Saturday, August 6, 2016

Fundamentals: Talents and Wildcard Skills

I just went on an impulse
buying spree and got this.
Looks better than I expected.
Today I'm going to write about two different elements of GURPS that try to achieve similar semantic ends, but through different mechanical means. These two elements are:

  • Talents - advantages that make you competent at several related skills.
  • Wildcard Skills - a skill the bundles several skills at one, giving competence across the board.
I will compare and contrast these devices and try to piece together when one might prefer using one or the other. Let's take a look.


Let's start with what makes a talent similar to a wildcard skill. Buying levels of a talent advantage gives you a bonus to several related skills. For example, the Outdoorsman talent gives a +1 to several skills that pertain to being a good outdoorsman, and the types of things one would need to know in order to survive the wilds. It kinda makes sense right?
A wildcard skill is (kinda!) like a bundling of several related skills under one super skill. If you know the one wildcard skill, you know several other skills. For example, if you have the Superspy! skill, you can do anything James Bond can do without investing separately in different types of guns, driving different vehicles, acting, negotiation, disguising, stealthiness, and whatever springs to mind when you hear the word "superspy."


What makes them different? One canonical difference between the two, quoted from GURPS Basic Set - Characters, p. 175:

Someone who can pick up and play any instrument, or sight-read any choral work, would have the Music! skill. If he’s gifted with several instruments and can pick up others easily (but does have to learn them first), that’s the Musical Ability Talent.
So that gives some insight, but I think it is a little vague from what I gathered in practice. It is definitely accurate, but let's talk about what the quote doesn't explain .
On the other hand, I've had
this one for a while. Almost
essential if you like wildcard
Talents are discrete. They have a very explicit list of benefits, mostly bonuses to particularly related skills. One could potentially use defaults with a talent to use a skill with no training, sure, but you almost need to spend one point on each supported skill to truly get your money's worth.
That said, Talents can be a bargain when compared to Wildcard Skills. The Wildcard Skills cost a lot of points just to achieve attribute level competency at a specialty (24 points actually) and half of that for each +1 to skill beyond.
Talents (usually) also have a small benefit built into them besides the +1 to several skills. In GURPS Basic Set, this is not true, but the supplement Power-Ups 7 - Wildcard Skills introduces a similar benefit.
Talents have a benefit in campaigns where training times are concerned in that they also reduce the amount of times to convert hours of study into a point in a particular skill. It's a thing I haven't noticed from the types of campaigns I run, but definitely gives them one more extra kick.
With the surface scratched on what each represents and the comparisons and contrasts between the two laid out, let's take a closer look at each by itself.


Talents integrate well with the system, and they are a fundamental piece of the 4th edition architecture. Talents add another layer of granularity a player can exercise in improving a character. Instead of spending a ton of points on an attribute raise or a few to raise one skill, a talent gives a middle ground.
I've said it earlier and one of the important semantic properties of a talent is that it is discrete. When a player spends points on a talent, the abilities and privileges granted by it are set in stone and clear as crystal. Does Smooth Operator allow someone to find a particular contact and organize a meeting with the weakest link of an operation? No. It doesn't help with Research skill (and maybe Administration) at all.
In my totally subjective opinion then, talents better suit games where the small differences between a character need to be driven home. That is, the advantage is granularity. If you have a team of superspies, a lot of abilities will overlap, as is par for people with the same job title. However if John Doe wants to focus on the schmoozing and greasing social wheels aspect, while Jane Doe wants to be a kick-b*tt CQC covert ops infiltrator, Jane and John will have as much in common as they do not, and talents can help there.

Wildcard Skills

Wildcards are an optional mechanic detailed on p.175 of Basic Set - Characters. As they are optional, they had a lot of loose ends that weren't well tied up in Basic Set... like how do they interact with talents and techniques, how do I go about building a fair one? A lot of those problems are spoken to in Power-Ups 7, which as I said in a very nice caption a few minutes ago, is nearly essential to successful implementation of Wildcard Skills in GURPS.
Power-Ups 7 adds a bunch of useful extra perks to wildcard skills also that you don't get with talents. It pairs up well with some of the benefits mentioned in Impulse Buys, and when used with GURPS Magic or Martial Arts it can actually give a pretty good point break by taking advantage of some of these benefits.
Wildcards used correctly (in my opinion,) are about simplifying things, whereas talents are for optimizing things. What does this mean for a game in play?
[Warning: Editorial content] A Wildcard defines a character concept and anything that makes sense with regards to that concept should fly without breaking out the rule book. The skill list associated with a wildcard, is not a prescription like it is for a talent, but a suggestion. If someone has Gun! from the Basic Set, and they say, "Corleon, my character wants to take a close look at her rifle to see what make and model it is, and maybe make out whether it is well maintained." If he had the talent Really Awesome At Guns you might say, "ok, that's probably a Connoisseur (Guns) roll and armoury (guns) based on per," and if you are a sniggering weirdo, you might say, "too bad, Really Awesome at Guns doesn't give either a bonus!" But since he has Guns! and he is awesome at guns, because that is one of his absolute defining characteristics, you say, "Yes, because you rock, you roll against Per based Guns! to spy her equipment." Or you say no, but the one thing you don't do is say, "gee, what skills are covered by Guns! again? Let me look that up."
[Editorial over, thank you]

When Do I Use One or the Other?

It's a subjective gray area thing, but each has a specific niche and feel they can contribute, and they (usually) don't work well together. Talents are more fun for players that like to optimize and know the ins-and-outs of GURPS and when the difference between handling a shortsword and a smallsword or German History and Austrian History matters. On the other hand, if details are overwhelming, or the characters are just omni-proficient, and we don't want to get bogged down in the muck and weeds about whether our genius computer engineer who has Ubuntu on his laptop can successfully crack into a windows computer even though he professes to hate it and doesn't know anything about it, then wildcards might be more fun.
And that's the answer, you use the one that's fun.

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