Roleplayer #22, November 1990

PCs Do It by Default

Using Default Skills in Character Creation

by Walter Milliken

One of the unique features of GURPS is the default skill system, but many players use it only when the party suddenly needs a skill none of the characters possess. However, default skills are helpful during character design too.

There are two ways to use defaults in designing a character. Skill groups are clusters of skills which default to each other, or to a "master" skill. Characters with very high DX or IQ can make good use of attribute defaults, although this can lead to abuses.

Skill Groups

Some skills occur in "clusters'' – several related skills linked by defaults. Most often, several more specialized skills will default to a "master" skill which is more comprehensive.

In other cases, a set of skills have mutual defaults – they all default to each other, typically at the same penalty. This is most common within skills which are actually a group of specialized sub-skills.

Following is a list of the more interesting skill groupings with suggestions for using them. This is not an exhaustive list of skill defaults – only the larger groupings.

Specialized Skills

Many skills with required specializations have defaults between the specialties, usually at -4. These include the high-tech weapons and vehicle skills: Beam Weapons, Gunner, Guns, Driving and Piloting.

Various technical skills also fall into this category: Mechanic, Electronics, and Electronics Operation. There are additional defaults between the "engineering" skills and the "technician" skills within a specialty: Electronics/Electronics Operation and Engineer/Mechanic. In both cases the penalties are higher going from the technician skill to the engineering skill than the other direction.

With all these skills, it is quite common to find people who have learned one sub-skill very well, and then broadened their interest to other aspects.

It is especially cost-effective to use defaults from a high skill level in the weapons and vehicle skills, since these physical skills cost a maximum of 8 points per level of increase. If defaulted to a high level in another specialty, or purchased from such a default (see sidebar, p. B45), the cost of increase in the "master" skill is still a maximum of 8 points per level, but the "linked" skills will usually increase for free!

Calling Dr. Doolittle . . .

Anyone dealing routinely with animals should take a high level of Animal Handling. Not only is it useful in itself, and as a prerequisite for some other animal skills, but many other skills default to it.

The defaults giving Packing (at -6) and Teamster (at -4) are helpful to anyone taking a long trip in a caravan. Better yet, all the specialties of the Riding skill default to Animal Handling-3, so an expert animal handler will also be an excellent rider of any normal mount.

When an animal gets sick, the animal handler can use the default for Veterinary at -5. And he can even understand wild or previously unknown animals – Zoology defaults at -6.

If a high skill in Animal Handling is desired, the Animal Empathy advantage is almost a must – 5 points buys +4 to skill, which would cost 8 points at the higher skill levels.

Note: If the +4 Animal Empathy bonus is applied to Animal Handling, it should not be added to any skills defaulted to that skill, or purchased from a default to Animal Handling – this would otherwise double the effective bonus. This applies to any advantage that raises skill levels.

Combat Skills

The mutual default at -2 between the two major sword skills is well-known, since it is used in the default skill examples in the Basic Set. There is a similar default between Spear and Staff skills. In addition, Lance defaults to Spear-3 if Riding skill is 12+, making Spear an attractive option for those characters who like long wooden sticks.

Caveat: Characters using Staff at default probably shouldn't benefit from the special 2/3 Parry – use 1/2 Staff skill unless the PC has actually put points into it.

Mr. Smith Goes to GURPS

The Blacksmith skill is a "master" skill at low tech levels. It gives a default at -3 to Armoury skill for weapons, Jeweler defaults at -4, and Metallurgy at -8. A character interested in general metalwork and not just ironsmithy could easily pick these skills up from the Blacksmith default.

This set of defaults is of limited use in a high-tech campaign – blacksmiths become increasingly scarce above TL4.

All Talk and No Action

For the PC who would rather talk (and probably lie) than fight, there are four interrelated skills: Acting, Bard, Fast-Talk and Performance. If you want two or more of these skills, try starting from defaults from Acting, Bard, or Performance. Acting/Performance and Bard/Performance are mutual default pairs at -2. In addition, Fast-Talk defaults to Acting-5, and Acting to Bard-5. Remember that you can't default from a default (see sidebar p. B45).

Which is the best "master" skill depends on the precise mix of these skills you want, and your character conception – if you want to optimize points, you'll have to experiment.

"I'm a Doctor, Not a . . ."

The easiest way to create a doctor in GURPS is to do it the way the professionals do – spend a lot of time on the basics and then possibly add on a specialized skill or two. The Physician skill has the most defaults in the system. It can serve for Diagnosis at -4, First Aid at no penalty, Surgery at -5, Physiology at -5, and Poisons at -4. It can also substitute for Veterinary at -5 for general treatment of animals.

A high level of Physician skill and the use of defaults makes it cheaper to build a good doctor. Let's assume our medical man starts out with an above-average intelligence: IQ 12. We want him to have Physician, First Aid, and Diagnosis at 16 or better, and at least Surgery-14. (This is the description of a good M.D. on p. B56.)

First Aid defaults directly to Physician, so that's taken care of already. Without using any other defaults, it costs 12 points for Physician-16, another 12 for Diagnosis-16 and 16 points for Surgery-14. If we purchase Diagnosis and Surgery using the defaults from Physician-16, they cost only 8 and 12 points, respectively – a total of 32 vs. 40 points.

But we can do even better by raising the Physician skill. Physician-18 costs only 4 points more, and buying Diagnosis-16 and Surgery-14 from the defaults now costs only 4+4 points. The total cost is now only 24 points and we have a better doctor! This process can be continued further, but shouldn't be pushed too far, or it will fail a reality check.

Doing Things the Naturalist Way

A character who spends much of his time in the wilds is a good candidate for the Naturalist skill. All the Survival specialities default to Naturalist-3. In addition, Tracking defaults at -5, and in a high-tech campaign, Ecology defaults to it at -3.

The Survival defaults should be used carefully – no matter how high his Naturalist skill, a PC will have difficulties in a type of terrain which is totally unfamiliar. However, the naturalist will quickly recognize how the ecological niches are filled in the new environment. This is best treated as a familiarity – see the sidebar on p. B43. Gaining familiarity with a new environment will take longer than for a new model of gun – several days, at least.

Naturalist is most likely to be found in characters whose job is "field" biology, or in PCs who spend time in primitive conditions in many different environments, such as scouts in Space. Adventurers with experience in only one or two types of terrain would more reasonably have the straight Survival skills, based on IQ.

The Cost of Doing Business

The Merchant skill is a "master" skill, with defaults leading to Accounting at -5, Economics at -6, and Administration at -3. Merchant-20 is especially attractive, since it not only gives Accounting-15, Economics-14, and Administration-17, but gets a +2 on Reaction rolls for commercial transactions (see p. B64 and B204).

For a character with average IQ (10), this costs only 22 points. The point savings is 14 for Accounting at IQ+5, 12 for Economics at IQ+4, and 16 points for Administration at IQ+7 – a total of 64 points worth of skills for 22 points!

An additional bonus is the +2 reaction from bureaucrats due to the high level of Administration skill (see p. B62). (Some GMs, myself included, would require the character to have spent points on the Administration skill to get this bonus. Buying the skill from the Merchant-5 default costs an additional 2 points, and raises the level to 18.)

This grouping is ideal for the canny tramp trader captain in a Space campaign – he spends nearly as much time untangling red tape and fooling the tax collector as he does deciding on cargos or trading trinkets with the natives on primitive planets.

Traders in other settings will find more or less use for the other skills. A merchant in Megalos is faced with much the same problems as his star-travelling collegue. But a wandering trader in Neolithic Europe will have little use for Accounting in a barter economy, and there are no large bureacracies to deal with!

Scientific Skills

There are some miscellaneous default groupings using scientific skills. Unless you have a very odd character conception in mind, they shouldn't be considered in designing characters – they're best used as "on-the-spot" defaults, when no one has the right skill.

Chemistry has three related defaults, all at -5: Biochemistry (which I would accept in a design), Metallurgy and Poisons.

Physiology leads to some medical-related skills: First Aid at -5, Surgery at -8, and Genetics at -5.

Mathematics produces defaults to Accounting (at -5), Gambling (at -4) and Astrogation (at -4), the latter of which obviously only applies in a Space campaign. The Gambling default would be reasonable in a PC mathematician with a fondness for games of chance. But most mathematicians wouldn't stoop to accounting unless forced by circumstances.

Now You See It, Now You Don't

A useful talent for the shady character is Sleight of Hand. Besides being able to cheat at cards, dice and other games of so-called chance, or putting on a conjuring show to wow the yokels, he can hide those small but embarrassing items (Holdout defaults at -3): lockpicks, small weapons, that extra ace or the Duchess' diamond earrings he just palmed (Pickpocket defaults at -4).

If all you want is the Holdout skill, you may be better off buying it separately – this depends on the relation of IQ and DX in the character.

Attribute Defaults

The other type of default is the form most used in play: the default to an attribute, usually DX or IQ. This leads to the interesting notion of a character with an outstandingly high DX or IQ. Such a PC will have a reasonable chance of default success at almost any skill in the appropriate class (Physical for DX, Mental for IQ).

A character built on this strategy will need the primary attribute at 17 or better. This gives an effective skill of 12 or more for Average skills. Not outstanding . . . but the character gains a lot of skills at that level. The highest possible attribute value for a 100 point human is about 20. Such a character will have virtually no points left after spending them on this astronomical attribute, but an Average skill will default to 15!

The GM and player should both be careful to avoid the abuse of these "general knowledge" defaults. The character must have at least some idea of how the skill is performed, and for many mental skills he will need some background knowledge as well. For most physical skills, watching another person do the activity for a few minutes is usually sufficient for a basic understanding.

With mental skills, at least a passing familiarity with the subject is required. Example: a default History roll at IQ-6 presupposes that the PC has had a few history courses in school, heard historical tales, or the like. Otherwise, the character should have no chance of success.

Remember, Only YOU Can Prevent System Abuse!

It probably needs to be said – all these ways of using defaults can be carried to abusive levels. When you design a character with such "tricks," ask yourself if it makes sense from a game world perspective. How did the character learn these skills? Why this particular order? If any of the skill levels is extraordinarily high (20 or more), where did he find a teacher? Can the character earn a living with his skills?

Similarly, the GM should ask these questions about any character before admitting him to the campaign. If the player doesn't have a good answer, it may mean the character lacks a firm conception. The GM and the player should work out any such details before the character enters play. Often a character will need some rework after first being shown to the GM, since he's the one who knows best how well the PC fits the game world.

Remember, the object is to attain both character balance and game balance. Use your point-juggling abilities wisely.

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