Aborting Combat in GURPS

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.

Jack Sparrow invoking the right of parlay
Jack Sparrow invoking the right of parlay

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.

Fellowship of the Ring surrounded by goblins
Fellowship of the Ring surrounded by goblins

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.

Power-Ups 7: Wildcard Skills Review

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.

Defining Wildcards

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.

Using Wildcards

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.

Examples

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.

Summary

GURPS Power-Ups 7: Wildcard Skills cover
GURPS Power-Ups 7: Wildcard Skills

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.

Understanding Reaction Modifiers

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.

Odds for unmodified reaction roll results
The red line shows the odds for rolling a given reaction or better

Reaction Bonuses

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.

Reaction Roll Results (+1 Bonus)

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.

Reaction Roll Results (+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!

Reaction Roll Results (+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).

Reaction Penalties

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.

Reaction Roll Results (-1 Penalty)

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.

Reaction Roll Results (-2 Penalty)

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!

Reaction Roll Results (-4 Penalty)

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.

 

Ballparking Fatigue Costs

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.

Fatigue Basics

Fatigue rules in Basic Set
Fatigue rules in Basic Set

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
  • Hiking
  • Swimming
  • Digging
  • Missing a meal
  • Becoming dehydrated
  • 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

Thematic Character Creation with Template Optimal Concepts

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!

GURPS Template Toolkit 1: Characters
GURPS Template Toolkit 1: Characters

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.

GURPS Power-Ups 7: Wildcard Skills cover
GURPS Power-Ups 7: Wildcard Skills

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).

GURPS Power-Ups 3: Talents cover
GURPS Power-Ups 3: Talents

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.

GURPS Power-Ups 2: Perks
GURPS Power-Ups 2: Perks

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.

How Broad is Your Wildcard Skill? Using Inventory Rolls to Model Skill Breadth

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 Mechanics

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!

GM Options

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.

Template Toolkit 1: Characters Review

Just because you can build your characters from scratch doesn’t mean you have to! One of the ways that GURPS allows players to simplify character creation is through the use of templates. This post will review the most detailed treatment of templates to date: Template Toolkit 1: Characters.

GURPS Template Toolkit 1: Characters
GURPS Template Toolkit 1: Characters

Template Toolkit 1: Characters dramatically expands on the treatment of templates from Chapter 7 of the Basic Set. As the title implies, it focuses on templates for individual characters (as opposed to racial templates). Because of how characters are constructed in GURPS, there are lots of similarities between GURPS character templates and the way other RPGs use character classes. However, this volume doesn’t require the GM to run GURPS as a class-based RPG; it aims for a more modest goal of simplifying character creation by consolidating the choices necessary to make specific character types.

This 48-page PDF supplement is available from Steve Jackson Games for $9.99. The book is written by Sean Punch, the GURPS line editor. It contains four chapters, starting with what templates are and working into more sophisticated ways to think about using templates in games.

What Are Character Templates

The first chapter is a four page crash course on character templates. It identifies several different ways that templates can function: for occupational roles, dramatic niches, or cultural backgrounds. It asks several question to help GMs decide whether templates should be mandatory or optional for their campaigns, and gives tips for how to adjust the scope of the templates in light of that decision. Finally, there is a full page of reasons to use character templates.

Designing Character Templates

Chapter 2, which runs for 14 pages, gets into the theory of template design. This chapter is structured as a series of considerations that GMs should use to guide their thinking, ranging from character concept to campaign demands to player needs to point optimization.

This chapter is a lesson on the mechanics of RPG character creation. GMs who want to improve their ability to facilitate character creation, as well as players who want to create more effective and cohesive characters, will benefit from this chapter regardless of whether or not they end up using templates in their games. While the ideas in this chapter are not particularly innovative, they are explained clearly. For more experienced GMs, this chapter can easily be skimmed as a checklist for character creation.

For GMs who want to run GURPS as a class-based RPG, the advice on mandatory templates is helpful. Using fully mandatory templates (and only letting the players select their character quirks) allows the GM to create the experience of a purely class-based RPG. For more flexibility, the GM can make the class choices a mandatory part of the template but reserve additional points for the player to customize the character.

Unfortunately, there are no worked examples in this chapter, which would have been helpful in seeing ideas translated into template content. It would have been nice to see a worked example as a case study spanning the chapter, much like Basic Set uses Dai Blackthorn as a running example of character creation.

Tricks of the Trade

The 13 pages of the third chapter get into the options that can be put into character templates, as well as the assumptions that can be hidden behind a template.

Two of the options—choices and lenses—will be familiar to anyone who has read a GURPS worked genre line, such as Dungeon Fantasy or Action. Choices allow the players to choose among pre-selected options for how to allocate points in their character build. Lenses are packages that add color to the template by showing a set of traits that work well together in order to model a specific niche, background, or other element of a character.

Hidden traits are a new idea. In short, hidden traits are zero-cost traits or unusual backgrounds that give depth to a character, along the lines of zero point features. While the idea is interesting, the explanation seems overly convoluted in the book.

The section on template optimal abilities includes a variety of suggestions to help align the traits on templates with specific dramatic or occupational roles. Using higher purpose, talents, or perks, templates can give bonuses to a variety of abilities that fall within the purview of the template even if there’s no single trait that captures the precise boundaries of the template. Wildcard skills, template-defining powers, and accessibility limits to advantages can also allow the GM to more closely align the template’s game purpose with the abilities, as defined by the rules, of the template in question.

For example: instead of trying to figure out the perfect skill package for a field detective, the template can simply include the wildcard skill Field Detective! A pyromancer template can include a Higher Purpose (Destructive Use of Fire) to characterize the “let it burn” attitude behind the template. These kinds of dramatically-driven, rather than trait-driven, elements make it easier to define the boundaries of the template in mechanical terms.

The penultimate section is on template-guided improvement, which simply means using templates to show how a character can progress. The GM can offer template options for players to purchase in order to develop their character by adding a lens, learning from a pre-defined spell progression, etc.

The chapter ends with a full write-up of an example template for a Soldier. This template showcases many of the features described so far, including choices within advantages, disadvantages, and skills, background skill options, optional lenses that double as template-guided improvements, and a full column of customization notes to guide players in using the template.

The lengthy template example, unfortunately, reinforces how intimidating GURPS stat blocks can be to read. While it’s understandable that the editors want to consolidate the stat blocks for space reasons, the resulting wall of text is hard to parse—especially when there are multiple choices embedded in each paragraph.

Niches

The last chapter, on character niches, is 12 pages long. This chapter provides practical advice on what kinds of traits to include in templates in order to fit various dramatic or narrative needs.

The first section, Matching Traits to Challenges, is a list of types of challenges that PCs can face in a campaign and an associated collection of advantages, disadvantages, and skills that would be appropriate to characters wrestling with those challenges. This section is useful for both GMs and players: GMs can think through the types of challenges they want to create in their campaigns, while players can get ideas for traits to bring to their character (even if the character is not built on a template).

The next section looks at how to distribute the challenges of the campaign among character niches in order to make sure that each character has something to contribute. This section is less useful for players, but GMs can use it to make sure that each template has something to offer to the game. The last section completes the process of template development by giving the GM guidelines for how to finish translating the traits and niches into final templates.

Summary

GURPS Template Toolkit 1: Characters provides a lot of helpful suggestions for character creation and template use. It’s not a mandatory supplement, but GMs who want to understand how to help their players create effective and appropriate characters will find many valuable tips and questions. Many of the concepts in this volume will also be useful for players, even if those players do not end up using templates in their games.

This supplement is full of theory and has some template examples, but it is not a book of worked sample templates. If you are looking for templates that you can plug into your games, you will be much better served by looking at the worked genre lines: Action, Dungeon Fantasy, Monster Hunters, and the newly released After the End. However, if you are interested in learning how to construct character templates that are suited to your own games, this book will help guide you through that process.

There are a couple of ideas in this book that are particularly interesting for people who are looking to streamline GURPS, especially the suggestions for using template-optimal abilities to define the character’s traits in dramatic rather than mechanical terms. (I’ll be exploring those ideas in more detail in a future post!).

Overall, this is a well-constructed volume. The writing is clear; the suggestions and questions to guide the GM are well thought out; the lists of traits and niches are broad enough to be relevant to most game genres. GMs who are looking for strategies to help their players develop better characters, as well as players who want to understand how to think about the character creation process, should consider adding Template Toolkit 1: Characters to their libraries.

Writing Clearer Stat Blocks

When character stats are accessible, players can build, modify, and play characters more easily. GURPS makes it possible for players to create almost any kind of character they can imagine—from epic heroes to sentient hats. However, one downside of that flexibility is that describing all the traits that go into the character can be tedious. Unfortunately, the default GURPS stat block emphasizes the details, which makes it look intimidating for newer players. The goal of this post is to show tricks to make character stat blocks less scary.

Use Line Breaks

In official publications, GURPS stat blocks are presented in paragraphs. Under each part of the block—like attributes, advantages, disadvantages, skills—all the traits are written as a list, separated only by semicolons or bullets. This layout method was chosen in part because of space demands for printing. However, with the development of electronic publishing, space is less constraining.

Stat blocks are much more legible when line breaks are used frequently. Consider putting each trait on a separate line. Very short collections of stats, like the basic attributes, can still be included in a single line, but run-on lists of skills, advantages with parenthetical enhancements and limitations, and other lengthy compilations of traits should be broken into separate lines for clarity.

To see the difference, compare the following stat blocks representing an investigator built on a template from the Basic Set. In the traditional presentation:

Investigator (100 points)

Attributes: ST 10 [0]; DX 12 [40]; IQ 12 [40]; HT 11 [10].

Secondary Characteristics: Dmg 1d-2/1d; BL 20 lbs.; HP 11 [2]; Will 12 [0]; Per 13 [5]; FP 11 [0]; Basic Speed 5.75 [0]; Basic Move 5 [0].

Advantages: Charisma 1 [5]; Legal Enforcement Powers [5]; Security Clearance [5]

Disadvantages: Curious (12) [-5]; Greed (12) [-15]; Sense of Duty (Comrades) [-5]; Stubbornness [-5].

Skills: Criminology (A) IQ+1 [4]-13; Fast-Talk (A) IQ [2]-12; Guns (Pistol) (E) DX+1 [2]-13; Search (A) Per+1 [4]-14; Stealth (A) DX+1 [4]-13; Streetwise (A) IQ [2]-12.

In comparison, adding line breaks yields the following stat block:

Investigator (100 points)

Attributes: ST 10 [0]; DX 12 [40]; IQ 12 [40]; HT 11 [10]

Secondary Characteristics: Dmg 1d-2/1d; BL 20 lbs.
HP 11 [2]; Will 12 [0]; Per 13 [5]; FP 11 [0]
Basic Speed 5.75 [0]; Basic Move 5 [0]

Advantages: Charisma 1 [5]
Legal Enforcement Powers [5]
Security Clearance [5]

Disadvantages: Curious (12) [-5]
Greed (12) [-15]
Sense of Duty (Comrades) [-5]
Stubbornness [-5]

Skills: Criminology (A) IQ+1 [4]-13
Fast-Talk (A) IQ [2]-12
Guns (Pistol) (E) DX+1 [2]-13
Search (A) Per+1 [4]-14
Stealth (A) DX+1 [4]-13
Streetwise (A) IQ [2]-12

The second layout is far easier to parse. Although the stat blocks takes a little more space on the screen or in a printout, it is less intimidating and simpler to use.

Use Flavor Descriptions Rather Than Mechanics

Using enhancements and limitations, GURPS players can craft extremely well-tailored mechanical representations for powers and abilities. However, those “under the hood” details of how the trait is built can dramatically undermine the accessibility of the trait.

The Basic Set gives an example of an undead creature with the ability to see the spectral plane. That trait could be written as Night Vision 5 (Affects Insubstantial, +20%; Temporary Disadvantage: Unnatural Feature (red eyes), -5%) [6]. But, it’s a lot clearer to write a flavor-based description for the new trait: Spectral Vision [6]. If necessary, the GM can keep notes of how Spectral Vision is built.

Powers are a great opportunity for using flavor-based descriptions instead of mechanics; other possibilities include meta-traits, signature moves, sorcery spells, and wildcard skills. When it is important to remember a mechanical element (such as dice of damage for an attack), you can write the relevant detail instead of the whole mechanical construction.

Hide the Point Cost

When a stat blocks represents a chunk of traits that are bundled together, such as a template or lens, it’s not necessary to write the point cost of each element. The player only needs to know the point cost of the whole package. By not writing the point cost of individual elements of the stat block, the players have fewer details to parse when they are reading the stat block. For newer players, minimizing the number of details they need to sort through when reading the stat block can lower the cognitive burden substantially.

If the players are not creating their own characters, or are creating their characters with lots of assistance from the GM, it may not be necessary to include point costs at all. As long as the GM is confident in the math, the players don’t need to see the point costs in order to actually play the game.

Other Tips?

If you are a GM or a more experienced player, are there additional strategies that you use to make GURPS stat blocks less intimidating? Share them in the comments!

Keeping Decisions Interesting

One of the things that distinguishes GURPS from other RPGs is that GURPS allows gamers to play with a variety of degrees of granularity. It is possible to run a game that requires players to track lots of details, but it is equally possible to run a game that focuses on a couple of core skills with generic difficulty modifiers. The key to making GURPS accessible is remembering to limit the decision-making so that all the decisions are interesting.

The Granularity Spectrum

To visualize this idea, imagine a spectrum of granularity. At one extreme of the spectrum, there are almost no details to track: the characters have the four basic attributes, a handful of skills, and the game exclusively uses generic task difficulty modifiers. This end of the spectrum doesn’t require many decisions: character creation is straightforward, there aren’t a ton of mechanical options to consider in play, and most of those mechanical decisions will be blunt choices along the lines of “I choose to attack” or “I choose to run away.”

At the other end of the spectrum, play can revolve around a myriad of complicating factors: choosing between skills with shades of differences (like Physician vs Diagnosis) after factoring in situational modifiers, defaults, talents, and the like. At this level, players can be required to make decisions about how to manage the number of bullets they are carrying, their exact positioning on a tactical grid, etc.

Neither extreme is necessarily right or wrong. The key factor is whether the decisions are interesting. In other words, are there compelling consequences to the decisions so that the players are invested in what they decide?

The extreme granularity may be too overwhelming for a new player who doesn’t understand enough about the options to make intelligent choices about the options available. Having to make all those decisions isn’t interesting—it’s burdensome. The significance of the options is lost if the players are struggling to keep up with the available options.

Conversely, the less detailed extreme may gloss over too many decisions for a more experienced gamer, leading to boredom and a lack of strategic choices. The game may be less fun because there aren’t enough decisions to keep the players engaged, and the decisions that are available are at too high a level of abstraction to be meaningful.

Choosing Your Game’s Granularity

When deciding how to run a game, the GM and players should decide what level of granularity they want in order to encourage interesting decisions without being overwhelming. If the players are less experienced or have less knowledge of the system, they may not be able to take advantage of the decisions available under more granular options. If the gamers want to run a lighter game, rules-heavy options will be cumbersome. If the participants enjoy detailed resource management, more granular games may offer them opportunities to make more interesting choices.

Remember that granularity is not all-or-nothing. In fact, one of the things GURPS does really well is creating a self-consistent gaming system. You can easily choose to use very detailed rules for one element of the game and use less detailed rules for other elements. If you want to have tons of combat detail but treat social interactions as a generic Persuasion skill, you can. If you want to get into tons of detail for planning and strategizing how to pull off a heist, but leave the details of getting the job vague, it’s doable. Almost any subsystem of the game—powers, magic, social interaction, combat, starting the adventure, travel, healing, after-encounter cleanup—can be treated with extreme detail, or simplified with a single dice roll or even narrated without dice.

Adjust Granularity on the Fly

Because GURPS is a consistent system, you can adjust the granularity on the fly. If your players are overwhelmed by the number of decisions they need to make, simplify things! Use skill checks with task difficulty modifiers rather than digging into techniques or situational modifiers, stop tracking encumbrance or fatigue, and restrict the combat options available.

Conversely, when your players start to feel that the game is too simplistic, turn up the granularity so they have to face more tradeoffs. Introduce penalties for specific techniques, lack of familiarity, or equipment quality; track their encumbrance and require fatigue points for pushing their limits. Expand the combat rules in play and start having the NPCs make smart tactical decisions so your players need to up their tactical game.

By starting simple and gradually adding in granularity in order to keep the players engaged, you can keep the game accessible and fun. When the decisions are interesting, so is the game!

 

Simplify the Game with GM Style, Not Rules

An easy way to simplify GURPS is to adjust the GM style to fit the kind of game that your group wants to play. Many groups assume that, because GURPS has rules for a wide variety of situations, they need to use those rules in order to model their game. Not true! GURPS is great for less complex games and less-rules-intensive play. The GM just needs to set the right expectations.

Toolkits Can Simplify

GURPS is often described as an RPG toolkit: it contains all the tools you need to run any kind of game you can imagine. All you have to do is pull the right tools out of the box by choosing the right rules, genre restrictions, etc.

The toolkit metaphor is accurate but misleading because it emphasizes all the tools available. As a result, too many people have the impression that GURPS is rules heavy; they see the full toolkit and assume that that’s what they have to play with. But, an important part of a tool kit is that it holds a bunch of tools that you don’t need for the project in question. When you’re actually doing construction, you pull out a couple of tools and you work with those tools. You don’t work with the whole toolkit at once. And, as long as your chosen tools are doing what you need, you can ignore everything else in the toolkit. You only need to open up the toolkit again when you realize that you need another tool that you haven’t yet pulled out.

One of the ways that the GURPS toolkit enables gamers to simplify is by turning rules off. The Introduction to the Basic Set is clear that the participants can choose what rules to use:

“The rulebooks include a lot of detail, but…all that detail is optional – use it only when it makes the game more fun” (p. B8).

The GURPS combat system—a part of the game that can seem rules-dense—is explicitly described as a part of the game that can be turned on and off. Again from Basic Set:

“But the combat system is ‘modular’; you can use all the rules for a complex, detailed, realistic combat simulation – or just those in Chapter 11 for a quick game” (p. B9).

Rules or GM Style?

Because GURPS has rules to cover such a variety of situations, it’s possible to find a rule that creates the effect you want. But, that doesn’t mean that’s the only way to create that effect. You can also create effects by changing the way that the gamemaster runs the game.

Let’s take a concrete example. Let’s say that you want to run a hack-and-slash campaign, and you’re worried about the rules for shock penalties slowing down the excitement. You have options for how to create that effect.

The first option that most people will think about is looking for rules to counteract shock penalties. In this case, there’s an advantage that has that effect: High Pain Threshold. By having all the PCs buy High Pain Threshold (and with the GM giving that advantage to all the relevant NPCs), that rule is turned off.

But, what if you’re not fluent in GURPS and don’t know which advantage has that effect? What if you’re not certain that there is such an advantage? Or what if you are running a game for new players that are trying to learn success rolls and DR, and aren’t yet ready to grapple with High Pain Threshold? That’s where option 2 comes in: just change your GM style.

The GM can decide that, for this campaign, shock penalties don’t fit into the game. As a result, the GM can simply handwave away shock penalties: no advantage needed, no rules lookups to determine what the advantage is or what other consequences it has. There’s nothing wrong with this method of play! As long as the GM is clear with the players so that everyone has the same expectations, there’s no problem.

Ideas for GM Style Modifications

Almost any part of GURPS can be simplified through GM style rather than rules. Here’s a short list to get you started:

  • Combat can be streamlined by eliminating shock, wounding modifiers, postures, and hit locations.
  • Fatigue can be turned off, or only assessed at the GM’s discretion.
  • Encumbrance can be ignored or tracked for only major items to simplify bookkeeping.
  • Magic can be simplified by substituting GM judgment for prerequisite lists.

If you want to simplify the game, go for it! Just make sure that the GM communicates with the players so everyone is on the same page. If for some reason the simplified gameplay ends up broken, you can always revisit the decisions with the group to create a game that everyone enjoys.