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

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

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

Wildcard Breadth Check

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

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

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

The Mechanics

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

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

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

GM Options

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

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

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

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.

Use a Default Default Level

Using Skill Defaults

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

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

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

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

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

Defaulting from Attributes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defaulting From Known Skills

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

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

Maintaining the GM’s Discretion

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

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

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

Summary of “Default” Default House Rules

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

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

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