up about half of the supplement’s size. It reiterates the basic information about wildcard skills, including their point cost and scope, in the first few pages. In short, wildcard skills are skills denoted with an exclamation mark (like Pilot! or Science!). A character that has a wildcard skill is assumed to have any relevant abilities that would be included within the wildcard ability—so a super-science genius could take Science! instead of Biology, Chemistry, Physics, etc. This shortcut allows for dramatically simpler character sheets.
Then, the chapter gets into new information: advice for GMs about what wildcard skills to permit, how many wildcard skills to allow, and how to manage the scope of wildcard skills. The suggestions are clear, and seeing them all grouped together provides a variety of ideas for GMs who are uncertain how to use wildcards appropriately.
For GMs who are especially concerned about balance, Power-Ups 7 goes into the logic behind the target scope for wildcard skills and gives some optional suggestions for more nuanced scope, based on whether the wildcard skill is replacing Easy skills, Hard skills, or Very Hard skills (or a combination thereof). This section is probably too pedantic to be workable in an actual game—if you’re tabulating the skill replacements that closely, you might as well just use the actual skills—but it’s good food for thought when GMs need to think about how broad wildcard skills should be in a given campaign.
The following section, Additional Benefits, introduces new rules for giving mechanical bonuses to characters with wildcard skills. The motivation for this section is that wildcard skills cost a lot to compensate for their breadth, and so characters that invest in wildcard skills should be rewarded for that choice. The bonuses include eliminating familiarity penalties of all kinds and including relevant perks for free.
The most interesting of the new rules is the Wildcard Points (WP) mechanic. Players whose characters have wildcard skills receive WP based on how many points they put into wildcard skills; these WP can in turn be spent on meta-game bonuses such as buying successes or letting players determine the narrative outcome of a successful roll (e.g., by determining there is a clue present if the player rolled against an Investigation! skill). The mechanics are similar to the rules in GURPS Monster Hunters and GURPS Power-Ups 5: Impulse Buys for letting the players spend points to influence the narrative in-game; if that mechanic appeals to you, Wildcard Points are a great way to incorporate it into your game.
Chapter 2, Using Wildcards, is quite short at only 5 pages. It includes some more GM advice about how to decide what wildcards to allow in the campaign, how to use wildcards during success rolls (including restrictions, difficulty levels, and other mechanical questions), and some ideas for how to run a campaign that uses only wildcard skills—no normal skills at all!
All of the rules in this chapter are optional; they show the variety of ways that wildcard skills can be incorporated into a game. The bottom line is that GM judgment matters for wildcards, but this chapter gives some good suggestions to help GMs develop that judgment.
This chapter feels a little unbalanced compared to the rest of the volume. It is much shorter than chapter 1, and some of the GM advice feels repetitive. There may have been a better division of those two chapters between character creation/pre-game advice and in-game rules. However, the content in the chapter is still well thought out.
The final chapter is titled “Examples,” and as the name suggests, it is a list of example wildcard skills. For each wildcard skill, it describes the skills that the wildcard replaces, suggests benefits that make sense for that wildcard, and identifies where else the wildcard skill has appeared in previous GURPS publications.
The list of examples is long, at 18 pages, and it covers a wide variety of niches, genres, and skill sets. Having all the wildcard skills in one place is useful both for tracking down wildcards, as well as browsing for inspiration.
GURPS Power-Ups 7: Wildcard Skills is a great resource for expanding the use of wildcard skills. GMs will find excellent advice for structuring how wildcard skills function in their campaigns. Players can use this volume for ideas of how wildcard skills can be used and what they can cover.
This volume is not intended to be a single worked example or ruleset: the reader is expected to make decisions about what elements to incorporate into their games. Some of the options are designed to streamline the game, while other options add new mechanics, crunch, and character creation decisions. As a result, there is probably something for everyone in this volume. The material is most relevant for GMs because of the volume of advice for how to think about wildcard skills before the game begins.
For GMs interested in rules-light games, Power-Ups 7 is helpful in thinking through how wildcard skills can streamline character creation and skill lists. Players interested in rules-lite games can benefit from the lengthy list of examples, but the optional rules may be too much to filter through unless they are experienced GURPS players.
Overall, Power-Ups 7 is a valuable addition to the GURPS library. It is not a mandatory supplement, but it takes a good idea from the Basic Set and works through a number of options for how to apply it. If you are interested in building characters with wildcard skills, finding interesting ways to reward players for using wildcard skills, or making the wildcard skills in templated characters more fun to play, this book will be useful.
Reaction rolls are an easy way to add variety to NPC interactions. This post will flesh out what modifiers to reaction rolls mean in practice, so players and GMs can anticipate the impact of skills, appearance modifiers, and other game elements that influence reaction rolls.
Reaction Rolls in Brief
Whenever the characters encounter an NPC, the GM can choose to make a reaction roll in order to determine how the NPC responds to the player characters. Rolling a reaction simply means rolling 3d6, applying any modifiers, and comparing the result to the reaction table (on pp. B560–561).
Unlike success rolls, higher numbers are better for reaction rolls: an 18 means that the NPC is very favorably disposed to the PCs, while a 3 is an extremely bad reaction. The other major difference between success rolls and reaction rolls is that success rolls have a target number, while the results of reaction rolls fall on a spectrum. The worst response is a Disastrous reaction, and the reaction possibilities go up to Very Bad, Bad, Poor, Neutral, Good, Very Good, and Excellent.
Interpreting Reaction Modifiers
So, what does a +1 reaction modifier mean in practice? How badly is the party in trouble if they get a -2 reaction penalty? This post will translate the modifiers into game results below. All the odds are rounded for simplicity.
First, let’s establish the baseline. In an unmodified reaction roll, the players have a better than 6-in-10 chance of getting a Neutral or better reaction, with a 25% total chance of getting a Good or Very Good reaction. The absolute extremes—Disastrous for a bad reaction, or Excellent for a good reaction—are impossible on an unmodified roll. In short, a neutral reaction means that PCs will generally be given a fair hearing.
With a net +1 reaction bonus, the PCs have an almost 75% chance of getting a Neutral or better reaction, and over 1/3 of the time, they will get a positive reaction. On the extremes, it is impossible to get either a Disastrous or Very Bad reaction, and there is a slight chance (0.5%) of getting an Excellent reaction. A little social influence goes a long way to smoothing edges, so negative reactions are exceptions rather than the rule.
A net +2 bonus shifts expectations even further. Over half of the time, the PCs will get a Good reaction; Neutral is now below expectations! The odds of getting a Bad or Poor reaction are only 16%. In other words, it is unusual for NPCs to dislike the PCs when they have a net +2 bonus.
If the PCs can earn a +4 reaction bonus (which is attainable by a combination of appropriate skill use, appearance or reputation modifiers, and/or situational modifiers), they will get a Good or better reaction three times out of four. In addition, they have an almost 10% chance of getting an Excellent reaction, zero chance of a Bad or worse reaction, and less than 5% chance of getting any reaction below Neutral. It’s really hard to hate someone with a +4 bonus!
Above +5 net bonus, and we’re getting into saving-babies-from-burning-buildings territory: the median reaction is Very Good, the PCs have double-digit percent chances of Excellent reactions, and it requires the equivalent of a critical failure to get a less-than-Neutral reaction (and by +7, even the worst dice can’t cause a negative reaction).
On the negative side, a net -1 reaction penalty is tolerable: the average roll will still be a Neutral or better reaction, and there is no chance of either extreme (Disastrous or Excellent). However, the odds of getting any positive reaction have fallen by about 10%, while the chances of getting a Bad or Very Bad reaction have nearly doubled (from 9% to 16%). Another way to look at the -1 penalty is to say that you have 50% odds of a negative reaction vs. a 50% chance of a Neutral-or-better reaction. Neutral is now a good outcome.
With a net -2 penalty, the expected result shifts down to a Poor reaction, and the PCs will have a below-Neutral result almost 2/3 of the time. There’s still no chance of a Disastrous reaction, but the odds of a Very Good reaction have fallen to 0.5%. With this level of distaste, the PCs are consistently getting started on the wrong foot and having to recover from their social missteps.
At a -3 penalty, Disastrous reactions become possible, while the odds of a Good reaction fall below 5%. There’s still a 1-in-3 chance of a Neutral reaction, but that’s definitely an above-average outcome. When the penalties get up to -4, the PCs have an equal chance of getting a Disastrous reaction as they have for getting any kind of positive reaction!
Once the penalties combine for a -5 modifier, the PCs should probably hide their faces and prepare to be ambushed: they will experience a Bad reaction almost 2/3 of the time. Even a Neutral reaction will occur less than 10% of the time; this is the level where people are no longer willing to let bygones be bygones.
Fatigue is the odd stat out in GURPS. The basic attributes are relatively straightforward, and most players and GMs grasp the purpose of hit points. Fatigue can easily become a throwaway stat, used only to fuel exotic abilities like powers or magic or to give the character a little extra oomph in combat. That’s unfortunate. Fatigue is an easy way to challenge characters by making their decisions take a toll, without requiring anything beyond the GURPS Lite rules. This post will present a rules-light way to ballpark fatigue costs so GMs can incorporate fatigue into their campaigns.
As a quick recap: every GURPS character has a maximum number of fatigue points (FP), which defaults to their HT level. Characters can spend FP to do physical tasks, to use extra effort in a situation, or to cast spells; some special abilities also require FP in order to function. Just like hit points, spending FP comes at a cost: when a character is below 1/3 of their maximum FP, they move slower and can carry less. When characters go below 0 FP, they start to take damage from additional FP loss and are at risk for collapsing from exhaustion. Fatigue points can be recovered in a variety of ways, most commonly by resting.
Fatigue is a natural fit for gritty or realistic campaigns; in fact, the After the End series expands the fatigue rules to convey the grim reality of survival in a post-apocalyptic world. But it can also be used to great effect in cinematic campaigns, superhero dramas, or action adventures by showing how the characters need to push themselves to the limit in order to best the challenges they face.
The rules for fatigue are detail-driven, both in the Basic Set‘s presentation as well as the more abbreviated listing in GURPS Lite. Sometimes you can roll against a skill to avoid spending fatigue points (FP). Other times, you have to spend FP when doing an action regardless of how skilled the character is. Sometimes fatigue costs are modified based on the PC’s encumbrance; other times they are not. The intervals for spending FP vary in unpredictable ways: it costs 1 FP to dig in loose soil for an hour, but 1 FP per minute for paced running (unless you succeed at a Running or HT roll).
Rough Fatigue Costs
This post aims to make it easier for GMs to include fatigue in their games by helping them ballpark fatigue costs. Instead of being rules-dependent and spending time looking up exactly how many FP it costs to hold your breath underwater for a minute, GMs can use their judgment to impose fatigue costs on the PCs and keep the game rolling.
Strenuous Effort: 1 FP
When a PC performs a physically demanding task, that task usually costs 1 FP. The examples below are all represented as 1 FP cost activities:
Fighting a battle
Missing a meal
Not getting enough sleep (staying up too long or waking up early)
Exposure to extreme temperatures
Using extra effort in combat
Using extra effort for a physical task that exceeds your normal limits
Casting a known Sorcery spell
Casting simple magic spells like Awaken, Deflect Energy, Light, or Minor Healing
There is a lot of variety within this category, which is good for the rules light approach because it makes 1 FP cost a fair default. Again, the rules vary on many of the details, such as how often someone must pay the fatigue cost or whether the player can roll against a skill in order to avoid the fatigue cost.
It’s helpful to remember the context: the default human has 10 FP, so the standard is that someone could do these things 10 times without rest before being at risk of passing out due to exhaustion. That baseline can help the GM estimate the frequency for these costs; you might impose the cold exposure cost every minute for being in cold water, but only once per hour for being underdressed in cool weather.
If your game assumes that players have skills for lots of physical tasks, like Running, Swimming, or Survival, then it makes sense to allow the players to roll in order to avoid spending fatigue. But, that’s a play style choice, and there’s nothing wrong with a game that decides to ignore those skills and just charge the FP, or to have the players roll against HT instead of the specific skill.
Especially in a rules-light game, it’s important to remember that managing player expectations is more important than being precise according to the laws of physics. As long as players know that cold exposure is exhausting their characters and they have time to react to that information before the PCs keel over, the exact rate for imposing fatigue costs is not critical. Roll if it’s appropriate, charge the first FP, tell the players how long they have before they will lose the next FP, and let the players decide how to respond.
Encumbrance: 1 FP per level
Many of the physical tasks that cost fatigue points also have a leveled effect based on how encumbered the PC is. For each level of encumbrance, the character needs to spend an additional FP beyond what is normally required for the task. For instance, a character fighting a battle with medium (level 2) encumbrance would pay 1 FP for the battle and an additional 2 FP for being encumbered, for a total of 3 FP.
The GM should charge the encumbrance penalty when it makes sense. Running, swimming, and lifting heavy objects are situations in which encumbrance would logically make the task more exhausting. By contrast, holding your breath underwater, missing a meal, or being exposed to extreme temperatures are probably not affected by encumbrance levels.
Draining Effort: 2 or More FP
Compared to the variety of conditions that cost a single fatigue point, there aren’t many canonical examples of actions that cost multiple fatigue points in a single act. High acceleration, thermal shock, poison, and the drop-off effect from stimulants can all cost multiple FP at once. These examples all represent situations that genuinely drain the PC; they need to be cautious about additional exposure in order to avoid damage and unconsciousness.
The major source of multiple FP actions is magic. In the Basic Set magic system, about 50 of the spells fall into this range. In Sorcery, improvised magic or casting known spells at higher levels requires multiple FP. Ritual Path Magic quirks can include fatigue costs, averaging just under 2 FP for a single quirk up to almost 6 FP for a triple quirk.
In general, acts that require multiple fatigue points per use are explicitly intended to be limiting. If a character has to pay that cost multiple times, they will quickly run into the 1/3 FP threshold that imposes severe restrictions on the character’s abilities. As a result, GMs should save multi-FP costs for situations that are intended to make an unmistakable impact.
All-Out Effort: 5 FP and Higher
Once a character is paying 5 FP for a single situation, there’s very little room for error. Almost any additional fatigue costs would push an average character below the 1/3 threshold, and attempting the all-out stress a second time would put the character at risk of passing out.
The only mundane situations that would cost that much fatigue are engaging in strenuous effort while encumbered at the highest level (extra-heavy) or failing a roll for an extreme situation like thermal shock by a massive margin.
For a character to spend 5 FP or more at a time, the player really needs to plan ahead. The character probably need to invest in additional FP (or energy reserves, for mages). Otherwise, the character needs a way to gather or recover that energy: the Fit advantage, power stones, high skill levels to gather ambient energy, or the like. It’s simply not sustainable for characters to spend that much effort without advance planning.
As a result, the GM and players should plan together for any situations that might require all-out effort levels of fatigue. Magic users or characters with superpowers that require high fatigue expenditures should recognize those choices during the character creation process, so they should be equipped to handle those situations. Likewise, if the GM anticipates an all-out fatigue expenditure event as part of the campaign arc (e.g., if the characters will need to survive on an ice planet), then the players should be prepared for that during character creation as well so they can build their characters appropriately.
Fatigue the Rules Light Way
Using these guidelines, it’s relatively easy to assign reasonable FP costs in-game:
Most cases of extraordinary physical exertion, challenging environmental conditions, or invoking powers cost 1 FP
When performing physically taxing tasks, encumbrance costs additional FP per level of encumbrance
Acts or conditions that cost multiple FP should represent intentionally severe situations
The GM should be very cautious about assigning a fatigue cost above 2 FP
If fatigue costs above 5 FP are possible, the players should know in advance so they can make sure their characters are equipped to handle the challenge
GURPS has an extensive list of character traits—but that doesn’t mean you need to read through the whole list to find the right combination of traits for your character! This post will show how GURPS’ rules enable players to take a thematic approach to character creation. Instead of finding traits for your character, you can build the traits that your character needs!
This post expands on several ideas from GURPS Template Toolkit 1: Characters. However, the rules you need to develop these concepts are entirely contained in the Basic Set. If you want additional ideas to jump-start your thinking, several PDFs from the Power-Ups line will be useful: GURPS Power-Ups 2: Perks, GURPS Power-Ups 3: Talents, and GURPS Power-Ups 7: Wildcard Skills.
The Core Idea: Character-Driven Traits
GURPS is frequently described as a skill-based RPG system. Rather than using classes or racial templates to define the characters, each character is comes to life in its skills and abilities. As a result, most of the decisions in character creation revolve around skill choices (and by extension the advantages and disadvantages that compliment those skills). The players are expected to decide among the extensive list of skills and abilities in order to choose the right combination that represents what their character brings to the table.
The character-driven trait approach inverts this order. Instead of going through the skill list in order to bring the character to life, the character-driven trait approach uses the character concept to create appropriate traits. Note the word “create”: in this approach, the players don’t need to refer to the existing skill lists because their character concept is used to formulate new traits.
The advantage to this approach is players don’t need to know the official trait names, so character creation is faster and less intimidating. And, because the players don’t have to map their character concept to an existing list of traits, there’s no problem if the list of official traits doesn’t perfectly match what they have in mind. There’s no need for complicated combinations of advantages, limitations to specific contexts, or worrying about exactly what a skill covers—as long as the player and GM can understand what the player intends, that’s good enough.
This approach also allows GURPS to gain some of the advantages of class-based RPGs (simple character concepts rather than long lists of features). However, the players still have the flexibility to envision their character the way they want—they aren’t limited to a formulaic class archetype or a pre-defined list of legitimate classes.
This idea develops the concept of template-optimal abilities found in chapter 3 of Template Toolkit 1: Characters. Template-optimal abilities are abilities that are particularly well-suited to a specific template because they boost a key competency or a core element of the character concept. The approach in this article extends that idea beyond the template framework to build an individual character, as opposed to the template for a character type.
Wildcard Skills for Core Competencies
The most basic implementation of a character-driven trait is a wildcard skill that represents the character’s core competencies. Instead of determining a comprehensive list of skills for a paladin, an FBI agent, a starfighter pilot, or an occult investigator, the player can create a wildcard skill that covers all the skills within the umbrella of that concept.
Power-Ups 7 includes 11 pages of example wildcard skills. Many of those examples work for this purpose: medieval roles like Bard! and Courtier!, action concepts like Demolition Man! and Wire Rat!, or horror archetypes like Detective! and Occult! In all of these examples, a single wildcard skill can replace many of the skills that a character needs to fill that dramatic niche.
The important thing about using wildcard skills for character-driven traits is that the players are not limited to a predefined list of wildcard skills. They are free to create their own wildcard skill that matches their character concept: if there’s no existing Starfighter! wildcard, make it up!
Talents for Related Skills
A second way to use character-driven traits is by creating a Talent for a specific element of that character’s identity. Talents give a bonus to rolls on skills that fall within the talent’s scope. They are a great way to easily strengthen some areas of a character concept—a skill area that is more heavily trained or specialized than the general character concept wildcard, a secondary skill set, etc. For instance, a prince with an aptitude for negotiating through conflict could be created with the Royalty! wildcard skill and a Negotiation Talent, which gives a bonus for all negotiation-related interactions (including actual negotiations, as well as reading body language during a negotiation, calling someone’s bluff while negotiating, and so forth).
As with wildcard skills, Talents can be created by the player and GM; they aren’t restricted to a pre-published list. That flexibility makes character-driven Talents an easy way to create a customized trait for a specific character concept. There are lots of examples of Talents, as well as suggestions for how to determine the appropriate scope of Talents, in Power-Ups 3: Talents.
Wildcard skills and Talents can be used together or separately. The players are welcome to build a character with full list of skills, but use character-driven Talents to add color and depth in a simple way. The biggest difference is scope: wildcard skills generally cover 12-14 standard skills, while Talents cover smaller domains (3-6 for a 5 point Talent or 7-12 for a 10 point Talent).
Higher Purpose for a Core Motivation
A third type of character-driven trait that can be used to customize character is the Higher Purpose advantage. Like Talents, Higher Purpose gives a bonus to rolls that fall within the scope of the specified higher purpose. The difference is that Talents focus on what and how: what is the character talented at, and how does the character do it? Talents are specific to skills, or specific uses of skills. Higher Purpose, on the other hand, looks at why. It gives a bonus to tasks that fall within the scope of that purpose, regardless of what skills are used to achieve that higher purpose. An assassin might have a Talent with a gun, but a Higher Purpose of taking out corrupt leaders. The assassin would get the Higher Purpose bonus for taking out a corrupt leader no matter what weapon he or she uses. On the other hand, taking out someone merely because they had a contract on their head would not trigger the Higher Purpose bonus—but it could get the bonus for the gun Talent if the assassin used a firearm to complete the contract.
Higher Purpose is a great way to flesh out the motivations of the character. Again, the Higher Purpose can be created and named by the player, which makes it easy to generate something that speaks to the character’s personal motivations.
Perks for Flavor
Finally, Perks are 1 point “advantages” that give bonuses in relatively minor situations. Creating a couple of character-driven Perks can easily add some flavor to the character concept.
Power-Ups 2: Perks contains a long list of example perks to help generate ideas. There are lots of Perks around character appearances and social interactions—blending into crowds, having a distinctive voice, or dressing well. Most Perks are too small to define a character on their own, but they can highlight small foibles, characteristic mannerisms, or other small character details that make your character distinct from all the other possible characters with the same dramatic niche.
When you play with wildcard skills, it’s possible for players and the GM to disagree about whether a skill really is covered by the wildcard skill. This post explores a house rule that makes it easier to resolve those disagreements.
The inspiration for this house rule is the idea of an inventory roll. Instead of tracking all the equipment a player has, the player can roll against an “inventory” skill to see if his or her character has the piece of equipment needed in the moment. (I can’t find the original discussion of this idea; if you remember it, please remind me in the comments so I can give credit where it is due.)
Wildcard Breadth Check
When the player and GM disagree about whether the wildcard skill includes the skill that is relevant for the task at hand, and there is a plausible argument for including the skill within the wildcard’s scope, the GM can permit a wildcard breadth check. This is a success roll against (10 + the relative skill level of the wildcard skill). For instance, a character with IQ 11 and a Detective! (IQ+2)-13 wildcard skill would roll against 12 (10 plus the relative level of 2), not 13 (the base skill level of Detective!).
On a success, the wildcard skill covers the skill in question. The player can now roll against the wildcard skill to actually attempt the skill (with any appropriate modifiers for the situation, equipment, etc.). On a critical success, the character knows this skill really well! The player should give an appropriate backstory to explain where the character acquired this particular competency, and then make a success roll to attempt the skill in question with a small bonus, such as negating a familiarity penalty, to represent the character’s unexpected proficiency.
When the player fails the wildcard breadth check, the wildcard skill does not cover the skill in question; the player must choose how to proceed. On a critical failure, the character is so deluded about his or her abilities that he or she attempts the skill at default, with all the appropriate situational modifiers.
The more that a player invests in a wildcard skill, the more plausible it is that the character would have familiarity with a tangentially-related skill. The wildcard breath check thus rewards players for putting more points into wildcard skills by giving them a greater chance of including tangential abilities within the wildcard’s scope.
Rolling against 10 + the relative ability level is an important element of this mechanic. After the Attribute-1 level, every additional level of a wildcard skill costs 12 points. Increasing the controlling attribute is only 20 points, so it’s very tempting to put points into the attribute directly and benefit all of the other traits that depend on the attribute. By using relative skill levels, the player needs to decide whether the wildcard itself is well developed or if the character is just plain smart or agile. The former represents extensive training and justifies the increased odds of success on a wildcard breadth check; just pumping up the attributes does not.
The probabilities underneath this mechanic also make sense. If the player only spends 3 points on a wildcard skill (the minimum), there is only a 16.2% chance of passing a wildcard breath check, and the player would still need to pass the actual success roll (at Attribute-3, which is likely less than 50% success for any non-supers game). The player would need to invest 24 points into the wildcard skill to get to a 50-50 odds of passing the wildcard breath check, and then would still need to pass an Attribute+0 success roll to actually use the skill successfully. Assuming normal attributes levels and no additional success modifiers, getting to even odds for passing both the wildcard breadth check and the task success roll would require the Attribute+2, at a total cost of 48 points!
The GM can limit the potential for abuse by further limiting the wildcard breadth check, if necessary. The most important limitation is that the GM can simply say there is no plausible relationship between the wildcard skill and the task in question. The GM and player should discuss the wildcard skill before the game to make sure they have a shared idea for what the wildcard entails, and the GM should use that discussion to enforce limits on the wildcard skill check. A character with the Secret Agent! wildcard should probably not be able to try to include Sex Appeal in that wildcard unless the character was based on James Bond.
For marginally related skills, the GM can ask the player to provide a backstory that explains why the character picked up that skill while training in the wildcard. A satisfactory explanation could justify a wildcard breadth check; a ridiculous assertion can be safely turned down.
Finally, the GM could give a penalty to the wildcard breadth check based on how tangential the skill is to the core competency of the wildcard. A penalty of -2 makes it very hard to succeed; a -4 penalty makes critical failures a serious threat.