Your First Skill Contests

Last week’s release in the “New to GURPS” series talked about using those nifty skills your character has to attempt things in the game world — hot-wiring a car, preparing the perfect rack of lamb, creating a forged painting, whatever. You basically explain what your PC is trying to do, the GM assigns a target number based on the difficulty, and you roll 3d6 (the lower, the better!) to determine if the attempt is a success or failure (or critical success, or critical failure). Easy, peasy.

But… what if someone or something is opposing you? Either interfering with your own attempt, or trying to do the same thing first or better? When that happens, you are entering into a contest with another character. You’ll still be rolling against the GM’s target number, based on your skill (or attribute)… but so will the other guy (or camel, or talking banana, or swarm of cybernetic ticks, since this is GURPS). You need to roll better than your opponent does to win the contest.

Most often, this will be a Quick Contest, something that happens fast — picking someone’s pocket, shooting “closest to bull’s eye” to start a darts match, pressing an air lock hatch closed before a xenomorph can scurry in, that sort of thing. The bigger your margin of victory, the sweeter your success (or vice-versa, if you’re the one losing the contest). (How to determine the winner of a Quick Contest, and calculate the margin of victory, is all fully explained on p. 3 of GURPS Lite).

Once again, we call upon our brave guinea pig/cowboy, Rex.

Rex and another cowboy, Mortimer, are both vying for the last available spot on Billy Dugan’s ranch crew. Dugan has arranged a few simple tests for the men to see who is the better cowboy, starting with the pair trying to calm down the rancher’s high-spirited stallion, Satan’s Nag.

Soothing the Savage Beast

Both men enter the corral with the nervous horse and try to bring it under control by rolling 3d6 against their Animal Handling skills: Dugan’s is 11, and the GM rolls a 10, so he succeeds with a margin of success of 1. Rex’s skill is 10.

Roll 3d6: if your result is 10 through 18, Rex fails to calm the animal and Mortimer wins the contest. Note that this is slightly different than an unopposed skill check, because if this roll were unopposed, Rex would succeed by rolling a 10. But in a skill contest, you don’t necessarily have to beat your effective skill — you just have to beat your opponent.

If you roll a 9 (a margin of success of 1, a tie), then neither Rex nor Mortimer succeed in calming Satan’s Nag. If you roll an 8 or less (a margin of success of 2 or more), then Rex wins the contest, he and Satan’s Nag are BFFs, and Mortimer is left looking like an unskilled greenhorn.

“He Hates These Cans!”

Once Satan’s Nag has relaxed and been led away to his stall, Rancher Dugan begins the second contest. He places two empty coffee cans on fence posts 10 yards away and instructs the cowboys to each fire at the can in front of them on the count of three — the closest shot to the center of the can will be the winner. Dugan counts to three, and both you (as Rex’s player) and the GM (for Mortimer) roll 3d6.

According to p. 28 of GURPS Lite, the range penalty for a target 10 yards away is -4. We could actually impose a further penalty of -5 (because the coffee cans are small targets, less than a foot tall), but for such a basic example, with such simplified characters, that’s a bit of overkill. Rex’s Guns (Pistol) skill is 13, giving him an effective skill of 9; Mortimer’s is 12, for an effective skill of 8. The GM rolls an 11 for Mortimer — he misses the can entirely, with a margin of failure of 3 (that is, the difference between 11 and 8).

Roll 3d6: if your result is 13-18, then Rex misses the can by an even wider margin than Mortimer did (his margin of failure was 3, yours is 4 or more), and Rex loses the contest (hopefully he didn’t accidentally shoot someone). If your result is 12, then Rex ties Mortimer’s margin of failure of 3 — neither one of them hit the can, and miss by about the same amount. If your result is 10 or 11, Rex misses the can, but by less than Mortimer did, so he still wins the contest. Finally, if your result is 9 or less, congratulations! Not only does Rex win the contest… but he actually hit the coffee can.

Horse Race

For the third and final test, Dugan proposes a horse race — first rider to the southern well and back wins. This is not a Quick Contest, but a Regular Contest (p. 3, GURPS Lite)… it is long and involved, with the possibility of some back and forth between the competitors.

There are all manner of variables and modifiers that could affect a race like this, but as we are still just getting our feet wet, let’s stick to a basic Riding (Horse) skill contest. In a Regular Contest, a winner can only be declared when one character rolls a success and the other rolls a failure; if both succeed or fail, neither character has enough of an advantage to win the contest.

Mortimer’s Riding skill is 10, and Rex’s is 11. In a Regular Contest, margins of victory don’t matter, so I’ll simply illustrate one possible way the race could go.

The cowboys mount their horses, maneuver side-by-side at the starting line, and wait for Dugan to start the race. “One… two… THREE!” Dugan fires a pistol into the air, and the riders take off.

Rex, Turn 1: rolls a 9 against his effective Riding skill of 11, succeeds.

Mortimer, Turn 1: rolls a 10 against his effective Riding skill of 10, succeeds.

Result: Both riders succeed. They are both spurring their mounts on and racing towards the southern well.

Rex, Turn 2: rolls a 13 against his effective Riding skill of 11, fails.

Mortimer, Turn 2: rolls a 15 against his effective Riding skill of 10, fails.

Result: Both riders fail. They remain neck-and-neck as they race around the well and speed back towards the corral.

Rex, Turn 3: rolls a 10 against his effective Riding skill of 11, succeeds.

Mortimer, Turn 3: rolls a 12 against his effective Riding skill of 10, fails.

Result: Rex succeeded, but Mortimer did not! Rex wins the contest. As the two riders give it their all for the final leg of the race, Rex manages to pull ahead by a nose. Whether or not he actually gets the job with Dugan depends on how he did with the first two challenges, but we’ve at least given him a shot.


And that, my newly-minted GURPSians, is the bulk of all you need to know about skills in GURPS in three posts — how to make a character that has them, how to use them to do stuff, and how to use them when someone (or something) else is opposing you. Go forth, and GURPS!

Next week, we’ll start poking into the nitty gritty of how to kill things and make ’em bleed (while hopefully keeping them from doing the same to you) with, “Your First Melee Combat.” Until then, thanks for reading — and, let me know what you think about how this series is going in the comments below (or by your favorite means of modern communication).


  1. So in the opposed roll situation, and this I guess is maybe more of a GM question, but what happens if both players fail, or both succeed, and nobody really wins the situation for way more rolls than you’d expect? You’ve got to run out of flavor exposition at some point right? I feel like this is covered in the book somewhere, but maybe that’s just if both players have really low skill, you kind of zero it out to help them both. But still, even with that, it’s likely that at some point you have an opposed roll that should take 3 or so rolls to resolve but ends up taking 9.

  2. Hiya, Andy. You’re thinking of p. 349 of GURPS Campaigns under “Extreme Scores,” where you normalize the highest/lowest score to 10 and scale the other character’s score by the same amount to put the contest back in the mid-range where such lengthy exchanges are much rarer.

    During actual play, if I feel like a Regular Contest is stretching beyond where it’s fun, I’ll just declare the next (and final) contest to be Quick instead. Like, if a car race has some tension and entertainment for a few turns of Regular Contests but then starts to drag, we’ll resolve the contest by making the next turn a Quick Contest to ensure there will be a victor (by awarding ties to the character with the higher DX or IQ, Move, whatever fits).

  3. Just to make sure I understand how quick contests work: it doesn’t matter whether you succeed or fail the skill check, only whether your margin of success is greater than your opponent’s margin or your margin of failure is smaller than your opponent’s margin of failure?

    • That has always been my understanding, yeah (p. B348, Campaigns), at least per Rules-as-Written… maybe to emphasize that the focus has shifted from trying to beat the task itself to trying to beat your opponent? But, certainly a lot of GMs houserule that so you have to succeed at the underlying task as well as win the contest.

  4. I would like to use contests to run an archery competition in game, but I’m unsure whether to use Quick or Regular contests.

    Quick seems to make more sense if the objective is the “bull”. A smaller margin of failure makes sense, in that they still hit the outer target.

    Regular makes more sense if the objective is the whole target. That way they either hit or miss. And I could do it as a best of 3.

    What do you think is best?

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