This article originally appeared in Pyramid #10

The Play's the Thing

Roleplaying Performance-Oriented Characters
by Scott Tengelin

Are you one of those players who prefers a bard to a knight? Or while the other players load themselves down with cybernetics, you grab the hottest electric guitars and speaker systems? The GURPS Basic Set touches on some of the skills that performers use, but to run dedicated performance-oriented characters and scenarios -- and to make these characters more than just "cute additions" to an adventuring party -- some additions would be helpful.

New Advantages

Musical Magery
Cost: 8 points for 1st level
5 points/level for 2nd and 3rd levels
The mage must utilize a musical instrument in order to cast spells, and may not cast spells without one. He must also play an instrument to detect magic within an item.

Song Magery
Cost: 10 points for 1st level
6 points/level for 2nd and 3rd levels
A "song-mage" must be ungagged and able to sing in order to cast his spells or detect magic, as above. Characters with this type of aspected magery are not freed from the ritual of speaking for spells due to high skill level (see GURPS Magic, p. 7-8).

Dance Magery
Cost: 8 points for 1st level
5 points/level for 2nd and 3rd levels
The mage must be free to use bodily motions in order to use his or her magic, or for magic detection. As for Song Magery, the character is not free of rituals requiring movement as his spell level increases. However, he need not speak at all to cast his spells.


p. B47

Players should choose a familiarity with a specific style of dance (see p. B43). Modifier: -2 for unfamiliar dance style. Possible familiarities include, but are not limited to:

An Phar Modern
Elven Sword Dance

Additionally, the GM may wish to rule that a critical failure on a Dance roll indicates an injury, causing 1d-2 to a random location.

p. B48
This skill can be used to write plays. No additional skill level is necessary. However, Directing (see below) at 12 or higher adds 1 to the skill level.

p. B54

New specializations:
Stagecraft. The ability to diagnose and repair stage rigging.
Musical Instrument. Diagnosing and repairing musical instruments.

Electronics Operation

p. B58

New specializations:
Lightboard. The programming and operation of a lightboard, which controls stage lighting.
Soundboard. The programming and operation of a soundboard, which controls all prerecorded sound effects, music and live sound for a performance.


p. B60

New specializations:
Stagecraft. The ability to design and build complex stage riggings and machinery.
Musical Instrument. Designing and building new musical instruments.


p. B63
This skill, used in conjunction with either Choreography, Conducting or Directing (see below), doubles the bonuses gained for rehearsal time. This is also a prerequisite for four of the new skills listed below.


New Skills

Choreography (Mental/Average)
Defaults to Dancing -2
Prerequisites: Leadership, Dance

This skill is used to design a dance. A successful skill roll means the work is pleasing to the eye.

This skill is also necessary after the rehearsal period for the dancers to gain any bonuses for rehearsal time (see below).

Fight Choreography (Mental/Average)

Defaults to Stage Combat -2
Prerequisites: Leadership, Stage Combat

This skill is the same as Choreography, but applies to Stage Combat.

Conducting (Mental/Average)

Defaults to IQ-5 or Musical Instrument -2
rerequisites: Leadership, Any two musical instruments

The ability to conduct a live band or orchestra during a performance. A successful skill roll is necessary after the rehearsal period for the musicians to gain any bonuses for rehearsal time (see below).

Note: The Musical Ability advantage does add to this skill.

Directing (Mental/Hard)

Defaults to Performance -5
Prerequisites: Leadership, Performance

The ability to successfully direct an actor or group of actors. A successful skill roll is necessary after the rehearsal period for the actors to gain any bonuses for rehearsal time (see below).

Juggling (Physical/Hard)

No Default

This skill allows the character to juggle multiple objects. Modifiers: -1 per object above three; -1 per every two additional jugglers involved in the act.

A critical failure indicates being hit by an object. If the objects was sharp (like a knife), then damage is as appropriate for the juggler's ST-2, taken to either the left or right hand (choose randomly) or any other body part used in the act (including feet, forearms, the mouth, the top of the head or the back of the neck).

Make-Up/TL (Mental/Easy)

Defaults to IQ-4 or Disguise

This skill is the ability to use theatrical make-up to enhance a character's appearance in a performance. This is more than just the ability to make someone look "pretty." Characters with this skill can make themselves or others look older, younger, or of a different race or nationality. At TL6 and above, prosthetics can be used to further enhance the effect.

Note: As with Disguise, this skill can not be used to make someone look taller or shorter than he or she actually is.

Musical Composition (Mental/Hard)

Defaults to Musical Instrument -2
(Poetry -2 for song)
rerequisite: See below

This is the ability to compose a piece of music. A successful roll means the piece is a pleasant listening experience. Modifiers: -1 per additional musical intrument group used in the piece. Thus, a composition utilizing a saxophone section, drums, and a solo trombone would require a successful roll at -2.

The composer must have a skill in each instrument in the composition at IQ-2 (and one of the instruments at IQ) in order to compose for a particular group of instruments.

Note: The Musical Ability advantage does add to this skill.

Scene Design (Mental/Average)

Defaults to IQ-5 or
Architecture -3
This is the ability to design a set for the stage. A failed skill roll means either the set looks out of place, gets in the way of the performers, is hazardous, or has some other problem invented by the GM.

Stage Combat (Physical/Average)

Defaults to Performance -3,
Weapon Skill -3, or Weapon Art -2

This skill allows an actor to perform a choreographed fight safely, yet in an entertaining manner. A critical failure indicates an injury; 1d-2 damage to a random location. Modifiers: -4 for an unfamiliar weapon.

Weapon skills may default from this skill at -2.


The amount and quality of time spent in rehearsal, is arguably the most important factor in determining the success the of a performance.


The ideal rehearsal period for a dance should be about five hours of rehearsal for every minute of the actual piece. Modifiers are as follows:

Five hours rehearsal per minute of dance: +2 to Dancing roll.
Four hours per minute: +1 to Dancing roll.
Three hours per minute: No modifier.
Two hours per minute: -2 to Dancing roll.
One hour or less per minute: -4 to Dancing roll.

These modifiers also apply to stage combat.

The directing choreographer must make a Choreography roll at the end of the rehearsal period for the bonuses to take effect. In the case of two- or one-hour-per-minute rehearsals, a successful Choreography roll will cut the listed penalties in half. A failed choreography roll indicates no modifiers (the performers hold their own despite bad directing). Likewise, a critical failure does not cause any additional penalties.


The ideal rehearsal time here is four hours per six-minute piece. Use this guideline, even if the individual piece is longer or shorter than six minutes. Modifers are as follows:

Four hours rehearsal per six minutes of performance: +2 to Musical Instrument of Singing roll.
Three hours per six minutes of performance: +1 to Musical Instrument or Singing roll.
Two hours per six minutes of performance: No modifier.
One hour per six minutes of performance: -2 to Musical Instrument or Singing roll.
Half-hour or less per six minutes of performance: -4 to Musical Instrument or Singing roll.

As above, a successful Conducting roll is necessary at the end of the rehearsal period (made by the conductor) to activate any bonuses. Penalties for short rehearsal periods can be halved as per dance rehearsals.


The ideal rehearsal time for a play should be 30 hours per hour of the show. Modifiers are as follows:

Thirty hours rehearsal per hour of show: +2 to Performance roll.
Twenty-five hours per hour of show: +1 to Performance roll.
Twenty hours per hour of show: No modifier.
Fifteen hours per hour of show: -2 to Performance roll.
Ten hours or less per hour of show: -4 to Performance roll.

Again, the director must make a successful Directing roll for bonuses to take effect. And as above, a successful Directing roll will halve any penalties.

If no director, choreographer or conductor is used, no bonus for rehearsal time can be gained (though the penalties for inadequate rehearsal time still apply).

Combinations of different types of performances in the same show should use the longest time required.

Example: A two-hour musical consisting of a total of ten minutes of dancing, thirty minutes of music and singing, and containing a two-minute fight sequence would require:

60 hours (Acting; for simplicity assume acting throughout the performance).
50 hours (Dance pieces).
20 hours (Musical numbers).
10 hours (Fight sequence).

The acting rehearsal time is the longest; therefore, 60 hours of rehearsal time is required for all involved to gain a +2 bonus to all applicable skill rolls.

Sample Character

Geoffrey is a charismatic young Yrth musician rising to stardom. He travels the countryside with a troupe of minstrels called The Wayside Winds, lead by the Magnificent Marlos. Geoffrey is also the group's resident instrument repairman.


ST: 11 [10]; DX: 14 [45]; IQ: 13 [30]; HT: 11 [10]
Basic Speed: 6.25; Move: 6
Total: 95


Charisma-1 [5]; Voice [10]; Musical Ability-3 [3] Total: 18


Overconfidence [-10]; Sense of Duty: Companions [-5]; Chivalric Code of Honor [-15]; Intolerance: Dwarves [-5]; Triskadekaphobia (Fear of the number 13) [-5] Total: -40


Language (Sahudese)-14 [4]; Language (Caithness)-15 [2]; Fencing-15 [4]; Musical Instrument: Hautboy-17 [4]; Singing-16 [1]; Musical Composition-16 [4]; Riding: Horse-13 [1]; Bow-13 [2]; Knife-15 [2]; Mechanic: Musical Instruments-13 [2]; Savoir-Faire-15 [1]; Acrobatics-14 [4]; Shield-14 [1] Total: 32


Constant flirt; Wears all black when traveling; Wants to write his own music; Likes Sahudese food; Prefers singing to playing hautboy. Total: 5

Adventure Ideas

Here are a couple of adventure seeds to get you started. Either can be used for any type of performing art.

Phantom of the Theater: The curtain is going up in a week, and the leading lady/soloist is missing! The last place she was seen was in the theater itself, during an evening rehearsal. The objective, obviously, is to find the missing performer in time for the show. Finding out the true identity and motives of the kidnapper and bringing him/her to justice are also important goals, but remember -- the show must go on!

Noises Off: There's dissension among the performers, and the characters are the targets of a rival performer. At first, he'll start small by messing up his fellow actor's cues (requiring a Quick Contest of Skills to stay with the play's script as the rival tries to ruin it), but this eventually builds to extreme proportions (better hope he didn't switch that stage broadsword for a real one in that fight sequence . . .)!

This adventure works best in the theater, but it can also be used in the (sometimes literally) cutthroat world of music (instruments filled with wax, reeds soaked in vinegar (or even poison), small darts blown out of instruments at rivals), or even dance. If used in combination with GURPS Martial Arts, the dance scenario can be taken even further, as the dancers, skilled in the art of Capoeria, actually attack their fellow performers on stage.

Article publication date: December 1, 1994

Copyright © 1994 by Steve Jackson Games. All rights reserved. Pyramid subscribers are permitted to read this article online, or download it and print out a single hardcopy for personal use. Copying this text to any other online system or BBS, or making more than one hardcopy, is strictly prohibited. So please don't. And if you encounter copies of this article elsewhere on the web, please report it to