Using gaming resources to help your writing. – PART 3 – Characteristic Checks and Success Rolls.

Okay, so in Part 2 we talked about how to use the GURPS advantages and disadvantages to help brainstorm traits for your characters. Now, we’re going to go one step beyond.  This comes dangerously close to “playing” with GURPS, and be warned, you can take this completely way too far, and waste a lot of time mucking about with this instead of actually writing your story.  Also, you can spend so much time mired in the minutiae, that you lose the story element. This method CAN be hazardous to your creativity. So be aware when you’re spending too much time playing and not enough time telling your story.

This can be a great help to your creativity too.  It all depends on how you want to use it. A lot of times, it will feel like a game, and will be fun, which is good. But unlike a game, things usually get better when things go wrong.

[NOTE: GURPS can get really in-depth very quickly.  That's the beauty of using GURPS to help us write a scene.  It can be as specific or as vague as we like.  Unlike a game setting, we don't have to use any of this. For the record, for the general usage I'm talking about here, we really don't need to go beyond anything found in the GURPS LITE ruleset (which you can find here for free)]

Okay, let’s dive in!

Remember when we were talking about generating a GURPS character and we talked about attributes like Strength (ST), Dexterity (DX), Intelligence (IQ), and Health (HT)? Well they are going to come into play now.

Here’s the problem.  We’ve written a scene and at first glance, we’re pretty happy with it.  Here’s the scenario:

Marty Stu (from Part 2) and his protegé need to break into a secure compound and retrieve some files from a locked office. A fence surrounds the compound and two guards patrol in addition to numerous cameras and alarms.

Fairly straight forward fictional private eye scenario. So we write our scene.  The way it originally goes down, in summary is like this (I’m not going to write out the prose, as fun as that might be):

Marty Stu and protegé arrive unnoticed on the scene.  Marty stays in the car as the lookout.  Protegé gets out and hops over the surrounding fence. He spots a camera and is able to evade it, and then narrowly avoids getting caught by a guard. He gets inside and locates the office. Using finely honed lock picking skills, he gets inside the office.  He’s got the files.  Now all he has to do is get back outside.

Okay. Great scene. We’ve written it with some tension and suspense and we’re sure the readers will be on the edge of their seats. But when our beta readers checked it out they didn’t like it. Our critique group mentioned the scene was boring and predictable. They’d seen the same scene a hundred million times in their “cozy-of-the-week” TV shows. Some even encourage us to cut it! But it’s a pivotal scene! Marty needs those files or he’ll never learn that the villain’s whatsit is really the whatchamacallit and then he’ll never get the MacGuffin! But clearly, enough people have a problem with the scene, it can’t stay the way it is.

GURPS to the rescue.  See in GURPS, when you’re playing, the GameMaster (the guy who is helping everyone tell the “story” of the game) will constantly be asking players to make characteristic checks and success rolls to see how things progress. The GM will do this by comparing an appropriate characteristic (and a modifier, if relevant) to a number either the player or he rolls on a given number of dice.  Almost all role-playing games work this way.

GURPS is particularly elegant.  For one, it only uses six-sided dice (D6 in gamer parlance).  So if you’re not a compulsive gamer and don’t have scores of polyhedral dice within arms reach, most people can probably find at least one six-sided die lying around. Secondly, you don’t need to generate characteristics if you don’t want to.  The average value for characteristics in GURPS is 10.  Roll below your characteristic on 3 6-sided dice and you’ve succeeded.  Roll above your characteristic on 3 6-sided and you’ve failed. Easy-Peesy.

So let’s say you just want to see if someone could push in a locked door. What characteristic would most likely govern that?  Well, Strength is a pretty good fit.  But we don’t even care.  We just need to roll around the target number 10. We roll 3 dice. (I happened to roll a 12).  So they can’t push in the door.  Now what?  Exactly.  Things just got more interesting.  That’s the quickest way to do a success roll. (I’m not going to explain the entire mechanic because the GURPS Lite rules do an excellent job, and really, if you’ve come this far, you might as well read them.)

There’s a small problem. The number 10 for characteristics is generic.  It is for the average person. Which our characters are certainly not. We’ve taken the time to make them not average (hopefully), so we need to use that. Using the GURPS system, I generated a character for Marty’s protegé. Using a tried and true method of naming a tough guy (taking a virile monosyllabic first name and pairing it with a hard substance for a last name – re: MST3K) I’ve named him Vic Diamond.  You can see his character sheet, if you’re so inclined, here (Vic Diamond PDF). As you can see, I’ve left a lot blank.  I have no idea what Vic looks like or anything. He’s a pretty generic soldier of fortune, but already there are hints here of someone with more dimension.

We can see he’s got a minor handicap.  How’d he get that? We also see he’s former military. Maybe Vic got a bum knee from a botched jump in the Airborne. Maybe Marty knew his father and feels he owes his kid. Who knows?  But very quickly, Vic is starting to become a person and we’ve barely sketched him out.

A quick look at his characteristics tells us more. (Remember the average person is 10 across the board.) Vic is higher in every way. But in one, Vic shines, that’s Dexterity. (In the game, dexterity doesn’t just have to do with how you use your hands, but how nimble and sure on your feet you are, fine motor skills, etc.) So we know he’s agile and significantly more so than the average person. We can use that. Now, knowing what we know about Vic and the passage we’ve written, let’s try it again using GURPS to help guide us. New stuff will be in RED.

Marty Stu and Protegé arrive unnoticed on the scene. (Do they? Not if one of the guards spots the car.  Let’s make a perception test for the guard.  We’ll use generic 10 as the target. Oh no. I rolled a 9. That means that at least one guard spotted the car! But he only succeeded by 1. So maybe he doesn’t know what to do just yet.  But he’s watching.) Marty stays in the car as the lookout. (Does Marty suspect they’ve been made? Need a perception roll for Marty.  Because of his experience, Marty has a perception of 12. I rolled a 9 again.  Marty suspects they’ve been spotted.)  

Well now what? That already throws our scene away from where it was originally headed.  Marty could call the whole thing off. But they really need the files. Maybe Vic is a bit too cocky.

     ”I don’t think they’ve made us,” Vic said, “I can be in and out of there, before they even know it.”  He opened the door and dashed for the chain link fence that surrounded the compound.

We’ve managed to keep the scene going in the same direction, but things are already happening differently than the first time. On top of that, we’re getting some character development and learning more about Vic. (he’s maybe stupid, definitely impulsive, argumentative, cocky, doesn’t respect Marty’s opinion, etc…) These are not good things for Marty, but they work great for a scene, because that’s conflict, baby. (Or will certainly lead to conflict.)

Protegé gets out and hops over the surrounding fence. (Does Vic make it over the fence?  We know he’s got a bum knee. Rolling against Vic’s Strength (11) on this one. OH NO! Rolled a 15!  Coming down from the fence, Vic’s knee blows out and he falls to the ground helpless and screaming!  Well, that won’t work. Luckily, this is not a game and instead it is a scene. And the scene would come to a crashing halt if this happened. So Vic gets lucky here and the GM (writer) intervenes. Vic lands safely on the other side of the fence.)

We, as writers, can ignore rolls that make the scene completely not work.  On the other hand, maybe you could continue the scene with Vic’s knee blown out.  It sure would make things very different! Let’s not though and keep going.

He spots a camera (Perception (11) rolled a 13.  So he didn’t spot the camera and the camera completely sees him.)and is able to evade it and then narrowly avoids getting caught by a guard. The first guard, Biggie MacLargeHuge now comes around the corner and confronts Vic.  Well, things are certainly going to go down now.  You can use our random NPC character generator to create the guard’s characteristics (FYI, for this I used the Y2K Armed Guard template). Does Biggie have the wherewithal to contact one of the other guards, Dirk Hardpeck, on the radio? (IQ=10, rolls 7). Can Vic stop him before he does? (Dex=13, rolls 11. Success.) Vic hits the guard hard, knocking the radio from his hand.  Does Marty notice his protegé is in trouble? (Perception=12, rolls 13!) Marty doesn’t notice. Maybe Vic and the guard are around a blind corner that Marty can’t see. Certainly ratchets up the tension a bit.  Of course, now Vic and the guard are wrestling for the radio, what happens now?

Well that’s really up to us.  If we wanted to have a big fight scene, the GURPS ruleset covers combat in substantial detail (beyond the scope of this article). Or if we wanted Vic to judo-chop the guard into unconsciousness, we could do that too. It’s up to us. Of course, I’ve gone a bit overboard with this example. You wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) go through a success roll for each and every action. For one thing, it stifles the writing part. It does force creativity though.  Often, even the considerate pause, as you think about what would happen if your character doesn’t succeed, is enough to get the juices flowing in a new direction.  For our example scene, enough things have gone wrong, I’d probably just stop using GURPS, and just keep writing from there. No way this new scene will be like the first.  Maybe the same outcome, but a much different road to get there.

Point being, the second scene, whether it is better than the first or not, sure has a lot more going on. So it is a great way to punch up a flagging scene.

I’ll leave you with one last thought. The GURPS rules are in-depth enough they take almost everything into account.  You can fall down the rabbit hole pretty quickly.  But if you ever want to figure out if something is “realistic”, GURPS might be a decent sounding board.  Can someone really do that action in that amount of time? GURPS can tell you.  Can someone that small lift something that big? GURPS can tell you. If you’re really in a pickle you can get some graph paper (hex or otherwise) and some miniatures and actually block out the fights if you really needed to. (Pro-tip: Most of the time, that’s overkill.)

As writers, the bottom line has to always be about the Story (capital “S”). You can always be less realistic if you need to be.  Does James Bond, Indiana Jones, or Michael Westen care about the vicissitudes of dice or physical laws mere mortals must adhere to? Nope.  And we still love them for it. Sometimes, things need to get done, whether they are feasible or not, as long as it is good for the Story.

I hope this series of articles has been useful and remember you can take it all or not use any of it. GURPS and other gaming resources are just another tool in the box, helping us to make better characters, make better scenes, and tell better stories.

I’ve got to get back to telling mine now.