Decoupling Attributes in GURPS

Let me begin by saying that +Douglas Cole is a terrible influence.

I read his post on the Health attribute and what a ridiculous bargain it is first thing this morning. And apparently I needed some time to digest it, because it stayed with me all day, sucking up any spare CPU cycles I had while I tried to work. I got home and spent a number of hours cleaning the garage, and now I find that it's still there, and that I can't stop thinking about the ideas that it triggered.

Steven Long caught some flak for humanely slaughtering a sacred cow of the Hero System when they produced their 6th edition because he removed the notion of figured characteristics. He didn't get rid of the stats, he just deduced that there was little to be gained from having them be based on other stats in a system that was designed around using points to buy attributes, skills and powers. Just give them a suitable "everyman" default and let players buy them up to meet their needs. I think it was a very brave decision, and ultimately I agree that it is a better system for it.

GURPS hasn't had an edition change like that lately, but I think that it could benefit from something very similar, and I've got some thoughts on how I might do so, while doing a little violence to the underlying system as possible.

Doug's done a good job of breaking down HT - a little Fatigue, a little Basic Speed, a whole bunch of resistance rolls (disease, poisons, unconsciousness, death) and finally HT-based skills. He's tackled ST as well, in prior discussions, and that breaks down into Lifting, Striking, Hit Points, primarily, though things like height and weight recommendations are tied to ST. DX is all about skills, some DX rolls, and Basic Speed. And IQ is Will, Perception and a whole pile of skills as well.

The first prescription, and it's a painful pill for many to swallow, is to divorce all skill rolls from attributes entirely. Yes, if someone is smarter - or more agile or whatever they are more of - they are likely to be better at some skills, but there's nothing keeping a player from investing more points in those skills to get the levels that are desired, and avoids the issue of genius characters having a breadth and depth of knowledge outside of what they might normally be expected to have.

What they should be based on, that's open to debate. I'm partial to 10, either with reduced cost to raise levels (say 2 per level after 4 points instead of 4), by broader use of talents, by increasing the total number of points available - or perhaps made up in savings on attributes that aren't artificially inflated due to the carry-over effects of those attributes.

In place of those inflated attributes, you have the figured characteristics standing on their own, with starting values equivalent to what they'd have been if all four of the original stats were 10's - so HP and FP start at 10, as do Will and Perception. Basic Speed is 5.00, and maybe even remove the connection between BS and Move, having it default to 5 as well. Lifting is set to 10, while Striking may start at 10, or may be replaced entirely with a concept of Basic Damage, which is a great little opportunity to try out Doug's suggestions for a modified melee damage calculation. Maybe we keep a stat called Health, or maybe we replace it with Fortitude, or maybe even go a little nuts and break it down into resistance for poisons, diseases, etc - though that risks winding up looking like some sort of variant on Saving Throws...

Obviously the point levels are pretty well established for much of what I've covered becoming their own stats. I suspect that some fine tuning of total starting points for characters at different levels will need to happen, but I think the bulk of the system and all of its nuances can be preserved.

So, what have I forgotten? What have I totally hosed up? What are your thoughts on my crazy ideas?


Some thoughts on how it might break down, in the form "Attribute (Base): Cost per Level"

Hit Points (10): 2/level
Lifting (10): 3/level (also used for general ST rolls)
Base Thrust (1d-2): 5/level
Base Swing (1d): 3/level
Basic Speed (5.00): 4/0.25 increase
Basic Move (5): 5/level
IQ (10): 5/level (used exclusively for general IQ rolls)
Will (10): 5/level
Perception (10): 5/level
DX (10): 5/level (used exclusively for general DX rolls)
Fatigue Points (10): 3/level
Action Points (10): 2/level (if you're using them)
HT (10): 5/level (used exclusively for general HT rolls)

All skills based on 10 as the base attribute, with the costs unchanged
Thrust and Swing increase in the pattern of ...Xd-1>Xd>Xd+1>Xd+2>(X+1)d-1>(X+1)d...


  1. You know, I've seen this suggestion brought up before and I'm not yet convinced it makes much sense...for GURPS (or any game that can reasonably be called GURPS). Let's say you decouple everything from the attributes...the attributes themselves become incredibly niche and almost entirely worthless. This leads, IMO, to weird results. You suddenly have weaklings doing amazing swing damage and mentally challenged characters with incredible mental skills.

    I think the "problem" that is often cited regarding how players buy up IQ and DX and don't put a ton of points in skill isn't an actual problem at all. GURPS is simply saying that raw talent leads to higher skill values. I see nothing wrong with this model.

    On the other hand, I find it very odd indeed when you decouple attributes in GURPS and end up with everything being bought piecemeal. I think it allows for more abuse than it prevents and I think it leads to less realistic/reasonable PC designs.

    The one area where decoupling probably DOES make sense is with IQ and Will/Per. But beyond that, GURPS is built to make the core attributes important in figuring a number of secondary characteristics, and I think GURPS 4th Ed's rule allowing those figured characteristics to be modified (to an extent...usually plus/minus 30%) makes good sense.

    1. I appreciate your candor, Jake. So many of us know one another that it can sometimes be a bit of an echo chamber in our wee GURPS community, so contrarian positions are really valuable.

      I would agree that this would change one very important thing, and that is the necessity for even more GM oversight, and for guidelines of average attribute values that are valid for a particular campaign. Hero is really solid in this regard, giving some sample sets of how high attributes shoudl be raised before they hit red flag territory, how much to invest in skills, how much damage powers or abilities should do, and what sort of defensive abilities characters should have.

      One of the benefits of this is that there is less buying down of abilities that were defaulted from other abilties. Yes, you can still buy down HP, but it's not because you bought up ST to a level that left you with too many HP for your character, but that you're truly more fragile than even the average guy. We could take this to the logical conclusion and default these stats to 0, leading to absolutely no need to ever "buy down" anything.

      I'm not saying it's right, or better, or even remotely a good idea, but I do think it's at least valuable as a thought experiment. I'm not 100% sold on it myself, honestly.

  2. If I was building a system from scratch I think I'd go the opposite direction. I'd find my old spreadsheet where attributes included purchased SM (to 3 decimal places so e.g. at 6'6" Conan was SM 0.435) and purchased ST as ST/Wt ratio. All of striking ST, lifting ST, reach, weight, encumbrance, HP, and move were derived from the attributes. The next step would have been modifying body types but I never did it.

    It's not as generic when confronted with cinematic weirdness but I have trouble going there anyway. It does feel less gamist to me then breaking it down to entities that are precise to the rules and abstract to reality.

  3. I think I'm broadly in agreement with Jake B. I can see the appeal of a completely free choice of attributes, and mechanically it's very interesting to work out the costing, but for me at least extremely disparate sub-stat values often don't fit well together or are better modelled by something like Fragile.

  4. The thing, I think, that drives the SoDoM to ping is when you have, in a given attribute, something that is easily munchkinized. ST doesn't really have this problem, I think. HT is the worst in that regard, because its component parts are relatively few, and buying it up is only 10/level. DX and IQ (especially IQ) are somewhat problematic, but at 20/level, at moderate point totals, it's hard to throw down a bunch of 20s or something.

    I have a Pyramid submission in that makes half of a suggestion about those two, so I won't spill beans. But seeing to it that even with figured characteristics, the pricing is at a minimum the sum of its parts would obviate the biggest WTF moments.

    1. I think this hits on an important consideration: so many gamers approach things like aggregate attributes and templates not as "useful tools" but as "price breaks." In a system where everything ought to have a price, I'm not sure I see why there should be these sorts of knock-on effects where something is worth more than the sum of it's parts would be.

      As an example from Hero, Pre-6th edition - CON was a useful stat by itself, keeping you from being stunned in combat and providing a general feeling of the health of the character (CON rolls) - but it also gave you one extra Energy Defense per 5 CON, added 1 to your Recovery per five, added twice it's value in Endurance, and contributed at a 1 to 2 ratio to your Stun statistic. You could easily buy CON, and sell back just some of the figured characteristics to make it free. That's a problem.

      GURPS is less saddled with egregious problems like that one, but the fact that they're there in the first place indicates a possible place to improve on things.

    2. I take your point, but to be honest I feel that in a generic system the values of things float about all over the place anyway. Hit points and strength aren't worth much if you're a battlesuit trooper with a nuclear missile launcher.

    3. I suspect it also is influenced by my own relatively limited scope of play. GURPS may be a generic system, but I'm locked into a handful of genres I use it to play within. Some house rules are probably better thought of as rules for a "powered by GURPS" style of game, rather than the core rules themselves.

  5. Decoupling skills and stats has been kicking around for a long time, and I occasionally flirt with it, but ultimately I think it is the wrong way to go. The stats as they are make munchkined-out PCs have iconic "Heroic" attributes - smarter, more graceful, and tougher than the average bear[1] by a large margin. This helps the whole feel of the game. That said, I wouldn't argue if some things were re-priced.

    However, I think there is a better thing to decouple than stats and skills, and that's PCs and CPs. If you want to build a particular character, CP budgets will actually discourage a lot of people from pursuing a character concept, because it is less CP optimized than another character concept. Just write the stats you want down and vet with the GM. It works surprisingly well and leaves all the stat-skill coupling issues in the dust...

    [1] Usually this is a metaphorical everyman rather than an actual bear, but some PCs....

    1. Your idea requires something that not every game will have - a GM who possesses both a spine, and a gentle disposition. The former to prevent individuals from running roughshod over the campaign and the latter to prevent a general mutiny, calls of favoritism or the like. I see why balance and CPs were there in the first place, given that the systems had to work for a broad range of play styles, though I do admit I like the idea of a game that allowed that sort of flexibility, without sacrificing the accuracy of simulation that I so crave.

    2. Certainly the idea is not for everyone. But it does work for a lot of folks, and not just games with "a GM who possesses both a spine, and a gentle disposition." It also works in games were the players aren't focused on winning and optimizing, and that is part of the beauty of it. When you take away CPs, there is no longer any way to optimize or win the chargen game other than naked power grabbing and surprisingly few players actually want that.

    3. I certainly didn't mean to denigrate the idea at all. I like it, a great deal, but I think I've just had remarkably poor luck in finding players who would actually be successful with such a system. I used to think it was that others were unlucky, but I've heard sufficient counterexamples to my own experience to make me the odd man out.


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