Wednesday, February 1, 2012

My GURPS Dungeon Fantasy Manifesto

Alternate Title: GURPS old-school, yo.

Maybe I need a manifesto for my games. Or some kind of statement of purpose.

I mean, I looked at Matt Finch's old-school primer recently. It's a good document and it really would give you the tools to understand what the hell an early-edition game would be like if you've never played one. I don't have one for my game.

Then I looked at this expanded one, here, and felt like, okay, it's largely a laundry list of what the GURPS rules aren't. Which is amusing in a way, because I'm using them for running B2 The Keep on the Borderlands, building a megadungeon, and if I excised all rules descriptions from my summaries you probably wouldn't know what game system it is except from spell names. Maybe. Maybe you'd just wonder what pulp writer's story Stone Missile was from or why a Fireball did so little damage.

The first definition, by virtue of only specifying a few things about early-edition D&D-clone games, is pretty broad. The second, not so much - the more narrow the definition, the more that gets excluded from old school. It's clearly aimed at defining old school and new school D&D, which is fine, but as written it'll exclude some very old games indeed. Just goes to show you that the more you define, the more limiting the definition is.

In way, though, both of them tell you what to expect from an old-school game.

This leads to a (for my part rhetorical) question:

Is GURPS Dungeon Fantasy old school or new school?

GURPS has been around since 1986 (Earlier if you count Man-to-Man) and the core mechanics haven't changed much . . . I could still dig up my Man-to-Man NPC sheets and use them in play (although they'd be a tad weak, and I'd have to ignore their missile weapon range notations). Their point values wouldn't sync up but you'd hardly notice that outside of character generation. That's pretty old right there . . . it's "competed with 1st edition AD&D" old. But it's got skills (gah!) and lots of rules (double gah! Oh AD&D had lots too) and it uses funny dice (oh wait, maybe it doesn't, it's the rest of you guys using funny dice! I swiped mine from an old Monopoly set!)

But really, does it matter?

My Dungeon Fantasy game is very much old-style if not old school. I've got more in common stylistically and thematically with guys running randomly generated NPCs into a hole killing monsters and taking their treasure than with guys running games with deep characterization and plot-centered play, regardless of game system.

But what makes it old style? It is the dungeons? The dwarven fighters? The 10' poles? The lootz?

Maybe I need a manifesto for my own games. A "GURPS Dungeon Fantasy as run by Peter" document. Or maybe just some guidelines.

We'll start with a quote from my last session:

"This game combines the worst of new-school and old-school gaming. You are limited by your character's abilities, like in new-school. And you're punished for your mistakes as a player, like in old-school."

This sums up my game pretty well. Player skill is critical. My game is unforgiving of player mistakes. Forgot to say you were looting the body? You didn't. Didn't mention tapping for a pit? Well, sucks to be you, make a DX roll to avoid the fall!

But at the same time, player skill doesn't replace the character sheet. You can't exceed the character as defined. Case in point, one very smart guy I know dropped in and ran two NPC halberdiers for me. He had a great idea about how to discern where a secret door could be, using his real-world knowledge of architecture and design. I didn't let that fly, because he was running average IQ former caravan guards who didn't know a secret door from a solid stone wall. If he comes back to game (we're hoping he has time) and runs an Artificer (from GURPS DF 4) I'm totally going to encourage this behavior. Another case in point - a great description about how you disarm a trap doesn't mean you disarm it, it means you get a bonus when you roll for it.

If the player is good at tactical combat, is that okay? Sure. If another memorized every monster book in existence, can he use that stuff? Sure, I have no problem with that - I probably changed some of it anyway. But if he knows how to mix gunpowder, should I let him? Eh, what's your character's Chemistry skill? None? Okay, go for a default roll and good luck. It's the same, to my mind, as making guys who are good at real-world combat roll to hit or to pull off some aimed shot.

To put it another way:
Effects are character dependent, decisions are player dependent.

I think that's pretty old style, personally. The numbers we base your rolls on, and the effects of your decisions on, is on your sheet. But what you can try to do is limited only by your imagination and the situation you find your character in. The difference between "old school" and "new school" games might be the number of defined traits, and number of hard rules for determining effect. But it's a difference of degree, not kind. We're all rolling at some point. In my games, you can try to leverage whatever player skill you have. But your character and your rolls tell us what happened.

Speaking of rolls:

Whenever possible, roll in front of everyone.

I, also, believe in the oracular power of dice. Or at least, I know that randomness is fun, and adds to the game for everyone. It's even better when you roll for numbers everyone either knows or can easily derive in front of everyone. Damage rolls, hit rolls for mooks with a known skill, critical hit table rolls, etc. - roll right in front of everyone. I often just dump the dice over the screen and say "Take that much damage!" without even looking. I'll roll against unknown targets behind the screen, to preserve mysteries like the Will score of the opponent or if there is really a secret door or how many turns it'll take before the reinforcements arrive. I may pretend to roll for stuff that's predetermined, but I don't fudge dice in game.

How about this one, going back through every GURPS game I ran:

"You can die in any random combat. And I'm actively running the NPCs like people - they'll try their best to kill or their best to survive."

This. I run the NPCs for keeps. They don't want to die, or lose fights. I'm going to run them like I think they'd really act, and when I'm not sure I'll roll to see. I don't stack odds. I play the rules fairly and the NPCs use the same rules as you to adjudicate their actions.

Balance is for rewards, not challenges.

I don't pretend you can win every fight. Some might be pushovers, some might be fatal. I'm not scaling challenges to your level. I do scale rewards to challenges, though. The tough monsters have the good treasure. If weak monsters had it, the tough monsters would take it away. If the trap was trivial to disarm, then someone probably would have done it already. If they didn't, there must have been some difficulty that made it too hard to get there or find the spot.

And as discussed before:
I don't provide solutions, I provide problems.

Finally, the world is there for you to change.

This isn't one of those game worlds where you can't change anything. It's all there for you to change, kill, destroy, or build on. My job is to be an impartial judge, not a defender of the canon material. Kill Eliminster. Burn Rivendell. Knife Conan in a dark alley and take his stuff. Whatever. You're the (potential) heroes, or at least the protagonists, and it's your playground. Be prepared to suffer the consequences of your actions (see the bits about dice, balance, rules adjudication, etc.) but you can also reap the rewards. Don't be afraid to whack the important NPC, he's got no plot protection. There is no Lord British here.

That's probably not complete, but it'll do as a manifesto of the game.


  1. This is very good. It's a great way to approach GURPS in an old style adventure gaming manner. A lot of this is what I thought was the theory behind early GURPS, anyway.

  2. It might be - my days as a contributor to the GURPS line is post 3rd edition, revised.

    I'd have a different philosophy for other games, though. If I ever get to run my Victorian-era secret magic game, the game will be less lethal and by design a lot more scaled and forgiving. But that doesn't fit for how I want to run DF. I just want to plunk down monsters and see who wins, not worry about balance or lethality or whatever.

  3. Years ago, I shamed my GM into rolling nearly everything in plain view. I paid for it when my paper man was killed during a "throwaway" encounter on a bad roll. Players just need to be grownups about it. Total Party Kill means the fun is over for everyone, including the GM.

    1. TPK means "make new characters", not "the fun is over".

  4. I agree and disagree. A TPK does mean "make new characters" but after one, not everyone will. I've had a campaign end after a TPK. No one felt too excited about starting back over at the beginning again, some players dropped out, and it took a while before we played again. The morale loss of a TPK can end a gaming group's momentum in playing quite easily. Or end a GM's run.

    There is a reason D&D has so much damn "get better from death" stuff, and why careful players will do stuff like leave associates with wishing magic and have friendly henchmen and such who can come, recover the bodies, and start you all back up again. Because they don't want to start back over at level 1 again. It's disheartening.

    1. Better to say that it *can* be disheartening. I, on the other hand, have so many character ideas that I'm okay with starting over again in the case of character deaths or TPKs

    2. Sure, it isn't always, and not for everyone.

      But I wonder, if you looked at TPKs over the years, if you'd find a number of players didn't return.

      I know in my case, several didn't. The last campaign didn't end in a TPK, not really, but the players pretty much gave up. And two of them didn't choose to start playing in the next game . . . they didn't want to start over.

      The hard core of guys who have more PC ideas than time to play them all exists, but I think it's fair to say TPKs and character deaths can end peoples involvement in the game. And that it is no mistake that there are so many supernatural elements meant to allow you to keep running the same guy, and so few elements that permanently main or cripple that guy, in D&D.

  5. I'm not a fan of maiming and crippling PCs, but I do think the real possibility of character death is required for any real sense of risk. I think the real "solution" here is for death to be possible and not that rare. That way, players get used to it early on. This reminds me of Raggi's Tower of the Stargazer (one of my favorite modules). [Spoiler alert for potential players.]


    The door to the tower (this is basically the first thing the PCs encounter) is trapped: save or die poison. First thing. There is a tension here, because clearly you don't want to guarantee a PC death just to "teach them a lesson," but without some early death you risk the 6th level party TPK followed by total demoralization (the kind of thing described by this post).

    Many of my traps are visible. Something like "you see a huge scythe blade which will certainly cut you in half if it hits you." (Note that I don't do this for all my traps.) And I think this is not a bad compromise. Just making it clear that there's save or die poison on that door handle might be enough to make the possibility of death real.

    This is a hard problem though, and I admit I'm feeling a bit wary about it myself: my current campaign has had no legit PC deaths yet (to be fair, it's based on 4E, and those 4E suckers are harder to kill than cockroaches). I have repeatedly made it clear to players that I don't balance encounters and don't fudge dice, but you never know how they will take a PC death until it happens.

    1. Even that harsh approach won't tell you much. The game I'm thinking of ended in a partial PK, with a couple guys sold into slavery. A few of the players dropped out after losing their guys, despite it not being the first time it happened to them in game (mine or others).

      The enslaved guys escaped, and eventually got crippled up. The players retired their guys then, deeming them unfun to play, and we started a follow-on campaign. Later, their vets were restored to proper functioning and they resumed them, along with PCs run by an assortment of new players. That ended eventually in a TPK, and only some of those players came back for the next campaign.

      We had a steady attrition, and in most cases the loss happened followed a PC they liked getting whacked. A hard core of players would keep going no matter what, but some people took dead PCs as a sign to stop playing for a while. The loss of momentum, loss of a good PC, loss of whatever, was enough to get them to stop playing (even if only for a while).

      And that was in a high-lethality game were a lot of PCs died along the way - it's just that some people would eventually stop playing "coincidently" after losing a PC.

  6. You mentioned that describing how to disarm the trap won't do, it'll only give you a bonus on your roll. Why is that?

    1. Pretty simple. It's a skill-and-die-roll-based resolution system. It's not enough to explain what your character is doing, your character also has to do it. You can neither just roll nor just narrate your action, but narrate and roll to see how well you pull off what you are describing.

      It's like really describing how you'll hit your opponent - you still have to roll to see if you do it. If the game was purely narrative, you wouldn't have to roll. If the game was purely roll-based, you wouldn't need to describe it. But it's a hybrid, like most roleplaying games.

    2. Thanks for clarifying. In my game, some areas are purely roll based and others are purely description based and very few areas of the interaction are hybrids, and for those few, I tend to go with "you can do it either with description, or with a skill". For example, spotting a visible trap can be done with either high perception or through careful description.


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