Give GURPS a Try

I’m honestly surprised at the number of people that come to my blog to read my posts about GURPS. Many of those people commented on my previous posts, and it seems to me that many people want to give GURPS a try, but don’t know exactly how to go about it. I’m writing this post to help people who’ve never played GURPS get into it! And as a disclaimer: I am not affiliated with Steve Jackson Games (the makers of GURPS) in any way. I’m writing this post as an aid to fellow role-players, not because I’m being paid to promote GURPS.

So you’re a role-player who’s probably played D&D, and maybe some other systems, and you’d like to give GURPS a try. The problem is that you don’t know anyone who’s played it, so if you wanna play, it’s up to you to teach yourself the rules. As role-players know, it’s infinitely easier to learn a new system by having someone else teach you. Nonetheless, it can be done! If you’re thinking of teaching yourself the rules and getting a game going, there is an essential resource that you should first read. GURPS Lite is a free, 32-page distilled version of the GURPS rules that is available through Steve Jackson Games as a PDF. Note that “distilled” does not mean “dumbed down.” It leaves out some of the advanced rules and more obscure play options, but it gives the essentials, and does not dumb down anything. Download the PDF, print off a few copies, and give them to potential players. If you’re serious about running a GURPS game, you’ll eventually want to get the main books: The GURPS 4th Edition “Basic Set: Character” and “Basic Set: Campaigns.” Those links are to the Amazon pages of the books, but I’d suggest going to your local gaming store and picking them up, if only to support the store! The Character’s book is all you need to play, but a lot of advanced rules and GM information is available in the Campaign’s book. If you’re observent you’ll notice that while GURPS is in its 4th Edition, it has several “printings.” I believe the Character’s book is on its 4th printing, and the Campaign’s book is on its 3rd printing. If you have a GURPS book in hand, look at the backside above the bar code, it will say what printing it is. The newer printings only incorporate the new errata, and it’s not essential that you have the most up to date version. Older printings will work just fine (and all the errata is available for free on the GURPS Website). As a matter of fact, there is a ton of very useful information and play aids under the “Resources and Play Aids” sections of the GURPS website.

Once you get your hands on the GURPS books, look through them and try to get a hang of the rules. Here however is where I have to insert a warning: Do not begin your attempt to learn GURPS by just skimming the skill list. A GURPS character is made up of three different things: Skills, Advantages and Disadvantages. And because GURPS is “generic and universal,” those skills, advantages and disadvantages need to cover every possible thing imaginable. The Character’s book is 330 pages long, and 200 of those pages are just all the skills, advantages and disadvantages listed in alphabetical order. The GURPS book does not, in any way, categorize these lists. You will spend hours looking and reading through those lists, and at the end you will be no closer to realizing a character, a setting or a game idea. Trust me. This advise is especially true for your potential players. DO NOT just hand a potential player the GURPS books and say “go ahead and make your character.” One of two things will happen. They will begin to look at the book, start skimming those really long lists, and will be completely unable to understand what to do, or how to form a character. I’ve literally seen people’s interest in playing GURPS destroyed by just handing them a book. What happens is that they get exceedingly frustrated because the book offers no help when it comes creating a character. In D&D you can be like “I wanna play a fighter,” and then just flip to the page on the fighter class, and it’s all laid out for you. Someone who’s never played GURPS will have no idea how to make a fighter from looking at the book. They will see some abilities that would seem appropriate for a fighter, but they wont understand how to use those to actually create a character. Trust me I’ve lost potential players before because of this. They just got too frustrated because the book was completely impenetrable for new players, and they lost all interest in playing. In my opinion this is a serious problem with the main GURPS books. Once you know the system, you can just skip to the abilities you know you’ll need, and you know to ignore about 180 pages of things you’ll never use. New players can’t do that.

The second possible outcome of just handing potential players a book is also not very desirable. Because they don’t know how to orient themselves in the system, what they end up doing is finding one ability they think is cool and building their entire character around this one ability. This leads to boring, one-trick-pony characters. The other problem with this is that the players often don’t realize what abilities they should have taken. There are several thing in GURPS any competent fighter needs, and if you just hand a player a book, more likely then not they’ll produce a fighter who’s missing one of those crucial things. This way of creating a character also produces some fallout. Because these players made their character not really know what they need, what will happen is that as the game start going, those players will discover, through gameplay or further reading, other abilities they ought to have or that they think are cool, and after a few games no one will want to play their original characters. This is why doing character creation right can make or break a game.

There are ways to avoid these problems, and they all focus on getting your players to figure out their character before they open the books. The first is just simply that: require your players to come up with solid character concepts before they are allow to touch a character sheet. If they open the GURPS books knowing what they’re going to be creating, they’ll instinctively ignore the things that are unrelated to their character concept. The second thing is another free play aid that GURPS offers online. The GURPS Skill Categories is available for free, and it groups the skills into different categories like “criminal,” “combat,” “street,” “social” etc. You should also give this to your characters, as it will further allow them to narrow their focus when creating a character. The last thing is just being an expert yourself (or having someone else there who’s played GURPS, which isn’t always possible). If a player’s like “I wanna play a fighter,” you as a GM need to be able to say “well then you’ll want to consider taking these skills and abilities…” In the end you want to do everything to make character creation a task that is not daunting. Like I said, require that players come up with a character concept before they can look at the rules, and meet one-on-one with people or in small groups to create characters. Don’t do what I did and get 8 potential players in a room, all trying to make characters, while I was the only person who knew the rules. That’s how I lost potential players. With 8 people I could not provide the individual guidance necessary to keep people on track, and some people felt like the rules were just too hard and decided they didn’t want to play. That was the first GURPS game I tried to run, and it was a hard learned lesson. Don’t make the same mistakes I did.

So if you’re a GM trying to learn to rules, take the advise above seriously not only for character creation, but for yourself. I know the books look daunting and impenetrable, but once you figure it out, it will come very fluidly. Just be patient, talk to other GURPS players if you can get a hold of any, and like any RPG, playing is the best way to learn. Take a couple of pre-generated characters and run a scenario so you can get a grip on the rules, then start thinking about having people make their own characters. In my last GURPS game none of the players had played GURPS, so the first game session was with pre-generated characters I had made. I wanted to make sure the players had a sense of the mechanics before they started making characters, and I’d suggest doing this with any games you’re starting where none of the players have ever played GURPS. In the end, the GURPS rules are a tool for actualizing a character concept, not a tool for creating a character concept. No one will ever create a well-rounded, realistic and interesting character from just skimming the book.

I hope this will help people who are interested in trying GURPS get off the ground! If you have any questions about GURPS, or anything I said, please don’t hesitate to ask!!!

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9 thoughts on “Give GURPS a Try

  1. Hi I’ve found your super blog when looking for some GURPS session examples. I’m switching from DnD 3.5 to GURPS 4e. Your previous post about DnD style of play was exact. Our group is really focused on characters fighting skills improvements and feat combination leaving behind any story-telling. The players like the dungeon-crawling style, perfection of their PCs, they are raised on computer RPGs. My motivations for pan-and-paper RPG are a bit different – it comes from reading adventure fiction(mostly non fantasy). So I always wanted introduce more story-telling and acting to our game session but the DnD system prefers fighting over anything else. Nowadays I’m preparing first GURPS session. I will start with pre-made characters. I want to introduce the system and show all its strength and change a bit style of our group’s play. There are still problems you could possibly help me to solve (or any other reader of this blog).

    In dungeon crawl game player often roll dices and use skills in direct combat or in discovering area and he has good feeling of progression from gaining new feats and inflicting more damage. He also have direct feeling of missed rolls. But if I want to do less fighting other skills become important. Various information gathering, influencing NPSs etc.. But these skills are many times rolled secretly by DM and their failure often means just ‘not-knowing’. There is weaker feedback from their usage.

    My question then is how to make other non combat/physical skills as much strong as fighting ones. Is it possible? Just simply reducing the fighting and introducing more non combat situation with many hidden rolls without any perceptible feedback can break up the session. Also can I achieve by these non combat skills better story-telling part of the game. Or is it working in opposite way – good story telling game will use non combat skills – so the game mechanics is not so much important?

  2. Sorry for the late reply, but I have a few thoughts. First is regarding secret roles. There are three ways to go about doing roles that one might consider doing in secret. The first way is to have the GM role it, which personally I prefer the least. It takes the agency away from the players. The second option is what I prefer much more: Ask them to role, but don’t tell them the skills they’re rolling for! Ask to look at the player’s character sheet, look for the stat/skill you want them to role, then just tell them to “role 3d6.” They role, and they tell you the number they got, and you think to yourself whether they succeeded or not. This is basically having the players role for a skill they don’t know they’re rolling for, versus having you role in secret. I find this is much better, because it keeps the agency with the player, and it’s a great way to built suspense. More so than a secret role, the player doing an unknown role is something that everyone sees, and it really forces people to think about the role, and hence it build suspense. The third option is to just not make it secret! Who cares if they know what they’re rolling, if they’re good gamers they wont meta-game. Nothing builds suspense quite as much when I say “everyone role perception.” If none of them succeed (or perhaps beat the stealth of whatever is trying to hide), I just say “okay,” and nothing else. I don’t ever say “you don’t see anything.” It’s even more suspenseful if a players roles well, like 5 under perception, yet I’m still just like “okay…” Without saying a word of story, only asking for a role, I’ve created a situations where my players know they’re in the vicinity of something very stealthy, and possibly very dangerous. This works great is more intimate situations. Say a player walks into their bosses office, and I’m like “role perception,” they fail, and I just continue as if I had never asked them to role. This creates an aura of intrigue because the player now knows they missed something that they could have possibly picked up on, and that’s exciting, and connects the players to the situation more. I call this “story telling through dice rolling.” You can convey a lot of information by just asking for a particular role here and there.

    And regarding secret roles and social situations, I can’t think of an instance where that would be necessary. In most real social situations, the social consequences of your actions are apparent. Anyone with a moderate amount of social perception can tell when someone doesn’t like them, when someone is or is not convinced by their argument, or when someone is distraught, happy, angry, or emotional.

    Regarding your last questions, it’s a dynamic process that goes both ways. Just adding more dialoge and diplomacy roles wont make for a better story, but a good story doesn’t necessarily mean you instantly have good social situations. Social obstacles, like combat, should be to facilitate larger ends and goals, they should not be there for their own sake. Create a story where a social obstacle is real, and failing to overcome that obstacle will harm the party in some way (socially, monetarily, physically, politically etc). Don’t just make trivial social situations where the only thing at stake is how much they have to pay a shopkeeper, or just make social situations that are either you succeed and avoid a fight, or fail and have to fight your way through. Make a social situations something that they can’t hack their way out of if they fail, and if they fail it has real consequences.

    However, don’t just let player do this: “I’m going to try and convince him to help us, I rolled 6 under, did I succeed?” Make the players actually role play it! Don’t just let them role, tell them they have to role-play out what they’re going to say or do.

    Feel free to ask any questions you have, including clarifying questions regarding my remarks. I’m always happy to share my thoughts on gaming!

    • Thank you very much for the answers (and sorry for my late replay). I’m just finishing my first adventure and looking forward to play it and use your ideas. I like do hidden rolls but let the players know I’m rolling. This makes suspense but the idea of letting them know the result and used skill sounds like “higher level of dungeon mastering”. I must be careful not tu reveal to much. One of my players is specially skilled in meta-gaming (he is good in boardgames and card games and cannot resist the temptation).

      I’m creating detective story from 19 century England. Something between Agatha Christie (talking, relations, old secrets and limited number of suspects) and CSI (clever steam-powered gadgets to aquire the evidence).

      In the end when the case is solved the players will have to fight the villain to bring him to justice. The fight will be cruel with GURPS HP counts and revolver damage. PCs must do it clever way. No hack and slash as in our previous DnD games. For this I choose the different game system (and found your blog).

  3. GURPS is one of my favorite systems, especially because few of them succeed as being as universal as GURPS. I like Whitewolf’s story telling system for it’s simplicity, although it’s not as universal GURPS.

    In introducing newbies to RPGs, I’ve found that even the simpler RPGs can be intimidating. If you’re interested making RPGs less complicated, take a look at an web framework I’m developing to handle character creation, rules, and rolls: Live Gaming. If you vote for the app, I could get $5,000 to develop it!

  4. Really good article. I’m trying to resist buying any more games until I’ve really got my feet under me with Pathfinder which I started playing this year (after a long time off from gaming). I used a similar approach to the one you suggest above with my current players of making them tell me about their character and background before letting them roll a dice and it definitely kept them focused on creating a character they wanted to play rather than one who was simply going to be powerful.

    • Pathfinder’s a good system, and if you’re previous experience is with D&D then Pathfinder will feel the most comfortable. What I would say is try to figure out both how you like to GM and what type of game your players want to play. Pathfinder’s great for what I consider typical RPG play: Combat heavy high fantasy with an emphasis on adventure and treasure. However if you find that both you and your players are looking for a different setting, and possibly a more rules light, narrative focused game, then I’d say find something other than Pathfinder. It doesn’t have to be GURPS of course, but different systems lend themselves to different styles of play, and it should be about finding a system that you feel best fits your style.

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