Robin Hood and Little John

Earn It to Learn It: Advancing GURPS skills by tests

Article by Ben Finney

This article introduces Earn It to Learn It, a simple system to link GURPS skill and technique advancement more directly with meeting challenges in play. Inspired by the skill advancement rules in Burning Wheel, these rules provide motivation for seeking out diverse challenges in play, whatever one’s level of ability.

  • Copyright: © 2008 Ben Finney <>
  • License: Permission is granted to modify and/or redistribute this work in any form, provided this copyright statement and license grant are preserved in all copies.
  • Updated: 2008-10-27

The GURPS model for improving a character’s abilities is straightforward: earn generic character points from the GM at the end of a session, and spend them on improving abilities, paying the point difference needed to attain the desired change in ability. However, for skills and techniques, the Basic Set gives an additional condition: “You can only spend character points to improve skills or techniques that, in the GM’s opinion, saw significant use in the adventure during which you earned the points.” (Adding and Improving Skills and Techniques, p. B292).

In the afterglow following an intense session of play, it can be difficult to recall exactly which abilities were used, and controversial for the GM to determine subjectively what uses were significant. This article introduces Earn It to Learn It, a simple system to link skill and technique advancement more directly with meeting challenges in play. Inspired by the skill advancement rules in Burning Wheel, these rules provide motivation for seeking out diverse challenges in play, whatever one’s level of ability.


In Earn It to Learn It, a test is a success roll attempted “… in a stressful situation where the consequences of failure are significant.” (Base Skill vs. Effective Skill, p. B171). Remember that success rolls should only be made “… if there is a chance of meaningful failure or gainful success.” (When to Roll, p. B343).

A test is rated for its level of challenge, measured by the effective skill used for the success roll. The effective skill takes into account all modifiers before rolling the dice (Base Skill vs. Effective Skill, p. B171), and so is an indicator of how challenging the test is for this character under these specific conditions. The test ratings are summarised in the Test Rating Table, below.

  • A Routine test is a test with effective skill 11 or higher. Routine tests provide practice and useful fundamental experience, but do not count for advancement.
  • A Difficult test is test with effective skill 7, 8, 9, or 10. Difficult tests provide incremental learning to build on.
  • A Challenging test is a test with effective skill no higher than 6. Challenging tests provide the breakthrough experiences that allow significant advancement.

Test Rating Table

Effective skill Test rating
11 or more Routine
7 – 10 Difficult
6 or less Challenging

Earning tests

Everyone encounters tests of varying degrees all the time in their life, but a person only learns from a small subset of these: experience must be earned. A test is earned when it counts toward advancement in the skill or technique that was tested.

The player of the character chooses which tests to earn. When the player decides to earn a test, they should immediately record it (with the test rating) against the skill or technique being tested.

A test is earned regardless of success or failure. Although we would prefer to succeed, attempting a difficult task and failing is often just as important for learning something useful!

A test cannot be earned if the character gets no feedback, such as situations listed under When the GM Rolls, p. B344. If the roll was made by the GM but the test does result in feedback, the player can ask the GM for the name of the skill or technique used and the test rating, to decide whether to earn the test.

Rate of earning tests

The GM and players should, before play begins, agree on a maximum rate at which tests can be earned; this rate will determine how quickly characters can advance their abilities through play, and should be adjusted to meet the group’s desired rate of advancement.

A good limit would be “one earned test per character, per scene”. Here, a “scene” is a small unit of a play session, no more than half an hour or so, involving a focused goal such as a chase, a fight, or a negotiation.

Another reasonable maximum might be “one earned test per skill or technique, per character, per session”. A maximum of this sort reflects the reality that a person can only absorb so much new information about a given topic at once.

Requirements for advancement

Each skill or technique can only be advanced one level at a time, by earning a certain number of Difficult and Challenging tests against it.

The number of Difficult tests required for advancement is equal to number of character points needed to advance from the current to the next level; this is “… the difference between the cost of the new level and the cost of your current level” (Adding and Improving Skills and Techniques, p. B292). Thus, the number of Difficult tests required to advance one level is never more than 4.

Character points can only be spent to advance if the required number of Challenging tests were also earned. To advance a technique, no Challenging tests are required. For skills already known (1 or more points), the number of Challenging tests required to advance is as follows: half the target relative skill level, minimum 1, maximum 3.

  • Example: To advance an Average skill from Will+0 [2] to Will+1 [4] requires earning 2 Difficult tests and 1 Challenging test.
  • Example: To advance a Hard technique from default+3 [4] to default+4 [5] requires earning 1 Difficult test.
  • Example: To advance an Easy skill from DX+8 [28] to DX+9 [32] requires earning 4 Difficult tests and 3 Challenging tests.

For skills known only at default (0 points), advancing to the next level requires 1 Difficult test, no Challenging tests. This is compatible with the requirement that “You may only add a skill if you attempted a default roll… or if you spent most of the adventure around people who were constantly using the skill.” (Adding and Improving Skills and Techniques, p. B292)

  • Example: To advance a Very Hard skill from default of IQ−6 [0] to IQ−3 [1] requires earning 1 Difficult test.

These requirements are shown for each target level in the Skill Advancement Table and Technique Advancement Table, below.

Skill Advancement Table

Skill Difficulty
Target Level Easy Average Hard Very Hard
Attribute−3 1×D
Attribute−2 1×D 1×D, 1×C
Attribute−1 1×D 1×D, 1×C 2×D, 1×C
Attribute+0 1×D 1×D, 1×C 2×D, 1×C 4×D, 1×C
Attribute+1 1×D, 1×C 2×D, 1×C 4×D, 1×C 4×D, 1×C
Attribute+2 2×D, 1×C 4×D, 1×C 4×D, 1×C 4×D, 1×C
Attribute+3 4×D, 1×C 4×D, 1×C 4×D, 1×C 4×D, 1×C
Attribute+4 4×D, 2×C 4×D, 2×C 4×D, 2×C 4×D, 2×C
Attribute+5 4×D, 2×C 4×D, 2×C 4×D, 2×C 4×D, 2×C
Attribute+6 4×D, 3×C 4×D, 3×C 4×D, 3×C 4×D, 3×C
extra +1 4×D, 3×C 4×D, 3×C 4×D, 3×C 4×D, 3×C

Technique Advancement Table

Technique Difficulty
Target Level Average Hard
Default+0 0 0
Default+1 1×D 2×D
Default+2 1×D 1×D
Default+3 1×D 1×D
Default+4 1×D 1×D
Default+5 1×D 1×D
extra +1 1×D 1×D

Learning from experience

Each challenge level is distinct for purposes of earning tests; different test ratings cannot be substituted for each other. This reflects the need for differing types of experience when advancing in a skill: a Difficult test is slightly beyond a person’s normal ability, and the experience it provides cannot be substituted with a Challenging test, representing a task far beyond their current ability.

After earning the required tests, spend Difficult tests as character points, one to one, to advance the ability one level. All remaining tests earned against that ability are lost when it advances.

This has the result that Difficult tests earned are equivalent to character points, but for that skill or technique only, and only for the purpose of advancing one level.

An ability can be advanced immediately when the required tests have been earned. The new level of ability is available as soon as the points are spent.

Earning tests through study

When using the Improvement Through Study rules (p. B292), earn tests as follows: 200 hours of study counts as one Difficult test earned. Once per 200 hours of study with a teacher, the student earns a Challenging test if the teacher succeeds on a Teaching roll.

Learnable Advantages (p. B294) have the same 200 hours per Difficult test, and require a teacher as per p. B294.

If using the optional Maintaining Skills rules (p. B294), where an IQ roll to retain skill levels must be made each time a certain period elapses, each Routine test earned during the period grants a bonus of +1 on the IQ roll, to a maximum bonus of +4.

Rewarding a variety of tests

Earn It to Learn It results in characters compatible in every way to those using the Basic Set rules. The difference is only that character points needed for advancing an ability are tied directly to the tests made against that ability.

The goal is to positively encourage the GM to devise, and players to accept, a range of challenges. By directly rewarding characters when they take Difficult and Challenging tests, players have extra motivation to get creative in taking action to raise or lower their chances on a success roll: taking less time or being more careful, doing more with less, getting assistance, and so on.

For groups who enjoy dramatic play with all levels of ability being challenged, these rules can provide an appropriate level of tension. Enjoy!


  • tbone

    2020-01-23: The comments below were originally on another page that is disappearing in the January 2020 site migration. I’m moving the comments to this article as they similarly address the Burning Wheel system.

    • Radoslav


      I stumbled on this webpage searching for ideas to help me decide if I should switch from GURPS to Burning Wheel (another RPG by the Mouse Guard’s author).

      I really like new ideas behind the BW, but in terms of the rules coherency and clarity and source materials – GURPS is still the best for me. And I like many ideas here to make GURPS games better.

      So I think I will stick to GURPS and try to implement the “big picture” ideas from these new systems, like:
      – deciding when to roll – kudos for your article on that
      – duel of wits – that’s a mini-game that should be doable within GURPS and I think it would bring a lot of fun to games
      – Beliefs, Traits and Instincts – I think of requiring the players to have 2-3 Perks committed to Beliefs and incresing the amount of Perks to 6, so that they may have 3 other for Traits, Instincts and GURPS Perks
      – Test-based skill advancement – I wonder how it would turn out in play, lots of bookkeeping
      – Artha (reward points for players, not sure what their name in Mouse Guard is) – I think it might bring more fun by players having such points to boost the tests they find important, instead of giving more character points for good role-playing

      Anyway, I’m glad to have found your website!

      • tbone

        Hello hello! The ideal would be to take all you like from GURPS and combine it with all you like from Burning Wheel (or even other systems). It’s not so hard to do when the parts to be combined don’t overlap closely but rather cover very different areas – say, GURPS’ simulation crunchiness + BW’s ideas on heroic dice rolling and test-based skill advancement. Fortunately for you, Ben Finney’s written two articles on just those topics.

        On the “duel of wits” topics, you’ve probably seen other games offer detailed sub-systems for such things. I’m not sure about BW… I think Riddle of Steel has something… and I know I’ve seen versions elsewhere. GURPS scores on nice simplicity here, with its easy Contests, but I know some players enjoy more detailed systems, similar to combat rules. I’ve never developed any such thing myself in detail; are there any specific ideas or goals you have in mind?

        Beliefs etc: I agree, encouraging players to flesh out PCs with these is a great thing. A few beliefs or motivations are much more important than a few Quirks related to clothing preferences, pet phrases, etc. But wouldn’t beliefs, too, generally be Quirks (or if powerful, Delusions etc.) and not Perks?

        Thanks for writing, and please mine the site for anything interesting you can find!

        • Radoslav

          Hi tbone,

          my posting frequency more less conveys my approach to gaming – quite casual 🙂

          The article on heroic dice rolling is good, but it misses on point that is important IMHO. The moment when a players receives a boon (in BW’s case – “Artha”) for roleplaying (e.g. based on said Beliefs) and how this boon can be used to boost his chances in a roll. In GURPS, character points are the boon, but granting them has little potential for a story. Give a player something which he can use only when rolling (which assumes a conflict, challenge or risk) and you create opportunities for these elements in your story. That’s why I like the underlying mechanic of BW – it revolves around Artha (the boon), Beliefs and Instincts (roleplaying ways to get the boon) and the test-based advancement.

          Now, I’d rather keep Beliefs and Instincts as cheap Perks, but reward role-playing them with a said boon (a bonus to a roll). BW has three levels of Artha – the more your roleplaying sets you back, the more powerful boon you receive.

          I like social conflict subsystems because – in a casual group – it helps everyone in shaping interesting and often funny dialogues. It’s like a brainstorming tool to help you generate ideas. And since it gets similarly detailed as combat, it shifts the emphasis of the game. Now interesting conflicts that require players to plan their approach and make decisions can be found in social situations – not only in combat. Focus on combat in most systems can get boring.

          Regarding developing such a thing, I’d be happiest if I could see a relatively direct port of BW’s ‘duel of wits’ to GURPS. The scripting mechanic there, where you choose your next rhetorical action without knowing what action your opponent chooses, leads to many funny dialogues. I think this subsystem is available for free from the Burning Wheel page, if anyone’s interested.

          Regarding combat, there is a nice amalgam of combat rules from BW and the Riddle of Steel… unfortunately I cannot find it at the moment.

          PS. I’m sorry, but I couldn’t get paragraphs to work… tags are there in my html :-/ Using Firefox.

          • tbone

            Thanks for the thoughtful comment! I’m moving my reply to the MERC page, where the discussion fits nicely. Please jump here.

            Sorry about the paragraph troubles. I edited the allowable HTML tags. I hope the problem is now permanently fixed for future posts.

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