Amadán's Home PageGaming (top)

Theatrix Characters in HDR


  1. What is Theatrix?
  2. Why change from GURPS to Theatrix? (for old players)
  3. A quick summary of Theatrix
  4. Character Sheets
  5. Converting from GURPS
  6. Improvements
  7. Creating New Characters
  8. Playing the Game: Theatrix Highlander

What is Theatrix?

Theatrix is an RPG published by Backstage Press back in 1993. It came with an excellent worldbook for playing in the Ironwood setting (a series of adult fantasy comic books written by Bill Willingham of Elementals fame). At one time, I ran a Theatrix Ironwood game on Compuserve's RPG Forum. (It was called MOA: "Misfits of Avalon." It's one of many games I'd like to resurrect someday.)

Theatrix is largely diceless (though there is a dice-rolling option I will probably use for HDR), but much more structured than other diceless RPGS, such as Amber. It uses theatrical devices as its premise, advocating that characters and plots observe the conventions of TV and cinema (in terms of how to define characters and adjudicate their activities, not in terms of the "reality" portrayed in the game, which can be anything from realistic to highly cinematic to comedic, etc.).

Unfortunately, Theatrix is long out of print, and there's no trace of Backstage Press on the web, and hardly even a mention of Theatrix.

Fear not, however, because you don't need a copy of the Theatrix rulebook to play HDR. This page will explain everything you need to know.

Why the Change from GURPS to Theatrix for HDR?

When I ran HDR on Compuserve, I used GURPS rules. I like GURPS a great deal, and in many ways it suits Highlander very well. However, GURPS has its problems, particularly when you start dealing with ancient immortals and characters totalling 500 points or more. Longtime players will recall that I frequently talked about switching away from GURPS for various reasons, but never actually did during the 5+ years that HDR ran on CIS.

The new incarnation of HDR will take place at the beginning of the 21st century (or end of the 20th century if you're a purist), with all the PCs jumping forward in time from where their threads ended. So why I am changing from GURPS to Theatrix? Several reasons:

  1. Simplicity: GURPS combat is very detailed. If you use every single optional rule, then there's probably a mechanic to simulate nearly any action or maneuver or phenomenon that might occur in real-life combat. And characters who are proficient warriors meant to capitalize on these optional rules can easily wind up filling half a page with combat skills alone.

    When I was spending many hours a week GMing HDR, I didn't mind pulling out three different GURPS books, arranging the character sheets of dueling immortals on a table in front of my computer, and rolling dice several times for every blow. I should also add that updating character sheets, or writing a character sheet for an NPC, even a relatively young immortal who's meant to be cannon fodder in a duel, took up quite a bit of time.

    Now, however, I don't have time for that (nor can I leave my GURPS books deployed around my computer for the several days it might take to resolve a duel -- my wife is a neat-freak <g>).

    There's also the problem that I fear someone familiar with the GURPS system may have an edge over someone who's not (though I try to compensate for that), and this may be more of an issue now that we might actually see PC vs. PC duels.

    Theatrix allows for detailed combat, but not in such a mechanical fashion. I can resolve an exchange of blows without needing to pull out books and dice. Of course this does bring up the issue of fairness and objectivity. (See Combat.)

  2. "Experienced" Characters: With GURPS, I gave characters a certain number of free experience points to reflect things they learned or practiced while in "narrative time," where years might pass between a roleplayed adventure. This meant older immortals would tend to have more points, which is appropriate (to a point, pardon the pun), but Player Characters all amassed about the same amount of experience points, because each was advancing from the same relative starting point in his own individual thread.

    By jumping everyone forward to the same point in time, I have to consider how to handle those characters who are older. Giving each character a sum reflecting his age would be grossly unfair to younger immortals, whose relative youth was originally balanced by the fact that an older immortal would have to survive the hundreds of years it would take to put him in the same timeline as a younger immortal with a much lower point total. On the other hand, giving everyone a flat bonus regardless of age would be somewhat unfair to older immortals, who should have had more time to learn things. Not every fledgling should be able to become a match for an ancient hunter. And giving everyone no extra points and just restarting them in the present, with maybe just a few added skills to reflect updated knowledge and languages and the like, would be grossly unfair to elder immortals, and not much fun, since no one would be able to represent the things their characters have done.

    GURPS also starts breaking down at around the 500 point level, and immortals who are over a thousand years old (as some of the PCs will be) can easily be over 1000-point characters. Then you get ridiculous skill lists, and characters putting 50 points into raising Strength, or gratuitously buying the Filty Rich Advantage, just because they need somewhere to put the points. (Yes, believe it or not, when I made character sheets for the likes of Morrigan, Kemal ibn-Hakim, and Fujiwara Kazumaru, I had too many points. Of course I could just reduce the number of points one gets for experience, but I tried reworking my system many times while I was running HDR, and never found a satisfactory system that wasn't penurious with regard to short periods of time, but overly generous when dealing with long periods.)

    Furthermore, handing out lump sums of GURPS x.p.s would, I fear, tempt people to optimize their characters in expectation of having to fight for their life during the time of the Gathering, and I really don't want to see everyone putting Combat Reflexes, High Pain Threshold, Trained by a Master, and Broadsword-24 on their character sheets (and of course, leaving no ST, DX, or HT below 13).

    (It's not that I think my players are munchkins, or that I don't trust them to spend their points "responsibly." But with that many points to spend and knowing that psychotic, elder immortals trying to chop your head off will feature prominently in everyone's thread...)

    Theatrix I believe offers a fairer way for me to let elder immortals have skills and backgrounds reflecting their greater experience, without their completely and hopelessly overmatching younger immortals.

  3. Mood and Style: The original HDR was more of a historical drama with a little bit of the supernatural thrown in. Setting HDR in the present day will make it much more similar to the movies and TV series from which it is derived. And while I've never been strict about following "official" Highlander canon, I do try to keep some of the same mood and style of the series.

    Theatrix has two advantages where this is concerned. First, it's explicitly a cinematic game. Secondly (tying in with the "experience" issues, above), in the movies and TV show, it's very clear that while older immortals tend to be more dangerous, the oldest immortal is not necessarily the best. Duncan and Connor MacLeod are always lopping off the heads of immortals hundreds or thousands of years older than them, and Richie beat Annie Devlin in his first duel. (One might argue that this is not entirely realistic <ahem>, but then again, if your character was Richie, how would you feel about "realism"?)

    So again, I want to give younger immortals a fair chance, allowing for the Duncan MacLeod "hot young gun" phenomenon, while not ignoring the fact that older immortals should have an advantage. I think at this point, Theatrix will do that better than GURPS.

A Quick Summary of Theatrix

In Theatrix, characters are described by Attributes, Skills, Abilities, Descriptors, Personality Traits, and Flaws. These things do not have fixed point values, as in GURPS. Instead, everything is given a value in terms of "complexity," and your character can basically have anything you can justify (to the GM's satisfaction) with his background story. Something simple (like being a competent swordsman) can be explained with a fairly simple background story. Being the world's greatest swordsman requires a really twisted background story, which the GM might demand be written out in great detail and at length, complete with all the drawbacks that come with this status and the price the character has paid to achieve this level of skill.

Once the character is created, obtaining new traits, or improving existing ones, requires an "advancement subplot." The player tells the GM what he wants for the character, and the GM will devise suitable subplots that will bring this about. The more complex the advancement, the longer and more difficult will be the subplots. Subplots are measured in "Plot Points" -- completing a subplot gets you a certain number of Plot Points. Completing the primary adventure also earns you Plot Points. Besides advancement, Plot Points can be spent during the game to ensure successes, bring about certain plot twists, and the like.

Character traits, and the complexity of each of them, are campaign-specific, and set by the GM.

Theatrix is at heart a diceless system -- players announce what their character is doing, and the GM makes a decision (with varying degrees of arbitrariness) as to whether or not the character succeeds, based on the needs of the plot above all. Skill merely determines how well you succeed or how badly you fail. Like most diceless games, it requires a good GM and players who trust him. However, there are a lot more guidelines and a more detailed framework for action resolution than in Amber Diceless.

If this sounds like an awful lot of GM fiat, it is, but realistically, that's how most online games work most of the time where you can't see the dice being rolled. The only hitch is with combat, particularly PC-vs.-PC combat, where players may be very uncomfortable with the GM making an arbitrary decision as to whether or not your head gets cut off. Thus, for combat I will probably be using Theatrix's optional random dice results tables. More on combat below.

Character Sheets

A Theatrix character sheet consists of the following:

  1. Attributes: There are six attributes. Each is rated on a scale from 0.0 to 10.0. 0 is an attribute so low as to be meaningless on a human scale (a baby would have attributes of 0.0). 3.0 is considered average for an adult human, while 10.0 is the absolute maximum achievement for a normal human. On the Theatrix Highlander page, you can see a relative scale for each, along with the complexity costs in HDR.

  2. Skills: Skills are broader in Theatrix than in GURPS, though this can be adjusted to the GM's taste. As with attributes, skills are ranked from 0.0 to 10.0. 0 means totally untrained, 3.0 is considered a competent professional level, and 10.0 would be the greatest who ever lived.

    For the most part, you can define your skills any way you want. You can have the skill of Swordsmanship, Fencing, or One-handed Edged Weapons. I may interpret your performance slightly differently depending on your definition. (Any of the above skills would serve equally well in handling a broadsword, for example, but in using "Fencing," you'd be better off describing your attacks in fencing terms, and you wouldn't do too well with an axe, while "One-handed Edged Weapons" would let you handle an axe or a broadsword equally well, but you wouldn't have as much finesse as a "Fencer" when describing a parry or a riposte.

    Specialization: A skill can (optionally) be specialized. For example, Swordsmanship (Katanas) or Kung Fu (Tiger style) or Driving (Sports cars). Specialization means you will perform just a little bit better than someone else with the same skill rank within your specialization, and just a little bit worse outside of it. (I.e., if two people are dueling with the same Swordsmanship skill, and one is specialized in a katana and the other is a generalist, then the katana-wielder would have an advantage if he's using a katana, but he'd be at a disadvantage if he's using a broadsword.)

  3. Abilities: Abilities are somewhat like skills (being rated from 0.0 to 10.0), but they are "inherent" rather than learned. Anything supernatural or supranormal is usually treated as an Ability. In HDR, Quickening powers fall into this category.

  4. Descriptors: Descriptors are very broad, and there's no theoretical limit to how many a character can have. A Descriptor is an unrated trait that simply describes something about the character. In GURPS terms, most Advantages would be Descriptors. Wealth, status, contacts, owning a magic weapon, ninja training, great beauty, photographic memory, owning your own company, knowing where the Ark of the Covenant is buried, being a member of the Mafia, etc....these would all be Descriptors.

    While a Descriptor is "always on," in that if you have the Descriptor "Extremely Beautiful" then you are always extremely beautiful, a Descriptor allows you to use a Plot Point to "activate it" and thus have a guaranteed impact on the plot. For example, a character who is Extremely Beautiful can take it for granted that NPCs will react to her accordingly; if the GM is deciding how a random person will react to her, he'll certainly take her extreme beauty into account. But this doesn't always guarantee a favorable result. For example, if the Extremely Beautiful character tries to seduce her way past a guard, the GM might decide that the guard just isn't going to let some woman cost him his job, no matter how beautiful she is. If the player spends a Plot Point, though, then she can "activate" her Descriptor, which guarantees that it will affect the plot (in this case, it probably means that she successfully seduces the guard, though the GM might declare some other effect if there's a very strong, story-driven reason why this should not work).

    Every character must have at least one Descriptor, which is their Primary Descriptor. If you had to summarize your character in 1-2 words, how would you do it? That's his or her Primary Descriptor. These should be unique for each PC. (Every PC in HDR can be assumed to have "Immortal" as a Descriptor.) Examples:

    A Primary Descriptor tends to have a broader range of applicability when you use a Plot Point to activate it. A whole range of skills can be assumed to come with some Primary Descriptors. Additionally, making your Primary Descriptor figure prominently into your roleplaying earns a Plot Point for that episode.

    Example: Primary Descriptor: Samurai. You at least know how to use Samurai weapons, can speak Japanese, know appropriate etiquette, and have some status in feudal Japanese society. This won't completely replace any pertinent skills. For example, in a formal situation, you'd be assumed to know enough etiquette not to make gross, ignorant, errors, and by expending a Plot Point, you could declare that you perform so well that you make a favorable impression with your Samurai knowledge of etiquette. This even if you don't actually have the Etiquette skill. But if you want to perform well consistently, not just avoid embarrassing yourself and have to spend a Plot Point whenever it's important, you'd need the Etiquette skill. Likewise, any Samurai can pick up a katana and know which end to hold, but if you don't actually have Swordsmanship as a skill, then spending all the Plot Points you have may not get you through a fight with a skilled opponent.

  5. Personality Traits: Most GURPS psychological disadvantages (and Quirks) would be Personality Traits in Theatrix. Personality Traits are rated Moderate, Strong, or Extreme. Personality traits are both an advantage and a disadvantage, so they do not "cost" anything (i.e., you can give your character as many as you like). A Personality Trait is an advantage when the GM rules that taking a certain action requires an appropriate Personality Trait at a certain level, or else a Plot Point expenditure. And under certain circumstances, a Plot Point in conjunction with a Personality Trait can guarantee success with a given action (for example, a character who "Hates Muslims" could activate a Plot Point after being stunned in a duel with a Muslim immortal, and declare that his rage allows him to shake off the incapacitating effects of the blow). A Personality Trait is a disadvantage when it compels (or prevents) a course of action that the character might otherwise prefer (not) to take.

  6. Flaws: Flaws are disadvantages, rather like negative Descriptors. (Unlike Personality Traits, which are sometimes a disadvantage, a Flaw generally has no positive effects.) There is no theoretical limit to the number of Flaws you can take. A Flaw has whatever effects you'd expect, whether the Flaw is "Epileptic," "Evil Reputation," "Military Duty," or "Hunted by an elder immortal." The benefit of having a Flaw is that whenever it figures prominently in a storyline, you get a free Plot Point. (Having someone react poorly to you because of your Evil Reputation doesn't count. But if your well-laid plans fall apart and you are hounded out of town because of your Evil Reputation, it's had enough of an impact to earn you a Plot Point. Having one epileptic fit during the game wouldn't earn a Plot Point, but having a series of seizures, or a fit at the worst possible time, would.)

Click here to see a sample character sheet.

Converting from GURPS

Many players will be converting GURPS Highlander characters into Theatrix. This isn't really difficult, but a lot of it is subjective. I've provided some guidelines and formulas below. If you disagree with a result or have any questions, e-mail me.

First, convert your old (as of when we left off) character into Theatrix. Then go to Improvement to see how to "age" your character to the present day.

Converting Attributes:

The basic formula is:

( GURPS Attribute/2 ) -2 = Theatrix Attribute. (Do not drop fractions; Theatrix Attributes and skills can be fractional.) I.e., a GURPS ST 15 is a Theatrix Strength 5.5.

Converting Skills

The basic formula is:

( GURPS Skill/2 ) -4 = Theatrix Skill Rank. (Do not drop fractions; Theatrix Attributes and skills can be fractional.) I.e., GURPS Broadsword-21 would become Broadsword 6.5 in Theatrix.

Not every GURPS skill needs to be translated into Theatrix. Theatrix skills are much broader. Feel free to consolidate many similar skills (like "Sailor," "Shiphandling," and "Boating") into one. Likewise, you could cover the ability to speak lots of old, dead languages with "Classical Philologist" or something similar. I'll leave this to your discretion, though.

Abilities (Quickening Powers)

The only real Abilities in Highlander are Quickening powers. See Quickening Powers on the Theatrix Highlander page. For the few characters who already have a Quickening power or two, then as a rough guide, 1 level of a GURPS Quickening power will be 1-2 levels of the equivalent Theatrix Ability.

Descriptors, Personality Traits, and Flaws

Most GURPS Advantages translate into a Theatrix Descriptor. Psychological Disadvantages and Quirks will become Personality Traits, and other Disadvantages will become Flaws. Since these are not rated (except for Personality Traits), you may translate these at your discretion. (Note that this relates to converting existing Descriptors. Adding new ones requires rating their complexity, for plot purposes; see below under Improvement.)

For Personality Traits, as a rule of thumb, a Quirk will be a Moderate Personality Trait, a mild Disadvantage will be a Strong Personality Trait, and a severe Disadvantage will be an Extreme Personality Trait.


All right, you've converted your old character sheet into Theatrix. Now you want to "upgrade" your skills and abilities to reflect the rest of your character's history.


Advancement in Theatrix is measured in terms of complexity; a complex plot gets you more Plot Points, and complex subplots get you Plot Points which you can expend on character development.

Below is a summary of the complexity ratings. Following that is a list of complexity ratings for skills, Attribute improvements, wealth, Descriptors, and so on.

In order to obtain an improvement of a given complexity, you must spend Plot Points. During play, Plot Points are earned for completing a scenario. For preexisting HDR characters, I am giving a basic rate based on their age, but you can earn extra Plot Points for player contributions. This includes such things as character illustrations, vignettes, or really good background history explaining how your character achieved something.

The guidelines below indicate how hard a given improvement should have been. I am not actually going to require people to write pages and pages of character history, since some people simply don't have the time for that. You can merely spend the necessary Plot Points. However, the difficulty tells you how much extra effort it will take to justify something, if you want to exceed your basic allotment of Plot Points.

Complexity RatingDifficultyPlot Point cost
SimpleA minor development, easily acquired and unremarkable. A few sentences of explanation should suffice, and your character could have easily obtained this in a year or two.1-6
AverageA significant development, something that would be very important to a mortal. I'll expect at least a paragraph or two of explanation, and your character should have spent a few years or done something interesting to achieve it.7-12
ComplexThis is major, something most mortals will never achieve, and it's not a casual accomplishment even for an immortal. I want a detailed story describing exactly how this came about, and it should have been a major focus for your character for quite a while.13-18
ConvolutedAn accomplishment requiring blood, sweat, and tears, possibly more than one mortal lifetime, and probably no small amount of luck, all of which should be described in great and interesting detail.19-24
TwistedI don't expect to see many of these. In fact, I don't expect to see any, but you can try to convince me.25+

Once the game begins, you will get a certain number of plot points for completing each "episode" (or thread). (Plot point awards will usually be in the 1-4 range.) If you want a particular development for your character, you should tell me beforehand, so we can run a subplot of appropriate complexity to bring it about. (Keep in mind that the more complex the accomplishment, the longer it will take. I doubt any Twisted subplots will be finished within the lifespan of the game.)

Plot Points for Age (for experienced HDR PCs)

Age (in centuries)Plot Points per centuryCumulative PPs

Complexity Ratings

Attributes: Actually, I'd prefer that Attributes not be increased. However, if you really think the ST or DX you got after conversion from GURPS is too low compared to what you expect your character to achieve later in life, then detail how s/he improves, with the following complexity ratings:

Attribute increases by...Complexity

Skills: To increase a skill or acquire a new one, use the table below. (It doesn't matter what your skill was to begin with; I only care what the final skill rank is.) For a comparison to show what skill ranks mean, see the chart on the Theatrix Highlander page.

Skill RankComplexity

Wealth: Wealth is a Descriptor all by itself, with a corresponding complexity cost.

You are...Complexity
Poor or strugglingNone
Middle class (lower to upper)Simple
Rich (a millionaire)Complex
Filthy, stinking, richConvoluted
Obscenely rich, a billionaireTwisted

Descriptors: Each Descriptor has its own rating. There are some sample Descriptors on the Theatrix Highlander page. Feel free to ask the GM if you don't know what would be an appropriate complexity for a Descriptor you want.

Quickening Powers: As Abilities, Quickening Powers are ranked in a similar fashion to skills. However, they are rarer and more powerful, and some Quickening Powers allow you to do certain things with each ranking. There are some sample Quickening Powers on the Theatrix Highlander page. Those samples do not represent every Quickening power that might exist, but if you want something else, you'll have to talk to me about it.

Quickening Power Complexity Rating
Ability RankComplexity
8.0-10.0Reserved for really, really old immortals. You can't have this level of Quickening ability. No.

Creating New Characters

Right now, I'm not allowing new characters. When/if this changes, I'll write guidelines for creating them.

Playing the Game: Theatrix Highlander

Since Theatrix is a customizable game, the game scale, appropriate abilities, and such need to be set by the GM for each campaign. You can find Highlander-specific details on the Theatrix Highlander page. This page also describes how I will handle phenomena such as the Quickening, combat, and using Plot Points.

[Main] [Rules] [Characters] [Archives] [Threads] [Vignettes] [The World of HDR]