Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Third Imperium - A Brief Overview of GURPS

A Brief Overview of GURPS

GURPS is the Generic Universal Role-Playing System, currently in its fourth edition. This page is intended as an overview of the system, although it is a decidedly incomplete guide.

GURPS is a skill-based system that uses a non-random point-based method for character generation. The fundamental game mechanic is "roll 3d6 and try to get a result under your skill". When making a skill check, a roll of 3 or 4 is always a success, and a roll of a 17 or 18 is always a failure. This is basically about 90% of the game system. The rest is pretty much details and tracking how each character's particular skills are determined.

Because GURPS is skill-based rather than level-based, characters don't level-up as they gain experience and wisdom. Instead, characters are usually rewarded with character points - the GM guidance recommends between 1 and 5 points per session, with an average of two or three per session. Points can be spent to improve abilities, buy some advantages, buy off disadvantages, improve skills, or gain wealth, at the player's option. Awarded points can be spent as they are handed out, or "saved" so the character can make a big point buy at a later date. Characters can instead be rewarded with gained advantages determined by the GM - such as gaining a new patron or ally, or obtaining military rank or social status.

Character Creation

Characters are built using a point buy system. Basic attributes, advantages, disadvantages, quirks, and skills all have a point value and making a character consists of deciding what the player wants to spend their available points on. The standard campaign (which I will use for my Third Imperium campaign) gives each player 100 points to build their character and permits them to take 40 points of disadvantages and 5 points of quirks. Disadvantages and quirks cost negative points, which the character can then use to purchase additional abilities. In effect, a standard character is a 145-point character who uses 45 points of disadvantages and quirks to bring their total value down to the 100 point limit.

Because it is a skill-based system, characters do not have character classes or other limitations. Almost any combination of attributes, advantages, disadvantages, and skills is possible, although there are some attributes that might be limited to certain races, or might be limited due to cultural or legal requirements. In extreme cases, very unusual characters may have to take the "Unusual Background" advantage at some point level as determined by the GM. Although there are no character classes, the rule books include a variety of "character templates" providing suggested distributions of points for certain character archetypes.

Basic Attributes

Characters have four basic attributes. The baseline for all four stats is 10, which is the starting value for a normal human character. Players can spend points to raise stats, or gain points by reducing stats. As a general rule of thumb, an attribute of 6 or lower would be considered a crippling disadvantage, and an attribute of 15 or higher would be considered amazing. The basic attributes are:
  • Strength (ST): Strength is a character's physical prowess and bulk. It determines how much a character can lift, how much they can carry, how much damage they do in unarmed combat or with weapons like swords and axes, and how much damage they can take.

  • Dexterity (DX): Dexterity is a combination of agility, coordination, and fine motor skill. It is the key attribute for most athletic, combat, crafting, and other skills involving physical activity. Dexterity also goes into determining a character's Basic Speed and Basic Move.

  • Intelligence (IQ): Intelligence measures a character's brainpower, broadly including creativity, perception, intuition, memory, and other mental abilities. It is the key ability for science, engineering, social interaction, and any other skill involving mental capability. In campaigns that use magic, it is the key ability for magic skills. Intelligence also determines a character's Will and Perception.

  • Health (HT): Health represents a character's stamina, resilience, resistance to poisons, diseases, and other ill-effects. Health determines a character's Fatigue, and goes into calculating their Basic Move and Basic Speed.
Secondary Characteristics

Secondary characteristics are a set of derived states that all characters possess. They all use one or more of the basic stats to calculate them. One can raise or lower many of these secondary attributes by spending points to increase them, or by gaining negative points to lower them. So, for example, if you wanted to play a low-IQ character with exceptionally string Will, one could purchase ranks of Will by spending points to do so. As a general rule of thumb, raising or lowering a secondary characteristic costs (or grants) fewer points than raising or lowering the basic stat it is derived from. The secondary characteristics are:
  • Damage: This is based on a character's ST, and comes in two flavors - thrusting damage, which measures the damage the character does with a punch, kick, or rapier, and swinging damage, which measures the damage the character does with a swinging weapon like an axe or club. For example, a ST 10 character does 1d6-2 thrusting damage, so if they punched someone and connected, they would roll 1d6 and subtract 2 for their damage. If that same character was using a spear, which has listed damage of "thrust+2", then the character would roll 1d6 on a successful hit.

  • Basic Lift: This is based on ST and measures how much weight a character can lift over their head with one hand in one second. This value is used to determine how much a character can carry before becoming encumbered. The basic lift for a human with ST 10 is 20 pounds.

  • Hit Points: This is based on ST and represents how much damage a character can take before becoming unconscious or dying. Effectively, a character has as many hit points as their ST score.

  • Will: Will is based on IQ and represents a character's ability to resist mental stress including fear, hypnotism, seduction, torture, and so on. In the Traveller setting, it is important to note that Will is used to resist psionic influence. In a fantasy setting, Will is used to resist some magical effects.

  • Perception: Perception is based on IQ and represents a character's general alertness.

  • Fatigue Points: Fatigue Points are based on HT, and represents a character's "energy supply". A character expends Fatigue points when they engage in strenuous activity. Disease, heat, hunger, and other similar issues can sap a character's Fatigue Points as well. Losing Fatigue Points can slow a character down or cause them to fall unconscious. In extreme cases, loss of Fatigue Points can result in death from overexertion.

  • Basic Speed: Basic Speed is determined by a combination of a character's DX and HT, and measures a character's reflexes and physical quickness. Initiative in combat is based on a character's Basic Speed, as is a character's ability to dodge attacks.

  • Basic Move: Basic Move is based upon a character's Basic Speed and represents how many yards a character can move in one second. Encumbrance can modify a character's Move.
There are a few other derived attributes, mostly a character's height and weight, which are based on ST, but those don't affect gameplay much. These can be modified with advantages or disadvantages. In a science fiction game like Traveller, a character's home gravity can also matter, but that mostly affects how many points a character needs to put into ST to be "average".


Advantages are benefits a character can buy that are not either increases to their base abilities or skills. Advantages can cover an extraordinarily wide range of abilities, ranging from physical appearance, to social status, wealth, military rank, administrative rank, or even allies, contacts, or patrons as well as more esoteric benefits like Absolute Timing, Alternate Identities, or Danger Sense. Effectively, anything that has the potential to help a character out as they make their way through the world is classified as an advantage. Advantages all have an associated point cost, ranging from zero to as high as the benefit warrants.

There are a whole host of advantages - such as Brachiator or Constriction Attack - that are generally only available as racial advantages. In a science fiction setting, however, it is possible that bio-engineering or cybernetic enhancements could provide such enhancements. Within the Imperium, there is a social stigma against cybernetic implants or other body modifications made for purposes other than to replace but not augment missing body parts, and these are generally not commercially available. That said, most advanced societies within the Third Imperium have the capability to make such devices, and may do so covertly for a variety of reasons, most notably to enhance military or intelligence agency personnel.

Note that psionics exist in the Third Imperium setting, but require an Unusual Background and open use of such powers in many areas carries with it negative reaction modifiers from the social stigma against psionics in the Imperium.

It is possible, under certain circumstances, to acquire certain advantages during play. In those cases, the player would simply expend a number of accumulated points equal to the cost of the advantage and then add it to the character. Some advantages may require a character train to object them or (in extreme cases) undergo surgery or other body modifications. In some cases it is possible to acquire an advantage at a particular level and then later increase it. For example, the Ally advantage includes a frequency of appearance. If the player initially selected "quite rarely" for their Allies' frequency of appearance, they could later expend points and raise that to "fairly often", meaning the Ally would show up to help the character more often. As a good rule of thumb, a character who wishes to acquire a new advantage during play should consult with the GM first.


Disadvantages are the flip-side of advantages. Where advantages cost points, disadvantages "cost" negative points, reducing the point total of a character. Where advantages represent benefits that can aid a character as they make their way through the world, disadvantages represent hindrances that limit a character. Some things can be either advantages or disadvantages - high social status, for example, is an advantage, while low social status could be a disadvantage. Other things, such as Clueless, Colorblindness, or Combat Paralysis, are simply disadvantages. A disadvantage doesn't have to be a negative trait for a character, just one that limits what a character can do. Honesty or a Code of Honor is a disadvantage because it limits what a character is willing to do. A dependent is a disadvantage, because the character is required to spend time and effort to take care of them, while an enemy is a disadvantage because they might show up an inopportune time to cause trouble for the character.

In general, disadvantages are things that give characters flavor and make them interesting. Perfect heroes get dull, and heroes that have flaws or limitations make for fun role-playing. Players should endeavor to play their disadvantages when they are applicable and not try to evade them. So, a character who has a Code of Honor against killing shouldn't try to figure out ways to kill his foes by accident, but rather should role-play that character's refusal to kill their foes. In extreme cases, it would be appropriate for a character to penalize a player who consistently refuses to play his character's disadvantages - either by limiting the rewards that character gets for adventuring, or by requiring the player "buy off" the disadvantage. by spending points.

Players can voluntarily "buy-off" disadvantages during play using a similar process to that used for buying advantages. The player expends a number of accumulated points equal to the disadvantage and then discards the disadvantage. Just as with advantages, if a character has a disadvantage that has "levels", they can partially buy off a disadvantage, reducing the hindrance it causes. For example, if a character has the Enemy disadvantage and that enemy is specified to appear "quite often", the character could expend points and reduce the frequency to "fairly often", meaning the Enemy will show up more rarely. In many cases, a GM will require a character to fulfill some sort of in-campaign goal before they can buy off a particular disadvantage, so a player should consult with the GM if they want to do so.


Quirks are minor character notes that give one negative point. They are not intended to be as debilitating as regular disadvantages, but are rather little habits or traits that a character has that impact how the player role-plays a character. A quirk might be a very minor version of a regular disadvantage - for example someone might have a quirk "never kills insects" which would be a minor version of the pacifism disadvantage. There are a variety of quirks suggested in the GURPS rulebooks, but the list of possible quirks is by no means limited to those. Almost anything that is a specific behavior, dislike, like, preference, or other attribute of a character that will affect how the player plays the character could count as a quirk. Some quirks, such as Alcohol Intolerance, Dreamer, or Nervous Stomach, can have mechanical game effects, but they are minor and likely come up only infrequently.

Just like disadvantages, quirks can be "bought off" by spending accumulated points to do so, although it is often recommended that players don't do this, because quirks are often a large part of what give characters their individual personalities.


Skills are things a character knows how to do. Basically, almost any kind of action a character could take that could be trained is represented by a skill. Skills are all connected to one of the four basic attributes, and a character's aptitude for that skill is heavily affected by their relevant ability score. This means that a character who has a high DX will be better at a DX-based skill than a character with a low DX, even if they both spend the same number of points on that skill.

One important concept in GURPS is "defaults". Many skills have defaults, which is what a character rolls against when they try to use a skill they have not studied. For example, a character with a DX of 10 who has no points invested in the Acrobatics skill can still attempt to make an Acrobatics roll at the default value, which is DX-6, or 4, meaning they would have to roll a 4 or lower on 3d6. Some skills have multiple defaults, such as the Interrogation skill, which defaults to IQ-5, Intimidation=5, or Psychology-4. In the event a character is trying to use a skill with multiple defaults, they use the best default value. Some skills have no defaults, such a Karate. For skills with no defaults, a character cannot use the skill unless they have spent points studying it.

Skills are rated as being Easy (such as Brawling), Average (such as Driving), Hard (such as Chemistry), or Very Hard (such as Computer Hacking), which affects how much benefit a character gains by spending points in those skills. Easy skills require relatively few points to raise to a high level, Very Hard skills require substantially more.

Some skills have prerequisites. Basically, this means that the character must have the prerequisite - usually a particular ability with another skill, but sometimes a particular advantage - in order to put points into that skill. For example, the skill Physics requires that a character spend points in Mathematics (Applied) at TL5+ first. In short, you cannot learn Physics unless you learn Applied Mathematics first.

Some IQ-based skills are defined as being for a particular tech level. So, for example, a character spending points on the Mechanic skill would need to define what tech level their skill applied to. The default is that it applies to the tech level the character is native to or in which they trained the skill. So, for example a character from the modern day (TL8) who trained in the Mechanic skill would be capable of using that skill with no penalty on a car from TL8. If they were called upon to make repairs to a car from World War II (TL7), they would suffer a -1 penalty to their mechanic skill when doing so. If they tried to work on a car from a TL9 society, they would suffer a -5 penalty. Greater variations between a the tech level a character learned a skill at and the subject of the skill, the greater the penalty.

Finally, some skills permit or require specialization. In these cases, the skill represents a range of endeavors, and the character may (and in some times must) choose a specialty within that skills. For example, the Driving skill has several specialties that a character must specialize in including Automobile, Construction Equipment, Hovercraft, and Motorcycle (among others). Basically, this sort of thing reflects the fact that the ability to drive a car doesn't really translate very well to being able to drive a bulldozer. Note that a character can put points into skills with specialties multiple times and learn multiple specializations. So a character might put points into Driving (Automobile) and also put points into Driving (Tracked), giving him the ability to drive both.

Skills can be raised (or learned) after character creation by spending the appropriate number of points required to raise them.

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