Roleplayer #18, February 1990

Quick Learning Under Pressure

New Learning Rules for GURPS

by Ann Dupuis

These rules have been tested at SJ Games and by correspondents on the Illuminati BBS. They will become "official" if we don't get severe unfavorable feedback from this article.

The following rules are meant to augment the Improvement Through Study and the Adding and Improving Skills procedures. Use them during an adventure when a character needs a skill now and can't wait until the end of the adventure to earn the points to buy it.

When a character is under stress, he may be able to learn skills in much less than the "usual" time. This is the theory behind such institutions as military basic training. It is known as Quick Learning Under Pressure, and significantly reduces the time it takes to learn a skill through study. It also provides level-by-level advancement from the Default level to the level at which the skill is normally learned.

When Quick Learning is Possible

In order to use the Quick Learning rules, the following circumstances must apply:

(1) The skill(s) to be learned must normally have a default level. It is essential to the Quick Learning process that the trainee must start trying to use the skill immediately. With a skill such as Nuclear Physics, this is not possible.

(2) The skill(s) must be directly related to the immediate survival and well-being of the character and/or the character's companions. In a situation such as basic training, the ferocity of the instructors is deliberately planned to convince the trainees that their immediate survival does depend on their learning!

(3) The skill(s) must be used extensively during the learning period. ("Extensively" is defined by the GM; the suggested measure is the requirement of two or more Success Rolls against the applicable skill per day, especially if the character's survival and well-being is directly affected by each roll of the dice.)

The GM, of course, rules as to whether all appropriate circumstances exist.

(4) Someone present must be qualified, willing, and able to teach the skill. (If there is no teacher, but all the other factors are favorable, the GM can allow "quick learning" at half speed.)

The Learning Period

The Learning Period is the length of time which can, with luck, allow an improvement of one skill level. This depends on the difficulty of the skill:

Easy skill: Two days.
Average skill: Four days.
Hard skill: Eight days.
Very Hard skill: 16 days.

General Procedure

At the end of each Learning Period, apply appropriate modifiers and have the player roll against the character's IQ to determine whether or not the character successfully improved his skill during that period. Success is rolled against IQ for both Physical and Mental skills. This reflects the character's attempt to apply maximum attention to the learning process. If the roll is successful, the character's skill advances one level.

A Critical Success improves the character's chance of making the next roll, as described below. A Critical Failure means that the character learned something wrong and make a bad mistake. Treat the result as though he had made a critical failure on an ordinary attempt to use that skill.

The character rolls once at the end of each Learning Period. When the skill is learned to the level where the skill would normally be purchased for 1/2 character point (see below), Quick Learning is no longer possible. Upon the successful completion of the last Learning Period, 1/2 character point should be spent to learn the skill. Any adventure in which a character is forced to Quick Learn a skill is surely worth at least that many points!

Further advances in skill level are accomplished by the normal rules governing character improvement.

Modifiers to the IQ roll:

-4 on the first attempt to Quick Learn the skill.

-2 on the second attempt to Quick Learn the skill.

-2 for each Major New Circumstance facing the character during that Learning Period. A Major New Circumstance is any significant difference in the environment or conditions directly affecting the use of the skill. An example would be a non-fighter, trying to Quick Learn the Broadsword skill while being forced to compete in gladiatorial games, one day being faced with an opponent with multiple weapons – or tentacles. Ignore this modifier on the first attempt; everything encountered at this stage is a Major New Circumstance. It is strongly suggested that no more than two Major New Circumstances be thrown at a character within a Learning Period.

+1 for a Critical Success on the learning roll for the skill's previous Learning Period.

+1 for Eidetic Memory (first level advantage) on mental skills only.

+2 for Eidetic Memory (second level advantage) on mental skills only.

Success rolls against the skill(s) being Quick Learned are handled normally in the course of the adventure. Use the current skill level. Critical failures and successes in the use of the skill have their own rewards and punishments, and do not affect the IQ success roll.

Average Time for Quick learning

Page B44 states that: "As a general rule, any Easy skill has a default of DX-4 (if physical) or IQ-4 (if mental). Average skills default to DX (or IQ)-5; Hard skills default to DX (or IQ)-6." Normal default skill levels for most skills are 3 levels below the level at which the skill is purchased when .5 character points are spent. (Skills with defaults based on other skills, rather than attributes, are exceptions to this general rule.) Thus, with most skills, a character who successfully makes an IQ roll at the end of each Learning Period will have "learned" a skill (to the .5 point cost level) in six days for an Easy skill, 12 days for an Average skill, and 18 days for a Hard skill.


Fred the Adventurer, in a port town for the first time, goes into the wrong bar and finds himself shanghaied. . . kidnapped to serve as a crewman on a sailing ship. He wakes up in the dark, his head feeling heavy and much too big for his neck, with the floor beneath him rolling to and fro in a disconcerting manner. He's a good fighter, and even knows a thing or two about tracking down and capturing game in the forest, but he's never been on a ship before. With attributes of ST 12, DX 11, IQ 10 and HT 11, he finds himself woefully lacking in two skills; Seamanship and Climbing.

The first time he's hauled on deck, a new experience is before him. As Richard Henry Dana, Jr., describes in Two Years Before the Mast: "The heavy head sea was beating against her bows with the noise and force almost of a sledge-hammer, and flying over the deck, drenching us
completely through. The topsail halyards had been let go, and the great sails were filling out and backing against the masts with a noise like thunder; the wind was whistling through the rigging; loose ropes were flying about; loud and, to me, unintelligible orders constantly given, and rapidly executed; and the sailors 'singing out' at the ropes in their hoarse and peculiar strains."

Obviously, from the start, Fred's survival will depend on two skills; Seamanship and Climbing. He needs to quickly learn both these skills if he's to survive the sea, the rigging, and the bucko mate.

Fred's IQ of 10 gives him a default Seamanship-6; his ST of 12 gives him a default of Climbing-7. On his first day, he spends most of his time clutching the railing and heaving up over the side of the ship. If he goes aloft at all, it's all he can do to keep from falling into the raging waters or onto the rolling deck far below. Seamanship is an Easy skill; Fred will have a chance to improve his seamanship every other day. Climbing, however, is an Average skill. It will take four days of clambering about on the rigging and yardarms before Fred will be able to improve his Climbing skill.

The first day at sea, Fred should roll on his Seamanship once, to find out how he fares in general (rolling a 7, he fails only by one, so he's not feeling as miserable as most would in his situation), and again each time he's given an order involving the manning of the ship. The same goes for his Climbing skill; one roll to see how he fares in general with the tangle of ropes and canvas and wooden beams swinging from the masts, and again each time he's ordered aloft. The other sailors are too busy with their work to bother with a landlubber, and mostly ignore him unless he gets in their way. The first mate is a bully, and makes his life hell, but he's paying a lot of attention to Fred and his attempts to work, and counts as a teacher.

At the end of the second day, Fred's player has a chance to roll against Fred's IQ to see if he learned anything. The roll is at -4 due to it being the first attempt; Fred needs a 6 or less to raise his seamanship skill. His player rolls an 18; a Critical Failure. (This is not a critical failure of the Seamanship skill; it's a critical failure for his learning attempt.) Obviously, Fred's so hung over from the drugged drinks that put him in this situation, and he's so flustered to find himself without any weapons with which to rectify the mistake, he hardly pays attention to what's going on around him. The GM rules that a loose rope caught him across the back of the head, doing 1d-2 damage and earning a kick from the mate which did another 1d-2.

But Fred survives. At the end of the fourth day, he has two Quick Learning rolls to make. This is the first time he's been allowed to roll for an increase in his Climbing skill, so he's at -4 to his roll. This is the second attempt for Seamanship, so he's at -2. His player rolls very well, getting a 5 for his Climbing roll; Fred's skill aloft is now Climbing 8. He rolls a 4 for his Seamanship; Fred's Seamanship skill goes up to skill level 7.

After the sixth day, Fred once again has a chance to improve his Seamanship. With the critical success of the previous learning period, and with no Major New Circumstances with which to deal, Fred's IQ roll is modified by +1. His player rolls a 13; a normal failure. Fred's Seamanship is still only 7.

Day 8: Fred's chance to increase his Seamanship roll is at IQ now, with no modifiers. His chance to increase his Climbing skill is modified by -2 because it is the second attempt. His player rolls a 9 and an 8; both successful. He is now at Seamanship-8 and Climbing-9. Only a week out to sea and he's already doing better. His Climbing skill has now improved to the level it could be purchased at: DX-2. Fred can no longer improve his Climbing skill via Quick Learning Under Pressure. His player spends .5 character points. (If his Climbing skill default had been based on his DX rather than his ST, it would have required one addi-tional successful Learning Period to raise it to the .5 point level.)

Day 10: There's a storm, counting as a Major New Circumstance, modifying the IQ roll needed for success by -2. Fred's player rolls a 14 – not good enough to increase Fred's Seamanship skill.

Day 12: A roll of 10 makes Fred's Seamanship 9; this, too, is as high as Fred can take the skill with the Quick Learning Under Pressure procedure.

Keep in mind that Fred is learning under pressure this whole time. His health is affected by the rapidity with which he becomes accustomed to the motions of the ship; his well-being is affected by the first mate's readiness to find any excuse to haze him or flog him or withhold his rations; his very survival depends on the ability to hang on when aloft.

Two years later, after many hours on board, Fred's a regular sailor, with Seamanship-13, Climbing-15 and a real hatred for the first mate . . . but that's another story.

Another (quick) example:

Surgery is one of the few Very Hard skills that actually has a default; thus, a Physician caught on the battlefield might be able to Quick Learn Surgery. His own survival is not necessarily at stake, but if he has a Duty or a Vow to help the sick and injured, the pressure to learn Surgery could be great enough, and the experience intense enough, to merit the chance to improve the skill level through Quick Learning Under Pressure. The GM may rule that two Surgery success rolls are needed each day during the learning period to merit a Quick Learning roll. As many as 32 people (friends of the physician, perhaps) may die because of his failed skill rolls; the thought that they would have died anyway without surgery is probably small comfort.

With a skill of Physician-12, the character's default would be Surgery-7 (Physician-5). It would take 16 days (one learning period) with a successful IQ roll to bring his Surgery skill up to 8. If the physician has an IQ of 12, he would be unable to Quick Learn the surgery skill beyond skill level 8, as that is the normal skill level at which one learns the Surgery skill (IQ-4). Note that had the character studied Physician beyond his IQ level, his default Surgery skill would not be improvable through the Quick Learning Under Pressure procedure, as his default skill level was already as high as or higher than the 1/2 point cost level.

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