Saturday, December 8, 2012

Introducing GURPS Combat to New Players

This post springs from two different sources.

The first was a question in this thread, one I linked to earlier.

The second was seeing this post over on threed6, a blog about gaming in general but GURPS-powered fantasy gaming in specific.

The GURPS combat system is potentially very complex. It has a simple underlying mechanic (roll 3d low to hit or defend yourself, roll high for effect) but it has a lot of options. How many? There are a multiple chapters in the Basic Set about combat, and some dudes went off and wrote a whole book of more combat rules.

Even for experienced RPG players, there is a lot of options you can turn on, depending on how cinematic/unrealistic or how detailed you want it to be.

How do you introduce new players to GURPS combat?

By players I am thinking both new players with an experienced GM, or new players with a new GURPS GM. In either case, I am assuming they've played an RPG before.

My advice is:

- start with Combat Lite, from pg. 324-328 of GURPS Basic Set: Characters.

- if you use minis and maps, do so, but use them just for locations of the PCs and NPCs. Don't bust out the Tactical Combat rules just yet.

- only turn on optional rules that directly affect the PCs at hand in a major way. If you have a guy with a two-handed sword and you want to use the rules for multiple parries with two-handed weapons (GURPS Martial Arts, p. 123), then use that specific rule. Same with an archer type who might need the rules for Quick-Shooting Bows (GURPS Martial Arts, p. 119) - add that one in from the start if a PC would need it to run their character as designed or conceived. Or if someone makes a big beefy guy who intends to run people down with his spiked shield, yeah, better use the slam rules from p. B371-2.

- DO use the rules for Deceptive Attacks (p. B369) right away, because otherwise fights might drag on when they'd normally be won with ease by the more skilled fighter.

All other optional rules? Turn them off. Ignore them. All hits go to the torso unless people aim at other places and you feel like letting them. Critical hits just bypass defense rolls, and only 3s do anything interesting (max damage). Don't worry about bad footing penalties, flanking shots, lighting penalties, etc. right now.

Add them in, one or two at a time, each session. Get used to the ones you have in play before you go and add more on top. Turning on all the options at once will result in a slow game, forgotten rules, and less fun. It would be like starting with an 18th level magic-user in AD&D on your very first session - too much to deal with at once.

- enforce some speed of decision. I do 3-2-1 counts if it looks like someone is wasting time trying to decide on the "best" option. This will encourage more flow, and get through turns more quickly, which means more practice actually playing the rules.

- put the books away. Just run it based on what you remember and fix it next session or after a break.

- don't forget it's a game. You can declare a do-over if it all turns out stupidly because people didn't understand defenses or what All-Out Attack really means or that armor is important.

What about new-to-RPGs players?

For these folks, keep it even simpler. Use the rules as above if you are all starting out. Otherwise you can use the normal, full set of rules. Just tell them the basics for now.

Then, have them tell you what they want to do on their turn, in real terms, and interpret that for them. Teach them the rules for it bit by bit, but stress the important thing is GURPS will generally reward you for doing the reasonable and realistic thing in that situation. So let them say "Can I hit him in the head with my sword?" and say "Yes, that's an Attack, and you probably mean the top of his head to brain him, so roll at your skill minus 7." That sort of thing.

Some notes on this:

- tell people their broad options. Let them know they can attack normally, do nothing except defend, or attack without regard to defense. Let them know they can wait and attack later, and just ask them for their trigger.

- tell them they can make their attacks a little more subtle or speedy or whatever to be harder to defend against but harder for them to land, and then just apply the result as a flat number (if they want to, make it -4 to hit, -2 to defend).

- as they get the hang of it more, teach them more of the rules. But always emphasize that they'll get further by doing the realistic thing than by trying to game the system for maximum results.

- if they are at a table with new GURPSers, too, well, I think that is very tricky. It might be better to teach them a game you know better, or hold off on the invite until you have a rules guru (or at least rules understander) to lean on. You don't want to teach someone to drive the same day you're learning.

What else is out there to help?

The Combat Cards are good, for people helped by that sort of thing. Make sure you only pass out the ones you need, and scribble out rules you aren't using yet. You can re-print new ones as you add options.

Is this how you learned, Dungeon Fantastic Dude?

No, I learned playing Man-to-Man. We played the earliest version of the GURPS combat system as a tactical wargame with character generation rules. It was fun, but it was all we were doing - there was no concern over time spent, getting on with the adventure, keeping the flow going. The fighting was the whole point, and dwelling on the minutia was part of the fun. It wasn't a big deal if Rogan the Reaver lost to Fiendish Frederick this time, we'd just play again later. By the time we got to 1st edition GURPS, most of us were old hands at the combat system.

But this is how I play. I run with a minimal combat rules set much of the time, to speed the fun-but-not-critical fights along. The big fun fights get played with much more detail, of course, since that's how we like it. And this is how I teach the game this way now, and I think it works well.

I hope this helps people with GURPS combat involving new players, new GMs, or new role-players.


  1. One of the things Rob (Conley) and I would do to introduce people into GURPS was run a sample combat with what we called 'tin can orc'. A GURPS orc in a suit of heavy armor. This did two things, first it taught the player the basics of combat and to also show the player that an orc in GURPS is way different than an orc in most other games. The simulation helped demonstrate even at higher point levels that a player needed to be wary of combat, all it takes is one lucky shot and a low point David has the chance of taking down a high point Goliath.

    1. A sample combat that showcases the effects of DR and the "a lucky shot can kill you" is a good idea. If you have time for a sample fight, that is a great way to go.

  2. Such a useful post.

    I tried a practice ten on ten orc melee combat with GURPS yesterday.

    It was a F'ing nightmare.

    After three rounds, limbs missing, weapons dropped, lying down fighting, lying down stunned.

    I was bored just tracking this stuff.

    I did a practice one on one. And it's a much better time to run GURPS with all the options on


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