Thoughts on GURPS and Skill Levels

I've been wrestling with this for some days, trying to find the right way to express what I think the problem might be with so much of the discussion of how to make combat in GURPS more realistic. We're looking for ways to make fights take longer than a handful of seconds. We're looking for ways to make it less desirable to burn through some extra FP just for that quick edge, knowing it could mean the fight. And there's so much focus on how to maximize Deceptive Attack penalties to defenses and targeting chinks in armor and eye slits.

But what if the problem is instead that we're suffering from Competence Fatigue?

What does Competence look like?

The basic book tells us that when you reach level 14 with a skill, you're an expert. This range extends to level 19, and at 20 or more you're into mastery. Monster Hunters gives you shooters with Guns! at 16 - solidly expert in every single firearm type there is. Action! give you shooters with one Gun at 18, and as many as seven other specialties bought to 17. Dungeon Fantasy gives you knights that can start with a skill of 20 in a single weapon specialty. And none of that includes bonuses for Gunslinger (add Acc to your gun skill without aiming) or Weapon Bond and Balanced weapons (+2 to effective melee weapon skill).

The history of tabletop gaming tends to involve characters starting out as relatively poorly prepared, just getting started in the world. The newer trends, though, gloss over that, allowing for characters to start out remarkably bad-assed and just get more powerful from there. And the fact that defenses are based on skill as well leads to a kind of skill inflation, with common mooks being assigned skills in the level 14 range just to have a shot at surviving for more than one round.

+Douglas Cole did an entire series of posts on various skill level breakpoints, and the just how terribly ineffective you were at lower levels of skill. But what if we didn't assume that the entry level for competence begins at the point where you can start to perform all manner of fancy trickery and guarantee a shot to the weakest point on your opponent's armored body? What if, instead, we assume that maybe the local militia doesn't get to practice all that often, and a skill level of 10 is perfectly reasonable for them. That the goblins that are guarding the entry to the dungeon might be brutal and nasty, and that means that their skill is closer to 12. And that the fighter, just getting started, is an expert with his weapon, and sports a skill in the 14 to (maybe, just maybe, for a real munchkin) 16 range? How does that change the dynamic of the game?

Impacts of more Realistic Levels

First and foremost, a lot more folks will either be swinging more often, with only 75% chance to land a blow, or be investing more heavily in Committed Attacks, Telegraphic Attacks and extended Evaluates. It means that defenses will be more realistic, with a young warrior perhaps sporting a block and parry combo of 12 or 13 if they've got Combat Reflexes, making that +1 from retreating that much more valuable, and a solid set of armor nearly essential.

Is this going to speed up combat? Hell no. It is more likely to slow it down, in the grand scheme of things.  More fights are going to go on long enough to cause fatigue loss even if you don't exert yourself with Extra Effort, even if you don't use The Last Gasp rules for immediate-term fatigue. Fights are finally going to look more like they do in TV and movies, in that you're going to see plenty of back and forth, plenty of mixing it up with very likely more outright misses and solid parries and blocks, and retreats taking the fighters all over the map.

And when you do have your fighter up a few "levels", and you're looking to tackle a half dozen goblins all on your own, your 18 skill level will still manage to look pretty damned impressive if all they're sporting is an 11.


  1. I think this is correct. GURPS is well known for its ability to do "gritty realism" very well. However, when you start pushing 16s, 18s, and even 20s for skills, you have left "gritty realism" fairly far behind. The skill levels in Tactical Shooting are indicative of this. Guns-13 is typical of "Federal agents, part-time SWAT officers, professional soldiers, and frequent hunters." An 18 is considered more or less the maximum for realistic shooters.

    I recently played in a decently long 150 point fantasy game where a skill of 14 was actually really bad ass. That game played very differently than the DF games we've played.

    I think you are on to something!

    1. I'm pretty comfortable with 150 points - that's a very reasonable place to be - like 100 points was in 3e, I suspect.

  2. I'm far more comfortable running 150 point games. Glad to hear that there's good reason to stick with it...!

  3. I kind of like came to the same conclusion as well. The game is much more fun if doing things is a challenge instead of coming up with ways to find penalties to make things interesting again.

    BTW, somehow your blog wasn't on my list... fixed.


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