Character Creation Options

Most people assume that GURPS character creation requires counting points. If they like that approach, they tend to enjoy GURPS. However, for players that dislike the kind of character creation that point buy systems encourage, they find GURPS intimidating, tedious, or overly complicated.

The reality is that there are a lot of ways to build a GURPS character. This post will discuss several popular character creation mechanics. Each method has its strengths and weaknesses. By choosing a mechanic that best fits the kind of game and participants that you have, you can create a more satisfying gaming experience.

Point Buy

GURPS Basic Set: Characters
GURPS Basic Set: Characters

Point buy is the default method of GURPS character creation. The GM sets a point budget, determines what traits are available or restricted in the campaign, and lets the players build their character within those guidelines.

Point buy is the most flexible method for character generation. In theory, the players can build whatever they want as long as they are willing to pay the cost. In practice, it’s not quite that simple: the GM can impose a surcharge for exotic traits like an Unusual Background cost, and the GM has to be willing to rule out abilities that conflict with the campaign assumptions or undermine other characters’ roles. But, even with these caveats, point buy is incredibly flexible.

Point buy also suits players that enjoy the character building game. For players who love the puzzle of optimizing their build and for power gamers that thrive on creating the most effective character possible, the point buy mechanic allows them to run wild.

However, the point buy approach places specific demands on the players and GM. First, the participants need to understand GURPS’ rules well enough to know how to find the traits they need (or to build the ones that aren’t available out of the box). For some games, this isn’t a difficult requirement. But, in other games, that complexity can overwhelm the participants.

Second, point buy works best if the players use similar levels of rules sophistication in building their characters. If one player has munchkin-ed their character via skill levels, talents, higher purposes, and other bonuses, and another player is building their character with a minimal working knowledge of the rules options, there’s potential conflict looming. The detailed, mechanically precise character needs to be confronted with limitations and precisely crafted challenges in order to take advantage of its design choices; by contrast, the minimal character would be torn to pieces in a campaign that used the same level of rules minutiae. It’s possible for the GM to balance those perspectives, but it is a challenging balancing act, especially when you add player temperaments to the equation.

Finally, point buy takes real world time. Each point is potentially another decision about how to build the character, and there are lots of interrelated tradeoffs to consider. It takes players a while to work through their character with that level of precision.

Because point buy is so rules- and detail-oriented, it can be a burden for many new or inexperienced players. It’s a very powerful approach to roleplaying, but it’s also intimidating.

Templates

GURPS Template Toolkit 1: Characters
GURPS Template Toolkit 1: Characters

Templates are a streamlined version of the point buy approach. Templates provide prepackaged combinations of traits that go well together, allowing players to choose the template package as a whole. Some templates allow players to select among a couple of choices within a grouping: for instance, take three of the following five skills. Other templates leave the player with a handful of points to spend outside of the template’s parameters. It is very rare for templates to make all the choices for a player, so the player can still customize their character based on the template choices.

Character templates appear in the vast majority of GURPS publications, including the Basic Set. The most extensive treatment of templates is the Template Toolkit 1: Characters supplement, but they also figure prominently in the first volume of each worked genre line (Dungeon Fantasy, Action!, Monster Hunters, and After the End).

Templates sacrifice some of the flexibility of the point buy approach for a streamlined character creation process. Instead of choosing among hundreds of options, the player can create a character with a dozen decision points. This makes templates extremely attractive for quickly starting a game.

Another advantage of the template approach is that it is one of the few character creation methods in GURPS that produces balanced characters. In general, there is no way to ensure that two 300-point characters are balanced. Even though the characters are built on the same budget, they may be designed for radically different kinds of games and hence built to face entirely separate kinds of challenges. Well-crafted templates, however, can focus the character options into a handful of ideas that are equally capable within the context of the game campaign.

However, templates require prep work to set up. There are lots of published GURPS templates, including key character archetypes in the Dungeon Fantasy, Action!, Monster Hunters, and After the End lines, and if those templates fit the campaign concept the prep work is minimal. If the templates need to be created from scratch, however, the GM needs to invest a lot more effort.

In addition, templates still require relatively detailed rules knowledge. Players can’t evaluate the choices on a template if they don’t know what the traits mean. Depending on the template complexity, this can impose a substantial burden on players.

Buckets of Points

Pyramid 3/65: Alternate GURPS III
Pyramid 3/65: Alternate GURPS III

The buckets of points approach aims to streamline the decision-making involved in the point buy method without requiring the upfront work of template generation. The GM sets a point budget for characters, but then sets additional limits for how many points need to (or can be) spent on specific elements of character creation. For instance, a 250 point character could have 150 points allocated to the attribute bucket, 50 points allocated to advantages, and a final 50 points available for skills.

The bucket of points approach is described in Pyramid 3/65 Alternate GURPS III, and Sean Punch outlines a number of options for using this approach. The GM can make the point buckets cover all the character points available, or the players can be given some points that can be spent in any category. Some GMs may want to permit exchanges between the categories, while others may want the categories completely independent. There are options for how to handle disadvantage points, awarded character points, and even subcategories of buckets.

The major advantage to the buckets of points approach is that it requires far less prep time than template creation. Buckets of points also preserve the flexibility of the point buy approach.

The disadvantage to the buckets of points approach is that it still relies on rules knowledge by the players and GM to determine what to take within their point budgets.

Aptitude Slots

Pyramid 3/72: Alternate Dungeons
Pyramid 3/72: Alternate Dungeons

There are also approaches to character creation that de-emphasize the points mechanic. One example of a points-free approach is aptitude slots. Instead of making the players choose among traits with different point values, the player has a certain number of aptitude slots to allocate for his or her character, and the aptitude slots each represent a roughly equivalent number of points.

This approach stems from the “pointless” method introduced for the Dungeon Fantasy and Monster Hunters lines (published by Sean Punch in Pyramid 3/72 Alternate Dungeons and by Christopher Rice in Pyramid 3/83 Alternate GURPS IV, respectively). There are differences in terminology between the two versions, but the basic idea is that aptitudes of roughly equal value are presented to players, and the players decide to take aptitudes until their character runs out of aptitude slots.

The pointless aptitude slots approach is great for simplifying and speeding up character creation because it reduces the number of complexity of choices that the players face. For Dungeon Fantasy or Monster Hunters, the setup work is also done; GMs can tinker with the list of aptitude options, but they can also work straight from the articles.

For other genres, the aptitude slot route requires some GM time. Aptitude slots are probably faster to create than templates but slower than buckets of points; the actual result will depend on the GM’s experience more than anything else.

Like templates, aptitude slots have the potential to enforce balanced characters. However, templates are easier to balance because they can restrict the player decisions more precisely.

Plug-and-Play Characters

All of the options so far are either built on points explicitly or group traits together based on roughly equal point values. However, it’s not necessary to have characters that are based on points at all. Plug-and-play characters ignore point cost entirely; they simply give the player a set number of slots to fill, and the player can put whatever is appropriate into those slots.

The best example of a plug-and-play character that I know about is the Seven-Minutes GURPS Character by Warren “Mook” Wilson. The player chooses from three sentences to describe his or her character’s attributes, and plugs in the appropriate numbers to the character sheet. Then, the player plugs in three descriptions for advantages and one disadvantage description (which don’t have to perfectly match “official” GURPS traits). Finally, the player plugs in four skills (including one wildcard) to finish off the character.

Plug-and-play characters dramatically simplify the choices that players need to make in order to create their characters. They also are more forgiving for players who don’t know GURPS rules inside and out because they don’t require players to translate ideas into official GURPS builds. As long as the player and GM have a shared understanding of what the descriptions mean, they can play the game. Finally, they are very quick to create, both during character creation as well as during the GM prep; creating the right number of blanks only takes a few minutes and the seven minute estimate for actual character creation is a realistic possibility.

Plug-and-play characters provide a lot of player flexibility, but in a very different way than point buy mechanisms. With point buys, player flexibility comes from their ability to create their character within a point budget – they can spend their point budget on anything within the rules (unless the GM vetoes it). By contrast, plug-and-play characters permit flexibility in the sense of not needing a published trait; the player can create whatever trait they want for the character. But this descriptive flexibility comes at a cost of having a more limited number of choices than in all but the most stingy point budgets or templates.

Because plug-and-play characters have a limited number of choices, the characters tend to be one-dimensional. They don’t have to be—and GMs can permit players to fill more slots in order to create more well-rounded characters—but the shorter the template, the more likely that the character represents a single niche.

Plug-and-play characters require a strong guiding hand from the GM during character creation in order to make sure the descriptive elements are reasonable given the campaign setting and the roles of the other PCs. This is a slightly different kind of burden than in point-buy campaigns. In point-buy situations, the GM needs to understand GURPS rules well enough to prevent excessive munchkin-ing or abusive combinations of traits. With plug-and-play characters, the GM needs to be able to develop a shared understanding with the player about what those descriptions mean and what the player can expect to do during the campaign. They are related skills, to be sure, but there are differences of emphasis.

There’s also a potential problem in that plug-and-play characters may not necessarily translate into “real” GURPS characters built using the official rules. However, that concern is probably minor. Plug-and-play characters will play just like normal GURPS characters. The biggest difference is in the point costs; similar-looking plug-and-play characters can have radically different point costs because of how the descriptive elements correspond to official rules. However, there’s no rule that PCs have to be built on similar point budgets, and even equal point-cost characters can be unbalanced. So, this concern doesn’t have much practical impact.

Finally, crunch-heavy game mechanics need some extra thought in plug-and-play characters. Do magic users need to spend a skill slot on every individual spell? How powerful is each spell? Does each psionic ability need to be enumerated, and what is the cost to activate that ability? What exactly can a ninja do in battle, and how does that affect his or her opponents? These issues probably require some discussion between the players and GM before the game starts to make sure everyone is on the same page.

Conclusion

These five methods for building GURPS characters offer a lot of options for players and GMs. There’s no right answer for how to build a GURPS character; the key question is what method matches the needs of your players and GM.

If your biggest need is for players to build their characters quickly, without a lot of rules knowledge, then plug-and-play characters are the best choice. If your players have a little bit of rules familiarity, then templates and aptitude slots are almost as fast as plug-and-play characters. The bucket of points method requires both time and rules knowledge, and the point buy method is the worst choice for fast and new-player-oriented games.

If the limiting factor for your games is your GM’s prep time, then your best option is point buy, followed closely by plug-and-play characters and bucket of points options. Aptitude slots and templates will require more GM time, especially if the GM is building the choices from scratch.

If your players want to leverage their knowledge of the rules, enjoy crunchy games, and see character building as a puzzle to optimize, then point buy mechanics are perfect for your game. The buckets of points approach can give the players most of the flexibility of the point buy experience while providing some boundaries on their choices, which can help avoid munchkin-ing. Templates and aptitude slots take away a lot of the building fun from players, and plug-and-play characters will leave these players very unsatisfied.At the end of the day, the best character creation method is the method that gets the players to the table and lets them play the game that they want. By understanding the strengths of several different character creation options, you can make it easier to choose the right method to start playing!

Thematic Character Creation with Template Optimal Concepts

GURPS has an extensive list of character traits—but that doesn’t mean you need to read through the whole list to find the right combination of traits for your character! This post will show how GURPS’ rules enable players to take a thematic approach to character creation. Instead of finding traits for your character, you can build the traits that your character needs!

GURPS Template Toolkit 1: Characters
GURPS Template Toolkit 1: Characters

This post expands on several ideas from GURPS Template Toolkit 1: Characters. However, the rules you need to develop these concepts are entirely contained in the Basic Set. If you want additional ideas to jump-start your thinking, several PDFs from the Power-Ups line will be useful: GURPS Power-Ups 2: Perks, GURPS Power-Ups 3: Talents, and GURPS Power-Ups 7: Wildcard Skills.

The Core Idea: Character-Driven Traits

GURPS is frequently described as a skill-based RPG system. Rather than using classes or racial templates to define the characters, each character is comes to life in its skills and abilities. As a result, most of the decisions in character creation revolve around skill choices (and by extension the advantages and disadvantages that compliment those skills). The players are expected to decide among the extensive list of skills and abilities in order to choose the right combination that represents what their character brings to the table.

The character-driven trait approach inverts this order. Instead of going through the skill list in order to bring the character to life, the character-driven trait approach uses the character concept to create appropriate traits. Note the word “create”: in this approach, the players don’t need to refer to the existing skill lists because their character concept is used to formulate new traits.

The advantage to this approach is players don’t need to know the official trait names, so character creation is faster and less intimidating. And, because the players don’t have to map their character concept to an existing list of traits, there’s no problem if the list of official traits doesn’t perfectly match what they have in mind. There’s no need for complicated combinations of advantages, limitations to specific contexts, or worrying about exactly what a skill covers—as long as the player and GM can understand what the player intends, that’s good enough.

This approach also allows GURPS to gain some of the advantages of class-based RPGs (simple character concepts rather than long lists of features). However, the players still have the flexibility to envision their character the way they want—they aren’t limited to a formulaic class archetype or a pre-defined list of legitimate classes.

This idea develops the concept of template-optimal abilities found in chapter 3 of Template Toolkit 1: Characters. Template-optimal abilities are abilities that are particularly well-suited to a specific template because they boost a key competency or a core element of the character concept. The approach in this article extends that idea beyond the template framework to build an individual character, as opposed to the template for a character type.

Wildcard Skills for Core Competencies

The most basic implementation of a character-driven trait is a wildcard skill that represents the character’s core competencies. Instead of determining a comprehensive list of skills for a paladin, an FBI agent, a starfighter pilot, or an occult investigator, the player can create a wildcard skill that covers all the skills within the umbrella of that concept.

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

Power-Ups 7 includes 11 pages of example wildcard skills. Many of those examples work for this purpose: medieval roles like Bard! and Courtier!, action concepts like Demolition Man! and Wire Rat!, or horror archetypes like Detective! and Occult! In all of these examples, a single wildcard skill can replace many of the skills that a character needs to fill that dramatic niche.

The important thing about using wildcard skills for character-driven traits is that the players are not limited to a predefined list of wildcard skills. They are free to create their own wildcard skill that matches their character concept: if there’s no existing Starfighter! wildcard, make it up!

Talents for Related Skills

A second way to use character-driven traits is by creating a Talent for a specific element of that character’s identity. Talents give a bonus to rolls on skills that fall within the talent’s scope. They are a great way to easily strengthen some areas of a character concept—a skill area that is more heavily trained or specialized than the general character concept wildcard, a secondary skill set, etc. For instance, a prince with an aptitude for negotiating through conflict could be created with the Royalty! wildcard skill and a Negotiation Talent, which gives a bonus for all negotiation-related interactions (including actual negotiations, as well as reading body language during a negotiation, calling someone’s bluff while negotiating, and so forth).

GURPS Power-Ups 3: Talents cover
GURPS Power-Ups 3: Talents

As with wildcard skills, Talents can be created by the player and GM; they aren’t restricted to a pre-published list. That flexibility makes character-driven Talents an easy way to create a customized trait for a specific character concept. There are lots of examples of Talents, as well as suggestions for how to determine the appropriate scope of Talents, in Power-Ups 3: Talents.

Wildcard skills and Talents can be used together or separately. The players are welcome to build a character with full list of skills, but use character-driven Talents to add color and depth in a simple way. The biggest difference is scope: wildcard skills generally cover 12-14 standard skills, while Talents cover smaller domains (3-6 for a 5 point Talent or 7-12 for a 10 point Talent).

Higher Purpose for a Core Motivation

A third type of character-driven trait that can be used to customize character is the Higher Purpose advantage. Like Talents, Higher Purpose gives a bonus to rolls that fall within the scope of the specified higher purpose. The difference is that Talents focus on what and how: what is the character talented at, and how does the character do it? Talents are specific to skills, or specific uses of skills. Higher Purpose, on the other hand, looks at why. It gives a bonus to tasks that fall within the scope of that purpose, regardless of what skills are used to achieve that higher purpose. An assassin might have a Talent with a gun, but a Higher Purpose of taking out corrupt leaders. The assassin would get the Higher Purpose bonus for taking out a corrupt leader no matter what weapon he or she uses. On the other hand, taking out someone merely because they had a contract on their head would not trigger the Higher Purpose bonus—but it could get the bonus for the gun Talent if the assassin used a firearm to complete the contract.

Higher Purpose is a great way to flesh out the motivations of the character. Again, the Higher Purpose can be created and named by the player, which makes it easy to generate something that speaks to the character’s personal motivations.

Perks for Flavor

Finally, Perks are 1 point “advantages” that give bonuses in relatively minor situations. Creating a couple of character-driven Perks can easily add some flavor to the character concept.

GURPS Power-Ups 2: Perks
GURPS Power-Ups 2: Perks

Power-Ups 2: Perks contains a long list of example perks to help generate ideas. There are lots of Perks around character appearances and social interactions—blending into crowds, having a distinctive voice, or dressing well. Most Perks are too small to define a character on their own, but they can highlight small foibles, characteristic mannerisms, or other small character details that make your character distinct from all the other possible characters with the same dramatic niche.

Template Toolkit 1: Characters Review

Just because you can build your characters from scratch doesn’t mean you have to! One of the ways that GURPS allows players to simplify character creation is through the use of templates. This post will review the most detailed treatment of templates to date: Template Toolkit 1: Characters.

GURPS Template Toolkit 1: Characters
GURPS Template Toolkit 1: Characters

Template Toolkit 1: Characters dramatically expands on the treatment of templates from Chapter 7 of the Basic Set. As the title implies, it focuses on templates for individual characters (as opposed to racial templates). Because of how characters are constructed in GURPS, there are lots of similarities between GURPS character templates and the way other RPGs use character classes. However, this volume doesn’t require the GM to run GURPS as a class-based RPG; it aims for a more modest goal of simplifying character creation by consolidating the choices necessary to make specific character types.

This 48-page PDF supplement is available from Steve Jackson Games for $9.99. The book is written by Sean Punch, the GURPS line editor. It contains four chapters, starting with what templates are and working into more sophisticated ways to think about using templates in games.

What Are Character Templates

The first chapter is a four page crash course on character templates. It identifies several different ways that templates can function: for occupational roles, dramatic niches, or cultural backgrounds. It asks several question to help GMs decide whether templates should be mandatory or optional for their campaigns, and gives tips for how to adjust the scope of the templates in light of that decision. Finally, there is a full page of reasons to use character templates.

Designing Character Templates

Chapter 2, which runs for 14 pages, gets into the theory of template design. This chapter is structured as a series of considerations that GMs should use to guide their thinking, ranging from character concept to campaign demands to player needs to point optimization.

This chapter is a lesson on the mechanics of RPG character creation. GMs who want to improve their ability to facilitate character creation, as well as players who want to create more effective and cohesive characters, will benefit from this chapter regardless of whether or not they end up using templates in their games. While the ideas in this chapter are not particularly innovative, they are explained clearly. For more experienced GMs, this chapter can easily be skimmed as a checklist for character creation.

For GMs who want to run GURPS as a class-based RPG, the advice on mandatory templates is helpful. Using fully mandatory templates (and only letting the players select their character quirks) allows the GM to create the experience of a purely class-based RPG. For more flexibility, the GM can make the class choices a mandatory part of the template but reserve additional points for the player to customize the character.

Unfortunately, there are no worked examples in this chapter, which would have been helpful in seeing ideas translated into template content. It would have been nice to see a worked example as a case study spanning the chapter, much like Basic Set uses Dai Blackthorn as a running example of character creation.

Tricks of the Trade

The 13 pages of the third chapter get into the options that can be put into character templates, as well as the assumptions that can be hidden behind a template.

Two of the options—choices and lenses—will be familiar to anyone who has read a GURPS worked genre line, such as Dungeon Fantasy or Action. Choices allow the players to choose among pre-selected options for how to allocate points in their character build. Lenses are packages that add color to the template by showing a set of traits that work well together in order to model a specific niche, background, or other element of a character.

Hidden traits are a new idea. In short, hidden traits are zero-cost traits or unusual backgrounds that give depth to a character, along the lines of zero point features. While the idea is interesting, the explanation seems overly convoluted in the book.

The section on template optimal abilities includes a variety of suggestions to help align the traits on templates with specific dramatic or occupational roles. Using higher purpose, talents, or perks, templates can give bonuses to a variety of abilities that fall within the purview of the template even if there’s no single trait that captures the precise boundaries of the template. Wildcard skills, template-defining powers, and accessibility limits to advantages can also allow the GM to more closely align the template’s game purpose with the abilities, as defined by the rules, of the template in question.

For example: instead of trying to figure out the perfect skill package for a field detective, the template can simply include the wildcard skill Field Detective! A pyromancer template can include a Higher Purpose (Destructive Use of Fire) to characterize the “let it burn” attitude behind the template. These kinds of dramatically-driven, rather than trait-driven, elements make it easier to define the boundaries of the template in mechanical terms.

The penultimate section is on template-guided improvement, which simply means using templates to show how a character can progress. The GM can offer template options for players to purchase in order to develop their character by adding a lens, learning from a pre-defined spell progression, etc.

The chapter ends with a full write-up of an example template for a Soldier. This template showcases many of the features described so far, including choices within advantages, disadvantages, and skills, background skill options, optional lenses that double as template-guided improvements, and a full column of customization notes to guide players in using the template.

The lengthy template example, unfortunately, reinforces how intimidating GURPS stat blocks can be to read. While it’s understandable that the editors want to consolidate the stat blocks for space reasons, the resulting wall of text is hard to parse—especially when there are multiple choices embedded in each paragraph.

Niches

The last chapter, on character niches, is 12 pages long. This chapter provides practical advice on what kinds of traits to include in templates in order to fit various dramatic or narrative needs.

The first section, Matching Traits to Challenges, is a list of types of challenges that PCs can face in a campaign and an associated collection of advantages, disadvantages, and skills that would be appropriate to characters wrestling with those challenges. This section is useful for both GMs and players: GMs can think through the types of challenges they want to create in their campaigns, while players can get ideas for traits to bring to their character (even if the character is not built on a template).

The next section looks at how to distribute the challenges of the campaign among character niches in order to make sure that each character has something to contribute. This section is less useful for players, but GMs can use it to make sure that each template has something to offer to the game. The last section completes the process of template development by giving the GM guidelines for how to finish translating the traits and niches into final templates.

Summary

GURPS Template Toolkit 1: Characters provides a lot of helpful suggestions for character creation and template use. It’s not a mandatory supplement, but GMs who want to understand how to help their players create effective and appropriate characters will find many valuable tips and questions. Many of the concepts in this volume will also be useful for players, even if those players do not end up using templates in their games.

This supplement is full of theory and has some template examples, but it is not a book of worked sample templates. If you are looking for templates that you can plug into your games, you will be much better served by looking at the worked genre lines: Action, Dungeon Fantasy, Monster Hunters, and the newly released After the End. However, if you are interested in learning how to construct character templates that are suited to your own games, this book will help guide you through that process.

There are a couple of ideas in this book that are particularly interesting for people who are looking to streamline GURPS, especially the suggestions for using template-optimal abilities to define the character’s traits in dramatic rather than mechanical terms. (I’ll be exploring those ideas in more detail in a future post!).

Overall, this is a well-constructed volume. The writing is clear; the suggestions and questions to guide the GM are well thought out; the lists of traits and niches are broad enough to be relevant to most game genres. GMs who are looking for strategies to help their players develop better characters, as well as players who want to understand how to think about the character creation process, should consider adding Template Toolkit 1: Characters to their libraries.