Blog-or-Treat: Simplified Fright Checks

Halloween is coming soon, and GURPS can help you add a little horror to your roleplaying campaign! Almost any game can add elements of horror in order to deepen the experience. We’re used to seeing stories add humor to lighten things up with comic relief; the same principle can work in the other direction. GURPS provides a specific mechanic to help establish that a situation is dangerous: fright checks.

Horror stories often feature vulnerability or helplessness on the part of the protagonists, fear, and uncertainty. In the full-blown horror genre, these elements can dominate the story. But, when added in small doses, they provide contrast to show just how heroic the characters are. After all, heroes are more impressive when they rise above terrifying circumstances and succeed despite great personal risk.

Using Fright Checks

Image from the Fright Check Table in GURPS Basic Set
Image from the Fright Check Table in GURPS Basic Set

One of the easiest ways to add a horror element to your games is to include fright checks. When faced with scary, risky, or just plain dangerous situations, ask the players to make a fright check in order to proceed—or suffer the consequences from putting their necks on the line!

Fright checks are described in the Basic Set, pp. B360–B361. The core concept is simple: when characters face a fear-inducing situation, they must make a Will-based success roll. If the player succeeds at the roll, the character can act normally. However, a failed fright check indicates that the character was overwhelmed by fear, and as a result suffers a setback ranging from being stunned to suffering traumatic mental injury.

What should trigger a fright check? It depends on your campaign premise and the characters, but the general idea is things that are unusually scary—not just ordinary adventuring experiences. In a warfare campaign going over the top of a trench into enemy machine guns qualifies. In a fantasy campaign, the GM could call for a fright check when encountering a primordial evil beast. For an action and adventure campaign, the moment in which the protagonists realize how outnumbered they are could justify a fright check.

Because fright checks are success rolls, the GM can streamline fright checks by assigning a generic task difficulty modifier instead of looking up and synthesizing a list of individual modifiers. That’s it! Just choose a modifier that represents how fear-inducing the situation is, make a Will-based roll, and narrate the result like any other success roll.

Rule of 14

One of the ways that fright checks can differ from generic success rolls in the Rule of 14. The GM can choose to invoke the Fright Check Rule of 14 to cap effective skill at 14. No matter how strong a character’s will is, there’s always a small chance of failing a fright check.

The Fright Check Rule of 14 is, like all of GURPS, an optional rule. The rule exists primarily for storytelling reasons rather than as a mechanical requirement. In short, one of the tropes of horror is that any character can be overcome with terror in a stressful circumstance. While most RPG genres emphasize the competence of the PCs, horror needs to balance PC agency with vulnerability. If a character is entirely immune to terror, it takes away a lot of the suspense. So, the Rule of 14 ensures that there is always a roughly 1-in-10 chance of failure.

In non-horror genres, the Fright Check Rule of 14 may be inappropriate. For instance, a four-color hero might have an exceptional will and narratively wouldn’t be overcome with fear. Likewise, a supernatural monster hunter campaign might feature a protagonist that stands out because of his or her preternatural calm in the face of the macabre. And, the GM can make the Rule of 14 irrelevant by using larger task difficulty modifiers when necessary. As a result, the Fright Check Rule of 14 is not necessary when requiring fright checks.

Failing Fright Checks

The most unique (and therefore most confusing) part of fright checks is the mechanic for resolving failed fright checks. The good news is that, again, it’s an optional mechanic. Just like a GM can ignore the critical miss table and narrate their own result for a critical miss on an attack roll, the GM can narrate their own consequence for a failed fright check roll.

The official mechanic for failed fright checks uses two rolls. The first is the original success roll. The player takes their margin of failure from this roll. The second element is an extra 3d6 roll. The player adds these two numbers—the margin of failure and the separate 3d6 roll—and looks up the sum on the Fright Check table.

Higher totals lead to worse consequences for the failed fright check. So, the margin of failure matters. However, the separate roll adds a substantial random element. As a result, it’s possible for a narrow failure to result in moderately severe consequences. Conversely, it may be possible for a player to escape from even a horribly failed roll with nothing more than a minor setback.

The choice to use two rolls seems driven by genre conventions rather than mechanical requirements. Unpredictability is a trademark of the horror genre, so the outside possibility of a serious disaster even for relatively narrow failures adds to the suspense. But, because there’s not a mechanical need to have a second roll, there’s no inherent problem with the GM ignoring the Fright Check table and instead determining their own result.

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.


Narrating Better Failures

Failure Tells a Story

One of the most important skills a game master can learn is how to narrate the results of success rolls. Most GMs do okay when their players pass the success roll because they can build on what their players want to do. But, failed success rolls are more challenging.

When failed rolls are handled poorly, the players can feel like the GM is playing against them by stopping them from doing what they want. That’s no fun for anyone. And, if the GM just says, “No,” the whole game can get stuck as the players flail for options and the GM feels obligated to shoot them down because of how the dice fell.

Fortunately, there’s a better way. By learning how to narrate failed rolls, you can make the game come alive by advancing the story no matter how the dice fall. It’s a lot more fun to play a game when the dice contribute to a story rather than being a mechanical crutch. It’s the difference between roleplaying and “roll play”-ing.

But there’s another, less obvious, benefit to narrating better failures. When the players know that the dice are no longer a yes-or-no barrier that can paralyze the game with an unlucky bounce, they are less worried about squeezing every possible advantage out of every roll. The incentive to rules-lawyer the mechanical minutiae evaporates when the players don’t need to succeed in order to have fun.

Let me put the point more explicitly: when you narrate your failures in an interesting and engaging way, then you eliminate a reason for your players to min-max every roll.

Don’t Roll When Failure Isn’t an Option

In most situations, the adventure can survive a failed roll. A critical miss against the Big Bad Evil Guy doesn’t have to kill the party. A failed attempt to deduce the killer might send the group in the wrong direction, but subsequent clues can bring them back on track.

But, there are some moments in which the adventure just can’t proceed until something happens. The party may need the bartender to tell them the rumors of ill tidings to the north in order to give the party their adventure hook. Or, the mad scientist may have locked herself in her lab and the party needs to defeat the locking mechanism in order to have the final confrontation. Maybe there’s a single book in the library that will tell the adventurers how to disrupt the evil ritual they need to stop, and the party needs to find that book in order to save the world.

Whenever there is a genuine choke point, don’t roll for success. Let the bartender share the rumors with the party, describe how the electronics expert bypassed the door’s wiring, and remind the group how little time they have left once they retrieve the ritual book. If failure would stop the adventure, then the success roll mechanic is the wrong tool for the gamemaster. This solution is a little crude; it works well at the beginning of adventures but feels unsatisfying as the players advance further through the campaign because it seems to render the player’s choices meaningless. That isn’t quite true—the gamemaster is simply deciding that the player made the correct choice to advance the story, rather than leaving the next steps to chance—but the apparent loss of player agency is a real concern. As gamemasters improve their skill in adapting an adventure, they naturally eliminate choke points from their games. Which brings us to…

One Door Closes, Another Door Opens

When the players fail a roll, the GM can prime the group with a suggestion for a new attempt. The electronics expert couldn’t jury rig the door? That’s ok—the GM can describe how, when the wires spark and give off an acrid smoke, the smoke drifts up to an air vent and the party hears the mad scientist cursing about the smoke entering her lab. Now the party has new options—can they squeeze through the air vent? Can they throw a grenade through the vent into the lab? Can they take a hostage and negotiate with the scientist through the vent?

Most situations that seem like choke points can be converted into closing and opening doors. If the party can’t find the book to disrupt the ritual, they may find a different grimore that they can use during the climactic encounter. Or, their efforts may attract the notice of other sorcerers in town, who decide to assist the party in other ways.

As GMs practice opening doors for their players, they should take care not to railroad the players. When the GM’s interpretation of a failed roll opens options for the players, it makes the game more exciting. But, if the failure becomes an excuse for the GM to direct the players into his or her chosen solution, then the players will feel that their contributions don’t matter. The distinction is subtle but important.

To help avoid railroading, the GM should think of opening doors in terms of the world, not the plot. In other words, don’t start with a script for what will happen and then tell the players what they see in order to push them towards that choice. Instead, start with the world—what else is happening? Let the players use that as creative fuel to generate their own path through the adventure.

Yes, But…

A third way to narrate failures is to use failure to add complications. When the player fails a roll, the GM explains that the character succeeded…at a cost. The gizmo guy opened the locked door but broke his lockpicking tools in the process; the party located the tome despite the interference of the librarians, but now the librarians are calling security to report a theft.

There are lots of ways to add complications:

  • Broken or lost equipment can limit characters in the future, require them to spend resources to fix the equipment, or even suggest a future quest to regain the equipment.
  • Hit point or fatigue point penalties can represent the extra strain required to overcome the skill failure, making the characters more vulnerable later on.
  • Monetary costs can be imposed when the characters need to hire assistance (or pay a bribe) in order to complete the task.
  • New obstacles might result from a failed skill challenge. For instance, if the players couldn’t bypass the door’s lock quietly, they might need to disable an intruder trap or defeat a group of guards.
  • Ongoing skill penalties might be applied to future tasks to represent the lost element of surprise, unknown complications, or general ineptitude.
  • Time limits can be used when there is a critical showdown or climax. The failed skill roll indicates that the characters wasted time trying to complete the task, leaving them less time to prepare for the rest of the encounter.
  • New reaction penalties can result from angering a group of NPCs. Savvy GMs can offer the players a future adventure to make up to that group—or to deal with the fallout from the betrayal.
  • In extreme cases, attribute penalties, taking away character points, or imposing disadvantages can be used to show how costly the failure was. These options should be used sparingly and should make sense in the context of the game and genre (e.g., horror victims might lose IQ to a brain-sucking parasite, but action heroes tend to survive torture sessions with only minor wounds). If this option is on the table, the players should know beforehand so they can decide whether their character is worth the risks.

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.