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.

 

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.

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.