Gamemaster’s Guidepost: Optional Rules for Terminally Ill

In GURPS there’s a disadvantage for seemingly everything. Are you nuts? Take a Delusion! Do you take damage when exposed to green rocks from space? Take Weakness! And so on and so on, GURPS is modular enough that you can represent just about any sort of negative (or positive!) trait with a little ingenuity, even inevitable death. The Terminally Ill disadvantage (p. B158) comes in three flavors: eventually (2 years), soon (1 year), and very soon (1 month). It’s also one of those disadvantages that makes the GM look very closely at your character sheet. It’s a lot of points for very little actual downside. You get 50 to 100 points to spend on other things and in exchange the GM guarantees that he’s going to kill your character. In the mind time…chow down on corn dogs, drink lots, and generally just do unhealthy things since you’re not going to be around long enough to worry anyways.

As a game designer and GM I find Terminally Ill annoying. No, not because a player is generating a character with a expiration date, but rather because by RAW Terminally Ill has no downside until the very end. I’ve actually had a player who took this, Cursed, or Weirdness MAgnet because he thought it was “free” points. Well, that dog didn’t hunt and after the second character he created had it on his character sheet I houseruled a few things.

Dying Later, Suffering Now
The GM should require the player explain exactly what he is dying from. This needn’t be a medical explanation! He could have a curse hanging over his head that will ensure his death when his time is up. For example. he could be diagnosed wither terminal brain cancer or a Voodoo curse ensuring Shango will smite him with lightning. Once the GM knows what the player will inevitably killed by he can then use the following rules: Once per game session, roll 3d6, on a 9 or less the character suffers from a disadvantage(s) equal to one-fifth the value of Terminally Ill. For example, a Shango-cursed monster hunter has Terminally Ill (2 years), meaning that in two years game time he’s going to suffer a horrible death and it will be related to electricity. The GM rolls a 8 on 3d6 and decide that for the game session he’s going to have Divine Curse (Batteries discharge ten times as fast) [-5] and Reputation -2 (Voodoo practitioners) [-5] as Shango reminds him of his eventual fate.

GMs can modify this frequency if they wish: for a roll of 6 or less add +5 to the base disadvantage (but not for the purposes of determining what effects happen on a given day!), for a 12 or more add  -5 to the base cost, for a 15 or more add -10, and if it always happens at -15!

Die Fast, Leave a Pretty Corpse
30 days until you are dead not fast enough? Now you can die quicker! For having a week left to live the cost becomes -125 points, for one day the cost becomes -150 points. Despite what the Basic Set says, GMs who want to have longer durations where death is inevitable can use the following: for 5 years, this is worth -25 points, for 10 years or more this is a quirk, worth a mere point.

Chronic Pain as Noxious Effects
The Chronic Pain disadvantage represents some ailment or condition which causes you constant pain. But what if you suffer bouts of nausea or even drunkenness? This is possible, but requires a bit of math. First, note that the Severity levels of Chronic Pain map exactly to Moderate Pain, Severe Pain, and Terrible Pain. Next, if we use the value of each condition as a affliction we note that it’s worth exactly 2.5 times one-tenth the value of the enhancement as a disadvantage (e.g., Moderate Pain is worth +20% as an Affliction, one-tenth of the value is 2, multiplied by 2.5 = 5). In all cases, round down. Using that same logic you can add other noxious effects instead of pain using this formula:

(Cost of Enhancement / 10) x 2.5 = Base Severity Value

You could for example suffer coughing fits (-3 to DX, -1 to IQ, and Stealth is impossible). The base cost for Chronic Pain (which I’d probably rename as “Chronic Effect”) would be +20% / 10 = 2 x 2.5 = -5 points.

We can even get more bizarre by creating a disadvantage which causes you to lose one of your advantages by pricing it as a Negated Advantage (e.g., +10% per character point cost of the trait). So for example, a superhero who loses access to 50 points of superpowers has a disadvantage worth +50% / 10 = 5 x 2.5 = -12 points.

Picking Over the Bones
Overall, Terminally Ill is like Cursed – you really need GM permission to take it because it doesn’t just affect you – it affects the GM too. He’s the one that has to work it into campaign and more than that decide if it’s going to be a worthwhile disadvantage in his campaign. If he plans on running a one-shot or a campaign where time isn’t really tracked then Terminally Ill probably isn’t going to be appropriate. Despite all that, Terminally Ill can be a huge opportunity for roleplaying because the character knows he’s going to die in a horrible way if he doesnt met his end first while adventuring. This sort of fatalism can create a byronic hero who accepts his destiny and continues on anyways because he knows of no other way.

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  1. Is there anything similar to Terminally Ill that guarantees a slow descent into violent and permanent insanity? The idea of a brain parasite, computer virus in a digitized brain, or a special kind of prion disease or virus that affects the brain in such a manner as to cause violent action against literally anyone sensed by the victim shortly before death (brain or bodily) is a fascinating concept for a new disadvantage. Perhaps with a modifier that allows some form of medicine or implanted device to postpone the inevitable, but not indefinitely.

  2. I've only had this used once, and it was at my direction for a PC in the game as something she had to overcome in play.

    Since each "episode" (multiple session spans) advanced time at a week to a month a shot, it actually felt very dicey.

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