The Rules-Light GURPS Shopping Guide

GURPS has a wide variety of published rulebooks, and the list of PDF supplements is one of the largest in the industry. As a result, it can be overwhelming for new players to determine what books to get. Many of the books offer specialized rules for specific genres, abilities, or settings, but some resources are useful across a wide variety of games. This post will highlight GURPS books that are useful to the rules light crowd.

If you are curious about GURPS but fear that the rules are intimidating, this list will point you towards rulebooks that support streamlined, simple mechanics.

As a bonus: until 15 December 2016, Steve Jackson Games is running a GURPS PDF special. All GURPS PDFs are 40% off! If you’ve been thinking about getting started with GURPS, or adding some books to your collection, now is the time!

GURPS Basic Set: Characters and Campaigns

GURPS Basic Set
GURPS Basic Set

If you want to play GURPS, the two volume Basic Set is all you truly need. You can create your characters, build settings, run campaigns, engage in combat, and do all the core elements of roleplaying from these two books. Volume 1, Characters, covers the rules for building and equipping player characters; Volume 2, Campaigns, focuses on running the game, resolving actions, and interacting with the world at large.

When reading the Basic Set, remember that the core rules of the game are simple: there are success rolls, reaction rolls, and damage rolls. Everything else is optional detail, and it can be changed or ignored as appropriate for your game.

GURPS Action 2: Exploits

GURPS Action 2: Exploits
GURPS Action 2: Exploits

Action 2: Exploits is officially the GM book for faced-paced action hero games. Unofficially, this is one of the most useful GM supplements—period. Exploits contains advice on stock adventuring skills, tips for quick-and-dirty difficulty estimates, and guidelines for different phases of adventures, from setting the narrative hook through cleaning up afterwards.

For rules light games, Exploits has particularly valuable suggestions on using difficulty modifiers to set the difficulty for adventure scenes, using complimentary skills to overcome larger challenges, and what rules options to turn off in order to keep up the pace.

GURPS Thaumatology: Ritual Path Magic

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

Ritual path magic, or RPM, is a great rules light alternative to the default GURPS magic system. Magic in the Basic Set (and in the GURPS Magic supplement) is a skill-based system that has lots of pre-built spells. The drawback is that each spell is its own effect, and there are a number of rules for different types of spells that need to be learned as well.

By contrast, RPM is based on a simple casting system. Players create their intended spells by describing the spell effects. The spell description determines how much energy the spell requires, and then the character gathers the energy using the appropriate magic skill.

How to Be a GURPS GM

How to Be a GURPS GM cover
How to Be a GURPS GM

How to Be a GURPS GM is a crash course in running roleplaying games in GURPS. It walks a new (or new-to-GURPS) game master through how to set up a campaign, direct character creation, build encounters, and run the adventure.

For gamers that want to run a rules-light version of GURPS, there’s a lot of advice about which game options to use (and what to turn off). The advice is particularly detailed for adjusting combat complexity, which is valuable because combat can be one of the more overwhelming parts of GURPS games.

Other Resources

Of course, one of the benefits of all the GURPS publications is that there are worked examples of almost any situation you can imagine. If you want inspiration for running a social encounter-heavy game, GURPS Social Engineering awaits. If you want to play a game with psionic abilities, just turn to GURPS Psionic Powers. There are books for genres (including fantasy, horror, superheroes, steampunk), books for technology and equipment (if you want to play a stone-age survival campaign or a futuristic space war), and just about anything else you can imagine.

If you’ve wanted to see how GURPS can handle any particular type of game, the GURPS PDF sale is a great opportunity to expand your collection. Again, all GURPS PDFs are 40% off at Warehouse 23, the online store for Steve Jackson Games.

And, if you have other GURPS books to recommend—especially for rules light gaming!—please share them in the comments.

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

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

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.

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.

Faster Character Creation with Wildcard Skills

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

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

Introducing Wildcards

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

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

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

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

Choosing Appropriate Wildcards

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

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

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

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

Integrating Wildcard Skills into a Character Sheet

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

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

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

Use a Default Default Level

Using Skill Defaults

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

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

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

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

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

Defaulting from Attributes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defaulting From Known Skills

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

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

Maintaining the GM’s Discretion

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

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

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

Summary of “Default” Default House Rules

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

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

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


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.