I’ve been playing table-top role-playing games since I was 15 (and I’m currently 23). Over the past 8 years I’ve played many RPG systems. I started when my friend in high school introduced me to Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition (technically 3.5). I ran several D&D 3.5 games during high school, but never branched out into other RPG systems. Once I got to college though, that situation changed dramatically. The University of Maine at Farmington has a very well-organized gaming group called the Table Gaming Club (TGC). The TGC was a gold mine of gaming opportunities! The TGC was the oldest club on campus, dating back to the 70s. It was one of the only clubs to have its own space (that was not administered by Student Government), and they had whole bookshelves full of RPG books, along with board game and console games. I quickly joined the club, and was an officer in the club my whole tenure at UMF (including serving as the TGC President).
During my time in the TGC I played in, and ran, many different game systems. I continued playing D&D 3.5, I played D&D 4th Edition, AD&D 2nd Edition, Pathfinder, Star Wars Saga, World Of Darkness (Vampire, Mage, Promethean, and Hunter), Shadowrun 2nd Edition, Savage Worlds, d20 Modern, Spycraft, Traveller (from Mongoose Publishing), Unknown Armies, dabbled in Alternity (the old TSR Sci-Fi game), and GURPS (Generic Universal Role Playing System). While some of these systems I only played only once or twice, and others I played for years, GURPS quickly stood out as my preferred system. I should qualify that by saying GURPS is my favorite system for fantasy games, and for modern-setting games. Because GURPS generally stresses realism (and I’ll detail what that means in a little bit), it doesn’t work well with certain settings. It works great with fantasy (which one could argue isn’t very ‘realistic’), but where it can clashes with setting is in space-opera type games. I ran a Star Wars Saga game for over a year, and I thought I’d give Star Wars a try with GURPS. It did not work out, to say the least. Besides the fact that any realistic blaster would nearly obliterate a person, any competent Jedi would be something like 500+ character points (read: Too much). Plus spending the time making up a system for the Force, and all the different force powers was not something I wanted to do. There was also the fact that Star Wars Saga is a superb system (really what D&D 4th Edition should have been), and I just couldn’t justify the time to convert. So if you’re interested in a Star Wars game, Star Wars Saga is without a doubt the way to go.
That being said, I feel that GURPS is a much better system for playing fantasy RPGs then D&D 3.5, and especially D&D 4th (truth be told…ANY fantasy system is better than D&D 4th Edition). GURPS is my favorite system because it is realistic. First I need to define exactly what I mean by “realistic.” I am not talking about realism for realism’s sake. This is escapism after all, the idea is not to emulate real life as much as possible. When I say “realistic,” what I mean is that the system makes conceptual sense, along with mechanical sense. Both D&D and GURPS work mechanically. Their rules are fairly straight forward, relatively balanced, internally consistant, and the basic mechanics are applied evenly throughout the intricacies of the system. Both games can be picked up and enjoyed. Most table-top RPGs with mechanics that do not work will not be successful, so most games available are mechanically sound. GURPS’ mechanics work great, in my opinion. But what is special about GURPS’ mechanics is that they also make conceptual sense. Everything in GURPS is “realistic” in that the mechanics represent sensical and logic possibilities in the world. This is best explained by counter-example. Ask a group of D&D players exactly what “Hit Points” and “Armor Class” mean, and you will bear witness to an intense debate. This is because while these constructs work great mechanically, when analyzed as representations of something the could possibly exist in the real world, they disintegrate conceptually. Let’s take Armor Class (AC) for example. In D&D 3.5, AC is almost entirely based on what type of armor you’re wearing, and it’s supposed to represent how hard you are to hit. You’d think, logically, that how agile and quick you are would help you dodge attacks, but having an 18 Dexterity, which is supposed to be the near pinnacle of human agility, only give you a bonus to your AC of +4, which is the equivalent of wearing a mundane chain shirt. The average character has a Dexterity of 10, which give no bonus to AC. So if your entire AC is based on armor, then just standing still and just looking at your enemy is as effective a defense as actively trying to dodge. Then there’s the question of whether an attack misses your body or just deflects off your armor when your attacker doesn’t beat your AC. There’s also the issue of if an attack beats your AC, it does damage as if you were not wearing armor. It’s either all or nothing with AC. Hit Points (HP) are even worse. In D&D 3.5 your HP goes up exponentially with every level. Mechanically, what this leads to is if your level 20 character walks out into a field, naked, and get’s shot with 50 arrows, they will be perfectly fine. Your maximum HP can be 3000, and until you’re at 0 HP, you act as if you’d never been touched by a weapon. Even if the rules say you’ve been “hit” 20 times by a sword, or spell, or dragon’s breath, it somehow has literally no effect on your ability to function.
GURPS doesn’t have this problem. In GURPS, whether you get hit or not depends not only on your attackers skill, but on your skill at defending yourself (you know, like how combat actually works). And in GURPS, your HP doesn’t increase arbitrarily (few things are arbitrary in GURPS). It can increase slightly, but even the strongest characters will only have double the average person’s HP (where as in D&D 3.5, your HP doubles the first time you level up). In GURPS you can be a Navy Seal, and if you get shot in the leg, it’s not gonna be all that different from if a normal civilian got shot in the leg. In GURPS, your characters’ awesomeness is not based on a collection of magic items, or min/maxed feats, or some unique (and probably broken) special ability, your character is awesome because of their awesome skills! In GURPS, the most powerful and deadly character I ever played was a Samurai. This samurai never wore armor, he used only a mundane sword, never used any magical item or any magic, and was the most badass mother fucker I’ve ever player. My GM couldn’t lay a finger on him for weeks. This focus on character, and the character’s ability, versus a focus on magic items, arbitrary special abilities, and combinations of feats/skill/items leads to very different kinds of games. This can be epitomized when you ask a D&D and a GURPS player about their characters. Ask me about my Samurai, and I’d say something like “Well he’s a master Samurai who killed his master because he order him to murder innocent families. He now lives on the road and on the run, being constantly chased by his former classmates at his dojo. He’s quite, reserved, stoic, lives extremely frugally, and is the deadliest swordsman on the whole continent. He has come to learn that there is no honor in serving a master with no honor, and he seeks a place in this world where his skill can be used to serve a better, higher purpose.” Ask a D&D player about their character and you’ll hear something like “Well my character has 10 levels in (class 1), 3 levels in (class 2), and 7 levels in (prestige class 3). This allows him to use (ability one) in combination with (ability 2) and (feat 3) that I took to do (x amount of damage). His AC is (x), and he has a +5 (whatever) that allows him to do extra damage against (x type) enemies.” Do you see the difference in these two descriptions? The former is a character with a story, a narrative, a personality, and with human flaws. The latter is a mathematical construct, designed for maximum efficiency and output, lacking of anything that would differential it from a well constructed BOT on a World of Warcraft server farming for gold.
This is why I play GURPS, because when the rules are meant to reflect the way the world works, players focus on making “real” characters. When an RPG system is nothing more than an internally consistent set of mechanics that make no attempt to emulate real human experience, players play to the rules. In GURPS, the rules are a tool by which you can actualize your character. In D&D (and similar systems), the rules are a tool in which you actualize the rules. They are arbitrary, self-referencial, and exists only for their own purpose, not to actualize something about your character. GURPS is a class-less and level-less system. Your character is based on skills, advantages and disadvantages (Yes, disadvantages…GURPS actually has you quantify your character’s flaws…you know, those things real people have).
In D&D you commonly get a situation like this: Player X selects a set of abilities/feats that allows them to perform some special attack that does an extremely high amount of damage (let’s say it’s a fire based attack). Because this is D&D, pretty much the whole game is focused on combat. So as a GM, you have this player who’s blowing through all your challenges because they’ve min/maxed to get this over-powered ability. Often you’ll respond by putting that player up against monsters that are resistant to fire, for example. When you do you, Player X says something like “you just did that so I couldn’t use my ability.” At that moment, all immersion is shattered. The pretense that the game is something other than a delicate balancing act of arbitrary abilities and mechanical quirks is gone. The player min/maxed his character exactly because that’s what the rules incentivize him to do, and the GM presented the fire-resistant monsters to counter this broken character. None of this was done for character development, plot development, or because it made sense, it was done to reestablish the mechanical balance that allows the grind to continue. This never happens in GURPS. First off, in GURPS all skills and abilities are equal, whether social, mental or physical. In D&D any skill based around combat is overly complicated, where as any skill not useful in combat is significantly reduced in complexity. This means that D&D games will be mainly focused on combat and grinding. Whereas GURPS games can be a mix of anything. I’ve had many GURPS games where no combat was performed. This means that if you mix/max your character to do one thing really well, it’s very easy to counter that in GURPS. If you have a player who’s put all their points into Karate, for example, just present them with a social situation. They can’t say something like “you only did that to counter my character’s abilities” because their character is the unrealistic one, and it only embarrasses the player and shows how useless their character actually is. Well rounded characters survive in GURPS, not characters designed for maximum damage output. And if you do have characters that are killing machines, just present them with equal powerful killing machines. Again the “you only did that to counter my character’s abilities” excuse doesn’t work, because if a renegade master Samurai exists, it only makes sense that a master assassin would be sent after him.
Because GURPS works conceptually, along with mechanically, it allows it to function in pretty much any setting (hence the “Generic Universal” Role Playing System). It doesn’t have to fit within a specific and narrow setting. Notice how the d20 versions of settings that are not fantasy systems are generally terrible? d20 Modern, d20 Star Wars, Spycraft etc…Yes it’s a great thing that the d20 system is open source content, but it translates very poorly outside of fantasy games. GURPS is the opposite. If there’s a mechanical problem, or something’s not directly addressed by the rules, 90% of the time it can be resolved by asking yourself “how would it work in real life.” GURPS’ fidelity is what makes it so versatile.
GURPS is a wonderfully underrated system. I know many people who don’t like it solely because they can’t “figure it out.” But what they always mean by that is they can’t figure out how to cheat the system. They can’t find the holes in the rules that allows them to break the rules. They can’t see a clear path that allows them to min/max one particular action or skill. They can’t see an easy combination of abilities that gives them the biggest bonuses. This is only true for a few people I’ve met though. Most role-players I’ve introduced to GURPS love it. I’ve been running a GURPS fantasy game for almost 2 years now, and I played in a GURPS fantasy game for the 2 years preceding my game.
In the near future I will be writing more about role-playing, and I’m sure some posts be specifically about GURPS. Until then, go take a look at GURPS (currently in its 4th Edition). It’s a wonderful system, and I plan on sticking with it for a long time! And as always, feel free to ask any questions, or challenge anything I said 🙂