Power-Ups 7: Wildcard Skills Review

GURPS is a skill-based system, but sometimes it is helpful to simplify the skill system. Whether you are playing with newer players who might be intimidated by a long skill list, creating NPCs on the fly that need appropriate skill levels, or simply want to make sure that you didn’t overlook something on your character sheet, wildcard skills are a way to do that.

GURPS Power-Ups 7: Wildcard Skills, by Sean Punch, greatly expands on the Basic Set‘s rules about wildcard skills. In the Basic Set, wildcard skills are introduced in a brief sidebar as skills that cover “extremely broad categories of abilities” (p. B175). In this volume, Punch elaborates on what wildcard skills are, how to incorporate them into the campaign, and what kinds of wildcard skills are possible.

Power-Ups 7: Wildcard Skills is 39 pages and is available from Warehouse 23 (SJ Games’ online store) for $7.99.

Defining Wildcards

The first chapter, Defining Wildcards, makes up about half of the supplement’s size. It reiterates the basic information about wildcard skills, including their point cost and scope, in the first few pages. In short, wildcard skills are skills denoted with an exclamation mark (like Pilot! or Science!). A character that has a wildcard skill is assumed to have any relevant abilities that would be included within the wildcard ability—so a super-science genius could take Science! instead of Biology, Chemistry, Physics, etc. This shortcut allows for dramatically simpler character sheets.

Then, the chapter gets into new information: advice for GMs about what wildcard skills to permit, how many wildcard skills to allow, and how to manage the scope of wildcard skills. The suggestions are clear, and seeing them all grouped together provides a variety of ideas for GMs who are uncertain how to use wildcards appropriately.

For GMs who are especially concerned about balance, Power-Ups 7 goes into the logic behind the target scope for wildcard skills and gives some optional suggestions for more nuanced scope, based on whether the wildcard skill is replacing Easy skills, Hard skills, or Very Hard skills (or a combination thereof). This section is probably too pedantic to be workable in an actual game—if you’re tabulating the skill replacements that closely, you might as well just use the actual skills—but it’s good food for thought when GMs need to think about how broad wildcard skills should be in a given campaign.

The following section, Additional Benefits, introduces new rules for giving mechanical bonuses to characters with wildcard skills. The motivation for this section is that wildcard skills cost a lot to compensate for their breadth, and so characters that invest in wildcard skills should be rewarded for that choice. The bonuses include eliminating familiarity penalties of all kinds and including relevant perks for free.

The most interesting of the new rules is the Wildcard Points (WP) mechanic. Players whose characters have wildcard skills receive WP based on how many points they put into wildcard skills; these WP can in turn be spent on meta-game bonuses such as buying successes or letting players determine the narrative outcome of a successful roll (e.g., by determining there is a clue present if the player rolled against an Investigation! skill). The mechanics are similar to the rules in GURPS Monster Hunters and GURPS Power-Ups 5: Impulse Buys for letting the players spend points to influence the narrative in-game; if that mechanic appeals to you, Wildcard Points are a great way to incorporate it into your game.

Using Wildcards

Chapter 2, Using Wildcards, is quite short at only 5 pages. It includes some more GM advice about how to decide what wildcards to allow in the campaign, how to use wildcards during success rolls (including restrictions, difficulty levels, and other mechanical questions), and some ideas for how to run a campaign that uses only wildcard skills—no normal skills at all!

All of the rules in this chapter are optional; they show the variety of ways that wildcard skills can be incorporated into a game. The bottom line is that GM judgment matters for wildcards, but this chapter gives some good suggestions to help GMs develop that judgment.

This chapter feels a little unbalanced compared to the rest of the volume. It is much shorter than chapter 1, and some of the GM advice feels repetitive. There may have been a better division of those two chapters between character creation/pre-game advice and in-game rules. However, the content in the chapter is still well thought out.

Examples

The final chapter is titled “Examples,” and as the name suggests, it is a list of example wildcard skills. For each wildcard skill, it describes the skills that the wildcard replaces, suggests benefits that make sense for that wildcard, and identifies where else the wildcard skill has appeared in previous GURPS publications.

The list of examples is long, at 18 pages, and it covers a wide variety of niches, genres, and skill sets. Having all the wildcard skills in one place is useful both for tracking down wildcards, as well as browsing for inspiration.

Summary

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

GURPS Power-Ups 7: Wildcard Skills is a great resource for expanding the use of wildcard skills. GMs will find excellent advice for structuring how wildcard skills function in their campaigns. Players can use this volume for ideas of how wildcard skills can be used and what they can cover.

This volume is not intended to be a single worked example or ruleset: the reader is expected to make decisions about what elements to incorporate into their games. Some of the options are designed to streamline the game, while other options add new mechanics, crunch, and character creation decisions. As a result, there is probably something for everyone in this volume. The material is most relevant for GMs because of the volume of advice for how to think about wildcard skills before the game begins.

For GMs interested in rules-light games, Power-Ups 7 is helpful in thinking through how wildcard skills can streamline character creation and skill lists. Players interested in rules-lite games can benefit from the lengthy list of examples, but the optional rules may be too much to filter through unless they are experienced GURPS players.

Overall, Power-Ups 7 is a valuable addition to the GURPS library. It is not a mandatory supplement, but it takes a good idea from the Basic Set and works through a number of options for how to apply it. If you are interested in building characters with wildcard skills, finding interesting ways to reward players for using wildcard skills, or making the wildcard skills in templated characters more fun to play, this book will be useful.

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.

How Broad is Your Wildcard Skill? Using Inventory Rolls to Model Skill Breadth

When you play with wildcard skills, it’s possible for players and the GM to disagree about whether a skill really is covered by the wildcard skill. This post explores a house rule that makes it easier to resolve those disagreements.

The inspiration for this house rule is the idea of an inventory roll. Instead of tracking all the equipment a player has, the player can roll against an “inventory” skill to see if his or her character has the piece of equipment needed in the moment. (I can’t find the original discussion of this idea; if you remember it, please remind me in the comments so I can give credit where it is due.)

Wildcard Breadth Check

When the player and GM disagree about whether the wildcard skill includes the skill that is relevant for the task at hand, and there is a plausible argument for including the skill within the wildcard’s scope, the GM can permit a wildcard breadth check. This is a success roll against (10 + the relative skill level of the wildcard skill). For instance, a character with IQ 11 and a Detective! (IQ+2)-13 wildcard skill would roll against 12 (10 plus the relative level of 2), not 13 (the base skill level of Detective!).

On a success, the wildcard skill covers the skill in question. The player can now roll against the wildcard skill to actually attempt the skill (with any appropriate modifiers for the situation, equipment, etc.). On a critical success, the character knows this skill really well! The player should give an appropriate backstory to explain where the character acquired this particular competency, and then make a success roll to attempt the skill in question with a small bonus, such as negating a familiarity penalty, to represent the character’s unexpected proficiency.

When the player fails the wildcard breadth check, the wildcard skill does not cover the skill in question; the player must choose how to proceed. On a critical failure, the character is so deluded about his or her abilities that he or she attempts the skill at default, with all the appropriate situational modifiers.

The Mechanics

The more that a player invests in a wildcard skill, the more plausible it is that the character would have familiarity with a tangentially-related skill. The wildcard breath check thus rewards players for putting more points into wildcard skills by giving them a greater chance of including tangential abilities within the wildcard’s scope.

Rolling against 10 + the relative ability level is an important element of this mechanic. After the Attribute-1 level, every additional level of a wildcard skill costs 12 points. Increasing the controlling attribute is only 20 points, so it’s very tempting to put points into the attribute directly and benefit all of the other traits that depend on the attribute. By using relative skill levels, the player needs to decide whether the wildcard itself is well developed or if the character is just plain smart or agile. The former represents extensive training and justifies the increased odds of success on a wildcard breadth check; just pumping up the attributes does not.

The probabilities underneath this mechanic also make sense. If the player only spends 3 points on a wildcard skill (the minimum), there is only a 16.2% chance of passing a wildcard breath check, and the player would still need to pass the actual success roll (at Attribute-3, which is likely less than 50% success for any non-supers game). The player would need to invest 24 points into the wildcard skill to get to a 50-50 odds of passing the wildcard breath check, and then would still need to pass an Attribute+0 success roll to actually use the skill successfully. Assuming normal attributes levels and no additional success modifiers, getting to even odds for passing both the wildcard breadth check and the task success roll would require the Attribute+2, at a total cost of 48 points!

GM Options

The GM can limit the potential for abuse by further limiting the wildcard breadth check, if necessary. The most important limitation is that the GM can simply say there is no plausible relationship between the wildcard skill and the task in question. The GM and player should discuss the wildcard skill before the game to make sure they have a shared idea for what the wildcard entails, and the GM should use that discussion to enforce limits on the wildcard skill check. A character with the Secret Agent! wildcard should probably not be able to try to include Sex Appeal in that wildcard unless the character was based on James Bond.

For marginally related skills, the GM can ask the player to provide a backstory that explains why the character picked up that skill while training in the wildcard. A satisfactory explanation could justify a wildcard breadth check; a ridiculous assertion can be safely turned down.

Finally, the GM could give a penalty to the wildcard breadth check based on how tangential the skill is to the core competency of the wildcard. A penalty of -2 makes it very hard to succeed; a -4 penalty makes critical failures a serious threat.

Faster Character Creation with Wildcard Skills

Skills are central to GURPS characters. The characters’ skill lists are the primary mechanical representations of how one character differs from another. A ninja and a spaceship mechanic may look alike when it comes to attributes—both have relatively high DX and ST—but their skills will show just how different the two characters are.

Because GURPS offers a massive list of skills (almost 300 in Basic Set alone!), it is easy to get overwhelmed during character creation. Fortunately, there is an optional rule that can simplify matters. By using the wildcard skill rules, you can simplify character creation by glossing over a lot of the details inherent to a lengthy skill list.

Introducing Wildcards

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

Wildcard skills are introduced as an optional rule on p. B175, and are expanded in Power-Ups 7: Wildcard Skills. Instead of requiring players to purchase a long list of skills that cover a related area, the player can give their character a wildcard skill that represents knowledge of all the skills within that domain. For instance, a medical professional could learn Diagnosis, First Aid, Physician, Pharmacy, etc.—or that character could learn the Doctor! wildcard skill to represent his or her experience with all of those underlying skills.

Basic Set describes wildcard skills as a solution to a specific problem: how to create cinematic characters that can do anything in a broad category of abilities. A player with an action hero character might want to learn the Gun! wildcard skill rather than worrying about which guns the hero knows how to use.

However, wildcard skills don’t need to be restricted to cinematic campaigns. In fact, Wildcard Skills explicitly describes wildcard skills as a way to streamline character creation or skill lists, regardless of the type of campaign. Instead of going through several hundred possible skills to determine what is relevant, a player can simply describe his or her character’s key elements and use wildcard skills to capture the relevant skills.

Choosing Appropriate Wildcards

There are lots of ways that wildcard skills can be used. They can describe the headline features of the character: their role within a party, special abilities, or unique competencies. The Gun! wildcard skill handles the core competency of the ranged combat operative. Or, wildcards can simplify the skill selection process for secondary abilities, background skills, or racial skills. For instance, a wildcard skill of Europe! could be used for character background instead of the relevant specializations of Area Knowledge, Current Affairs, Geography, History, Savoir-Faire, and so forth.

Players are encouraged to create their own wildcard skills (with the GM’s approval) in order to capture specific skill domains. While Wildcard Skills includes a list of over 60 example wildcard skills, this list is not intended to be exhaustive.

However, it is important for the GM to think about how wildcard skills should function in the game. There are almost no limits to how wildcard skills can be used; Wildcard Skills even discusses extreme cases in which wildcard skills replace all skills, or even other aspects of characters like attributes and advantages! But, for the more modest goal of streamlining character creation without radically changing the GURPS character creation process, a more restrained approach is called for.

Wildcard skills are priced competitively with about a dozen Average skills, so that’s a good ballpark for how broad they should be. A typical character will have 10 to 25 skills: a handful of core skills, six to ten secondary skills, and a smattering of skills for character history, racial background, and “color.” So, you could build a reasonable character with three or fewer wildcard skills and then a small selection of additional, regular skills to finish the character. Use caution with more than four wildcard skills; that might result in a character that doesn’t have a clear identity or function.

Integrating Wildcard Skills into a Character Sheet

When allowing players to use wildcard skills, there are three things to keep in mind during the character creation process. The first is point cost. Because wildcard skills represent knowledge of all the skills that fall within a domain, they have a unique pricing structure: they cost triple the cost of a Very Hard skill. Thus, a wildcard skill at Attribute-3 level would cost 3 points. Attribute-2 costs a total of 6 points; Attribute-1 costs 12 points total, and each additional level costs an additional 12 points. Because they are so expensive, wildcard skills will quickly chew through the character’s point total at higher levels. As a result, it’s important for the GM to work with the players in choosing wildcard skills that will contribute to the game’s tasks.

Second, the GM needs to think about the scope of wildcard skills so that the player characters are reasonably balanced. This is particularly important if the characters use different numbers of wildcard skills. But, even if all the characters have the same number of wildcard skills, the GM needs to check that the scope of those skills is comparable so that no character hogs the spotlight or is left unable to contribute to the adventures.

Finally, the GM should make sure that the wildcard skills don’t make the PCs into carbon copies. Each character should still have something unique to offer to the adventure. If the characters only have minor differences, it will be hard to create an engaging game experience for each of the players.