Sunday Review: GURPS Action 2: Exploits

This is a continuation of my comprehensive review of the Action series. The first volume, Action 1: Heroes, was 35 pages long, and revolved around creating characters, mostly via the vehicle of providing character templates and the means for fleshing them out. But it also fleshed out the concept of Wildcard skills, as well as how to leverage the usual patrons and organizations that are frequently at the centerpiece of action-oriented stories.

Exploits is different. It’s the campaign book, which provides advice on how to both run and play in these campaigns. A hallmark of action-adventure stories – especially movies – is that they’re not always quite so concerned about getting things exactly right as they are with striking the proper mood and keeping the audience at the edge of their seat. This volume helps the GM and players achieve a similar feel.

I’ll lead with the conclusion, and then hopefully back it up: this particular volume is one of the most under-appreciated works in the GURPS pantheon. 

Cover-to-cover, the book is 50 pages long, and unlike the first volume, instead of large blocks of text or page-count given to variations on (say) character templates, the table of contents is filled with page after page of advice and rules distillations, served up in small chunks.

It’s worth a brief rundown of what’s covered before the detailed dive.


One page. Less importantly profound than the intro from Action 1, it does present that the book is a “collection of simple rules for resolving classic action situations.” The watchword here is if it’s doable on a movie screen, possibly a movie screen with a lot of wirework and bullet time, it’s covered in the book.

Challenges, Not Headaches

Two pages. This chapter presents three subsections, each of which is designed to set the tone for skill and ability usage. The concept of Basic Abstract Difficulty – a general penalty that replaces a lot of the potentially time-consuming fiddling to get precise penalties for skill use in GURPS – is covered here. But to keep the game moving as well as focus on team-based play (think Oceans Eleven rather than James Bond) simple rules for complimentary skills and teamwork are given.

The Basics

Five pages. Roughly half advice for having an adventure ready and the subcomponents of finding (or being given) a mission, assembling gear (a very important but potentially time-consuming part of the game), deciding what is the objective, and importantly, what is not, and getting there.

Also given equal weight are a series of common things than any well-oiled tactical squad will have worked out ahead of time . . . and these pages serve as a ridiculously useful checklist of common questions for nearly any game or genre. 

Tricks of the Trade

20 pages. The largest singe chapter in the book, it contains nine section-level (in GURPS author lingo, these are B-HEADs) items, covering how to gather intelligence on the objective, how to obtain information – willingly or unwillingly – from other people through direct and indirect manipulation, planning and training, infiltration and tactical movement, including (actually, mostly dealing with) barriers to free movement.

Other sections include grabbing and carrying your prize, blowing stuff up, deceptive measures and countermeasures from false IDs to spoofing a polygraph, and of course both exiting the objective location and ensuring that you are either undetected or protected while doing so. To turn the tables, the chapter ends with what happens when the mission comes to the PCs, if they’re in charge of protecting an objective instead of violating it.


12 pages. This one’s only two sections – one on chases and another on combat. Almost all of the detail here is to keep things fast and light. Much of it is exportable to the right non-action game.

When Things Go Wrong

Three pages. A quick summary of what it means to be wounded, dealing with the typical chemical and biological threats those pesky terrorists keep bringing to the sandbox, as well as poisons and overdoses for that typical Tuesday night. More mechanically-oriented problems are dealt with in the section on repairs. Finally, it’s a genre trope that the heroes will be captured, have the Evil Plan explained to them in stupid detail, and then escape. Rules and trope-enablers are provided.

Directing the Action

Five pages. Five rapid-fire sections to help the GM, and a not-to-be-missed box on what GURPS options, if used, will throw a bucket of cold water on the Action Hero genre expectations.

The section on Campaign Types calls out which of the specialized rules and challenges are likely (or expected) to show up in a given milieu. Typical methods for using and abusing Assistance Rolls are described in list form in another section. How to properly inflict a character with a Duty in a way that it’s not just part of the background gets a whole section that is perhaps three paragraphs long. 

This chapter also details in monster write-up format the difference between Mooks and Henchmen, and the various versions of Bosses. Oh, plus dogs and killer robots. 

Finally, a few words on what happens as the firemen and EOD guys tamp down the last smoldering embers of the PCs passage and the clean-up crews are doing their thing . . . and the local legal profession starts up to properly defend the perps against the charges that will surely be brought. Hope you make your Law (Police) roll!

Detailed Action

There’s a lot to like about this book, and to pick out every individual piece would simply take too long and honestly might spoil the need to buy the book. Nonetheless, I’ll go through and pick out particularly juicy pieces as highlights . . . but some of this stuff is worth a dedicated post, and I’ll be doing that too.

Chapter One: Challenges Not Headaches

It’s a short chapter, but it’s dedicated to a few basic principles that are good things to keep in mind:

  • Never use a specific, detailed penalty if a broad one will do
    • Corollary: Sometimes a broad one will not do
  • Breadth on the character sheet should be rewarded
  • Your teammates matter and should be leveraged for fun, profit, and violence
The chapter’s short: basically two pages. But each section has an important rule, and it’s always something that will be deeply pertinent and add to the sense of fun. 
As will be common in the entire book, skills are called out in bold to emphasize them for examples. A Find Phrase executed on a skill name may well be the best way to look for particlars here, since you will often come up with a couple well-thought-out examples of how to use that skill to resolve a broad category of conflict.
Finally, the rules called out – especially for Complimentary Skill rolls – discourage rolling for rolling’s sake (“Oh! I have these ten skills . . . I will roll them all and see if they help!”) by making a null result impossible. A roll may help, or it may hurt, but it will be one or the other. So fishing for bonuses may well backfire – this is to the good and means that you bring out complimentary skills when it’s worth it, but not constantly.
Chapter Two: The Basics

While the guts of what the chapter contains were listed above, the real meat is contained in even more examples of how to use various important Action skills to execute different parts of a typical action movie. There’s how to find a job, using licit or illicit contacts – or maybe you’re just ordered to infiltrate the Rebel Base. 

Several different ways to obtain needed gear are provided in similar vein, giving what skills are tested, and the consequences of success or failure. These are often descriptive rather than prescriptive, and oft-times might be resolved by simply saying “you get some great gear, and the Basic Abstract Difficulty of the mission is a lower penalty now.” That, of course, can go the other direction as well.
A box text calls out advice on when it’s fun to track details down to the last AA battery (rarely), and when it should be handwaved (most of the time). This book is filled with examples-in-practice of this sort of advice: calculate never, play now. In many cases these are case studies in how to avoid both analysis paralysis as well as bogging down in the minutia that led me to write the post about simplifying Guns combat: getting a penalty more or less right is both faster, more satisfying, and creates more tension than flipping through the pages of rulebooks to arrive at an answer within a few ticks of the detailed version anyway.
One thing that could have been made more explicit – though this might just be my take-away and not what Sean intended – is that some of this stuff is best done either between sessions, or at the end of a prior mission. This allows the GM to take stock of all of the team’s rolls and foibles, and get downtime to craft the next session accordingly. Unless, of course, he’s blessed with scads of time, imagination, foresight, and can just pick from one or more pre-staged adventures to run. If so, booyah, and good for her . . . but that person isn’t me (it’s the time that’s usually lacking).
The second subsection of the book contains what is simply good advice for any campaign in any system. It goes through common needs in action-adventure movies, and encourages the group to tell the GM what their standard procedure for such things is ahead of time. Things like communication (we all have cell phones!), security (we all have encrypted cell phones), and preparedness (we all wear our armor and full battle rattle to the mall, to pick up our kids from daycare, and to work). And when it’s dark? (we strap chemlights to our full battle rattle, so we can read Goodnight Moon by the pale green light). This allows the GM to assess the skills and positions of who might meet trouble first.
This is worth expanding on – and I will definitely be doing that, perhaps even before this particular review goes online. But there’s good advice here, that applies as equally to a D&D game as to an Action one.
Chapter Three: Tricks of the Trade

This chapter is more-or-less a walkthrough of what to do in a typical action-adventure movie. It divides the types of activity into “The Four A’s” of Assess, Analyze, Act, and Avoid, and then breaks those down further into the chapter’s subsections. The introduction notes that these can happen out of order, fully mixing and matching and scrambling as appropriate.

The sections not only contain specific, GURPS-oriented examples, but can be mined for universals too. In Gathering Intelligence, one of the potential take-aways is that whenever you have a team going up against some other plot or activity, the GM should have a list of key tactical facts. If all of the intel is in hand, then the mission can and should be a one-sided romp to victory . . . or at least as tipped to the players as omniscience allows. The Greeks at Thermopylae were killed to the last man, after all. Well, except for Faramir.
The point is that you want a list of stuff that all the intel gathering can find out, and ideally you want it ahead of time. Not only does it allow the GM to pre-determine the pros and cons for each piece of information, it allows her to not-so-gently move from the Assess or Analyze phase into the Act phase and keep things moving along. Analysis paralysis can easily be paired with Obsessive Assessing and drag down the entire movie. 
Beyond that, the first six or seven pages of the chapter are basically an object lesson in “if you want to accomplish X, roll against Y, perhaps as a skill test, or a Quick Contest.” Each type of task is given a terse but illustrative example of how it is used and plays out. Again: using your PDF reader’s FIND feature is key here, and there are some real gems. Dancing? Use it to rile up a crowd to distract from illicit activities. Research to turn up blueprints for target buildings. How to use Stealth followed by Hearing to get close enough to unobtrusively eavesdrop, and when and how to use a shotgun mike to make your range penalties less of a problem for you than for your asymmetrically-equipped foe.
Check out the pull from the preview showing the sections covered – each one, from Physical Searches to Dumpster Diving to Making Them Talk gets skills, examples, and modifiers – though as often as not the guideline is to simply apply BAD to the roll and avoid details.
The text moves on to planning the operation, again focusing on the skill rolls used to extract the right next step or tactical fulcrum. Again, from above: this is one of the places where the list of such key bits of intel will prove very valuable, and this Tricks of the Trade Chapter helps the GM anticipate the kinds of things that will be useful . . . and which will not. From a player-facing perspective, the character sheets are the list of the things the player’s team will try . . . so the GM can just have the go-to top skills handy and plan ahead. Easy-peasy.
Infiltration gets a section – appropriately titled Getting In, and leads with this gem: “In all cases, a hero with Danger Sense gets a secret Perception roll before being eaten by guard dogs, fried by an electric fence, etc.”

This more or less describes the light-hearted but informative tone for the entire volume – and it’s worth reading closely to find the Easter Eggs.

The pattern of “here are some key adventuring tasks, and here’s how to resolve them” continues, of course. But some key sections are worth noting . . . and stealing for other games.

  • Climbing tasks get some generous amplification and explanation 
  • Parkour – using Acrobatics and Jumping to navigate complex terrain – gets nearly a full page of options . . . and a box on falling for when you biff it.
  • Locks, Doors, and Security Systems – these get the high-level treatment you’d expect. Enough variability to cover both ‘plywood and nails’ to ‘ultra-secure blast door.’
A final call-out here in this chapter for Providing Security, which is a fairly in-depth look at what happens when it’s the PCs that are in charge of trying to prevent a team just like them from doing unto them the things that PCs usually do unto others. That can be pretty cool – think about the Helicarrier scene from the first Avengers movie. It’s basically an extended security scene from the perspective of “what do we do when security’s already been breached?”
Part of me feels bad for skirting over keeping watch, or Bomb Disposal, or Sabotage, or Setting Traps. But each one contains a simple set of advice for what skill to roll against, the consequences of success or failure, and enough variation to keep it interesting. 
Important box-text that hasn’t yet been mentioned here: an action-movie treatment of High-Tech Challenges such as computer hacking and code cracking. Advice on how to fit in with various genre staples such as blending in with cops, soldiers, or criminals. Advice on how to keep fact-finding from being an exercise in boring bonus-fishing. Tables on hardware DR and HP, including doors and gates. A note on how visual style can trump common sense in this genre. A short box on opening safe and vault locks. WMDs as plot devices rather than real threats (you are all vaporized in a nuclear explosion is not how most action movies end). A quick rundown on gadgets used to provide and break security.
This entire chapter is a giant worked example of how to apply GURPS skills to the action-adventure genre, and the experiences of the writer and playtesters in running these campaigns is on full display. An incredibly useful how-to reference manual.
Chapter Four: Ultra-Violence

This chapter is divided into two sections, Chases and Combat. Each has the same goal, which is to take what potentially could devolve into a second-by-second modifier-driven crunchfest and abstract it into something more suitable to the sliver screen: the only thing that you see is the action, and maybe some scene-chewing, and clever tactical planning.

Of the two, the Chases subsystem accomplishes the goal better, in that it splits a chase into actions of “less than a minute.” This might be a few seconds or much longer (the two cars streak down the busy road dodging traffic for two or three miles), but it excludes certain tasks that in no way could fit into the allotted time. It’s a GM’s call whether characters with extreme skill can use the time rules to execute long tasks within those turns, but to keep the focus on the chase, my feeling would be no.

Chases are divided into abstract rounds, then, and into Pursuer and Quarry. Each round, the two parties select from some pre-determined maneuvers (14 of them) such as Move (the generic try-and-catch-up maneuver), Hide, or Attack. The victory conditions are assessed in a Chase roll that accounts for the starting (and again, abstract) distance between pursuer and quarry, with the goal being to close or extend the distance, and then force the chase to end (this happens automatically if the range band of the chase extends past extreme).

Range bands? Yes. The same concept I borrowed for Zoned Mapless Combat and Quick and Dirty Guns Combat was invented for chases, and is also used in the condensed combat rules.

GURPS has so many rules for combat that it’s easy to get bogged in the details, and loving attention to combat is part of the genre – but it’s supposed to be fast-paced action.

The first section offers a section on simplified shooting. It’s in the vein of my Q&D Guns above, but a bit less so. The highest utility comes from the use of the range band table to set the overall range penalties for the fight, which tends to be the fiddly-bit that, especially at close range, can slow the game down because the penalties tend to move around a lot within the reach of a Move or Step.

The bulk of the chapter offers some mild simplifications to combat, and also enables some cinematic rules as switches to allow a bit more in the way of Awesome. They borrow liberally from the wealth of mechanics available to the GURPS GM, but put the info in easy reach – for example, there are several variants of the Martial Arts rule “Shoving People Around” that are critical for Action movies. 

There are rules – similar to or borrowed from Thieves in Dungeon Fantasy – to let those with high sneakitude get the most of their abilties to disappear and reappear from combat by blending in with shadows or striking suddenly from within them.

Cinematic combat options and Extra Effort get blown out for more ways to be cool and exhaust yourself doing so on ways that provide more heroic opportunity. And a nifty set of rules for “pulling aggro” in order to taunt people into focusing their ire on you rather than the non-combat-oriented hacker.

Chapter Five: When Things Go Wrong

This chapter is essentially a list of skill tests, with appropriate description. How to use each skill to execute typical tasks for healing, diseases, and toxins. There’s a quick section on vehicular repairs that follows the same pattern.

The vehicular repair rules are a very simple way of tracking damage and function, and also restoring it with the proper rolls. Unlike characters, who can continue to be not-dead from -HP down to -5xHP, vehicles just die at -HP, which is a good way to keep things simple. A few special-case situations that commonly call for skill rolls (“Scotty, I need more power for the shields!”) are also treated.

There’s also a half-page box on how and when to use the various metagame Luck advantages – or buying successes with character points – in genre. This includes Daredevil and Serendipity.

Finally, there are a few notes about the skills to roll for restraints and escaping them.

Chapter Six: Directing the Action

The final chapter consists on five pages that are aimed straight at the GM, rather than both the players and the GM. It also has a statement that works well here, but would be equally a home (and perhaps usefully repeated) in the book’s introduction. 

“The ultimate outcome of an action story is predictable, after all: The heroes will win, like in the movies. This is a key difference between action gaming and genres such as fantasy and horror, where challenges are often confusing, weird, and unknowable.”

The first section on Campaign types lists challenges found in Exploits that are best-fits to the campaign types listed in Action 1: Heroes (which also lists the characters best suited to tackle that campaign). It tells you what tasks are good, and what types of help or equipment might be suitable or not-so-suitable for a game (mercenaries for a secret mission are likely to be disavowed, rather than being supported by a company of Rangers if things get tight).

In the same vein as “not appropriate for a campaign style,” a half-page box gives ten rules to avoid or eliminate from Action-Adventure games. Such as Regular Contests (boring!) detailed tracking of fatigue for uses other than Extra Effort (roll that into BAD), or Fright Checks (these are bad-asses, not mooks; they don’t got time to scream). And magic, because Action-Adventure, not sword-and-sorcery . . . though if magical spells replaces or supplements guns, you have The Dresden Files, which would be a fine Action-Adventure/Mystery crossover.

Much like many parts of the book talk about skill tasks and how they face the player, the chapter also hits some details on Assistance Rolls – possible requests, the rolls required to get that effect, and the resolution of such. 

And since the primary foes in action adventure movies are either other humans or the clock, three “classes” of enemies are provided: Mooks, Henchmen, and Bosses, with brief potential write-ups for each. Given the generalities involved, these are high level, with advice such as “one to three scenario-relevant skills at level 10-15” instead of a detailed blow-by-blow for each type of potential adversary.

The book ends with utility – what can happen after the action dies down and it’s time for the wrap-up, and a long 3/4-page box on how to ensure that, unlike the typical action movie (which is usually only one or two protagonists), that every character is kept relevant to the game without dominating a campaign or even a scene to the exclusion of all others. A character can be the brightest light in the room while still not losing the rest of the party in the glare.

Ballistic’s Report

I don’t mean to short-change any particular chapter, or indeed the huge swaths of the book that are “little more” than a set of tasks, the skills needed to accomplish them, and then any skills or modifiers that are used to resist or oppose that action. That is the lion’s share of improv and lookup a GM has to do during a game, and this book has taken nearly every Action trope and done the work for you, in advance.

Between Action  1 and Action 2, you have a compact (but not that compact – the two together run 85 pages) genre distillation that gives you fast-start character templates, another “template” for putting together adventures and looking for work, a “template” in Act, Assess, Analyze, etc. for the important components of an action-adventure story, and a giant list of prefabricated tasks and modifiers for executing these. 

The only thing I could wish for, because of the need to actually find the task at hand, would be to reduce all of those tasks to a tabular format. Perhaps a list that might include:

  • Skill: the key skill being used as a primary condition
  • Task: The particular job being accomplished here. Each skill might have several tasks that might have been described, and each would get a separate line. Page reference for details.
  • Type: Skill roll, Quick Contest, Regular Contest, Reaction Roll, Effect Roll.
  • Modifiers: Either the actual modifiers or types of modifiers (apply, range, target location, and lighting penalties to the Guns roll) would work.
  • Opposed By: If there’s active resistance possible, this gives the options.

I’d leave complimentary skills out, and special effects or conditions can be handled in depth by the page reference under Tasks, though things like “Take margin of success as damage” might be worth a reference. A similar table could be created for Assistance Rolls from Chapter Six.

All in all, I still maintain that this book in particular is one of the most under-appreciated books published for GURPS, because while it makes for dense reading, there are something like a half-dozen to a dozen key simplifications and concepts that take a lot of the “what modifiers do I look for now” slog out of the game. The rest of the book represents a distilled list of a bloody ton of adventuring tasks that the Line Editor must have run across in his own long-running Action/Adventure campaign, packaged up nice and neatly for consumption – but you’ll want to be facile with using FIND for skills here in your PDF, because that’s probably the best way to turn this excellent book into a highly usable quick-reference guide.

2 thoughts on “Sunday Review: GURPS Action 2: Exploits

  1. This is a great review of the most useful GURPS product ever published. It takes all the GURPS rules an condenses them and illustrates how to properly use them in the Action! setting. This is perfect for about 90% of my games, including Traveller. I cannot give enough love to this book. For the haters out there, you need GURPS Lite and this book and that's all you need.

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