You Like Me, You Really Like Me!

An Optional GURPS Rule for The Arts

by Steph Pennington

"What do you mean you didn't like Chest Rockwell in Hard Knock Life? I thought he was great!"

Sooner or later, someone wants to play an artist, whether an Italian Opera Singer for Castle Falkenstein, a bard for Yrth, or an actor/spy for Espionage. Sooner or later, that player is going to want to impress someone with their skill. But how to do it? The current rules call for the player to roll against their skill. Possible outcomes are Success, Failure, Critical Success, or Critical Failure. While simple, this system does not reflect that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. No matter how well the Opera Singer rolls, if she is singing for someone who absolutely hates opera, they may not take too kindly to her rendition of Brunhilde's "Flight of the Valkyries."

Luckily, GURPS has all of the mechanics necessary to deal with the Arts in a fashion more reflective of how different opinions of a performance/work of art can exist. By combining skill rolls and reaction rolls, the GM will be able to model the fickle nature of the adoring (or not so adoring) public.

The Process

  1. The GM should assign modifiers that would affect the player's performance (e.g. bad paints and canvas, not enough rehearsal time, or a very well-written song).
  2. The player rolls against his skill. The amount he succeeded or failed the roll by becomes permanently affixed to that performance/work of art as a modifier to the reaction roll of anyone who encounters the art.
  3. When an audience member encounters the work of art/performance, the GM assigns modifiers that would affect the audience's reception of the work (e.g. the song flatters the audience, an audience member doesn't like the genre, the audience is very drunk, or the performer is Attractive).
  4. The GM rolls as many reaction rolls are needed, modified by the Audience Reception modifiers from Step 3 and the artist's performance modifier from Step 2. The result is compared to the Reaction Chart on pg. B204-205 to determine how the audience feels about the performance.

This process can be used for both large groups, and specific members of the audience.


Torgil the Bard (Performance-16/Handsome) and the rest of the party have been captured by authorities for breaking local customs, and brought before the local Lord. Torgil decides to try and impress the court with an epic poem of bravery in order to get them out of their deep trouble. The GM decides that Torgil should have a -1 stress penalty, because the lives of the party may rest on how well he performs. Torgil's player rolls a 10, succeeding by 5. Torgil knows that he gave a good performance, but was it good enough to impress the noble? The GM decides to make three reaction rolls, one for the court in general, one for the Lord, and one for the Lord's daughter.

For the court, the GM assigns a -2 penalty (because the court is suspicious of strangers) that is canceled out by Torgil's +2 for being Handsome. The GM rolls a reaction roll of 9, and adds 5 to it for Torgil's great skill. Checking on the NPC Reaction Table, the resulting 14 indicates that the court has a Good reaction.

For the Lord, the GM assigns a -2 penalty for being suspicious of foreigners that is canceled out by Torgil's +2 for being Handsome, -3 because the Lord has 3 levels of Strong Will and does not want to be swayed by the song, and another -3 because of the status difference between Torgil and the Lord. The GM rolls 10 for the lord and subtracts 1 (5 of Torgil's skill minus 6 for the Lord's strong will and negative status modifier). The resulting 9 indicates a Poor reaction. The Lord is not impressed.

Finally, for the Lord's Daughter, the GM assigns a +1 because the daughter has the mild form of Xenophilia, a +4 for Torgil's dashing good looks, and a +1 because the daughter has a thing for musicians that her father doesn't like. The GM rolls an 11, and add another 11 to the roll (the previous modifiers and Torgil's skill modifier) coming up with a whopping 22. It seems that the daughter has just fallen head over heels for our bard.

As the Lord orders our heroes to be put under house arrest, the court murmurs with shock and disapproval, and the Lord's daughter throws a saucy wink at Torgil.

Using this optional rule can add a lot more depth to a scene without adding too much time or complexity and allow for a wider range of artists and audience reactions. These rules will allow both the really good-looking, charismatic actor with very little talent, and the plain-looking but well-trained artist. It can reflect that audiences have different tastes, and throw a little drama into the performance roll. This article concludes with some ideas of what things could modify a performance or the audience's reception.

Performance Modifiers

Quality of Material (paints, scripts, songs), time spent practicing/constructing the work of art, complexity of the art attempted, the performer's stress level. In addition, the success or failure of rolls based on the following skills could also help or hinder the artist: Bardic Lore, Choreography, Directing, Fight Choreography, Make Up, Mimicry, Musical Composition, Psychology, Scene Design, Sex Appeal, and Stage Combat (among others).

Audience Reception Modifiers

Qualities of the artist (Status, Charisma, Physical Appearance, Odious Personal Habits, Voice, Reputation) can affect the audience's perception of the worth of the art as well as any number of other factors, such as preferred genre, mood, Strong/Weak Will, Intolerance, level of Drunkenness, Clueless, and Killjoy (among others).

Article publication date: May 3, 2002

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