Your First Skill Checks

In the first post of the “New to GURPS” series, we used the free introductory rules in GURPS Lite to create a simple-yet-dashing cowboy, Rex Brown. In this post, he will become our unwitting guinea pig as we explore a bit about skill checks.

The mechanics of skills themselves — how they are bought, how hard they are to learn, etc. — are on pp. 12-13 of GURPS Lite. The mechanics of skill checks — what rolls are good and bad, how modifiers come into play, etc. — are on pp. 2-3. These few pages combined comprise the beating heart of GURPS.

To reiterate from the first post:

Roll 3d6. A result lower than or equal to your modified skill level is a success; a result greater than is a failure.

Here’s a typical scenario: Your character saunters onto the scene. He won’t need to roll to keep his footing if he’s walking on a normal, solid floor; or to keep from bumping into things in a normal, well-lit room. But eventually, he’ll want to do something that carries some risk to it, that has actual consequences should he fail. Could be trying to steal a watch off a peddler’s stand, or repairing a ding in his boss’s car fender before the accident is discovered, or splitting an arrow in two with another arrow to win a tournament purse.

Whatever the action being attempted, the GM will assign the task a target number (based on as few or many modifiers as your group chooses to use), you’ll roll three dice, and the result will indicate whether your character succeeded or failed (possibly spectacularly, in either direction).

Runaway Horse

Let’s join Rex as he newly arrives in the frontier town of Stink Mud. As he’s tying his horse up in front of the hotel, a drunken cowboy from the saloon next door fires his pistol into the air with a loud “Whoop!” right next to Rex’s horse, who begins to pull the reins and try to bolt. The GM asks you to make an Animal Handling check to keep it under control.

If the cowboy had fired a booming shotgun, or some dynamite had gone off (penalties), or Rex’s horse was particularly well-trained (a bonus), there might be some modifiers involved. But, as-is, this is just a routine use of a skill for one of the things it was specifically meant for.

Rex’s Animal Handling skill level is 10. Roll 3d6: if your result is 3 through 10… congratulations! Not only have you rolled your first-ever skill check in GURPS, but you’ve kept your horse steady and calm. If you rolled an 11 or more… sorry! You’ve still completed your first-ever GURPS skill check, but Rex will probably spend the next few minutes running through town trying to catch up to his horse.


So, what about when there is a modifier involved?

Sneaking Out on the Bill

Well, after night falls on a day of gambling and boozing in the saloon, Rex realizes the card sharks have played him to the last penny and he will be unable to pay the hotel manager for the night’s lodgings. Deciding it’s best to sneak away and avoid any unpleasantness, he gathers the gear from his room and attempts to climb down to the stable from his room’s window on the second floor. There are no balconies or trellises, and very few hand-holds, so the GM decides the attempt is at -2.

Rex’s Climbing skill is 11. As noted on p.2 under “Modifiers,” the -2 modifier is applied to the target number, not to your roll. So, the effective skill for this climb is 9, not 11.

Roll 3d6: if your result is 3 through 9, Rex makes the climb safely and can proceed to the stable unharmed. If you roll a 10 or higher, Rex will lose his footing and take a few points of damage from a rough tumble to the ground.

See? Not too hard. The core of this skill use stuff is simple.

Often, there is more than one modifier. In that case, just add ’em all up and apply the final result to the target number as a single modifier.

Scavenger Hunt

Shortly after Stink Mud, Rex finds temporary work on the Double G ranch. The ranch owner’s wife suddenly decides she wants to cook her husband one of his favorite suppers, but she doesn’t have the necessary ingredients on-hand, nor the time to send into town for it all. She posts a list in the ranch hands’ barracks with a promise of a $2 reward for whoever can find her the most ingredients by nightfall.

Rex’s Scrounging skill is 11. After a quick mental tally, the GM decides on a few modifiers:

  • +1: Mrs. Rancher is known to be a bit “flighty,” and probably won’t notice if a few of the ingredients are actually just close substitutions
  • +1: Rex has already made numerous Scrounging checks around this ranch, and knows a lot of nooks and crannies
  • -1:  Rex’s lack of a Cooking skill himself might make it harder to identify ingredients he finds

The grand total is +1 (that is, +1, +1, and -1), so Rex’s effective skill for this attempt is 12 (not his base Scrounging skill of 11). If you roll and your result is 3 through 12, Rex will be $2 richer and the ranch owner will have a full belly. If you roll and your result is 13 or more, either some other ranch hand will get the reward, or the GM decides there just weren’t enough of those ingredients on the ranch to be found.

Okay, one more. Even though I refer to these checks by habit as “skill checks,” the same mechanic is used to roll directly against attributes, like rolling against your ST to lift something heavy. For example, Rex is hunkering down one night after a long day on the trail. In the spot he has chosen to make his camp, there is a rattlesnake coiled in the brush. The GM asks you for a Perception check.

Rex’s Perception is 10. If the snake were only under light cover, it might be worth a +2 modifier; if it were under heavy brush, maybe -2. But it is neither of those things. Roll 3d6: if you roll a 3 through 10, Rex will see the snake in time to do something about it. If you roll an 11 or more, the snake can strike with Rex completely unawares, and thus unable to even try dodging the attack. He will die a painful, convulsing death alone in the desert all because you couldn’t roll low enough. You should be ashamed.

Final Thoughts

A couple of final things you should be aware of before we move on, both found on p. 2.

As “When the GM Rolls” points out, sometimes it’s better for the GM to roll on the player’s behalf. In the snake example above, if the GM asks you for a Perception check and you fail the roll… you still know there’s something out there that you could have seen, but didn’t (despite the time-honored GM phrase of “You don’t see anything”). Better for the GM to make the roll himself, so the player can’t be sure whether Rex succeeded or not.

And “Critical Success and Failure” explains the circumstances under which, if you roll really low or really high, you could score a critical success or critical failure, granting you much better (or worse) results than a standard roll. For example, in the Scrounging scenario above, if you roll a critical success you might find so many ingredients you’re given a $5 reward instead of $2; but if you roll a critical failure, you might have broken something in your search and have to pay $2 as reimbursement.

In the next post, “Your First Opposed Skill Checks,” we’ll put Rex back in the firing line and look at using your skills when someone or something in the game is trying to stop you. Until then, I’d love to hear what you think about this post in the comments below (or by whatever means you prefer).

Thanks for reading!



  1. LOVE THIS SERIES Mook! Well written and easy to follow. Taking the myth that GURPS is complicated and math heavy and throw it out the window! Keep going buddy!!

  2. Good stuff, exactly what I need so I don’t have to write them myself. I have pointed my players in your direction and I look forward to seeing the series completed. Might even grab your book 🙂

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