Gamemaster’s Guidepost: How Many Skills is Too Much?

That’s a pretty good question. How many skills are too many for a given character? The answer is tricky in my experience and actually depends heavily on two things: the campaign TL and its genre. That’s typically because some genres are going to be skill-heavy because they either expect broad competence or not being skilled at a specific number of things would be unusual at best or dangerous at worst. The Technology Level (TL) also influences this because higher TL skills tend to require everything a lower one did – and more. Sean “Dr. Kromm” Punch has long suggested that there are a certain group of skills that “every man” should have (or at least every PC. This list was repeated in How to be a GURPS GM and below as well:

His list suggest that you take at least these 9 skills (depending on the choice) for every player character and a further 7 skills for cinematic or “action” heroes. And really, that’s perfect for nearly every campaign. But based on my experience you’re going to need a few more based on the genre and TL

Suggested Genre Skills
I’m going to leave out “Action” because Kromm covered that pretty well. So here are a few…

  • Fantasy: Area Knowledge, Current Affairs, Survival (any), and at least one skill to suggest his background training if any (e.g., Smith (Iron) for blacksmiths)
  • Horror: Expert Skill (any supernatural), Hidden Lore (any supernatural), Occultism, and Research, Campaigns that feature magic should also have characters pick at least one of Alchemy, Herb Lore, Ritual Magic, Symbol Drawing, and Thaumatology if magic is common.
  • Mystery/Crime: Body Language, Criminology, Detect Lies, Law, Urban Survival and either Filch, Pickpocket, or Sleight of Hand. “CSI” style games will need the action hero list plus at least Diagnosis, Surgery (for autopsies), and one “exotic” expertise skill that would also be useful to have (e.g., Gil Grissom has Forensics (Forensic Entomology)).
  • Science Fiction: Computer Operation, Free Fall, Spacer, Vacc Suit. Consider one or more of Piloting, Shiphandling, or a repair/maintenance skill.
  • Supers: Current Affairs (Headline News or Superhumans), and the action hero list skills.

Suggested TL Skills
This is by no means a exhaustive list and doesn’t include campaign features like modes of travel or the like, which might require their own set of skills.

  • TL0: Area Knowledge (Local or Regional), Survival (any), Weather Sense, and a missile weapon skill of choice (typically Thrown Weapon (Spear) or Bow). Optionally, take Naturalist or Pharmacy(Herbal) (or Herb Lore if the campaign allows).
  • TL1-2: As for TL0 plus a melee weapon skill of choice (often Shortsword or Spear).
  • TL3: As for TL1, but also consider adding at least one other skill to suggest your characters background (e.g. Farming for farmers or Professional Skill (Butchers) for butchers).
  • TL4-5: As for TL3, but add Swimming and Seamanship and maybe Boating, Knot-Tying or Shiphandling.
  • TL6-7: Current Affairs (Headline News, Local, or Popular Culture), Urban Survival. Driving is almost always the mode of Travel. Hobby skills are optional and become popular thanks to a easier way of life that technological brings and many “just folks” have them.
  • TL8: As for TL6, plus Computer Operation.
  • TL9-12: As for TL8, though as AI-controlled vehicles become more common so goes the actual skill to drive them. Area Knowledge might be expanded to include entire star systems of galaxies! Hobby skills (and other skills of “leisure”) become increasingly common as human beings do less and less work.

Picking Over the Bones
When a GM starts a campaign he should ideally list all skills that he thinks the PCs will need for the game and the players should either be mandated to take them or be warned of the possible consequences of not doing so. Sometimes it’s appropriate for characters to lack a skill(s). This could be thanks to characterization or just not ever having encountered a need to have it.

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  1. I am finding as a GURPS GM it is really nice if each PC has some oddball skill — like a professional skill (historian, etc.) that can be used for story hooks, clue finding, etc.

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