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GURPS Power-Ups 7: Wildcard Skills, Sean Punch 07 August 2016

This supplement clarifies and gives comprehensive examples of Wildcard Skills, a relatively under-used element of GURPS 4th edition.

The ancestor of wildcard skills was introduced in GURPS Swashbucklers as The Sword!, which allowed suitably cinematic characters not only to use any one-handed sword with ease, but also to extend that single skill to cover anything done with a sword: Acrobatics while in a swordfight, Throwing (to flip your enemy's dropped weapon back to him), Pickpocket (to fish the keys out of your jailer's pocket)…

In the fourth edition this was generalised to cover things like Science!, Gun!, Detective!, and so on; the cost was standardised (and increased), but the new skills no longer needed the mess of prerequisite skills that the original version had required. Rather than have the specialised effects of The Sword!, though, they simply replaced every skill included in their description.

This made them expensive, but only occasionally a good deal. Phil Masters was the first player I saw to come up with the idea of taking it at a low level to obliterate tech and familiarity penalties: you may have Guns (Pistol)/TL9-14, but spending a few more points to give you Guns!-10 will mean you can use any gun throughout history with at least basic competence, helpful in a world-hopping I-Cops campaign. GURPS Supers extended the list of wildcard skills with Boat!, Businessman!, Inventor!, etc., but they still haven't seen much use in games I've played or run; I think most people who like GURPS like it because you can get detailed about characters, because you can say things like "I'm really expert with sniping rifles but I'd barely know what to do with a sub-machinegun". On the other hand, plenty of players are put off by a skill list that's tens of pages long, and it's easy to forget a key skill if you aren't working from a template.

So this book is to some extent an attempt at rehabilitation. It opens by clarifying the definition of wildcard skills, including how they interact with other parts of the skill system such as controlling attributes, cross-skill defaults, and buying up individual skills from within the general wildcard. Designing wildcard skills is covered next, suggesting ways of picking concepts that suit them (narrative role most obviously, but also broad subject matter, social position, and so on), as well as when other mechanical entities will do the job (such as Higher Purpose). Additional benefits from skills (such as those tech and familiarity penalties which can now be ignored) are mentioned, and "Hyper-Competency" is borrowed from the Monster Hunters series to make wildcards more attractive – a per-session stock of points the player can spend to achieve awesome things, much like the skill spends in Gumshoe. (It's clear, and mentioned, that wildcards as originally presented weren't a great deal, and some effort here is put into making them more valuable.)

The second chapter deals with when and whether the GM should allow wildcard skills: one per campaign role, perhaps, whether unusual backgrounds are required, and so on, including how to decide whether standard GURPS skills should be disallowed completely. This section also covers more explicit rules for how players should roll against these skills.

The final chapter is a comprehensive listing of wildcard skills from other GURPS products; I don't think there are any new ones here. This does combine several template wildcards (covering the roles from Dungeon Fantasy and Action) as well as the more usual sort, and clearly there's some overlap here.

In the end I'm still not sold on wildcard skills. If I wanted a low-detail game I'd probably play a system that was designed to work at low detail, rather than taking a high-detail system and sanding it down. But there are still useful bits here, and I think the contents may make wildcard skills more attractive to players who like the potential simplicity but have been put off by the high cost. GURPS Power-Ups 7: Wildcard Skills is available from Warehouse 23.

  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 06:53pm on 07 August 2016

    You are forgetting my TORG character has Boat! (and Drive!, Move!, Pilot! and Shooter!) and is built around wildcard skills as a character. They're expensive which is why they normally don't see much use, but in a high point value and multiple TLs setting such as TORG they make sense. But you have to design your character around the entire concept that you're going to use wildcards. Trying to buy one from scratch after months or years of play is not a good idea I feel.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 07:06pm on 07 August 2016

    Not forgetting, but that postdates Phil's character in my I-Cops game circa 2005-2006.

    Yeah, it's a tradeoff of skill level versus flexibility; one Wildcard skill costs the same as 6 Hard, 12 Average or 24 Easy skills at the same level. So in say a modern espionage campaign where you have basically one sort of Armoury (Average) and seven sorts of Guns skills (Easy), you'd always do better to buy those individual skills, even if you do also get Fast-Draw (how often do you need to fast-draw a light antiarmour weapon anyway?); Gun! only becomes point-efficient when you have a wider-ranging setting with more diverse skills. (Shooter!, which your character has, tries to get round this with more useful alternative skills, and goes a bit back towards the original concept of The Sword! too: you can use it as Stealth while moving around in a gunfight, Forced Entry to get through locked doors, etc.)

    For that matter you could probably have taken Wheel Man! instead of those three vehicle wildcards.

  3. Posted by Owen Smith at 08:07pm on 07 August 2016

    I didn't take Wheel Man! because it doesn't have any of the options for repairing the vehicles, which the three separate wildcards for each vehicle type have. When I designed the character I thought this might matter. With the benefit of hindsight this was utterly irrelevant in TORG, but I wasn't to know that.

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