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.

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.

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.