Minimalist Character Creation

GURPS makes an intentional design decision to frontload the game rules. Once you have a character sheet, game play can proceed quickly because most of the things you need to know are either precalculated on the sheet or require a simple modifier.

However, a consequence of this design decision is that character creation can feel overwhelming, especially for new players. Most of their substantive decisions have to occur before they start the adventure, which means that character creation can seem like a barrier to playing. The problem is worse for GURPS than other systems because GURPS is a generic and universal system. GURPS has options for dozens of advantages, skills, and other character elements that simply won’t be relevant to the campaign at hand—yet beginners have to sort through that material (or have the GM’s help) to make their character choices.

GURPS Character Assistant cover
GURPS Character Assistant

To be fair, there are lots of resources to help through this process. Hopefully the GM can provide a streamlined list of traits to help the players make their choices. Templates and sample characters in various genre books can give players a model to emulate. And, there are ways to make character creation part of the gaming fun rather than a task to slog through before gaming.

But, it’s worth stepping back for a minute and taking a more simplified perspective. Most of GURPS’ game play is based around success rolls. So, is there a way to streamline the character creation process in order to get the focal point of the game play down, without getting lost in details? For new players and groups that prefer streamlined games, focusing character creation on attributes and skill levels will do most of the work for you.

This is a minimalist model of character creation. It follows the rules as written, but it leaves off a lot of options that GURPS offers. It’s up to you and your game group whether this is a helpful way to streamline your character creation or whether it’s unduly restrictive. If nothing else, treat this method as a thought experiment—what’s the least work you could do to create a playable character?

Start With Attributes

The basic attributes of Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, and Health do most of the heavy lifting for character creation. The attribute levels of the characters determine their general competencies. Since skill levels are based off of the level of the controlling attribute, attributes also set the foundation for character skills. Advantages and disadvantages frequently modify attributes in specific ways—for instance, Fit gives a bonus to HT rolls, Perfect Balance gives a situational DX bonus, and Slave Mentality penalizes your IQ- and Will-based rolls. Whether directly or indirectly, most aspects of character creation eventually relate back to attribute levels.

Because the basic attributes set the foundation for characters, they tend to take up at least half of the character’s point total. The sample characters in Basic Set, as well as the templates in Action 1, Dungeon Fantasy 1, and Monster Hunters 1, almost all follow this guideline. It’s common enough that a character with well below 50% of its point value allocated to basic attributes stands out as a very unusual build.

To streamline the character creation process, you can let attributes play a larger role. As a guideline, between half and 75% of the character points should be spent on attributes. Anything less than half requires a lot of detail to determine where the remaining points go. On the other hand, the characters need a budget to customize their character, so trying to force more points into attributes may feel restrictive.

These numbers are guidelines, not absolutes. For a 150 point character, you probably want to leave 50 points for skills. But, a 400 point character could get away with spending 325 points on attributes and “only” 75 on skills. The key is to think about spending points on attributes as a way to speed up character creation—not to make your characters into carbon copies of each other. If you realize that you need more points for skills in order to make your character feel right, you can always drop an attribute or two before finalizing the character sheet.

Use Skills to Finalize

To reiterate: our overall goal is to find an approach to character creation that gives the best result for game play with the least effort. We’ve decided to focus on getting success rolls to feel right since they make up the majority of play mechanics. So far, you’ve made four decisions—what each of your character’s basic attributes will be—and those four decisions have spent over half of your character points. Now it’s time to refine those characters with skills so that the foundation of the character’s attribute levels gets translated into “feels right”-level skills.

Skill lists are one of the most diverse parts of character sheets because every character is so different. A generalist character will have a lot of skills at lower levels; a specialist will have a couple of core skills at relatively high levels and a smattering of secondary skills at lower levels. Some characters may have dozens of skills; others may only have a five or ten. If the character has wildcard skills, the list may be even smaller! The spectrum ranges from an action hero build that has two or three wildcard skills to a learned wizard with a massive grimore that has over 50 skills.

GURPS Lite cover
GURPS Lite

For our simplified version of character creation, start by picking ten skills that are central to your character’s abilities. You can use the skill list in GURPS Lite as a shortlist, or refer to the list of suggested adventurer skills from Kromm (the GURPS line editor) as a starting point.

Ten is an arbitrary number; it is broad enough to have a reasonable variety in your character’s skills, but it narrow enough to be manageable. Put a point into each of these skills.

Once you have bought your ten core skills, use the rest of your points to either buy up your core skills or add additional skills to the character sheet. Keep your character concept in mind to determine what makes sense for your character.

There Are Always Exceptions

Of course, no shortcut is perfect. This approach to character creation glosses over advantages and disadvantages, so games that rely highly on those traits will not work as well with this method.

  • Exotic characters: GURPS attributes are based on human norms and the default character “body” is a bipedal humanoid. The more that the player characters depart from those assumptions, the more that advantages and disadvantages come into play. If your game has a mix of elvish pixies, robots, birds of prey, and bionically-enhanced zombies among the player characters, you will need a more rigorous character creation process.
  • Superheros: Although extremely high attributes are part of most super games, superheroes tend to be defined in terms of their advantages. Even heroes without paranormal abilities, like super-strong characters, tend to rely more on advantages than super-level attributes (e.g., Damage Resistance instead of 20+ ST).
  • Magic, psionics, and the supernatural: With the GM’s help, these kinds of characters can fit into the simplified attributes+skills approach. The key is to focus on skills rather than advantages. The spell-based magic system in Basic Set is a good model for this. In that magic system, players buy a single advantage that enables their character to learn spells and then they buy the spells they want as skills. It’s relatively straightforward to change the flavor so that the magical source for those spells is actually psionic and to allow a similar process for psionic character creation. It’s more difficult to build psionic abilities as advantages, which is what Basic Set recommends. If changing the power source for magic skills doesn’t capture what the players envision for their characters, then this abbreviated creation process won’t work.
  • Cinematic characters: Wuxia-style martial artists, gunslingers that can survive a shootout at point-blank range, spies that can escape from the mad scientists’ lair while destroying the doomsday device and saving the hostages, and the like tend to rely on advantages that enable their larger-than-life escapades. A skilled GM can simulate these effects during gameplay by adjusting how he or she handles encounters. But if these abilities are part of the character concept, then the players may benefit from a more elaborate character creation process.

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.

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.

 

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.