Review – GURPS Action 1: Heroes (Chapter 1 – Action Templates)

Have you read the Introduction yet? No? Bad reader. No biscuit. Go do it.

OK. This chapter is the guts of the book, really. How to make Heroes by making relatively easy selections.

The contents of the chapter – what SJG Style refers to as B-HEADs, which are important subsections – shall be three, and they are as follows:

  1. Lenses
  2. Campaign Types
  3. Templates
There are also some boxes spread throughout the text. These call out important concepts (or optional rules) that don’t always fit precisely within the chapter structure.

I’m going to quibble a tetch with the order here, because I think the Campaign Types should have come first. The very first thing the GM needs to tell you is what kind of campaign you’re going to play. You may yet be able to play a Criminal lens in a Law Enforcement campaign (“OK, OK, OK . . . “), but it’ll save time if you know what’s important and what’s not.

So I’m going to skip around:

Campaign Types

A scant page-and-a-quarter, nonetheless it hits nine common campaign archetypes: cops (Lethal Weapon), crooks (Oceans Number or The Italian Job), soldiers for hire (Expendables, A-Team, Ronin), spy and counterspy (Bond, maybe Bourne), Task Force (Sword of Gideon, perhaps; GI Joe almost by definition), spies for hire (Burn Notice), vigilante justice (Taken), and War on Terror (The Unit TV show).

The real names in the book are slightly different for some of those. Point is, there are nine, they’re somewhere between very and subtly different, and the flavor will influence your selection of characters and lenses.

Which is why each campaign type lists common and uncommon roles. And perhaps more importantly, you get statements like this:

“The driver of the SWAT van or chopper might be a wheel man, and an EMT could be a medic, but NPCs often fill these roles. Few forces have full-time assassins, cleaners, or infiltrators aboard.”

So yeah, you can play character type X, but high risk of being bored. If you play character type Y, you may strain willing suspension of disbelief as you figure out how a full-time assassin works for the EPA.

Not putting this first confuses me a bit, but it’s a quibble. The lenses section (detailed next) is roughly the same size (maybe a page or page and a half) so it’s not as if either is a slog.


Another short chapter, this one gives five detailed and six cursory “lenses” to add flavor to your character. They represent 20 points – less than 10% of a given templates value, and do not add to the point total (they’re subsumed into the template cost).

Each lens provides suggestions as to the minimum set of skills and abilities that one would possess to not overly strain credibility to lay claim to a certain background. As an example, Martin Riggs, the ex-SF sniper from the Lethal Weapon movies (Mel Gibson), is likely an Assassin (rather than a Shooter) with the Law Enforcement lens. Just enough 2-point skills to allow him to roll at IQ level (a not-awful 12) for most of the things he’s supposed to be able to do as a cop. Detective Lorna Cole (Renee Russo), to contrast, is likely an Investigator with the Law Enforcement lens, with enough points funneled into Karate to give Riggs something to sincerely admire in fighting ability. But the lens is between useful and required to make their “cop” persona viable. Things like “Duty” because they report for work each day, or Legal Enforcement Powers, because, well, cops.

The skills section thus recommends where to spend the 20 points in Background skills from each template, and the abilities section guides your choices from those listed in the template. Some of those are Disadvantages (often Duty), so may wind up being a net point gain (the Extremely Hazardous Duty that will come up very frequently for SFOD-D guys, as an example, is a heavyweight disad).
The basic choices given explicitly are Criminal, Intelligence, Law Enforcement, Military, and Security (which means counter-spy, the mirror of Intelligence). Interestingly, Law Enforcement also has its mirror in Criminal, and of course Military is its own mirror.

The lenses are a nice touch, guiding background in a useful way that adds to character without distracting from role. The guidance for non-explicit lenses, such as Academic (the scientists from Jurassic Park, or Dr Jekyll from League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), Martial Arts Master, or Rich Adveturer, is brief but on-point. If you want to be a rich adventurer, you’d best be rich and/or famous.
The meat of the chapter for obvious reasons, this is where you spend your points. Quite a few of them (250), but not the heavyweight for worked examples: that honor belongs to Monster Hunters.
There are 11 templates, each very competent, that define traditional roles in action movies. Each has some niche protection and some overlap: The Assassin, Demolition Man, and Shooter all do violence as their reason for existence . . . but each has their own, um, idiom.
Some are in-your-face roles that beg for screen time, while others (Wheel Man, Cleaner, Wire Rat, Hacker) can either be front-and-center (the car chase from Ronin) or in the background (the brief scene with Harve Keitel from Point of No Return). 
One thing about them: they’re very, very attribute-heavy, designed to make broadly competent characters. Consider the point investment in attributes alone: Assassin (180 pts); Cleaner (180 pts); Demolition Man (170 pts); Face Man (180 pts); Hacker (150 pts); Infiltrator (170 pts); Investigator (170 pts); Medic (160 pts); Shooter (160 pts); Wheel Man (160 pts), and Wire Rat (150 pts). Every template has at least one stat that’s 14-16, with more in the offing with optional points. 

That being said, characters still have 70-100 points of more-or-less discretionary choices as to where their particular brand of awesome lies. Optimization guidance is provided as well, selling back Basic Speed, for example. to prevent involuntary selection of levels of Speed/Move that don’t help with Dodge or add a full yard of movement. That can still happen, of course – but it will be the players’ choice.

For each template, advice is given on which of the many options presented in the typical GURPS template wall-of-text to choose to reflect a certain flavor. A criminal shooter might have brawling and intimidation and favor cheap and easily discarded weaponry, while a security-lensed shooter might be a bodyguard, with ridiculous levels of Pistol and SMG skill. Your classic military shooter has broad experience with full-auto, crew-served, artillery, and rocket launchers that civilian specialties might lack. 

That guidance – lean towards X and Y rather than P and Q – can be quite helpful and will speed the process a bit.

Obligatory Panning of Blocks of Text

I’ve noted this before – I like templates but do not like how they’re presented on the paper. The format is basically the aforementioned wall of text. This is space-efficient but hides the utility of the template, which is the rapid presentation and assimilation of 250 points worth of choices.

This is a bit tough, because the book is already in two-column format, and my personal druthers would have the choices being bulleted out even further, with more white space.

So instead of:

Advantages: Gunslinger [25] and Luck [15]. • A further 30
points chosen from among lens advantages (pp. 4-5), ST +1
to +3 [10/level], DX +1 [20], IQ +1 [20], HT +1 to +3
[10/level], Per +1 to +6 [5/level], Basic Speed +1 [20], Basic
Move +1 to +3 [5/level], Acute Vision [2/level], . .. 

you might instead get


  • Gunslinger [25] and Luck [15]
  • A further 30 points chosen from among lens advantages (pp. 4-5):

o   ST +1 to +3 [10/level]
o   DX +1 [20], IQ +1 [20]
o   HT +1 to +3 [10/level]
o   Per +1 to +6 [5/level]
o   Basic Speed +1 [20]
o   Basic Move +1 to +3 [5/level]
o   Acute Vision [2/level]
But without the boxes. Basically, something that uses a two- or three-column format within the main two-column format of the document to allow the eye to assimilate the vast amount of good information from the tempaltes in a more friendly way. This will increase page count (which I’m assured isn’t quite as “free” as one would think, even in electronic documents, due to the association of page count with pricing, even in electronic documents), but would, to me, represent a huge leap forward in the paper/electronic-page utility of what can be very dense blocks of text.
If you use GCA and someone makes a macro for you? Forget everything I just said because templates are the greatest thing since sliced bread in this case.
Boxed Text
There are three instances of boxed text throughout the chapter, giving some help or additional information to help make genre-appropriate heroes and their foes.
  • Action Who’s Who is a glossary of terms used for heroes and foes in the series.
  • Check Out the Big Brain deals with the fact that nearly all the templates feature the top ranks of IQ, anywhere from 11 (for the Shooter, who also has Per 12 and the option to buy more) to 15, not everyone is supposed to be Bruce Wayne, super detective. Suggesions are provided on how to play different types of “smart” that doesn’t imply multiple university degrees even for the IQ 14-16 set.
  • Quirky Good Luck talks about Luck as a mandatory advantage, swapping out Luck-like advantages for the one on the template, as well as drawing attention to two key rules from the Basic Set that will help heroes stay alive.
Parting Shot
The strongest part of this chapter is also the shortest: the Lenses and Campaign Types advice succinctly collapse sub-genre and background information into a few choices boiling down to “at the very least, do this to make your buddy cop movie look like something actually featuring buddies who are cops.”
The templates do a lot of heavy lifting for you – that’s their job. There are slightly fewer than a dozen, and much like in Dungeon Fantasy, as a GM you can enforce these or you can let them slide. If the GM wants stronger differentiation and less stat-heavy characters . . . well, you might not be playing Action anymore! 
These templates and lenses provide the core of competence and expertise and a veneer of background. The important part is that you’re the firepower, driver, or hacker of the team, and oh-by-the-way you’re all part of an Elite Fighting Force or SWAT detachment or association of criminals out to revenge yourselves on someone that double-crossed you that one time. From there, what separates this movie from Black Hawk Down is how it plays.
But we still have three chapters to go! As noted in the prior installment, the Action Heroes’ Cheat Sheet does for you the unenviable work of bringing to the table – or removing from it – some of the huge variety of traits that are available in GURPS and helping GMs and players tune their characters to the genre. Pulling Rank spends two pages squeezing the most out of the organizations that must live in the background (we’re buddy cops, which had better imply something), and then finally Chapter Four talks about gear in an action-movie way
Stay tuned . . . 

3 thoughts on “Review – GURPS Action 1: Heroes (Chapter 1 – Action Templates)

  1. I'd say Ronin is in there as Spies for Hire. Burn Notice has them use guns a lot of time. Difference seems to mostly be in the general light heartedness of Burn Notice vs the grittiness of Ronin.

    Agreed on the bleah-ness of the wall of text format for templates. My favorite part of this supplement is "succinct gear list with modification options" and "how to call up the bosses and big for help, simplified."

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *