Thursday is GURPSDay, and after thinking about the concept of encouraging more Roll and Shout when doing Quick Contests last week, I ended on a cliffhanger saying that I thought there’d be a good way to adjudicate guns combat a bit faster.

Not much about GURPS task resolution at its core is hard. Roll 3d6 under the target number. For skills, margin of success mostly doesn’t matter, because your choices tend to be front-loaded by design.

What does that mean? If I want to chop a leg, or do a tricky blow that speeds past defenses, I declare it as part of the maneuver, and then it’s a yes/no did you do it or not, mostly.

Obviously that’s not always true, and there are a lot of cool effects where Margin of Success matters – not the least of which is rapid-fire with guns, the very case we’re discussing here. Still, my guidance when I was writing rules was to encourage front-loading the decisions.

In any case, the thing that takes the time in GURPS is – nearly always, in my experience – working out modifiers. That’s why the Dungeon Fantasy monster writeups are so cool. They list out a monster’s attack with the attack name, a flat skill to roll against. Sure, you can stack on a hit location modifier, etc. But usually you don’t. If a monster typically attacks the leg, it’ll be noted, and statted out for you. 

The goal here is to make firearms combat as similar to that as possible, where the goal is to get things “close enough to right” that there’s a balance between differentiation on the character sheet and speed of resolution. 

With that in mind, I’m going to have “penalty classes” and “bonus classes” with fixed values that approximate things that are usually done with a resolution of +/-1 to skill. The usual considerations will apply, but we’ll try and speed things up.

If this offends, just stop reading. If assessing all of this is so trivial that your whole table does it by instinct, that’s awesome. But since one of the last games I played had everything from “I’ve never played in a RPG before” to “I’ve written books for GURPS” side-by-side, it might help.


Modifiers to skill for guns are plentiful and stack up some of the largest penalties in GURPS. The biggest two offenders are range and target location. Range can be arbitrarily high and penalties start accruing for anything at 3yds away or more. Hit location spans from -0 for blazing away at the torso to -10 for shooting through an eyeslit in a helmet. Lighting penalties also range from 0 

Simple Range, Location, and Environment

To cut down the granularity and lookups, use the following simplified tables. They are somewhat intentionally vague. The -2, -4, and -8 penalty regimes are basically the Close, Short, and Medium range bands from GURPS Action 2 (the box at the bottom of p. 31).

By and large, unless you’re dealing with characters with firearms base skills over 20, a good rule of thumb will be that a shot with net penalties (accounting for bonuses, below) eats up more than half the skill probably won’t be taken. In reality, people will often blaze away with net skill in the 5-7 range (6- being 10% chance to it, 7 being about 15%, and 8 being 25%). My experience is that PCs will usually strive for net skills of at least 12, but that’s not always practical or possible.

Non-ideal conditions

The goal here is to boil it down to three choices. Shooting inside a well-lit open room for the generic center of mass? -4 for range, no other penalties. Going for a head shot in a cube-farm? -4 for head, -4 for significant obstruction, for net -8. Between the eyes across a sports stadium in a storm? -12 for range, -8 for target, and -8 for the storm. That’s -28, and good luck with that.

Note this chart makes shooting for the vitals and the head (which of course in 4e GURPS, but not casual vernacular, the “Face” or the “Neck”) indistinguishable. Yeah. The goal here is to find an intermediate penalty and generic effect for something similar to a vitals, face, or neck shot. Vitals is -3 and x3 damage. Neck is no effect from piercing. Face has knockdown at -5, and hits use the Critical Head Blow Table, etc. I figure an intermediate penalty, extra damage, and knockdown roll for all would probably be a good blend. But . . .

If you despise the “Location” column and prefer the existing Hit Location and effects, just use them as-is. The key for the table above is that it’s fast and meets player expectations. If a player has memorized the location penalties and effects, boom. No time spent. 

Rapid Engagement and Targets

By and large the only other penalties that show up are 

  • Bulk penalties for moving and shooting or fighting in close combat. Use -2 for pistols, -4 for combat rifles, SMGs, and self-defense shotguns. Reserve -6 for full-size muskets, battle rifles, and sporting guns (long-barreled hunting rifles or shotguns used for bird hunting, skeet, etc.). While the usual penalty for rapid acquisition of targets is -2, using the bulk penalty instead is a good way to sweep up any sort of “my gun is moving while I’m trying to do stuff with it” or “I have to slew my weapon rapidly across the target” into one category.
  • Multi-target engagement is for pointing at more than one thing at a time. Two point targets on the same object, or two different targets are the same penalty: -6. Theoretically you can call it -6 for each target beyond the first, but in practice that stacks up so fast that doing more than two is impractical.


There are a few situational modifiers that give you bonuses, some of them can be quite significant. All of these assume a rapidly changing, chaotic combat environment. So while you can often be awarded significant bonuses for non-combat conditions (see Tactical Shooting, p. 9), that’s not what I’m talking about here.


The other good stuff that adds to skill are things like laser sights and reflex sights. These adjust skill directly, so that +1 you get from a reflex sight isn’t something that changes from shot to shot. You always get it, so just increase base skill – if you can do this as a Conditional Add on an automated character sheet, so much the better.

Maneuver Selection

There’s really only one option here for ranged weapons: All-Out Attack (Determined), which gives +1 to hit. While that’s significant in terms of mathematical result (you’ve just extended your accurate fire range by 50%), in practice the measly +1 doesn’t offset the total loss of defenses. 

Also, there’s another thing you can do to hit with another +1, which is to Brace the weapon. This is two hands on a pistol, two hands plus a sling for a rifle-type weapon. This is often only available if you Aim.

Unikitty says never AoA

To encourage the use of all of these, I’m going to wrap these up into one selection: Committed Attack: Determined and Braced. If you choose to do this, you get +2 to your skill, but suffer -2 to all defenses. You can take one step as part of this, or two steps but you get no bonus to skill. 

No, it’s not realistic. If you’re doing this, by and large you’re not defending. This is clear in Tactical Shooting, and it’s based on real study of real shooters, who are not ready to fling themselves aside, parry a sword, or otherwise react to something crazy happening.

It is, however, practical from an opportunity cost perspective. In GURPS the cost of losing your defenses is gigantic. To the point where I’ve heard it articulated that All-Out Attack is something you should never, ever, ever EVER do.

So this tones it down a bit, but puts together things that often go together in practice: a determined, braced attack. Sure, you might not have the sling or two-hands for a pistol. But whatever. The point of this is fast.

Aim and Lots of Aim

Each weapon has an Accuracy statistic, which is added to your skill when you take an Aim maneuver. In practice, this is the way the monster penalties are removed, too.

There are two ways to deal with this: note the actual Aim bonus for your weapon, and keep track of it. This obviously most consistent with published rules, and if you print out a character sheet using GCS or GCA, or even just look up your gear and write it down ahead of time, that’s right there on the sheet.

The other is to simplify it and make generic categories. 

  • Pistols: +2 following an aim maneuver
  • Combat Rifles: +4 after an Aim. This includes shotguns, assault rifles, carbines, etc. 
  • Sniper/Precision Weapons: +6 after an aim
  • Recoilless Beam Pistols: +6 after an aim
  • Recoilless Beam Rifles: +12 for aiming

Got all the time in the world and a proper scope? Can afford to pick your time to shoot? Double the figures above. Got Gunslinger? Add it every shot for pistols, add half for rifles. Just note that as an all-the-time bonus to skill, because that’s how it works in practice.

Double Acc for lots of time? That seems like a lot, but you can usually hold aim for two more seconds for an additional +2, and scopes get +1 for each doubling of magnification, and common scopes give +2 (say, the x4 ACOG type scopes) or +3 (8-15x). There are even 30x type scopes available, which are almost +4. Computer targeting, which is probably available if you have effective laser weapons, can get pretty crazy too.

If you feel it’s too high, just use +50% instead of x2 for beam weapons; +9 for pistols and +18 for rifles doesn’t seem wrong. The rest are quite possible, even routine.

Rapid Fire

The final category of bonuses tend to come from rapid fire. I’ve used a couple of really nice house rules for this one, the best of which is “bonus of half the SSR for shots fired.” This has a few advantages that I won’t go into here. But it produces values that look like the chart to the right.

In practice, I’ve seen three rates of fire, using this rule or no. Single shots, three shots, and ‘full-auto.’ So you get no bonus for the first, +1 for the second. Full auto tends to be “military weapons with rifle cartridges” at +2, “SMGs and 3-rounds with buckshot” at +3 and “OMG gatling guns!” at +4.

So just write down the bonus you get for whatever maximum rate fire you can eke out. It, again, makes things simple: Single shots and double-taps are no bonus. Three-round or four-round bursts are +1. Then you need to write down your personal value for “many shots.” That’s it. Yes, this ignores things like Fanning and other high-speed semi-auto stuff, but I’ve never seen those used in play. Others’ may have, so YMMV.

This again takes the existing GURPS rules for RoF and tweaks them, but this one is for the better, I think. The progression above fits better with how GURPS calculates weapon fire spread.


GURPS posture penalties are really designed around melee fighters. It assigns a -4 to attack from lying down, and no penalty to attack while standing.

Ranged modifiers require a bit more parsing. There are no bonuses or penalties for Attacking due to posture. Defenses are as-written. Target applies to attacks against the torso, groin, or legs (not skull, face, or arms) from most angles.

So pretty much you can just simplify and say that shooting a non-standing target is at an extra -2 for normally unpenalized attacks, but vitals and head are the same penalty, so you might as well shoot head. That turns the three-stage hit-location into

  • -2 Torso on prone foe
  • -2 Arms on prone foe
  • -4 “Head” on prone foe, and don’t bother with vitals
  • -8 Skull on prone foe

Being prone makes it easier to brace, but that’s not really reflected in the rules anywhere. I’d personally allow a two-handed firearm to claim the +2 for Committed and Braced without a sling while prone.

Parting Shot

This short checklist is designed to be fast and get you in the right ballpark. It’s supposed to blaze past the “fiddle” and get you to rolling dice. It’s a blend of generic difficulty modifiers and categories of “close enough.”

This one isn’t fiddly realism. It’s a close-enough blend of enough divisions to provide distinction between skill levels and weapon types, with enough consolidation that the GM and novice players can not have to figure penalties for each individual attack. 

Consider that for range bands, mostly players and bad guys tend to cluster in groups for range. “Punching in the face, with interspersed gunfire” is no penalty. Can close distance with a move at 15 feet or so is actually about the typical distance for low-light noir conflict. Within a small room? Also common. Beyond that tends to be “supporting fire” in the games I’ve played. So once you establish a range band, exceptions will tend to be only made for “crazy guy is running in to use the melee weapon he paid a lot of points for.”

The rest? Few enough choices to matter. Distraction level/environment is like BAD (Basic Abstract Difficulty) from GURPS Action, and will tend to apply to everyone.

Quickly, though, it should be as fast as the following. 

  • Range band (and that will tend to be ‘in close combat’ and ‘everyone else’)
  • Distraction and environment (open, moderate, hard, what are you thinking?)
  • Bonus: Maneuver (regular or committed for +2 attack and -2 to all defenses)
  • Bonus: Number of Shots (one, three for +1, many for usually +2 or +3)
  • Bonus: Aim (single bonus or double for all-the-time-you-need shots)
  • Hit location (torso, limbs, x3 damage, x4 damage/chinks)

The first two (bold) more or less applying to everyone in the combat at once. The Aim option only applies to those that wish to burn a turn aiming. The rest are individual choices, and will tend to have favorite choices by player. Higher skill guys will tend to shoot for the vitals/head (-4) using three shots (+1) when they can, etc. Sure you can mix it up, but skilled fighters tend to be trained fighters, and training often says “do this this way every time for best effect.” 

The key is to avoid analysis paralysis. Enough choices to be interesting, minimal look-ups and calculation (including ‘how far away am I from target X? How about target Y?’) in play. 

A good rule of thumb here is if the net skill drops below 6-8, just switch over to suppresion fire, and roll vs. 6+RoF bonuses and force Fright Checks on targeted foes. PCs in my experience won’t shoot with skill less than 8, and frankly would prefer 10-12 if they can get it, and 13-16 otherwise!

If by the time you get to the end of this post, your eye is twitching like Donkey from Shrek, go ahead and use the full-on rules. That’s what they’re for. But the level of abstraction above isn’t that high, and the number of choices has been – usefully I think – cut down to a bare minimum. 

You can also employ variable resolution here. Particularly important scenes that had a lot of planning go into them, or are the climax of a long series of intel gathering, tactical planning, recon, and then execution can use the full-on rules, which will tend to maximize the players advantages in training and equipment and skill. 

But for “someone pulls a gun and starts blazing away!” random violence, the quick-selection rules above are probably where you want to be.

Am I bound and determined to revisit and rewrite every GURPS rule? 

No. But in writing Technical Grappling, I became very taken with effect rolls, in the vein of hit points and control points. The general progression of a hit roll followed by an effect roll is familiar and favored by gamers.

Personally, I like the differentiation between skill and effect. 

Where it comes to On Target, this gestated for a goodly long time. I think it originally came from a basic unease with the Precision Aiming rules from Tactical Shooting. A series of somewhat vague, somewhat concrete misgivings with the direction of the rules, the amount of time they take, the determinism of them.

But I really did like the overall concept of rolling for extra aiming bonuses. 

How Many Rolls

My instinct, quickly suppressed as being not-fun, was to use three rolls, rather than two. 

An acquisition roll, in order to get the target basically in your sights. This should be basically a “no roll” situation for open sights, but might be much harder for finding a distant target through a scope.

An aiming roll and effect roll, which is lining up the sights or scope precisely on the target, with the degree of precision achieved being determined by the Accuracy roll.

One thing that never did work out despite testing was some way of trading skill for a boost in the effect roll. Some sort of All-Out Attack (Strong) applied to Accuracy. I played with the usual deceptive attack ratio of -2 to Aiming for +1 to Accuracy, but that might get ridiculous fast. If a typical pistol is Acc 3 (and it is), then a -6 to skill will add full Acc to the roll. Relatively speaking, that’s “just too easy.”

Of course, you might do something like every -1 to skill is +10% to Acc, which at (say) a maximum -10 is doubling Accuracy. That’s not tragic, but seriously, 10% per -1 is just mean. You’d need to have a different penalty scale for each Acc result, and, wow, math-at-the-table-bad.

Still, the overall desire to trade skill for damage is there, and some sort of leveled thing wouldn’t be tragic. Maybe some fixed thing, like -5 for +25% to Acc and -10 for +50% or something like that.

Eventually, I went with ignoring it. Roll for accuracy, if so, get your bonus. Period, and done.

The Acquisition roll makes sense from a real-world perspective, but adds an extra roll for the privilege of . . . aiming at all? No way. That would (and should!) make players revolt. No fun, so again no.

Home on the Range

One of the things that got tweaked a lot during playtesting was the concept of whether or not, and if so, how much of the various penalties you should take. 

The basic Aim rules are easy and range independent. Declare Aim, and whether your’e aiming at a huge target at close range or a small target at 1,000 yards, it’s equally easy to line up. The limited bonus even on high-Acc weapons mostly takes care of stuff.

My testers and I ran through some scenarios, and settled on a middle ground. It should be harder to line up distant targets – and therefore take longer – it was felt. A no-penalty roll was too easy, and it was simply too difficult to line up long-range shots will full penalties. So an intermediate was selected.

A Broad Range of Awesome

One of my favorite things that I did here was to broaden the scope of maneuvers, for both attacks and aiming, to the full scope of offensive maneuvers +Peter V. Dell’Orto and +Sean Punch introduced in GURPS Martial Arts. The concept of All-Out and Committed Aim and ranged attacks? Love it. With full symmetry.

Wait . . . Wait!

A couple new options that solve a few common quandaries in ranged fire were introduced, and again, proud of them. The availability of Step and Wait has been debated on the forums, and I personally allow it. The ability to cover an area, or a single line of fire, is a common thing in real life, and I wanted explicit mechanical coverage. 

Aim as Attack

This is the same thing as treating certain quick contests in grappling – such as my recommendation that damaging locks and whatnot be treated as an attack. This allows using the normal GURPS rules to do things in cinematic glory, because those rules are easily applied and well understood.

One thing that did draw some questions in playtest and review was why I insisted on not invoking Multi-Strike for an Aim and Shoot action using Extra Attack. In my mind, this was more similar to a feint and attack rather than two full blows, for one. For another, honestly, the act of aiming is where most of the tough part is, and I didn’t see the sense in slapping on an extra point cost for squeezing a trigger.

The Quick and the Dead

The most potentially unbalancing, but also the most fun, new cinematic rules are for Quick Aim. Being able to aim as a free action, akin to Fast-Draw, can be a big deal. But because the roll always suffers the Bulk penalty – which cannot be bought off – this should remain in the realm of super-gunslingers. If not, try doubling Bulk penalties instead. So Quick Aim with a handgun will be at -2 to -6 (mostly -4), a carbine or SMG is -6 to -8, most full rifles are -10 to -12. That will force people to use smaller, handier weapons to claim that bonus, which may well impact the choice of weapons in a very realistic way.

Parting Shot

Overall, this is one of my favorite of all the alternate rules I’ve published. Sure, The Deadly Spring was a fantastic research challenge, and The Last Gasp adds something to GURPS that can really make fights change their tone. But On Target is, I think, just a more satisfying way of handling the act of pointing and shooting a gun in GURPS, and I’ll not be using anything else in my games. I love the Accuracy and Aiming rolls, and seeing the players make meaningful tactical choices about aiming, and then get to roll dice. They find this very satisfying; it feels like they’re doing something – taking a risk for a potential reward, and not just sitting at the (virtual) table and saying “Sigh. I Aim.”

But don’t just take my word for it. +Jake Bernstein  took On Target (or an early version of it) for a test drive seven months ago. And +Christopher R. Rice also got into the game, and . . . well, listen to what he has to say.

On Target Tangent

Douglas’ On Target, also (and originally) known as Alternate Aiming, has been in the cooker just over a year. I first got a gander at it in February 2014 when he posted it to the Pyramid Mentoring Group’s mailing list. I knew damn near instantly that this was something I wanted to see developed.  

After Doug got it into shape, I started using the rules in my campaign – and I have used them since. I know that Jake Bernstein put in a lot of hours too, but I think I was the only one using it in a real game until Doug used it for Alien Menace.  

My gaming group, the Headhunters, actually full-on revolted when I tried to not use it for a campaign setting. Since I run my group like a pirate democracy (co-GM is chosen by the players, who then elects the GM), I basically had to backpedal. I’m kind of glad I did though, because it let us find a few holes in Doug’s original design.  

I know I contributed to rules for Gunslinger, Telescopic Vision, Spells/Powers, and the random roll table for crits (I mean, you gotta have a random roll table, amirite?).  

Overall, I love the rules. It’s hard to do “simple and playable” with “complex and flavorful,” and I mean hard. But Doug pulled it off and I’m really proud of what the system finally became. 

One particularly memorable moment in one of my campaigns involved my best friend, C.. He was playing a man out of time in modern day, and just nailing his role. At the climax of the story arc, the PCs had to stop an evil witch (C.’s character’s wife) from summoning her demonic patron.  

Everything was going fine until several snipers began to fire on the PCs from the nearby lighthouse. In a moment of sheer badassitude, C. decides to kill two snipers with a single bowshot. Taking penalties for the Dual Weapon Attack (-4 for shooting two arrows at different targets), targeting the eye-chink (-10), 30 yards away (-7), and aiming “instantly” (-6). He proceeds to roll back-to-back triple 1s, rolls an 18 on the critical head chart, and maxes his damage.  

Basically he made Robin Hood look like a chump.  

I actually stopped the combat for a moment to make sure the math was right. It was. I instantly had to play Filter’s “Hey Man, Nice Shot.” It was just so awesome. 

I think that was what sealed the deal for my players with the aiming rules. Nothing is wrong with the Basic Set’s rules – but they like these much, much better. If you have a chance, you should grab a copy of Pyramid #3/77 – Combat – and not just because Yours Truly is also in the issue – but because Doug’s managed to create an “advanced” rules set with a (pardon the pun) simple “point and hit” interface. I’m sure once you try his alternate rules for Aim you’ll never use the Basic Set’s again.

Pyramid #3/77 – Combat is out, and I’m very excited. +Sean Punch has his typically enticing blub posted in the SJG Forums here.

It has my alternate rules – playtested over the course of something like 6-12 months, for treating the Aim maneuver as a die roll.

These rules work, in play, in a way that really make me happy, both as a rules writer, a GM, and a player.

If you look back over the last few years on this blog, you’ll see that I’ve alluded to these rules, and +Jake Bernstein wrote about taking them for a test drive, more than once.

But ultimately, I’m very, very happy with this article, and I hope you will be too.