Understanding Reaction Modifiers

Reaction rolls are an easy way to add variety to NPC interactions. This post will flesh out what modifiers to reaction rolls mean in practice, so players and GMs can anticipate the impact of skills, appearance modifiers, and other game elements that influence reaction rolls.

Reaction Rolls in Brief

Whenever the characters encounter an NPC, the GM can choose to make a reaction roll in order to determine how the NPC responds to the player characters. Rolling a reaction simply means rolling 3d6, applying any modifiers, and comparing the result to the reaction table (on pp. B560–561).

Unlike success rolls, higher numbers are better for reaction rolls: an 18 means that the NPC is very favorably disposed to the PCs, while a 3 is an extremely bad reaction. The other major difference between success rolls and reaction rolls is that success rolls have a target number, while the results of reaction rolls fall on a spectrum. The worst response is a Disastrous reaction, and the reaction possibilities go up to Very Bad, Bad, Poor, Neutral, Good, Very Good, and Excellent.

Interpreting Reaction Modifiers

So, what does a +1 reaction modifier mean in practice? How badly is the party in trouble if they get a -2 reaction penalty? This post will translate the modifiers into game results below. All the odds are rounded for simplicity.

First, let’s establish the baseline. In an unmodified reaction roll, the players have a better than 6-in-10 chance of getting a Neutral or better reaction, with a 25% total chance of getting a Good or Very Good reaction. The absolute extremes—Disastrous for a bad reaction, or Excellent for a good reaction—are impossible on an unmodified roll. In short, a neutral reaction means that PCs will generally be given a fair hearing.

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

Reaction Bonuses

With a net +1 reaction bonus, the PCs have an almost 75% chance of getting a Neutral or better reaction, and over 1/3 of the time, they will get a positive reaction. On the extremes, it is impossible to get either a Disastrous or Very Bad reaction, and there is a slight chance (0.5%) of getting an Excellent reaction. A little social influence goes a long way to smoothing edges, so negative reactions are exceptions rather than the rule.

Reaction Roll Results (+1 Bonus)

A net +2 bonus shifts expectations even further. Over half of the time, the PCs will get a Good reaction; Neutral is now below expectations! The odds of getting a Bad or Poor reaction are only 16%. In other words, it is unusual for NPCs to dislike the PCs when they have a net +2 bonus.

Reaction Roll Results (+2 Bonus)

If the PCs can earn a +4 reaction bonus (which is attainable by a combination of appropriate skill use, appearance or reputation modifiers, and/or situational modifiers), they will get a Good or better reaction three times out of four. In addition, they have an almost 10% chance of getting an Excellent reaction, zero chance of a Bad or worse reaction, and less than 5% chance of getting any reaction below Neutral. It’s really hard to hate someone with a +4 bonus!

Reaction Roll Results (+4 Bonus)

Above +5 net bonus, and we’re getting into saving-babies-from-burning-buildings territory: the median reaction is Very Good, the PCs have double-digit percent chances of Excellent reactions, and it requires the equivalent of a critical failure to get a less-than-Neutral reaction (and by +7, even the worst dice can’t cause a negative reaction).

Reaction Penalties

On the negative side, a net -1 reaction penalty is tolerable: the average roll will still be a Neutral or better reaction, and there is no chance of either extreme (Disastrous or Excellent). However, the odds of getting any positive reaction have fallen by about 10%, while the chances of getting a Bad or Very Bad reaction have nearly doubled (from 9% to 16%). Another way to look at the -1 penalty is to say that you have 50% odds of a negative reaction vs. a 50% chance of a Neutral-or-better reaction. Neutral is now a good outcome.

Reaction Roll Results (-1 Penalty)

With a net -2 penalty, the expected result shifts down to a Poor reaction, and the PCs will have a below-Neutral result almost 2/3 of the time. There’s still no chance of a Disastrous reaction, but the odds of a Very Good reaction have fallen to 0.5%. With this level of distaste, the PCs are consistently getting started on the wrong foot and having to recover from their social missteps.

Reaction Roll Results (-2 Penalty)

At a -3 penalty, Disastrous reactions become possible, while the odds of a Good reaction fall below 5%. There’s still a 1-in-3 chance of a Neutral reaction, but that’s definitely an above-average outcome. When the penalties get up to -4, the PCs have an equal chance of getting a Disastrous reaction as they have for getting any kind of positive reaction!

Reaction Roll Results (-4 Penalty)

Once the penalties combine for a -5 modifier, the PCs should probably hide their faces and prepare to be ambushed: they will experience a Bad reaction almost 2/3 of the time. Even a Neutral reaction will occur less than 10% of the time; this is the level where people are no longer willing to let bygones be bygones.

 

Ballparking Fatigue Costs

Fatigue is the odd stat out in GURPS. The basic attributes are relatively straightforward, and  most players and GMs grasp the purpose of hit points. Fatigue can easily become a throwaway stat, used only to fuel exotic abilities like powers or magic or to give the character a little extra oomph in combat. That’s unfortunate. Fatigue is an easy way to challenge characters by making their decisions take a toll, without requiring anything beyond the GURPS Lite rules. This post will present a rules-light way to ballpark fatigue costs so GMs can incorporate fatigue into their campaigns.

Fatigue Basics

Fatigue rules in Basic Set
Fatigue rules in Basic Set

As a quick recap: every GURPS character has a maximum number of fatigue points (FP), which defaults to their HT level. Characters can spend FP to do physical tasks, to use extra effort in a situation, or to cast spells; some special abilities also require FP in order to function. Just like hit points, spending FP comes at a cost: when a character is below 1/3 of their maximum FP, they move slower and can carry less. When characters go below 0 FP, they start to take damage from additional FP loss and are at risk for collapsing from exhaustion. Fatigue points can be recovered in a variety of ways, most commonly by resting.

Fatigue is a natural fit for gritty or realistic campaigns; in fact, the After the End series expands the fatigue rules to convey the grim reality of survival in a post-apocalyptic world. But it can also be used to great effect in cinematic campaigns, superhero dramas, or action adventures by showing how the characters need to push themselves to the limit in order to best the challenges they face.

The rules for fatigue are detail-driven, both in the Basic Set‘s presentation as well as the more abbreviated listing in GURPS Lite. Sometimes you can roll against a skill to avoid spending fatigue points (FP). Other times, you have to spend FP when doing an action regardless of how skilled the character is. Sometimes fatigue costs are modified based on the PC’s encumbrance; other times they are not. The intervals for spending FP vary in unpredictable ways: it costs 1 FP to dig in loose soil for an hour, but 1 FP per minute for paced running (unless you succeed at a Running or HT roll).

Rough Fatigue Costs

This post aims to make it easier for GMs to include fatigue in their games by helping them ballpark fatigue costs. Instead of being rules-dependent and spending time looking up exactly how many FP it costs to hold your breath underwater for a minute, GMs can use their judgment to impose fatigue costs on the PCs and keep the game rolling.

Strenuous Effort: 1 FP

When a PC performs a physically demanding task, that task usually costs 1 FP. The examples below are all represented as 1 FP cost activities:

  • Fighting a battle
  • Hiking
  • Swimming
  • Digging
  • Missing a meal
  • Becoming dehydrated
  • Not getting enough sleep (staying up too long or waking up early)
  • Exposure to extreme temperatures
  • Using extra effort in combat
  • Using extra effort for a physical task that exceeds your normal limits
  • Casting a known Sorcery spell
  • Casting simple magic spells like Awaken, Deflect Energy, Light, or Minor Healing

There is a lot of variety within this category, which is good for the rules light approach because it makes 1 FP cost a fair default. Again, the rules vary on many of the details, such as how often someone must pay the fatigue cost or whether the player can roll against a skill in order to avoid the fatigue cost.

It’s helpful to remember the context: the default human has 10 FP, so the standard is that someone could do these things 10 times without rest before being at risk of passing out due to exhaustion. That baseline can help the GM estimate the frequency for these costs; you might impose the cold exposure cost every minute for being in cold water, but only once per hour for being underdressed in cool weather.

If your game assumes that players have skills for lots of physical tasks, like Running, Swimming, or Survival, then it makes sense to allow the players to roll in order to avoid spending fatigue. But, that’s a play style choice, and there’s nothing wrong with a game that decides to ignore those skills and just charge the FP, or to have the players roll against HT instead of the specific skill.

Especially in a rules-light game, it’s important to remember that managing player expectations is more important than being precise according to the laws of physics. As long as players know that cold exposure is exhausting their characters and they have time to react to that information before the PCs keel over, the exact rate for imposing fatigue costs is not critical. Roll if it’s appropriate, charge the first FP, tell the players how long they have before they will lose the next FP, and let the players decide how to respond.

Encumbrance: 1 FP per level

Many of the physical tasks that cost fatigue points also have a leveled effect based on how encumbered the PC is. For each level of encumbrance, the character needs to spend an additional FP beyond what is normally required for the task. For instance, a character fighting a battle with medium (level 2) encumbrance would pay 1 FP for the battle and an additional 2 FP for being encumbered, for a total of 3 FP.

The GM should charge the encumbrance penalty when it makes sense. Running, swimming, and lifting heavy objects are situations in which encumbrance would logically make the task more exhausting. By contrast, holding your breath underwater, missing a meal, or being exposed to extreme temperatures are probably not affected by encumbrance levels.

Draining Effort: 2 or More FP

Compared to the variety of conditions that cost a single fatigue point, there aren’t many canonical examples of actions that cost multiple fatigue points in a single act. High acceleration, thermal shock, poison, and the drop-off effect from stimulants can all cost multiple FP at once. These examples all represent situations that genuinely drain the PC; they need to be cautious about additional exposure in order to avoid damage and unconsciousness.

The major source of multiple FP actions is magic. In the Basic Set magic system, about 50 of the spells fall into this range. In Sorcery, improvised magic or casting known spells at higher levels requires multiple FP. Ritual Path Magic quirks can include fatigue costs, averaging just under 2 FP for a single quirk up to almost 6 FP for a triple quirk.

In general, acts that require multiple fatigue points per use are explicitly intended to be limiting. If a character has to pay that cost multiple times, they will quickly run into the 1/3 FP threshold that imposes severe restrictions on the character’s abilities. As a result, GMs should save multi-FP costs for situations that are intended to make an unmistakable impact.

All-Out Effort: 5 FP and Higher

Once a character is paying 5 FP for a single situation, there’s very little room for error. Almost any additional fatigue costs would push an average character below the 1/3 threshold, and attempting the all-out stress a second time would put the character at risk of passing out.

The only mundane situations that would cost that much fatigue are engaging in strenuous effort while encumbered at the highest level (extra-heavy) or failing a roll for an extreme situation like thermal shock by a massive margin.

For a character to spend 5 FP or more at a time, the player really needs to plan ahead. The character probably need to invest in additional FP (or energy reserves, for mages). Otherwise, the character needs a way to gather or recover that energy: the Fit advantage, power stones, high skill levels to gather ambient energy, or the like. It’s simply not sustainable for characters to spend that much effort without advance planning.

As a result, the GM and players should plan together for any situations that might require all-out effort levels of fatigue. Magic users or characters with superpowers that require high fatigue expenditures should recognize those choices during the character creation process, so they should be equipped to handle those situations. Likewise, if the GM anticipates an all-out fatigue expenditure event as part of the campaign arc (e.g., if the characters will need to survive on an ice planet), then the players should be prepared for that during character creation as well so they can build their characters appropriately.

Fatigue the Rules Light Way

Using these guidelines, it’s relatively easy to assign reasonable FP costs in-game:

  • Most cases of extraordinary physical exertion, challenging environmental conditions, or invoking powers cost 1 FP
  • When performing physically taxing tasks, encumbrance costs additional FP per level of encumbrance
  • Acts or conditions that cost multiple FP should represent intentionally severe situations
  • The GM should be very cautious about assigning a fatigue cost above 2 FP
  • If fatigue costs above 5 FP are possible, the players should know in advance so they can make sure their characters are equipped to handle the challenge

Thematic Character Creation with Template Optimal Concepts

GURPS has an extensive list of character traits—but that doesn’t mean you need to read through the whole list to find the right combination of traits for your character! This post will show how GURPS’ rules enable players to take a thematic approach to character creation. Instead of finding traits for your character, you can build the traits that your character needs!

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

This post expands on several ideas from GURPS Template Toolkit 1: Characters. However, the rules you need to develop these concepts are entirely contained in the Basic Set. If you want additional ideas to jump-start your thinking, several PDFs from the Power-Ups line will be useful: GURPS Power-Ups 2: Perks, GURPS Power-Ups 3: Talents, and GURPS Power-Ups 7: Wildcard Skills.

The Core Idea: Character-Driven Traits

GURPS is frequently described as a skill-based RPG system. Rather than using classes or racial templates to define the characters, each character is comes to life in its skills and abilities. As a result, most of the decisions in character creation revolve around skill choices (and by extension the advantages and disadvantages that compliment those skills). The players are expected to decide among the extensive list of skills and abilities in order to choose the right combination that represents what their character brings to the table.

The character-driven trait approach inverts this order. Instead of going through the skill list in order to bring the character to life, the character-driven trait approach uses the character concept to create appropriate traits. Note the word “create”: in this approach, the players don’t need to refer to the existing skill lists because their character concept is used to formulate new traits.

The advantage to this approach is players don’t need to know the official trait names, so character creation is faster and less intimidating. And, because the players don’t have to map their character concept to an existing list of traits, there’s no problem if the list of official traits doesn’t perfectly match what they have in mind. There’s no need for complicated combinations of advantages, limitations to specific contexts, or worrying about exactly what a skill covers—as long as the player and GM can understand what the player intends, that’s good enough.

This approach also allows GURPS to gain some of the advantages of class-based RPGs (simple character concepts rather than long lists of features). However, the players still have the flexibility to envision their character the way they want—they aren’t limited to a formulaic class archetype or a pre-defined list of legitimate classes.

This idea develops the concept of template-optimal abilities found in chapter 3 of Template Toolkit 1: Characters. Template-optimal abilities are abilities that are particularly well-suited to a specific template because they boost a key competency or a core element of the character concept. The approach in this article extends that idea beyond the template framework to build an individual character, as opposed to the template for a character type.

Wildcard Skills for Core Competencies

The most basic implementation of a character-driven trait is a wildcard skill that represents the character’s core competencies. Instead of determining a comprehensive list of skills for a paladin, an FBI agent, a starfighter pilot, or an occult investigator, the player can create a wildcard skill that covers all the skills within the umbrella of that concept.

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

Power-Ups 7 includes 11 pages of example wildcard skills. Many of those examples work for this purpose: medieval roles like Bard! and Courtier!, action concepts like Demolition Man! and Wire Rat!, or horror archetypes like Detective! and Occult! In all of these examples, a single wildcard skill can replace many of the skills that a character needs to fill that dramatic niche.

The important thing about using wildcard skills for character-driven traits is that the players are not limited to a predefined list of wildcard skills. They are free to create their own wildcard skill that matches their character concept: if there’s no existing Starfighter! wildcard, make it up!

Talents for Related Skills

A second way to use character-driven traits is by creating a Talent for a specific element of that character’s identity. Talents give a bonus to rolls on skills that fall within the talent’s scope. They are a great way to easily strengthen some areas of a character concept—a skill area that is more heavily trained or specialized than the general character concept wildcard, a secondary skill set, etc. For instance, a prince with an aptitude for negotiating through conflict could be created with the Royalty! wildcard skill and a Negotiation Talent, which gives a bonus for all negotiation-related interactions (including actual negotiations, as well as reading body language during a negotiation, calling someone’s bluff while negotiating, and so forth).

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

As with wildcard skills, Talents can be created by the player and GM; they aren’t restricted to a pre-published list. That flexibility makes character-driven Talents an easy way to create a customized trait for a specific character concept. There are lots of examples of Talents, as well as suggestions for how to determine the appropriate scope of Talents, in Power-Ups 3: Talents.

Wildcard skills and Talents can be used together or separately. The players are welcome to build a character with full list of skills, but use character-driven Talents to add color and depth in a simple way. The biggest difference is scope: wildcard skills generally cover 12-14 standard skills, while Talents cover smaller domains (3-6 for a 5 point Talent or 7-12 for a 10 point Talent).

Higher Purpose for a Core Motivation

A third type of character-driven trait that can be used to customize character is the Higher Purpose advantage. Like Talents, Higher Purpose gives a bonus to rolls that fall within the scope of the specified higher purpose. The difference is that Talents focus on what and how: what is the character talented at, and how does the character do it? Talents are specific to skills, or specific uses of skills. Higher Purpose, on the other hand, looks at why. It gives a bonus to tasks that fall within the scope of that purpose, regardless of what skills are used to achieve that higher purpose. An assassin might have a Talent with a gun, but a Higher Purpose of taking out corrupt leaders. The assassin would get the Higher Purpose bonus for taking out a corrupt leader no matter what weapon he or she uses. On the other hand, taking out someone merely because they had a contract on their head would not trigger the Higher Purpose bonus—but it could get the bonus for the gun Talent if the assassin used a firearm to complete the contract.

Higher Purpose is a great way to flesh out the motivations of the character. Again, the Higher Purpose can be created and named by the player, which makes it easy to generate something that speaks to the character’s personal motivations.

Perks for Flavor

Finally, Perks are 1 point “advantages” that give bonuses in relatively minor situations. Creating a couple of character-driven Perks can easily add some flavor to the character concept.

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

Power-Ups 2: Perks contains a long list of example perks to help generate ideas. There are lots of Perks around character appearances and social interactions—blending into crowds, having a distinctive voice, or dressing well. Most Perks are too small to define a character on their own, but they can highlight small foibles, characteristic mannerisms, or other small character details that make your character distinct from all the other possible characters with the same dramatic niche.

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

When you play with wildcard skills, it’s possible for players and the GM to disagree about whether a skill really is covered by the wildcard skill. This post explores a house rule that makes it easier to resolve those disagreements.

The inspiration for this house rule is the idea of an inventory roll. Instead of tracking all the equipment a player has, the player can roll against an “inventory” skill to see if his or her character has the piece of equipment needed in the moment. (I can’t find the original discussion of this idea; if you remember it, please remind me in the comments so I can give credit where it is due.)

Wildcard Breadth Check

When the player and GM disagree about whether the wildcard skill includes the skill that is relevant for the task at hand, and there is a plausible argument for including the skill within the wildcard’s scope, the GM can permit a wildcard breadth check. This is a success roll against (10 + the relative skill level of the wildcard skill). For instance, a character with IQ 11 and a Detective! (IQ+2)-13 wildcard skill would roll against 12 (10 plus the relative level of 2), not 13 (the base skill level of Detective!).

On a success, the wildcard skill covers the skill in question. The player can now roll against the wildcard skill to actually attempt the skill (with any appropriate modifiers for the situation, equipment, etc.). On a critical success, the character knows this skill really well! The player should give an appropriate backstory to explain where the character acquired this particular competency, and then make a success roll to attempt the skill in question with a small bonus, such as negating a familiarity penalty, to represent the character’s unexpected proficiency.

When the player fails the wildcard breadth check, the wildcard skill does not cover the skill in question; the player must choose how to proceed. On a critical failure, the character is so deluded about his or her abilities that he or she attempts the skill at default, with all the appropriate situational modifiers.

The Mechanics

The more that a player invests in a wildcard skill, the more plausible it is that the character would have familiarity with a tangentially-related skill. The wildcard breath check thus rewards players for putting more points into wildcard skills by giving them a greater chance of including tangential abilities within the wildcard’s scope.

Rolling against 10 + the relative ability level is an important element of this mechanic. After the Attribute-1 level, every additional level of a wildcard skill costs 12 points. Increasing the controlling attribute is only 20 points, so it’s very tempting to put points into the attribute directly and benefit all of the other traits that depend on the attribute. By using relative skill levels, the player needs to decide whether the wildcard itself is well developed or if the character is just plain smart or agile. The former represents extensive training and justifies the increased odds of success on a wildcard breadth check; just pumping up the attributes does not.

The probabilities underneath this mechanic also make sense. If the player only spends 3 points on a wildcard skill (the minimum), there is only a 16.2% chance of passing a wildcard breath check, and the player would still need to pass the actual success roll (at Attribute-3, which is likely less than 50% success for any non-supers game). The player would need to invest 24 points into the wildcard skill to get to a 50-50 odds of passing the wildcard breath check, and then would still need to pass an Attribute+0 success roll to actually use the skill successfully. Assuming normal attributes levels and no additional success modifiers, getting to even odds for passing both the wildcard breadth check and the task success roll would require the Attribute+2, at a total cost of 48 points!

GM Options

The GM can limit the potential for abuse by further limiting the wildcard breadth check, if necessary. The most important limitation is that the GM can simply say there is no plausible relationship between the wildcard skill and the task in question. The GM and player should discuss the wildcard skill before the game to make sure they have a shared idea for what the wildcard entails, and the GM should use that discussion to enforce limits on the wildcard skill check. A character with the Secret Agent! wildcard should probably not be able to try to include Sex Appeal in that wildcard unless the character was based on James Bond.

For marginally related skills, the GM can ask the player to provide a backstory that explains why the character picked up that skill while training in the wildcard. A satisfactory explanation could justify a wildcard breadth check; a ridiculous assertion can be safely turned down.

Finally, the GM could give a penalty to the wildcard breadth check based on how tangential the skill is to the core competency of the wildcard. A penalty of -2 makes it very hard to succeed; a -4 penalty makes critical failures a serious threat.

Template Toolkit 1: Characters Review

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

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

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

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

What Are Character Templates

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

Designing Character Templates

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

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

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

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

Tricks of the Trade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Niches

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

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

Writing Clearer Stat Blocks

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

Use Line Breaks

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

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

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

Investigator (100 points)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Investigator (100 points)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Use Flavor Descriptions Rather Than Mechanics

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

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

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

Hide the Point Cost

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

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

Other Tips?

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

Keeping Decisions Interesting

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

The Granularity Spectrum

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

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

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

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

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

Choosing Your Game’s Granularity

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

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

Adjust Granularity on the Fly

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

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

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

 

Simplify the Game with GM Style, Not Rules

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

Toolkits Can Simplify

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rules or GM Style?

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

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

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

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

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

Ideas for GM Style Modifications

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

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

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

Using Disadvantages to Create Character Hooks

In this post, we’ll explore how to streamline the disadvantage portion of the character creation process in GURPS. By building your character’s disadvantages around specific challenges, you can create solid character hooks without getting buried in rulebook minutiae.

In general, GURPS plays quickly when you start from a concept and then find the rules you need. This is especially true for disadvantages. Because disadvantages represent limitations on what the character can (or is willing to) do, they are a natural place for players to show the big picture elements that form their characters.

What Makes Characters Interesting?

Characters are interesting when they are flawed. If Achilles were fully invincible, his adventures would be a boring and predictable triumph of a godlike warrior. The vulnerability of his heel keeps the reader interested in his story. If Sherlock Holmes were just a genius, he would be one-dimension; his addictions and his odd mannerisms make him intriguing and mysterious. Even superheroes are built around limitations: what would Superman be without his dedication to his loved ones and his weakness to Kryptonite?

Whether in film, literature, comics, or television, the principle is clear: flaws are interesting. Role players can take advantage of this by deliberately creating characters that have specific flaws.

Flaws and Goals

There’s almost no limit to the ways that characters can be flawed. However, the most interesting flaws interfere with the character’s ability to achieve his or her goals. Harry Dresden’s conscience makes it more challenging for him to defeat the bad guys; he can’t let innocents be caught in the crossfire as collateral damage. Spock’s discomfort with emotion makes it more challenging for him to fit in with the crew, which makes it even more difficult for him to navigate his mixed heritage.

When a character’s flaw becomes an obstacle to achieving his or her goals, the flaw creates tension. It creates drama. Roleplayers can therefore think about what kind of drama they want their characters to face. Do they want to struggle overcoming social stigmas? Do they want to be challenged by a moral code that restricts their options? Do they want to feel caught between conflicting loyalties? All of these are options for creating dramatic tension, and each suggests different disadvantages.

Choosing Disadvantages To Create Conflict

GURPS Basic Set: Characters
GURPS Basic Set: Characters

When you have a character concept that includes a flaw, and you understand what kinds of dramatic tension you want your character to face, then choosing disadvantages becomes easier. But, it also becomes more meaningful because you are thinking about how to challenge your character through the game. You are actively planning the kinds of plot hooks that can create conflicts for your character.

Literary theory generally thinks of three kinds of conflict: character vs. self, character vs. others, and character vs. the environment. Players can use these categories to think about what kinds of disadvantages will suit their character concept.

Mental disadvantages are great for conflict within the character. Vows and codes of conduct can challenge the character when his or her options are limited; disadvantages that require a self-control roll are good ways to model self-destructive (or at least self-undermining) behaviors and to challenge the character to overcome those limitations.

For conflicts between the character and others, social disadvantages are great choices. Many mental disadvantages also have social consequences: odious personal habits can make it more difficult to build relationships and a badly timed case of stubbornness can ruin a negotiation.

Conflict between the character and the environment is more situational, but physical disadvantages like increased life support, low pain threshold, and weakness can raise the stakes for environmental challenges.

Use the Disadvantage as a Hook

Whatever disadvantages you choose, be sure to talk with the GM about why those disadvantages make sense for your character concept. When you tell the GM what kinds of conflicts you expect the character to face, you are really feeding the GM ideas for how to involve your character in the story.

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.