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.

 

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.

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.