Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Ferrous Metal Food Fighting Guy!

(This is something I wrote up some years back. I'm putting it here so I can find it more easily when I want to. Though it's rather silly, it's also where I came up with the idea of high-quality materials which don't provide a bonus to the craftsman's skill, but do add to the margin of success, a mechanism which later appeared in the crafting rules in GURPS Low-Tech Companion 3.)

One of the things not to be found in GURPS 4e is extensive rules for competitive cooking. If two cooks of steely resolve rise up to face one another across a cooking coliseum, the GM can only fall back on hand-waving and contests of skill. This article fills that much-needed gap. GURPS chefs can now stage furious contests wherein they construct fanciful dishes, the more elaborate the better, and prove whose cooking rules the day. To the kitchen!


These rules provide guidance for attempting to cook complex dishes and comparing their quality when the cooking is done. A chef starts by making up a dish, what the important ingredients are, and how they are prepared (say, "drunken lobster stuffed with mango salsa" or "mesquite-smoked mackerel sorbet"). A dish with more complex ingredients and methods of preparation is harder to get right, but if done well will result in a more impressive dish. The chef must make a number of skill rolls to determine first how expertly the dish was cooked and second how attractively it is presented. Finally, someone with a discerning palate must taste the dishes to determine which one is better.


There are two important skills for competitive cooking: Cooking, of course, is the ability to cook dishes that taste good. Professional Skill (Food Styling) is the skill of making food look good. It defaults to Cooking-4, Painting-6, or Sculpting-5. Actually telling how good a dish is requires Connoisseur (Cooking), which defaults to Cooking at -3.

Flavors and Ingredients

The dish starts with the chef deciding which important ingredients to use and any other flavors he wants to impart to the dish: Mexican-spiced roast pork with smoked almond paste, pistachio butter and sweet adzuki jam sandwiches, savory cheesecake on a crisp chestnut crust, etc. There are a number of commercially available encyclopedias of ingredients providing extensive lists of ingredients and their uses which might be used as inspiration. However, for those looking for something a little more immediate, clicking on the button below will provide a list of four randomly selected ingredients, along with links searching a major recipe database for each one:

Here, likewise, is a list of flavor terms chefs might apply to their dishes:
  • Astringent
  • Bitter
  • Cool
  • Earthy
  • Floral
  • Fruity
  • Pungent
  • Salty
  • Savory (umami)
  • Smoky
  • Sour
  • Spicy
  • Sweet
  • Unctuous (fatty, rich)
A chef need only list those ingredients he wants to feature. For example, a dish of spaghetti may involve a tomato sauce including tomatoes, garlic, onion, olive oil, and small quantities of various spices as well as some sort of meat products, but in game terms, by declaring that he's simply making spaghetti, that's all that he'll be judged on. However, an ambitious chef may want to make spaghetti with rosemary-scented pork-veal meatballs in an oregano-flavored pomodoro sauce. In doing so, he's creating a dish which is attempting to simultaneously feature and balance a vast range of ingredients. This is riskier, but is likely to result in a much more impressive dish.


The chef must also harmoniously balance textures. The texture of various components of the dish is rated on a seven point scale. Textures are used

1. Crisp
2. Chewy
3. Firm
4. Tender
5. Soft
6. Pureed
7. Liquid


Finally, the chef must note which techniques he's using to cook the dish. Here is a list of some common cooking techniques, but any other the chef thinks of may be allowed if appropriate equipment is available.

  • Bake
  • Bake en papillote
  • Blanch
  • Boil
  • Braise
  • Broil
  • Caramelize
  • Coddle
  • Deep fry
  • Grill
  • Infuse
  • Poach
  • Roast
  • Sautee
  • Simmer
  • Smoke
  • Steam
  • Stew
  • Stir-fry
  • Torch

Equipment and Ingredient Quality

A standard home kitchen provides no bonus or penalty: lightweight aluminum pots and bakeware, a small set of inexpensive but full-sized knives, electric or poorly-calibrated gas stove, a few electric appliances (for example blender, hand mixer), refrigerator, and a large or double sink. A poorly equipped kitchen can provide penalties of up to -10.

Superior equipment provides bonuses to Cooking skill for rolls against techniques. Professional-level basic kitchen equipment, including high-quality gas stoves, superior cookware (for example, copper and enameled cast iron), and high-quality knives provide a +1 to just about all kitchen tasks. Special-purpose gear can provide bonuses to specific cooking techniques and types of foods. For example, liquid nitrogen and self-chilling freezers provide a +1 to the production of ice creams and sherbets. Terra-cotta tiles provide a +1 to baking breads. Heavy-duty stand mixers provide a +1 to any technique involving whipping or mixing. Using an immersion circulator (a scientific instrument which keeps liquids at a very even temperature) provides a +1 to poaching.

Ingredients commonly available in a cook's native society provide no modifiers. Improved ingredients generally don't improve the chances of success with Cooking skill, but will increase the dish's score if it is successfully cooked. For example, using a better cut of average-quality beef (say, sirloin instead of chuck, where appropriate) would be good for a +1 to the dish's final score. Organic grain-fed beef instead of beef raised on steroids and antibiotics might provide a +2. Using grass-fed beef might be good for +3, while using weygu/kobe beef might provide +4. Low quality ingredients will modify the dishes score even if is cooked successfully. However, anything providing a penalty of more than -3 is probably spoiled or otherwise inedible anyway.

Time and Staff

The default cooking time for a dish is 5 minutes per named ingredient or technique (the GM may specify much longer times for certain ingredients and techniques, though; for example, stews, risotto, and polenta are unlikely to take less than 20 minutes, and yeast-risen breads may take two to three hours). However, there are ways of cutting down the amount of time considerably. First, better chefs work faster. Reduce time by 10% for a chef with skill 15+ or 20% with a skill 20+.

Second, chefs with a staff can delegate their work. A chef can split the work between himself and a staff with an average skill of 12 (more skilled cooks do more of the cooking; the less skilled and unskilled are delegated the grunt work of scrubbing vegetables, washing dishes, and carrying heavy things), dividing the cooking time between them while rolling against his own skill. The maximum number of additional staff a chef can use is (the lesser of Cooking and Leadership skill)/2. He can attempt to supervise a larger or less skilled staff, but suffers -1 to his Cooking skill per excess worker or point of average skill below 12. The chef of a large institutional kitchen may administratively oversee a much larger staff, but most will be organized into smaller groups whose work relies on the skills of others. The pastry kitchen will produce confections against the pastry chef's skill, for example, though the head chef won't allow substandard creations to go to the table. The start-to-finish time to make a single dish can't be reduced by more than 80% the original cooking time (possibly longer for certain dishes, as noted above), but a large staff can have several dishes going in parallel.

For example, by default it would take 35 minutes to make the Cola-poached chipotle salmon on a bed of minted polenta. The GM might rule that because of the extra time for the polenta, it takes 50 minutes. Assuming he's as good a leader as he is a cook, our skill 14 chef could have a staff as big as 7. Dividing the work on the dish eight ways might result in having it done in a mere 6.25 minutes, but with the 80% barrier, it will take at least 10 minutes, and again the GM might rule that it would take at least 20 minutes, with most of the staff waiting around for the polenta to be done. Perhaps they'd pass the time whipping up that mesquite-smoked mackerel sorbet.

Actually Cooking

Make separate Cooking roll for:

* Each named flavor or ingredient
* Each technique used
* A single roll for contrasting textures, at a penalty equal to half the difference between the crispest and softest texture in the dish

For each roll, record the margin of success. On a critical success, double the margin of success. Add these numbers together to get the dish's total score. On any critical failure, the entire dish is ruined, receiving a score of -10.

For example, a chef attempts a dish of Cola-poached chipotle salmon on a bed of minted polenta. The GM identifies five ingredients (Cola, chipotles, salmon, mint, polenta) and two techniques (poaching, and the implied cooking of the polenta), for a total of seven rolls against Cooking skill. The salmon is tender and the polenta pureed, for a texture roll at -1. The chef's Cooking skill is 14. He's working in a professionally equipped kitchen, giving him a +1 to all technique-related rolls, and he's got fresh, wild-caught Alaskan salmon, which the GM decides is good enough for a +3.

For the ingredients, he rolls 12 (made by 2), 16 (missed by 2; he may have added to much or too little chipotle, or perhaps it didn't adhere to the salmon as much as he had hoped), 8 (made by 6), 13 (made by 1), and 11 (made by 3). So far, his score is 2-2+6+1+3 for the ingredient-related rolls, +3 for succeeding with the excellent salmon. For the two technique rolls, he's rolling against a 15 for superior equipment. With a 14 and a 11, his score is up to 18. On the final texture roll, he's rolling against a 13. He gets a 14, bringing the total score down to 16. And now the dish goes to the table...


...well, almost. How the dish tastes is one thing, how it looks is another. If appearance is a factor, as it will be in just about any professional or competitive arena, the chef must make sure that the food is nicely composed on the plate, the most attractively colored bits are visible and the not-so-attractive bits are hidden, and so on. Make a PS: Food Styling roll and record the margin of success separately from the score of Cooking skill successes. If the chef has the time and inclination, he can perform a number of additional decorative techniques, such as:
  • Decorative carving
  • Garnishing
  • Piping
  • Pulled sugar
For each technique attempted, make additional unmodified PS: Food Styling rolls and record the margin of success. Critical successes and failures have the same effect on the appearance score, but presentation techniques will not significantly change the flavor of the dish. Now it's ready to go to the table.


When the cooking is done, it may take a true connoisseur to tell which dish is better than another. To judge the quality of a dish, the taster rolls against Connoisseur (Cooking) skill. If the taster succeeds, he correctly judges the score of the dish. If he fails, he's off by (1d6 + margin of failure) points; roll a second die to determine whether he scores it excessively low (1-3) or high (4-6). Also, individuals will have their own personal tastes which will effect their perception of a dish. At the GM's discretion, specific flavors and textures can cause the taster to automatically score the dish up or down by one to four points each. Conservative eaters might react increasingly negatively to dishes with more than one or two featured ingredients, while jaded palates and adventurous eaters may react negatively to any ingredients or dishes they've seen before. Judging apperance requires a separate Connoisseur (Cooking) roll, with similar effects on failure and a similar impact from personal preferences. Whether taste or appearance is more important will be a matter of personal and professional preference.

Culinary Campaigning

In rarefied culinary circles, chefs' careers will rise and fall by bare margins of points. If competing against other chefs (for example, for a job as a personal or restaurant chef), they may be judged by the total point value of a number of dishes they make, or perhaps the average of several dishes. Likewise, a chef must keep his food good to keep his job. The chief chef of the imperial kitchen, for example, might have to maintain a high average score for his dishes (15? 20? Higher?) to please the finicky tastes of the emperor.

Given the heat of competition between chefs in sophisticated societies, can adventures be far behind? To keep in top form, a great chef may depend on his favorite knives and copper pans. If they are stolen, they must be recovered! A spoiled-brat ruler may insist on a steady supply of frozen mammoth or some similar delicacy. Someone's going to have to go after it, and probably bring the chef himself along to confirm the quality of the supply (and, perhaps, ease the group's passage through barbarian lands by handing out delightful treats). Even if they don't cook, the usual array of warriors, wizards, and neer-do-wells can support any of the above ventures, stealing, spying, and fighting their way out of sticky situations. It's not just a shopping trip; it's an adventure!

Magic Chef

With food's long association with medicine and parallels with alchemy, a chef might have nigh-magical abilities. For example, in an appropriate campaign, a chef might be allowed to create potions with Herb Lore, but using Cooking rather than Naturalist as a prerequisite. Cooking might also be a method by which Esoteric Medicine is delivered. A particularly subtle chef might even have an Enthrallment (Cooking) skill. Although cooking might not have the specificity of storytelling, an esoteric chef might achieve the effects of the Persuade and Sway Emotions skills (see Like Water For Chocolate for an example).