For the past three years I have been running a weekly fantasy GURPS game in NYC, and this past week we just completed the campaign! Now that I’m moving to Boston and reflecting on my experience running GURPS consistently for several years, I have some thoughts regarding ways to make GURPS a better system. But before we get to a hypothetical 5th Edition of GURPS, let’s start with some recent disappointment I’ve had with Steve Jackson Games, the makers of GURPS.
So for a few months Sean Punch, one of the lead designers on GURPS, has been hinting on his blog that there’s a “secret GURPS project” in the works (and yes, following Sean Punch’s blog makes me a ridiculous fanboy). The hopeful optimist in me was praying that this was going to be the announcement of GURPS 5th Edition. GURPS 4th Edition has been around for 11 years, and production of GURPS related products has been stagnant for many years. Yet the past 5 years has witness the “indie explosion” within the table-top RPG industry, and my hope was that Steve Jackson Games was going to announce their new edition and jump into the expanding market. Yet instead of GURPS 5th Edition, what is announced? GURPS Mars Attacks. That’s right, GURPS’ “secret project” is a setting book for a campy but utterly forgettable 20 year old movie no one has even thought about for 19 years. If Steve Jackson Games thinks this is something people were going to get excited about, they are wrong. Worst off, even if someone wanted to play a Mars Attacks RPG, GURPS would be the last system they would want to use. I think Steve Jackson Games has forgotten that while 10 years ago GURPS was really the only good universal RPG system out there, nowadays they have a lot of competition. Mars Attack is a fluffy, campy setting, and not the type of thing that people would want to play for a sustained campaign. As such newer systems like FATE and Savage Worlds would be so much better for a Mars Attacks game. They are much better for a fluffy, rules-light, short length campaigns. GURPS, conversely, is what a friend of mine sometimes call the “Gritty, Urban, Realistic Punishment System.” That’s not at all what you want when playing a Mars Attacks game. For me this release shows that Steve Jackson Games has both run out of good ideas for the current edition of GURPS, and that they’re making no real attempt to compete with the new competition. Most importantly, they’ve lost sight of what their system is good for (something I will be addressing below).
So originally I just wanted to write a post lamenting the Mars Attacks reveal, but instead I have decided to write a post regarding what changes I would like to see made in a hypothetical 5th Edition of GURPS. Before I begin I want to acknowledge the excellent article written about 6 months ago by K. David Ladage, also titled The Future of GURPS. He does an excellent job going over the history of GURPS’ production, including the many production issues they’ve had and how a 5th Edition of GURPS could address these issues. I would absolutely suggest that you read it! The article focuses much more on production then it does the actual rules of GURPS, and while I agree with pretty much everything Ladage suggests for 5th Edition I want to extol more upon the rules of GURPS. In this regard I consider this post a continuation of Ladage’s suggestions for a 5th Edition of GURPS. For a lack of a more creative option I am just going to bullet my thoughts for rules changes (and some production changes) I think should occur with GURPS 5th Edition.
1) Revamp Social Skills: Like most RPGs, GURPS tends to emphasis physical and combat skills more than social skills. Yet since GURPS is a universal system it is doing itself a disservice. It’s not as if those social skills are not there in the long list of skills, it is just that the books and the rules dedicate little ink to their usage, and there’s little in the way of complexity when it comes to resolving social conflict. The section dedicated to social skills, or what GURPS dubs “influence rolls,” is literally a single page. The first thing that needs to happen is there needs to a base attribute specifically for social skills. Right now social skills are governed by the Intelligence attribute, which is both unrealistic and leads to IQ min-maxing, which is already a problem in GURPS. Social skills (along with Will and Perception) need to be disconnected from IQ, and a social attribute, lets say “Charisma,” should be created to govern all social skills. There’s already an advantage called Charisma, which cost 5 points per level add a +1 per level to all influence rolls! This is extremely over-powered and in the GURPS forums the designers of GURPS have admitted that Charisma should be 10-15 points per level. But an advantage that costs 10-15 points per level and adds to all social skills is already, for all intents and purposes, acting as an attribute. Making it one would go a long way in foregrounding the importance of social skills in players.
With a Charisma attribute (which I think should cost 15 points per level), the rules for reactions rolls can now become base Charisma rolls with all the relevant modifiers. In addition to creating a Charisma attribute and simply dedicating more ink to the importance of social skills, GURPS should have a more quantified system for social contests. Right now the most complexity you’ll get in the rule is a simply contest of roles. However in games like Shadow, Sword and Spell, which is mechanically very similar to GURPS, there is a tiered system of social contests that make social interaction mechanically more like a fight. Something similar would add a level of complexity to social skills that would make them comparable to fighting skills in GURPS. This is desirable in and of itself and also adds more emphasis on the importance of social skills within the game.
2) Reformat The Books, For Players and GMs: As I’ve previously mentioned in my post titled “Give GURPS a Try,” the GURPS books are laid out perfectly for reference, but terribly for understanding. The books are so impenetrable to people who’ve never played GURPS, even experienced role-players, that just handing a potential player the book and telling them to make a character is a recipe for utter frustration (and I have experienced this first-hand). The books make absolutely no attempt to present the materials in a way that either a new player or GM could just pick up and start playing. This needs to change!
First, from a player’s perspective, GURPS gives no guidance on how to create a good character. When players look at the books what they find of 250+ pages of alphabetically arranged Advantages, Disadvantages and Skills. Don’t get me wrong, that alphabetical list needs to be there, but it’s the last thing new players need to see. For any given game and setting, the majority of those skills do not apply, yet like I said the list still needs to be in this format. What GURPS needs to do is create a section specifically for character creation, and this section needs to do several things. It needs to lay out the basic mechanics in simple terms, it needs to say explicitly that players should not start looking through the long list of options, but instead should first create a character concept, then consult with their GM before even looking forward in the book. This section should also included both templates for basic characters and sample, completed characters so new players can get a sense of where to start and what a completed character looks like. These are things that are woefully lacking in any current introductory section of the books (they’re instead hidden in small sections in the back of the books).
Second, from a GM’s perspective, the GURPS books are laid out somewhat matter of fact, like the skill sections, which mean that rules that are really important to running a successful GURPS game are given just as much ink as trivial and esoteric rules. Similar to a lack of an introduction for players there’s a lack of an introduction for GMs that emphasizes the core rules and the important mechanics a GM needs to know in order to successfully run a GURPS game. GURPS makes no attempt to lay out its rules in a way where you can see how “all the moving parts” interact and work together, and as such it’s really easy to miss a rule that is integral to the system operating as designed. For example, the basic mechanic in GURPS is rolling 3d6 and trying to get under your skill level. If your skill is 12 and you roll an 11, you success, but a 13 is a failure, very simple. However the probability curve of skills is very narrow, and once players get skills at 14 or higher (which doesn’t take very long) they are succeeding ~90% of the time on those skills. This is one of the reasons that high-level play in GURPS feels broken and unchallenging. As such when I first started GMing I would modulate those rules. “This challenge is a little harder than usual, so you’re at a -2 to your skill roll.” Well it turns out that there’s actually a tiny section in the books which tells GMs to do just that, and it provides concrete examples of the difficulty of tasks and what kind of skill modifier they should receive. Too bad it took me almost a year to even discover this section of the book, since it’s only a 2 page section among the 600+ pages in the base books. Modulating rolls as such is essential to running a game that feels challenging for players, but this otherwise essential rule is tucked away in the book, and never emphasized as an integral part of the GM’s role. Another example is damage modifiers. All types of base damage are subject to significant modifiers depending on the type of damage. Yet is this clearly spelled out? Of course not. It’s hidden in some back section of the books. These are only a few examples of several things that should be clearly laid out in an introductory section for the GM.
At its core this issue isn’t about the rules, it’s about the presentation of the rules. The base books needs to have their alphabetical lists of skills and such, but they also need dedicated introductory section that emphasize the need to know rules for both players and GMs. Otherwise GURPS will continue to be an intimidating and impenetrable game to people without an experienced GURPS player there to guide them.
3) Embrace and Own what makes GURPS Unique: This is a more amorphous and existential change than it is a rules change, but I think GURPS needs to own what it is good at, and what makes it unique. And what is that? To me it’s the “simulationist” nature of GURPS. The system attempts to seamlessly represent “reality” (see my previous post on GURPS if you want to know what I mean when I say “reality”) with minimum arbitrary abstraction. As I said, a friend of mine once quipped that that GURPS stood for “Gritty, Urban, Realistic Punishment System.” GURPS is probably the best system out there for a gritty, realistic role-playing game. It does a superb job at making thing feel actually dangerous. It lacks many of the gamy constructs other RPGs have that make them feel contrived and procedural. It is a game where you actions feel like they have significant mechanical and narrative weight. Hitting someone with a sword (or getting hit by a sword) in GURPS feels significant and nerve racking. In games like D&D it feels procedural. It is this very gritty realism that makes GURPS unique. Yet the creators of GURPS seems to have forgotten this, and instead are publishing light, fluffy things like Mars Attacks.
In the past 10 years several “universal” RPG systems have been released that are now competing with GURPS. The two most successful ones are FATE Core and Savage Worlds. And in the coming months both the AGE System from Green Ronin Publishing and the Cypher System from Monte Cook Games will enter the market as competing universal role-playing systems. Yet all these systems have more in common with each other than they do with GURPS. All of them are much more “narrativist” than GURPS. Since the beginning “indie RPG revolution” this has been the main trend. Indie RPGs, by their very nature, don’t have huge budgets and decades of experience to playtest rules-heavy RPGs, and as such the industry has trended towards rules-light games, which also tend to be much more narrative and gamy than simulationist. In this sense it’s fair to say that the entire RPG industry is moving away from the style of game GURPS offers. Yet this could easily be a major advantage to GURPS, not a disadvantage. GURPS is definitely the most well know of the simulationist RPGs, and games like RuneQuest, HeroQuest and the Basic Role-Playing System are not in a position to overtake GURPS in terms of popularity or name recognition. If GURPS wants to succeed, it if wants to compete with FATE Core, Savage Worlds, and the newer “universal” systems being released, it need to embrace how it’s difference from all these other games. It needs to embrace its gritty, realistic bonafides, otherwise it will never be able to compete. As I said above, anyone who would want to play a Mars Attacks RPG would certainly be better off using Savage Worlds or FATE Core. Those systems are much better at replicating that light, campy feel that defines Mars Attacks. This is not to say that GURPS can’t be used to run a more rules-light, campy game. I do it all the time. With GURPS it’s actually very easy to use rules modularly and drop more complicated rules in favor of a rule-light approach. However this is not where GURPS excels. A Mars Attacks GURPS games would be fun and run just fine, but it’s not where GURPS really shines.
In summary, if GURPS wishes not to fade into memory and obscurity, it need to release a 5th Edition to compete with the now vibrant RPG market, and I believe by incorporating the remarks above they will be able to succeed in their efforts. Unfortunately as of this April the GURPS designers have states on the GURPS forums that they’re not even considering, in the slightest, a new edition of GURPS. Instead they apparently think Mars Attacks will help revitalize the brand…sigh. GURPS is not a big money maker for Steve Jackson Games (that would be Munchkin), so it’s not as if taking a “risk” by updating GURPS would disrupt a significant revenue stream. Hell, so many established companies are using Kickstarter, Steve Jackson Games could put it on Kickstarter and see if there’s actually an audience for a GURPS 5th Edition.
Perhaps this is the wishful GURPS fan within me, but I would love nothing more than to see a new GURPS in development. If they released 5th Edition of GURPS next year that would mark 12 years between editions, which by RPG standards is a pretty normal, if not a long time to update your game!