Thursday, June 14, 2012

Why I like GURPS

I've been thinking about why I enjoy playing and running GURPS so much. I started out playing D&D and it's still a native language to me, but I don't run it or play it. I switched the Rolemaster and I enjoyed that, but I don't play it anyway, either. Why not? Well, here's why I enjoy GURPS so much.

Combat is potentially lethal. One good hit, or one lucky hit, can kill most PCs in most situations. While high character skill and clever PC tactics can ameliorate the risk to some extent, it doesn't eliminate this. Supernatural traits can eliminate risks to an extent, but only a very few expensive ones can remove the downsides to combat.

Low-level D&D was lethal, too, but your HP score would rise and make it less and less lethal. You need save-or-die to make up for this, and increased monster damage. GURPS pretty much stays lethal the whole time. This really pushes the importance of clever tactics and player skill (see below) to minimize the times you'd playing chicken with the law of averages.

You can design what you want. The key aspects to point-buy systems in general are that you have equality of choice, and can choose.

While rolling up a random guy is fun for me, the fun wears off a lot. Plus as amusing as 3d6-in-order can be I like to decide what kind of guy I want to run and give him a whirl. It's jarring to me to have a character concept in my head and then roll up something different. Traveller might kill you in chargen, even, and your concept of "Luke Skywalker" might turn into "40 year old ex-Marine" in no time.

You can start at any power level your want. While D&D has been described as being a system where you can be Elric or Conan or Gandalf or Fafhrd or the Grey Mouser, you can't. You can aspire to be them deep into the campaign, and then only if you roll up the right stats and roll well on your saving throws. GURPS lets you choose where to start. My current Dungeon Fantasy game is 250 points plus 50 in disadvantages plus 5 points in quirks. My old pirate game was scads of 50 point guys plus a few choice 75 and 100 pointers. I've played power levels in between often. You really can stat up Conan if you like, and just run adventures with him, no waiting or build up.

Player skill matters. Don't let the skill system and Perception checks fool you, player skill matters greatly in a lethal system. I like this a lot. Combat is lethal, damage can last a while and impair you greatly. Consequences for failure are realistic, which means falling 10' can be really bad, burns suck, and mishandling a grenade unpleasant at best. But a good player can use this to his or her advantage. GURPS is a game system where slicing the pie is a valid and useful tactic, throwing flaming oil can be a fight ender if you do it right, and using your head is rewarded. That lethality goes both ways, so your brains can maket a fight totally unfair in your favor, or kill you if you get overconfident.

One system to rule them all. Or at least flexibility to cover most things I want to do in gaming. We can keep rolling 3d6 whether it's pistols or swords, fists or social repartee. We don't need a new system and we don't need more rules. This is why I've run a fair cross-section of games, including low-power high-lethality pirates, fantasy games from low to high power, and post-apocalyptic madness.

The really fun bonus part to that flexibility is that my players know that deep down, I really could have aliens attack my Dungeon Fantasy game without any extra work - I'd just grab GURPS Ultra Tech and pick out blasters for the UFOs.

It's simple. It really is. There are a lot of rules for special cases, but the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide is rightfully infamous for being full of tiny special case rules and stuff you didn't notice you did wrong until years of read-throughs later. GURPS is a toolbox, and you can pick and choose tools when you want them and need them. You can drill down to extreme details in a critical one-on-one duel or fuzz out the details for fast resolution of a big fight. Yes, I'm unashamedly responsible for some of these rules, too, so I'm biased in their favor. But even I don't use all the rules I co-created all the time. You don't need to. People can be intimidated by the sheer amount of rules, but there aren't really a lot in play at any one time. And you can freely ignore most of them most of the time. But you've got a whole system of consistent and reasonable rulings to answer questions that you as the players of the game might not know the answers to. How long to climb a ladder, how high can I jump, does the king believe me, how much does my guy know about liches? It's easy enough to dig deep or you can just wing it.

Anyway, that's pretty much why I like GURPS so much.


  1. I also came up the D&D, Rolemaster, GURPS route... but with a lot more SF gaming mixed in, with Traveller and Space Master.

    The worst thing about GURPS for new players is that the complexity is front-loaded: precisely because of all those good things (it's a point-buy system and you can design a high-powered character up front), it's hard for a new player to get up and running. If you don't know how combat works, how can you decide what your combat guy's ability numbers should be?

    That is, to be fair, the thing D&D gets utterly right. Sure, it compromises genericness and universality, but you really can get up and running with a first-level character in five minutes or less, and leave the hard stuff until a bit later.

    This is why, with my Man in Black hat on, I run a lot of GURPS demo games, in all sorts of genres and at all sorts of power levels. I'm doing my bit to shave off that part of non-GURPS-playing gamerdom that's prepared to give it a try and make them into converts. I hand out pre-gen characters, and it's pretty much self-explanatory: you're rolling 3d6 against the stat or skill, there may be modifiers, tell me how much you succeed or fail by, here's how Luck works, here's how mental disadvantages work, aiming is good, getting hit is bad, anything else you can ask me in play.

    1. Without disagreeing with anything Roger said, I think that the very best system that I ever played for "simple, flavorful, grab your books and ten people can be playing 15 minutes later" was the old West End Games Star Wars, using what became the d6 system.

      It rocked. You picked a template, assigned some extra dice, and you're in a Galaxy Far, Far Away . . .

      The other thing that made WEG Star Wars fun, I think, was that everyone could do everything, with the exception of Force skills, obviously reserved for Jedi. You were always at least as good as a mook, but could be spectacularly better. So you could fly a starship with a low Technical score, but the Pilot could do it a lot better. It made the scale go from "adequate" to "frackin' awesome!" rather than "you can't do that" to "you can do that really well."

  2. A monster game is fine as long as, at its core, there's still a microgame underneath it all.

    Sometimes I like that there's a default setting in Gamma World Third edition or classic Traveller. But for some things... I know exactly what I want already and GURPS is clearly the path of least resistance to get to it-- especially in anything that leads towards more-or-less realistic normal human beings such as "space" gaming or modern day stuff.

    I think D&D is defined as much by its classic scenarios as it is by its rules-- and the challenging thing about GURPS is that it assumes you already know what kind of game you want.

    1. I think D&D is defined as much by its classic scenarios as it is by its rules-- and the challenging thing about GURPS is that it assumes you already know what kind of game you want.

      No argument there. It's a toolbox game system, not a game-and-setting combo (Infinite Worlds notwithstanding). So if you come into it without an idea of what you want, it's going to seem as intimidating as all heck.

  3. Don't you feel like the flexible point buy system is kind of in tension with the potential lethality though? I remember reading about MERP (Rolemaster, not GURPS, I know) characters that took three hours to create and died in 5 minutes to a critical hit.

    Also, you can play D&D starting at any level too.

    Don't get me wrong, I love the fact that you're playing dungeon crawls with GURPS. One of these days I'll even get around to reading some GURPS books! GURPS Goblins will probably be the first product I pick up, because I've heard so many good things about it. And I gather the setting books are pretty good too.

    1. Don't you feel like the flexible point buy system is kind of in tension with the potential lethality though?

      Not really; once you get used to chargen they don't really take that long at all. Plus it teaches you to be very, very careful. You can even make the case that this is one reason my players take every fight pretty seriously (even if they make odd tactical choices sometimes) - you can't just roll up a new guy in 5 minutes. There is a bit more to lose.

      And yeah, you can start D&D at any level - but there is that mix of the "starting above 1st level is cheating" idea and "How much gear and magic items should they get?" With a point-buy system, neither of those is an issue. Any level of points is fine, and you can buy whatever you can buy with the points you've got (even if that means taking wealth advantages and buying it with cash).

      As for GURPS Goblins, it's a good but very quirky book. It's very unusual for GURPS - it's even more out there than Discworld.

  4. I took an odd path through roleplaying games, *starting* with West End Games' original Star Wars d6 system and a bit of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. I progressed through non-standard games like Cyberpunk 2020 and Alternity and Mutant Chronicles. I didn't actually play D&D until 3.0, and I have played quite a bit of 3.X since then. After high school, I found GURPS Traveller and that was my first exposure to GURPS. In college, I played lots of GURPS 3rd Edition of all kinds--World of Darkness, Traveller, homebrew Fantasy games, etc.

    Then I started hating GURPS. In fairness, it was the group's inability to stick with a game. We had times where'd we make characters for a "cool campaign!!" and never play. That group ended up being "saved" by a very long running, epic D&D 3.0 game. Fast forward to now and the rear-view mirror contains a VERY long Alternity game and another very long D&D 3.5 game.

    Then something funny happened. I swore I'd never look at GURPS again. And I didn't, really. Instead, I was playing Mongoose Traveller in a Star Frontiers-inspired setting. Mongoose made a critical error: they failed to include *weights* of equipment in their main tech book--the Central Supply Catalog. While I still disliked GURPS for the complexity of chargen and the difficulty of the rules (particularly, in 3rd edition, the autofire rules), I always loved the well-researched background information. Despite selling most of my GURPS 3rd Ed collection (wish I hadn't done that now), I kept about 6 choice sci-fi books. So, naturally, when I needed masses/weights for equipment, I turned to GURPS Ultra-tech and Ultra-tech 2. Then I got curious and discovered that GURPS 4th Edition had been released in 2004 (keep in mind this was just last November, so I was waaaaaay behind). I bought GURPS Ultra Tech (the new one), just to check it out. Sure enough, it had everything I needed for the Mongoose Traveller game. Then I got curious about the revised weapon stat blocks--things looked simpler to me, but yet still clearly had far more detail than what I had been playing. This led to a very innocent purchase of the Basic Set...I figured I'd just check it out, y'know, no real commitment. My gaming group buddy started accusing me of having an affair with SJ Games. Little did he know that the innocent purchase of Basic Set would burgeon into a renewed interest in a game I hadn't looked at in almost 10 years.

    Where am I now? Well, I own probably 80% of the current list of GURPS 4th Edition releases, give or take. Some in hardback, but most in PDF (I'd already made this transition, and SJ Games' PDFs do NOT disappoint!). But I didn't just buy a bunch of books and wonder about what it would be like to actually _play_ GURPS again. I ditched plans for a Mongoose Traveller bounty hunter game and planned a GURPS Fallout/XCOM hybrid. That was all in early December. We *just* finished the first installment of that campaign about 3 weeks ago! My entire group, many of whom had never played GURPS before at all (but all very experienced gamers) are now COMPLETELY HOOKED. As long as I'm GMing, I can say that I will probably be using GURPS again for the foreseeable future.

    Why did I just share this incredibly long story? Because the reasons we like GURPS are very similar to what Peter wrote. We love the "realistic" (simulationist) rules. We LOVE the 3d6 bell curve (if I see another d20, I'm going to throw it through a window). Most of the group basically refuses to ever make a PC without a point system anyway, so GURPS naturally fit that instinct very well. And most importantly for me, I feel that GURPS 4th Edition is so much improved over 3rd Edition that all my quibbles and complaints have evaporated.

    So, there's my story. Long live GURPS!

    1. Welcome to the small-but-enthusiastic GURPS population Jake!

      I personally liked 3rd edition GURPS, but not everyone did. One of my former gamers would play it but it took 4th edition to get him to run GURPS, and he uses it for everything (he's running Dark Heresy with it right now). The guy who runs Inquisitor Marco in my current game once played in my 3rd edition game and quit mostly because he disliked the rules. He later played 4e with another GM and said "I take back everything bad I ever said about GURPS." So I'm pretty convinced 4e rocks on toast. :)

  5. I never played Traveller, although we made characters a few times. We kinda felt like the chargen was the game.

  6. Ballistic - yes, that's another system where you can get up and running very quickly. It never really caught fire for me, but I know quite a few players and GMs who still love it.

    Brendan - two things come out of that. One, taking three hours to generate a MERP character sounds pretty excessive, or maybe the result of sharing the book with other players - it's a bunch of rolls and assignments, then a bunch of point spending, but there are quite a few table lookups involved. (Or you're starting well above first level, which will certainly take longer...) Two, something I saw quite often in the transition from *D&D to *master was that players had to re-learn how to play the game - quite a lot of long-time D&Ders were used to having lots of warning when a combat was going badly, so that they could get out and regroup, whereas a *master (or GURPS) combat is not something you should ever get into lightly. (jeffro may want to comment on expectations of fair fights; it was before the days of explicit encounter balancing, but I think there was still a feeling that a fight was something you got into because that was what the game was about.)

    1. Love of death is something I specifically had to learn from the Old School Revival.

      As a child of the 80's, I think my generation largely accepted the possibility for death while weighting the overall scenario outcome to a happy ending. Car Wars is a death-loving tactical board game... but when running it as an rpg for the first time a few years ago... as soon as the story came out, I noticed I really did not want to let the player lose or die. To snap out of that, I had to run a Labyrinth Lord session where I killed most of the players. I was sure I had failed, but one of the surviving players... she just said, "I loot the bodies" while her friends rerolled characters in five minutes. The world didn't end.

      The "New School" gamers I see at small cons are an entirely different kettle of fish. I'm not sure what the tipping point is, but it seems like there are a lot of people nowadays that treat RPG's like a video game where any amount of blundering should result in an encounter with a boss monster that they can just-so-happen to defeat with their last hit point. Whatever people's entry point in gaming for the past ten years or so seems to imprint this expectation on them regardless of what system they end up using.

    2. Responding to a few things here - yeah, D&D (at least early D&D iterations) got that "roll up and play in minutes" thing right. GURPS totally front-loads complexity. I just found that in actual play GURPS let me do more of the things I wanted to do the way I wanted to do them, and also do the same in chargen. I'd still play D&D, but I can't see me running it.

      The old-school/new-school split is interesting. I can see video games being an influence here, but lots of people I know play hardcore-mode Diablo, where character death is a real and present game-ending danger. But you get to start back up and get rolling - and I know the part I hate most in video games is rolling up the damn character, and what I hate second-most is crawling around a maze trying to find the damn boss monster to kill so I can complete the dungeon. So maybe that's part of the reason for indestructible PCs and railroad to the boss monster spreading to other games.

      It's part of what makes me wonder where GURPS fits on "old school" and "new school." It's lethal and rewards player skill, but it also features such hated things as skill systems and deciding your character's personality before you start, not during your first few levels.

    3. Well, up to a point - when I'm adding a new player to an ongoing campaign, I usually leave a few points unallocated for stuff they didn't think of at first (which may well be personality-affecting advantages or disadvantages).

      I've seen OSR games, or at least games that are called OSR, with skill systems. I think it's worth remembering that RuneQuest (II) is almost as Old School as AD&D, and in fact I'm faintly surprised it doesn't get the same sort of revivalist love.

      Speaking only from my own experience, I don't think it was necessarily a video-game influence; most of the people I play with aren't cRPG fans at all. Rather, as we grew older and shifted from a dungeon-bash mode into a more personality-based interactive mode, we found we simply got less joy out of a big fight and more out of a big negotiation (which is a bit less likely to be lethal).

    4. I don't know what the RuneQuest licensing is like, but I think the OGL was a big enabler of the D&D OSR.

    5. The RuneQuest II rules were converted, removing the Glorantha specific properties, and re-released, OGL, as Legend, also by Mongoose Publishing. Well worth a look, as the PDF is like a buck at

    6. I also think that a great deal of the "front loading" of character generation can be cut into with a little GM effort. Have a look at the Dungeon Fantasy 1 book for details on how they made a list of "appropriate" advantages, disadvantages and skills - totally eliminates the Extra Arm and 360 degree Vision advantages as being outside of what you need to pay attention to, and lets you focus on the important stuff right away.

    7. @j.packer - Yeah, you can cut some of the front loading this way, but it's still a longer process than earlier and/or less complicated games. Experience with the game doesn't necessarily shorten it, either, as your more experienced players will often spend more time making minor choices during chargen. I've got guys who have been playing GURPS with me since 1994, and who take longer than the new guys to make up a PC . . . even with templates.

      You can narrow down the amount of stuff a prospective player or GM needs to learn, though, and that's invaluable. And it's certainly shorter than "here is GURPS Basic Set, go nuts." It's just not short.

  7. Never found character creation for GURPS took more than a few minutes. This "front-loaded complexity" is a myth as far as I can tell. People who take a long time to make a character usually have no idea what character they want to play, then end up leafing through numerous options. It's really pretty easy.

    1. I agree - if you know what you want to run. Games that back-load decisions about what you want to run (say, Basic Set D&D - roll stats in order, choose a class, and go) generally give you only a few very broad options to choose from to start. GURPS front-loads those.

      But while I can make a PC I want to run in a few minutes with GURPS, I usually spend a lot longer than that deciding, trying options, weighing decisions . . .


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