GURPS DSA – A Good Idea?

You can find a German variant of this article here.

Das Schwarze Auge / The Dark Eye, commonly known as DSA among fans and detractors alike, ranks among the top three RPGs in Germany, but has never quite managed to gain a foothold anywhere else. Americans are most likely to recognize it as the engine that ran the three PC games released under the name “Realms of Arkania” in the nineties.

Now, there’s a couple of reasons why DSA has a very loyal following in Germany and also why it never made much headway anywhere else. And some of these make you really wish for a comprehensive GURPS conversion of the setting.

The Good

1) The setting is extremely dense. There are hidden secrets in every other town. History stretches back to reptilian precursor races. Named NPCs interact in a complex political web. Current events are very detailed and reported from multiple points of view. There’s a host of academies, holy orders, army units and fighting instructors for your characters to learn from and interact with. There are complete libraries of books to look for, ancient evils to defeat and countless causes to fight for.
If your players want to get involved in their campaign world, they’ll find hooks aplenty. Even if they don’t want to do a lot of work themselves, you can easily provide them with connections that have the right flavour.

2) The system is extremely well-supported. You want to game in a certain part of the world? There’s a regional module for you. You want to know more about secret societies or mage academies? Three modules each. Need to know more about elves or dwarves? Of course, there’s a supplement! Want to play in another time period? There’s limited support even for that. Need more info on magical artefacts? Of course, there’s a book on that. Want to read in-universe tracts about your chosen deity? The last ones will be out within the year. Maps? There are detailed posters of every spot on the continent; major cities are also mapped. Adventure modules? 250 and counting. You need an official in-universe newspaper? That was revamped a bit and now includes more scenarios than news, but there’s 150 back issues you can peruse if you prefer the straight dope.
Imagine the Forgotten Realms and cram all that detail into its western coast from Icewind Dale to Calimshan. Then multiply the number of relevant supplements by five and the number of adventure modules by fifteen. Then you come close the level of support DSA offers to the GM with deeper pockets. Note that there are PDF versions and second-hand copies that offer much cheaper alternatives.

3) The system takes a lot of work off the GM’s shoulders. I know not everybody likes adventure modules, but for the GM with a full-time job they often spell the difference between running a game or not. For everyone else they are at least a nice diversion or useful for mining for ideas. In contrast to the usual D20 dungeon the last two and a half decades of DSA has seen a varied mix ranging from intrigue and detective stories, to war, exploration and mystic themes, to more traditional dungeons, but ones that actually make sense. The same goes for much of the support supplements. DSA is pretty much the anti-GURPS in this regard. There’s very little world-building and system-tuning required by the GM.

4) The system helps players who have trouble coming up with original character concepts. The use of archetypes and the extremely dense background material are helpful for  players and GMs alike. You won’t end playing a level one fighter that is only distinguished through his random attributes, race selection and starting feat. You will have disadvantages that define you, a place ore unit where you learned your trade, ready-made connections and antipathies and even a reason to go adventuring.

5) There’s a huge fan following in Germany, which makes it very easy to get new players. Everybody plays in the same world and there aren’t all that many ways to tweak the system and world, so you can even introduce characters from other GMs’ campaigns. Of course, that also means there’s quite a lot of unofficial material readily available. A lot of it is quite good and actually on par with D20 titles.

The Bad

1) The setting can be overwhelming. There’s a myriad of details to take into account. For example, you need a very clear idea of when and where to start your campaign, because there are metaplots that will radically change your world. If you decide to leave them out, a large amount of the support elements will become unusable or take a considerable amount of work to adapt. Worst of all are the adventure modules – a significant number of which thrust the characters into the limelight of politics and unfolding supernatural events. Many players are aware of those and will want to take part in them. They might object if you change the world too much.
In the end player and GM freedom are often restricted by the burgeoning realms of the writers’ imagination. Take into account that the early generation of writers were German literature and anthropology students and you get deliberate restrictions that railroad you into a direction the writers thought proper for your game.

2) The rules show a a truly Teutonic obsession with details: For example every skill roll sees three twenty-sided dice rolled to beat three different attributes with skill points used to make up the difference. Where GURPS has four skill difficulties with everyday names (cost progression 1-2-4-8-12…), DSA sports nine difficulties from A* to H (cost progression a convenient 1-1-2-3-4-6-7-8-10-11-13-14-16-17-19-21-22-24-26-27-29 – for type A that is). The system did not use to be so complicated, but in the current edition it is virtually impossible to make a character without using a spreadsheet. Granted, spreadsheets are a good idea for every point-build system, but DSA takes complications to unhealthy heights. It used to be a half-way beginner-friendly system, but it shed that with its 4th Edition.
At the same time the system makes it very hard for beginning characters to succeed at anything. An average character who has spent years training in a skill has less than half a chance to beat an unmodified skill roll – and few skill rolls in adventures and examples are unmodified, most carry a penalty. A trained warrior who has spent six years or more doing weapons training has less than half a chance to hit an opponent before they get a chance to defend. Combat takes forever, especially since characters can often take three or four sword hits without much of an effect.Part of these problems stem from marrying what was originally a D&D-esque random roll system with a point-based system (that incidentally steals a lot of small details from GURPS). The effect isn’t very pretty in play and encourages players to invest heavily in attributes and take the maximum disadvantages before start of play. Attributes are even more important than in GURPS, but at the same time there are so many and all are important for spells that the average player is easily lured into munchkinny builds.

3) The fan base has a large number of fanatics. Even in the good old times before the internet you could post a notice in the game shop and have people ring you up only to tell you about how the Praiotian inquisition was the best thing ever and that you were a disgusting heretic for having a witch in your group. The internet hasn’t made things easier. It’s probably a good idea to never invite more than one unknown player into your group. DSA players are often defensive, because their system is often to maligned by others. DSA has a bit of a reputation as simplistic, illogical, goody-two-shoes system and if you like it very much that can hurt.

4) The system is huge and can be costly. It also tends to reinvent itself every eight years on average. Thankfully these reinventions don’t really introduce huge world-sweeping changes on their own (like in the Forgotten Realms), but you still need to shell out for new basic rules and all the extras you need to make your characters work. This is all the more infuriating, because the changes are often very subtle (4th Edition to 4.1 to 5 for example didn’t change the basic mechanics at all). On the whole this a system to sink a lot money in if you want to cover all eventualities.

5) All the nice things can only be had in German. Sure, there’s an English version consisting of like three books and there used to be versions in French and Dutch, but basically you need to either be a German native speaker or somebody with a degree in German and a huge interest in translating this stuff.

The Beautiful

Now, most of what I said serves only to whet the appetite of the average GURPS GM. Why?

1) The one huge drawback of GURPS is the lack of detailed settings. The only exception is Transhuman Space and that has to deal with an awkward 3rd/4th Edition split. Sure, GURPS attracts GMs who want to stat their own settings or run real-world campaigns, but when you’re short on players you tend to run back to vaguely Tolkieneque fantasy. DSA nicely fills that gap in GURPS.

2) There’s nothing in the setting that makes it very hard to convert. DSA tries to be realistic even if falls far short of this goal. The system is already skill-based, combat is more or less realistic with parries, dodging and armour that stops damage. Most non-supernatural stuff works on a somewhat logical basis and spell magic is skill-based, differentiated by spell traits and uses energy points.
There are a limited number of creatures, cultures, races and magics and most of the latter can be given more flavour by representing them as different GURPS variants. The same goes for DSA adventures. Instead of a different monster with three dozen modifiers per room, you’ll mainly face humanoids, animals and maybe a monster or two with at most a couple of special abilities each.
Compared to other RPG settings like D&D, Rifts or Star Trek (any incarnation) converting the DSA setting isn’t much of a chore.

3) GURPS actually makes DSA better. Tech levels, familiarities, martial arts and magical styles, divine favour, detailed armour, spelunking rules, supernatural abilities, a balanced disadvantage system, the possibility to start with experienced characters…
The possibilities are staggering.

The Not So Beautiful

There are still some things that complicate a GURPS DSA conversion:

1) The GURPS Magic spell system is still in bad need of a fix.
2) There’s no bestiary yet and that slows down creature conversion.
3) Is there even any interest in this? American GURPS players might be interested in the setting, but can’t take advantage of the German material, while German DSA players might be interested in better rules, but don’t want to buy a minimum of six English rulebooks (Characters, Campaigns, Powers, Low-Tech, Magic, Thaumatology and Martial Arts). I mean obviously I’m doing this for my own group anyway, but is there any interest online? Feedback is very welcome, especially on whether this should be German-only or English-only content or something both could appreciate.

The first part of my step-by-step conversion guide for DSA is available here.

The material presented here is my original creation, intended for use with the GURPS system from Steve Jackson Games. This material is not official and is not endorsed by Steve Jackson Games.

GURPS is a registered trademark of Steve Jackson Games, and the art here is copyrighted by Steve Jackson Games. All rights are reserved by SJ Games. This material is used here in accordance with the SJ Games online policy

Lest It Become a Hereditary Affliction

House rule articles contain a short intro, a rambling section on how to come up with a solution to a problem called “Cooking It up“, just the plain rules in a section called “The Finished Dish” and some musings about what else you could do with that in the final section: The Leftovers“.

One of the things most people agree on is that Affliction is overpriced in the current rules-as-written. That is, what we actually agree on is that effective Afflictions are overpriced. The first level gives a straight HT roll to resist. For that price it’s probably fair that the average Joe can shake it off with a 50/50 chance. The second level costs the same as the first… and makes that a chance of 37.5% – for the average Joe. In short, there’s a low chance to take out important adversaries or monsters with a straight-up Affliction. It’s clearly one of the half-dozen or so things that would be changed, should we ever see another edition of GURPS. There are some ways around this, though.

Cooking It up

The rules-based approach around this problem is taking Malediction 1, which turns the resistance roll into a quick contest between your WILL and the target’s HT +1 minus the level of the Affliction. Unless your Affliction is so heavily limited it costs less than 5 points there is never a reason to buy a second level of this – and even with an end cost of 3 points it would be a debatable investment.

Most official treatments of this, like Psionic Powers, have combined this with a “Skills for Everyone” approach (Powers p. 162). This is extremely advisable if the PCs are expected to have more than one Affliction and even if they don’t. Basically it replaces your WILL roll with a unique hard skill roll. You might even waive the requirement that the Affliction must be part of a power.

Sean Punch suggests two ways to change the costs here:
1) 10 points for the first level + 3 points for the following ones.
2) Give each level 1d6 virtual damage dice that need to overcome armour in the normal way and penalise resistance rolls according to how much damage gets through.

Number 1) solves most problems, but has limits where Afflictions have lots of enhancements and not enough limitations to bring the cost of the later levels down to 3 points. Also an Affliction could be a Malediction 1/2/3 for another 10/15/20 points minus limitations and therefore liable to a much greater discount in cases of high WILL or skill.

Number 2) is a good alternative for most Afflictions that should realistically interact with armour.

What other rules-compliant options are there? You could use Follow-Up for an Affliction that needs less levels to succeed because it ignores armour. You could also choose not to use an Affliction. If you don’t mind doing damage at the same time Side Effect and Symptoms do add explicit Affliction states for a reasonable cost that is not measured in actual levels of Affliction. Indeed, Side Effect is already very similar to the second of Kromm’s suggestions.

You could also rebuild Affliction as follows: It has only ever one level, but you can take a new special enhancement called Hard to Resist that is priced at +40% for each -1 it gives to the target’s resistance roll (or +1 for beneficial afflictions). This works both for normal Afflictions and for those modified by Malediction, though in the latter case it might be more cost-effective to just raise your WILL/skill. You’ll note that this is close to Kromm’s suggestion no. 1 above, but making the lowered resistance an enhancement takes away the danger of inflated costs for the more extreme Afflictions.

The Finished Dish

Rules-compliant ways to effectively use Afflictions:

  • Modify it with Malediction and use a unique skill.
  • Modify it with Malediction and use straight WILL. This is likely too powerful!
  • Modify it with Armour Divisor to get rid of part of the bonus armour provides.
  • Use a carrier attack and modify the Affliction with Follow-Up to do damage and ignore armour if the carrier attack overcomes it.
  • Modify an Innate Attack with Side Effect to afflict negative states on a target – at a penalty according to penetrating damage.
  • Modify an Innate Attack with Symptoms to automatically afflict negative states on a target once damage exceeds certain thresholds.

Variants that change the rules-as-written:

  • Kromm’s two ideas.
  • Affliction only ever has one level. A special levelled enhancement called Hard to Resist gives a -1  penalty (+1 bonus for beneficial Afflictions) per level to resist the Affliction. It costs +40% per level and works with Malediction.

The Leftovers

All the old rules-compliant ways to make your Affliction cost-effective still work with the new Affliction pricing. Kromm’s second suggestion works as an alternative. In that case Afflictions retain their old cost structure.

Now, what if you think it’s too cheap to make a heavily modified killing curse? After all,  Affliction (Heart Attack, +300%; Hard to Resist +8, +320%; Costs 8 FP, -40%;  Limited Use: 1 time / day, -40%) is only 15 points if you use multiplicative modifiers. The easy solution is to make the different effects change the base cost instead of being enhancements. So Attribute Penalty ST -2 would only cost 12 points as base, while Heart Attack would be 40 points. The aforementioned ability would then cost 26 points, which seems appropriate for its limitations.

The material presented here is my original creation, intended for use with the GURPS system from Steve Jackson Games. This material is not official and is not endorsed by Steve Jackson Games.

GURPS is a registered trademark of Steve Jackson Games, and the art here is copyrighted by Steve Jackson Games. All rights are reserved by SJ Games. This material is used here in accordance with the SJ Games online policy

Skills vs. Attributes

House rule articles contain a short intro, a rambling section on how to come up with a solution to a problem called “Cooking It up“, just the plain rules in a section called “The Finished Dish” and some musings about what else you could do with that in the final section: The Leftovers“.

One problem I’ve often faced when it comes to character creation is the fact that it’s just more effective to take yet another level in a controlling attribute than raising a skill above attribute level. This happens most often with mages who raise their IQ sky-high after taking however much Magery the GM allows.

It’s less common with fighters and other characters who need more than one attribute to fulfil most of their functions, but the fact remains: There’s little point to raise more than one or two skills above attribute level. Most often these are the one main combat skill and another to get into position (Driving, Riding etc.).

Cooking It up

There are many who say that the attribute/skill pricing is working as designed and that a highly-skilled character should have high attributes to show this, but I think that over-simplifies things. Skills also represent experience in a subject and can float to other attributes and even a flat base 10. Having DX 16 doesn’t help you maintain your gun, care for your horse or remember to buy fuel.

That’s ancillary to the two main points, however. The first is character concept: There are many times where you want to have a character that is brilliant in three or even four unrelated fields without being an overall genius. That’s a legitimate and realistic concept, but in GURPS you are forced to accept that this is going to waste a lot of points. The GM could make up a special 5-point Talent just for you, but that’s it, as far as options go. The second point is niche-protection. With high DX and IQ (HT, PER and WILL are less of a problem) characters easily encroach on each others’ terrain. The face man has been taken out? No, problem: Let the mage do it. He has two points in Diplomacy and one in Fast-Talk that gives him 16 and 15 respectively. You can mitigate that problem by not letting your characters buy certain skills, but then you’re in Dungeon Fantasy territory again and that’s a problem when the rest of your campaign follows a realistic pattern.

Just to make myself clear: I do not subscribe to the view that all characters should have attributes in the 10-12 range and high competence should be modelled by having half a dozen skills at attribute +5 level. We do, however, need a little more wriggling room.

Now, what to do about that? A solution for half of the main problem can be found among Reverend Pee Kitty’s house rules: PER and WILL are separate from IQ and IQ costs 20 points a level. Personally I’d adjust the price of IQ to 25 points a level. Sure that sounds like a lot, but keep in mind that you can always adjust your starting point level accordingly.

The other main half of the problem is, of course, DX. Instead of separating out both Basic Speed and Basic Move, there is a strong point to be made for keeping coordination (plain DX) tied to reaction speed (Basic Speed). Now running/flying/swimming fast is a completely different kind of beast and it should rightly be separated out. But there’s a third one, isn’t there? Tasks where High Manual Dexterity (HMD) comes into play still profit from a high base DX that represents mainly gross motor skills.

Separating HMD out is a bit of a problem. We don’t want to turn it into a full attribute, because the drawbacks of a low level (rightly represented by Ham-Fisted) are by far not as dramatic as the benefits of a high level. It’s probably best to keep in mind that in certain cases it makes sense to float the relevant skills to a flat base + HMD that makes sense. Keep in mind that a flat base can still be modified by task difficulty.

So, how much should the end product of DX + Basic Speed cost? I’d put it at an even 25 points per level. That makes it come out slightly ahead of IQ, whichlost both its secondary characteristics. However, there are no skills based on Basic Speed and there’s a lot more overlap in skills covered by DX (and relevant talents). Nobody needs more than at most ten combat skills, but even twenty IQ-based skills can cover wildly disparate subjects.

Now, there’s also the problem of HT. There the problem is less the existence of too many HT-based skills, but that the stat is darn useful overall. I hardly ever see an adventurer-type character with less than HT 11 (12 for fighters). Douglas H. Cole has covered this in a very readable article called “The Price of Fitness“. He comes up with a final price of 20-25 points per level. That is a bit high compared to my other attributes, so I suggest a final price of 15 points per level, but with FP separated out. The connection to Basic Speed stays as it is.

The last part of the puzzle is ST. While there are no ST-based skills and only two techniques based on it (Wrench (Limb) and Neck Snap), it still needs to be on par with the other attributes. Now does ST 20 pack the same punch as DX 14, IQ 14 or HT 16 and FP 13? Well, it does and then some. The base damage along with the increased carrying capacity is already more than enough. So, let’s at least separate out HP as a newly independent stat. After all, fat is not necessarily worse at absorbing damage than muscle. Indeed muscle might be more problematic since it fulfils an innate function. We end up with ST as the cheapest attribute at 10 points a level. Smarter minds than me might think about an appropriate way to rescale damage that makes this price a bit more reasonable. For now just keep in mind that – like HT – it’s relatively cheap compared to DX and IQ.

The Finished Dish

Attributes and secondary characteristics are changed as following:

ST (10 points/level): Does no longer affect HP. But HP are still limited to +/- 30% of ST. Damage and Basic Lift are unchanged.

DX (25 points/level): Does no longer affect Basic Move, which is now completely independent from DX and HT. Still has its normal effect on Basic Speed.

IQ (25 points/level): Does no longer affect PER and WILL at all, both are completely independent from IQ.

HT (15 points/level): Does no longer affect FP, which are still limited to +/-30% of HT (including HT bonuses from Fit and Very Fit).

HP (2 points/level): Are unaffected by ST, but limited to to +/- 30% of ST. The GM might rule that certain builds might modify that limit (+/- 10% for Skinny, +/- 40% for Overweight, +/- 50% for Fat and +/- 60% for Fat), but keep in mind that heavier builds generally have somewhat higher ST to compensate.

Basic Speed (5 points/0,25 levels): Unchanged from RAW.

Basic Move (5 points/level): Starts at 5 for native environment. All other rules referring to Basic Move or full move use the final level bought up or down from 5.

WILL (5 points/level): Is completely unrelated to IQ. Even mentally handicapped people might have great resistance to influence and genetically engineered slave races might have next to none.

PER (5 points/level): Is completely unrelated to IQ, but should rarely go below 7 for characters who are able to lead a relatively independent life.

FP (3 points/level): Are unaffected by HT, but still limited to +/-30% of HT.

Hard to Kill (4 points/level) and Hard to Subdue (4 points/level): No change apart from the costs. Are still included in HT.

Arm ST (4, 6, 9 points/level), Lifting ST (4 points/level) and Striking ST (6 points/level): No change apart from the costs. Lifting ST and Striking ST together literally are ST. Don’t buy both of them, simply buy ST!

The Leftovers

I haven’t yet said how this affects starting point values. Some character types are, of course, more affected than others. The all-rounder with 12 in all attributes and secondary characteristics comes in at 185 points in this system, compared to 120 in the rules-as-written. The brute with ST 18, DX 12, HT 13 and the secondary characteristics to match costs 205 points in the new system and 150 in the old. The genius with IQ 16 costs 210 points and 120 respectively. All in all, you should probably make sure to use a 30-50% higher starting point total if you want to make all these concepts possible. So your standard 150 point campaign should at least go up to 200 points now, possibly even to 225 points.

As a side-effect of this change characters built on raw physical strength and endurance become more viable compared to technical specialist fighters that always go for the eyes or vitals. Personally, I think this is a worthwhile outcome of the change. Also players might consider using 15-point talents now – especially ones that cover IQ-, PER- and WILL-based skills (Smooth Talent Cost from Power-Ups 5 is still advisable though).

The material presented here is my original creation, intended for use with the GURPS system from Steve Jackson Games. Creations of other GURPS fans are clearly attributed. This material is not official and is not endorsed by Steve Jackson Games.

GURPS is a registered trademark of Steve Jackson Games, and the art here is copyrighted by Steve Jackson Games. All rights are reserved by SJ Games. This material is used here in accordance with the SJ Games online policy

Fine-Tuning Languages

House rule articles contain a short intro, a rambling section on how to come up with a solution to a problem called “Cooking It up“, just the plain rules in a section called “The Finished Dish” and some musings about what else you could do with that in the final section: The Leftovers“.

In GURPS problems with languages go two ways: how to handle having many languages and how to handle not being completely proficient. I’ve yet to deal with the former problem. I usually tell my players beforehand what languages might be useful and throw the occasional bone in the direction of players who took one that wasn’t usually cropping up. But proficiency was a problem we often had to deal with. Even having broken proficiency lets you communicate rather freely. Only in stressful situations does it require an IQ roll to understand someone or get your meaning across. Everybody who has ever visited Paris with nothing but their rusty school French can attest that this is overly optimistic – though admittedly most situations will become rather stressful fast.

Cooking It up

What’s needed are more finely-grained levels of proficiency and better rules for operating at that proficiency. Now, it makes little sense to inflate the price of languages any further. They’re already pricier than having decent skills. So, the intermediate levels could either use half-points (I know I start sounding like a half-trick-pony) or link spoken and written comprehension levels together. I am going to present both options below.

Now, there’s nothing really difficult about coming up with the rest of the rules, but I’d like to throw in a couple thoughts about language defaults. For most languages these should realistically be at a level below broken, but there are some exceptions concerning bona fide languages (e.g. Norwegian and Swedish). Having a smoother progression of proficiency levels helps in this regard.

The Finished Dish

Instead of the three comprehension levels for spoken and written language in Basic Set, there are six (not counting None).
All IQ rolls are modified by how stressful the situation is and how well the participants can perceive the statements made. The modifiers given on B24 for broken comprehension apply for spoken conversation. Written conversation seldom takes penalties here, though online chats can be stressful and writing can be defaced, smeared or hard to read. Also you won’t get immediate feedback during most written communication. Time Spent modifiers (B346) apply.If you are making use of half-points, use the rules as written. If not, either make sure the total sum of points invested into a language is not a fraction or pay another half point to round it up.

Spoken Comprehension Levels

Rudimentary (0.5 points): You are only able to express the most basic concepts (“I need food”, “I surrender”, “I have money” etc.) and even these require an IQ by both participants to get across.
Using skills dependent on language is mostly impossible or at least takes a -12 penalty (doubled for skills dependent on the beauty of the language).
Those predisposed to dislike the character react at an additional -5. Those intolerant towards the character’s nationality won’t react at a better level than bad.
This level is mainly useful for travellers who have a tiny chance of encountering native speakers, but a large chance of those being hostile. On the discworld Rincewind was known for being able to beg for mercy in dozens of languages.

Broken (1 point): You are able to express slightly more complex concepts (e.g. “I need medicine for my sick daughter. I have the money to pay for it.”), but your grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation are very bad. Communicating all but the simplest concepts requires you to make an IQ roll.
Using skills dependent on language takes a -6 penalty (doubled for skills dependent on the beauty of the language).
Those predisposed to dislike you react at an additional -3. Those intolerant towards your nationality won’t react at a better level than poor.
This is the level most pupils manage to reach after three years of foreign language education.

Limited (1.5 points): You are able to express moderately complex concepts in fields he is familiar with (e.g. “If you want to remove the blockage, you need to open the outflow valve an increase water pressure”). Treat everyday knowledge and the subject of every skill in which you have invested at least two points as a familiar field. Your grammar is simple, but correct more often than not. Your pronunciation is still moderately bad, but generally comprehensibly. Vocabulary varies according to subject matter. There is normally no IQ roll for communicating, but in stressful situations the GM might require one.
Using skills dependent on language takes a -3 penalty (doubled for skills dependent on the beauty of the language).
Those predisposed to dislike you react at an additional -2. Those intolerant towards your nationality won’t react at a better level than poor.
All but the worst pupils should reach the level after six years of being taught the language at school.

Fluent (2 points): You are able to express complex concepts and you generally use correct grammar, vocabulary and more-or-less correct pronunciation. False cognates are still a source of problems as is using words of the wrong register or with the wrong connotation. The GM might assess a penalty of -1 or (in extreme cases) of -2 to a skill roll where applicable.
Using skills dependent on language generally takes a -1 penalty (doubled for skills dependent on the beauty of the language).
Only those intolerant towards your nationality react at an additional -1.
This is the level usually expected of students who want to enrol for a major – at least in countries where this language is commonly taught in school.

Near-native (2.5 points): You are able to express even the most complex concepts. You make very few mistakes in grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation, but are usually not quite good enough to pass as a native speaker when talking to actual native speakers.
There is only a penalty of -1 for using skills dependent on the beauty of the language.
Even those intolerant towards your nationality won’t react worse than their intolerance dictates.
This level is acceptable for somebody who has completed a major degree in the language.

Native (3 points): Even if you aren’t a native speaker, a regular native speaker won’t be able to glean that fact just from hearing you talk. A master linguist might be able to tell after talking to you at length and making a PER-based Linguistics roll.
You can converse in the standard language and a dialect of your choice (free of charge). This can be a dialect that is very far from the standard language. If you choose such a dialect, be aware that others will treat you as if that were your native dialect – unless you keep it completely secret. They might congratulate you on learning the standard language or despise you for giving up your roots.
This level isn’t very common among mere students of a language. You normally need full-time immersion to get there and even then many non-native speakers never reach this level.

Written Comprehension Levels

Written comprehension levels work exactly as spoken ones, though your handwriting does not necessarily give you away if you have a higher proficiency in another language that uses the same script (e.g. Latin or Cyrillic Script). Self-study by using books works as follows.

Rudimentary (0.5 points): Self-study using books is impossible.

Broken (1 point): Self-study using books takes triple the usual amount of time (1200 hours for exclusively book-taught skills)  if it is possible at all.

Limited (1.5 points): Self-study using books takes double the usual amount of time (800 hours for exclusively book-taught skills) .

Fluent (2 points): Self-study using books takes 1.5 times the usual amount of time (600 hours for exclusively book-taught skills) .

Near-native (2.5 points): Self-study using books takes no penalty.

Native (3 points): As above, in addition you may acquire a handwriting style uniquely associated with this language at no extra cost.

Language Talent

With these rules Language Talent works slightly different. Instead of giving you comprehension one level higher it gives you comprehension two levels higher than what you pay for, e.g. Limited spoken proficiency at 0.5 points and Native spoken proficiency at 2 points.

Default Use of Languages

In most cases it’s convenient to treat most languages that show differences, but are still for the largest part mutually intelligible as dialects – especially when they share the same written form. That does not necessarily reflect a reality where Chinese speakers from the north cannot understand the southern speakers and East Frisians cannot make sense of speakers of Swizerdüütsch, but the line has to be drawn somewhere.

Genuinely different languages might, however, be closely enough related like German and Dutch, Swedish and Norwegian or Ukranian und Russian. These give a character proficient in one language an automatic default in the related language without having to pay points for that. Quite often conversations between two such speakers do take quite a while longer, though. The GM can require an IQ roll when time is of the essence and rule that the information takes up to thrice as long to convey if that roll fails.
They can then buy up their proficiency from that default without having to pay the points needed to reach that level (similar to skill defaults). Should a character buy the language without having the other one at a sufficiently high level to get a default, they still get points back if they ever reach the level needed to get that default. The following table gives the levels needed for defaults and the defaults provided:

Mutual Intelligibility Proficiency Level Needed Default Provided
Significant Fluent 2 levels lower
Partial Near-Native 3 levels lower
Limited Near-Native 4 levels lower

Examples: Norwegian and Swedish are significantly mutually intelligible. Native speakers of one language can converse with native speaker of the other as if they both had fluent comprehension. Mutual intelligibility of German and Dutch is limited. A near-native speaker of German will have only a rudimentary comprehension of Dutch and even a native speaker won’t have better than Broken comprehension.

Instead of listing all the languages with relevant levels of mutual intelligibility, I just link to the relevant wikipedia article, which completely incidentally uses the same terms for the three levels above. Unfortunately, it doesn’t give the direction of intelligibility when it is asymmetrical. You’ll have to do a bit more research in these cases.

The Leftovers

I haven’t yet touched on the subject of pidgins and creoles. The former are simplified languages often used as a means of communications between members of different languages. They don’t as a rule have any speakers who use them as their first language. The latter are complete languages that developed from a mixing of languages. Most creoles should be treated as regular languages, although the might have a rate of mutual intelligibility.

Pidgins are most often used as a means for facilitating communication. They don’t have a written language of their own (but can usually make use of one of the parent languages’ written system) and often cannot express all the concepts available in a complete language. The GM sets the highest proficiency level that exists in the spoken and written form of the pidgin. Often this is the fluent level for the spoken form and none for the written form. It is however perfectly possible for a pidgin to go up to near-native or end with broken – the latter will probably develop further if they remain in use.

Pidgins are easy to use and have a simplified structure. Whenever there’s the question of an IQ roll the GM assigns a bonus to that for every comprehension level missing at the top. For example a pidgin that goes up to fluent gives +2 to to all IQ rolls for comprehension at lower levels. Skill penalties are even reduced by twice that number. There are normally no reaction penalties associated with a low proficiency in a pidgin as it is nobody’s mother tongue. They may however be called for in special situations, e.g. when a person sent for important negotiations shows low proficiency in the pidgin that would be commonly used.

The GM should also keep in mind that pidgins might develop into full-blown creole languages and that might even happen within the space of a character’s life.

The material presented here is my original creation, intended for use with the GURPS system from Steve Jackson Games. This material is not official and is not endorsed by Steve Jackson Games.

GURPS is a registered trademark of Steve Jackson Games, and the art here is copyrighted by Steve Jackson Games. All rights are reserved by SJ Games. This material is used here in accordance with the SJ Games online policy

Technique Pricing

House rule articles contain a short intro, a rambling section on how to come up with a solution to a problem called “Cooking It up“, just the plain rules in a section called “The Finished Dish” and some musings about what else you could do with that in the final section: The Leftovers“.

For highly-skilled characters I’ve frequently run into the problem that I can’t really justify putting points in more than one technique apiece and often these are very powerful hard techniques like Feint or Dual-Weapon Attack. In 3rd Edition with its 8 points a level for DX-based skills above DX+1 it made much more sense to use techniques (then called manoeuvres). I feel that this led to more colourful characters. So how can we achieve the same thing in 4th Edition?

Cooking It up

There’s no reason to go back to 3rd Edition’s skill pricing. DX and IQ are already much more useful than buying more than three skills based on each up to above the attribute level. So, the techniques themselves need to become cheaper.

There’s also no reason not to include easy techniques alongside average and hard ones. These would be for things you really don’t want to spend a lot of points for, like the Impersonate technique (B233). There’s also room for very hard techniques. These could be used as a catch-all category for skills currently classed as hard that you might want to make more expensive, because they are a good idea under most circumstances (Dual-Weapon Attack, Feint and many cinematic techniques). This way easy techniques will be very different price-wise from their more heavy-hitting brethren.

While you’re at it, ignore the advice on B229 about selecting the difficulty level. The rules in Martial Arts for building your own techniques don’t use it either. Difficulty is based on how difficult something would be in real life, how large a part of the skill it helps with and how useful it is. Generally nothing that on its own allows you to pursue a decent career (e.g. Motion-Picture Camera for Photography) should be less than an average technique. On the other hand, many easy skills mostly have easy and average techniques.

For the actual pricing it’s good to consider half-points or – as an alternative for those not using these – skipping over certain levels.

The Finished Dish

To make some very specialised and/or not so useful applications of a skill easier, introduce easy and very hard techniques. Use half-points to give smoother progressions or skip over every second level for easy, average and very hard skills.

Final Skill Level Easy Average Hard Very  Hard
Default 0 0 0 0
Default +1 0,5 1 1 2
Default +2 1 1,5 2 3,5
Default +3 1,5 2 3 5
Default +4 2 2,5 4 6,5
Default +5 2,5 3 5 8
Default +6 3 3,5 6 9,5
Further +1 +0,5 +0,5 +1 +1,5

Be sure to re-evaluate all existing techniques in your campaign. They might fit better in a neighbouring category with this scheme.

The Leftovers

Ideally, I’d also post an adjusted technique listing for all the techniques found in Basic and Martial Arts, but I’m not sure whether it’s legal to list all techniques and I don’t have the time to go over each of them at the moment.

If you want to encourage techniques even more, consider giving a character a free point in a technique once they reach attribute level +1 in a skill.

The less coarse-grained technique difficulties also invite you to think about a way to redo optional specialisations as techniques. Instead of shifting down the difficulty of a skill if a character knows only one special subject, buy a lower level of the skill normally and buy up a technique for the character’s speciality. Base the difficulty on how large a subset and how useful the speciality is. Zoology is probably an very hard speciality technique of Biology, while Entomology might just be hard and the study of domestic cats might get away with being average.

Everything that uses techniques is also affected by these changes. I’m especially fond of the way they impact adjustable spells, which were really too pricey in most cases. You might think up a scheme that makes use of the different difficulty classes, too. Maybe reduced energy costs for higher difficulties.

The material presented here is my original creation, intended for use with the GURPS system from Steve Jackson Games. This material is not official and is not endorsed by Steve Jackson Games.

GURPS is a registered trademark of Steve Jackson Games, and the art here is copyrighted by Steve Jackson Games. All rights are reserved by SJ Games. This material is used here in accordance with the SJ Games online policy

The Humble Half-Point

House rule articles contain a short intro, a rambling section on how to come up with a solution to a problem called “Cooking It up“, just the plain rules in a section called “The Finished Dish” and some musings about what else you could do with that in the final section: The Leftovers“.

One of the things from 3rd Edition Revised I’ve been missing is the use of half-points for skills with little training. It was an easy way to give a character some background colour without making them spend too many points. Of course, that turned out to be the crux of the problem. In 3rd Edition spending half a point on a skill gave you a skill level of -1 below what you got for spending a whole point. That worked fine for a regular-guys range of attributes, but it quickly broke down for mages and martial artists – the former especially spent only 0.5 points on each of their hard spells and 1 point on their very hard ones. In short abolishing the half-point was better than keeping it unchanged.

Cooking it up

This section contains my thoughts on the matter at hand. It may be a bit rambling. Look at the next section if you just want the rules.

Now, in 4th Edition we have the Dabbler perk, which seems to offer a good way out of problems like that. I don’t like it for several reasons:

  • You basically need two or more skills you want to be slightly proficient in and whatever level you choose in one affects what level you can choose in the others. In practice it’s a bit messy. Do you write the skills and their levels with the perk or do you write them in your skill list with a special note? What happens if you learn one of the skills for real?
  • The maths is based not skill level as when learning a skill, but on default attribute level. That makes for weird cases like having a level of attribute-4 in Mathematics (a hard skill) as costly as having it in Physics (a very hard skill). That may be more of a problem of the defaults, but that’s how it works out in play.
  • That brings us to the worst offender so far: it’s darn cheap. The typical IQ 15-mage can get the classics Diplomacy, Mathematics, Naturalist and Tactics all at skill level 11 for a single point.
    Sure, you need to sacrifice a general perk slot, but I haven’t ever run afoul of that limit in 100-point and higher campaigns – in lower-point campaigns dabbler doesn’t do much anyway. It doesn’t count as a studied skill, but that’s the only drawback.
  • That drawback makes sense game-mechanically, but not story-wise. What does dabbler represent if not superficial learning?

Now, an easy solution is to reintroduce the half-point, but keep it at steady -2 to skill below the 1-point level. The mage in the example above would pay two points for his four skills. There would be no incentive to use dabbler for very hard skills with defaults of -6. Skills could still be listed in the regular skill section with a cost of 0.5. They could be used as defaults and so on. In order to prevent abuse they cannot be used to fulfil prerequisites.

The Finished Dish

This section gives the plain and simple houserules that can be used without further ado.

Skills can be bought for 0.5 points. That gives you a skill level of -2 compared to what 1 point in a skill gets you (e.g. attribute -4 for a hard skill). That skill is normal in every other regard. The rule for prerequisite skills is unchanged. You need at least a whole point in a skill for it to count as a prerequisite.
The GM is free to set a limit on the number of half-point skills a character can have if they feel the rule invites abuse. That may be a hard cap on the number of these skills – preferably an even one – or restricting them to mundane skills and requiring a one point minimum in esoteric skills, cinematic ones and spells.

The Leftovers

This section contains further musings on the topic that might be codified at some later point.

If half-points get out of hand in your campaign, insist that character’s have to spend the other half point, once they have used a skill often enough to justify some increase in proficiency.

Half-points could also be used for determining the final cost of abilities. This would often prevent the common problem of having a low point advantage with a low-point, but non-trivial limitation. It would however make it necessary to recalculate all the official abilities and templates. But for those using multiplicative modifiers that work has to be done anyway.

Another option would be spending half-points to turn a marginal failure by one into a success. Sure, it’s pricey compared to turning any failure into a success, but if you don’t need to succeed by more than 0 you might as well save that half-point.

Also giving out half-points (or even quarter-points) is a good way to reward clever players or moving role-playing without inflating points in essentially realistic campaigns. If the players get three points a sessions adding one whole point is a big deal. If you just give half a point extra it’s perfectly justifiable.

Or you might use half-points to give smoother progression of technique levels.

The material presented here is my original creation, intended for use with the GURPS system from Steve Jackson Games. This material is not official and is not endorsed by Steve Jackson Games.

GURPS is a registered trademark of Steve Jackson Games, and the art here is copyrighted by Steve Jackson Games. All rights are reserved by SJ Games. This material is used here in accordance with the SJ Games online policy

Review: GURPS Zombies – Day One

As all my other reviews this one will be rated according to meat (rules, stats, game mechanics), cheese (setting, characters, story), sauce (form, writing, style, art) and generic nutritional substance (universal nature, adaptability). At the end you find a weighted average of those components and a value score that also takes into account price per page.

I’m going backwards through my collection for these reviews, although I skip all the Pyramids and some of the supplements with which I am unfamiliar. In this case Monster Hunters 5 – Applied Xenology, which I mainly bought to show my support. That brings us to GURPS Zombies Day One – a rather cheesy item (or fluffy if you go by the standard nomenclature).

Title Page from GURPS Zombies - Day One

Now zombies are not my usual fare when it comes to monsters – I like a bit more motivation for my antagonists – but I have to admit that the GURPS treatment of the matter has been excellent so far. Now the question is what does this volume provide that sets it apart from the standard survival scenario – in short: a lot.


Author: Sean Punch (Dr. Kromm)
Date of Publication: 2015/04/02
Format: PDF-only (Warehouse 23-only)
Page Count: 56 (1 title page, 2 content pages, 1 index page)
Price: $9.99 (PDF), $ 0.19 per page of content; Score of 6/10


Please take note that this book is a companion volume to GURPS Zombies, which incidentally was the last hardcover GURPS release back in… 2013 – time really flies. All the meaty rules bits (crunch) are in that volume, while this one presents all the cheesy (fluffy) campaign infos for making use of all the zombie types and biting rules so nicely provided by GURPS Zombies.

As such Day One is structured very differently from Zombies proper. Each of the eight chapters is basically its own campaign setting, although the second the “Fields of Fear” is basically an extended adventure set in the antebellum American South. While those are only 6-7 pages long, the information given is very dense and covers everything the GM needs to know to write their own campaign.

Write? Sure, this is still GURPS and even the densest treatment can’t give you everything you need to know on half a dozen pages. Even if you are completely in love with one of the treatments you still need to fill in the blanks (locations, NPCs, etc.), but the supplement does a very good job at holding your hands, explicitly calling out the parts (pun intended) of Zombies you need for this type of campaign and what other supplements are useful. Power level of player characters, suggested character types and (in)appropriate traits are given for each of the eight campaigns. Of special interest is a section appropriately titled “Tough Calls” that answers questions like “Can I play a zombie?”. The eponymous “Day One” section covers the situation, in which the characters find themselves at the start of the campaign and the “Homework” section covers the most intensive prep work the GM has to do.


The settings are mainly background information, but there are enough hooks to get the more rules-oriented GM busy looking things up. The setup, rules and character creation sections are rather meaty, but they don’t introduce new rules, just explain how things work in terms of existing ones. The meat isn’t he focus, but – depending on the campaign in question – you end up with 1 to 3 pages that are mostly rules and rules explanation.

It’s the explanations that make this book especially useful to the novice GM. It’s completely possible to run some of the campaigns using  just the Basic Set and Zombies – a definite plus for convention games too. That’s not saying, things can’t be improved by owning every GURPS book, but don’t get carried away; some of the campaigns are better if you don’t get side-tracked.

Meat score: 6 (enough meat to satisfy tinkering GMs, but not a meat-focused book)


Each of the campaigns has enough information to set up an atmospheric campaign, but some of the are more focused on the basics and the rules supporting them, while others are more “cheesy”. The campaigns are in order:

Empire of the Necromancer-King: A single bastion of light is resisting the armies of evil, mindless zombies in a setting that’s basically Dungeon Fantasy with some things removed – evil player characters and dubious spells are the first to go, but even the dungeon itself is purely optional. There’s not that much cheesy goodness in this one, but that’s intentional. It is heroic fantasy writ large, after all. The main mystery here is why the evil empire is ruled by a king, of course.

Fields of Fear: The complete opposite on the meat/cheese scale from the Necromancer King, this adventure/campaign is set in the old South where slavery is still alive and well. It is a gentle reminder of the origin of the zombie myth and explores concepts of race, class and gender in an unusually thoughtful way. It can be used as a good starting point for historical campaigns with a little extra.

Savage Streets: This is a more gruesome campaign that still fits a cinematic treatment: A new drug has hit the streets and its users are running amok. Cynical politicians want the problem to “burn itself out” and its up to the PCs – police officers, first responders, vigilantes – to protect ordinary citizens. It’s a bit peculiar in that is still has a safe zone for much of the campaign. If you want to, you can easily run it in a realistic style – and raise a whole lot of moral questions.

Zeta Force: PCs are members of a secret UN force that deals with only one threat. Guess what Zeta stands for! The cinch is that humans are naturally predisposed to become zombies. This is basically a government-founded Monster Hunter group that veers a bit into Black Ops territory, although without aliens and at much reduced proficiency. Anything that could conceivably made to rise from the dead using weird science or psychic powers is fair game here.

Ultimate Zombie Fighters: This is your basic zombie apocalypse with the twist that all PCs are immune to the zombie plague; that doesn’t mean they can easily deal with zombies or the apocalypse though. The goal here is to find the truth about the zombie plague and whether it can be cured. It’s very action-oriented and too combat-heavy for my taste, but your mileage may vary.

Alpha and Omega: Supersoldier research created a zombie plague, but also immune metahumans that look just like the zombies. These are the PCs and their job is to prevent the worst of the apocalypse while looking like its four horsemen. It’s an interesting premise that forces the group to deal with understandable prejudice. It gives borderline nods to realism, so that any powers that are physically impossible are off limits (including snazzy Innate Attacks). You don’t absolutely need GURPS Powers to run it, but having it certainly doesn’t hurt.

Time of the Zombies: Pretty much the A Canticle for Leibowitz among the zombie campaigns, this starts off long after the apocalypse that produced living, raging madmen. There are some of these “zombies” left and the pathogen that created them is also there, but there are no raving masses and constant fear of infection. If you liked the Fallout games, that’s the right campaign for you. It might have benefited from some more expansive rules for gear, but that’s the only disadvantage I see. Be advised that taking place so long after the apocalypse it’s even more free-form than the other ones.

Depravity Well: This obligatory SF version takes the zombie apocalypse and places it in a first contact situation. The first species humanity makes contact with (after singular and painstaking effort) turns out to have its own industrialised zombie plague – what an unfortunate step for mankind! The campaign raises the issue of pollution – the aliens were even less concerned about the environment than humans – and reckless use of new technology.

Each of the campaigns has sections on the zombie metaphor used, important turning points, the meaning of sacrifice, replacement characters, mood and pacing. It’s enough to satisfy the majority of GMs, even those for whom the rules are just an afterthought. However, none are as expansive as those for normal campaign settings – even the smaller ones like Infinite Worlds – Brittanica-6.

On the other hand the variety is really nice. You get four campaigns where being zombified is a real danger and four where it isn’t. There’s something for Dungeon Fantasy, SF, history, Monster Hunter, survivalism, tactical shooting and action (the latter twice even). What I’m missing a bit is the supernatural angle. Except for “Empire of the Necromancer-King” there’s nothing that encourages PCs with supernatural abilities and all but two zombie types are of the more or less weird science and psionics variety. I’d have preferred a bit more options for the supernaturally-minded zombie slayer. Still, that might have been difficult to pull off while keeping the genres separated as they are now.

Cheese Score: 9 (satisfying campaign collection)


The writing is the usual top-notch style of Dr. Kromm’s, although it doesn’t quite reach the heights of his Dungeon Fantasy volumes and there’s a lot of technical information to convey for each campaign framework. Sometimes that makes you skip paragraphs you don’t yet need. But that’s still complaining on a high level. The writing is good and so’s the editing. Of course, there’s complete bookmarking for each of the headings and sub-headings and hyperlinks to each item on the content page.

The pull-quotes are fitting and there are some interesting titbits hidden within the text that make you shudder or grin should you research them on wikipedia. So far so good.

Unfortunately the art is pretty bad. You may remember Dan Smith, the guy who illustrated a lot of 3rd Edition books in black and white. While those were mostly okay if a bit sub-par, his illustrations here are a collection of his worst attempts for 3rd Edition. At least the ones for fantasy campaign are pretty evocative. The rest are just ugly. The better illustrations are all pilfered from Horror and Zombies. I’m not sure whether the book wouldn’t have been better without any pictures.

Sauce score: 5 (good writing, mostly annoying art)

Generic Nutritional Substance

Day One pretty much pushes the envelope when it comes to presenting campaigns only united by their theme. You could get more universal than that, but not in the space provided. Still, it might not have hurt to include one more fantasy or supernatural scenario. Most campaigns, even in GURPS, take place in a world where those things matter. That’s nitpicking, however. The book is almost as generic as Zombies itself.

Generic Nutritional Substance score: 9 (almost among the most universal)


If you like zombies or want to explore the themes they’ve come to embody, this book is for you. The same goes for any GM that read Zombies and thought “Now if I only could fit all that into a coherent framework.” It’s not meant for GMs that want their brains served ready-to-eat, but they’ll be hard-pressed to run GURPS anyway. Some of the campaigns can even be started off with just a few hours of work beyond character creation.

Total score: 7.75  (good for your grey matter)
Total score is composed of a weighted average of Meat (15%), Cheese (50%), Sauce (20%) and Generic Nutritional Substance (15%). This is a cheese-oriented book. A “meaty” rules-orientied book would turn the percentages for cheese and meat around.

Value score: 6.875 (for its length it’s hard to find better value)
Value Score is composed of the average of Total and Price.

GURPS is a registered trademark of Steve Jackson Games, and the art here is copyrighted by Steve Jackson Games. All rights are reserved by SJ Games. This material is used here in accordance with the SJ Games online policy.