Writing Clearer Stat Blocks

When character stats are accessible, players can build, modify, and play characters more easily. GURPS makes it possible for players to create almost any kind of character they can imagine—from epic heroes to sentient hats. However, one downside of that flexibility is that describing all the traits that go into the character can be tedious. Unfortunately, the default GURPS stat block emphasizes the details, which makes it look intimidating for newer players. The goal of this post is to show tricks to make character stat blocks less scary.

Use Line Breaks

In official publications, GURPS stat blocks are presented in paragraphs. Under each part of the block—like attributes, advantages, disadvantages, skills—all the traits are written as a list, separated only by semicolons or bullets. This layout method was chosen in part because of space demands for printing. However, with the development of electronic publishing, space is less constraining.

Stat blocks are much more legible when line breaks are used frequently. Consider putting each trait on a separate line. Very short collections of stats, like the basic attributes, can still be included in a single line, but run-on lists of skills, advantages with parenthetical enhancements and limitations, and other lengthy compilations of traits should be broken into separate lines for clarity.

To see the difference, compare the following stat blocks representing an investigator built on a template from the Basic Set. In the traditional presentation:

Investigator (100 points)

Attributes: ST 10 [0]; DX 12 [40]; IQ 12 [40]; HT 11 [10].

Secondary Characteristics: Dmg 1d-2/1d; BL 20 lbs.; HP 11 [2]; Will 12 [0]; Per 13 [5]; FP 11 [0]; Basic Speed 5.75 [0]; Basic Move 5 [0].

Advantages: Charisma 1 [5]; Legal Enforcement Powers [5]; Security Clearance [5]

Disadvantages: Curious (12) [-5]; Greed (12) [-15]; Sense of Duty (Comrades) [-5]; Stubbornness [-5].

Skills: Criminology (A) IQ+1 [4]-13; Fast-Talk (A) IQ [2]-12; Guns (Pistol) (E) DX+1 [2]-13; Search (A) Per+1 [4]-14; Stealth (A) DX+1 [4]-13; Streetwise (A) IQ [2]-12.

In comparison, adding line breaks yields the following stat block:

Investigator (100 points)

Attributes: ST 10 [0]; DX 12 [40]; IQ 12 [40]; HT 11 [10]

Secondary Characteristics: Dmg 1d-2/1d; BL 20 lbs.
HP 11 [2]; Will 12 [0]; Per 13 [5]; FP 11 [0]
Basic Speed 5.75 [0]; Basic Move 5 [0]

Advantages: Charisma 1 [5]
Legal Enforcement Powers [5]
Security Clearance [5]

Disadvantages: Curious (12) [-5]
Greed (12) [-15]
Sense of Duty (Comrades) [-5]
Stubbornness [-5]

Skills: Criminology (A) IQ+1 [4]-13
Fast-Talk (A) IQ [2]-12
Guns (Pistol) (E) DX+1 [2]-13
Search (A) Per+1 [4]-14
Stealth (A) DX+1 [4]-13
Streetwise (A) IQ [2]-12

The second layout is far easier to parse. Although the stat blocks takes a little more space on the screen or in a printout, it is less intimidating and simpler to use.

Use Flavor Descriptions Rather Than Mechanics

Using enhancements and limitations, GURPS players can craft extremely well-tailored mechanical representations for powers and abilities. However, those “under the hood” details of how the trait is built can dramatically undermine the accessibility of the trait.

The Basic Set gives an example of an undead creature with the ability to see the spectral plane. That trait could be written as Night Vision 5 (Affects Insubstantial, +20%; Temporary Disadvantage: Unnatural Feature (red eyes), -5%) [6]. But, it’s a lot clearer to write a flavor-based description for the new trait: Spectral Vision [6]. If necessary, the GM can keep notes of how Spectral Vision is built.

Powers are a great opportunity for using flavor-based descriptions instead of mechanics; other possibilities include meta-traits, signature moves, sorcery spells, and wildcard skills. When it is important to remember a mechanical element (such as dice of damage for an attack), you can write the relevant detail instead of the whole mechanical construction.

Hide the Point Cost

When a stat blocks represents a chunk of traits that are bundled together, such as a template or lens, it’s not necessary to write the point cost of each element. The player only needs to know the point cost of the whole package. By not writing the point cost of individual elements of the stat block, the players have fewer details to parse when they are reading the stat block. For newer players, minimizing the number of details they need to sort through when reading the stat block can lower the cognitive burden substantially.

If the players are not creating their own characters, or are creating their characters with lots of assistance from the GM, it may not be necessary to include point costs at all. As long as the GM is confident in the math, the players don’t need to see the point costs in order to actually play the game.

Other Tips?

If you are a GM or a more experienced player, are there additional strategies that you use to make GURPS stat blocks less intimidating? Share them in the comments!

1 thought on “Writing Clearer Stat Blocks”

  1. Here! Here! As a graphic designer, GURPS’ wall-of-text stat blocks grate on me. Your 100-point investigator template is a good sampling, but when you get to 250-point Action or 400-point Monster Hunter templates, it gets really ugly really fast.

    All of your ideas are great, actually. I like the flavor text, especially with something like abilities from powers, where you could have the actual nuts-and-bolts of the ability recorded elsewhere.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *