Sunday, October 21, 2012

GURPS and system mastery

Do you need system mastery to run GURPS?

Over in his excellent wrap-up post on his GURPS game, David Larkins argues, that yes, you do.

I disagree, to a degree.

I'd argue that GURPS, like any game system*, rewards system mastery.

But it doesn't require it for all players.

It only requires it for one person - the GM.

So long as the GM is willing to make up the characters according to the player's descriptions, and the players are willing to describe their actions in real-world terms and trust the GM to adjudicate them, it will work. This doesn't even slow things down, if the GM is conversant in the system.

Case in point, I'm absolutely certain some of my 1st edition GURPS players had no idea how anything worked except "roll below your target number to attack, defend, or resist, and roll high for damage." I'd have to help them make PCs, spend points, figure encumbrance, and tell them when to roll. They just didn't care. They'd tell me what they wanted to run, and I'd help make it or just make it for them. I'd figure out what the penalties were and told them and they'd roll. Everyone seemed pretty happy, but I'm sure most of them never read the rulebooks (one did, the others, I'd bet no).

My new group is different - all but two are pretty rules fluent. Of those two, one is moderately rules fluent and the other doesn't care to learn more than the very basics. He doesn't need them - he can lean on the others for rules help, or just say "I'm doing [whatever]" and I'll rule on how it works.

Now, I'm not saying rules mastery, rules fluency, etc., doesn't help. It helps in the same way as it helps if everyone in your group knows the Labyrinth Lord rules or is can quote page refs for spell effects out of the AD&D Players Handbook from memory. It's just handy, and it speeds things along. It relieves some of the pressure of the GM of remembering it all (although it introduces rules lawyering and fights, potentially). But you could run a whole game with GURPS Lite, or even with a subset of GURPS Lite, without any real loss, if all you want is a rules system to cover the generalities of play and are willing to wing the specifics.

And as long as you keep to "roll low to do something, roll high for effect" as your guideline, you can ignore a good 90% of the rules. I know, because I have. I've skipped over a lot of rules when they just got in the way. Only a few are truly required. Skipping defense rolls will fundamentally change combat. But ignoring the rules on a combat Step vs. a combat Move, well, not so much, not if everyone is doing the same thing - it's not a game-breaker. You can toss out reaction rolls, death checks, fatigue rule, surprise and initiative, whatever. Roll low for success, roll high for effect. It'll work out. Some things work better with a few more rules, but that's fine.

You'll still want the person making the keep-or-toss decisions on rules, and running the whole show, to be game system fluent. A game master, if you will. It's part of the job. D&D was sure better when I played with someone who actually knew the rules. Ditto for everyone else I played. But it's only the one person that needs this mastery.

It just takes one person who knows what he or she is doing, and the willingness of the players to go along with it.

* Yes, even early D&D does. Know all the spells and memorized the "to hit" tables and have a precise knowledge of the odds of all of your saves? Try and convince me that doesn't help - heck, even the DMG advises you to take away magic items from the PCs if they read the DMG. Why, because it doesn't matter? Heh.


  1. I suspect (and I've asked on his website) that one of the rules he might have been forgetting was Deceptive Attack.

    I'm totally in your camp about only the GM needs mastery with chargen. In fact, I've used the "describe your character to me" with a very short set of additional questions to great effect, crit for double-effect on newbies.

    But . . . I can easily see that forgetting a few combat rules (the aforementioned DA being key) would have the impact he describes.

  2. I agree with everything you have to say here, actually. As a GM, I pretty much assume I'll be the one at the table who knows the rules best; ergo my search for a system to call my own. The GM's command of the rules really does make a difference on the quality of the session, as you say. It's always nice to have a player who knows their stuff too (especially if they're mature enough to bring up a rule even when it's not in their best interest), but those experiences have been few and far between, so I usually just figure I'll be assuming the burden by default.

    My problem with GURPS is that, although one can run it in super-stripped-down mode, as you say, and its core mechanic is indeed much simpler than common gamer wisdom would dictate, I get a sort of "buffet effect" with the system. So much excellent material has been produced for the game, particularly since the advent of e23, that I want to sink my teeth into everything. And that can get a bit overwhelming. Even just looking at the Basic Rules, why not just play Risus or something if I'm going to ignore (or remain ignorant of) most of what's in the book?

    So I'm poking around in systems that are not as deep to see if that's a better fit. If I come back to GURPS, it will be because of the system's fantastic flexibility and all those tasty dishes on the buffet table--in essence, I will have decided that all the extra investment in terms of reading, digesting, and deciding what to include and exclude will be worth the extra effort.

    1. I'm not familiar with Risus, except having heard the name. I understand the idea of wondering "Why GURPS if I not using all of these options?"

      But my attitude is, why learn another generic system if GURPS will do it, and I can just dial up or down the complexity? I'd rather dial it down most sessions and then be able to dig out really complex rules when I need them for some special case. I guess I just don't feel like I'm missing out if I don't use everything. It's not an All You Can Eat Buffet, it's your kitchen spice rack - you don't need to use all of it every recipe to justify having all of it for when you need it for certain recipes.

  3. I think that while players don't require system mastery they do require some sort of conceptual mastery of the bits of the system they work with. That may not mean anything that's in a GURPS book, but - well, for example, I've recently been using a pirates-with-magic scenario as one of my GURPS demo games. A player can look at the numbers and say "wow, these black powder weapons take a while to reload, I won't try to do that in combat - I'll fire once then go in with the cutlass". Or he can use knowledge of real-world tactics to reach the same conclusion. Or I can brief the players that that's a good way to do things - which I now tend to do.

    Similarly, while the player of a D&D dungeon-bashing fighter at low level doesn't need to know much more than "roll to hit, roll damage", the GURPS player will be better off if he's aware of the possibility of all-out attack/defence - whether that comes from reading the rules, knowing something about hand-to-hand combat, or a briefing from the GM.

    1. Sure, you need to let them know that their actions are more reflected in the system. But I don't think "You can attack with no thought to defense, defend with no thought to attack, or any of 3 shades between that" is really "system mastery." It's pretty basic - you don't need to know much about how they work to get them to work.

    2. For me it's a very useful form of involvement, something that encourages the players to think about what their characters are doing - more than the classic D&D "I hit him again, I guess".


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