Tuesday, February 19, 2013

GURPS as an economic model?

I've been wondering for a while about whether GURPS could be used as an economic engine for a world simulation. This took me to what I think is the edge of some of the mechanics in the game. But yet again, I don't own all GURPS 4e books and I'm probably wrong. The issue is at the edge of GURPS because the system wasn't designed to do that. Yet again, I think that it touched on some core mechanics in GURPS related to experience and character advancement.

This post tackles two related issues: how good can one get at something, and what is the best way to model mastery in a narrow focus within a broader skill scope.

This post is not a Palantir Comission post, just some GURPS musing from a man on sick leave.

The case of Ben, chairmaker

Ben is a chairmaker, he learnt from his father, and has made chairs ever since. He has three styles that he makes, and rarely gets commissions for anything else. This is mainly because his shop is set to prepare certain parts from templates, and that all of his tools are set for speed. Time is money for a joiner.

There is no chairmaking skills in the Basic Set, sadly. Heck, I can't find Woodworking and my heart bleeds a little. I think that in the rules as written (RAW), the skill would be Professional Skill (furniture maker). A skill that I would make DX/A based. One points, gives you DX-1, two DX+0, four points would take Ben to DX+1 and so on. 

Ben would be an apprentice at first. Let's assume that he is lucky enough to learn with someone capable of teaching the ropes. This means that each skill point would take about 200 hours of instruction. Let's assume that Ben's mentor can teach up to Profession (furniture)-12, and that Ben has a DX of 11. It will take 4 points for him to get to Skill-12. This implies some 800 hours of apprenticeship. Let's assume a 8 hours of profession-related activities day. That probably mean a longer workday than this, but I like the number. It will take 100 days of work for Ben to become a Skill-12 chairmaker. 

The case of Ben learning on the job ad infinitum

From now on, Ben is learning on his own. Let's say that he keeps the leisurely work day of 8 hours of professional activities and that he "learns on the job" as he goes. His learning rate is now 1 point per 400 hours, each skill level requires 4 points, or 1600 hours of work. That is 200 days of work per skill level. Assuming a 5 day week, we're talking about 1.25 skill level per year. After 10 years, Ben is Skill-24! He can perform OK even under impossible conditions (-10). When Ben hit his 25 years pre-retirement party, Ben has a Skill-41. He can run a chairmaking business in a universe where wood doesn't exist, while being besieged by an army of undead. 

Maximum Skill level that makes sense (in a realistic context)

How high is high enough? Well, the odds of succeeding a task of normal difficulty (no modifier) stop increasing after reaching Skill-16. Another ceiling of interest is Skill-26, where all skill checks are critical successes unless it is an automatic failure (17 or 18). At Skill-26, even an impossible task (-10 modifier) hits a maximal odds ceiling. Arguably, Skill-36 is the place where an impossible task is almost certain (98%+) to be a critical success. 

I'd argue that the level at which a skills hits its apex is when a very unfavourable (-3) check has 90% chance of success. Skill-17 fits the bill (17-3 = 14, 90%), this level gives a 16% chance of a critical success on an average roll. Whatever the mechanics may be, it appears reasonable to limit mundane, on the job learning to Skill-17. Here, I'm assuming an average person with a base attribute of 10, so the progression allows for up to attribute + 7, or 24 pts, 28 pts, 32 pts and 36 pts respectively for easy, average, hard and very hard skills. That corresponds to ~5 years (Easy), ~5.6 years (average), ~6.4 (hard) and  ~7 year (very hard) to reach this skill's apex. 

The question is: what kind of mechanics should be used to get this kind of results?

Why aren't all experienced chairmakers not SUPER-chairmakers?

Angle 1 : Production and Skill refinement become uncoupled at some point.

Arguably, doing the same thing over and over again has no real learning value passed a certain point. Let's say that this is the Skill-17 threshold. One angle would be to claim that the time spent on the long task of refining skills cannot be claimed as production time. Of a 8 hour day, 7 can be production and 1 development (or about one skill level per 10 years) . It is a financial and time-intensive burden to become a master. But the learning time is spent broadly on the skill's scope. I think that I like this mechanics. A key design decision would be at which point doing uncouples from learning. It could be skill-17, or attribute + 0. The second option may be more realistic in the context of a world simulation of chairmakers. 

Angle 2 : Specialists versus Generalists

At some point, Ben will stop learning about running the shop: buying supplies and dealing with shipping. Ben will also stop learning about sharpening blades, tuning spokeshaves, etc. Ben will become a "better" chairmaker: he'll turn components faster, make the joints tighter, etc. 
This seems to me like the technique mechanic is appropriate here. Ben will become a much better chairmaker, without becoming a better professional. The main problem with this approach is exacerbated by the fact that it is cheaper in terms of character points to build up a technique than it is to build up the full skill. Without setting a realistic technique ceiling relative to the default, Ben could still be able to make masterwork chairs using only a piece of dental floss as tool, some stick of balsa wood, in a zero gravity environment ( a good -10 modifier here).

Using techniques makes sense: Ben will have an effective skill in a narrow focus area that is higher than his general professional skills. This focus can be developed faster (because it is cheaper). And possibly breaks through the Skill-17 barrier discussed above as Ben becomes a master at something in particular.

Angle 3 :  This thing all thing devours...

Let's pretend that Ben stops making chairs: who knows, he got press-ganged into the navy for 10 years and disappeared from the face of the earth. Ben will get rusty: he will lose his edge as a master chairmaker, although without becoming a neophyte all over again. In fact, he will probably be able to pick things up quite fast once that he gets back into the business.

It doesn't really take a 10 year hiatus to lose your edge, ask an olympian. To maintain a master level, there comes a point where all waking hours must be arranged to make it happen. This implies that master-level skills are volatile, and I believe that we just got ourselves well outside of the realm of the rules as written. However, there is possibly two mechanics at play here:

Mechanic 1 : Unused skills go rusty but don't go away.
For skill level under the master's level (Skill-17), it probably makes sense to apply a -2 (rusty) or -4 (very rusty) that can be shaken off quickly. Kindof like when you get to put on a pair of ice skates after 20 years: you look like a fool for about 5 minutes and then you are fine. Maybe, the rusty penalty strikes faster for high skill level, say in the order of days or weeks, while it applies in term of months or years for lower levels. A simulation would need to estimate better these rates, but a bit of hand waving would work OK within a game context.

Mechanic 2 : The beast that must be fed principle.
Maybe characters points become volatile past a certain level. In other words, there is some kind of decay model that must be counteracted by practice and learning. The maximum achievable level thus become the equilibrium point between learning and rusting up. However, there is no mechanism that I know that can do that.  A monthly check against decay maybe? And if so, a check against which attribute? Well, p. 294 of the Basic Set has an optional rule just for that (and that I somehow manage to forget about despite think about this for a few hours, thanks to +Jason Packer for the reality check). According to the rule, all unusused skills are degrading after six month if a IQ check is failed. Edeitic memory is useful (+5 or +10), crash training leads to a -2 on the check. For "extreme" skills (atttribute+10), this check is made daily. I like this rule... and it is in the book. There may be a way to phase the 6 months to 1 day cycle of decay a bit. 


I think that I like Angle 1 because there is no need to invoke new mechanics. Angle 2 also applies, and would work best in combination with Angle 1. Angle 3 has a built-in mechanism for character point decay (mechanic 2). In other words: there exists a point where doing isn't the same as learning, this point could be Skill-17 in a realistic setting. It is possible to specialize using the technique mechanics. However, time spent out of practice would tend to dull peak performance. 

This is by no means a sound mechanics to handle skills in an economical simulation: there is too many calls to be made by the GM. A bit of formalization may make it work as a mechanical process. However, I think that it would work as a way to handle this type of situation around the table.  


  1. You've already been in the Character Development section, but there is an optional rule at the top of page 294 (in the box) for charging to maintain skills over time, if they go unused. It goes so far as to suggest that extreme skill levels degrade as often as daily, making it very hard to maintain a ridiculous (Stat+10) edge.

    1. Jason, you are quite right. I changed the post to reflect this. I read this box a while back. There is probably room for a mid-range between 6 months and 1 day. But this is a minor point.

    2. I'd agree with that sentiment. I'm also thinking it might make more sense to have a character who has lost skill levels due to inactivity mark them as such, not just remove the points, and allow them to buy those skill levels back for 1 point per level, to reflect that it is not training from the ground up, but a refreshing of the skill that they once possessed.

  2. I'm also interested is using or developing GURPS rules to simulate realistic economic conditions in low-tech or fantasy civilizations.

    The chairmaking skill you're looking for is Artist (Woodworking), which specifically deals with specialized forms of Carpentry (to which it defaults at -3) like cabinet making or furniture making.

    A Professional Skill would be entirely appropriate, provided such specialization is possible (not always the case in low-tech civilizations). For large urban or post-TL5 economies, there are definitely specialized carpenters who don't build houses but could build a kitchen table and chairs.

    A Professional Skill seems to me more than just the ability to make a chair - it also includes the ability to design chairs, anticipate customer needs, sell chairs, market chairs, etc.

    I prefer to do job rolls off Professional Skill myself, but sometimes a Professional Skill acts as a bonus to a broader skill - Professional Skill (Game Designer) as a bonus to Games (GURPS), for example. (Or if the game is set at a con, Game Designer becomes a social bonus!)

    The rules are situated pretty well to handle the micro-economy of personal trade, I think. There seems to be less in the 4th edition about jobs and such than I recall from 3rd edition, but that could be because I'm also accounting for all the 3rd edition world books, with their details on local economies and their job tables.

    Lately I've become rather intrigued by using GURPS rules and methods to model larger economic conditions - like how the locals of a village might be affected by the discovery of a large horde of gold or other valuable resource underneath their feet, and how it might begin to affect the local economy as the resource was exploited.

    1. Cal, we are thinking along the same lines. I think that GURPS can be used to compute large scales economies, for as long as there is a way to model the way skills progress over time. GURPS being GURPS, it could be made to work at any TL, but the net is simpler at lower one. My biggest concern about using GURPS as an underlying engine would be a copyright one.

      Artist(Woodworker) would be more about creation, design execution, I think. I saw Ben as a guy making the same chairs as a business. Profession (Furniture Maker) covers the full range of activities: running the business, making chairs, etc. Artistry(woodworker) would be required to design beautiful furniture, Profession(Furniture maker) is required to make a living. Few people were both in the pre-industrial days. Today, people willing to pay for real furniture are also willing to pay for an artist's work. This is a different ball game.

    2. FWIW, Basic suggests Carpentry-3 might act as a default for such a Professional Skill (Furniture Maker).

      There are enough rules in the books to establish a very rudimentary system for simulating a small local economy, but as you scale a population to allow for more possibility of skilled trades, the scale begins to distort in an unrealistic manner.

      Justin Aquino was working on some similar stuff a year or so ago and shared some spreadsheets with me a while back. I'm no spreadsheet wizard, but I'm trying to develop something similar that is based off the Low-Tech and City Stats supplements.

      I think I'll stick with modeling pre-TL5 economics, and will probably focus on local trade and get no more macro than a single nation/economic system.

      FYI, I got interested in this by trying to replicate the fluctuation of gold/silver/copper exchange rates in the classic fantasy economy paradigm, which grew from another GM's interest in how plant magic would affect agriculture (and thus local markets).

      I'm not worried too much about copyright as my intent is to publish (presuming I reach a conclusive point) anything I come up with in Pyramid or via the "Powered by GURPS" license.

    3. Thanks, I'll be checking out Low-tech and the Powered by GURPS license.

  3. Whenever this topic comes up, my thoughts always go to the Size-Speed/Range table.

    If we start with the equivalent of the first point in the skill costing 200 hours of study, and follow the size-speed/range table progression, then the second relative skill level (+1 over default) will take 300 hours. Then 500, 700, 1000, etc. By the time you've gotten to +10 above default, you've spent like 40,000 hours on that.

    That's 20 years at 40 hours constant work per week on one skill (which is unlikely all by itself).

    1. I was thinking of some kind of exponential progression. The Speed/Range would have some GURPSite elegance to it because it aready works its magic in the system. Getting to +10 would only be possible through the granting of points by means other than self-teaching (really).

      Who wants to roleplay Ben for the duration of his whole carreer? ;)

  4. There's a few books called the Low Tech Companion series, which give mechanics regarding this sort of stuff - particularly Low Tech Companion 3: Daily Life and Economics.

    Also, you were incorrect about the Critical Success chances - it caps at 6 or less for an effective skill level of 16 or more. It isn't like how Critical Failure chance can go to effective skill +10 or higher.

    1. Low Tech 3 is definitively going into my cart. Thanks for the pointer!

  5. I recommend Harn's system for maintaining skills. One of the assumptions of Gurps does not include is forgetting or the realistic limits of how many skills we can really take care. If you compare biometric limits for skillsets from ones own experience you can adhoc a set of diminishing returns.
    I agree with the general premise at - gurps is a gate way for people to appreciate the economics and other sciences because it explains why and puts into perspective why things are awesome.