A modest proposal: Friendlier character trait blocks in GURPS

Players of GURPS know that the RPG has a simple rules set at heart, yet its reputation as complex lingers on. True, the system does have rules bits that delve deep into detail, though those are typically optional bits. The system also covers a vast breadth of topics, which many gamers unfortunately confuse with complexity. And there are perhaps a few spots where the game presents an appearance more daunting than the reality.

Here’s a quick look at an example of the latter. It’s a small part of the game that doesn’t involve “complexity”, yet can induce a moment of dizziness even in me at times. I’m talking about long, long blocks of traits in character write-ups.

Edit 2021-07-22: Added notes (toward end) on making other content – namely, lists of modifiers – easier to scan.

The look of GURPS

GURPS characters often have highly individualized lists of skills, which usually appear in works as blocks like the following. (I’m not going to attempt to perfectly recreate the GURPS publication appearance; a generic-looking serif font should mimic it in spirit.)

Brawling (E) DX [1]-12; Diplomacy (H) IQ+1 [8]-15; Esoteric Medicine (Druidic) (H) Per-2 [1]-12; Herb Lore (VH) IQ-1 [4]-13; Holdout (A) IQ [1]-13; Knife (E) DX+1 [2]-13; Leadership (A) IQ [1]-14*; Occultism (A) IQ [2]-14; Poisons (H) IQ-1 [2]-13; Public Speaking (A) IQ [1]-14*

The same holds for the Skills blocks found in templates, which look like this:

Brawling (E) DX [1]-15; Gambling (A) IQ-1 [1]-12; and Carousing (E) HT [1]-11. • Another 7 points spent on any previous skill, or on Fast-Draw (any) or Garrote, both (E) DX [1]-15; First Aid, Panhandling, or Seamanship (E) IQ [1]-13; Cartography, Connoisseur (any), Disguise, Fast-Talk, or Merchant, all (A) IQ-1 [1]-12; Counterfeiting, Forgery, or Poisons, all (H) IQ-2 [1]-11; Hiking (A) HT-1 [1]-10; Scrounging (E) Per [1]-14; or Lip Reading or Observation, both (A) Per-1 [1]-13.

While we’re at it, here’s an example of a template’s Advantages block:

Burning Attack 4d (Cone, 5 yards, +100%; Limited Use, 3/day, -20%; Reduced Range, x1/5, -20%) [32]; Claws (Talons) [8]; Discriminatory Smell [15]; DR 6 (Can’t Wear Armor, -40%) [18]; Enhanced Move 1/2 (Air) [10]; Extra Attack [25]; Extra Legs (Four Legs) [5]; Flight (Winged, -25%) [30]; Longevity [2]; Magery 0 [5]; Night Vision 8 [8]; Striker (Tail; Crushing) [5]; Teeth (Fangs) [2].

And so on. Are these difficult to work with? Well, no, in that the blocks deliver all the required info and nothing more. They’re good! But scanning these blocks is tiring. When you need to quickly pick out key traits to size up or play a character, the blocks are hard to parse.

The GURPS-derived Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game (DFRPG) tackles the clutter with simplified presentation. Even detailed write-ups, as in the Delvers to Go book, present only what’s needed to size up or play the character on the fly. Like this excerpt from a Skills block:

Brawling-14 [2]
Broadsword-16 [12]
Esoteric Medicine (Holy)-10 [1]
Exorcism-14 [4]
Fast-Draw (Sword)-14* [1]
Hidden Lore (Demons)-12 [2]
Hiking-12 [1]
Intimidation-13 [1]
Leadership-12‡ [1]

Or this Advantages block:

Energy Reserve 3 (Magical) [9]
Intuition [15]
Language: Ancient (Written) [3]
Luck [15]
Magery 3 [35]

The format – one item per line, with information kept to a minimum – is much easier to read! (The game’s professional templates even go one better by highlighting listed items like the above in color.)

DFRPG‘s monster write-ups, meanwhile, don’t grant each item its own line; they also lump advantages and disadvantages into a single Traits block. The result looks like this:

Traits: Bad Grip 2; Extra Attack 1; Flight (Winged); High Pain Threshold; Horizontal; Immunity to Disease; Loner (12); Nictitating Membrane 3; Night Vision 9; Penetrating Voice; Peripheral Vision; Temperature Tolerance 2 (Cold); Temperature Tolerance 4 (Heat); Unfazeable.
Skills: Brawling-14; Diplomacy-12; Fast-Talk-12; Innate Attack (Breath)-14; Tactics-12.

The format isn’t quite as welcoming as those PC templates that list one item per line, but the simplified information still aids scanning.


So should GURPS adopt the DFRPG format? Generally no, I’d say. First, DFRPG‘s format can take up a fair amount of space. The simplified info shortens things, but one item per line eats up a lot of page, even when the game uses two-column lists.

The simplified information itself is a double-edged sword. GURPS‘ system for building powers and other traits is a feature of the game. I’m good with DFRPG‘s decision to hide it for simplicity, but GURPS players want to know the “formula” behind a constructed trait. Meanwhile, DFRPG‘s simplified skills listings look great, but actually make things a little harder when there’s a need to modify a character. Add a racial template to your profession, for example, or tweak a secondary characteristic like Perception, and you now have to work through a skills list to confirm which skills to adjust. (The same holds when the GM simply says something like “Roll vs DX-based Traps”. Is the simple “Traps-14” listed on your form based on DX or IQ? You may need to look up the skill to check.)

And finally, whereas DFRPG makes good use of color in its templates, I assume this isn’t an option for GURPS, most of which comes out as black-and-white PDF publications.

Be bold

So what should GURPS do? All the above serves to introduce this one tiny suggestion that I imagine would make a difference: Use bold for the really key stuff. That’s it.

Turn this Advantages block . . .

Burning Attack 4d (Cone, 5 yards, +100%; Limited Use, 3/day, -20%; Reduced Range, x1/5, -20%) [32]; Claws (Talons) [8]; Discriminatory Smell [15]; DR 6 (Can’t Wear Armor, -40%) [18]; Enhanced Move 1/2 (Air) [10]; Extra Attack [25]; Extra Legs (Four Legs) [5]; Flight (Winged, -25%) [30]; Longevity [2]; Magery 0 [5]; Night Vision 8 [8]; Striker (Tail; Crushing) [5]; Teeth (Fangs) [2].

. . . into this:

Burning Attack 4d (Cone, 5 yards, +100%; Limited Use, 3/day, -20%; Reduced Range, x1/5, -20%) [32]; Claws (Talons) [8]; Discriminatory Smell [15]; DR 6 (Can’t Wear Armor, -40%) [18]; Enhanced Move 1/2 (Air) [10]; Extra Attack [25]; Extra Legs (Four Legs) [5]; Flight (Winged, -25%) [30]; Longevity [2]; Magery 0 [5]; Night Vision 8 [8]; Striker (Tail; Crushing) [5]; Teeth (Fangs) [2].

This’ll certainly require some stylistic judgment calls; for example, should that be Teeth (Fangs) or Teeth (Fangs)? Flight (Winged, -25%) or Flight (Winged, -25%)? I’m open to both. Either way, the above strikes me as a better presentation for quickly conveying key traits of this creature.

Now take this Skills block . . .

Brawling (E) DX [1]-12; Diplomacy (H) IQ+1 [8]-15; Esoteric Medicine (Druidic) (H) Per-2 [1]-12; Herb Lore (VH) IQ-1 [4]-13; Holdout (A) IQ [1]-13; Knife (E) DX+1 [2]-13; Leadership (A) IQ [1]-14*; Occultism (A) IQ [2]-14; Poisons (H) IQ-1 [2]-13; Public Speaking (A) IQ [1]-14*

. . . and change it to this:

Brawling (E) DX [1]-12; Diplomacy (H) IQ+1 [8]-15; Esoteric Medicine (Druidic) (H) Per-2 [1]-12; Herb Lore (VH) IQ-1 [4]-13; Holdout (A) IQ [1]-13; Knife (E) DX+1 [2]-13; Leadership (A) IQ [1]-14*; Occultism (A) IQ [2]-14; Poisons (H) IQ-1 [2]-13; Public Speaking (A) IQ [1]-14*

No, wait. That’s still not it. Skill names and levels are clearly the info we need to size up and play a character, but see how the GURPS format sets the two items far apart? It’s still hard to read. Let’s move the skill level forward to get this:

Brawling-12 (E) DX [1]; Diplomacy-15 (H) IQ+1 [8]; Esoteric Medicine (Druidic)-12 (H) Per-2 [1]; Herb Lore-13 (VH) IQ-1 [4]; Holdout-13 (A) IQ [1]; Knife-13 (E) DX+1 [2]; Leadership-14* (A) IQ [1]; Occultism-14 (A) IQ [2]; Poisons-13 (H) IQ-1 [2]; Public Speaking-14* (A) IQ [1]

Now that I like. This “Brawling-12” format is the standard “shorthand” for writing a GURPS skill wherever the full information isn’t needed; it’s a format you’ll see everywhere, from a GM’s index card notes to a published monster write-up to a DFRPG PC template. I like the idea of keeping the simple “Brawling-12” notation embedded even within a full skill write-up.

It’s possible to go a small step further, placing all of a skill’s “accounting info” into a single parenthetical. As in, “Here’s the package of stuff you can leave out if you just care about skill name and level”:

Brawling-12 (E/DX [1]); Diplomacy-15 (H/IQ+1 [8]); Esoteric Medicine (Druidic)-12 (H/Per-2 [1]); Herb Lore-13 (VH/IQ-1 [4]); Holdout-13 (A/IQ [1]); Knife-13 (E/DX+1 [2]); Leadership-14* (A/IQ [1]); Occultism-14 (A/IQ [2]); Poisons-13 (H/IQ-1 [2]); Public Speaking-14* (A/IQ [1])

Well. That’s all good to me, but let’s get back to the main point: bolding. The use of bold could look good in DFRPG too, I’d think. It wouldn’t make much sense for monsters’ Skills and Traits blocks; nearly the entire text of these blocks would be bolded! But in templates, the game’s simplified presentation still presents somewhat-daunting blocks of text like this:

Any one of Broadsword-19 [16], Rapier-19 [16], Saber-19 [16], Shortsword-19 [16], or Smallsword-19 [16] – and also either Cloak-16 [4] or Shield (Buckler)-17 [4].‡.

Bold won’t make a big difference here, but I think I’d prefer this:

Any one of Broadsword-19 [16], Rapier-19 [16], Saber-19 [16], Shortsword-19 [16], or Smallsword-19 [16] – and also either Cloak-16 [4] or Shield (Buckler)-17 [4].‡”)

The gray and the bold

Hmm, should the items in bold stand out even more? Adding color to the bolded text may not be an option, but we could boost the visual distinction by rendering non-bold, less-important text in gray. Creatively mixing the bold and the gray, we could end up with GURPS trait blocks like this:

Alternate Forms (Bat, Wolf) [30]; Doesn’t Breathe [20]; Dominance [20]; Immunity to Metabolic Hazards [30]; Injury Tolerance (Unliving) [20]; Insubstantiality (Costs Fatigue, 2 FP, -10%) [72]; Night Vision 5 [5]; Speak With Animals (Wolves and bats, -60%) [10]; Unaging [15]; Unkillable 2 (Achilles’ Heel: Wood, -50%) [50]; Vampiric Bite [30].

And this:

Diplomacy-13 (H) IQ [4]; Esoteric Medicine (Holy)-10 (H) Per-2 [1]; Exorcism-15 (H) Will-1 [2]; Fast-Draw (Knife)-13 (E) DX [1]; Interrogation-12 (A) IQ-1 [1]; Intimidation-16 (A) Will [2]; Leadership-17* (A) IQ+4 [4]; Meditation-14 (H) Will-2 [1]; Public Speaking-13 (A) IQ [2]; Religious Ritual-12 (H) IQ-1 [2]; Savoir-Faire (High Society)-13 (E) IQ [1]; Shield-16 (E) DX+3 [8]

Very easy to scan, I think. (And probably very unpopular with the layout folks who’d have to create that. : )

Beyond characters and templates

There’s one more spot in GURPS books where the above sort of treatment sounds appealing to me: long lists of modifiers and the like. Take a gander at the “Tables” section beginning on p. 547 of the Basic Set. Headers and layout make the overall structure clear, but I wonder whether bold, and maybe even color, wouldn’t make it easier to quickly scan the lists for relevant modifiers.

An example for your consideration:

What do you think?

The wrap

Even in simple black-and-white publications, I think GURPS (and possibly DFRPG) could use bold text to separate the all-important “stuff we need to know” (trait name, skill level, etc.) from the less-important “how we got there” (trait type, skill difficulty, cost, etc.). This would retain the rich information that GURPS includes in lists of traits, while making the blocks less daunting to scan and parse. The same tricks could be used to make other content, like lists of modifiers, easier to read.

That’s it. I know, it’s not much of an idea. But what do you think? Do you also find GURPS‘ big trait blocks tough on the eyes? Or am I just exhibiting a whiny quirk here?


  • kirbwarrior

    I definitely love bolding the advantage name, I’m not sure about bolding the modifiers. With your two examples, I can know the character in question has Teeth and Flight and then be able to read the modifiers from there. But if the modifiers are bolded, it feels on the same level as the advantages and makes me think there are multiple traits instead of one trait.

    I also love the skill change, very nice for “scan without slowing gameplay”.

    The gray definitely sticks out and I can see the upside, but I’m not sure if it is worth the cost of layout effort and time. However, all three ideas have merit and I think I’ll start righting up my personal templates this way to make things more obvious.

    • tbone

      On bolding the modifiers (like bolding “(Fangs)” along with “Sharp Teeth”):
      Yep, your argument makes sense. But I can also see the counterargument: The important thing is to bold the information that’s important for play, and while the point cost of Sharp Teeth or Flight isn’t important in play, the type of Sharp Teeth or Flight does matter. Hence: Bold “Sharp Teeth (Fangs)” and “Flight (Wings)”, but not the point costs or point cost modifiers.

      That’s the other argument, anyway. They both make some sense, so as of now I’d be happy with either.

  • Oryzarius

    Automated styling (as Adobe InDesign allows, with some help from GREP) would speed up the “gray” option without much fiddling required by humans: put in bold everything through to a hyphen followed by a number; then put in gray everything through to a semicolon; rinse and repeat.

    • tbone

      That sounds right to me. That is, I don’t know what SJG’s (or any publisher’s) specific workflow entails, but this is the sort of formatting that (I hope) any publisher could pretty easily tackle in automated fashion.

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