Ingredients for a better GURPS

The 2002 GURPS Diner article, brought into the new Games Diner site. One gamer geek’s wish list for a new GURPS 4e.

This is a pretty straightforward HTML paste into the new site. Sorry, don’t expect much from the copious internal links. If you want to see the original article with its links intact, head to .

And if you want to see how well 4e fulfilled the wish list, read the follow-up to this article: The New GURPS Delivers… Or Does It?.

One Fanboy’s 4e Wishlist

I’ve worked long on GULLIVER and other house rules, suggesting dozens of options and rules tweaks for gamers with the inclination to tinker. But what, I mused, if there really were to be a GURPS 4e? Which suggestions would I actually recommend as additions or improvements for official rulebooks?

An overview would be a nice little diversion to post on the GURPS Diner. Whenever I got around to it.

The Poll

In late February, with this article well under way, SJ Games suddenly tossed out a poll to solicit thoughts on a real, live GURPS 4e.

In addition to questions of format and overall content, the poll covers specific rules changes – many of them addressed in this article and in GULLIVER.

Nice timing. This article appears just as SJ Games and online forum participants are actively looking for comment on a 4e.

What’s here

Scope: Most suggestions here concern physical stats and performance in creatures of all shapes and size, as well as the overall reworking of GURPS into a unit-independent game that works at any “scale”. These are all meaty topics, though are only a subset of all that 4e will want to address. For example, I have little to say on magic or psionic systems; I leave suggestions there to other gamers.


The List
ST Stuff
Size and Scale
Combat Stuff
Other Physical Stuff
Design Stuff
Not-Quite Recommendations
Wrapping Up

Links: External links are to relevant discussions in GULLIVER or other articles, most of which can offer enough exposition and examples to gag a Banduch.

Whatever the topic, there may also be a briefer write-up in the reader-friendly GULLIVER LITE (download here).

Links were created as relative links, to allow a saved copy of this file to locally access downloaded GULLIVER files. However:

Mac users: Things will work as planned. Save this document, and place it in the same folder as a directory named “GULLIVER” (without quotes), which in turn contains the GULLIVER files. (If you don’t have those files, dowload here, decompress, and make sure the downloaded folder is named “GULLIVER”.)

Windows users: At least on three systems I’ve tested, Windows/IE will decide it knows what’s best for you when saving this file to disk, and will change the relative links to absolute links (without your permission or mine). Your links will be to online files.

The List 

ST Stuff

The problem child of GURPS. Subjected to plenty of official revision over the years, it remains a quirky, patched oddity that resists workable designs once outside of human norms. While GULLIVER is often described as rules for size, it really spends more time getting ST to behave.

Much of the following underscores how ST simply isn’t like the other attributes, and deserves different treatment.

* Decide how ST scales with size. “Quad ST” – ST scaling with linear scale, and lifting power with the square of that – is likely the best solution. GULLIVER goes into recommendations at length.

* Never mix ST with skills or other attributes. Do not use

  • ST-based skills or defaults
  • skills that replace ST
  • ST vs other attributes or skills in Contests.

This fix removes bizarre results, such as sporting events in which a Jumping-14, ST 6 weakling beats a Jumping-13, ST 12 athlete, or ST vs HT Contests that forbid small fighters to strangle each other.

* The above ban on ST-based skills definitely extends to Lifting skill, movement skills like Swimming and Climbing, and social skills.

* Lose Natural ST! This ugly, worthless patch becomes unnecessary when the game cleans up fatigue rules, incorporates weight in jumping rules, and stops mixing ST and skills. Natural ST also hinders the ability to “scale” ST freely to different game sizes, another reason why it has to go.

* Use percentage, not absolute, mods when modifying ST or damage for skills. Percentage bonuses work correctly for creatures of any ST, and eliminate any need for patches. Another benefit is increased utility from high ST: the more ST you have, the higher the bonuses. See discussion and ideas here and here.

* Define where Min ST and other weapon stats come from. Any comparison of ST and weapon stats must use relative difference (i.e., ST > Min ST x 1.5), not absolute difference (i.e., ST > Min ST +5). (The Weapon Design System is a good start, though I hope to make some improvements.)

* Add the CI procedure for “fixing” Contests of ST to BS. It’s not a pretty patch, but is necessary for Contests of ST to work. (Allow the lower ST to be brought “close enough” to 10, as a simplification. Or consider this entirely new Contest of ST mechanism option if really feeling ambitious.)


Size and Scale

Creating a game that “scales” well across power levels will involve a lot of fixes, big and small, and will be a challenging task for SJG.

Scaling creature stats for size is only one part of a bigger picture. But, once the tricky ST is out of the way, it’s a part that goes pretty smoothly:

* Add rules for scaling creature stats. ST aside, this is a simple matter, and could be done in a few short paragraphs! GULLIVER LITE fully tackles scaling stats (including ST), with a Scale Table and options, on one page.

* Scale HP and DR with linear dimension. This is very easy to work with, is more or less the unwritten GURPS method, and meshes nicely with “Quad ST”. (One problem to be solved: scaling of HP is different in Vehicles.)

* Scaling of stats can be done with or without GULLIVER‘s Size trait; Book 1 features plenty of examples for both. But building odd-sized creatures sure is easier with the Size trait. Use it.

* Make size (i.e., TH mod) a trait with a cost. Suggested costs for TH mods (and for a broader Size trait incorporating those) are here.

* Use TH modifier as an easy label for overall size: a Size +3 Giant, a Size -2 dog, etc.

* Improve the Size and Speed/Range Table. Fix its progression anomalies (such as the odd jump from 6″ to 12″), and consider adding Linear, Area, and Volume Scale columns as quick aids in creature design, per GULLIVER‘s Scale Table. (Feel free to use that name, too.)

* Enable scaling of the whole game, a la B&B and as overviewed here. Coverage is not necessary in BS; this can be kept in the background at SJG. By using scale-independent rules throughout the system, appropriate worldbooks will be able to scale the game at any time, to any degree.

* Implement one giant, meta-goal for 4e: Vet every rule in the system to make it scale-independent. Switch from absolute modifiers to relative modifiers where appropriate. Use unit-independent formulae. (This, not the minor task of creature stats alone, is the real focus of GULLIVER – and of this page.)


Combat Stuff

A game that “scales” across power levels needs combat rules that work outside human norms.

GULLIVER ignores a lot of topics, such as handling vastly varied degrees of superpowers. But it does take a thorough whack at combat among creatures of different sizes, as well as miscellaneous fixes and simplifications that benefit even human-sized fights:

* Quit saying “Dodge equals Move”! This causes trouble and has never been true; the two only share the same base. Change the BS 77, 98 text to state the correct GURPS rule: “Your Dodge score uses the same (HT + DX)/4 base as your Move score, and is modified for encumbrance, Combat Reflexes, and so on.”

* Drop the separate rule for animal Dodge. With “Dodge = Move” abolished, the human Dodge rule works fine for animals too; no patch needed.

* Stop using the word “Speed” to mean an animal’s Move. Call its Move “Move” and its Speed “Speed”, just as with any other creature.

* Simplify the use of HT and HP. Clearly establish HP as the “damage sink”: all measures of “damage level” use damage points relative to HP. Clearly establish HT as a measure of health independent of size and HP, and the basis for rolls.

CII 152-153 starts the job, but 4e should extend the use of easy relative measures: slowdown from injury at HP/3, death roll at -HP and every additional HP/2, automatic death at -HPx5, etc. These rules work at any scale, and make the CII tables unnecessary.

* Simplify handling of shock. Lose GURPS‘ separate, inconsistent rules for Pain, Spasm, whips, stunners, nerve guns, and so on. Assign appropriate points of shock to all such attacks (starting with the existing “shock = damage” for “normal” weapons). Use one unified system for shock effects based on shock points vs HP, just as we use one set of rules for injury effects based on damage points vs HP.

* Add unified rules for amputation, decapitations, and even mid-torso cleavings.

* Apply TH modifiers for target size in melee combat too, not just ranged combat (i.e., +2 to hit Giant, -5 to hit Leprechaun, in either melee or ranged combat).

* Consider optional TH modifiers for odd-shaped objects. Such a rule is useful for attacking ropes and the such.

* Add defense penalties for Parrying and Blocking powerful blows. Use penalties on defense, based on a high ratio of attacker ST to defender ST (or attacker weapon weight to defender weapon weight).

* Add bonuses TH, and penalties to Dodge, for hitting a foe with a very large-sized weapon.

* Drop PD and its aggravation of the “unbeatable defenses” problem. Implement a generic rule for “glancing blows” instead: reduce damage and multiply DR for such blows. (GULLIVER includes a different option that addresses too-high defenses by keeping AD and PD separate, which does the job and plays great — but dropping PD altogether could be even simpler.)

* Implement “fast blows“: defender takes -1 AD per attacker -2 TH. This is separate from, and compatible with, feints. It’s a big aid in solving the “unbeatable defenses” problem, and enables fast, hard-to-stop blows from skilled fighters (an important piece missing from current rules). The rule only comes into play if chosen by a fighter, making it a superior replacement for “Only the Best Shall Win” (which complicates every attack by every fighter).

* Have fighters declare and initiate defenses before TH is determined, not after. This brings lots of interesting benefits, including a new need for strategy in deploying defenses, a new ability in feints to force defenses, intuitive handling of defense against a missile weapon’s point of aim vs the missile itself, and intuitive handling of precognition-based defenses.

* Drop the rule that increases the odds of critical hits for high skill. Let criticals represent blind luck — a flat 3 or 4 for anyone — and let expert fighters achieve amazing results through skill. They should wipe out foes through choice of vital targets, feints, fast blows, and powerful maneuvers, not lucky rolls.

* Martial arts contests for throws or locks must be, at their core, Contests of ST. “Power doesn’t matter” is a myth; apply it to rules, and we’ll have to think up patches when disparate ST scores come into play. See revisions of judo throws and arm locks for examples of rules that place ST at the center of wrestling moves, while still allowing skill to change the odds a lot.

* Unify rules for choking, choke holds, garrotes, constriction, bear hugs, and other squeezing attacks. Make sure the base Contest is ST vs ST, not ST vs HT.

* Make Grenade/Rock Throwing skill official. Lack of a skill for our oldest and most common ranged weapon is a bizarre omission. (No, Throwing doesn’t do the job; you can learn to throw rocks without ever throwing a single other weapon.)

* Lose the separate table for animal biting damage. Base damage on thrust, with whatever modifiers give the effect that the original table aims for.

* Definitely allow AOA and AOD in close combat! These are dire omissions in current rules. Also clarify effects of AOA and AOD in non-striking combat, i.e., wrestling and so on (see same links).

* Make the damage bonus from AOA a percentage, not a fixed +2. This could be a percentage bonus on damage itself, though a percentage bonus on ST would also be workable and more consistent with the earlier suggestion for skill-based damage bonuses.


Other Physical Stuff

As with combat, various tweaks improve play for odd-sized creatures (and sometimes even human ones):

* Incorporate weight in jumping rules! It’s every bit as important as ST. This fixes big problems with non-human creatures’ jump distances, and removes one cause for the Natural ST complication. GULLIVER offers both simple and detailed options that do the job.

* Fix Extra Effort. Rolls should be against HT (or Will, or Will-adjusted HT). This includes rolls to boost ST; rolling against ST to boost ST is broken. (Currently, big creatures can somehow boost their ST to many times its normal limits, but a Cidi PC can’t boost her ST one whit.) The fix will correctly make effects proportionately identical for creatures of any size.

* Consider natural encumbrance rules for any creature. It’s a big item to consider, but with great benefits. Details in Appendix.

* With or without natural encumbrance rules, use multipliers, not additions/subtractions, for the effects of encumbrance on Move. No funny maxima or minima, no separate rules for fliers and animals and Supers, just a single set of consistent multipliers for everything, on land, in air, or in water.

* Unify the base for Move scores. Use Speed as the base for Move in swimming, climbing, skating, anything, just as it’s the base for Move in running and flying.

* Don’t set any bases for Move that directly incorporate ST, i.e., (ST+DX)/4. It doesn’t work.

* Use encumbrance penalties for appropriate combat skills (such as Karate and Judo), rather than the current all-or-nothing Light encumbrance limit. This is simple and flexible.

* Clarify fatigue costs for different rates of movement. In all cases, base fatigue on time, not distance.

* Use capitalization to distinguish between Fatigue (store of energy, akin to HP) and fatigue (energy loss, akin to damage). Or better, find separate words (such as Endurance, Stamina, or Vitality for Fatigue). Use of the same word for these opposites is confusing.

* Use one set of throwing rules that covers everything and anything, instead of a set of rules for non-weapons (CI 10) and a separate formula for each separate weapon.

* With or without new throwing rules, do allow AOA to increase distance. That’s the normal way to throw in sports, or at a far-away foe, where you’re not concerned with defending yourself.

* Let any thrown item skill — not just Throwing skill – increase distance for the appropriate object! Also, when increasing distance (or ST) for skill, do so by a percentage; don’t boost ST by an absolute amount.


Design Stuff

* Establish use of the word “trait” to mean “advantage, disadvantage, attribute, or other character feature”. This saves typing.

* Never change the cost of traits based on race. This odd practice defeats the purpose of point-based character creation.

* Fix pricing of Toughness, DR and Extra HP to address problems of HP costing more than DR, and of humans paying more than non-humans for DR.

* An ancient house rule: Rename Strong/Weak Will to simply “Will”, as in “Will +3” or “Will -1”. Game rolls become “IQ + Will”, “HT + Will”, etc. This is flexible (and easier on the tongue).

* Change the skill system so one purchases a penalty/bonus, not a final skill level: “Bicycling +4”, not “Bicycling-14”. This allows flexible use of stat bases (such as DX to ride a bicycle, IQ to fix one using Mechanic default from Bicycling). The discussion is well-established online, so that’s enough here.

* Consider the Rule of -5 to limit disad abuse: Limit many leveled disads to 5 levels; the fifth level may carry additional penalties.

* Consider the Overlapping Disadvantages rule to limit disadvantage abuse: Multiple overlapping disads (multiple vision problems; Overconfidence plus Impulsiveness, etc.) use full value for the largest, 1/2 value for the next, 1/4 value for the next, etc. Total value may not exceed 80% of the worst scenario (i.e., 80% of value of Blindness for multiple vision disads).

02.10.02: Dataweaver adds a great note: where possible, trim and prune disadvantages so there isn’t so much overlap to begin with!

* Increase the -75% max savings from limitations to -80%. (Most trait costs are a multiple of 5.)

* GULLIVER‘s adjustment of trait value for a character’s Environment (land, water, air) eliminates a lot of point abuses.

* Make Posture a 0-point special effect. There’s never been an effective explanation for why a horse gets -10 points for Horizontal.

* Drop the odd Mechanic bonus for flexibility traits; make that a reduction of any skill penalties for work in tight quarters. Clarify the combat and other effects of all flexibility traits (see same link).

* A few other revised creature design traits that are arguably improvements on the GURPS versions: Invertebrate, leveled Extra Encumbrance, High Pain Threshold, Soaring, Strikers.

* A few new traits that are arguably worth adding to the game: Bioluminescence, Weak Heart, Single Leg, Antennae. Feel free to mine Book 3 for several dozen more new and revised traits.

* Skill bonus” traits that modify a set of skills to represent unusual talent (or lack of it) are good aids to get a character right, without extreme attributes.

* The Appendage Builder System may be overkill, but does allow design of limbs combining any number of functions. The Life Span Meta-System is likewise interesting.

* Letting Running replace HT in (HT+DX)/4, instead of adding a portion of skill to Move, is a good improvement. This could work for Swimming too. Likewise, a DX-based skill replacing DX in the (HT+DX)/4 calculation for Dodge is the best way to implement a Dodging skill. (But this replacement technique doesn’t work for all skills. In particular, no skill should ever replace ST.)

* Any “base” for HP or Fatigue can be made to work; it’s how you game the loss, the effects, etc. that matters, not the base alone. But some combinations of base and implementation are easier than others: Fatigue = HT and HP = ST, with proper implementation, is easier than the current rule. See the Appendix.

Not-Quite Recommendations

These items may represent game changes too big to justify the merits. For curiosity value:

* Damage set at 1d per ST 10 is a neat rule, almost negating the need for a damage table. So is an alternate Toughness that’s free with ST, and works similar to Physical Defense in HERO. The two changes work great together. Tinkerers can see the discussion of both items here.

* Thrust vs swing damage ratio follows no rule in GURPS. Best solution: drop swing damage altogether; a swung weapon does thrust, plus a bonus based on weapon mass (you need a big weapon to gain a big swing bonus). A second-best solution is in the Appendix.

* Defenses are the only spot where GURPS introduces the unusual “skill/2” roll mechanism. It’s possible to replace this oddball rule with defenses that roll vs full skill, like any other use of a skill. See suggestion here.


Wrapping Up

To Steve Jackson and staff: For over a dozen years, GURPS players have enjoyed a game more addictive than any other out there – both to play, and to play around with. While you’re fending off the onslaught of excited 4e demands and proposals from fans, keep in mind that those suggestions are well-meaning; most of us know we’ve already got a great game.

With the caliber of people behind GURPS products, 4e will doubtless be superb. Whenever it comes out. Take your time and enjoy the creative process.

Thanks for all the fun in the past, and cheers to many more years.



1. Implement Natural Encumbrance

The issue: Natural encumbrance is a nifty system (and a popular part of GULLIVER), found in no other RPG, that makes creatures feel real. Combined with sensible rules for scaling ST and other size-dependent factors, natural encumbrance gives you Cidi that perform like squirrels and Giants that lumber like elephants, right “out of the box”.

Recommendation: The full system is fine and brain-dead simple for conditions of normal Earth gravity or zero-gravity.

The system also allows nifty handling of weight vs mass for unusual conditions of gravity, buoyancy, medium, and so on, but computation is not as simple as the above and is likely detail overkill. An abbreviated system should be enough: drop “Encumbrance Factor”, and use the simple rule for these situations.

Several other tweaks accompany implementation. The leveled Extra Encumbrance becomes necessary to enable big creatures. GULLIVER‘s Move Modifier works better with the system than do simple addition and subtractions to Move (a fact already realized by GURPS, which offers the option for fast Supers on CI 14).

On Cost-Benefit: Cost is substantial but may be overstated. Natural encumbrance is already used in GURPS, in a haphazard fashion: an extra 50 lbs. from fat, density, or high gravity is treated the same as 50 lbs. from steel weapons or armor, though an extra 50 lbs. from natural weapons and armor, or just plain bulk, is for some reason ignored.

Implementing natural encumbrance requires treating all of these equally, as well as making provision for high ST-to-weight ratios (negative encumbrance). There’s a built-in loophole that lets you completely ignore natural encumbrance for an existing design that you don’t want to change. In short, the rules are easier to add to the game than you might think.


2. Fatigue Base: HT or ST?

The issue: Sayeth The Poll:

“Should we base fatigue points on HT and hit points on ST? (This would be the reverse of what we do now. Note also that this will mean significant changes to the way we handle very small and very large animals.)”

Recommendation: The eternal online debate. That debate might even make some progress, if discussions didn’t usually miss two important points:

1. Base only means default, and doesn’t have to mean the final stat

The base is the default where costs start; it’s not necessarily where you end up setting the stat. For example, you can already set HP in odd-sized creatures to roughly match ST, regardless of the HT base — many players do, GULLIVER does, and GURPS often does.

It’s possible to make an explicit rule for where to set HP and Fatigue, without changing the base; that’s potentially a “significant” change. Whether or not you also change the base to match will affect the cost of PCs, a much less significant matter.

2. Base is only half of the matter

It’s not only the base, or even the final stat, that matters. The implementation is what’s vital.

For example, either ST or HT can work as the base for Fatigue. The meat is in how you use these bases: when to apply fatigue, how to adjust other stats as Fatigue falls, and so on. (GURPS‘ rules for ST-based Fatigue suffer from missing and imperfect pieces, which are flaws in implementation, not necessarily in the choice of ST as the Fatigue base.)

With the right implementation, ST can work fine as the base for Fatigue. So can HT. So can the character’s shoe size. (Yes, shoe size. It’d be dumb, but it can be done. Ask.)

Requirements for setting and implementing HP and Fatigue

Look first at where HP and ST should be set, and what their implementations need to cover. That should suggest ideal bases.

HP: HP must reflect size. Odd-sized creatures’ HP works well when set roughly in line with their ST-based damage scores.

Ideally, HP would also directly incorporate HT, but this is not as important: even if HT is not built into HP, it will help prevent injury effects (crippling, death, etc.) through avoidance rolls.

There’s not much to say about implementation of HP. The stat works fine in the game, as long as injury and shock effects consistently address damage points vs HP, not damage points vs HT (earlier discussion).

Fatigue: Whether in the implementation or the base, rules for Fatigue must deal with sources of Fatigue loss: exertion, lack of sleep, heat, extra effort, etc., possibly modifed for encumbrance and amount of energy exerted (i.e., size or ST of being). They must account for effects of Fatigue loss on ST and other stats (DX, IQ, Move, Dodge, etc.). And they must account for the role of HT in it all.

GURPS misses a few things here. In particular, there’s no role for HT in the base or implementation, and no consideration of the size (and thus energy use) of a creature.

See suggestions for general, base-independent Fatigue implementation rules here, with notes on encumbrance here.

Choosing the bases

Best HP base: Under Quad ST, basing HP on HT, and then setting HP somewhere near ST, works fine. (It doesn’t work so well using linear ST, as in a GURPS elephant: HP 300?!)

Under Quad ST, basing HP on ST is easier, though: default HP are ready-to-use, with no further setting and cost adjustments needed.

Best Fatigue base: Fatigue can be based on either ST or HT. But basing it on HT allows for simpler implementation, as shown here and here.

Conclusion: If we use Quad ST, then HP based on ST, and Fatigue based on HT, are easier.

Yes, I could have said that from the start. The point of the above long tangent: I trust SJG to consider the whole picture surrounding this topic, and not fall for a tired, pointless debate over base alone.


3. Clean Relationship between Thrust and Swing

The issue: An odd inconsistency in GURPS: Swing and thrust damage are the same at very low ST (forgivable, given the roughness down there). Swing damage is about twice thrust damage at typical human ranges. But at superhuman ranges, the difference drops, settling into a fixed “swing = thrust + 2d” that continues forever, meaning that the two stats move toward negligible relative difference.

Why doesn’t swing damage stay a fixed percentage above thrust? Only the game designers know, but my guess is this: it’s not good game play for Captain Strong (ST 110) to boost his damage from 12d to 20d or more by picking up a police baton. The rules serve to limit his armed damage bonus to an extra 2d.

Recommendation: Set a clean relationship between thrust and swing, in which the latter adds a fixed percentage to thrust damage.

GURPS leans toward double damage for a swing at human ranges. Problem: With a typical sword-like weapon, there’d never be incentive to make a thrust instead of double-damage swing. A thrust will inflict thrust x 2 for impaling, or thrust x 3 if vitals; a swing will inflict double thrust x 1.5 for cutting, or as much as a thrust to the vitals. In other words, the thrust can match swing damage only if a difficult target is chosen; against an armored target, the thrust can’t match a swing at all.

I suggest a smaller 50% bonus to swing damage. That leaves a sword thrust a valid option against unarmored foes, and the swing the preferred choice against armored targets.

As for the Captain Strong problem, there’s a better solution than a flat limitation on swing damage. Use the 50% bonus, but limited to the size of the weapon used. The square root of weapon weight in lbs. works well: despite a potential 18d swing (a 50% bonus over his 12d thrust), the Captain can only squeeze an extra 1d out of a swing with a 1-lb. baton, or 2d with a 4-lb. axe, etc., allowing him only 13d or 14d with these weapons. By wielding a log or other massive weapon appropriate to his mighty ST, he can boost swing to the full 18d.

On Cost-Benefit: Benefits are nifty: a neat, predictable thrust-swing relationship, and a fix for the Captain Strong problem.

Cost is nothing in play, but the rule would change damage stats for almost all published characters and existing PCs.

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