Understanding Damage in GURPS Combat

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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.


9 thoughts on “Understanding Damage in GURPS Combat”

  1. I think one thing you should mention explicitly rather than have it implied is that GURPS makes sloppy passionate love to the Death Spiral. A hit gives shock, which means you’re extremely vulnerable next turn. That means if you don’t act accordingly, you’re likely to take another hit, which both preserves the shocked condition as well as brings on major issues such as crippling, being slowed due to being lower than HP/3 left, etc. Taking viable action after being thumped is a bit of a desperation play, or for cinematic heroes.

    1. Good catch! The death spiral has a huge influence on how GURPS combat plays out tactically. I’ll add that language to the post.

  2. Thanks for this, Colin. I’m still pretty new to playing GURPS and I appreciate when the idea behind why the rules are the way they are is explained.

  3. I good post. I’d be afraid, however, that eliminating wounding modifiers would upset the intended effectiveness of one weapon vs another, as well as the different types of Injury Tolerance. Just something to keep in mind.

    1. I had that same concern for a while. Ultimately, I made the decision that the intent of my games is to have fun. If the players want to get into how different weapons interact with armor, then GURPS gives us the tools to do that—and wounding modifiers are one of those tools. But, if they are interested in a simpler game, they can easily look at the damage numbers for weapons and compare those directly to see what will give them the most impact, without having to worry about calculating wounding modifiers. As long as they know that’s how we’re playing the game, they can make their decisions accordingly.

      If that means Injury Tolerance is less valuable in those games, I’m okay with that. I don’t think it’s fundamentally different than a game in which Common Sense isn’t a good use of points because the GM is going to offer suggestions or “Are you really sure you want to do that?” to the players in order to smooth the learning curve.

      Your comment gives me a bunch of ideas about intent in GURPS that deserve a full post of their own. Let me give those ideas some thought, clean them up, and hopefully we can continue the discussion!

      1. Another way to say this is that eliminating wounding modifiers removes a layer of fiddle that players and GMs may not want to deal with. Especially when porting over from D&D5 (other versions, too, but 5e is what I’ve been steeping in recently), there are no real differences in the mechanics of damage types unless your foe has a vulnerability, resistance, or immunity to that type. While my crew of playtesters on my “Hertical D&D” concept and I have been toying with actually adding variety there as an optional rule, “roll damage, move along” has a certain fast appeal to it!

  4. My experience with healing is exactly the opposite of yours – I’ve found that if quick healing exists, it’s critical to use it in combat. It’s precisely because of the death spiral. As you hit thresholds for 1/2 Move and Dodge, 0 or less HP and making consciousness checks to act, or get limbs crippled and can’t use them to defend, you are more vulnerable to incapacitation and more likely to have it happen to you.

    While even a fully healed character can be one-shotted down or pushed into combat-ineffectiveness, the further down the death spiral you are the more likely it is to happen.

    So in the games I’ve run with healing spells or super-science quick healing, it’s been a critical element in fight winning and in keeping people up and going. In games without, character mortality and combatant incapacitation is a much bigger issue. You can see reflections of that in the need for rules for speed-bandaging in combat in Dungeon Fantasy 2 and the way healing spells just work right now instead of speeding up natural recovery.

    1. That’s a good observation. Maybe a more accurate way to put the point is that, in hit points as reserve models, 1 HP healing perfectly undoes 1 HP of damage. In GURPS, it’s asymmetric. 1 HP of healing can fix 1 HP of wounding, but it doesn’t eliminate the shock penalty on its own.

      When you get to the 1/3 HP threshold, healing becomes more symmetric compared to damage. Take 1 point of damage that drops you below the threshold, and your Move and Dodge drop (in addition to the shock penalty, etc.) Heal that 1 point of damage back, and Move and Dodge go back up. The healing doesn’t fix the shock penalty on its own, but it does fix more of the other penalties.

      The bigger picture point is that there’s a tactical change in the way to think about healing. It’s not just “I have 20 HP and my healer can reliably recover 10, so I have effectively 30 HP for this encounter.” In the default GURPS model, there are thresholds at which accumulated damage causes more negative impacts, so healing above those thresholds becomes more important than just maintaining hit points.

      1. That makes sense. I think that’s a good way to put it. All HP are not equal thanks to the thresholds, so not all injury is equally worth healing.

        I’ve never been that concerned with the Shock penalty. It doesn’t last long enough, and doesn’t do enough, to do more than push you away from instant retaliation with offense. The -4 cap, the one second duration, and the limited effects means you’re really just less likely to attack back, not more likely to get hurt. It was a little more brutal in earlier editions (and back when we first played and misread it as lasting the whole fight), but still, that it doesn’t affect defenses means people often switch to a stronger defensive option. High Pain Threshold is popular in my games because of its benefits against Stunning and Knockdown, not Shock.

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