Look It Up!

by Volker Bach

Art by andi jones

How do you spot a tourist in a foreign country? Well, apart from the silly sun hat and the expensive camera, the pocket dictionary is a dead giveaway. The traveler uses this practical little device filled with phrases like "Could you direct me to the airport, please?" to boost his effective Language Skill. If this works in the real world it should be possible in GURPS as well. Thus, I propose the following set of rules:


Dictionaries increase the user's effective Skill in a given language by an amount that reflects the book's size and quality. A four-volume translator's dictionary will help more than a 50 palmtop dictionary. However, a bad dictionary (English as She is Spoke, With 15.000 Verbs) may decrease the user's effective language Skill (see below).

At a high enough Skill level, the character will outgrow a dictionary. A professor of English is unlikely to benefit much from a travelers' pocket dictionary. Thus, every dictionary has not only the bonus to effective Skill, but also a maximum Skill increase allowed. A palmtop dictionary would raise the user's effective Skill by 1, but only to a maximum of 8. Anyone with a skill of 8 or higher already knows practically everything this dictionary could tell him. Thus, it is useful for beginners but not much help to advanced students. The 24-volume Oxford English Dictionary, on the other hand, increases the user's effective Skill by 4, to a maximum of 16. Every character below level 16 in English can benefit from using it. By way of a rough guide, the following figures can be used:

Palmtop Dictionary: Skill +1, max. 8 (1/2 lb., $5).
Travel Dictionary: Skill +1 (spoken +2), max. 8 (1-2 lbs., $5-20).
Learner's Dictionary: Skill +2, max. 11 (2-5 lbs., $10-80).
Translator's Dictionary: Skill +3, max. 13 (5-20 lbs, $50-500).
Academic Dictionary: Skill + 4, max. 16 (10-100 lbs, $ 300+).

Note that not all types are available for all languages. Exotic and dead languages are usually found only in scholarly dictionaries which are often not user-friendly, and sometimes contain pitifully little information.

Example: Milton Gregory, Esq., gentleman of independent means and hobby archaeologist of the occult, is faced with a puzzling inscription he unearthed on a hill near Fayum. Unfortunately, his Greek is very rusty (Skill 7). Fortunately, he has his trusted Liddel-Scott Dictionary (+3 to Skill) with him. With its help, he boosts his effective Skill to 10 and, since time is not a major factor, arrives at a correct translation at 2 a.m., after several abortive attempts and numerous shots of brandy (successive rolls of 12, 13 and 9).

Optional Rule: Thesauri

A thesaurus is not supposed to help understanding, but expression. Thus, it increases not the Language skill but the Writing skill. As opposed to dictionaries, thesauri cover only a very small part of successful writing, namely vocabulary. Therefore even a very good thesaurus will only give +2 to Skill.

Dictionaries give 1/2 their Skill bonus to Writing. Maximum Skill applies by Language, not Writing Skill. Thus, if a character knew English at 12 and Writing at 7, a +2 dictionary, max. 10, would do no good. He already knows English above the maximum and therefore is aware of everything the dictionary could tell him.

Look It Up!


Handbooks are similar to dictionaries, but apply to Mental Skills other than languages. A handbook of Chemistry will increase the character's effective Chemistry Skill. A handbook is different from an instruction manual. It does not tell a character how to do something, it merely gives him additional information.

Handbooks, like dictionaries, come in various sizes and qualities ranging from the small and easily portable high school textbook (+1, maximum 12) to the extensive and extremely non-portable academic handbook (+4, maximum 18). As with dictionaries, there are examples of execrable quality that will result in an effective Skill penalty if used. "Generic" types are:

High School Textbook: Skill +1, max. 10 (1-4 lbs, $10-40).
College Textbook: Skill +2, max. 12 (2-8 lbs, $30-100).
University Textbook: Skill +3, max. 14 (4-15 lbs, $30-200).
Academic Handbook: Skill +4, max. 16 (6-50 lbs, $300+).

Handbooks should be assumed to exist for all Scientific and many other Mental Skills. When in doubt, the GM is final arbiter. Use common sense: A handbook on fishing should be readily available at the corner bookstore. One on Interrogation might exist, but would probably not be for sale and maybe even illegal. If a handbook on Leadership exists at all, it is unlikely to do much good.

Example: Milton Gregory, Esq., has followed the instructions in the inscription and found a very strange object. The small golden statuette looks like nothing he remembers on a roll of 10. (Archaeology 13, at a -4 penalty). However, once back in his library he takes to the trusted tomes of his Realencyclopaedie der Classischen Alterthumswissenschaften (+4 to Skill). His modified Archaeology Skill of 16 (13 + 4 = 17, which is adjusted downwards for being above the maximum Skill bonus) is enough to offset the penalty for recognizing the strange little item on a roll of 12. The dice come out 10. Mr. Gregory pales as he realizes what his curiosity has saddled him with . . .

Optional Restrictions

As a rough-and-ready system of rules for using dictionaries and manuals, this much is sufficient. However, for the sake of realism, and to discourage the use of dictionaries and handbooks as cheap skill-boosters, a number of optional limitations can be applied:


Leafing through a book every time a character is trying to do something is time-consuming and inconvenient. Using a handbook or dictionary is appropriate only when the PCs are not under pressure. If any agreed-upon durations are being used, add 50% for each +1 to Skill due to handbook use (as ever, common sense should rule out silly results). Nothing done with the aid of a dictionary or handbook takes less than one minute. Thus, trying to use one in dialogue is going to badly hamper communication. However, no handbook or dictionary should ever require a Research roll to use. A book that complicated (or badly written) is by definition no handbook.


The idea of characters carrying a large array of dictionaries and handbooks to boost their skills is tempting, but unrealistic. They are just too heavy for that. While there is no absolute standard for the weight of a handbook or dictionary, a rough-and-ready guideline can be established according to the Skill bonus. A small, +1 pocket volume should weigh between 1/2 and 2 lbs. A more extensive +2 book might readily go as high as 8 lbs. The professional +3 tomes easily reach 15 lbs, while for a +4 multiple-volume set the sky is the limit.

These weights apply to TL5+ printed books. For TL3 parchment manuscripts quadruple the listed weight. For TL4 printed works double it. At late TL7, computer-based handbooks and dictionaries become available at the weight and size of a CD-ROM. By TL9 at the latest, weight and bulk cease to be a consideration as thousands of gigabytes of information are stored in palmtops.


Handbooks and dictionaries of any quality should not be available prior to TL3. The early versions are rather basic and rarely exceed +1 to Skill. Books of the type and quality outlined above are available only from late TL5 onwards. In a Fantasy campaign, the GM is absolutely justified in allowing only a narrow selection of dictionaries and handbooks, or none at all.

Even in a modern environment, some dictionaries and handbooks may be impossible to come by. Finding an advanced textbook on any academic discipline should be worth an Area Knowledge roll (do you know a good bookstore?), and getting it may be further bedeviled by interminable delivery time. A desperately needed book may only be available in a foreign language, or even out of print.

Dictionaries for more exotic languages can be equally difficult to come by. Of course anyone can get a French dictionary, but what about one for Twi or Arapaho? If the players are academically minded, finding a desperately needed book may even become an adventure in itself (every university student knows what I speak of).


This should not be a problem for the simple +1 handbook or traveler's dictionary, but academic textbooks, particularly those in more exotic disciplines, tend to go up in price very quickly. While a +1 book on a common subject may cost as little as $5, a good +2 work will already come at around $50, a +3 volume can easily cost over $200 and a +4 might go for as much as several thousand dollars. There is a lot of give in these categories with commonplace books (Cooking, English) being cheaper and exotic ones (Advanced Nuclear Physics, Sumerian) costing a lot more. GMs should freely vary prices according to either realism or the playing value of a Skill increase in the campaign.


A good textbook of any kind has no major errors. However, not all the books out there are good. Whenever the characters go out to buy a handbook or dictionary they run the risk of getting one that is, in some way, flawed. This can range from minor flaws to true uselessness.

A book with minor flaws usually works normally, but the GM rolls 3d every time it is used. On a 16, it yields no useful information (no bonus). On a 17 or 18, the information is wrong (GM supplies an appropriately faulty conclusion on a successful roll). For major flaws, the GM rolls 1d. On a 5 no useful information is obtained. On a 6, the information is wrong. A truly useless book leaves nothing to chance -- it actually lowers the user's effective Skill by up to -3 on any use. All this should not be told to the players but worked out behind the GM's screen. It will take them a while to notice that their books are faulty, and any unpleasantness that results from it in the meantime can be worked into the storyline.

Any Unlucky, Jinxed or Cursed characters obviate the need for dice rolls. The GM simply assumes that they stumble over the flaws whenever it is most amusing, embarrassing or dangerous.

Characters can try to make sure their books are not flawed. An appropriate successful Skill roll after superficial reading will tell them. Minor flaws are at -3 to detect, major ones at Skill, total uselessness at +3. Careful reading will always reveal the flaws (but is extremely time-consuming and not usually possible before buying).

Some Knowledge Required

Handbooks, except possibly the very simple +1 type, may not be used to increase a default. A minimal knowledge of the subject -- at least 1/2 character point in the Skill -- is required to use a handbook. This is realistic. Otherwise a genius of IQ 16 could, with the aid of a +4 handbook on Chemistry, synthesize explosives at Skill 14 (default IQ-6 = 10 + 4 = 14) - a professional chemist's level!. In reality, very few people with no prior experience with a Skill will even understand an academic textbook on the subject.

Somewhat more realism (and a lot of number-crunching) is added by the rule that only users whose Skill level is no more than 6 below a book's maximum Skill increase receive full benefit. Every point below that means -1 to the book's effective Skill increase. Thus, a character with the English Language Skill at 8 could not get full benefit from working with an academic dictionary with maximum Skill increase 16. Being 8 points under the maximum, he is at +(4-2), +2 to effective Skill. In fact, a translator's dictionary +3 would be more helpful. These narrow windows of maximum benefit are depressingly realistic but should only be used if the players don't mind a lot of math.

Other Prerequisites

If a GM feels like punishing some players, he may rule that a handbook or, occasionally, a dictionary, has a prerequisite other than knowledge of the Skill it increases. The most obvious kind would be a book written in a foreign language. The assumption that everything worth reading has been translated into English can backfire badly, as any player will realize the first time an urgently needed book turns out to be available in either Dutch or French.

Even nastier, though sadly very realistic, are books that require proficiency in a number of skills to understand them. That could be a handbook on the archaeological finds of a certain area that increases the Archaeology Skill by +2, but only for characters with Geology at 12 or higher. Some dictionaries, particularly those written by linguists "in the field," may also require a minimal proficiency in Linguistics to figure them out. The details are left to the creativity (and sadistic streak) of the GM, but regularly occurring problems of this kind are appropriate only for campaigns with a very "academic" feel.


In many environments, using a textbook openly is considered bad form. Academics will not take too kindly to a character leafing through a high school textbook at a congress (though more demanding works may be acceptable). An angler laying out his gear according to a pocketbook will have to take some ribbing from his comrades. And a captured spy seeing enemy agents consult a handbook on interrogation techniques should immediately get + 2 on any rolls to resist for sheer contempt of these amateurs. However, in other situations the use of a textbook or dictionary may even prompt others to assist the character unasked (especially with Traveller's Dictionaries). The details are entirely up to the GM.

Combining Handbooks

In case players wish to use a +2 handbook and two +1 volumes on the same task to give a +4 bonus, the GM should rightly disappoint them. Handbooks on the same Skill usually contain the same information. At the very least there should be a great deal of overlap between their content and, thus, a lot of redundant information. As a rule, only +2 or better handbooks can be combined. A second and third handbook only yields half the bonus, but give the full time penalty. No greater bonus than +4 to Skill is possible. More than three handbooks used simultaneously are considered to be a library and are used according to the rules covering library research.


The basic assumption for easy game mechanics is that there is a handbook for every Mental Skill, just as there is a dictionary for every Language Skill. Realistically, this is nonsense. No Skill more difficult than Mental/Easy could be contained in a single handbook. In real life, handbooks cover only small parts of a given skill. To simulate this, a handbook with a bonus of +2 or higher should be a specialized version, covering only a subdivision of a skill. There would, for example, be History (Roman Empire) or History (World War II) handbooks, but no generic History handbook. Whether a specialized book's Skill bonus applies to a certain question or not is always up to the GM, though in most cases there should not be a problem.

While no amount of specialization should allow for more than +4 to Skill, highly specialized handbooks can, at the GM's discretion, have much higher maximum Skill increases than "generic" ones. A book that increased a character's overall History skill by +4 to a maximum beyond 16 would have to contain so much detailed information as to become a library in itself. A volume that did the same for the character's Skill in "History, 7th-century Irish Monastic Literary Education," could easily encompass all the detail required to boost that particular Skill specialty well beyond 20. The question of whether a highly specialized handbook for a given specialty exists and is available to the characters rests, as ever, with the GM.

Dictionaries can also specialize. The main benefit here is that a character can carry a Business French dictionary +3 in his pocket while a generic French +3 dictionary would require a suitcase. However, it will not help when asking a passer-by for the way to the train station. Obvious specializations for dictionaries are Business, Law, Sciences, Medical Terminology and Slang.

Optional Rule: Continuing Bonus

While it technically makes sense that pocket dictionaries are of no use to a highly skilled character, academic fare does not entirely cease to be useful once you know a certain amount of facts. Nobody has memorized the entire Oxford English Dictionary. However, most books do grow less useful over time. +1 and +2 dictionaries and handbooks become useless once the character has exceeded a certain Skill level. From +3 on, the Skill bonus is halved (round down), but continues to apply indefinitely. Thus, even a character with the History Skill at 21 would be at +2 to effective Skill when working with the aid of a good, extensive handbook that would give a character with History 12 +4 to Skill.

Instruction Manuals

Instruction manuals are different from handbooks. They tell a character exactly how a certain very specific thing is done. They are not suitable as Skill-boosters. In game terms, instruction manuals help bring up defaults and offset familiarity penalties, at the expense of time.

Characters attempting to use some technical device can benefit from an instruction manual if:

a) Using the device does not require rapid sequences of action to work properly and
b) The use of the device has no major physical requirements (like riding a motorbike). Driving a car or piloting an aircraft by instruction manual is impossible, since both require rapid reactions to changing situations. There will be no time to consult a manual. Using a communicator, a radar device or even an artillery piece by manual is possible.

Manuals are rated by their quality. The basic assumption is that whatever default the character would roll against is replaced by a straight IQ roll with a regular manual. Very good manuals may grant a bonus to the IQ roll. Bad manuals, which are far more common (as anyone who ever tried to program a VCR can testify), impose a penalty on the IQ roll. Manuals usually range from +2 (very well written) to -3 (probably a bad translation).

Using a manual to help a Skill default is the usual case. To play this out, the GM needs to determine how many pages of a manual a given action takes to describe. As a rule, a single application of a Mental/Easy Skill takes 1-2 pages, the same for a Mental/Average Skill already fills 2-4 pages and an application of a Mental/Hard Skill can require up to 6 pages. A "single application" is a very simple action like "hook up a VCR" or "set the frequency on a radio communicator." At the GM's discretion, longer or more complex actions can be broken down into sub-actions such as "load the gun," "calculate the Range," "lay the gun," and "fire the gun." Using the manual instead of a Skill default requires one minute and one successful IQ roll (modified for manual quality) per page in addition to the usual time for using the Skill. A simple failure on the IQ roll is a mistake that is immediately obvious to everyone. The page can be reread and the roll repeated at +1. A critical failure will damage some piece of the equipment, usually rendering the desired task impossible. The procedure must be repeated -- provided a replacement part is at hand . . .

Example: GI Bill and Joe badly need to contact headquarters. Unfortunately, nobody thought to issue them radios or even teach them how to use one. In an abandoned command post they find a communicator and -- this being their lucky day -- an instruction manual for it. Bill grabs it and starts flipping through the pages. He quickly finds the instructions on hooking up the radio -- 4 pages. His IQ is 11 and the manual is very carefully written, giving a +1 for a final roll of 12. He rolls: 7. The battery is uncrated and tested. The next roll comes out 12: the cables are hooked up the right way round. The next roll is 5: the morse tapper and headphones are plugged in and the volume set. The final roll comes out 14: no contact. But wait, that can't be right! Bill rereads the page and plugs the antenna into the right socket. The radio is up and running in five minutes.

Now Bill seeks out the chapter about broadcasting. It encompasses 3 pages, with the same modifiers. Bill's player rolls 11: a viable frequency is found and set. The next roll comes out 6: very slowly, Bill taps out the message. The final roll is 17!: as Bill keeps tapping away, he accidentally locks the homing signal switch, crowding out his own message. Let's hope headquarters can make sense of the part they got.

Instruction manuals also serve to offset familiarity penalties. A regular manual offsets 1 point of familiarity penalties. A good manual adds its full IQ bonus to this. A bad manual adds its full penalty (yes, using a bad manual to do something will give a worse Skill total than having none). To get the bonus, a character will have to read through the manual for every action, directly prior to taking it. Doing this takes half a minute per page. The number of pages is determined as for use with a Skill default.

Familiarity penalties can be offset permanently by thorough study of the entire manual, accompanied by practice with the unfamiliar item. This works as per the regular rules.

Manuals occasionally are written in foreign languages. To use them, the character needs to be able to read the language they are in. If his Language Skill is 10 or higher, a single language roll suffices and he reads the manual at no time penalty. If the Skill is between 7 and 10, add 50% to the time required. If his Skill is below 7, the time required is doubled and a language roll is required for every page. A failed roll means that the page is not understood -- try again at a cumulative -- 1 penalty, or find a dictionary.

Handbooks, Dictionaries, and Manuals in Play

Obviously, handbooks and dictionaries fit in best with a TL5-8 campaign with a more complex plotline and an overall "academic" bend. The occult, with its emphasis on obscure knowledge and ancient lore, is perhaps the most obvious area for extensive handbook use (these rules were developed for a GURPS Horror campaign set in 1950s America). However, any modern background that allows room for academic characters can accommodate handbooks. The town physician in a cop campaign having to examine the body of a murder victim may well be happy to have brought along a book on gunshot wounds.

The most obvious characters to use handbooks are academics, both realistic ones and pulp scientists. Given time and the opportunity to prepare, they may select the appropriate handbooks to take along on any given adventure. Even Indiana Jones may be happy to have a book on Mayan architecture when adventuring in Yucatan, and any fearless vampire hunter used to the Transylvanian breed can certainly use a volume on the Chinese kind when setting out to free Chinatown from a supernatural menace. After a while, academic characters will probably get into the habit of collecting handbooks. That's perfectly all right, real-life academics do it, too.

Another area in which handbooks could be introduced is fieldcraft, especially in military campaigns of the GURPS Special Ops type. Modern armed forces were never adverse to liberally supplying their personnel with field manuals on any conceivable task they might face. While these are difficult to use under battlefield conditions and very unpopular with infantrymen (who have to carry them on their own backs), one or two may well find their way into the hands of a platoon of PCs, particularly if they are motorized. Civilian PCs are even more likely to take along something like a boy scout fieldbook on an outdoor trip. Anything else is up to the imagination of the players and the patience and tolerance of the GM.

Manuals are useful in settings where the PCs are likely to be confronted with a lot of gear they do not know how to use, or aren't sufficiently familiar with. Military campaigns come to mind, but a science-fiction setting could also benefit from these rules. The tension that builds up as completely unskilled PCs scramble to hook up a satellite communicator, page by page, before the launch window opens and unwitting astronauts are hurled to a fiery doom in a sabotaged spacecraft, is hard to beat as a plot device.

Article publication date: August 6, 1999

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