Down to Basics in BLACK OPS
By S. John Ross, Copyright © 1998

Templates for GURPS are, by and large, an idea with a place. For GMs, in particular, a book of templates (like GURPS Wizards) can be a handy resource: skeletons of stats and abilities, all worked out and thought out and typed out. Handy.

The templates in GURPS Black Ops, however, are a bit much. A bit more than a bit much. I'd venture that the term "ridiculous" applies, and I should know: I wrote them. But that's another story.

There's another way to do the Black Ops justice in GURPS, though, and here it is.

Skill Requirements

This approach introduces a few changes to the Characters chapter (p.BO66) in the area of skills. Rules for attributes, advantages, and disadvantages are unchanged.

Basic Cadet Skills (p.68)

The first paragraph of skills (beginning with Acting-14 and ending with fluency in English) remains gospel. The second list (those required at 12+) is shortened somewhat: Bicycling, Computer Operations, Physician, Running, Savoir-Faire, Stealth, Streetwise, Swimming, Tactics, and Throwing are still required at 12+ (minimum of one half-point invested). Also, the Rugby rule still applies.

The other skills are now optional. However, if any Op DOES take one of these skills, the minimum 12 skill level remains in force.

Departmental Curricula (p.69)

Again, the requirements are looser; they now reflect a bare, bare, bare minimum:

  • Combat: The first two paragraphs remain gospel. The rest becomes optional.
  • Intelligence: The first paragraph remains gospel. The rest is optional.
  • Science: The first paragraph remains gospel. The rest is optional, EXCEPT: a science op must still have a level 20+ in three of the skills in the final paragraph (the other five at 14+ is now optional).
  • Security: The first and second paragraphs remain gospel (not that the first paragraph has any rules in it, but still).
  • Technology: The first paragraph, and the first sentence of the second paragraph, remain gospel. The rest is optional.
  • The rules for Psi-Ops are unchanged.

A New Advantage

It is assumed that the Ops are still as well-trained as the book suggests. However, we cut down on the PAPERWORK by introducing a new advantage (a new version of Up to the Challenge, which can be found in my original cinematic advantages article):

Up to the Challenge

70 points

Your talents are boundless, and your experiences are rich. You've been trained by the best, tested by the baddest, and came through smiling. And it seems that every new adventure shows off yet another impressive skill.

Whenever you want a skill that isn't already on your character sheet, you can just take it - at the 1/2 point, 1 point, or 2 point level (your choice). The skill is recorded permanently on your character sheet, and the price of the skill becomes an immediate debt against earned points. During future adventures, the skill can be improved normally: It's yours, now. There are, however, a few restrictions:

Necessity Is A Mother: There needs to be a REASON for the skill to pop, retroactively, onto your list of abilities. There should be a plot-related challenge to overcome, or at least a potential romantic partner or employer to impress. It should also fit your character concept (of course, if your character can justify even HAVING this advantage, that won't be a problem very often).

Earn What You Learn: If you haven't paid off character-point debts from previous sessions, this advantage is "frozen" until the skills are all paid for. Debts accrued earlier in the SAME session are no problem.

Thou Shalt Not Steal Thunder: If the PCs are together when the problem crops up, and somebody in the party already has the skill you want, or can already handle the problem in some other way, then he gets his chance first. This advantage can never be used to rob the spotlight from another PC. On the other hand, it CAN be used to Keep Up With the Joneses. If everybody in the group knows Scuba and goes for a dive, you won't get left high and dry on the quayside unless you decide, for character reasons, that you don't want to have known the skill (whether you can suddenly know Scuba in a future adventure is then a GM's call, since that kind of consistency is only a requirement in some cinematic genres).

Maintain Thine Idiom: If there is another character in the group with this advantage that would be more appropriate for dealing with the problem than you, once again you are required to hang back and give him his shot. If you're the Combat grunt and he's the Tech geek and the skill that's needed involves rescuing a crashed hard drive, the geek gets to go first. (Special note for Black Ops campaigns: when there is no clear "appropriate" PC in the party, the Secop always gets first crack at it, since the Secops have access to the broadest curriculum in the Academy).

Tech Levels and other campaign-based restrictions still apply: This advantage won't let you "learn" any skill you couldn't learn otherwise. This advantage will never grant manuevers, psi skills, spells, or other supernatural abilties, either (except perhaps in Very High Mana worlds where every illiterate peasant is assumed to know a spell or two - GM's call). It WILL grant skills that normally require prerequisites, ALONG with the prerequisite skill at the minimum required level (which also goes into your point debt).

Outside of GURPS Black Ops, this advantage should be restricted to cinematic heroes and heroines who have received intensive, broad training, or at least to very talented showoffs. Characters with a clearly-defined, narrow range of abilities (a classic medieval fighter, for instance) have no reasonable use for this advantage, even in a cinematic game. The best examples of fictional characters with this ability are probably James Bond and "Cornfed," the pig character in the Duckman animated series.

Combining This with Up to the Challenge, Mk I

The older version of Up to the Challenge is still perfectly useable, and WILL allow you to steal thunder, if that's the kind of thing that gives you kicks. It's also a lot more limited; so it goes. They can both exist in the same campaign with no trouble, but a single character should not have both.

The Story Behind This

Character creation shouldn't take hours, and the sheet for a beginning character shouldn't require pages and pages of skills. With this method, a Black Op is no more complicated to build than an ordinary mage (for instance) or a skilled cat-burglar. At the same time, the advantage is specifically written to preserve the individual nature and "territory" of each character in the group, in a Black Ops game or in ANY game where the advantage is allowed.

Originally, the playtest version of Black Ops included an "Academy Trained" advantage that was a little TOO all-encompassing: It gave the Ops nearly unlimited skills to the point where they lost their departmental identities. They didn't need to put ANYTHING on their skill lists, really, and that was too much. The playtesters shot it down for the very simple reason that it deserved it.

My next approach (and one that a couple of playtesters suggested independently) would be something along the lines of my old "Up to the Challenge" advantage, but broadened to include the whole spectrum of skills. An advantage which fiddled with the nature of defaults was also briefly discussed, but got swallowed up in a discussion of the existing nature of defaults. That's another story for another time.

In the end, though, new approaches weren't required, when Steve decided that the Black Ops' extremely cinematic talents should be handled the old fashioned way - with a bigass list of skills. No cinematic advantages would be introduced in the Characters chapter. Period. The templates were constructed, and there you are.

If I had got my way, the final version would have been much more like this, which I offer for your consideration as a variant. Of course, if I had got my way, I would have been paid ten times as much, flown to Hawaii for a final-draft completion celebration in which I would have been awarded the Key to Maui, and the Origins awards would have been cancelled from now to the end of time in recognition that, with me around, there's just no point.

So, it's best if I don't ALWAYS get my way.


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