Power-Ups 7: Wildcard Skills Review

GURPS is a skill-based system, but sometimes it is helpful to simplify the skill system. Whether you are playing with newer players who might be intimidated by a long skill list, creating NPCs on the fly that need appropriate skill levels, or simply want to make sure that you didn’t overlook something on your character sheet, wildcard skills are a way to do that.

GURPS Power-Ups 7: Wildcard Skills, by Sean Punch, greatly expands on the Basic Set‘s rules about wildcard skills. In the Basic Set, wildcard skills are introduced in a brief sidebar as skills that cover “extremely broad categories of abilities” (p. B175). In this volume, Punch elaborates on what wildcard skills are, how to incorporate them into the campaign, and what kinds of wildcard skills are possible.

Power-Ups 7: Wildcard Skills is 39 pages and is available from Warehouse 23 (SJ Games’ online store) for $7.99.

Defining Wildcards

The first chapter, Defining Wildcards, makes up about half of the supplement’s size. It reiterates the basic information about wildcard skills, including their point cost and scope, in the first few pages. In short, wildcard skills are skills denoted with an exclamation mark (like Pilot! or Science!). A character that has a wildcard skill is assumed to have any relevant abilities that would be included within the wildcard ability—so a super-science genius could take Science! instead of Biology, Chemistry, Physics, etc. This shortcut allows for dramatically simpler character sheets.

Then, the chapter gets into new information: advice for GMs about what wildcard skills to permit, how many wildcard skills to allow, and how to manage the scope of wildcard skills. The suggestions are clear, and seeing them all grouped together provides a variety of ideas for GMs who are uncertain how to use wildcards appropriately.

For GMs who are especially concerned about balance, Power-Ups 7 goes into the logic behind the target scope for wildcard skills and gives some optional suggestions for more nuanced scope, based on whether the wildcard skill is replacing Easy skills, Hard skills, or Very Hard skills (or a combination thereof). This section is probably too pedantic to be workable in an actual game—if you’re tabulating the skill replacements that closely, you might as well just use the actual skills—but it’s good food for thought when GMs need to think about how broad wildcard skills should be in a given campaign.

The following section, Additional Benefits, introduces new rules for giving mechanical bonuses to characters with wildcard skills. The motivation for this section is that wildcard skills cost a lot to compensate for their breadth, and so characters that invest in wildcard skills should be rewarded for that choice. The bonuses include eliminating familiarity penalties of all kinds and including relevant perks for free.

The most interesting of the new rules is the Wildcard Points (WP) mechanic. Players whose characters have wildcard skills receive WP based on how many points they put into wildcard skills; these WP can in turn be spent on meta-game bonuses such as buying successes or letting players determine the narrative outcome of a successful roll (e.g., by determining there is a clue present if the player rolled against an Investigation! skill). The mechanics are similar to the rules in GURPS Monster Hunters and GURPS Power-Ups 5: Impulse Buys for letting the players spend points to influence the narrative in-game; if that mechanic appeals to you, Wildcard Points are a great way to incorporate it into your game.

Using Wildcards

Chapter 2, Using Wildcards, is quite short at only 5 pages. It includes some more GM advice about how to decide what wildcards to allow in the campaign, how to use wildcards during success rolls (including restrictions, difficulty levels, and other mechanical questions), and some ideas for how to run a campaign that uses only wildcard skills—no normal skills at all!

All of the rules in this chapter are optional; they show the variety of ways that wildcard skills can be incorporated into a game. The bottom line is that GM judgment matters for wildcards, but this chapter gives some good suggestions to help GMs develop that judgment.

This chapter feels a little unbalanced compared to the rest of the volume. It is much shorter than chapter 1, and some of the GM advice feels repetitive. There may have been a better division of those two chapters between character creation/pre-game advice and in-game rules. However, the content in the chapter is still well thought out.

Examples

The final chapter is titled “Examples,” and as the name suggests, it is a list of example wildcard skills. For each wildcard skill, it describes the skills that the wildcard replaces, suggests benefits that make sense for that wildcard, and identifies where else the wildcard skill has appeared in previous GURPS publications.

The list of examples is long, at 18 pages, and it covers a wide variety of niches, genres, and skill sets. Having all the wildcard skills in one place is useful both for tracking down wildcards, as well as browsing for inspiration.

Summary

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

GURPS Power-Ups 7: Wildcard Skills is a great resource for expanding the use of wildcard skills. GMs will find excellent advice for structuring how wildcard skills function in their campaigns. Players can use this volume for ideas of how wildcard skills can be used and what they can cover.

This volume is not intended to be a single worked example or ruleset: the reader is expected to make decisions about what elements to incorporate into their games. Some of the options are designed to streamline the game, while other options add new mechanics, crunch, and character creation decisions. As a result, there is probably something for everyone in this volume. The material is most relevant for GMs because of the volume of advice for how to think about wildcard skills before the game begins.

For GMs interested in rules-light games, Power-Ups 7 is helpful in thinking through how wildcard skills can streamline character creation and skill lists. Players interested in rules-lite games can benefit from the lengthy list of examples, but the optional rules may be too much to filter through unless they are experienced GURPS players.

Overall, Power-Ups 7 is a valuable addition to the GURPS library. It is not a mandatory supplement, but it takes a good idea from the Basic Set and works through a number of options for how to apply it. If you are interested in building characters with wildcard skills, finding interesting ways to reward players for using wildcard skills, or making the wildcard skills in templated characters more fun to play, this book will be useful.

Faster Character Creation with Wildcard Skills

Skills are central to GURPS characters. The characters’ skill lists are the primary mechanical representations of how one character differs from another. A ninja and a spaceship mechanic may look alike when it comes to attributes—both have relatively high DX and ST—but their skills will show just how different the two characters are.

Because GURPS offers a massive list of skills (almost 300 in Basic Set alone!), it is easy to get overwhelmed during character creation. Fortunately, there is an optional rule that can simplify matters. By using the wildcard skill rules, you can simplify character creation by glossing over a lot of the details inherent to a lengthy skill list.

Introducing Wildcards

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

Wildcard skills are introduced as an optional rule on p. B175, and are expanded in Power-Ups 7: Wildcard Skills. Instead of requiring players to purchase a long list of skills that cover a related area, the player can give their character a wildcard skill that represents knowledge of all the skills within that domain. For instance, a medical professional could learn Diagnosis, First Aid, Physician, Pharmacy, etc.—or that character could learn the Doctor! wildcard skill to represent his or her experience with all of those underlying skills.

Basic Set describes wildcard skills as a solution to a specific problem: how to create cinematic characters that can do anything in a broad category of abilities. A player with an action hero character might want to learn the Gun! wildcard skill rather than worrying about which guns the hero knows how to use.

However, wildcard skills don’t need to be restricted to cinematic campaigns. In fact, Wildcard Skills explicitly describes wildcard skills as a way to streamline character creation or skill lists, regardless of the type of campaign. Instead of going through several hundred possible skills to determine what is relevant, a player can simply describe his or her character’s key elements and use wildcard skills to capture the relevant skills.

Choosing Appropriate Wildcards

There are lots of ways that wildcard skills can be used. They can describe the headline features of the character: their role within a party, special abilities, or unique competencies. The Gun! wildcard skill handles the core competency of the ranged combat operative. Or, wildcards can simplify the skill selection process for secondary abilities, background skills, or racial skills. For instance, a wildcard skill of Europe! could be used for character background instead of the relevant specializations of Area Knowledge, Current Affairs, Geography, History, Savoir-Faire, and so forth.

Players are encouraged to create their own wildcard skills (with the GM’s approval) in order to capture specific skill domains. While Wildcard Skills includes a list of over 60 example wildcard skills, this list is not intended to be exhaustive.

However, it is important for the GM to think about how wildcard skills should function in the game. There are almost no limits to how wildcard skills can be used; Wildcard Skills even discusses extreme cases in which wildcard skills replace all skills, or even other aspects of characters like attributes and advantages! But, for the more modest goal of streamlining character creation without radically changing the GURPS character creation process, a more restrained approach is called for.

Wildcard skills are priced competitively with about a dozen Average skills, so that’s a good ballpark for how broad they should be. A typical character will have 10 to 25 skills: a handful of core skills, six to ten secondary skills, and a smattering of skills for character history, racial background, and “color.” So, you could build a reasonable character with three or fewer wildcard skills and then a small selection of additional, regular skills to finish the character. Use caution with more than four wildcard skills; that might result in a character that doesn’t have a clear identity or function.

Integrating Wildcard Skills into a Character Sheet

When allowing players to use wildcard skills, there are three things to keep in mind during the character creation process. The first is point cost. Because wildcard skills represent knowledge of all the skills that fall within a domain, they have a unique pricing structure: they cost triple the cost of a Very Hard skill. Thus, a wildcard skill at Attribute-3 level would cost 3 points. Attribute-2 costs a total of 6 points; Attribute-1 costs 12 points total, and each additional level costs an additional 12 points. Because they are so expensive, wildcard skills will quickly chew through the character’s point total at higher levels. As a result, it’s important for the GM to work with the players in choosing wildcard skills that will contribute to the game’s tasks.

Second, the GM needs to think about the scope of wildcard skills so that the player characters are reasonably balanced. This is particularly important if the characters use different numbers of wildcard skills. But, even if all the characters have the same number of wildcard skills, the GM needs to check that the scope of those skills is comparable so that no character hogs the spotlight or is left unable to contribute to the adventures.

Finally, the GM should make sure that the wildcard skills don’t make the PCs into carbon copies. Each character should still have something unique to offer to the adventure. If the characters only have minor differences, it will be hard to create an engaging game experience for each of the players.