Note: Unnecessary followup posted.
I like GURPS, but it has a problem.
Since I started poking around in RPG fora again recently, I see it all over the place. Some say it’s a perception problem; that doesn’t mean it’s not a real one. It usually boils down to this: GURPS is too complicated.
The common answer is: You don’t use every rule, just the ones you need.
Both of these statements are true. However, the real problem with GURPS is that people just can’t seem to get into it, particularly GMs, because of the complexity issue and the impracticality of the solution to someone brand-new to the game. How can we get people to try the game without getting buried under hundreds of pages of tables and umpteen zillion splatbooks? How can you tell a new player to just take the bits he needs when he’s already drowning in a sea of useless-to-his-campaign rules?
GURPS needs to be more accessible.
Here I’ll go over some observations and opinions, decrypt the awfulness of the GURPS ruleset and its presentation, ponder why GURPS is slowly making itself irrelevant (although I still like it), and then suggest simple ways for GMs to stop wasting time cutting out the clutter and get on with wasting time building a campaign that players probably won’t like anyway.
If you just want to know how to GM or be a new player of GURPS without all the rhetoric and hyperbolic venom, go straight to the TLDR. Warning: you will still be exposed to these things, but in a more manageable quantity.
What GURPS Isn’t
GURPS isn’t a game. It’s an engine for building your own game. It’s not like Pathfinder or D&D (insert edition here) or Gamma World or Macho Women with Guns, where you have a book that tells you what you can and can’t do, aside from some tweaking in the form of house rules. If there’s some question about how much owie you can inflict on a prismatic goblin with your considerably long sword, you can just look it up. There’s a consistent set of rules in place, and there’s a reason for them: rules provide an impartial arbiter of world mechanics so that everyone pretty much knows how things work and can thus get on with their make-believe lives. Hopefully the rules approximate some semblance of realism (more on this dreaded word later) so that things work pretty much the way you expect them to, or at least consistently.
In more minimalist universal systems like FATE or FUDGE, you also have to define your system boundaries, but these are more like a basic mechanic for resolving things, and the GM must then define what things are appropriate and add them in. This is convenient because it’s fast and simple; it’s a dilemma because even the best GM of a minimalist generic system doesn’t have a staff of nerds who spent thousands of manhours researching how things work in the real world, and so you wind up with shrug-and-go mechanics. You think looking stuff up on tables slows things down? Try sitting bored around a table when players and GMs argue about whether or not a freaking manriki-kusari can drag a maille armored hobelar off his horse or not, or exactly how a magical fireball works. You’d think people were defending their PhD theses the way those arguments go.
On the other end of the spectrum is GURPS. Using the real universe as a model, it tries to provide a framework to cover all sorts of activities in a way that makes sense. And I do mean all sorts of activities. Rules for long-distance running. Rules for how fast you can dig. Rules for maintaining the frizzens on your flintlocks. Rules for starving to death or dying of tetanus. Does anyone remember GURPS Ice Age? A whole supplement about being a prehistoric humanoid trying to get food every day, measured in kcal. The number of skills, traits, and rules on performing activities from the mundane to the outlandishly obscure are in there, or in some additional splatbook. This is why people pick up GURPS and read it like it was Pathfinder, vomit from information overload, and decry it as way too complicated. They’re right, of course; it’s left to maso-nerds to try and play GURPS with every single rule, all the time. To make it actually work for you, you have to chop out gigantic swathes of irrelevant information and distill it to what you actually need. Don’t worry; the rules for how much water you need every day while crossing the desert with camels will still be there if you need it at some point.
The recent update to 4th edition actually made this harder than it used to be. More on this later.
A variant of the "too complex" postulate is the "too much realism" postulate. Usually the writer means exactly the same thing, but confuses a focus on realistic mechanics with an overly-complex and burdensome system. The two have little to do with each other.
- "Realism" is depicting things accurately within the confines of your medium.
- "Complexity" is the quality of having many intricate parts.
In gaming, realism is a useful set of boundary conditions that ensures that things will generally work the way they are observed to work in the real universe. People need food and water, gravity keeps you from floating away, fire hot. These things tend to be true even if your game world has dragons flapping around and elves who are not annoying prisses. When these "unrealistic" elements exist, they still follow a set of laws that remain largely consistent, although you have to black box a few things here or there ("uh… it’s maaaagic!") to make them work. A better term for highly unrealistic games might be "consistency."
GURPS is based on "plausible verisimilitude" (as per Gaming Ballistic’s interview with Sean Punch), or an approximation of real-world laws designed to let the players… whatever. Call it realism. It’s a nice framework that you then deviate from to introduce your unrealistic elements. It’s also a complex system, and has way too many rules for anyone to sanely digest a leisure, let alone in real-time play conditions. But if you drop a bunch of those tables and rules covering corner cases and things that don’t apply to your game, it remains realistic and believable.
On the other hand are games like FATAL (shudder), Phoenix Command, and the like. FATAL purports to be realistic, but it’s about as far as you can get from realistic. Instead, it’s about a thousand pages of largely unnecessary tables and calculations that will (hopefully) never be relevant to play, if in fact the game is playable at all. Phoenix Command takes realism and drives it to absurd degrees. Someone shot at you? Get out the calculators, and about half an hour later, there’s a 99% chance you are dead anyway.
In all honestly, even games like D&D (especially 3.5/Pathfinder) and HERO are fairly complex. They get a little break, because they don’t require you to chop up the rules and build your own system before you play; you can get right to numbercrunching munchkinism. They also don’t have quite the library of ridiculous supplements that GURPS has, although based on forum postings, even people who don’t like GURPS like their supplements as source material. They like them because even without extra rules appropriate to their game of choice, the supplements are generally well-researched and accurate… that is, realistic. Take that.
One further note about GURPS and realism: its basic magic system, which has no realistic index to base things from, still sucks. Most experienced GURPS players do not use it, preferring Path/Book or Syntactic magic out of GURPS Thaumatology instead. This is great for experienced players and GMs, but Path/Book in its bare essence is, "write your own magic system," and Syntactic is, "make up your magic system during play." Neither is helpful to new players or GMs.
GURPS 4th Edition
When GURPS 4th came out, players of GURPS largely liked it. It dragged almost all of the skills, traits, and rules into the basic set, meaning less need for a jillion splatbooks to build what you wanted. Stat imbalance was, if not completely, largely fixed. You could actually build a superhero without breaking all semblance of balance. It was all there in the basic set, mostly in Characters. GURPS players, rejoice!
You know who didn’t rejoice? People who had never played GURPS.
Oh, the rule updates were fine. Very good, actually. But in an effort to unify the rule system and character creation, fourth edition actually made it more difficult for new players to digest. Let’s take a simple example: You heard that GURPS 4th was the shiznit, so you pick it up. You figure to introduce your players to it, you’re going to run a D&Dish adventure. You start making characters up and… what the hell? All of the skills are in a big freaking block. This means that if you’re a normal human being who has played standard RPGs before, you read it all the way through, including skills for using a vacuum suit, phobias of computers, and how to build a motorcycle-riding werehamster. It’s a giant database of things that might or might not apply to your game, helpfully presented in print so you can’t just sort them into a useful table. Oh, and its presentation is super-dry as well.
In 3rd edition, these things were broken out into logical categories like melee weapons, social skills, and physical/mental disadvantages. If your eyes got glassy by trying to get through the mass of text, you could always look for a subheading that seemed like it would fit. Now, 3rd edition didn’t cover everything, but it gave you a basic grounding in how things work, and would allow you to build a passable fantasy or modern campaign. You could always go pick up a supplement to cover other things like superheroes (albeit imbalanced ones), space opera, or martial arts if you wanted to, and when you build your World War II commando campaign, you just left Magic on the shelf. This is not an option in 4th edition.
The 3rd edition book also included two adventures for new players, which is something so important for onboarding that it boggles the mind how they could leave it out of 4th. One was a simple solo "pick your own adventure" style romp through a house with preset encounters and skillchecks, letting you familiarize yourself with the system using prebuilt sample characters. The second was a basic no-magic party adventure called Caravan to Ein Arris, which was actually pretty good for a newbie GM and players. Caravan is available as a free PDF, but that doesn’t mean jack to the potential customer at Barnes & Noble or that tiny little shelf in the game store where RPGs are still carried, leafing through the book and thinking, "How do?"
From a personal experience standpoint, GURPS 3rd Edition, with all of its flaws, made me want to do things because it was easier to envision a character, a game world design, and doing things in that world. GURPS 4th Edition made me think, "hey this is more refined than 3rd edition," but had I never played GURPS 3rd, I would have put the damn thing down right quick-like. If GURPS is a Lego set (a common analogy), then the pieces in 4th fit together a little better, but 3rd actually has a picture of a dinosaur you can build on the cover, and that’s what inspires you to build things.
The GURPS Playerbase: Only the Groggiest of Grognards
Perusing the SJG GURPS forum is similarly discouraging. Here you find numerous arguments over historically accurate wielding of guisarme-voulges, gonzo treatises on the mathematics of technical grappling, and similar discussions that would lead a new player (who is not a polymath with degrees in engineering and history as well as four black belts and a sharpshooter rating) to believe that GURPS is played by crazy people who live on the fringes of simulationism, where there is nothing to do but memorize all those insane rules.
Thing is, that’s exactly what the GURPS playerbase is becoming.
Pen and paper RPGs are already a dwindling subset of geekdom, and everything has taken a chunk out of it. "Miniatures games are killing RPGs!" "Collectible card games are killing RPGs!" "MMORPGs are killing RPGs!" All true, and everyone is fighting to control that little bit of the market that’s left. Everyone except SJG, that is.
SJG actually publishes financial and business reports annually, which is an awful nice thing to do for a company that doesn’t actually have to. Tracing forward through the years, one easily sees GURPS (and other, lesser-known RPGs) dwindle in importance to the point where the 2013 report’s top 40 gross dollar products included exactly one GURPS book: Basic Set Characters, at number 32. GURPS also gets shorter shrift in every report as the years go on, mostly limited to, "Hey, we continued supporting GURPS by having PDFs available!" That’s nice, but they’re all on e23, a store that’s pretty damn obscure for the general gaming public (not to mention the general public), where 26 page Acrobat files are worth eight dollars, and where it’s almost impossible to browse. Coincidentally, the first available report was in 2004, the year 4th edition came out. GURPS priority declines steadily, and by 2010 it’s not even mentioned as a strategic objective.
Munchkin dominates the financial report, and I’m glad that SJG is making some bank on it, otherwise they would have already closed up shop. However, despite occasional claims to the contrary on various RPG fora, this is not good for GURPS. If you make a lot of money selling Munchkin and various flavors of Munchkin, logically you don’t take that profit and throw it into games that are dying on the vine; you make more Munchkin stuff. Maybe you try out some casual dice games as well, or some other card games, or a board game (eep). Or maybe you try to tap into that online gaming market… hey, how long as Ultracorps been in beta? Eight years? Don’t even get started on the Fallout fiasco.
So the GURPS segment is dying off; fine. SJG doesn’t seem to care much. Their market strategy has certainly shifted completely toward the profitable (at the moment) products they make, which is pretty much Munchkin. That’s fine too. But why even bother putting out a product like the 4th edition when it so clearly does nothing to expand your market base? I think the original publication of 4th edition suffered from what I call "engineeritis," the malady that strikes product designers who have been living with their baby for so long that they can’t see what a new customer would see. Since about 2008, I think any GURPS publications (mostly PDF) exist only to squeeze a little more pocket change out of the remaining faithful. It’s now an Ouroboros business model, where hardcore GURPS nerds write material for other hardcore GURPS nerds while the whole product line circles the drain, effectively repelling any new customers. And why not? Maybe they’ll spend money on Munchkin.
Powah to the People, Maybe
The typical hue and cry here goes, "OPEN SOURCE BLAHBLAH."
Not gonna happen. SJG protects their intellectual property, even intellectual property rendered as worthless as GURPS. Still, things have improved. It’s possible now to write game aids and adventures and the like for GURPS without jumping through flaming hoops as a result of their updated policy on the matter. By contrast, my friend Randy once wrote a nifty program to track battle statistics and build character sheets, and sent an inquiry to SJG (probably in the early 2000s) about distributing it for free. His answer was a byzantine contract that stated that SJG owned everything he’d ever done in his life, and he’d have to agree to those terms before they’d even look at it. Needless to say, he dropped it and devoted his time to less asinine projects. Note that they only got around to posting a sensible policy in 2006, right about the time that nobody cared.
However, it could happen. And since SJG seems unwilling to put new player game aids or adventures into the market (at least into any market where anybody might find them), maybe it makes sense to publish some online. Stuff requiring GURPS Lite only, and for free. Maybe even one of those missing solo training adventures. Maybe some critters that new GMs can drop into an adventure right away. Maybe, you know, the stuff that’s completely missing from GURPS now that poses a barrier to entry.
"Hurr durr why don’t you do it then Mu?" Maybe I will, but my bitterness level has risen while writing this. I’ll have to wait for it to subside first.
So for a new GM who wants to get into GURPS, here are my recommendations. Take any or none of them; I make even less money from GURPS (zero) than SJG does (slightly north of zero).
- Download GURPS Lite. Free. It’s a little less complete than the 3rd edition version was (also grr 4th edition) but it’s enough to actually play.
- Think up a campaign setting, historical or modern, no magic or other supernatural powers (since these don’t exist in GURPS Lite). Go through the lists of advantages, disadvantages, skills and equipment. Cross out all the things that don’t apply in your game world. They do not appear in your game world, and players cannot take them. Congratulations; you have just chopped the hell out of the rules, which is exactly what you need to do to make an actual game out of GURPS.
- Get the combat mechanics down. Many complaints about GURPS revolve around how long combat takes to resolve. They’re mostly right, so make sure you know how stuff works so you can keep things moving. Make up two 150-point characters fighting each other (or just assign some stats and skills and don’t worry about points). Check out this page of combat examples. I would suggest more pages, but I can’t think of any. Yet.
- Build some more characters so you can see how they’re likely to turn out. If you like them, keep them around for NPCs or as instant PCs. Go ahead and make lots of them so your poor players don’t have to learn any of this nonsense when they first play.
- Download Caravan to Ein Arris and read through it. It can be played using GURPS Lite.
- Trick some people into playing GURPS.
For a new player, you can try to find a game online using Google + Hangouts or some other system (Skype and Google Docs is a barebones combination people seem to like). You can also try on Roll20 or the MapTool fora. Honestly, GURPS isn’t really too popular in those media as compared to d20 variants, FATE… hell, more people probably play Wuthering Heights RPG at this point. I’ll just assume that someone has tricked or coerced you into playing GURPS, and you don’t know anything about it except what you read on that Mu guy’s blog that it’s terrible but he likes it anyway. In that case…
- Grab GURPS Lite. Or if that’s too much trouble, grab GURPS Ultra-Lite. And if that’s… well, you have some points and stuff, and some skills, and once in a while you roll three six-sided dice. Just download GURPS Lite and pretend to read it.
- Tell your GM that you don’t know anything about GURPS and need help building a character. He’ll have to, since he’s invested way more time than you have at this point and is desperate for players. Tell him what you’d like to play. Try to make it fit inside his campaign description. Seriously, wanting to play a psionic vampire dill pickle with a rank of Colonel in the space marines and contacts inside McDonald’s corporate HQ gets old after you’ve heard it several hundred times, which all GURPS players have.
- During play, just do things that would seem to be logical, and by logical I don’t mean intellectually logical; do things that would make sense if you were the person in the scenario instead of a nerd who got tricked into playing GURPS. Your actions’ consequences should make sense. (Realism! Hah!)
- If you have to roll some dice, roll some dice (usually three of them) and the GM, who actually has to know the rules, will tell you what happened. Over time you, too, may discern the mysteries of 3d6 roll-under systems, and will actually begin to read GURPS Lite for yourself, starting you on your journey to complex-system-snobbery. You are doomed.
Someday, I think it may be possible for player-created material to do the job that SJG has not, and that is to make GURPS accessible enough so that players might actually want to play it instead of being frightened away by clumpy lists of skills that have nothing to do with each other and fanboys debating the difficulty modifier appropriate to isolate the Higgs Boson. It could happen. Probably right around the time GURPS enters public domain.