Balancing GURPS Combat: Odds to Hit

One of the keys to being a confident GURPS GM is to understand how to create combat encounters that are balanced to the party’s abilities. This post will look at a critical element of combat balance: how likely each side is to land blows. GMs should consider the defensive abilities of the combatants when evaluating how challenging an encounter will be.

Start With Defense

It doesn’t matter how much damage an attack can deal if the blow never lands. Unless the attacker rolls a critical success, the defender gets to attempt a defense roll. As a result, defensive skill is extraordinarily important.

The table below shows the chances of landing a hit based on the effective skills of the attacker and defender. The first thing you should notice is that the attacker’s skill makes a big difference when the defender’s skill is low. However, once the defender’s effective skill gets above 10, most attackers will eek out a hit only one out of three attempts, at best.

Odds to Hit for Effective Attack vs Defense Skills
Odds to Hit for Effective Attack vs Defense Skills

So, when judging how difficult a combat encounter is, the first question should be: how well can each side defend? If the player characters are facing an opponent that has a base active defense skill above 10, they need to have ways to lower the effective defense skill in order to expect to land blows with any regularity. Conversely, if the players have a high active defense skill, the opponents should have ways to lower the effective skill in order to put the characters into jeopardy.

When Defense Isn’t Enough

Defense skills are important for balancing combat, but there are some situations in which even the best defensive skills aren’t enough:

  • Lethal damage: if an attack can do lethal damage with a single blow, then a high defense skill doesn’t eliminate the risk—it just makes the outcome a high-stakes gamble. A single good (or bad) dice roll can radically change the result, so the GM needs to be prepared to handle the worst.
  • Area effects: when an attack targets a large area, there may be no active defense possible. Area effects may give PCs a way to take down NPCs with extremely high active defense skills, but opponents can also use these effects to circumvent player defenses.
  • Mental attacks: Physical defenses are useless against mental assaults. If a character can terrify an opponent, manipulate their senses, or otherwise get inside their antagonist’s head, the GM should think about how that will play out in combat.
  • Surprise attacks: Finally, active defenses are useless if the target never sees the attack coming. The players (or NPCs) can make tactical decisions to give themselves the element of surprise during the combat, but the GM should also think about whether one side can set up an ambush before the battle is joined.

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.

Faster Combat by Pre-Rolling Dice

Dice in cigar boxGURPS combat uses a lot of dice rolls. In addition to attacks and damage rolls, GURPS uses rolls for active defenses, skill checks to handle difficult terrain or maintain concentration, and even morale checks to determine if enemies will flee.

Good GMs know that it is important to keep combat moving in order to maintain player engagement. One way to maintain the focus on the player’s decisions is to streamline NPC time. With all the dice rolls in combat, one easy way to spend less time resolving NPC actions is to pre-roll the dice for NPCs.

Rolling in Advance

When players roll the dice, it’s exciting! They want to find out the result of their actions. Every roleplayer will have memories of phenomenal rolls that snatched victory from the jaws of defeat—or embarrassing recollections of a truly unlucky roll at the worst possible moment.

Waiting for NPCs to resolve their actions is less interesting. The players want to know what happened, but the suspense of figuring out the dice roll is far less engaging. And, if the players spend too much time waiting for NPCs to finish, they become bored.

While rolling and adding up dice can be time-consuming in game, there’s no reason that the GM has to spend that time during the game. The GM can instead pre-generate a sequence of dice rolls and simply refer to that list during the game.

How to Pre-Roll

The easiest way to generate a list of dice rolls is to use a digital dice roller and record the results in the order they were rolled. Because all success rolls in GURPS use 3d6, the GM can create a list of 3d6 roll results. Then, whenever the GM needs a success roll for an NPC, he or she can look up the next result on the list, use that number, and cross it off. As long as the dice roller is random, there’s no functional difference between rolling in the moment and using the very next entry in a pre-generated list.

There’s one caveat: the GM can’t look at the number before deciding what the NPC will do! The NPC doesn’t have foreknowledge and so the GM shouldn’t be able to strategically choose the skill or modifiers in order to ensure a success (or failure). The GM needs to choose the action, determine the effective skill level, and only then look at the list. The GM also has to take the very next number; it’s no fair skipping around to avoid a critical hit or miss!

This technique can be expanded for other common rolls. For instance, if many NPCs will be making 2d damage rolls, the GM can generate a separate list of 2d results. However, the biggest payoff comes from the 3d6 list because the vast majority of GURPS rolls use 3d6.

Creating Pre-Rolled Lists in Excel

excel-preroll
List of pre-rolled 3d6 results in Microsoft Excel

If you have Microsoft Excel, you can easily create lists of pre-rolled dice results. Other spreadsheet programs will have similar functions, but you may need to adjust the formula to match the program’s function names.

In Excel, create a new spreadsheet and select a blank cell. Then, use Excel’s built-in random number generator to roll three dice by copying and pasting the the following formula:

=RANDBETWEEN(1,6)+RANDBETWEEN(1,6)+RANDBETWEEN(1,6)

The RANDBETWEEN function generates a random number between the two bounding numbers, so RANDBETWEEN(1,6) is equivalent to rolling a single d6. Since we want to roll 3d6, we use that formula three times and add them together.

From there, we can copy and paste that formula into additional cells until we have enough results. Note that each time you change a cell (including pasting this formula into a new cell), Excel will recalculate all the formulas in the spreadsheet. So, you’ll see the numbers change as long as you are building the sheet. That’s fine. Just print out the spreadsheet when you’re done, and use those numbers.

If you want to roll a different set of dice, you can do so by changing the formula. If you decide to roll damage, remember that GURPS does not allow damage to go below 1 (for crushing damage, below 0). You can use the MAX function to impose a lower bound on the result. For example, to calculate 1d-3 piercing damage, you can use the formula below:

=MAX(1,RANDBETWEEN(1,6)-3)

Blog-or-Treat: Simplified Fright Checks

Halloween is coming soon, and GURPS can help you add a little horror to your roleplaying campaign! Almost any game can add elements of horror in order to deepen the experience. We’re used to seeing stories add humor to lighten things up with comic relief; the same principle can work in the other direction. GURPS provides a specific mechanic to help establish that a situation is dangerous: fright checks.

Horror stories often feature vulnerability or helplessness on the part of the protagonists, fear, and uncertainty. In the full-blown horror genre, these elements can dominate the story. But, when added in small doses, they provide contrast to show just how heroic the characters are. After all, heroes are more impressive when they rise above terrifying circumstances and succeed despite great personal risk.

Using Fright Checks

Image from the Fright Check Table in GURPS Basic Set
Image from the Fright Check Table in GURPS Basic Set

One of the easiest ways to add a horror element to your games is to include fright checks. When faced with scary, risky, or just plain dangerous situations, ask the players to make a fright check in order to proceed—or suffer the consequences from putting their necks on the line!

Fright checks are described in the Basic Set, pp. B360–B361. The core concept is simple: when characters face a fear-inducing situation, they must make a Will-based success roll. If the player succeeds at the roll, the character can act normally. However, a failed fright check indicates that the character was overwhelmed by fear, and as a result suffers a setback ranging from being stunned to suffering traumatic mental injury.

What should trigger a fright check? It depends on your campaign premise and the characters, but the general idea is things that are unusually scary—not just ordinary adventuring experiences. In a warfare campaign going over the top of a trench into enemy machine guns qualifies. In a fantasy campaign, the GM could call for a fright check when encountering a primordial evil beast. For an action and adventure campaign, the moment in which the protagonists realize how outnumbered they are could justify a fright check.

Because fright checks are success rolls, the GM can streamline fright checks by assigning a generic task difficulty modifier instead of looking up and synthesizing a list of individual modifiers. That’s it! Just choose a modifier that represents how fear-inducing the situation is, make a Will-based roll, and narrate the result like any other success roll.

Rule of 14

One of the ways that fright checks can differ from generic success rolls in the Rule of 14. The GM can choose to invoke the Fright Check Rule of 14 to cap effective skill at 14. No matter how strong a character’s will is, there’s always a small chance of failing a fright check.

The Fright Check Rule of 14 is, like all of GURPS, an optional rule. The rule exists primarily for storytelling reasons rather than as a mechanical requirement. In short, one of the tropes of horror is that any character can be overcome with terror in a stressful circumstance. While most RPG genres emphasize the competence of the PCs, horror needs to balance PC agency with vulnerability. If a character is entirely immune to terror, it takes away a lot of the suspense. So, the Rule of 14 ensures that there is always a roughly 1-in-10 chance of failure.

In non-horror genres, the Fright Check Rule of 14 may be inappropriate. For instance, a four-color hero might have an exceptional will and narratively wouldn’t be overcome with fear. Likewise, a supernatural monster hunter campaign might feature a protagonist that stands out because of his or her preternatural calm in the face of the macabre. And, the GM can make the Rule of 14 irrelevant by using larger task difficulty modifiers when necessary. As a result, the Fright Check Rule of 14 is not necessary when requiring fright checks.

Failing Fright Checks

The most unique (and therefore most confusing) part of fright checks is the mechanic for resolving failed fright checks. The good news is that, again, it’s an optional mechanic. Just like a GM can ignore the critical miss table and narrate their own result for a critical miss on an attack roll, the GM can narrate their own consequence for a failed fright check roll.

The official mechanic for failed fright checks uses two rolls. The first is the original success roll. The player takes their margin of failure from this roll. The second element is an extra 3d6 roll. The player adds these two numbers—the margin of failure and the separate 3d6 roll—and looks up the sum on the Fright Check table.

Higher totals lead to worse consequences for the failed fright check. So, the margin of failure matters. However, the separate roll adds a substantial random element. As a result, it’s possible for a narrow failure to result in moderately severe consequences. Conversely, it may be possible for a player to escape from even a horribly failed roll with nothing more than a minor setback.

The choice to use two rolls seems driven by genre conventions rather than mechanical requirements. Unpredictability is a trademark of the horror genre, so the outside possibility of a serious disaster even for relatively narrow failures adds to the suspense. But, because there’s not a mechanical need to have a second roll, there’s no inherent problem with the GM ignoring the Fright Check table and instead determining their own result.

Ballparking Damage in GURPS

In the heat of combat, the last thing you want to do is pause to look up a a rule. GURPS has detailed weapon statistics that players can write on their character sheets before the game, but sometimes the GM needs to improvise. The PCs accidentally alerted the night watch and you need a polearm’s damage? A character turns a length of rope into a makeshift lasso? When the GM needs to come up with damage numbers on the fly, it can be helpful to make a ballpark estimate of how much damage an attack should generate.

This post provides order-of-magnitude estimates for how much damage weapons do. This is a deliberate oversimplification meant to give GMs guidance when figuring out reasonable estimates: it rounds numbers from the Basic Set, skips over rules in supplement volumes, and doesn’t look at special kinds of damage like armor divisors, fragmentation, and cyclic damage. Using this scale, GMs can choose damage rolls that pass the eyeball test.

Damage Roll Estimates

1d-3: Attacks that deal this level of damage are minor. When relevant, any kind of armor can absorb this magnitude of damage. Any injury that gets through won’t have much effect unless the character is damaged repeatedly.

  • Bite (average strength)
  • Fire (momentary exposure)
  • Poison (mild)
  • Punch (average strength)

1d-2: This category is a little more dangerous. Weak armor may not absorb all the damage, but the injury isn’t usually severe on its own.

  • Bite (above-average strength)
  • Kick (average strength)
  • Punch (above-average strength)

1d-1: This level of damage starts to leave an impact. A high roll can take out nearly half of a character’s HP without protection, and multiple hits will quickly accumulate the injury even under the best of circumstances.

  • Bow (average strength)
  • Fire (sustained exposure)
  • Kick (above-average strength)
  • Knife (average strength)

1d: Attacks at this level can knock out a normal, unarmored human in two hits! Even a single hit can cripple a limb or cause major injury.

  • Bite (extraordinary strength)
  • Bow (above-average strength)
  • Knife (above-average strength)
  • Longbow (average strength)
  • Poison (strong, e.g. arsenic)
  • Punch (extraordinary strength)

1d+1: Armor is almost mandatory to withstand these attacks. Unprotected characters can expect to lose limbs or collapse from shock.

  • Axe (average strength)
  • Bow (extraordinary strength)
  • Crossbow (average strength)
  • Kick (above-average strength)
  • Longbow (above-average strength)
  • Spear (average strength)
  • Sword (average strength)

2d: These attacks can fell an unprotected human in a single blow, and even armored characters will be in trouble if they suffer multiple attacks!

  • Axe (above-average strength)
  • Crossbow (above-average strength)
  • Knife (extraordinary strength)
  • Longbow (extraordinary strength)
  • Poison (severe, e.g. cobra venom)
  • Quarterstaff (average strength)
  • Spear (extraordinary strength)
  • Sword (above-average strength)

3d: At this level, even basic armor may not be enough to keep a character alive. Unarmored characters will need a great deal of luck to withstand an attack and continue functioning.

  • Axe (extraordinary strength)
  • Crossbow (extraordinary strength)
  • Flamethrower
  • Grenade (powder)
  • Machine gun
  • Quarterstaff (extraordinary strength)
  • Revolver

4d: Unless you are extraordinarily well protected and lucky, your character is out of the battle once one of these blows lands.

  • Grenade (fragmentation)
  • Laser weapon
  • Poison (deadly, e.g. cyanide)
  • Rifle

Beyond 4d: Attacks that do more than 4d damage tend to be either superscience weapons, futuristic technology, or weapons designed for heavy targets rather than attacking individuals. You can scale the numbers as large as needed, but it may make more sense to give the weapon an armor divisor or affliction rather than just increasing the numbers.

Notes

In the examples above, “average,” “above average,” and “extraordinary” refer to the human norm (specifically ST levels of 10, 12, and 15). It’s not uncommon for realistic animals to reach ST levels of 20, and of course fictional creatures can have far higher strength levels. In those cases, extrapolate as necessary!

The damage rolls were chosen based on the GURPS logarithmic progression. GURPS uses a six step progression in several places, most notably the Size/Speed/Range table, to scale modifiers among several orders of magnitude. The progression goes: 1, 1.5, 2, 3, 5, 7, 10, and then repeats with the new order of magnitude as the base level (so 10*1.5 = 15, 10*2 = 20, etc.). The damage rolls listed yield an average damage that roughly tracks this progression.

Aborting Combat in GURPS

Balancing combat in GURPS can be challenging, especially for new GMs. Running combat encounters is much easier when the GM knows how to abort a battle that is overwhelming the player characters.

Sometimes, the players deliberately bite off more than they can chew; in those cases, it makes sense for the battle to carry a lot of risk, and the GM is justified in letting the players suffer the total party kill that they have brought upon themselves. But most of the time, TPKs emerge by accident; the GM miscalculates what the PCs can handle, and the resulting carnage is a serious disappointment. GMs therefore want to minimize the risk of accidentally annihilating the party.

There are some obvious ways to bail from combat if an encounter is too deadly: having the NPCs suddenly pull their punches, adjusting stats on the fly, or fudging dice rolls. However, these actions can leave both the GM and players feeling cheated. It’s nice to avoid a total party kill, but it’s better to not put the players into that situation in the first place.

Fortunately, there are also ways to escape from combat situations that don’t undermine the narrative of the game. This post will discuss some of those techniques for GMs to end the combat without breaking the game’s immersion.

Negotiating a Cease Fire

Not every combat needs to continue until one side dies or passes out. One side may recognize that the other side wants something other than their death, and can offer to negotiate in exchange for safety. Or, the participants may be governed by a code of conduct (or legal norms) that accord privileges to those wishing to negotiate a stand-down.

Jack Sparrow invoking the right of parlay
Jack Sparrow invoking the right of parlay

In Pirates of the Carribbean, Jack Sparrow is captured at gunpoint when he remembers that the pirate code entitles him to parlay. He invokes his right to negotiate with the captain and is guaranteed safety until the negotiations are concluded. Jack is not out of the woods—and in fact his negotiations do not end well—but he averts his nearly certainty death at the hands of the crew.

The GM should make sure that his or her players know negotiated surrender is an option. But, the GM can also take the initiative in calling for negotiations. When the NPCs are firmly in control, negotiating for their goal is less risky than chancing a lucky shot from the PCs. As a result, the NPCs may have an incentive to de-escalate the situation and make the PCs bear the burden of their loss in the terms of surrender.

To set up a negotiated settlement, the GM should think through what motivates the NPCs. If the NPCs are simply cannon fodder for adventurers, then negotiation isn’t likely. However, if the NPCs have their own goals, pressures, and responsibilities, then there is room to negotiate a solution that moves the NPCs closer to their objectives.

Changing the Environment

Most new GMs think about the combat environment as a constant: once the space is set up, the characters make the action happen. But, the environment doesn’t have to be fixed. A power outage can cause the lights to go out, letting some characters escape, or the ledge suspended over a chasm can crack, threatening the safety of the characters standing there. Even something as simple as the passage of time can have an effect: when the sun rises, undead may have to retreat to the shadows.

If the PCs are truly overwhelmed, the GM can strategically change the environment to give them the initiative or provide a route for escape.

Changing the environment works best when the GM doesn’t save it for emergencies only. If the GM only changes the environment when the PCs are up against the wall, it feels like a cop-out. But, the GM can make environmental changes regular parts of the combat experience. Mist and smoke can obscure the battlefield as combat goes on; the walls can start to crack from the force of repeated impacts. Rivers can flood, fires can spread, reinforcements and allies can show up, and mana levels can ebb and flow. Having the environment change every round or two of combat makes battles feel more dynamic.

A savvy GM will mix up the impact of environmental changes. If the environment always benefits the players, it feels gimmicky. But if the changes sometimes benefit the opposition, they makes combat feel more uncertain and tense. Some environmental changes can be neutral, forcing both parties to adapt their tactics; others can be curve balls that change the whole dynamic of the encounter.

The GM can also gain credibility when changing the environment by linking environment changes to combat events. A boulder is unlikely to appear out of nowhere and cut off the pursuers—but if the characters were setting off explosives, suddenly the resulting avalanche is a creative effect of their actions.

Shifting the Threat

When one threat is poised to wipe out the party, the GM can breathe life into the encounter by shifting the threat to an even greater danger.

Fellowship of the Ring surrounded by goblins
Fellowship of the Ring surrounded by goblins

In The Fellowship of the Ring, the party seems doomed when they are surrounded by goblins deep in the mines of Moria. But, when the goblins hear a noise from the depths, they run away in a blind panic and leave the party to their own devices. Why? Because it turns out that goblins are not the worst thing in the dungeon—not by a long shot. The dungeon is also inhabited by a Balrog, a demon that so outclasses the goblins that they will flee for their lives even in the face of overwhelming victory against the party. With the goblins dispersing, Gandalf is free to lead the group on a wild race to escape the Balrog and find safety.

This trope of shifting the threat occurs in many works. For instance, in Jurassic Park, the protagonists are trapped by velociraptors in the Visitor Center, and they seem doomed until a T-rex breaks in and takes out the raptors. A variation of this trick occurs in Star Wars IV: A New Hope; the Tuscan Raiders that have captured Luke are scared away by the sound of a desert creature (that turns out to be a ruse played by Obi-Wan Kenobi).

Shifting the threat is a little bit of a deus ex machinca, so it needs to be used with care. It works best when the now-vulnerable antagonists have reason to think that the new threat is more dangerous, and it keeps the tension high if the PCs face greater risk as well. Note that the risk doesn’t have to be the same: the Balrog is threatening as a magical creature, while the goblins simply posed a mundane threat. What matters is that the stakes feel raised.

A little bit of foreshadowing can also improve how shifting the threat is received. The tyrannosaur is set up as a dangerous predatory early in Jurassic Park, so the T-rex’s attack doesn’t come out of nowhere.

To prepare the game for a possible shift in threat, the GM can think about who or what else is involved in the game world. Are there mutual opponents that can intrude? Do the antagonists have their own rivals that may interfere? Setting up these kinds of interconnected plot lines also makes the world feel three-dimensional, which enhances the atmosphere of the game.

Playing into Overconfidence

Finally, the antagonists do not need to go for the killing blow right away. Villains are frequently victims of their own hubris. They stop to gloat, to share their plans for inevitable victory, and to force the protagonists to watch their triumph.

If it fits with the personality of the NPCs, this option can be used to end a combat scene without a TPK. The player characters can be surrounded and lectured by the antagonist, who accidentally reveals a secret that the PCs can exploit. Or, the PCs may simply have enough time to catch their breath, recover a fatigue point, and overwhelm the opposition with a surprise all-out blitz.

Antagonists will frequently choose to capture the main characters and lock them away rather than killing them outright. GMs can easily use that option in order to end the combat and steer the campaign into a jail break scene. Depending on the genre of the game, it may be appropriate to include an interrogation session or an attempt to torture the PCs for further information; in other genres, the PCs may discover additional captives that can be allies in their escape attempt. Sometimes, the PCs may be able to bribe a guard to help them sneak away; other times, the captors are simply inattentive or overlook crucial details. Any of these options creates interesting possibilities for the game to advance.

Summary: Keep the Story Going

These four techniques to abort a combat scene all give GMs the ability to adjust on the fly if an encounter is too challenging for the PCs. The important thing is that all of these methods keep the story going. By adding twists to the situation, the GM can make the story more compelling. Having these techniques in your back pocket is a far better solution than simply fudging die rolls.

Keeping Decisions Interesting

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

The Granularity Spectrum

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

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

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

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

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

Choosing Your Game’s Granularity

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

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

Adjust Granularity on the Fly

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

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

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

 

Simplify the Game with GM Style, Not Rules

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

Toolkits Can Simplify

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rules or GM Style?

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

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

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

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

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

Ideas for GM Style Modifications

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

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

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

Minimalist Character Creation

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

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

GURPS Character Assistant cover
GURPS Character Assistant

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

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

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

Start With Attributes

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

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

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

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

Use Skills to Finalize

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

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

GURPS Lite cover
GURPS Lite

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

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

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

There Are Always Exceptions

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

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

No Rules Arguments at the Table

Several weeks ago, Peter V. Dell’Orto posted how his games run with a no rules arguments at the table policy. This post aims to expand that discussion with some practical tips for establishing this policy in your gaming group.

Why a “No Rules Arguments” Policy

There are a lot of benefits to having a policy of no rules arguments at the table, but the two primary ones are fun and speed.

Having characters do awesome things is fun. Having characters struggle against difficult challenges is fun. Coming up with creative ideas for how characters can overcome those challenges is also fun. And, scrambling to figure out an alternative when your character’s Plan A goes south can also be fun.

But, debating whether a modifier is -2 or -4 is not fun. It’s not fun for the people at the table whose characters aren’t active because the decision doesn’t affect their character’s agency; only the result of the dice matters and it’s still going to either be a success or a failure.

It’s also not fun for the GM. Rules arguments turn the GM into an antagonist, rather than a referee, and it insinuates that the GM is responsible for whether the characters succeed or fail. That’s not the GM’s role. The GM creates the world and establishes opportunities for the characters to act; he or she doesn’t singlehandedly drive the outcome of those encounters.

Even if the player at issue thinks that rules arguments are fun—and some people really do enjoy “rules lawyering”—the group is entitled to decide that this group is going to have more fun by adventuring than debating the rules and ask the rules lawyer to either join in that game, or find a different group.

The other reason to adopt this policy is that it speeds up the game. Most players and GMs would rather spend their time together working through adventures and not looking up charts or digging through rulebooks for that one line that explains the exception.

The bottom line is that the group can decide how it wants to play the game. Some groups like serious games, while others encourage humor. Some groups enjoy playing evil characters, while others find that sort of role-playing uncomfortable or morally problematic. There’s no right or wrong answer, but it’s important that the group be on the same page. The same is true for rules: a group can decide that it wants to spend time looking up every rule when there’s a question, but it’s also perfectly acceptable for a group to decide that it doesn’t want rules questions to slow down the game.

Before the Game

Before the game begins, tell your group that you want to have a policy of no rules arguments at the table. Explain why you want to adopt that policy. Let the players know what are appropriate ways to raise rules questions—during the session recap? Between sessions? Privately in an email?

Make sure the players understand what you want to do and get their agreement that this is the kind of game they want to participate in. This step is important! It’s not enough for the GM to declare rules arguments out of bounds by fiat—he or she needs buy-in from the players for this approach to succeed.

Stopping an Argument In-Game

During the game, when a rules argument comes up, the GM should first take stock of the situation. Sometimes rules arguments come up because a player is feeling railroaded or impotent. If that’s happening, the GM needs to recognize it and adjust accordingly.

Most of the time, rules arguments are just technical disagreements—does the rule say X or Y? If that’s all the issue is, then the GM should make a decision about whether he or she was correct in the original ruling. It’s okay to quickly shift if the GM realizes he or she erred and the player’s reminder caused that realization! But, if the GM disagrees with the player’s take, the GM should remind the player about the no arguments agreement and offer to revisit the issue during the designated time. This is usually enough to resolve the argument.

If the player won’t drop the issue, then the GM needs to make a decision about how to handle the situation: by re-explaining the reasons for the policy and giving the player a chance to cooperate, by asking the player for his or her cooperation, etc. In extreme cases the GM may need to ask the player afterwards to reconsider his or her behavior. No matter what, it’s important to treat the player with respect: no sarcasm, name-calling, or mocking. Even if someone thinks that they are being funny, it’s too easy for the target to feel put down or disrespected when conflict is occurring.