DFRPG Review: Adventurers

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Dungeon Fantasy RPG Review

The Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game is here! This series of reviews will cover the Dungeon Fantasy game materials created by Steve Jackson Games in their recent Kickstarter campaign.

In case you hadn’t heard of this Kickstarter, the Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game (DFRPG) is a standalone GURPS product designed to bring new players into GURPS through the hack-and-slash fantasy genre. DFRPG is fully compatible with other GURPS resources, from the Basic Set on. It is based on the Dungeon Fantasy line of PDFs for GURPS, which is a worked example of how to use GURPS for the adventuring genre. Unlike the previous Dungeon Fantasy materials, the DFRPG is designed so it can be played without the GURPS core books: it is a fully self-contained game.

In order to make the game more appealing to new players, DFRPG does most of the heavy lifting to bring the game to the table. The rules presentation is streamlined, there are fully developed templates to speed up character creation, and there is even an included adventure to get started. DFRPG sits somewhere between a starter set and a core RPG rulebook: it has more material than a starter set, so GMs can run a full campaign based on the material here, but it strips away many options that are presented in the full GURPS Basic Set to focus on what makes dungeon-based adventuring exciting.

The Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game includes five books. This review looks at the Adventurers volume, which is written by Sean Punch, the GURPS line editor. At this point, the physical versions haven’t been shipped, so I’m reviewing the PDF version. This volume is 130 pages.

The Covers

Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game: Adventurers cover
Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game: Adventurers

Just by looking at the cover, the reader knows that this is not just another GURPS product. The art is a full-color, full-cover spread that immediately evokes a mood of danger. The cover art also depicts a diverse cast of dungeoneers, which is a welcome addition to the visual world.

The back cover has also been changed. Instead of a standard blurb about the book, the back cover has been filled with charts and tables for players to reference during the game. The idea of using the back covers as reference aids is new to DFRPG, and it immediately makes the game feel more accessible. The back cover of Adventurers includes a list of skills by attribute, rules for success rolls, and a table of task difficulty modifiers. The tables are well-chosen: players will often want to refer to these lists during character creation and play.

Some Introductions

After the table of contents, DFRPG begins with a four page introduction to roleplaying in general and the dungeon fantasy genre in particular. These pages feature a glossary of many RPG terms, an explanation of how dice work in GURPS, and most importantly: a clear statement about what dungeon fantasy is.

The framing of this genre is simple: go exploring dungeons for treasure. This is not setting up adventurers who seek glory, to right wrongs in the world, or are summoned by desperate need. The focus is on finding loot, killing the bad things that stand in the way, and making it back to safety.

The chosen framing is a mixed blessing. On the positive side, there is a strong vision of what dungeon fantasy looks like, and that vision makes it possible to create good character templates, straightforward presentations of the relevant rules, and a coherent subset of GURPS’ possibilities. On the other hand, this is a narrower focus than many other games in this genre. There’s little room in this vision for political intrigue, adventuring to save the world, or non-loot based activities. GURPS definitely supports those kinds of games, and the DFRPG ruleset is fully compatible with the rules from Basic Set that enable those campaigns, but there is only minimal support for those options within the DFRPG itself.

There’s a tradeoff between making the game easily accessible and supporting a variety of campaign styles. DFRPG unapologetically errs on the side of accessibility. It’s a defensible choice, but it will be interesting to see if the market agrees with the balance that the GURPS staff chose.

Basics

Chapter 1 is a six page introduction to GURPS characters. In short, GURPS is a point-buy system, and dungeon fantasy characters are built on a 250 point budget. This chapter covers the most essential elements of characters: the four basic attributes and the secondary characteristics.

This section is concise; in particular, the presentation of secondary characteristics is more straightforward than in Basic Set. It is clear that the rules have been rewritten with a focus on how these traits function within the dungeon fantasy context. Traits like character age, status, and languages are either dramatically simplified, eliminated, or simply treated as 0-point features. As a result, this chapter is a dramatic improvement in accessibility compared to the equivalent section of Basic Set.

Professions

The first chapter introduced the basics of GURPS characters; chapter two covers the heavy lifting for character creation. In 30 pages, this chapter presents full templates for 11 common dungeon adventurers.

It’s clear that templates are the preferred way to create characters in DFRPG; there’s a short section explaining that players can build characters on their own, but the templates are intended to eliminate the difficulties new players and GMs face in getting games started.

There are a lot of improvements in the template format compared to previous GURPS products. The templates are written in two columns, use white space effectively to group elements, begin traits on a new line to improve readability, and eliminate the cumbersome notation for built advantage packages and skills from Basic Set. Each template also has useful customization notes and explanations of profession-specific elements, making it easier for new players to grasp what the template does.

The 11 included professions span a range of typical adventuring heroes: barbarians, clerics, druids, knights, thiefs, wizards, and more. There aren’t any of the obscurer professions like tinkerers or alchemists, and the range of magic-users is somewhat limited, but the choices for what classes to include seem right.

This chapter is one of the best sections not only of this book but of the GURPS line in general. Yet, there were some missed opportunities to create atmosphere and help players connect with the characters. There is very little art in this chapter: only one half-page illustration and two quarter-page images. There are some pull quotes in the voices of fictional adventurers that compensate somewhat, but compared to other big name RPG products this chapter is text-heavy and light on inspiring visuals.

Races

The third chapter is a brief (four page) discussion of character races. In GURPS, a race is a template package that is purchased as a single block, and is paid for in lieu of some of the advantages on a professional template.

This chapter has eight racial templates. Most are humanoid; the most exotic is the cat-folk. The templates themselves are clearly presented, and the text is much improved over the Basic Set (and even the previous Dungeon Fantasy publications) in how to mix a racial template with a professional template.

Like chapter 2, there’s nothing wrong with the choices here, but they may feel thin to some players. Some more exotic racial templates would be welcome, as would more art to evoke the world in which these races live (there is only one quarter-page image in this chapter).

Advantages and Disadvantages

Compared to the Basic Set, the mere nine pages on advantages and 14 pages of disadvantages in DFRPG is dramatically streamlined. Most of the complicated options for changing these traits have been eliminated, and the focus on genre-specific elements comes through clearly.

There’s not much to say about the traits themselves. The GURPS fan can work backwards to determine how the advantages were built from the Basic Set if they want, but there’s no need. Because DFRPG does the work for the players, the list here is a set of ready-to-play options instead of an instruction manual for how to build a particular effect. This is another chapter where the new-to-GURPS experience has been improved.

Likewise, the disadvantages are chosen strategically to fit the genre, and the presentation is improved. Because some disadvantages have self-control rolls, there’s a little more work to explain the disadvantage rules. But, the chapter remains accessible and beginner-friendly.

Skills

The meat of GURPS gameplay is the skill system, so the chapter on skills is important. This chapter is another improvement over GURPS Basic Set. First, the list of skills is much more accessible because it’s shorter and more focused on the genre needs. In addition, the explanation of skill details such as defaults, how to calculate skill levels with advantages, and the advice for how to use skills in game is explained better than in Basic Set.

Because DFRPG is fully compatible with GURPS, the skill system retains the skill difficulty rules. These rules can be a stumbling block for new players, but the choice to preserve backwards compatibility makes sense.

There are a couple of places in which the skill list presentation is modified from previous volumes. In particular, the melee weapon skills are all grouped together. There’s a little inconsistency here because ranged skills are still listed separately and thrown weapon skills are handled with required specializations, but the idea of grouping the skills has been used in other GURPS publications (such as the Discworld Roleplaying Game) and it’s a move in the right direction.

Cash and Gear

The final chapter, on money and equipment, uses 23 pages to discuss everything from currency to magical items. There are some notable successes in this chapter. The advice for choosing weapons is a welcome addition for new players. There is some worldbuilding flavor in the modifiers for equipment (e.g., magic-immune tools are meteoric, and non-breakable weapons are made for orichalcum).

The tables of equipment are virtually identical to what is presented in the Basic Set. There’s plenty of options to keep players happy, and there are enough options on how to add enhancements for GMs to have loot to dangle in front of the PCs.

The section on magic items is short, and the focus is on functional items (like a +2 weapon) rather than creative artifacts. Fortunately, there is a supplement on magic items that was also funded in the Kickstarter, but this book would have benefited from a larger section here.

Because the magic items are function-driven, there’s not a lot of need for art to create character in this chapter. On the other hand, it’s another place where other RPGs use more art to evoke a specific mood or visualize unusual weapons. The lack of art in this chapter is another missed opportunity to create atmosphere and engagement.

Back Matter

The volume ends with ten pages of back matter. There’s an appendix with two sample characters, fully built out with character portraits and design notes. The design notes are a great addition, and the headshots help the characters feel alive.

The index is broken into several parts: a main index and then separate sub-indices for advantages, disadvantages, and skills. This list doesn’t quite fill the same niche as the trait list in Basic Set or the cheat sheet of dungeon delver traits in Dungeon Fantasy 1 – Adventurers (the original dungeon fantasy line PDF)—the trait lists are better for getting a big picture of what is available to dungeon fantasy characters—but it’s functional.

After a one-page ad for OGRE (another SJ Games product), the PDF ends with a blank four page character sheet. The sheet has minor organizational improvements compared to the Basic Set character sheet, but there is no fillable PDF form and four pages is a lengthy character sheet.

Overall Thoughts

Because Adventurers is only one part of the Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game package, I’m going to review the package as a whole instead of giving a score to each part. Overall, this book does an excellent job at introducing GURPS characters, simplifying character creation, and making it easy for players to jump into a dungeon fantasy game. The biggest drawback is the lack of art to bring the world to life.

For new players, this book is a huge improvement on the character creation experience from the Basic Set. Adventurers should be the model for future worked genre or setting-specific versions of GURPS.

 

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.

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!

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.