Monday, May 30, 2016

Fundamental: How to Not Die - Attributes and Secondary Characteristics

Lack of HT and FP loss from
dehydration and overexertion.
To be specific, this post isn't about effective combat strategies or little aphorisms like, "the best defense is a good offense," and stuff like that. Nope, I'm strictly talking about mechanisms that you can invest your character points towards so that you don't die. There are a lot of ways to not die, and it could go on for pages and pages, so to split this into manageable chunks, I'm only speaking to Attributes and Secondary Characteristics, which generally have the furthest reaching impacts. Also note, that although there can be many interesting ways to die, I'm mostly focusing on the violent, deliberate, and unsubtle means of shortening a character's life. So in any case, let's get cracking.


There is one critical attribute that a player needs to keep in mind when building a character they don't want to die, though incidentally, the other three contribute as well in terms of how they influence secondary attributes.

Health (HT)

This is the fundamental "don't die" attribute. HT is summarized on p.15 of Basic Set, and summary is probably the correct word, because the 4 sentence paragraph hardly does it justice. Spending points to increase HT gives you a better chance of:

  • Resisting unconsciousness at low health
  • Resisting death at low health
  • Resisting diseases, poisons, and afflictions
Furthermore, it increases two important survival Secondary Characteristics: Basic Speed and Fatigue Points or FP. I think this post from Dungeon Fantastic is also a good deep-and-narrow complement to my shallow-and-wide approach if you want more info on why HT is important.

Strength (ST)

Though mostly tangential, increasing ST increases Hit Points or HP, which is your effective meat points. I'll speak to that point later. High levels also increase Basic Lift, enabling a character to wear better armor and/or dodge more effectively even under a heavy burden.

Dexterity (DX)

DX, like HT, also increases basic speed, an important point I'll get to later. DX is also the stat for increasing weapon skill, which increases parrying ability, though increasing DX solely to increase parrying capability is a very expensive proposition (though ultimately, also the most efficient.)

Intelligence (IQ)

Raising IQ also raises Will, which is kinda like a mental HT. But let's wait until we talk about Will to spell it out.

Secondary Attributes

Hit Points (HP)

This is generally seen as the be all/end all of survivability in a lot of RPGs. It is the gauge that determines how close your character is to slipping off of this mortal coil, and every injury one sustains brings this number lower. A decent description is given on p.16 of the Basic Set. In GURPS, accruing large quantities of hit points is not easy, and recovery isn't easy outside of a fantasy or sci-fi setting, so the preference is towards preventing damage altogether when it is possible.

Fatigue Points (FP)

FP, similarly, also is a measure of current stamina and expending it too quickly can kill one from overexertion. It is described in detail on pp 16-17 of the Basic Set.

Basic Speed

Basic Speed is the fundamental root that determines a character's dodge and dodge is the one active defense that is available to a character in almost any circumstance, making it one of the most powerful of the three active defense options. For balance reasons, increasing Basic Speed is very costly, but a lot of it can make a character nigh untouchable in a fight.

Basic Lift

This is mostly a tangent again, but a big caveat. High Basic Lift can enable a character to wear heavy armor without being encumbered. Being encumbered negatively impacts dodge. Dodge is really good, but so is a nice amount of armor. Basic Lift is pretty cheap to improve by itself, but it does require significant investment to wear heavy armor at very low levels of encumbrance. It can be more cost effective, character-point wise, sometimes, to invest in high active defenses and just soak up the penalties, rather than buying insane amounts of Basic Lift.
Note: Basic Lift is an exotic trait! I often play fantasy or more gamey campaigns, so I forget, but sometimes this isn't a readily available option, so ask your GM first!


In supernatural settings with magic, or some Sci-Fi settings with crazy mind control tech, Will is like the HT of the brain, and might even literally be a means of directly resisting damage in a way similar to Active Defense. Will is often involved in quick contests where failure can mean damage, death, or something actually worse than either. One powerful wizard against several powerful, but dumb warriors, might win the battle with a single spell if they have no defense mechanism to fight against a mass mind control or mass sleep spell. Coincidentally, and tangentially, high Will can improve resistance to torture, which might mean dying or sustaining permanently life-altering wounds or psychological damage before giving up a secret in the worst possible circumstances.

Other Thoughts and Closing

There is a very complex interplay that kinda derives from very fundamental properties of characters. It's almost surprising to me looking at this how many small things add up to the sum survivability of a character. Every single core attribute, some much less than others admittedly, adds to a character's ability to take a blow and keep on walking.
I often neglect to give characters high enough will which gets me into trouble when inevitably encountering something that uses magic. It is a pretty big "uh oh" moment for a player when that happens, but really, having a setup that exploits a character's weakness, and in an organic way is a good skill to have in the GMing toolbox. 
By organic, I mean, of course, you need a way for enemies to naturally come to decipher a party's weak points - having a battle start with "the wizard silences the player with danger sense, the scout shoots the player wizard before he can react, and the speedy swordsman stabs the player knight in his weapon hand that happens to only have light gloves with 1 DR as opposed to the Torso with 10 DR," is probably not fun for anyone. The funny thing about being a GM is that you could easily kill the entire party any day of the week since you know all their weaknesses, you don't even need to say, "rocks fall, everyone dies." This is why having way too many bandits in a fight, but giving them a tendency to flee is a good thing, because now they can tell the rest of their compatriots what happened in the fight, and they can be more dangerous next time.
I started writing this with the ambitious goal of going over all options to increase survivability, but realized I was in a little over my head when I had already crossed two pages at Will, so I'll break this up into pieces so I don't get lazy due to fatigue.
Some other interesting posts from GURPS 101 that cover similar material:


  1. A place I found where buying an extra hit point or two was very worthwhile: A WWII campaign, where there's no armour, and the largest attack you could expect to routinely take was a 7d rifle bullet. That's an average 24.5 damage. Having 13 hit points noticeably improves your odds of not having to make a death roll, and it's reasonably acceptable to keep your head down after being shot.

    1. Ah, this makes sense. In a mundane setting where you can't just pile on exotic traits (like Norris points out) you gotta use what tools you have to survive. Almost feels like I should annotate some traits to make it more obvious!

  2. How are you buying "Insane amounts of Basic Lift"? BL is not directly purchasable and the only other ways to improve it (ST and Lifting ST) are often limited.

    1. Depends on what type of game you are talking about, but going into detail I do allow people to buy large amounts of ST, I believe even the Basic Set, if not another resource, excuses it as the only attribute one can regularly go above 20 and still be somewhat within the realm of human achievement, and the +30% for Lifting ST that seems like a traditional maxima for some secondary characteristics, even if "lifting ST" is usually considered "exotic." Totally understand that it doesn't work in all campaigns though!

      I also often invoke a popular house rule where I allow players to buy attributes piecemeal:
      1 ST[10] = 1 HP[2] + 1 Striking ST[5] + 1 Lifting ST[3]
      1 DX[20] = 1 Basic Speed 0.25[5] + All the other stuff[15]
      1 IQ[20] = 1 Perception[5] + 1 Will[5] + All the other stuff[10]
      1 HT[10] = 1 FP[3] + 1 Basic Speed 0.25[5] + All the other stuff[2]

      Not exactly RAW, but I don't think it's earth shattering in the more gamey type of campaigns (eg: Dungeon Fantasy) I tend to GM.

      Thanks for reading!


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