Gaming Unfettered Errantry

GURPS: Mastering Advantages & Disadvantages

The GURPS character creation process with its infinite possibilities can overwhelm new players, so I’ve compiled a list of strategies that have helped (or would have helped) me to acquire the system.

Advantages & disadvantages raise the learning curve because each one introduces exceptions to the basic rules of the game. This can present a daunting hurdle to new players who haven’t mastered the rules yet. Moreover, GURPS has earned fame (or notoriety) for its pages and pages of such traits. By employing a few simple techniques, however, you can learn to handle advantages in play without pausing the game every few minutes to dig through rule books:

1) Use the GURPS (Lite) PDF as a Guide

Not all advantages & disadvantages are made equal. Some will come up in your games more than others. So, how do you know which ones to focus on? The GURPS (Lite) PDF offers a good sample of the more salient advantages from the system. Remember, Steve Jackson Games created the GURPS (Lite) document as a stand-alone version of GURPS. One can run an entire campaign with only the 20-22 advantages & disadvantages in this document. You can download the GURPS (Lite) PDF for free here: Warehouse 23 – GURPS Lite (Fourth Edition)

2) Disallow Exotic, Supernatural, & Cinematic Traits

The “Basic Set” contains 145 advantages & disadvantages with the labels exotic or supernatural. With a single sentence on your “Campaign Planning Form,” a game master can reduce the number of available advantages & disadvantages down to only the 115 with the Mundane designation. That’s 145 traits you don’t need to worry about when you’re running your campaign. Usually, exotic and supernatural advantages represent a feature of a world setting — magic, psionics, etc. Only allow one or two that provide the specific feature you need. If you want to narrow the list further, disallow the cinematic advantages as well:

Cinematic Advantages

  • Absolute Timing
  • Cultural Adaptability
  • Daredevil
  • Enhanced Defenses
  • Extra Attack
  • Gadgeteer
  • Gizmos
  • Gunslinger
  • *Luck
  • Rapier Wit
  • Reduced Consumption
  • Serendipity
  • Social Chameleon
  • Trained By A Master
  • Weapon Master
  • Wild Talent
  • Xeno-Adaptability

Source: Wilson, W. & Punch, S. (2016). How to Be a GURPS GM. Steve Jackson Games: Warehouse 23 – How to Be a GURPS GM

*Sean Punch recommends always giving players access to the Luck advantage, so you might want to keep this one even if you want to eliminate the cinematic list. Nevertheless, keep in mind Luck is among the easiest advantages to memorize anyway.

4) Identify Common Advantages & Disadvantages

After applying the techniques above, you should have a manageable list of advantages to study, but not every trait on this narrowed list needs study time. Many GURPS advantages get applied to character sheets at creation (e.g., Charisma, Status, Acute Senses, etc.), and never come up in game play. That said, let’s look at some you need to focus on. Here’s a list:

Combat Reflexes

After Luck, probably the most common advantage in the book. This one has pre-calculated and an in-play components. The bonus to defense is pre-calculated on the character sheets, so there’s nothing to memorize. However, you need to remember the +6 bonuses to recover from sleep, surprise, or mental stun, as well as the immunity to mental freezes. You cannot call yourself a GURPS game master if you don’t know this one.

High/Low Pain Threshold

A lot of fiddly parts here — immunity to versus double shock penalties, +3 or -4 to resist knockdown, stun, or physical torture. Low Pain Threshold triggers Will rolls to resist crying out and can incur negative reaction modifiers.

Hard to Kill

+1 per level on HT rolls to avoid death. An easy and common advantage. Learn it.

Fit/Very Fit

+1/+2 to all HT rolls and increased FP regeneration.

Allies vs. Contacts — Understand the Difference

Allies and Enemies are NPCs in the campaign. They have full character sheets and unique statistics. Contacts and Contact Groups are skills with frequency of appearance rolls and reliability factors. A Contact represents a single skill. A Contact Group represents a skill category (for more on skill categories download a free GURPS supplement here).

As a game master, you may or may not want to allow your players to buy allies and enemies at creation. Keep in mind that allies and enemies will entail frequency of appearance rolls that you need to make before each session. In addition to the extra prep work, if you roll under, that NPC should feature in the adventure that day, potentially railroading you — the GM — into a plot you didn’t prepare.

If you’re a new GM, you probably have a lot to track without player advantages hamstringing your preparation. You can tell your players they have to acquire allies and enemies through play.

Mental Disadvantages

Many mental disadvantages share a common mechanic you can find on B120-121 of the “Basic Set.” Mental disadvantages will provide a self-control number against which a player must roll to avoid succumbing to his disadvantage. These disadvantages can be bought with self-control numbers of 6, 9, 12, or 15 depending on the severity and cost of the disadvantage. If your players have these disadvantages, look up the ramifications if they succumb. If one of the PCs is an alcoholic, for instance, you need to know the rules for drunkenness. Fatigue and HP loss can occur. This last point segues well to my last piece of advice:

Know Your Players’ Sheets and Learn Their Traits

Taking an active role with your players in the character creation process will go further than any other piece of advice. At the very least, get a copy of your players’ sheets and learn the rules for all of their traits — advantages, disadvantages, and skills.

That doesn’t mean you can disregard the previous points, however. You still need NPCs with diverse traits. Also, knowing the most common traits will allow you to create faster NPCs and provide better advice to your players when they want to spend their character points.

In Summary

Don’t let the GURPS advantages & disadvantages intimidate you. If you’re migrating to GURPS from a D20 system, remember that advantages & disadvantages work like feats in other games, except GURPS allows you — the GM — to disallow as many as you want! With the techniques I’ve given you, GURPS need not feel any more complex than other roleplaying systems.

If you find this advice helpful, let me know in the comments.


By P. Ezra Vasquez

Educator, writer, musician, linguist

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