Thematic Character Creation with Template Optimal Concepts

GURPS has an extensive list of character traits—but that doesn’t mean you need to read through the whole list to find the right combination of traits for your character! This post will show how GURPS’ rules enable players to take a thematic approach to character creation. Instead of finding traits for your character, you can build the traits that your character needs!

GURPS Template Toolkit 1: Characters
GURPS Template Toolkit 1: Characters

This post expands on several ideas from GURPS Template Toolkit 1: Characters. However, the rules you need to develop these concepts are entirely contained in the Basic Set. If you want additional ideas to jump-start your thinking, several PDFs from the Power-Ups line will be useful: GURPS Power-Ups 2: Perks, GURPS Power-Ups 3: Talents, and GURPS Power-Ups 7: Wildcard Skills.

The Core Idea: Character-Driven Traits

GURPS is frequently described as a skill-based RPG system. Rather than using classes or racial templates to define the characters, each character is comes to life in its skills and abilities. As a result, most of the decisions in character creation revolve around skill choices (and by extension the advantages and disadvantages that compliment those skills). The players are expected to decide among the extensive list of skills and abilities in order to choose the right combination that represents what their character brings to the table.

The character-driven trait approach inverts this order. Instead of going through the skill list in order to bring the character to life, the character-driven trait approach uses the character concept to create appropriate traits. Note the word “create”: in this approach, the players don’t need to refer to the existing skill lists because their character concept is used to formulate new traits.

The advantage to this approach is players don’t need to know the official trait names, so character creation is faster and less intimidating. And, because the players don’t have to map their character concept to an existing list of traits, there’s no problem if the list of official traits doesn’t perfectly match what they have in mind. There’s no need for complicated combinations of advantages, limitations to specific contexts, or worrying about exactly what a skill covers—as long as the player and GM can understand what the player intends, that’s good enough.

This approach also allows GURPS to gain some of the advantages of class-based RPGs (simple character concepts rather than long lists of features). However, the players still have the flexibility to envision their character the way they want—they aren’t limited to a formulaic class archetype or a pre-defined list of legitimate classes.

This idea develops the concept of template-optimal abilities found in chapter 3 of Template Toolkit 1: Characters. Template-optimal abilities are abilities that are particularly well-suited to a specific template because they boost a key competency or a core element of the character concept. The approach in this article extends that idea beyond the template framework to build an individual character, as opposed to the template for a character type.

Wildcard Skills for Core Competencies

The most basic implementation of a character-driven trait is a wildcard skill that represents the character’s core competencies. Instead of determining a comprehensive list of skills for a paladin, an FBI agent, a starfighter pilot, or an occult investigator, the player can create a wildcard skill that covers all the skills within the umbrella of that concept.

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

Power-Ups 7 includes 11 pages of example wildcard skills. Many of those examples work for this purpose: medieval roles like Bard! and Courtier!, action concepts like Demolition Man! and Wire Rat!, or horror archetypes like Detective! and Occult! In all of these examples, a single wildcard skill can replace many of the skills that a character needs to fill that dramatic niche.

The important thing about using wildcard skills for character-driven traits is that the players are not limited to a predefined list of wildcard skills. They are free to create their own wildcard skill that matches their character concept: if there’s no existing Starfighter! wildcard, make it up!

Talents for Related Skills

A second way to use character-driven traits is by creating a Talent for a specific element of that character’s identity. Talents give a bonus to rolls on skills that fall within the talent’s scope. They are a great way to easily strengthen some areas of a character concept—a skill area that is more heavily trained or specialized than the general character concept wildcard, a secondary skill set, etc. For instance, a prince with an aptitude for negotiating through conflict could be created with the Royalty! wildcard skill and a Negotiation Talent, which gives a bonus for all negotiation-related interactions (including actual negotiations, as well as reading body language during a negotiation, calling someone’s bluff while negotiating, and so forth).

GURPS Power-Ups 3: Talents cover
GURPS Power-Ups 3: Talents

As with wildcard skills, Talents can be created by the player and GM; they aren’t restricted to a pre-published list. That flexibility makes character-driven Talents an easy way to create a customized trait for a specific character concept. There are lots of examples of Talents, as well as suggestions for how to determine the appropriate scope of Talents, in Power-Ups 3: Talents.

Wildcard skills and Talents can be used together or separately. The players are welcome to build a character with full list of skills, but use character-driven Talents to add color and depth in a simple way. The biggest difference is scope: wildcard skills generally cover 12-14 standard skills, while Talents cover smaller domains (3-6 for a 5 point Talent or 7-12 for a 10 point Talent).

Higher Purpose for a Core Motivation

A third type of character-driven trait that can be used to customize character is the Higher Purpose advantage. Like Talents, Higher Purpose gives a bonus to rolls that fall within the scope of the specified higher purpose. The difference is that Talents focus on what and how: what is the character talented at, and how does the character do it? Talents are specific to skills, or specific uses of skills. Higher Purpose, on the other hand, looks at why. It gives a bonus to tasks that fall within the scope of that purpose, regardless of what skills are used to achieve that higher purpose. An assassin might have a Talent with a gun, but a Higher Purpose of taking out corrupt leaders. The assassin would get the Higher Purpose bonus for taking out a corrupt leader no matter what weapon he or she uses. On the other hand, taking out someone merely because they had a contract on their head would not trigger the Higher Purpose bonus—but it could get the bonus for the gun Talent if the assassin used a firearm to complete the contract.

Higher Purpose is a great way to flesh out the motivations of the character. Again, the Higher Purpose can be created and named by the player, which makes it easy to generate something that speaks to the character’s personal motivations.

Perks for Flavor

Finally, Perks are 1 point “advantages” that give bonuses in relatively minor situations. Creating a couple of character-driven Perks can easily add some flavor to the character concept.

GURPS Power-Ups 2: Perks
GURPS Power-Ups 2: Perks

Power-Ups 2: Perks contains a long list of example perks to help generate ideas. There are lots of Perks around character appearances and social interactions—blending into crowds, having a distinctive voice, or dressing well. Most Perks are too small to define a character on their own, but they can highlight small foibles, characteristic mannerisms, or other small character details that make your character distinct from all the other possible characters with the same dramatic niche.

Encouraging Faster Play with Perks

One of the most common ways that play slows down is when participants need to calculate a lot of modifiers on the fly. Combat is an obvious example: if a player needs to determine their effective skill with a specific weapon and technique while performing a specific maneuver, and then needs to determine what the damage is for that attack, there are a lot of variables in play.

Whenever there are a lot of options for how to execute a skill, there is an opportunity to streamline the play experience with Perks. Perks are introduced in Basic Set as 1 point advantages that characters can purchase:

“A perk can provide a modest bonus (up to +2) to an attribute, skill, or reaction roll in relatively rare circumstances” (p. B100).

To speed up play, GMs and players can choose to use Perks to give small bonuses for pre-selecting the relevant options and doing the math before play starts. This post will show a couple of canonical examples of these Perks before introducing some new options.

Trademark Move Perks

GURPS Power-Ups 2: Perks
GURPS Power-Ups 2: Perks

The Trademark Move perk is described in Power-Ups 2: Perks. A player can purchase this Perk for a specific combination of combat options—maneuver, weapon, technique, and hit location. Pre-selecting these options means that all the relevant modifiers, damage dice, etc. can be calculated in advance, so there’s no need to determine the details at the table.

In exchange for pre-selecting the options (and spending 1 character point on the Perk), the player gets a +1 bonus any time he or she uses the Trademark Move exactly as defined.

Trademark Move is a great Perk because it gives a mechanical incentive for players to choose a streamlined play option. It also works well narratively—the character has practiced his or her Trademark Move enough that he or she is a little more skilled at that move than ordinary skill rolls. Because the Trademark Move Perk only costs a point, it is easy to add in between sessions when a player learns how his or her character wants to be played in combat: just spend a point from the session advancement budget on the relevant Trademark Move.

Ritual Mastery Perks

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

Melee combat attacks are not the only situation in which there are a lot of modifiers flying around. The Ritual Path Magic system, detailed in Thaumatology: Ritual Path Magic, also involves on-the-fly determination of how to construct magic rituals, the energy costs, and the relevant skill(s).

To speed up that process, Ritual Path Magic offers the Ritual Mastery Perk. Whenever a character attempts a predefined ritual and has the associated Ritual Mastery Perk, he or she gets a +2 bonus to all rolls for that ritual.

Like the Trademark Move Perk, Ritual Mastery is a great way to mechanically reward players for doing the math before the game starts. Working a ritual becomes much faster when the ritual is defined (and agreed to with the GM) before play begins.

Trademark Moves for Ranged Attacks

GURPS Martial Arts
GURPS Martial Arts

The examples for Trademark Moves are all melee attacks, but there’s no reason characters couldn’t use a Trademark Move for a ranged attack as well. The GM could even permit a two-turn Trademark Move: Aim for one turn, then do a specified Attack maneuver with this weapon and these combat options—for instance, hit location or using a prediction shot (which is a Deceptive Attack applied to ranged combat; see Martial Arts, p. 121). For the two-turn version, the GM should consider making the Perk a +2 bonus.

Other Situations

As long as the situation is narrow enough, the GM can encourage players to buy Perks covering other kinds of skill uses that have lots of modifiers. The basic idea is to look for situations that have a comparable level of specificity to the Perks above.

If you are playing a game with detailed social interaction rules, there might be an opportunity for a Perk that involves a combination of social skills. For instance, scanning an audience for a good person to question, asking for information in an appropriate way, and then ascertaining whether the person’s body language is trustworthy or deceptive could be a “social trademark move” that can be treated as a single roll of the lowest base skill among Observation, Diplomacy, and Body Language, with an additional +1 bonus from the Perk.