Understanding Damage in GURPS Combat

GURPS has a reputation for lethal combat, which catches many new players by surprise. This reputation stems from a different conceptual model of damage. When you understand what damage means in GURPS, it becomes easier to know how to enjoy combat—or how to adopt optional rules in order to create the experience you do want.

Many RPGs treat hit points as a reserve that is intended to be used. Your character’s hit points gradually wear down in combat, like ablative armor, and that’s okay if you can wear your opponent down to zero first. As long as you stay above zero (or a specific “bloodied” threshold), there’s no difference between being fully healthy and just hanging on. As a result, characters can take a beating and keep on dishing it out, and in fact it is expected that your character will take lots of damage during combat.

By contrast, the default assumption in GURPS is that damage hurts. When your character gets injured, he or she is less able to function. As a result, even a single point of damage can influence future rounds of combat, and those effects can stack up over time.

The cumulative effect of taking any damage is sometimes referred to as the GURPS Death Spiral. A single injury causes a shock penalty, which makes it more likely that the character will be hit the next turn, which makes it more likely that the character will cross the 1/3 HP threshold and slow down, etc. Consequently, avoiding injury is more important in GURPS, and if you get hit you need to adjust your tactics rather than barreling through the pain. In short, it’s usually not a good strategy to just assume that you can dish it out faster than your opponent.

Implications of the “Damage Hurts” Model

Because GURPS assumes by default that damage hurts, combat plays out a little differently than in other systems.

  • Going first matters: Being able to strike the first blow gives your character a huge advantage. GURPS emphasizes the importance of speed by having characters act in combat in order of speed, rather than rolling for initiative. So, you can control how quickly you act more than in other systems—and you should use that to your advantage.
  • Avoiding damage is crucial: GURPS encourages players to avoid damage through the strategic use of cover, terrain, dodging, or blocking. If your opponent can’t hit you, they can’t hurt you. It’s rare for a GURPS battle to be a bashing contest; the players have a strong incentive to choose better tactical approaches.
  • Armor keeps you alive: When you do get hit, it’s important to limit how much damage your character takes. Without good armor, a single bullet can down a character.
  • Healing during combat is less relevant: It’s possible to heal characters during combat, but it’s not as common as in other games. Because the act of taking damage matters much more than how many hit points a character has left, healing is less valuable than avoiding damage in the first place. Characters that can buff their party members by improving their defenses, armor, or the like give their party a massive advantage.
  • Not fighting is a compelling option: Because a single lucky shot can down a character, players have an incentive to find alternatives to combat (or to push for surrender rather than waging battle to the final kill). To be clear: GURPS is fully capable of giving you a knock down and drag out fight. But, as a player, there are advantages to wrapping up the fight quickly.

Changing GURPS’ Assumptions

The “damage matters” model is the default in GURPS, but it’s very possible to run GURPS through the “hit points as reserve” model. By turning off a number of the combat rules and/or equipping your player characters with specific advantages, you can create the effect of other RPG systems.

  • Eliminate shock penalties: Shock penalties make damage matter from the very first blow; a character that is injured has a penalty to all their rolls in their subsequent turn. The GM can ignore the shock rules, or the PCs can take the High Pain Threshold advantage.
  • Turn off realistic combat rules: Major Wounds, Knockdown, Crippling Injury, and Mortal Wounds are all inconsistent with the “hit points as reserve” model. The same goes for the optional rules of Bleeding and Accumulated Wounds. Turn off all those rules, and damage starts to function closer to the reserve model.
  • Ignore hit locations: Hit locations can make combat extremely lethal because they allow characters to target around their opponent’s armor and to get substantial wounding modifiers. You can still play the hit points as reserve model with hit locations, but it requires an additional level of tactical awareness for your players.
  • Ignore wounding modifiers: Wounding modifiers also make combat far more lethal; cutting, impaling, and large piercing attacks in particular become much stronger when wounding modifiers are in play. Since those modifiers include common kinds of attacks like swinging a sword, stabbing with a lance, or shooting a gun, wounding modifiers can cause characters to run through hit points quickly. Again, it’s possible to play the hit points as reserve model with wounding modifiers, but your players need to be prepared.
  • Restrict HT checks: The default rules have characters making HT checks when they drop to zero HP, and then at each negative multiple of HP until the character dies at -5xHP. These rules make additional degrees of damage more severe, so the GM should limit these checks in order to approximate the hit points as reserve model. The advantages Hard to Kill and Hard to Subdue give PCs a bonus on those checks, mitigating the impact; alternatively, the GM can choose to simply ignore these checks.

 

GURPS Lite Review

GURPS Lite is a free PDF offered by Steve Jackson Games as an introduction to GURPS for new players.

Lite presents the boiled-down essence of GURPS in just 32 pages. To condense the material down, Lite strips many of the options available in the Basic Set and pares the lists of advantages, disadvantages, and skills. Nonetheless, Lite is 100% compatible with Basic Set—it is not an alternate system.

Because Lite is such an abbreviated presentation of GURPS, there are a lot of difficult choices to make about what content to include and what material is reserved for the full presentation in Basic Set. This review will evaluate Lite over three main questions:

  • How easy is it for a new player to begin playing GURPS with Lite?
  • How easy is it for a new gamemaster to begin running a GURPS game with Lite?
  • How well do the rules included in Lite fulfill the GURPS goal of “Anything you want”?

The Basics

The first section runs just over two pages and introduces the three main mechanics in GURPS: success rolls, reaction rolls, and damage rolls. The presentation of all these mechanics is clear and straightforward.

Lite introduces the idea of task modifiers and gives a couple of examples, but does not explain how to choose the modifiers. Players may not need this information in order to play, but it is important context to help understand what the numbers mean. GMs, on the other hand, really need the longer discussion of modifiers in Basic Set in order to be able to run the game. It would have been nice for Lite to include the Task Difficult Modifiers from Basic Set so players and GMs could have a frame of reference for these numbers.

Characters

The Characters section is almost half of the length of Lite, which reflects how GURPS front-loads calculations into the character creation process. The presentation of the four basic attributes is clear. The secondary attributes are described, but options for modifying them are left to Basic Set. This is a reasonable compromise given the space constraints.

Advantages and disadvantages are presented through an abbreviated list of 20 advantages and 22 disadvantages. The list doesn’t include options for magic, psionics, or other supernatural powers, but for mundane and cinematic characters the lists are reasonable.

Likewise, Skills features a shortened list from Basic Set. The chosen skills are reasonably representative of mundane characters. Weapon skills are presented as a collection of Melee Weapon or Missile Weapon skills; the individual skills still exist, but they are presented underneath the collection’s heading. The same is done for Influence skills.

This section also includes several subsections dealing with aspects of the character’s social background: appearance, tech level, language skills, wealth, and reputation. While the presentation is clear, it’s not obvious that the gaming value of this material is worth the amount of space it gets. For purposes of this document, it might be better to have a shorter presentation of social/background dimensions (maybe appearance and status/reputation) and leave the other elements for Basic Set. In particular, the inclusion of Tech Level details for characters presupposes a cross-TL campaign style, which is probably unnecessary.

Equipment

The equipment list contains a basic selection of weapons and a very short list of armor options. There is enough here to play a game, but equipment won’t be the focus of the campaign. The lower tech levels are reasonably represented, but it would have been nice to have a couple of additional lines for TL7+ weapons.

Playing the Game

This section includes details for physical tasks, mental tasks, combat, and injury. These sections feel unbalanced. There is a lot of detail about specific physical feats like climbing, hiking, or jumping; the level of detail stands in stark contrast to the paucity of detail for how to assign task difficulty with other skills. A player or GM who wants to have the characters run a race has very detailed rules; he or she is on their on for picking locks. Again, a better treatment of generic task difficulty would be a better fit for this kind of book.

The combat rules in Lite are fairly comprehensive. Given how frequently combat is a focal point for RPGs, this section feels reasonable. There are abbreviated lists of melee, ranged, and defense modifiers, as well as wounding modifiers; the included list is a good starting point for most games. There are lots of combat options in Basic Set that are not mentioned in here, including tactical combat, close combat, and mounted/vehicle combat, but again the choices feel justifiable on the basis of the page length restrictions.

The final subsection on Injury, Illness, and Fatigue includes condensed versions of Basic Set rules. These rules include HP and FP loss charts, shock, mortal wounds, dying, recovery, first aid, and a number of hazards like cold, fire, disease, and collisions. As a quick reference for most common situations, this section feels well balanced. However, the inclusion of rules for knockback, mortal wounds, and shock might be too much detail for new players.

Overall Review

GURPS Lite is a great reference for new players, but it probably isn’t sufficient to run a game on its own. Its strongest sections are the streamlined treatment of character creation and combat, which is very useful for starting adventures with mundane characters.

The treatment of basic mechanics is clear for new players, but new GMs would need Basic Set to set reasonable modifiers for tasks.

Unfortunately, Lite is not suited for a true “anything you can imagine” campaign. High point level campaigns, supernatural forces of any sort, future tech levels, and cinematic powers simply aren’t possible without the rules in Basic Set.

New players can effectively use Lite to understand attributes, skills, the basic GURPS mechanics, and combat. As long as the GM knows Basic and can fill in the gaps, Lite is a solid handout to guide players into their first GURPS game.

No Rules Arguments at the Table

Several weeks ago, Peter V. Dell’Orto posted how his games run with a no rules arguments at the table policy. This post aims to expand that discussion with some practical tips for establishing this policy in your gaming group.

Why a “No Rules Arguments” Policy

There are a lot of benefits to having a policy of no rules arguments at the table, but the two primary ones are fun and speed.

Having characters do awesome things is fun. Having characters struggle against difficult challenges is fun. Coming up with creative ideas for how characters can overcome those challenges is also fun. And, scrambling to figure out an alternative when your character’s Plan A goes south can also be fun.

But, debating whether a modifier is -2 or -4 is not fun. It’s not fun for the people at the table whose characters aren’t active because the decision doesn’t affect their character’s agency; only the result of the dice matters and it’s still going to either be a success or a failure.

It’s also not fun for the GM. Rules arguments turn the GM into an antagonist, rather than a referee, and it insinuates that the GM is responsible for whether the characters succeed or fail. That’s not the GM’s role. The GM creates the world and establishes opportunities for the characters to act; he or she doesn’t singlehandedly drive the outcome of those encounters.

Even if the player at issue thinks that rules arguments are fun—and some people really do enjoy “rules lawyering”—the group is entitled to decide that this group is going to have more fun by adventuring than debating the rules and ask the rules lawyer to either join in that game, or find a different group.

The other reason to adopt this policy is that it speeds up the game. Most players and GMs would rather spend their time together working through adventures and not looking up charts or digging through rulebooks for that one line that explains the exception.

The bottom line is that the group can decide how it wants to play the game. Some groups like serious games, while others encourage humor. Some groups enjoy playing evil characters, while others find that sort of role-playing uncomfortable or morally problematic. There’s no right or wrong answer, but it’s important that the group be on the same page. The same is true for rules: a group can decide that it wants to spend time looking up every rule when there’s a question, but it’s also perfectly acceptable for a group to decide that it doesn’t want rules questions to slow down the game.

Before the Game

Before the game begins, tell your group that you want to have a policy of no rules arguments at the table. Explain why you want to adopt that policy. Let the players know what are appropriate ways to raise rules questions—during the session recap? Between sessions? Privately in an email?

Make sure the players understand what you want to do and get their agreement that this is the kind of game they want to participate in. This step is important! It’s not enough for the GM to declare rules arguments out of bounds by fiat—he or she needs buy-in from the players for this approach to succeed.

Stopping an Argument In-Game

During the game, when a rules argument comes up, the GM should first take stock of the situation. Sometimes rules arguments come up because a player is feeling railroaded or impotent. If that’s happening, the GM needs to recognize it and adjust accordingly.

Most of the time, rules arguments are just technical disagreements—does the rule say X or Y? If that’s all the issue is, then the GM should make a decision about whether he or she was correct in the original ruling. It’s okay to quickly shift if the GM realizes he or she erred and the player’s reminder caused that realization! But, if the GM disagrees with the player’s take, the GM should remind the player about the no arguments agreement and offer to revisit the issue during the designated time. This is usually enough to resolve the argument.

If the player won’t drop the issue, then the GM needs to make a decision about how to handle the situation: by re-explaining the reasons for the policy and giving the player a chance to cooperate, by asking the player for his or her cooperation, etc. In extreme cases the GM may need to ask the player afterwards to reconsider his or her behavior. No matter what, it’s important to treat the player with respect: no sarcasm, name-calling, or mocking. Even if someone thinks that they are being funny, it’s too easy for the target to feel put down or disrespected when conflict is occurring.

 

Encouraging Faster Play with Perks

One of the most common ways that play slows down is when participants need to calculate a lot of modifiers on the fly. Combat is an obvious example: if a player needs to determine their effective skill with a specific weapon and technique while performing a specific maneuver, and then needs to determine what the damage is for that attack, there are a lot of variables in play.

Whenever there are a lot of options for how to execute a skill, there is an opportunity to streamline the play experience with Perks. Perks are introduced in Basic Set as 1 point advantages that characters can purchase:

“A perk can provide a modest bonus (up to +2) to an attribute, skill, or reaction roll in relatively rare circumstances” (p. B100).

To speed up play, GMs and players can choose to use Perks to give small bonuses for pre-selecting the relevant options and doing the math before play starts. This post will show a couple of canonical examples of these Perks before introducing some new options.

Trademark Move Perks

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

The Trademark Move perk is described in Power-Ups 2: Perks. A player can purchase this Perk for a specific combination of combat options—maneuver, weapon, technique, and hit location. Pre-selecting these options means that all the relevant modifiers, damage dice, etc. can be calculated in advance, so there’s no need to determine the details at the table.

In exchange for pre-selecting the options (and spending 1 character point on the Perk), the player gets a +1 bonus any time he or she uses the Trademark Move exactly as defined.

Trademark Move is a great Perk because it gives a mechanical incentive for players to choose a streamlined play option. It also works well narratively—the character has practiced his or her Trademark Move enough that he or she is a little more skilled at that move than ordinary skill rolls. Because the Trademark Move Perk only costs a point, it is easy to add in between sessions when a player learns how his or her character wants to be played in combat: just spend a point from the session advancement budget on the relevant Trademark Move.

Ritual Mastery Perks

GURPS Thaumatology: Ritual Path Magic cover
GURPS Thaumatology: Ritual Path Magic

Melee combat attacks are not the only situation in which there are a lot of modifiers flying around. The Ritual Path Magic system, detailed in Thaumatology: Ritual Path Magic, also involves on-the-fly determination of how to construct magic rituals, the energy costs, and the relevant skill(s).

To speed up that process, Ritual Path Magic offers the Ritual Mastery Perk. Whenever a character attempts a predefined ritual and has the associated Ritual Mastery Perk, he or she gets a +2 bonus to all rolls for that ritual.

Like the Trademark Move Perk, Ritual Mastery is a great way to mechanically reward players for doing the math before the game starts. Working a ritual becomes much faster when the ritual is defined (and agreed to with the GM) before play begins.

Trademark Moves for Ranged Attacks

GURPS Martial Arts
GURPS Martial Arts

The examples for Trademark Moves are all melee attacks, but there’s no reason characters couldn’t use a Trademark Move for a ranged attack as well. The GM could even permit a two-turn Trademark Move: Aim for one turn, then do a specified Attack maneuver with this weapon and these combat options—for instance, hit location or using a prediction shot (which is a Deceptive Attack applied to ranged combat; see Martial Arts, p. 121). For the two-turn version, the GM should consider making the Perk a +2 bonus.

Other Situations

As long as the situation is narrow enough, the GM can encourage players to buy Perks covering other kinds of skill uses that have lots of modifiers. The basic idea is to look for situations that have a comparable level of specificity to the Perks above.

If you are playing a game with detailed social interaction rules, there might be an opportunity for a Perk that involves a combination of social skills. For instance, scanning an audience for a good person to question, asking for information in an appropriate way, and then ascertaining whether the person’s body language is trustworthy or deceptive could be a “social trademark move” that can be treated as a single roll of the lowest base skill among Observation, Diplomacy, and Body Language, with an additional +1 bonus from the Perk.

Action 2: Exploits Review

Action 2: Exploits is written for action-oriented campaigns of larger-than-life heroes that must rescue the hostages, disarm the bomb, infiltrate the cabal, or pull off the heist of the century. When the clock is ticking, the adventurers are under fire, or the evil villain has an unexpected trick up her sleeve, the game needs to keep up with the pace of the action.

The first volume in the Action series (Heroes) covered PCs that are suited to high-action games; this book focuses on the situations those PCs face and how the GM can run the game to create the high-intensity, edge-of-your-seat experience that characterizes the action genre.

This supplement weighs in at 50 pages and is available from Steve Jackson Games for $9.99. It is divided into six chapters, each of which addresses a different aspect of the action genre.

Challenges, Not Headaches

Although this chapter is only two pages long, it introduces several useful rules. Basic Abstract Difficulty is a twist on task difficulty modifiers that allows the GM to modify the difficulty of different phases of an adventure in order to speed up play and create a crescendo of challenges. Complimentary skills are ways for characters to use their skills to assist in more complicated tasks. Finally, the teamwork rules explain how to handle situations when the team as a whole needs to perform a task (like sneaking around) if only some of the PCs have the relevant skill.

The Basics

This chapter explains how to find an adventure, acquire gear, move to the destination, and interact as a squad. There are enough details to jump-start a GM’s creative juices, and the scenarios translate well to other genres of games.

There’s a really helpful sidebar on page 10 with a list of go-to skills that can be catch-all skills in action games. Players and GMs would do well to include these skills on character sheets and templates.

Tricks of the Trade

In this chapter, action plots are deconstructed into four main phases: Assessing the situation, Analyzing the information, Acting on a plan, and Avoiding, escaping, or cleaning up afterwards. For each phase, this chapter gives lots of examples of challenges and relevant skills.

Whether your characters are going undercover, bashing down a door, falsifying records, or shopping for security technology, this chapter will be useful for plot ideas. There are some stats and equipment lists, but the focus is on genre tropes rather than crunch.

Ultra-Violence

Action stories are full of fights and chases, and this chapter provides a ton of rules for gaming these situations. The rules for combat are focused on fast-and-furious play, cinematic heroics, and tough guy talk. On the other hand, the chase rules are extremely detailed—a GM could run a chase scene as a form of tactical combat with all the options this chapter introduces.

Although both sets of rules are written from the perspective of action stories, the mechanics translate well to other genres. If you want to game out a star cruiser chasing a smuggler’s ship, a Western standoff, or an army unit holding the line against a horde of zombies, there’s something in these rules that can be useful.

When Things Go Wrong

Sometimes it’s fun to play through what happens when the heroes don’t make it through unscathed. This chapter gives cinematic rules for post-combat medical care and repair jobs, once the heroes have made it out alive. If they didn’t make it, then the rules for capture can be helpful for keeping the adventure going.

Directing the Action

The final chapter is a GM’s guide to action style campaigns. There are ten examples of genre tropes with references to the rules the GM can use in order to tell that kind of story. There’s a sidebar with a list of rules to not use in order to maintain a fast-paced feel to the campaign. Finally, there are suggestions for how characters can assist each other and how to make sure specialist PCs have something to do.

Summary

GURPS Action 2: Exploits
GURPS Action 2: Exploits

Action 2: Exploits is one of my most-used supplements. Some of the rules, like complimentary skills, are so useful that they should be considered for inclusion in a future version of the Basic Set. The techniques for running a fast-paced game are helpful in almost any genre—especially for gamers looking to run a simpler version of GURPS.

In addition, this volume is a great reference for action genre tropes, and the encounters suggested in Exploits can be used by GMs of all genres for inspiration. Even GMs who want to run a rules-heavy game can use the example situations—they will just want to bring more rules into the campaign.

Exploits does not have many stat blocks or crunch, but this is an intentional decision in line with the kinds of games this supplement is written to facilitate. The most crunch-heavy part of the book is the chase rules, and these capture the feel of an action chase so well that they don’t feel out of place despite the obvious differences in degree of simulation.

Overall, Exploits is a great value. The cross-genre appeal of the rules, as well as the detailed examples of action genre tropes, makes this supplement handy for anyone who wants to game out high-adrenaline situations.

This volume is particularly useful for making GURPS an easier game to run and play. The mechanics for complimentary skills, abstracting difficulty, and teamwork are helpful for speeding up play, and the advice on what skills to include and what optional rules to ignore is useful for getting the game going in the first place.

Faster Character Creation with Wildcard Skills

Skills are central to GURPS characters. The characters’ skill lists are the primary mechanical representations of how one character differs from another. A ninja and a spaceship mechanic may look alike when it comes to attributes—both have relatively high DX and ST—but their skills will show just how different the two characters are.

Because GURPS offers a massive list of skills (almost 300 in Basic Set alone!), it is easy to get overwhelmed during character creation. Fortunately, there is an optional rule that can simplify matters. By using the wildcard skill rules, you can simplify character creation by glossing over a lot of the details inherent to a lengthy skill list.

Introducing Wildcards

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

Wildcard skills are introduced as an optional rule on p. B175, and are expanded in Power-Ups 7: Wildcard Skills. Instead of requiring players to purchase a long list of skills that cover a related area, the player can give their character a wildcard skill that represents knowledge of all the skills within that domain. For instance, a medical professional could learn Diagnosis, First Aid, Physician, Pharmacy, etc.—or that character could learn the Doctor! wildcard skill to represent his or her experience with all of those underlying skills.

Basic Set describes wildcard skills as a solution to a specific problem: how to create cinematic characters that can do anything in a broad category of abilities. A player with an action hero character might want to learn the Gun! wildcard skill rather than worrying about which guns the hero knows how to use.

However, wildcard skills don’t need to be restricted to cinematic campaigns. In fact, Wildcard Skills explicitly describes wildcard skills as a way to streamline character creation or skill lists, regardless of the type of campaign. Instead of going through several hundred possible skills to determine what is relevant, a player can simply describe his or her character’s key elements and use wildcard skills to capture the relevant skills.

Choosing Appropriate Wildcards

There are lots of ways that wildcard skills can be used. They can describe the headline features of the character: their role within a party, special abilities, or unique competencies. The Gun! wildcard skill handles the core competency of the ranged combat operative. Or, wildcards can simplify the skill selection process for secondary abilities, background skills, or racial skills. For instance, a wildcard skill of Europe! could be used for character background instead of the relevant specializations of Area Knowledge, Current Affairs, Geography, History, Savoir-Faire, and so forth.

Players are encouraged to create their own wildcard skills (with the GM’s approval) in order to capture specific skill domains. While Wildcard Skills includes a list of over 60 example wildcard skills, this list is not intended to be exhaustive.

However, it is important for the GM to think about how wildcard skills should function in the game. There are almost no limits to how wildcard skills can be used; Wildcard Skills even discusses extreme cases in which wildcard skills replace all skills, or even other aspects of characters like attributes and advantages! But, for the more modest goal of streamlining character creation without radically changing the GURPS character creation process, a more restrained approach is called for.

Wildcard skills are priced competitively with about a dozen Average skills, so that’s a good ballpark for how broad they should be. A typical character will have 10 to 25 skills: a handful of core skills, six to ten secondary skills, and a smattering of skills for character history, racial background, and “color.” So, you could build a reasonable character with three or fewer wildcard skills and then a small selection of additional, regular skills to finish the character. Use caution with more than four wildcard skills; that might result in a character that doesn’t have a clear identity or function.

Integrating Wildcard Skills into a Character Sheet

When allowing players to use wildcard skills, there are three things to keep in mind during the character creation process. The first is point cost. Because wildcard skills represent knowledge of all the skills that fall within a domain, they have a unique pricing structure: they cost triple the cost of a Very Hard skill. Thus, a wildcard skill at Attribute-3 level would cost 3 points. Attribute-2 costs a total of 6 points; Attribute-1 costs 12 points total, and each additional level costs an additional 12 points. Because they are so expensive, wildcard skills will quickly chew through the character’s point total at higher levels. As a result, it’s important for the GM to work with the players in choosing wildcard skills that will contribute to the game’s tasks.

Second, the GM needs to think about the scope of wildcard skills so that the player characters are reasonably balanced. This is particularly important if the characters use different numbers of wildcard skills. But, even if all the characters have the same number of wildcard skills, the GM needs to check that the scope of those skills is comparable so that no character hogs the spotlight or is left unable to contribute to the adventures.

Finally, the GM should make sure that the wildcard skills don’t make the PCs into carbon copies. Each character should still have something unique to offer to the adventure. If the characters only have minor differences, it will be hard to create an engaging game experience for each of the players.

Use a Default Default Level

Using Skill Defaults

GURPS is built around skills. Choosing a character’s skills is often the most time-consuming part of character creation. During play, most success rolls occur against skill levels. As a result, being able to streamline skills is a good way to speed up GURPS.

During the game, players can use their character’s skills by referring to the character sheet they wrote during character creation. However, there will be some situation in which a player needs his or her character to improvise during a game. For instance, a character may need to attempt a skill for which he or she has no training—such as administering first aid while rushing an ally to a medical facility. Or, the character might need to use a skill outside of his or her comfort zone. For instance, a priest might need to interpret the religious symbols of a cult of demon-worshippers.

The mechanic that GURPS uses for improvised skills is default levels. The “default level” of a skill allows any character that would be familiar with the skill to attempt it, much as a real person could attempt to administer first aid with no specialized training, simply by relying on what he or shes knows from common knowledge. The official rules for default skills are listed on p. B173.

There are two ways to use skill defaults in GURPS. First, characters can attempt skills at the default level based on their controlling attribute. For instance, DX-based skills like Acrobatics and Guns allow the character to roll against their dexterity attribute with an appropriate penalty. Second, characters can attempt unknown skills that default to another related skill that the character does know. For instance, a character with the Physician skill can attempt a Diagnosis skill based on a penalized level of his or her Physician skill.

Skill defaults are useful for making character sheets manageable, but learning the default levels can be tricky. By using a “default” default level, you can simplify skill defaults while keeping the gameplay reasonably consistent.

Defaulting from Attributes

In general, skills default to the controlling attribute based on the difficult of the skill:

  • Easy skills default to Attribute-4
  • Average skills default to Attribute-5
  • Hard skills default to Attribute-6
  • Very Hard skills usually don’t have a default

There are exceptions to these rules. For instance, Submarine is a DX/Average skill that defaults to DX-6; Lip Reading is an Average Perception skill that defaults to Perception-10!

These rules create two points for confusion during play. First, players and the GM need to remember how difficult a skill is, which is tricky because it’s not written on the character sheet. Second, they need to remember if this skill follows the standard pattern or if it has an unusual default.

If you are willing to tweak the rules, you can simplify this situation. As a house rule, determine that all skills that can default to an attribute have a default of Attribute-5. Most skills are average, so this default is spot on for most skills, and it’s only off by one for other skills. It’s a small tradeoff for a massive simplification of the rules during play.

Even with this house rule, the GM should feel free to rule that a particular skill doesn’t have a default. Esoteric skills, forbidden knowledge, and skills that require years of dedicated training usually don’t have a default even in rules as written (RAW). By using his or her judgment to rule certain skills un-defaultable, the GM can avoid the worst case abuses.

Defaulting From Known Skills

Because lots of skills overlap, it’s possible that a character will have a skill that defaults to the needed skill. Instead of defaulting from the controlling attribute, the default is calculated relative to the related skill that the character possesses.

Skill-to-skill defaults are even more inconsistent than skill-to-attribute defaults. In Basic Set, the default penalties range from -2 for closely related skills to an all-but-impossible -12 (for attempting to perform surgery based solely on the First Aid skill). Setting aside penalties for defaulting from one specialization to another specialization within the same skill, the chart below shows the frequency of the various skill-to-skill default penalties:Chart of skill-to-skill defaultsLooking up these defaults in play can dramatically slow down play. But, it’s possible to choose a reasonable house rule to simplify the situation. Simply rule that skill-to-skill defaults have a -4 penalty. Choosing a -4 penalty is within one for 75% of the skill-to-skill defaults, which is a pretty good approximation. This house rule also makes sense alongside the skill-to-attribute default house rule because skill-to-skill defaults are marginally better than skill-to-attribute defaults: there’s a small bonus for investing in related skills.

Maintaining the GM’s Discretion

Whether you use the rules as written to handle skill defaults or you use the house rules in this post, remember that the GM has the final say about what skills apply in what situations.

GMs should take care to be fair about what falls under a specific skill. Especially with newer GURPS players who aren’t familiar with the long skill list, with quick-start games that minimize character creation time, and with fast-paced games, taking a hard line on what exactly a skill involves is likely to cause frustration. If the player has a plausible explanation for why their skill is relevant, think carefully about what you gain by disagreeing.

On the other hand, the GM should feel comfortable in ruling that defaults are inappropriate for extra-difficult or specialized skills, especially when there is an in-game reason for the decision (e.g., Thaumatology is unknown outside of the cabal of practitioners or there’s no way a typical character in that world would have any knowledge of spaceship mechanics).

Summary of “Default” Default House Rules

Skill-to-Attribute Defaults: A player may attempt a skill at default by applying a -5 penalty to the controlling attribute. The GM has the final say on whether the skill permits a default attempt and what the controlling attribute is.

Skill-to-Skill Defaults: A player may attempt a skill at a default level by applying a -4 penalty to a known, related skill. The GM has the final say on whether the skill permits a default attempt and which related skills can be used.

Handling Edge Cases: If the Skill-4 default is worse than the Attribute-5 default, the GM can choose to either use the better default (the simplest option) or let the player roll against Attribute-4 (which preserves the mild bonus for knowing a related skill). This could happen if the related skill is a Hard or Very Hard skill and the character only knows the related skill at Attribute-1 or less.

 

Narrating Better Failures

Failure Tells a Story

One of the most important skills a game master can learn is how to narrate the results of success rolls. Most GMs do okay when their players pass the success roll because they can build on what their players want to do. But, failed success rolls are more challenging.

When failed rolls are handled poorly, the players can feel like the GM is playing against them by stopping them from doing what they want. That’s no fun for anyone. And, if the GM just says, “No,” the whole game can get stuck as the players flail for options and the GM feels obligated to shoot them down because of how the dice fell.

Fortunately, there’s a better way. By learning how to narrate failed rolls, you can make the game come alive by advancing the story no matter how the dice fall. It’s a lot more fun to play a game when the dice contribute to a story rather than being a mechanical crutch. It’s the difference between roleplaying and “roll play”-ing.

But there’s another, less obvious, benefit to narrating better failures. When the players know that the dice are no longer a yes-or-no barrier that can paralyze the game with an unlucky bounce, they are less worried about squeezing every possible advantage out of every roll. The incentive to rules-lawyer the mechanical minutiae evaporates when the players don’t need to succeed in order to have fun.

Let me put the point more explicitly: when you narrate your failures in an interesting and engaging way, then you eliminate a reason for your players to min-max every roll.

Don’t Roll When Failure Isn’t an Option

In most situations, the adventure can survive a failed roll. A critical miss against the Big Bad Evil Guy doesn’t have to kill the party. A failed attempt to deduce the killer might send the group in the wrong direction, but subsequent clues can bring them back on track.

But, there are some moments in which the adventure just can’t proceed until something happens. The party may need the bartender to tell them the rumors of ill tidings to the north in order to give the party their adventure hook. Or, the mad scientist may have locked herself in her lab and the party needs to defeat the locking mechanism in order to have the final confrontation. Maybe there’s a single book in the library that will tell the adventurers how to disrupt the evil ritual they need to stop, and the party needs to find that book in order to save the world.

Whenever there is a genuine choke point, don’t roll for success. Let the bartender share the rumors with the party, describe how the electronics expert bypassed the door’s wiring, and remind the group how little time they have left once they retrieve the ritual book. If failure would stop the adventure, then the success roll mechanic is the wrong tool for the gamemaster. This solution is a little crude; it works well at the beginning of adventures but feels unsatisfying as the players advance further through the campaign because it seems to render the player’s choices meaningless. That isn’t quite true—the gamemaster is simply deciding that the player made the correct choice to advance the story, rather than leaving the next steps to chance—but the apparent loss of player agency is a real concern. As gamemasters improve their skill in adapting an adventure, they naturally eliminate choke points from their games. Which brings us to…

One Door Closes, Another Door Opens

When the players fail a roll, the GM can prime the group with a suggestion for a new attempt. The electronics expert couldn’t jury rig the door? That’s ok—the GM can describe how, when the wires spark and give off an acrid smoke, the smoke drifts up to an air vent and the party hears the mad scientist cursing about the smoke entering her lab. Now the party has new options—can they squeeze through the air vent? Can they throw a grenade through the vent into the lab? Can they take a hostage and negotiate with the scientist through the vent?

Most situations that seem like choke points can be converted into closing and opening doors. If the party can’t find the book to disrupt the ritual, they may find a different grimore that they can use during the climactic encounter. Or, their efforts may attract the notice of other sorcerers in town, who decide to assist the party in other ways.

As GMs practice opening doors for their players, they should take care not to railroad the players. When the GM’s interpretation of a failed roll opens options for the players, it makes the game more exciting. But, if the failure becomes an excuse for the GM to direct the players into his or her chosen solution, then the players will feel that their contributions don’t matter. The distinction is subtle but important.

To help avoid railroading, the GM should think of opening doors in terms of the world, not the plot. In other words, don’t start with a script for what will happen and then tell the players what they see in order to push them towards that choice. Instead, start with the world—what else is happening? Let the players use that as creative fuel to generate their own path through the adventure.

Yes, But…

A third way to narrate failures is to use failure to add complications. When the player fails a roll, the GM explains that the character succeeded…at a cost. The gizmo guy opened the locked door but broke his lockpicking tools in the process; the party located the tome despite the interference of the librarians, but now the librarians are calling security to report a theft.

There are lots of ways to add complications:

  • Broken or lost equipment can limit characters in the future, require them to spend resources to fix the equipment, or even suggest a future quest to regain the equipment.
  • Hit point or fatigue point penalties can represent the extra strain required to overcome the skill failure, making the characters more vulnerable later on.
  • Monetary costs can be imposed when the characters need to hire assistance (or pay a bribe) in order to complete the task.
  • New obstacles might result from a failed skill challenge. For instance, if the players couldn’t bypass the door’s lock quietly, they might need to disable an intruder trap or defeat a group of guards.
  • Ongoing skill penalties might be applied to future tasks to represent the lost element of surprise, unknown complications, or general ineptitude.
  • Time limits can be used when there is a critical showdown or climax. The failed skill roll indicates that the characters wasted time trying to complete the task, leaving them less time to prepare for the rest of the encounter.
  • New reaction penalties can result from angering a group of NPCs. Savvy GMs can offer the players a future adventure to make up to that group—or to deal with the fallout from the betrayal.
  • In extreme cases, attribute penalties, taking away character points, or imposing disadvantages can be used to show how costly the failure was. These options should be used sparingly and should make sense in the context of the game and genre (e.g., horror victims might lose IQ to a brain-sucking parasite, but action heroes tend to survive torture sessions with only minor wounds). If this option is on the table, the players should know beforehand so they can decide whether their character is worth the risks.

Simplifying Gameplay with Task Difficulty Modifiers

Players and GMs that are new to GURPS often feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of details that can be gamed. Take shooting a gun: how long did you aim? How far away is your target? Is your target moving? Is your target under cover? Is your vision obscured by cover? How many bullets are you firing? Trying to put all these details together on-the-fly is not easy.

The key to remember is that all of these rules are optional. From the Introduction to the Basic Set (Fourth Edition):

“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).

If keeping track of dozens of modifiers doesn’t sound like fun, don’t do it! GURPS is flexible enough to give you a great game without requiring you to use a spreadsheet.

The Solution: Task Difficulty Modifiers

The point of all those modifiers is to refine the success roll mechanic. In general, success rolls are made against a character’s skill level. The modifiers are used because some tasks are unusually difficult (or easy), and the character’s chances of success should reflect that difficulty. So, if you don’t want to figure out those modifiers, what do you do?

The Basic Set has a great tool for simplifying the game: task difficulty modifiers. Instead of adding up all the various elements of the task that make it easier or harder than normal and generating a net modifier, task difficulty modifiers let the GM assign a single modifier to the whole task. A normal adventuring task gets a +0 modifier—the roll is unchanged. Slightly harder tasks can be modified with a -1 or -2; moderately difficult situations can be given a -4, and so on until you are describing an all-but-impossible task by using a -10 modifier. The same principle works for easier-than-average tasks, with slightly easier tasks starting at +1 and trivially easy tasks getting a +10 bonus. The full chart, along with examples, is on pp. B345-346.

Unfortunately, the Basic Set doesn’t showcase task difficulty modifiers as well as it should. They are presented as the first of many kinds of modifiers that can be assessed to a success roll—along with equipment modifiers, time modifiers, cultural modifiers, and more. The key line that enables task difficulty modifiers to simplify GURPS is buried at the end of the section:

“The GM can use difficulty modifiers in place of other modifiers if the outcome of a task is too unimportant—or the action too hot—to justify stopping to add up a long string of modifiers” (B346).

That’s right—Rules As Written allow you to replace all the other modifiers with task difficulty modifiers. In my opinion, this line should have been front and center. Any time you want to dive into the details, GURPS is there with all the rules you could possibly need. But, every one of those detailed rules is optional. If your GM eyeballs a task difficulty modifier for every success roll, you’ll be in the same ballpark, and that’s all you need to make the gameplay plausible.

A Worked Example: Task Difficulty For A Secret Agent

Agent Vanessa Sadao is an undercover Infinity cop attempting to infiltrate a Centrum research lab on an alternate earth circa 1990. For this example, her key skills are Observation-12, Lockpicking-11, Fast-Draw-12, and Guns (Pistol)-13.

Beginning across the street from the lab, Agent Sadao looks over the facility to see if there are any guards. The GM decides that this is a slightly easier than normal task—although Sadao is on the opposite side of the street, the building is in the open, there is bright daylight, and the lab building doesn’t have any obvious concealments. The GM assigns this task a net +2 modifier and rolls in secret against Sadao’s effective Observation of 14, telling Sadao’s player that the coast appears clear.

Let’s compare that estimate to a more detailed treatment of the rules. Vision rules are described on p. B358. Assume that there aren’t any guards that are trying to hide; this building simply has a normal patrol of guards. In that case, there are two relevant modifiers—size and range from the target and potentially the bonus for looking for something in plain sight. Depending on how big the street is, the range penalty could be anything from -6 (for 20 yards) to -10 (for 100 yards). On the other hand, the bonus for looking for something in plain sight is +10. So, the calculated modifier would be between +0 and +4. The estimated task difficulty is pretty close!

Thinking that the coast is clear, Sadao approaches the door and attempts to pick the lock. The GM rules that this task gets a -4 modifier because it’s more difficult than usual; Sadao has a basic lockpicking set, but Centrum has a well-designed lock. She rolls against her effective Lockpicking skill of 7 and fails; the GM rules that she opens the door but set off the alarm while doing so.

Based on that description, the detailed treatment revolves around equipment modifiers. On p. B345, basic equipment gets no modifier. Fine equipment (like Centrum’s locking mechanism) gets a +2 bonus; since that’s what Sadao is working against, we’ll treat that bonus as a penalty to this roll. (If Centrum had the best equipment possible at this tech level, the equipment modifier on Centrum’s side would be +4.) So, a calculated modifier would come out to -2 or -4, depending on how good Centrum’s lock really is. Again, the estimate is close.

Hearing the alarm, Sadao—and the guard on the other side of the door that she’s about to meet—immediately prepare for the worst. They are both surprised, so the GM rules that they act in normal order, with Sadao going first because she has a higher Basic Speed.

She tries to ready her gun immediately with Fast-Draw. The GM rules that there’s no modifier for this attempt—this is exactly what Fast-Draw is supposed to cover. She rolls against her unmodified Fast-Draw skill and succeeds, so she can take an Attack maneuver during her first turn. She decides to take a normal attack because she is worried about other guards showing up and doesn’t want to sacrifice her ability to dodge. Because the guard is only a couple of yards away, the GM estimates the task difficulty at +0—a standard adventuring task—and Sadao succeeds by rolling under her effective skill of 13.  The guard misses his Dodge attempt, and as he slumps to the floor Sadao takes a moment to reassess her break-in attempt.

In detailed terms, the GM could choose to assign a penalty for a minor distraction (the alarms), which would be -2. There’s no range penalty unless the guard is at more than two yards away, and even at 5 yards the penalty is only -2. So, a net modifier of 0 is plausible, -2 is fair, and -4 is possible if the GM gives no quarter to Sadao’s player.

In all of these cases, estimated task difficulties came out pretty close to a calculated modifier. And, more importantly, the task difficulty modifiers all make sense in the context of the game. Based on what the players described, no one is going to say that the assigned modifier is unrealistic. No GM is going to say that checking the building for guards is a -6 difficulty, or that picking the lock deserves a +4 bonus. As long as the modifier produces a playable result, it’s done its job.

If your goal is to play a simple game, then task difficulty modifiers are a great tool for cutting through the details and making GURPS into a straightforward and uncomplicated system.

Why Play GURPS?

Right now is a great time to be an RPG player. There are dozens of great games out there, and the roleplaying world is constantly growing with new systems, Kickstarter campaigns, livestreams, RPG shows, and online communities. In fact, there’s so much out there that even experienced gamers face a paradox of choice: with so many great games, how do you decide what to play?

This site aims to promote GURPS because GURPS has one of the strongest offerings on the market today. It’s not a perfect game—no game is. But there are a lot of reasons to take GURPS seriously. If you are a new gamer, learning GURPS is like getting the master key to playing almost any kind of RPG. If you are an experienced gamer, you can use GURPS for your games and tailor it to include the vast majority of elements from other systems. In either case, there are a lot of advantages to playing GURPS.

Learn Once, Play Anything

GURPS is designed to be infinitely flexible, which means that you can run or play any kind of game within GURPS. Lots of systems are tailored for specific kinds of games (such as hack-and-slash fantasy, esoteric horror, or cyberpunk). But, the problem is that running a game in any of those systems requires learning the system from scratch.

One of the biggest advantages of GURPS is that you can learn one ruleset and transfer that knowledge from game to game. Instead of learning a new set of rules for each game, you and your players can use the same rules and simply add in a few options to customize each game. By using the same core rules, you can spend more time playing and less time re-learning the fundamentals of each game system.

The more games you play, the more this advantage matters. If you have a single ongoing campaign, it doesn’t matter much what system you run because you’ll become fluent in that system with time. But, if you play a number of different games, running all those games in GURPS is like being able to concentrate all your experience points into a single skill—you’ll get to demigod levels of skill quickly instead of knowing a bunch of games at the novice level. This usually translates to a more rewarding game experience, because instead of wondering “can I do this?”, you’ll be able to act on your moments of creative inspiration because you’ll know how to use the rules to accomplish what you want.

Ease of Play

Fundamentally, GURPS is played with a simple mechanic: decide what you want to try, roll three dice, and compare the sum against your target number for the skill or ability in question. That’s it.

The game has a reputation for complexity because it has so many options to model a wide variety of game styles, but all of those are optional (hence the word, “options”). I’ll admit that the rulebooks would benefit from a more streamlined presentation so new GMs can determine what rules they need, but the core mechanic is simple, elegant, and straightforward.

Even character creation can be simple within GURPS. Again, the presentation obscures how straightforward characters are. Even a novice can build a functional character in minutes by just choosing attribute levels and skills. With a little help from an experienced player or a selection of setting-appropriate templates, even complex characters can be designed with ease.

Just like some people love GURPS because it has rules for every situation, some people love GURPS because there are options to model anything on their character sheets. That level of detail is possible, but it’s not required. Underlying all those details is a simple framework for building characters, and it can be as easy to build those characters as it is to play them.

Support Resources

GURPS Fourth Edition was published in 2004, and the sheer breadth of supplements published since then is stunning. Quite simply, it’s hard to think of a topic that hasn’t been written about for GURPS. If you want help in crafting the perfect magic system for your setting, setting a mood for your mystery-horror table, or modeling your PCs on the latest superhero blockbuster, there’s a resource for that.

Not only is there an extensive catalog of GURPS products, but those products are some of the most detailed RPG resources you’ve ever read. GURPS Martial Arts is more than rules for combat—it’s a crash course in fighting styles from around the world as well as film, books, and other media. Gear books like Low Tech and Bio Tech include a massive list of items as well as detailed descriptions of the worldbuilding assumptions that underlie the lists.

When you add in the fan community behind GURPS, which includes frequent answers from the line editors and authors to questions posed at the official Steve Jackson Games Forums, you have some of the best game support available.

The two things you won’t find in GURPS publications are pre-made adventure modules or extensive setting books. However, because GURPS is a universal system, it’s possible to convert other RPG campaigns or sourcebooks (as well as movies, comics, and books) into GURPS mechanics. The bottom line is that, if you need a resource, chances are that GURPS has it or can borrow it.

Some Drawbacks

Although GURPS has lots of strengths, there are kinds of games that it doesn’t do well. If you want to play one of these styles, GURPS may not be the best choice. While you probably can make these things happen in GURPS, it may be messy and you may be better suited with a ruleset designed around these needs.

  • GM-Less Play: GURPS is intrinsically a GM-based system, and it relies on GM judgment calls to use (or turn off) specific rules, to set limits on player characters, and to adjudicate in-game situations. If you want to play a game without a GM, GURPS will be challenging because you will need a way to fill those responsibilities from your playgroup. It can be done, but it requires some deliberate alterations.
  • Solo Play: For the same reasons, GURPS requires some heavy tweaking in order to accommodate solo play. It can be done, but the end result is a different experience from most RPGs that are built for solo play. Whether GURPS offers an acceptable solo play experience depends on what your expectations are, but it’s quite possible that you’ll have a better experience with a different system.
  • Player-vs-Player: In theory, GURPS can accommodate player-vs-player gaming as well as any system because PCs and NPCs are built on the exact same point scale. However, GURPS is written from the assumption that the players are a cooperative team rather than competitive individuals, and so there aren’t unique mechanisms for resolving player-vs-player interactions like what many player-vs-player RPGs provide. If you understand that and have a GM who is confident in handling inter-player conflict, GURPS will work—but it may not be as easy to run as other systems.