Simplify the Game with GM Style, Not Rules

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

Toolkits Can Simplify

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rules or GM Style?

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

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

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

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

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

Ideas for GM Style Modifications

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

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

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

Minimalist Character Creation

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

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

GURPS Character Assistant cover
GURPS Character Assistant

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

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

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

Start With Attributes

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

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

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

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

Use Skills to Finalize

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

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

GURPS Lite cover
GURPS Lite

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

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

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

There Are Always Exceptions

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

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

Understanding Damage in GURPS Combat

GURPS has a reputation for lethal combat, which catches many new players by surprise. This reputation stems from a different conceptual model of damage. When you understand what damage means in GURPS, it becomes easier to know how to enjoy combat—or how to adopt optional rules in order to create the experience you do want.

Many RPGs treat hit points as a reserve that is intended to be used. Your character’s hit points gradually wear down in combat, like ablative armor, and that’s okay if you can wear your opponent down to zero first. As long as you stay above zero (or a specific “bloodied” threshold), there’s no difference between being fully healthy and just hanging on. As a result, characters can take a beating and keep on dishing it out, and in fact it is expected that your character will take lots of damage during combat.

By contrast, the default assumption in GURPS is that damage hurts. When your character gets injured, he or she is less able to function. As a result, even a single point of damage can influence future rounds of combat, and those effects can stack up over time.

The cumulative effect of taking any damage is sometimes referred to as the GURPS Death Spiral. A single injury causes a shock penalty, which makes it more likely that the character will be hit the next turn, which makes it more likely that the character will cross the 1/3 HP threshold and slow down, etc. Consequently, avoiding injury is more important in GURPS, and if you get hit you need to adjust your tactics rather than barreling through the pain. In short, it’s usually not a good strategy to just assume that you can dish it out faster than your opponent.

Implications of the “Damage Hurts” Model

Because GURPS assumes by default that damage hurts, combat plays out a little differently than in other systems.

  • Going first matters: Being able to strike the first blow gives your character a huge advantage. GURPS emphasizes the importance of speed by having characters act in combat in order of speed, rather than rolling for initiative. So, you can control how quickly you act more than in other systems—and you should use that to your advantage.
  • Avoiding damage is crucial: GURPS encourages players to avoid damage through the strategic use of cover, terrain, dodging, or blocking. If your opponent can’t hit you, they can’t hurt you. It’s rare for a GURPS battle to be a bashing contest; the players have a strong incentive to choose better tactical approaches.
  • Armor keeps you alive: When you do get hit, it’s important to limit how much damage your character takes. Without good armor, a single bullet can down a character.
  • Healing during combat is less relevant: It’s possible to heal characters during combat, but it’s not as common as in other games. Because the act of taking damage matters much more than how many hit points a character has left, healing is less valuable than avoiding damage in the first place. Characters that can buff their party members by improving their defenses, armor, or the like give their party a massive advantage.
  • Not fighting is a compelling option: Because a single lucky shot can down a character, players have an incentive to find alternatives to combat (or to push for surrender rather than waging battle to the final kill). To be clear: GURPS is fully capable of giving you a knock down and drag out fight. But, as a player, there are advantages to wrapping up the fight quickly.

Changing GURPS’ Assumptions

The “damage matters” model is the default in GURPS, but it’s very possible to run GURPS through the “hit points as reserve” model. By turning off a number of the combat rules and/or equipping your player characters with specific advantages, you can create the effect of other RPG systems.

  • Eliminate shock penalties: Shock penalties make damage matter from the very first blow; a character that is injured has a penalty to all their rolls in their subsequent turn. The GM can ignore the shock rules, or the PCs can take the High Pain Threshold advantage.
  • Turn off realistic combat rules: Major Wounds, Knockdown, Crippling Injury, and Mortal Wounds are all inconsistent with the “hit points as reserve” model. The same goes for the optional rules of Bleeding and Accumulated Wounds. Turn off all those rules, and damage starts to function closer to the reserve model.
  • Ignore hit locations: Hit locations can make combat extremely lethal because they allow characters to target around their opponent’s armor and to get substantial wounding modifiers. You can still play the hit points as reserve model with hit locations, but it requires an additional level of tactical awareness for your players.
  • Ignore wounding modifiers: Wounding modifiers also make combat far more lethal; cutting, impaling, and large piercing attacks in particular become much stronger when wounding modifiers are in play. Since those modifiers include common kinds of attacks like swinging a sword, stabbing with a lance, or shooting a gun, wounding modifiers can cause characters to run through hit points quickly. Again, it’s possible to play the hit points as reserve model with wounding modifiers, but your players need to be prepared.
  • Restrict HT checks: The default rules have characters making HT checks when they drop to zero HP, and then at each negative multiple of HP until the character dies at -5xHP. These rules make additional degrees of damage more severe, so the GM should limit these checks in order to approximate the hit points as reserve model. The advantages Hard to Kill and Hard to Subdue give PCs a bonus on those checks, mitigating the impact; alternatively, the GM can choose to simply ignore these checks.

 

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.

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.

Simplifying Gameplay with Task Difficulty Modifiers

Players and GMs that are new to GURPS often feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of details that can be gamed. Take shooting a gun: how long did you aim? How far away is your target? Is your target moving? Is your target under cover? Is your vision obscured by cover? How many bullets are you firing? Trying to put all these details together on-the-fly is not easy.

The key to remember is that all of these rules are optional. From the Introduction to the Basic Set (Fourth Edition):

“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).

If keeping track of dozens of modifiers doesn’t sound like fun, don’t do it! GURPS is flexible enough to give you a great game without requiring you to use a spreadsheet.

The Solution: Task Difficulty Modifiers

The point of all those modifiers is to refine the success roll mechanic. In general, success rolls are made against a character’s skill level. The modifiers are used because some tasks are unusually difficult (or easy), and the character’s chances of success should reflect that difficulty. So, if you don’t want to figure out those modifiers, what do you do?

The Basic Set has a great tool for simplifying the game: task difficulty modifiers. Instead of adding up all the various elements of the task that make it easier or harder than normal and generating a net modifier, task difficulty modifiers let the GM assign a single modifier to the whole task. A normal adventuring task gets a +0 modifier—the roll is unchanged. Slightly harder tasks can be modified with a -1 or -2; moderately difficult situations can be given a -4, and so on until you are describing an all-but-impossible task by using a -10 modifier. The same principle works for easier-than-average tasks, with slightly easier tasks starting at +1 and trivially easy tasks getting a +10 bonus. The full chart, along with examples, is on pp. B345-346.

Unfortunately, the Basic Set doesn’t showcase task difficulty modifiers as well as it should. They are presented as the first of many kinds of modifiers that can be assessed to a success roll—along with equipment modifiers, time modifiers, cultural modifiers, and more. The key line that enables task difficulty modifiers to simplify GURPS is buried at the end of the section:

“The GM can use difficulty modifiers in place of other modifiers if the outcome of a task is too unimportant—or the action too hot—to justify stopping to add up a long string of modifiers” (B346).

That’s right—Rules As Written allow you to replace all the other modifiers with task difficulty modifiers. In my opinion, this line should have been front and center. Any time you want to dive into the details, GURPS is there with all the rules you could possibly need. But, every one of those detailed rules is optional. If your GM eyeballs a task difficulty modifier for every success roll, you’ll be in the same ballpark, and that’s all you need to make the gameplay plausible.

A Worked Example: Task Difficulty For A Secret Agent

Agent Vanessa Sadao is an undercover Infinity cop attempting to infiltrate a Centrum research lab on an alternate earth circa 1990. For this example, her key skills are Observation-12, Lockpicking-11, Fast-Draw-12, and Guns (Pistol)-13.

Beginning across the street from the lab, Agent Sadao looks over the facility to see if there are any guards. The GM decides that this is a slightly easier than normal task—although Sadao is on the opposite side of the street, the building is in the open, there is bright daylight, and the lab building doesn’t have any obvious concealments. The GM assigns this task a net +2 modifier and rolls in secret against Sadao’s effective Observation of 14, telling Sadao’s player that the coast appears clear.

Let’s compare that estimate to a more detailed treatment of the rules. Vision rules are described on p. B358. Assume that there aren’t any guards that are trying to hide; this building simply has a normal patrol of guards. In that case, there are two relevant modifiers—size and range from the target and potentially the bonus for looking for something in plain sight. Depending on how big the street is, the range penalty could be anything from -6 (for 20 yards) to -10 (for 100 yards). On the other hand, the bonus for looking for something in plain sight is +10. So, the calculated modifier would be between +0 and +4. The estimated task difficulty is pretty close!

Thinking that the coast is clear, Sadao approaches the door and attempts to pick the lock. The GM rules that this task gets a -4 modifier because it’s more difficult than usual; Sadao has a basic lockpicking set, but Centrum has a well-designed lock. She rolls against her effective Lockpicking skill of 7 and fails; the GM rules that she opens the door but set off the alarm while doing so.

Based on that description, the detailed treatment revolves around equipment modifiers. On p. B345, basic equipment gets no modifier. Fine equipment (like Centrum’s locking mechanism) gets a +2 bonus; since that’s what Sadao is working against, we’ll treat that bonus as a penalty to this roll. (If Centrum had the best equipment possible at this tech level, the equipment modifier on Centrum’s side would be +4.) So, a calculated modifier would come out to -2 or -4, depending on how good Centrum’s lock really is. Again, the estimate is close.

Hearing the alarm, Sadao—and the guard on the other side of the door that she’s about to meet—immediately prepare for the worst. They are both surprised, so the GM rules that they act in normal order, with Sadao going first because she has a higher Basic Speed.

She tries to ready her gun immediately with Fast-Draw. The GM rules that there’s no modifier for this attempt—this is exactly what Fast-Draw is supposed to cover. She rolls against her unmodified Fast-Draw skill and succeeds, so she can take an Attack maneuver during her first turn. She decides to take a normal attack because she is worried about other guards showing up and doesn’t want to sacrifice her ability to dodge. Because the guard is only a couple of yards away, the GM estimates the task difficulty at +0—a standard adventuring task—and Sadao succeeds by rolling under her effective skill of 13.  The guard misses his Dodge attempt, and as he slumps to the floor Sadao takes a moment to reassess her break-in attempt.

In detailed terms, the GM could choose to assign a penalty for a minor distraction (the alarms), which would be -2. There’s no range penalty unless the guard is at more than two yards away, and even at 5 yards the penalty is only -2. So, a net modifier of 0 is plausible, -2 is fair, and -4 is possible if the GM gives no quarter to Sadao’s player.

In all of these cases, estimated task difficulties came out pretty close to a calculated modifier. And, more importantly, the task difficulty modifiers all make sense in the context of the game. Based on what the players described, no one is going to say that the assigned modifier is unrealistic. No GM is going to say that checking the building for guards is a -6 difficulty, or that picking the lock deserves a +4 bonus. As long as the modifier produces a playable result, it’s done its job.

If your goal is to play a simple game, then task difficulty modifiers are a great tool for cutting through the details and making GURPS into a straightforward and uncomplicated system.