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

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