Taming the Wild Skill
Variant Uses for the GURPS Wildcard Rule
by Phil Masters
GURPS wildcard skills (page 175 of the Basic Set) are primarily designed to emulate the broad abilities of cinematic characters. However, they can also be used for other purposes -- to represent training that encompasses a very wide range of techniques, while avoiding specific problems that arise with narrower, ordinary skills. This should be handled with restraint in non-cinematic campaigns, but even there, wildcard skills can have a useful place.
Point and Pull
For example, consider the problems faced by undercover agents working for the Infinity Patrol in the Infinite Worlds setting. These people may sometimes need to carry firearms, but if they're going to preserve their cover, they'll have to use local weapons. (No doubt Technical Analysis Division can manufacture sidearms that look like "local" weapons while actually being, functionally, Homeline models -- but that won't fool close, educated inspection or competent forensic specialists, and the Patrol don't want to generate too much interest from gun nuts and forensics experts across a hundred timelines.) The trouble is, that means such agents will have to carry and sometimes use sidearms from tech levels from 4 to 12, in a wide range of formats, and sometimes incorporating divergent-TL or superscience technologies. In game terms, tech-level penalties will stack with weapon format and general familiarity modifiers, to the point where the agent's standard Patrol pistol or rifle training will be no use whatsoever -- he'll do better to work off a rather poor DX- based default.
Or . . . Infinity institutes a special training course for these people. This isn't designed to familiarise them with every sidearm that they might possibly have to use, anywhere (although students do get to try out an amazing variety of implements of mayhem acquired from across the Infinite Worlds); rather, it represents a broad grounding in the basic theories of weapon design and use, and techniques for adapting rapidly to unexpected formats and behaviours. It doesn't produce great marksmen; it produces people who aren't ever thrown by the oddities of any given gun, and can use anything well enough to survive in a fight, if they're sensible.
In other words, in game terms, it teaches Gun! skill, which disregards TL and familiarity penalties. Students can shoot anything from a Britannica-6 Grey Maggie rifle to a Caliph fusion jezail or an Azoth-7 ruby-pistolle, and do more damage to the target than to themselves. PCs shouldn't usually put more than, say, 6 points into this in non-cinematic games -- more does begin to look too wild -- but with that, a DX 12 agent can handle any sidearm with skill-10 and no arbitrary penalties, and also gets to attempt things like Fast Draw and Armoury with a base 50% chance of success, whatever the setting.
A similar approach might be appropriate for, say, a professional doctor in a multi-species interstellar SF campaign. In a galaxy with hundreds or thousands of sapient species, nobody could learn everything about the medical requirements of every possible patient -- but doctors in a Sector General- style hospital might be expected to provide treatment to all comers regardless, using whatever equipment they have to hand. Hence, a wildcard skill (Xenomedicine!) might be used to represent a very broad "first principles" training regime, combining basic biological and xenological theory with highly practical applications.
Wildcard skills can also be used in settings where teaching and scholarship aren't organized along quite the same lines as the GURPS skills list, and where students are expected to acquire a good, integrated understanding of many different topics -- and where some of what's taught this way serves very practical purposes. For example, medieval and renaissance European scholarship was based round a set of categories only loosely related to modern concepts of the arts and sciences; see the Pyramid articles "Old School" and "Those Who Pray." Realistically, this sort of thing can usually be represented by taking a range of skills at moderate levels, perhaps with optional specialties, or sometimes by taking Expert Skills such as Natural Philosophy (page 194) -- though those last are supposed to have rather limited practical applications. However, GMs running slightly less realistic historical-Europe games, or those based in settings such as Banestorm's Yrth, may want this sort of learning to be useful on a practical level, without breaking things down in the complex detail required to fit it to standard GURPS skills. Hence, scholarly characters in some games might be permitted to spend a few points on wildcard skills related to the structure of period university educations. The following are a couple of possibilities:
Artes Liberales! (IQ). This not only encompasses the formal content of the medieval liberal arts, but assumes that the character paid close attention to all of his initial university education, including the classical texts and references which were used in teaching. He must be literate in his own language, and put at least two points into written Latin. Artes Liberales! replaces Astronomy (Observational), History (all classical-period specialties), Mathematics (Applied), Law (any Ancient Roman specialty), Public Speaking, and Writing. It also covers aspects of Linguistics which relate to the analysis of grammar (but it can't be used to speed up language learning), Philosophy (any "classical" specialty) with regard to basic terminology and formal logic, and anecdotal and historical aspects of Theology (Christian) but not analytical/theoretical aspects. Also, if the character has at least one Musical Instrument skill, it replaces Musical Composition.
Natural Philosophy! (IQ). This is much deeper than the like- named Expert Skill; in a game where it's available, it reflects how the world is actually put together, and can be useful. In many ways, it's a low-tech version of Science!, but with rather more metaphysics. It replaces Astronomy, Biology, Chemistry, Geology, Mathematics (Pure and Statistics), and Physics, and also Philosophy (any "classical" specialty) as it relates to the nature of the material universe, and Theology (Christian) as it relates to the creation of the universe and the relationship between the supernatural and the physical. In some campaigns, the Philosophy and Theology may be as relevant as the other sciences to understanding how things really work!
Giving your medieval scholar-wizard a few points in these two skills along with his explicitly magical abilities should help supply him with the appropriate style, enabling him to debate Aristotle or Aquinas with rhetorical precision and formal rectitude. For that matter, GMs creating fantasy worlds can create whole new systems of learning, based round arbitrary theories or concepts, and link all the relevant abilities into a wildcard skill, giving masters of a field breadth and effectiveness while adding to the setting's specific flavor.
Article publication date: April 27, 2007
Copyright © 2007 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.