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.

 

Why Play GURPS?

Right now is a great time to be an RPG player. There are dozens of great games out there, and the roleplaying world is constantly growing with new systems, Kickstarter campaigns, livestreams, RPG shows, and online communities. In fact, there’s so much out there that even experienced gamers face a paradox of choice: with so many great games, how do you decide what to play?

This site aims to promote GURPS because GURPS has one of the strongest offerings on the market today. It’s not a perfect game—no game is. But there are a lot of reasons to take GURPS seriously. If you are a new gamer, learning GURPS is like getting the master key to playing almost any kind of RPG. If you are an experienced gamer, you can use GURPS for your games and tailor it to include the vast majority of elements from other systems. In either case, there are a lot of advantages to playing GURPS.

Learn Once, Play Anything

GURPS is designed to be infinitely flexible, which means that you can run or play any kind of game within GURPS. Lots of systems are tailored for specific kinds of games (such as hack-and-slash fantasy, esoteric horror, or cyberpunk). But, the problem is that running a game in any of those systems requires learning the system from scratch.

One of the biggest advantages of GURPS is that you can learn one ruleset and transfer that knowledge from game to game. Instead of learning a new set of rules for each game, you and your players can use the same rules and simply add in a few options to customize each game. By using the same core rules, you can spend more time playing and less time re-learning the fundamentals of each game system.

The more games you play, the more this advantage matters. If you have a single ongoing campaign, it doesn’t matter much what system you run because you’ll become fluent in that system with time. But, if you play a number of different games, running all those games in GURPS is like being able to concentrate all your experience points into a single skill—you’ll get to demigod levels of skill quickly instead of knowing a bunch of games at the novice level. This usually translates to a more rewarding game experience, because instead of wondering “can I do this?”, you’ll be able to act on your moments of creative inspiration because you’ll know how to use the rules to accomplish what you want.

Ease of Play

Fundamentally, GURPS is played with a simple mechanic: decide what you want to try, roll three dice, and compare the sum against your target number for the skill or ability in question. That’s it.

The game has a reputation for complexity because it has so many options to model a wide variety of game styles, but all of those are optional (hence the word, “options”). I’ll admit that the rulebooks would benefit from a more streamlined presentation so new GMs can determine what rules they need, but the core mechanic is simple, elegant, and straightforward.

Even character creation can be simple within GURPS. Again, the presentation obscures how straightforward characters are. Even a novice can build a functional character in minutes by just choosing attribute levels and skills. With a little help from an experienced player or a selection of setting-appropriate templates, even complex characters can be designed with ease.

Just like some people love GURPS because it has rules for every situation, some people love GURPS because there are options to model anything on their character sheets. That level of detail is possible, but it’s not required. Underlying all those details is a simple framework for building characters, and it can be as easy to build those characters as it is to play them.

Support Resources

GURPS Fourth Edition was published in 2004, and the sheer breadth of supplements published since then is stunning. Quite simply, it’s hard to think of a topic that hasn’t been written about for GURPS. If you want help in crafting the perfect magic system for your setting, setting a mood for your mystery-horror table, or modeling your PCs on the latest superhero blockbuster, there’s a resource for that.

Not only is there an extensive catalog of GURPS products, but those products are some of the most detailed RPG resources you’ve ever read. GURPS Martial Arts is more than rules for combat—it’s a crash course in fighting styles from around the world as well as film, books, and other media. Gear books like Low Tech and Bio Tech include a massive list of items as well as detailed descriptions of the worldbuilding assumptions that underlie the lists.

When you add in the fan community behind GURPS, which includes frequent answers from the line editors and authors to questions posed at the official Steve Jackson Games Forums, you have some of the best game support available.

The two things you won’t find in GURPS publications are pre-made adventure modules or extensive setting books. However, because GURPS is a universal system, it’s possible to convert other RPG campaigns or sourcebooks (as well as movies, comics, and books) into GURPS mechanics. The bottom line is that, if you need a resource, chances are that GURPS has it or can borrow it.

Some Drawbacks

Although GURPS has lots of strengths, there are kinds of games that it doesn’t do well. If you want to play one of these styles, GURPS may not be the best choice. While you probably can make these things happen in GURPS, it may be messy and you may be better suited with a ruleset designed around these needs.

  • GM-Less Play: GURPS is intrinsically a GM-based system, and it relies on GM judgment calls to use (or turn off) specific rules, to set limits on player characters, and to adjudicate in-game situations. If you want to play a game without a GM, GURPS will be challenging because you will need a way to fill those responsibilities from your playgroup. It can be done, but it requires some deliberate alterations.
  • Solo Play: For the same reasons, GURPS requires some heavy tweaking in order to accommodate solo play. It can be done, but the end result is a different experience from most RPGs that are built for solo play. Whether GURPS offers an acceptable solo play experience depends on what your expectations are, but it’s quite possible that you’ll have a better experience with a different system.
  • Player-vs-Player: In theory, GURPS can accommodate player-vs-player gaming as well as any system because PCs and NPCs are built on the exact same point scale. However, GURPS is written from the assumption that the players are a cooperative team rather than competitive individuals, and so there aren’t unique mechanisms for resolving player-vs-player interactions like what many player-vs-player RPGs provide. If you understand that and have a GM who is confident in handling inter-player conflict, GURPS will work—but it may not be as easy to run as other systems.