'Tis But A Scratch!

More Non-Generic Damage Rules For GURPS

by Stephen Dedman

There are many ways of knowing whether you're in a movie or the real world. Can you open every door instantly with a credit card? Do all cars explode if they're shot or roll over? Are all Asians trained in martial arts? And the real give-away -- does everyone who survives a fight emerge unbruised and unblemished, with their hair perfectly in place and only a few strategically placed rips in their clothing?

If you're a fan of the cinematic style of roleplaying, a la Charlie's Angels movies, the Roger Moore James Bond films, and the rules on p. B183, then you probably don't want the complication of more realistic wounding rules. Indeed, the Flesh Wounds rule is designed to get around this (at least for PCs), and especially if used in combination with the generic damage in the Basic Combat system (pp. B95-101), means that which does not kill you, doesn't really matter very much at all. If this is your preferred option, go straight to Part 2 of this article.

If, however, you'd like to make combat in your GURPS games a little more realistic, keep reading.

Idea #1: Unlucky Breaks -- An Optional System For Non-Generic Damage

These rules are designed to be used in conjunction with the effects of crippling injuries in the advanced combat system (p. B127) and the detailed hit location rules from GURPS (p. CI52). They make combat more damaging without being more lethal, and may make characters hesitate before starting a fight, leading to more opportunities for negotiation and roleplaying. They may also slow down campaigns by requiring more healing time between adventures, enabling PCs to spend more time "hitting the books" and spending character points on learning new skills or improving the old ones (Bruce Lee did much of the research for Jeet Kune Do while crippled in a hospital bed).

Merciful GMs may also decide to use these optional rules as an alternative to killing PCs outright -- ruling that a head wound has caused epilepsy or temporary amnesia, or lung damage from mustard gas has left a PC Very Unfit rather than Very Dead.

In this system, most hit locations can suffer Crippling Injuries if damage exceeds a particular level -- usually equal to HT after multipliers (p. CII53). Recovery from these Crippling Injuries uses the rules on p. B129.

Hit Location


Crippling Injury




"Crippled" by taking damage equal to more than HT after multipliers. Possible lasting or permanent effects include Amnesia (p. CI86), Epilepsy (p. B28), Flashbacks (p. CI90), Migraine (p. CI82), No Depth Perception (p. CI82), or reduced IQ.




A face that takes damage equal to more than ½ of HT (ignore multipliers) will be bruised or scarred, which will reduce Appearance to Unattractive until the injury heals. Multiple wounds may reduce Appearance further.




A nose that takes damage equal to more than ½ of HT after multipliers may be bruised or broken, which will reduce Appearance to Unattractive until the injury heals. Other possible lasting or permanent effects include No Sense Smell/Taste (p.29) or Unfit (p. CI85, must breathe through mouth).




"Crippled" (broken or dislocated) by taking damage equal to more than ½ of HT after multipliers. Possible lasting or permanent effects include Mute (p. B29) or a speech defect equivalent to Stuttering (p. B29).




As if the risk of a crushed throat or instant decapitation wasn't enough, a blow to the neck that does damage equal to more than HT after multipliers may also cause lasting or permanent crippling effects -- Disturbing Voice (p. CI81), Mute (p. B29), or Quadriplegic (p. CI83).




Attacks to the front of the torso may break ribs or damage internal organs; attacks to the back (or blow-through damage) can do the same, and can also result in damage to the spine. Any blow that does damage equal to more than HT may cause any of the possible lasting or permanent effects: Bad Back (p. CI80), Delicate Metabolism (-20 point level, p. CI81) Lame (Paraplegic) (p. B29), Unfit or Very Unfit (from a punctured lung or similar injury; p. CI85), or reduced HT.


Vital Organs


Like torso but more so, thanks to multipliers.




"Crippled" by taking damage equal to more than ½ of HT after multipliers (rupturing, amputation, or just extreme sensitivity that makes any contact too painful to contemplate). Possible lasting or permanent effects are Eunuch (p. B28, human males only) or Sterile (p. CI84).


Example of combat: Kim Yip is walking home from a party when Rex, a slammer (p. UTT91) addict, runs past her and grabs her bag -- which contains her keychain, cell phone, and pepper gas as well as her credcard. She chases the addict to the pedestrian bridge, where he turns around draws a small balisong knife. She's unarmed and unarmored, apart from her light leather jacket and hard boots, but she was in a bad mood already, and she has a green belt in jujutsu (Judo-13, Karate-13), the High Pain Threshold advantage, and the Overconfidence disadvantage. Rex's dose of slammer has given him the High Pain Threshold and Combat Reflexes advantages and Bloodlust disadvantage; he also has the Bad Temper and Bully disadvantages whether he's drugged or not.

Kim aims a kick at Rex's groin, but this is only a feint; her real target is his knee. She does 4 points of damage -- not enough to cripple his leg (his HT is 10), but enough to anger him. He slashes at her face, but she parries the blow and grabs his wrist in an arm lock. She attempts a Disarming maneuver, but fails, and Rex head-butts her in the nose -- an all-out attack doing +2 damage for a total of 6 points. Kim's HT is 11, so this is HT/2; though she makes the HT rolls to avoid knockout and becoming stunned (thanks to the +5 bonus from her High Pain Threshold), her nose begins to swell. Enraged, she twists his knife arm, doing 6 points of damage and crippling it. Rex drops the knife, but Slammer has reduced his IQ to 7, so he's not smart enough to quit. He delivers a roundhouse punch, assisted with brass knuckles, for a total 7 points of damage to Kim's jaw -- enough to cripple it. Kim makes her HT roll not to fall unconscious, then uses judo to throw him -- over the edge of the bridge.

Rex falls 5 yards, landing on his head (see p. B131) and taking 9 points of damage. Subtracting DR of 2 for his skull and 1 for his cloth cap, then multiplying ×4, that's 24 points to the brain. He's automatically knocked out, makes his HT and survives, but suffers a crippling injury -- a fractured skull and brain damage. Fortunately for him, Kim calls for an ambulance once she's retrieved her cell phone.

Each has to make two rolls on HT, using the rules on p. B129 -- Kim for her nose and her jaw, Rex for his arm and his head. Kim makes her first roll, so her nose is only temporarily injured (the swelling will go down when she recovers the 12 hit points she's lost), but the second roll is a 14, so the injury to her jaw is lasting -- it's broken, and won't heal for 1d-3 months. Rex makes his first roll, so his arm is only temporarily crippled, but his second is a 16, so he's taken permanent injury to the brain. Rather than reduce his IQ still further, the GM decides the lesions give him the Epilepsy disadvantage.

Idea #2: Brawling and Blowthrough -- An Optional Rule for Less Lethal Combat

The following rule is suggested as an option to the unrealistic "Stun Point" rules (pp. CII151-152) for cinematic play, with the added advantage that it requires no extra bookkeeping. Assume that all crushing damage in excess of the victim's total DR and hit points is turned into knockback damage unless the victim (or the body part hit) is somehow prevented from being knocked in that direction; never hit a head that doesn't have freedom of movement! As with Stun Damage, the GM can set the rate at which damage points are converted into knockback -- 1 yard for every 8 points, 4, 2, or even 1, depending how exaggerated you want the combat to be. This is particularly suitable for four-color Supers campaigns, but it also suits bar brawls in cinematic Old West, Cliffhangers, or Martial Arts games. Whether this rule also applies to bullet damage is up to the GM.

Combat example: Mount Fuji (ST 188) punches a tough yakuza kickboxer (HT 12, DR 1), doing 42 points of damage. The GM rules that rather than Fuji's fist going right through the kickbozer's torso, the extra 29 points of damage should converted to knockback at 1 yard for 4 points. The thug goes flying across the street, taking 1d-2 falling damage.

Fuji then deals with the kickboxer's annoying twin by crushing his foot with a stamp kick. The foot doesn't have freedom of movement, so it takes full damage - but after taking 4 points (HT/3), all excess damage goes through to the concrete floor. If Fuji had done the same thing to the thug's head, he would have crushed his skull.

Idea #3: Healing and Surgery -- More Optional Rules

Unlike the rules for First Aid and Physician skills, the rules for Surgery skill on p. B56 are not expanded upon in other chapters. First Aid is useful immediately after for preventing bleeding or for minor wounds. Physician skill is needed for treating disease, poison, and for any hit point damage that couldn't fixed by the initial First Aid (or by Healing spells or ultra-tech drugs, depending on the campaign). In many GURPS campaigns, however, Surgery is treated more as a Professional Skill than something likely to benefit a party after combat.

A possible use of Surgery is to reduce the recovery time for crippling injuries: pinning broken bones, wiring jaws, using cosmetic surgery to hide scars, etc. On a successful Surgery roll, a surgeon can reduce the number of months that a lasting crippling injury takes to heal, dividing it by the number by which he made the roll. GMs may rule that the minimum period of healing remains one month, though (optionally) a critical success may reduce a lasting injury to a temporary one.

Surgery may even reduce a permanent crippling injury to a lasting one -- though this depends on the injury and the TL of available medicine. For example, a surgeon with late TL7+ skills and equipment may be able to use microsurgery to re-attach a severed hand or foot, but unable to repair a damaged spine that has caused quadriplegia. A surgeon from an earlier TL will, at best, be able to preserve enough of the limb to attach a prosthetic; a surgeon at late TL8+ may opt for replacing the entire body, putting the brain into a clone or cyborg. In cases where a "miracle cure" is required and a limb or other body part has not actually been lost, only a critical success will reduce a permanent injury to a lasting one -- but repeated attempts at corrective surgery (though possibly expensive and not without hazard; see below) may be made until a successful treatment is found.

A critical failure on Surgery for a lasting injury should lengthen recovery time; reverse the process above. For a permanent crippling injury, a critical failure on Surgery at TL5 and below may prove fatal, by leading to gangrene or other infection, or releasing marrow or bone chips into the bloodstream. At TL6+, the worst possible result should be that the body part requires amputation and replacement: only if the surgeon also has a critical failure on Physician is the patient in danger of dying.

Idea #4: The High Cost of Living

The economic impact of lasting injuries will vary enormously from game world to game world (or even from country to country, as it does today) and individual to individual. The typical costs for medical care at TL8+ listed in GURPS Space (p. S88) show how quickly an injury or illness could bankrupt a character with no medical insurance, and that doesn't factor in lost income for characters unable to work (particularly the self-employed).

GMs who want to use this to cripple a PC financially as well as physically may be able to do so; bad debts can be a useful tool for persuading PCs to go on insanely dangerous but potentially profitable quests. GMs who don't wish to add insolvency to injury (or do the necessary bookkeeping) can find several ways to pay off all or most of the cost of hospitalization, healing spells, bionics, etc.

In TL7+ campaigns, hospital insurance will be available in many societies (see GURPS IOU and GURPS Autoduel), and may be considered a part of normal living expenses (though not necessarily for the self-employed). Some countries will even provide hospital care free or at a token cost, particularly to victims of crime.

A PC with the Patron advantage is likely to have all medical expenses and lost income covered by the Patron, particularly if the injuries were suffered while the PC was on Duty. This is also likely to be true of anyone with the Clerical Investment, Legal Enforcement Powers, or Military Rank advantages.

Heroes without any of these advantages may be able to rely on charities, particularly if they are devout followers of the appropriate religion, or have a good reputation.

In certain circumstances, PCs may be able to recoup their medical expenses by suing the people who injured them, or by selling their story to the media. This may even prove extremely profitable, enabling them to leave the hospital wealthy as well as healthy, and ready to be injured all over again.

Article publication date: March 12, 2004

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