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.

 

Discworld Roleplaying Game Review

In 2015, the world mourned the passing of British author Sir Terry Pratchett. He wrote the Discworld series, which spans over 40 books and combines imaginative fantasy, brilliant satire, and hilarious characters that have enthralled readers for decades.

Discworld Roleplaying Game cover
Discworld Roleplaying Game

Now readers can return to Pratchett’s world and continue the adventures of their beloved characters through the Discworld Roleplaying Game. Written by Terry Pratchett and Phil Masters, Discworld Roleplaying Game is a standalone RPG based on the fourth edition of GURPS, the Generic Universal Roleplaying System published by Steve Jackson Games. It was released in November 2016.

As of this writing, the Discworld Roleplaying Game is available as a hardcover book but not as a PDF. The interior is black & white, with line illustrations on most pages. It retails for $39.95.

Discworld Roleplaying Game is a long book—408 pages—and this review is likewise lengthy. If you are just interested in the verdict, scroll down to the bottom of this post.

Introduction

The book opens with a two page introduction that briefly summarizes what roleplaying games are, followed by the GURPS-standard Publication History and About the Authors. There’s not much to say about this section. The explanation of roleplaying games is clear and treads familiar ground.

On the Back of Four Elephants…

The first chapter title refers to Discworld, Pratchett’s fictional world that is supported by elephants floating through space on the back of a great turtle. In 14 pages, this chapter introduces the importance of story (including the element narrativium), Discworld history and geography, and world elements like different races, technology, and magic.

There’s no substitute for actually reading Pratchett, but this chapter does a good job of sketching out the fundamentals of the Disc’s reality. Just like every Discworld novel introduces new elements, every campaign will need to go beyond this cursory overview. But, as long as the gamemaster has read Discworld novels, this summary will help remind them of the tone and worldbuilding fundamentals.

The discussion of how story functions in Discworld is particularly valuable. It can be challenging to figure out how to play within the sandbox of an author’s world; this section does a good job of welcoming players to participate in Pratchett’s playground.

Making Characters

Chapter two is dedicated to GURPS character creation, and it’s big—a solid 63 pages. This chapter covers character points, attributes, social background, wealth and influence, advantages, disadvantages, and skills.

The book presents three ranges for possible Discworld adventurers, from pawns that run 25-75 points to large heroes and wizards at 250+ points. The power level of Discworld characters feels true to the books.

The discussion of basic attributes and secondary characteristics is brief and matches the Basic Set. The sections on reputation, social stigma, and status have more detail than the Basic Set, reflecting how frequently these themes are invoked in Discworld stories.

There’s also a brief discussion of tech levels from 0 (Stone Age) to 5 (Steam Age), including where those tech levels are represented on the Disc. Although the character creation section on tech levels is well-written, there is no corresponding section that explains the impact of different tech levels on success rolls like Basic Set p. B168. That seems like an oversight; the “crunch” aspect of specified tech levels is included without the mechanical support to implement that crunch.

The lists of advantages, disadvantages, and skills are substantially pared down from the full list in the Basic Set, and the selected traits strike a good balance between being comprehensive and being manageable. The skills section is organized differently than the Basic Set. Many skills are grouped into categories (e.g., academic skills, which encompass things like astronomy, history, and mathematics; melee weapon skills; and movement skills such as acrobatics and running). These categories are helpful for making the skill list appear less lengthy.

However, the book does not have a full trait list as in Basic Set pp. 297-306 or the character cheat sheets that appear in the worked genre books (Dungeon Fantasy, Action, Monster Hunters, and After the End). That list would be very helpful for reference during character creation, especially for new GURPS players, so readers wouldn’t have to skim the entirety of this lengthy chapter to find out what their character options are.

Nonhuman and Occupational Templates

One of the most common ways to simplify character creation in GURPS is by using templates. Templates define many of the character traits for a particular race or professional niche, reducing the number of decisions that players need to make in order to produce a playable character. The third chapter gives an exhaustive list of templates: 17 racial templates ranging from domestic cats to zombies, and 38 occupational templates spanning the entire power level spectrum from a tourist to small gods.

The template list is comprehensive; players should be able to find a starting point for any character type that would fit into the Discworld universe. This chapter also contains suggestions for adapting templates to related character types (for instance, turning a Merchant into a small-time professional in a different field). The one drawback is that there is no single list of the template options, so readers will have to flip through the whole chapter to see what templates are available.

The templates comprise the bulk of this chapter, but there is also a lengthy section on traits that are appropriate for nonhumans, such as brachiator for apes swinging on vines. While it’s helpful to have these traits separated out for reading purposes, it can be confusing to know which section contains a specific trait when you are looking up trait-specific rules.

This chapter is 62 pages of mostly crunch, but it’s the kind of crunch that is helpful to new GURPS players. The writing also makes the crunch accessible; the template descriptions (especially for the racial templates) do a good job of capturing the diversity of the Discworld cast as well as the quirks that permeate the character types.

Going Shopping

The equipment chapter is relatively straightforward. The weapons lists cover the standard options represented in Discworld: there are swords and clubs, but only a primitive (TL4) spring gun and no laser swords or heavy artillery. For armour, this chapter takes a much more abstract approach than Basic Set. Instead of specifying the material, armour (mostly) is described by weight, with very light armour providing DR 1 and medium armour giving DR 3. The heaviest armour is jousting plate, at DR 7.

Non-fighting equipment is covered briefly in a list of “normal” equipment. Separately, there are descriptions of Disc-specific technology like broomsticks and thaumometers. The Disc-specific tech is mostly fluff, but it echoes some of the iconic “stuff” of Discworld novels.

Doing Stuff

Chapter 5 gets into the mechanics of GURPS play: success rolls, reaction rolls, combat, injury and fatigue, and magic. There’s a lot covered in these 56 pages.

The description of success rolls is concise. But, there’s a major hole: there’s no list of task difficulty modifiers like Basic Set pp. B345-346. Without a framework for what modifiers mean, the GM has no guidance on how to set penalties and bonuses when there aren’t specific rules. The chapter instead includes a lot of specific rules from Basic Set to handle running, swimming, and other physical/mental feats, which might strike new players as a rules-overload.

The combat section effectively condenses down a lot of material into a streamlined format. These rules jettison a lot of detail for special combat situations, simplify map-based combat into rough sketches, and simplify the attack and defense modifiers to roughly a half page each. The shortened version feels a lot more accessible than the Basic Set‘s version of combat.

The magic rules are well constructed. The basic premise is that there is a master Magic skill along with eight Magical Forms skills that cover types of magic, such as Divination for getting information magically and Physiomancy for manipulating living things. Casters work magic at a skill penalty depending on how complex the magical effect is, and spend magic points (MP) to make their castings more powerful. So, the end result is something close to realm magic and effect shaping magic, rather than the spell-list-driven version of magic in the Basic Set and Magic. This is perfect for the Discworld, where magic is tied to storytelling rather than formulaic principles, and the eight magical forms capture the varieties of magic seen in Discworld novels well. There’s even a distinction between wizard and witch magic that feels at home in Pratchett’s world. Finally, the rules for blocking spells fill a gap in GURPS’ approach to magic: now a blocking spell can be cast as an active defense option instead of requiring prepared charms or other anticipatory magic.

The chapter ends with two pages on running the game. It includes a basic description of what the GM does during a session, how to create NPCs with short stat blocks, and how players are expected to share the spotlight and help tell the story together.

Life and Lands

Chapter 6 marks a significant change in tone. The previous chapters were filled with GURPS rules; the following chapters provide the narrative background to immerse yourself in the Discworld universe. These chapters contain minor spoilers for many Discworld novels, but don’t let that frighten you away. The emphasis is on themes, episodes from history, and the world at large.

Readers will quickly feel at home as they digest the development of the clacks, the attitudes between dwarfs and trolls, and the traditions of the Uberwaldian aristocracy. There have been hints of Pratchett’s satire and humor throughout the book, but in this chapter that style of language takes center stage, and it’s done quite well. The sentence structure, ironic appositives, and descriptions capture the essence of Pratchett’s writing without feeling forced or overdone.

There’s some overlap between the content of this chapter, chapter 1 (introducing the Disc and its narrative style) and chapter 4 (on nonhuman races), but since the focus is on fluff rather than crunch it’s not a problem.

“Welcome to Ankh-Morpork”

Continuing the focus on narrative background, chapter 7 surveys the city of Ankh-Morpork. The reader is introduced to the Patrician, the Watch, many of the city guilds, and more. Like chapter 6, this chapter treads familiar ground for Discworld readers.

The only criticism of the Discworld story-focused chapters is that the writing is more descriptive than hook-based. In other words, these chapters recount what is in the Discworld universe, but they don’t pose explicit adventure hooks to inspire GMs in their campaign creation. This emphasis on description rather than hooks is common to GURPS worldbooks, but compared to other RPG products it’s a slight negative.

The Supernatural Side

This chapter continues the narrative background of Discworld, exploring the general function of magic, the Unseen University, creatures like Death and the Auditors that exist outside the normal life of the Disc, and the various pantheons that Discworlders worship.

It’s difficult to fully separate the mechanics of magic from the story-based flavor, and there are some descriptions of magic in chapter 5 that lean heavily on cross-references to this chapter. Aside from that quibble, this chapter effectively summarizes what the supernatural looks like in the Discworld universe.

“Suicidally Gloomy When Sober, Homicidally Insane When Drunk”

Of course, Discworld wouldn’t be the amazing series of novels it is without the characters. From the Patrician to Commander Samuel Vines, Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler to Archchancellor Ridcully, this chapter describes many of the central (and less central but no less interesting) characters that make up Discworld society.

The character profiles contain some helpful suggestions for GMs. For instance, the Patrician’s description gives hints for how to handle his competence at almost everything, and GMs are encouraged to use Susan Sto Helit as a stabilizing force in the plot (which should ring a bell to readers of Thief of Time).

Beware the Ambiguous Puzuma

Chapter 10 covers the creatures of the Disc. Cats, elephants, dragons, and dryads are just some of the fauna in this brief chapter. This chapter has a combination of narrative descriptions as well as creatures with stat blocks. There’s enough variety to cover the animal needs for most Discworld campaigns.

Bad Food, No Sleep, and Strange People

The final chapter of the book discusses how to run campaigns in the Discworld universe. The chapter begins with advice about how to set the tone of the campaign, including the kinds of comedy that don’t play well with Pratchett’s world. There is also a discussion of campaign types and themes, as well as some specific adventure hooks.

A large portion of the chapter is devoted to a sample campaign setting: the Brown Islands, a harbor for the increasing number of merchants and seafarers traveling to and from the Counterweight Contingent. In addition to worldbuilding advice, there are eight scenario seeds to begin an adventure.

The Brown Islands is a rich campaign setting, but the chapter also includes a half dozen or so additional settings and scenario ideas. These settings are presented as brief vignettes with some ideas to get a campaign started.

The 34 pages of this chapter are gold for GMs that want to run a Discworld game but need some direction to get started.

End Matter

Discworld Roleplaying Game concludes with a glossary, bibliography, and index. The index is thorough and has a couple of humorous notes (look up Monkeys). Unlike other GURPS books, the index is broken into two parts: a main index and a traits index. The traits index is less useful than the traits list in Basic Set or the worked genre series: it is not comprehensive and many entries point back to the main index. It would have been better to integrate the two indices entirely or to have a separate comprehensive traits list (my preference).

Interior Layout and Artwork

While most GURPS hardcovers are full-color books, the staff at SJ Games decided to use black & white interior art for the Discworld Roleplaying Game in order to keep down the cost for such a large book. I’m a big fan of quality RPG art, so I was prepared to be disappointed by this choice. However, the line style of art looks great in black & white. The illustrations take fantasy images and give them a subtle humorous twist, which perfectly matches the tone of Pratchett’s world.

The text is laid out in two columns, which works well in printed formats. (It’s less convenient to read as a PDF, but Discworld Roleplaying Game is so far only available in print). The text is easily readable. The biggest shortcoming in the layout is that GURPS template blocks are difficult to parse because of run-on lines and dense paragraphs of trait options. Experienced GURPS players will be used to the format, but it is intimidating for new players. I also find it hard to tell when I’m looking at a chapter subheading versus a sub-subheading—I can see the difference but don’t know which is supposed to be the higher level—which is a weakness across the GURPS line.

Overall Review

The Discworld Roleplaying Game has several audiences. The first audience is experienced GURPS players that are Discworld fans. For this group, Discworld Roleplaying Game is an excellent product. The Discworld elements are done well: from echoing Pratchett’s writing style and sense of humor to including the world background to play within the Discworld universe, the book is nearly flawless. The GURPS-based elements are also solid for this audience: as long as the players are familiar with GURPS conventions, this book has everything they need to start playing, and they can fill in any gaps with a quick reference to the Basic Set.

For GURPS players that are not—yet—Discworld fans, this book still has much to offer. The advice about using humor and tone in campaigns will be helpful to many GMs, and the magic system is a compelling alternative to the standard system in the Basic Set. The comprehensive collection of templates can also be used to jump-start character creation in a variety of settings. This book isn’t a must-buy for gamers that don’t plan to adventure on the Disc, but it’s a good addition to the libraries of gamemasters and tinkerers.

One of the goals of having a standalone roleplaying product is to introduce new players to GURPS. For Discworld fans that have played in other systems but are new to GURPS, this book is a good starting point. The streamlined rules, especially for combat and magic, make GURPS far less intimidating, and the broad variety of templates dramatically simplify the character creation process. There are a few things that could have been done to make Discworld Roleplaying Game even more attractive to this audience: the lack of comprehensive lists for traits or templates, as well as the omission of task difficulty modifiers, will impact this group more than people already familiar with GURPS. But, the overall tone will quickly immerse fans in the Discworld storyline, making it worthwhile to learn the GURPS-specific rules. Gamers that want to play in Pratchett’s world should definitely take advantage of this RPG realization of the Disc.

For Discworld fans that are new roleplayers, this book is good but not great. This audience will find the same shortcomings as the experienced roleplayers, but they may also need more guidance on what exactly a roleplaying game is. The introductory material is very brief, and a scene or two of actual play would make a big difference for this audience. In addition, this group may need more support for building a campaign than is provided in chapter 11. Having said that, roleplaying games are often difficult to learn just from books, and now the rulebooks can be supplemented with blogs, actual play podcasts and streams, and online or in-person communities. In addition, the Discworld focus on narrative—and the way Discworld Roleplaying Game brings narrativium into the gaming experience—makes the Discworld a great place for new players to cut their teeth on roleplaying.

Overall, the Discworld Roleplaying Game is a solid contribution to Sir Pratchett’s legacy. This book promises adventurers inspired by one of the great storytellers of the last century, and I can’t wait to hear the History Monks recount the tales of my campaign as our game builds on the Disc’s rich and hilarious tales.

 

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.

Estimating GURPS Skill Levels

GURPS is a skill-based roleplaying game. If you understand how skill levels work mechanically, you can run or play a game. It’s easy to lose sight of the skill system because GURPS has elaborate options for character customization. But, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, you can always strip the system back to skills in order to create a manageable gaming experience.

The GURPS Skill Triangle

In play, GURPS skills are driven by three factors: the base skill level, the effective skill level, and the task difficulty modifiers. These three elements make up what I call the GURPS Skill Triangle. If you understand how the Triangle is put together, you can easily improvise challenges in GURPS.

Base Skill Level

The base skill level is what level the character has listed for a skill on their character sheet. The Basic Set gives the following descriptions for what base skill levels represent (paraphrasing from p. B172):

  • Ordinary folks have base skill levels ranging from 8 to 13. Skills important to the character’s profession tend to be at level 12 or 13; rarely used skills are often at level 8 or 9.
  • Experts have skill levels that go higher. In general, even a master in the field will usually max out a specific skill at 20 or 25, preferring to study complimentary skills instead of pushing an elite skill above level 25.

Base skill levels below 10 are poorly known skills; the character can succeed at the task on occasion or with aid, but frequently struggles with the ability. At skill levels 10 or 11, the character is more often successful but their abilities are still inconsistent. At level 12, skills are solid enough to cover most occupational demands (whether that be swinging a sword, negotiating a settlement, or navigating a bureaucracy). And, at levels 14 and above, the person demonstrates mastery of their ability.

Task Difficulty Modifiers

Of course, some tasks are more difficult than others. The second leg of the Triangle, task difficulty modifiers, is a catch-all for the situational modifiers that apply to a given success roll. This can include bonuses for using complimentary skills or easier-than-average conditions, penalties for poor equipment or working at a different tech level—anything that changes the odds of success. GURPS has rules that codify the modifiers for a variety of situations, but GMs can also use generic task difficulty modifiers to indicate that a task is more or less challenging.

The default task difficulty, +0, represents using the skill under normal adventuring conditions. Ordinary, everyday situations are less stressful and therefore get bonuses to reflect the less challenging circumstances. By contrast, tasks that would give pause to even brave adventurers receive task difficulty penalties in order to reflect the challenge of the situation.

Basic Set pp. B345–B346 describes the range of typical task difficulties, from +10 (automatic success except for flukes of chance) all the way to -10 (impossible tasks that no sane person would attempt).

Effective Skill Level

The third side of the Triangle, effective skill level, is the result of combining the other two sides. The base skill level + the sum of all the relevant task difficulty modifiers results in the effective skill level.

Players make success rolls against the effective skill level of their character, so effective skill levels correspond directly to the chances of success (the full table is listed on p. B171):

  • Below effective skill 8, the odds of success are 16.2% or less (depending on the specific skill level).
  • Effective skill 8 will succeed 25.9% of the time.
  • Effective skill 9 will succeed 37.5% of the time.
  • Effective skill 10 will succeed 50% of the time.
  • Effective skill 11 will succeed 62.5% of the time.
  • Effective skill 12 will succeed 74.1% of the time.
  • The odds of success continue increasing for each additional skill level, albeit at a smaller rate as the levels increase.
  • Once a character hits an effective skill of 16, their success is capped at 98.1% (because of the fixed chance of rolling a failure or critical failure).

Using the Triangle

Because all three sides of the Triangle are connected, GMs can manipulate the Triangle in order to produce the results that a game situation demands.

Let’s say that a PC wants investigate a crime scene. The base skill level is set: just read the character sheet to see what the PC has for Investigation. The GM can set the task difficulty modifier based on how complex the scene is, which will produce the effective skill level for that situation.

But, the GM can also work backwards. Let’s say that, for narrative reasons, the GM wants the PC to have just slightly better-than-even odds of finding a specific clue. Perhaps the GM wants to reward the PCs for finding some leads earlier (which narrow down the search) but still wants to emphasize that the PCs don’t have the whole story. In that case, the GM can use the Triangle to figure out how to create the desired effective skill level of 11. If the PC has a base skill of Investigation-15, the GM needs to describe the situation in order to justify a task difficulty modifier of -4. The GM could therefore describe the apparent disorder of the scene, the lack of immediately obvious signs, or the short amount of time the PCs have until the cops arrive and kick them out of the scene.

The GM can keep working backwards through the Triangle in order to flesh out the relevant NPCs. Suppose the player characters are trying to track a bandit through the forest. The players know the task difficulty modifier for that situation: -4 because of poor weather and unfamiliar terrain. If they fail, but they encounter a ranger who can hunt down the bandit easily, it’s clear that the ranger has a much higher base skill because he can absorb the tracking penalties and still have a high effective skill level.  The PCs may want to befriend this ranger in order to take advantage of his superior talents!

On the other hand, the Triangle can be used to show that the NPCs aren’t as skilled as the players might expect. If the PCs observe a mage working a ritual, and the mage surrounds herself with lots of props in order to power the ritual but still barely eeks out a successful casting, that tells the players that the mage had a relatively low effective skill despite a high bonus for the task difficulty, which implies that she has a low base skill for ritual magic. If the players are normally cautious, this kind of information about the mage can help them assess how dangerous she would be when cornered.

Quick-and-Dirty Skill Levels

Finally, the GM can take advantage of the Triangle to simplify non-player character building. Instead of figuring out what skill levels NPCs should have before the game, the GM can use the Triangle to come up with plausible character stats on the fly.

Because the three sides of the Triangle are linked, the GM can use any two of the three elements to estimate the third side. An NPC should probably succeed on a task? Assume the NPC has an effective skill of 14, determine how difficult the task is, and then derive the base skill level from those two factors. Or, if the NPC has a base skill already established but he or she should likely fail at a task in this situation, work out the task difficulty modifiers so that his or her effective skill is 8 or less.

Applying the Skill Triangle

GURPS often requires GM judgment. By understanding the Skill Triangle, GMs can check their ballpark estimates to make sure that their judgment calls fit the game. Is a task penalty too harsh? Check what effect it has on the odds of success for the new effective skill. Is a base skill level too low for the campaign? Ask what kind of difficulty penalties the character will have to deal with on a regular basis, and see whether the resulting effective skill level is high enough to challenge the players without overwhelming them. Are the characters being challenged enough? Look at what their effective skill is, and adjust the task difficulty modifiers until the players feel a genuine sense of risk.

The Triangle enables GMs to check their work by comparing the game mechanics to the narrative descriptions those mechanics represent. If one side of the Triangle is out of whack, the GM can refine the mechanics until all the elements make sense together.

 

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)

GURPS Thaumatology: Ritual Path Magic Review

There are a lot of ways for magic to function in game worlds. If you like the idea of wizards and witches that are not limited to specific spell lists, then ritual path magic may be the system for you. GURPS Thaumatology: Ritual Path Magic, by Jason “PK” Levine, is a 54 page supplement that outlines rules for casting magic by gathering energy from the environment and shaping that energy into spell effects.

Learning Magic

Harry Dresden, a prototypical example of a ritual path magic caster
Harry Dresden, the protagonist of The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher, is a prototypical example of a ritual path magic caster

The first section, on the character traits that go into ritual path magic (RPM) casters, totals 10 pages. There are four major traits that make up RPM characters: the core skill of Thaumatology, the specific path skills that the caster specializes in, the Magery advantage, and the Ritual Adept advantage.

In the standard GURPS magic system, magic users learn each spell as a separate skill. By contrast, RPM casters can learn just a single skill: Thaumatology. This skill allows the caster to attempt any spell, although there are severe penalties for attempts at default.

Most casters will choose to specialize in one or more paths of study. Ritual path magic uses nine path skills—domains of expertise, such as Path of Body for interacting with living creatures, Path of Energy for manipulating light, heat, and kinetics, and Path of Magic for interacting with mystical forces. Between the nine paths, almost any effect can be created, and the GM is welcome to choose alternate paths to reflect the ontology of his or her world.

To be more effective, RPM casters will usually take the Ritual Adept advantage. Ritual Adept speeds up the casting process significantly, and it also eliminates a variety of casting restrictions such as having to use a consecrated space or needing a connection with the spell’s subject. In practice, a RPM caster without Ritual Adept will be extremely limited or will need to absorb large casting penalties.

Finally, Magery (Ritual Path) works differently than in standard magic. Instead of increasing the effective skill for spells (like a Talent), RPM Magery increases the skill cap on path skills, provides a larger mana reserve for casting, and allows casters to have more conditional spells (which are spells that have been prepared ahead of time and can be triggered at will).

The character traits that make up RPM are clean and elegant. Compared to the long and cumbersome spell list for regular magic, ritual path magic is accessible, logical, and simple.

Performing Magic

The second chapter, on performing ritual path magic, is 9 pages long. There is a lot packed into this chapter, but the basic casting process is straightforward. First, the caster determines what effect he or she will create, and therefore calculates the total energy cost of the spell. Second, the caster determines the relevant skill for the spell. Third, the caster gathers energy, from a combination of path skill rolls, mana reserves, sacrificing HP or FP, and specialized artifacts. Finally, once the energy has been gathered, the caster makes a success roll in order to actually cast the spell.

The first part—defining the ritual—is unique to RPM. Because the spell effects are not determined in advance, the caster’s player and the GM need to define what the spell is. To do so, they will build the casting out of the categories of spell effects.

There are seven kinds of spell effects, ranging from the simple sense effects to powerful manipulation effects like create or transform. Each effect has an energy cost. For instance, creating an itch would require a Control effect from the Path of Body, for a base cost of 5 energy.

The base cost can be modified in a number of ways: by adding bonuses or penalties to the subject, by changing the range or damage, etc. For particularly unnatural effects (like creating lightning from a clear sky), the GM can multiply the spell’s cost by requiring a Greater effect.

Once the spell’s energy cost is determined, the player needs to determine what path skill to use for the casting, which will be the lowest path skill involved in the ritual. The player also determines penalties if the caster does not have Ritual Adept or Magery (Ritual Path).

Step 3, acquiring the energy, is usually the most time-consuming part of RPM casting (in game time, and sometimes in real time). The caster rolls against his or her effective path skill; the margin of success determines how many energy points he or she gathers. Many spells will require multiple gatherings, and each attempt to gather energy takes five seconds (or five minutes for non-adept casters!). The caster can also gather energy by tapping a mana reserve or sacrificing HP/FP.

Once the final point of energy is gathered, the caster makes a final success roll against his or her effective path skill in order to cast the spell.

There’s a lot packed into this chapter, and unfortunately the system requires some page-flipping to find the relevant modifiers. Casting the spell uses the modifiers under Choose the Skill; Acquire the Energy uses both the Choose the Skill and Acquire the Energy modifiers. However, the system itself is very straightforward, and after a few castings the process flows much more smoothly.

Advanced Magic

Advanced Magic, the third chapter, is also the longest at 14 pages. It covers a range of rules for using RPM effectively. Since RPM castings require multiple seconds of game time, there are specialized rules for “blocking” spells and prepared rituals called “conditional rituals” that can be unleashed in a moment. There are also rules for charms and elixers, castings in places of power and with the support of magical grimores, and suggestions for alternative sets of paths.

This chapter isn’t mandatory, but it’s hard to imagine a RPM game that wouldn’t want to use at least some of these rules.

The Grimore

The fourth chapter is a 13-page list of example castings. The samples give a good idea of how flexible ritual path magic is. GMs in particular should read through this list to get an intuitive feel for how to use spell effects to create casting rituals, as well as when to use greater effects in rituals.

Appendix: Botches and Quirks

The last two pages of content list example botches and quirks that the GM can impose on spellcasters. When the caster fails his or her rolls to gather energy for the spell, the result is a complication in the spell. These can be minor quirks, such as nominal damage or visible indications of your casting, or they can be serious bursts of uncontrolled magical energy. The GM is free to create their own botches and quirks; the appendix provides some ideas that the GM can use in their campaigns.

Summary

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

Ritual Path Magic has quickly become one of the most popular alternate magic systems for GURPS, and it’s easy to see why. For a generic, universal system, the basic GURPS magic rules feel cumbersome and fiddly. By contrast, ritual path magic is truly universal—the casters can create any effect, and the rules don’t require elaborate prerequisite chains or idiosyncratic spell descriptions.

The Thaumatology: Ritual Path Magic supplement is a great foundation for this approach to magic. The system is well designed and the rules cover most of the common situations that GMs will need to handle. There are some sections that are very dense with modifiers and occasional sections that are edited down so concisely that they require too much page turning to find the relevant information. But, presentation and layout issues aside, the volume as a whole is a good value.

As with any ruleset, there are advantages and drawbacks. The biggest negative to RPM is that it requires GM oversight to make sure that players don’t create world-shattering effects. It’s not a difficult task, but for new GMs or GMs that have to corral min-maxing players, RPM may be too demanding. However, it is a lot easier to learn the RPM system than the basic magic system, so it may be simpler for a GM to become comfortable with RPM than to master the more convoluted aspects of basic GURPS magic.

GURPS Thaumatology: Ritual Path Magic is available as a PDF download from Warehouse 23 for $9.99.

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.

GURPSday Cross Post: Story, Flavor, and One-Shots

gurpsdayEvery Thursday, Douglas Cole at Gaming Ballistic compiles posts from the GURPS blogosphere. This week, there are a couple of posts that I want to flag for the Just Roll 3d6 audience:

  • Ken DeLyzer writes on Game Mastery, or ‘How I learned to love the story.’ The key takeaway is that the most important part of the gaming experience is the stories that the participants generate together. If you can build a story that draws the players in, the details of the rules, mechanics, and balance will all fade away.
  • Derrick White’s post 10 Points of Flavor suggests having a flavor-only pool of points for character creation, in order to make the characters more three-dimensional. This is a great suggestion for overcoming the urge to optimize every element of every build.
  • Warren “Mook” Wilson gives some advice on running one-shots, including how to use Halloween as an opportunity to introduce new players to the fun of RPGs, in Halloween One-Shots.

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.