Streamlining GURPS

Happy Thurpsday, folks!

Today’s musings and random neuron misfirings are about streamlining GURPS at the table, while you’re running it. It is known, far and wide, that GURPS is “mah jam,” and I love how detailed it can be when I want it to be. But sometimes, it can be really useful to step in the other direction and try to strip away complexity instead of adding more.

GURPS is like a microscope — the standard rules are 1x magnification, actual size. If I want to get a little more detailed — say, adding in the bleeding rules, or skills familiarity — that’s 2x magnification. But, I can still go even deeper, and explore dedicated books like Tactical Shooting or Social Engineering — 4x magnification. I’m sure there’s an atomic level magnification I simply haven’t discovered yet.

And I’ve been wrapped in GURPS’ warm, fuzzy embrace long enough to have had a lot of it seared into my gray matter. I may not remember friends’ birthdays, or dentist appointments, but I do know that it’s -1 to parry with a knife, and -4 to try and hit an opponent’s hand. My home games never suffer from “rules stoppages,” having to grind the game to a halt to look something up, because I either already know the rule I need or know where it is on my GM screen.

Having said all that, one of my gaming mottos (I have 23) is, the rules don’t matter as much as the fun.

If a distant bad guy in a game is running away and the party wants to stop him, does it really matter if the penalty to hit is -5 or -6? For some campaigns, yes, if the group is emulating a certain type of story and enjoys the specificity and crunch GURPS can bring. But for most one-shots, pick-ups, and convention games, it’s often better to use a more “broad strokes” style,  a way to play that is simplified for the benefit of players who are just looking for a good time and not learning the intricacies of a rules system.

Now, this can be done to the entire system. I mean, you can break GURPS down to its core essence and put it back together in as tiny and freeform package as you like (such as the lovely and free GURPS Ultra-Lite). That isn’t what I’m doing here. Most of GURPS is super easy because everything you need is right on the character sheet (or easy to remember). So, I usually keep things intact like the wounding modifiers, the maneuvers, the effects of HP loss, all that kind of stuff.

All I’m changing here is skill resolution, particularly as relates to combat. In my experience, that is the main bottleneck, the thing that can slow down a game as the GM tries to tally together a whole mess of modifiers. GURPS loves modifiers as much as I do (which is to say, a lot), but for streamlined games it just doesn’t matter that a minor distraction is -2 and a major distraction is -3, or that a leg is -2 to hit but the groin is -3. I’d rather just say they’re all a -2 and call it a day.

So, how to do that? The process for determining effective skill in GURPS, the number you need to roll against, is basically something like:

Base Skill + Maneuver + Target’s Size Modifier

+ Postures + Range + Hit Location + A Ton of Other Stuff*

= Effective Skill

* (visibility, afflictions, footing, mounts… basically, everything else)

Base Skill, Maneuvers, and Target’s Size Modifier don’t change. They are core concepts of the system and, more importantly, fairly simple to internalize and remember. That other stuff is what we’re going to streamline.


The table on p. 551 of the GURPS Basic Set shows the Attack and Defense modifiers for various postures a character might be in: -2, -3, or -4. To zoom out the microscope a bit, adjust GURPS’ usual granularity, I’m going to (mostly) combine the Attack/Defense modifiers, and limit the options to -2 or -4.

  • Standing, 0 (the assumed default, no modifier)
  • Crouching, -2 attack (normal defense)
  • Kneeling or Sitting, -2
  • Crawling or Lying Down, -4

Simple changes, but they make the modifiers for Posture much easier to remember (or look up). You know the penalty is always either -2 or -4. The only real difference is that defending while Crawling or Lying Down is now harder by 1. I can live with that.

If you really want to go nuts, either give Crouching no modifiers, like Standing, or give it a -2 penalty to defense, like Kneeling or Sitting. Either way, you’ve reduced the table down to just three simple lines.


The wonderful Size and Speed/Range Table is on p. 550, enumerating a great number of possible penalties for distance at very discrete levels. This table, too, can be streamlined way, way down. GURPS Action 2: Exploits does this a bit (which is full of useful advice on streamlining!), but even the range bands on p. 31 are sometimes a bit too much for me. For one-shots, I usually use something like:

  • Point-Blank (0-2 yards), 0
  • Close (3-5 yards), -2
  • Distant (6-10 yards), -4
  • Far (11-20 yards), -6
  • Very Far (21-50 yards), -8
  • Extremely Far (51-100 yards), -10
  • Sniper (100+ yards), -2 for every additional 100 yards (so, -12 for 101-200 yards, -14 for 201-300 yards, etc.)

This keeps pace pretty close to the original table until it starts hitting Sniper ranges, but for games where the difference between a range of 1,000 yards and 2,000 yards is actually important… well, you probably wouldn’t be using a streamlined system like this anyway.

For even less crunch, just get rid of the numerical distances and use the narrative of the story as a clue to the ranges. Is that bad guy Close, or Very Far? For a lot of games, that’s plenty good enough. It doesn’t matter if the target is exactly 4 yards or 35 yards away, just whether he’s Close or Very Far.

Hit Location

Hit Locations are described in glorious detail on pp. 398-400, with modifiers of -2, -3, -4, -5, -7, and -9. Yep, you guessed it! We’re consolidating. Note that I’m not changing the effects of hitting various locations, just the modifier.

  • Torso, 0
  • Arm/Leg, -2
  • Hand/Foot, Vitals, -4
  • Head, -6
  • Eye, -8

Again, fairly minor differences. The Vitals are harder to hit by 1, the Eye is easier to hit by 1, and the separate Skull/Face locations have been fused into a single Head location. But, the table is much easier to remember.

If there are Hit Locations you like to use that aren’t on the table, just decide which line fits them best and add ’em on in.

A Ton of Other Stuff

Okay, this is where I lose a lot of my fellow crunch-lovers. You may have read up to this point and thought, “Eh, not really my cup of tea, but I get it.” But this section is the step too far that may turn your thoughts to, “Heretic! You tie him to the stake, I’ll gather the kindling!”

There are a lot of miscellaneous modifiers on pp. 547-549, covering a wide range of things like whether the attacker is retching, or attacking from an off-road vehicle, or it’s dark outside, or the target is on unsure footing. It would be a massive undertaking trying to streamline all of those fiddly bits.

My solution? Ignore them.

Well, not ignore, exactly. I still try to take things into account that would logically have an effect on a character’s skill use. But I try to look at the scene a bit more holistically, and choose a single overall modifier of +/- 2, 4, 6, or 8 instead of trying to tally up all the constituent parts.

Like, let’s assume a PC is attacking a ninja who is trying to kill him. The PC is on uneven gravel (-2), and one of the ninja’s smoke grenades has reduced visibility (-3). The PC is also using an unfamiliar sword (-2) he had to grab in a hurry. Calculating, his total modifier is -7.

Or, I could look at the scene in its totality, realize that swinging someone else’s sword on rocky ground while smoke swirls around is pretty tough, and think, “Eh, let’s go with -6.”

Now, I realize this is more art than science, is not very easy for new GMs, and flies in the face of one of GURPS’ main strengths (optional detailed rules for a myriad of situations). But I really think for a lot of games, “close enough” and “in the ballpark” are good enough to keep the story moving and the imaginations purring.

The Task Difficulty explanations on pp. 345-346 can be of great help with this, but if this is, indeed, a step too far, simply leave the “A Ton of Other Stuff” category unchanged along with Maneuvers and Size Modifiers. Even making just the minor changes to Posture, Range, and Hit Location will speed up a game’s flow quite a bit.

Note that the previously posted Quick-Start Character Creation and Quick-Play Adventures series both play very nicely with this kind of streamlining of the rules.

Here is a quick and dirty page of the tables for use as a simplified GM screen.


And that, my fellow GURPies, is what I like to call, “Just winging it.” I hope you enjoyed the read, and would love to hear your thoughts/opinions/suggestions in the comments below (or elsewhere).

See ya next week!

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  1. I like this a lot! This is exactly the sort of streamlining advice I’d love to see more of – I really benefit from it, and I’m sure there are so many others out there who would too.

    I tend to run exactly the kind of game you’re describing (i.e don’t spend time looking up the modifiers in the middle of an action scene, just eyeball it and keep the game moving), and this sort of “here’s a yardstick!” advice really helps to me to get my eye in, so to speak.


  2. Great article. I find myself doing a lot of these things out of desperation instead of inspiration. I’m desperate to keep the flow of the game going, and not stall the flow for rules lookup.

    I have one nit to pick, though. I would make the “head” hit location around -4 since it is a bigger piece of meat than the parts that make it up, i.e. skull, face, neck. But, hey, you won’t even notice that it’s -4 instead of -6 unless you come to Los Alamos and play in my game.

  3. Glad you dug it, Joe 🙂

    Could totally go either way, R^2, I wouldn’t quibble at -4. I think what nudged it up to -6 in my mind was the game effects of a head shot, apart from it’s actual relative size.

    For streamlining, though, putting it with the other -4 locations reduces that lookup by another line, which is always good. 🙂

  4. A point that I think needs to be mentioned, that I think is vital, and that those crunch-lovers you strawmaned in this post often miss, is that this is not a binary thing. It is not a single spectrum of crunchy vs fluffy, but rather multiple continuums. You brought up ranged attacks, but what about social engineering? In a typical DF game, you’ll get a ridiculous amount of detail regarding combat, but very little regarding social engineering. A con-artist game might be the opposite. An occultist game will pull up every magical modifier they can find in Thaumaturgy, but DF just wants to toss around fireballs, and so on.

    By choosing WHERE we focus our attention and where we DON’T, we can shape our game and pick our focus. This is, in my opinion, the real point of campaign frameworks like Monster Hunters and DF: They abstract away the stuff that doesn’t matter, and zooms in on the stuff that does.

    I appreciated your post. This sort of sentiment should be brought up more often.

  5. Perfect article, Mook!
    I’m recently getting back into gaming after a few years of hiatus, and something like this is exactly what I was looking for. I’ll soon be running a campaign for a bunch of friends that have never played an RPG, and I was worried that I would slow down the game trying to remember all the modifiers. Thanks!
    Any chance of that cheat sheet anytime soon?

  6. Awesome, Hawkclock, glad you found it helpful, and welcome back to the fold after your sabbatical!

    I cobbled together a quick cheat sheet, click the “page of the tables” link at the bottom of the post above.

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