The Future of GURPS: Part 2

A year ago I wrote “The Future of GURPS,” a blog post where I lamented the announcement of GURPS Mars Attacks, and provided suggestions for changes I would like to see to GURPS. At that time, July 2015, I was convinced that Steve Jackson Games was ready to let GURPS die. They had published only two hardcover books in the previous five years, and the only hardcover books in press were GURPS Discworld and GURPS Mars Attacks. Both of which have been continually pushed back, and there’s little reason to believe they will appeal to a broad audience (aka sell well).

And similar to a year ago leading up to the Mars Attacks announcement, over the past few weeks Sean Punch, Line Editor for GURPS, has been hinting of his blog about a “secret” GURPS project. I was pessimistic, as the last “secret project” turned out to be GURPS Mars Attacks, which I still think is a terrible idea. However, to my pleasant surprise, Steve Jackson Games instead announced they’re releasing a GURPS Dungeon Fantasy box set! 

Specifically, they’re Kickstarting a Dungeon Fantasy box set (full disclosure: I’ve contributed to this Kickstarter). This makes me overly happy and irrationally excited! It means Steve Jackson Games has not abandoned GURPS, and that GURPS has a future other than the slow decay it’s been suffering! If you are a GURPS fan I would highly recommend contributing to the Kickstarter.

How will this release affect the future of GURPS, and what does it signal regarding Steve Jackson Game’s strategy for GURPS? It’s hard to say, so I’m going to engage is some speculation. The first and obvious question is whether the Kickstarter will succeed? At the time of writing it has been up for barely 12 hours and has already received about $32,000 of the $100,000 they’re asking for. Their previous Kickstarter, Car Wars, reached $100,000, and before that their Orge Kickstarter got over $920,000! Given those outcomes I can’t imagine that will not success. Although I will say it’s odd that the lowest prize/contribution point is $50.

The real question of is whether this box set will sell? Thinking optimistically, sales figures from this past year show table-top RPG sales skyrocketing, so if Steve Jackson Games can get this box set out by May 2017, as they’ve listed for their “estimated delivery” date, they may be able to catch that sales wave. In addition, while this box set is meant to be all inclusive, it could also drive sales of their base GURPS books. As far as I can tell, this is the first GURPS product ever that’s been designed with new players in mind. I’ve written previously about how GURPS is not only impenetrable to those new to RPGs (most RPGs are to newcomers), it’s also impenetrable to experienced role-players, as the books are designed for reference and not for learning or comprehension. This new box set could expose a whole new generation to GURPS who otherwise would find it very difficult to learn the system. And revenue from this box set could spur Steve Jackson Games to support GURPS in ways not seen in years (more on that below).

Of course there are also reasons to be pessimistic. Yes RPG sales have risen, but that could be a short lived bubble, and by the time this box set is released the market could be both flooded and depressed, leading to much lower than expected sales. In addition, dungeon based fantasy is the most overused setting in RPGs, and this box set will not only be competing with giants like D&D and Pathfinder, but also games like Dungeon World, Fantasy AGE, and the plethora of “old school revival” games being released. Poor sales would probably lead Steve Jackson Game to cancel any planned major GURPS releases. There’s also pricing, which granted hasn’t been released yet. However the Kickstarter is asking for a minimum $50 contribution to get the box set. If that’s the off-the-shelf price, $50 might be perceived as steep, considering that the D&D Starter Set and Star Wars Beginner Game, both box sets, are hovering around $30 on Amazon. Also “GURPS,” as a brand, does not have the nerd-culture cache it once did, which might explain why “Steve Jackson Games” is featured more prominently on the box art than “GURPS” (given all the Munchkin players familiar with the “Steve Jackson Games” brand).

Nonetheless, I am optimistic! Perhaps it’s wishful thinking, but I think this box set will succeed, and we will see some level of a GURPS resurgence, even if it’s small. This leads me to a more speculative point. Almost every other RPG that’s released a box set (like D&D and Star Wars) did so on the heals of a newly released system. Could this box set be a test (both a play test and market test) for a GURPS 5th Edition? I think that’s a real possibility that Steve Jackson Games is considering. The announcement for the box set, the Kickstarter description, and an interview with Steve Jackson Games’ CEO Phil Reed, emphasize that the base GURPS rules have been “streamlined” for this release. If that isn’t pseudo-speak for new rules/mechanics, I don’t know what is. I am personally very excited to see these “streamlined” rules, and how much they change the base mechanics of GURPS. If, when I receive the box set, I find that they’ve overhauled the basic mechanics of GURPS, I’d bet money that they have a GURPS 5th Edition in the works, if it’s not already announced by that point.

Needless to say I am very pleased by this announcement. It demonstrates that Steve Jackson Games hasn’t abandoned GURPS, and that GURPS might actually have a bright future ahead! Here’s to the future of GURPS!


The Future of GURPS?

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!

A Review of Titansgrave: Ashes of Valkana (Chapters 0 & 1)

Titansgrave: Ashes of Valkana is a show produced by Geek & Sundry and available free online which, to put it simply, is just a recording of a tabletop role-playing game being played. Below is my review:

I’ve always been a fan of Geek & Sundry, in theory. I dig what they stand for, what they do and how they do it. However I never really got into any of their shows on Youtube (where I am a subscriber to their page), and while I’m a big board game enthusiast I never really wanted to put on a 40+ minute video and watch people play board games. For this very reason I didn’t think I would end up watching Titansgrave: Ashes of Valkana, and I am assuming that if I had been sitting at my computer that would have been the case. However I decided to pull up the Youtube App on my television and watch Chapters 0 & 1 (totally a little over 60 minutes) while sitting on the couch casually answering emails. All I can say is that I enjoyed it greatly, much more than I was expecting!

Like actually being a players in an RPG, you can let your attention waiver for a few moments and still not miss anything in the game. This is also the case with watching people play tabletop RPGs. Anytime I had to focus on something for more than 30 seconds I would pause the episode, but otherwise I found myself mostly ignoring my emails and becoming ingratiated in the show. I’ve been playing and GMing RPGs for over a decade, so the format of the show and its content are not foreign to me. The production value of the show is excellent, with accompanying sound effects, original art work, onscreen dice counters, and battle overviews. The people on the show are great as well. Will Wheaton bring his usual sincere, unironic campy-ness that lends itself so well to being a good GM, and the players are fantastic. I especially enjoy seeing Hank Green in the show, but that’s probably because I’m a avid Nerdfighter and vlogbrothers fan.

Wheaton’s homebrew fantasy/sci-fi setting is easy to become immersed in, especially given the fine art work that’s used through the show. It’s the type of thing a GM could only dream of: having professionally drawn art work drawn up for particular scenes withing a game. The post-production work in put into the show really makes an already great context more vibrant and immersive. And as one would expect, the actual role-playing and player interactions are fun to watch.

Overall I am excited to continue watching Titansgrave. Weekly episodes are released every Tuesday on Geek & Sundry, and then those episode show up on Youtube that Friday. This is a great show, and it makes me want to go through Wheaton’s back catalog and watch all the board game playthroughs I skipped. In my opinion it is better watched on television, versus sitting at your computer, but that just might be my style. If you’re an avid role-player like I am it a great indulgence, and blast to watch.

Gamergate: A Tea Party Moment For The Gaming Community

“Gamergate” is a tragedy. Most importantly is it a tragedy because of all the people, mostly women, who have suffered through a deluge of harassment and vitriol. Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian, Brianna Wu, Felicia Day, Leigh Alexander, and the myriad of gamers who have been the targets of threats and hatred are the tragedy of this horrific “movement” in gamer culture. It’s also tragic because it’s hurting the games industry and gamer culture. It’s another factor that convinces so many young and creative developers, often women, to not pursue a career in games. And it reinforces the popular notion that video gamers are nothing but puerile, angry men with a collective inferiority complex. This whole situation makes me genuinely sad. It makes me not want to self-identify as a gamer, and it sickens me that such violence is perpetrated by our community under the pretense of “ethics.”

Okay, I needed to state all that before I got any further. *Ahem,* so over the past few days as I’ve been digging into all the nonsense surrounding gamergate, something dawned on me. Where have I seen this before? Where have I seen a reactionary movement, led by mostly entitled white men, that cloaks itself in a righteous and populist veneer to hide its conspiratorial world view of its own imagined subjugation? Where have I seen a movement that uses this pretense to perpetrate a campaign of fear and hate, targeted mostly at left-leaning individuals in structurally oppress groups, until everyone realized just how crazy and hateful the group was and abandoned that group? Well if you read the title of my post you probably have already figured out where in recent culture we’ve seen this dynamic before, the Tea Party.

It’s hard to remember but back to 2009, right after the election of Barack Obama, the Tea Party seemingly appeared out a nowhere and billed itself as a populist movement where people could express their frustrations with the recently crashed economy. Polls around that time showed the Tea Party had massive support among Americans. And there was much discussion about what the Tea Party stood for. Their main focus was the Federal Government’s budget deficits and debt, but the movement brought many people together and never really articulated much that was substantive above a general worry of the economy. Sounds familiar? Many writing about gamergate have noted that “Gamergate’s ‘argument’ is an irreconcilable mess of trembly fingered accusations, vendettas and uncertain nods to complex problems.” Like the early Tea Party movement gamergate is poorly defined, and its individual proponents espouse wildly different ideas regarding the goal of the movement. Also like the Tea Party, the pretenses of the movement are a veneer to hide its true intentions.

While there was plenty of economic malaise to go around in 2009, the Tea Party’s leaders were very much focused on government debt and the deficit, specifically in the hopes of reducing it. While the Great Recession would certainly raise the deficit, it really was odd to focus on this, especially since the leaders of the Tea Party movement were all from the politically conservative side of the spectrum. It was odd because government debt had been skyrocketing for 30 years under Republican administrations, stopping only for a few year under Clinton. So why now? Why did conservatives all of a sudden care about the deficit, why was it all of a sudden the most important issue of our time? What changed? Well, the skin color and political affiliation of the President changed. It was only when a black Democrat took office did the deficit all of a sudden become this huge issue. Of course the pretense of caring about the economy soon fell away when the Tea Party started demanding Obama’s birth certificate and was exposed for what it really was: a hateful, racist and reactionary cadre of white men who were unable to accept the idea that white men don’t dominate politics anymore.

Does this sound familiar? Gamergate’s false pretense is ethics in journalism, but this issue has existed for over 20 years. Anyone in the industry during the past 20 years can tell you about the cozy relationship between game reviewers and game publishers. So why now? What changed? Well like the Tea Party before it, gamergate is grounded in a reaction towards rising minority representation, specifically women in video game culture. So when Zoe Quinn supposedly slept with Nathan Grayson for a favorable review of her game Depression Quest, the festering ire towards women in the gaming community finally had a woman to paint on a target, all under the pretenses of “ethics.” Several things stick out about this catalyst of the gamergate movement. The most prominent of which is that these allegations are patently false. First of all, these allegations came from Zoe Quinn’s ex-boyfriend. The devil himself couldn’t be a more dubious source than someone’s ex-boyfriend. Second, Nathan Grayson never wrote a review of Depression Quest, which debunks the whole premise of the claim. Lastly, not a shred of evidence was ever produced to support this claim, and all evidence gathered since then has definitively shown the claim to have been false. But that doesn’t matter to the gamergate crowd, by that point the conspiracy had taken root: Barack Obama fabricated his birth certificate Gawker and Kotaku were selling good reviews for sex! The conspiratorial nature of this movement is evident when one reads this depressing interview with Adam Baldwin, the person who coined the term “gamergate” (it’s depressing because someone awesome enough to play Jayne on Firefly shouldn’t be stupid enough to believe what he’s saying). Within 5 sentences he’s railing against “social justice warriors,” a term that may have well been coined by Rush Limbaugh. And halfway through he posits that gamergate is part of a larger movement against a government/communist conspiracy to brainwash school children, and the only people who are catching onto the conspiracy are libertarians, of course. These pathetic rantings could literally be coming from a Tea Partier, but instead they’re coming from the titular gamergate creator.

I’m not the first person to pick up on the clear connection between libertarian/right-wing thinking and the gamergate movement. Laura Hudson, writing for Wired, put it perfectly: “…the anti-feminist movement in games has a great deal in common with the religious right; in both instances, their fixations on ‘ethics’ and ‘values’ come down not to a desire for a pluralist culture with a wide array of perspectives and values, but one where anything less than the absolute dominance of their own perspectives and values is perceived as ‘oppression.'”

Like the inevitable reaction to the Tea Party, everyone in the sane parts of society recognize gamergate (and the Tea Party) as a manifestation of the violent reaction among the privileged (mainly white men) towards those gaining more representation in the media and in the halls of power. And just like the Tea Party, the gamergate community’s total lack of self-awareness is on full display. They dismiss, excuse away or deny the violence engendered by and in the name of gamergate. They ignore the overwhelming evidence that the allegations against Zoe Quinn and Gawker are completely false, instead relying on conspiracy theories to justify their continued support for the movement. And like the Tea Party, if they’re not combated they could spell the end of all the progress made in gamer culture. Remember when the Tea Party controlled Congress almost caused the collapse of the world economy by coming within hours of allowing the US Government to default on its debt? Bigotry is a powerful motivator, and we can except something similar from the gamergate community. Without a concentrated effort from the rest of the gaming community gamergaters will stop at nothing until every feminist, “social justice warrior” and person they don’t like are thoroughly chased from the world of gaming. Death threats, bomb threats, rape threats, they’ve already employed these tactics regularly and will continue to due so until the opposition from the rest of the gaming community stops them. Obviously every gamergate proponent isn’t lobbying rape threats at Zoe Quinn, but every gamergate proponent I’ve talked to clearly thinks condemning Zoe Quinn’s sex life is more important than condemning the death threats against her. This is deplorable, and shows the moral and ethical depravity of this movement. This needs to stop. Gamergate is founded on a lie and perpetuated by hate. The misogyny it engenders is indicative of its true motives: to chase women out of gaming. And right now they’re succeeding. This needs to stop.

GMing Advice: The “High or Low” Method For Improvising Details In Session

This Article is also published on Gnome Stew.

Improvisation is an essential part of role-playing games, for both the players and the game master. Many GMs, myself included, love improvisation, and we rely on it to fill in the holes we decided to leave when preparing for games. However this often means that we’re improvising important story elements and game details, details that really matter to the players. As a GM I purposely leave these game elements undefined so that they can be reconciled in game through improvisation. Yet obviously deciding upon important details in game can often make a GM seem unprepared, or even capricious. If the players ask what the weather is like, and you respond with “ummmm” for five second, then answer with poor weather that will hamper the players, it can leave the impression that you’re being arbitrary. The players can tell you had not decided on that particular detail in advance, so they will wonder why you choose the option you did, especially when your decision is detrimental to their characters’ progress. To avoid this awkwardness I developed the “High or Low” method.

The Method:

I use the “High or Low” method when I need to come up with details in game, both when asked for by the players and on my own. When I have to make a decision I turn to a player and simply ask them “high or low.” For the sake of example let’s say they pick “low”. I then roll a die, typically a d6. If the result is closer to what they picked (so I roll a 1, 2, or 3 for “low”), the details I’m deciding upon are generally in their favor. If they picked the opposite of the roll (4, 5 or 6 for “low”), then the details are generally not in their favor.

Before I go into the many benefits of this method, let me provide some examples. Let’s say it’s nighttime, and the players want to adventure, so they ask how dark it is outside. I say “high or low,” they say “low.” If I roll a 1, then it’s a clear night with a near full moon (so generally good visibility). If I roll a 6 then it’s the new moon, and cloudy (so pitch black). If I roll a 3 I tell them “it’s not great, but okay enough to get around.” If I roll a 4 I say “it’s not great, you have some trouble seeing well enough to get around.” As a GM you can also easily quantify the roll. A roll of 1 is only a -2 to perception check, whereas a roll of 6 (because the player’s said “low”) is a -8 to perception.

Or lets say the players unexpectedly go to a tavern and start a fight to show off their superior strength (tavern fights shouldn’t be too unexpected, but this is just an example). The GM hasn’t prepared for this, so they turn to a player and ask “high or low,” and they say “high.” The GM rolls the d6 and gets a 6! Things go in the players’ favor. Perhaps several NPCs challenge the players to a fight, but the NPCs aren’t as powerful as the players, so the tavern patrons watch and cheer and the players beat their challengers. But what if the GM rolls a 1? Well then everyone in the bar throws their food at the players, or runs away in terror, as ten Town Guardsmen come rushing into the tavern ready to arrest the players. Roll in between 1 and 6? Then the results are somewhere in between the scenarios above.

Or lets say the players are trying to sneak into an enemy encampment. During prep the GM could plan out the exact forces in the encampment, their patrol patterns, and where every enemy soldier is located. Or the GM could improvise most of those details! As the players approach the perimeter the GM asks “high or low,” and they say “low.” The GM then rolls the d6 and gets a 2. So when the players try to sneak past the perimeter the guards they come close to are generally inexperienced and have low perceptions skills. The GM rolls their perception, fails, and the players sneak by unnoticed. The players then go over to the ammunition depot to plant explosives. They ask the GM what type of ammunition is stored here, and again the GM asks “high or low.” They say “high,” and the GM rolls a 6. The GM tells them the depot is loaded with TNT, so their explosives will react with the TNT to cause a much larger explosive! The players then head to the enemy General’s tent, with the goal of killing him. As the players approach the GM asks “high or low,” and they answer with “high.” Except this time the GM rolls a 1, not good for the players. When the players confront the General they find he’s in the middle of a meeting with a squad of special forces soldiers, on top of his personal body guards.

It’s important to remember that this method should be used to decide upon details within an already set parameter of possibilities. From the example above, this method shouldn’t be used to decide whether there are perimeter guards, whether there is an ammunition depot, or whether there are special forces within the base. Those should be the parameters set during prep, and the “high or low” method should be used to decide upon the details within those parameters. How perceptive are those perimeter guards? How much ammunition is in the depot? When the scene evolves and the special forces turn out to be meeting with the General, the GM has prepared the stats for these special forces soldiers ahead of time, but left how and when they would appear to improvisation.

The Benefits of the Method:

As a GM I’ve always relied heavily on improvisation, and this “high or low” method developed spontaneously. I don’t remember when I conceived of it, other than that it was in game, but ever since I’ve made sure to use it every chance I get. The obvious benefit for a GM is that planned improvisations means less game prep, and I personally feel that improvisation makes a game more fun and exciting for the players and GM. And I’ve found many other benefits to this method over the years as well.

The first added benefit I’ve touched on already. Rolling dice to determine in game details is much more “impartial” then just contriving the details, and it avoids those awkward situations where players feel like the GM isn’t “being fair.” Randomness is always fair. Even if you hide the die results from the players, by simply asking “high or low” the players know that you’re using it to determine the details of something. It also makes the players feel like they have a little more say and control over the game. Involving the players in the randomization/improvisation process can make them feel more involved.

The second benefit is that it grabs players’ attention. I always ask a specific player “high or low,” and I usually ask the player who looks the most disengaged at that moment. Even if the outcome of the die roll has nothing to do with that specific character, asking “high or low” pulls their attention back into the game. Two players are chatting? Instead of just saying “hey guys, pay attention,” ask one of them “high or low.” Maybe you don’t even need to determine anything, you’re just using it to pull them back into the game. Using the method brings everyone’s attention back to the game, which leads to the next benefit.

The method adds tension to the game. Tension isn’t so much a factor when the players ask the GM something directly and the GM uses this method to answer, but GMs should use this method to decide upon details before he reveals them to the players. When they hear “high or low,” the players know something important is coming. There’s nothing quite like asking the whole party to make a perception check, then immediately asking for a ‘high or low.”

Variations on the Method:

Many times the GM wants to conceal the result of the high or low roll, but often it’s fine for the players to see the result. If that’s the case, then ask one player for a “high or low,” then ask another player to make the roll. It only increased the feeling of involvement and the attention the players pay to the game.

Another variation is to use more than a single d6. I GM a GURPS game so I will often roll 3d6, but a d20 is great as well. Both option introduce the possibility of a critical failure or success. So if the players ask about the weather, and pick low, and the GM rolls a d20 and gets a 20 (in this situation a critical failure), then perhaps there’s an earthquake, flood, tornado, or some form of natural disaster.

Randomness Isn’t for Everyone:

A word of warning: to use this method you have to be very comfortable with improvisation, and able to be creative with only a second’s notice. Also be aware that using “high or low” can sometimes imbalance a game. If the players get a string of good “high or low” roll they may feel unchallenged, or too challenged if they get a string of bad “high or low” rolls. As a GM using this method, you also need to be careful not to inadvertently introduce elements into your game/setting that you don’t want to be there. Be mindful of the consequences for the setting and plot. Unplanned interactions and situations can often develop into their own plot arcs, for better or worse.

It is also difficult to anticipate how long a game will last when you are planning on improvising many of the plot elements. During prep, it’s easy to overestimate how much of a game’s time you can “pad out” with improvisation. In my experience, it often leads to games being much shorter than I anticipated. But the reverse can also be true, depending on the interactions. Finally, it’s also very easy during prep to say to yourself that you can totally rely on this method, and then in game look unprepared and sloppy because you didn’t prepare enough (something I’ve fallen victim to many times). Like I mentioned above, use this method to what, within a set of already decided upon parameters, happens in game. Don’t use the method to decide upon those parameters.

All that being said, if you’re like me and love to improvise, you’ll find this method serves you well. It’s a method of improvisation that actively involves the players, keeps their attention on the game, and adds tension. As I mentioned above this method developed spontaneously, in game. My players enjoy it, have come to expect it, and I’ve found it very useful as a GM who purposefully leaves details in the game vague so that improvisation can occur naturally.

GMing Advice: Evoking Emotional Engagement in Players

This article is also published on Gnome Stew.

One of the primary roles of a GM is to serve both as the players’ senses and the interpreter of their senses. GMs not only tell players what their five sense are experiencing, they provide an interpretation of the environment the characters inhabit (“That NPC is angry”), and an interpretation of what the characters themselves are feeling (“That NPC is making you angry”). Pleasure, fear, attraction, joy, anger…these are all emotions that characters experience, and GMs dictating to players how their characters are feeling is part of the shared storytelling method of role-playing.

Telling Me I’m Sad Won’t Make Me Sad

How then should a GM best describe the emotional experience of a character to the player? When describing a physical thing the GM need only provide a more vivid description to better engage the players. Instead of saying “you see a goblin” the GM can provide more detail in order to give the players a better sense of what their characters are experiencing. However this can be much more difficult with emotions. Many GMs intuitively know that just saying “you feel sad” isn’t enough to engage the players in what their characters are supposed to be feeling, but unfortunately many attempts at describing an emotion just lead to a stream of synonyms: “you feel sad, depressed, somber, and unhappy.” Synonyms are not an effective method for evoking emotion in a player. So what is? To answer this question let’s look at a genre where evoking emotional engagement is absolutely essential: horror.

Many a GM (myself included) have tried to run a horror game and have discovered just how hard it can be. The biggest barrier to an effective horror game is that it’s so hard to actually instill fear into the players. No amount of “you feel scared” will get the job done. In order to be effective at horror a GM must evoke fear in their players, and the main way to do that is to describe the physiological effects of fear their characters would feel. Telling a player their character feels a slimy centipede crawling up their leg might creep them out, but then describing the physiological response adds another level of engagement, to the point where a GM can evoke the fear of a character in the player. Describing the physical feeling of fright is the best way to evoke fear: heaving breathing, a dry mouth, sweat dripping into ones eye, knees shaking, muscles spasming, the hair on your skin stiffening like pin pricks, heart pumping, teeth chattering, knuckles tightening, vision blurring, this is what fear is. Fear is a word we use to describe a particular set of physiological sensations, and remembering that is the best way to evoke fear in your players. When you’re describing these sensations to your players don’t even use the word “scared,” or anything like it. Don’t begin by saying “you’re scared” and then go onto describe the physiological response, drop the word “scared” (and all its synonyms) from your vocabulary and only describe the physiological reaction. You’re players will know exactly what emotions you’re talking about.

All Emotions Have a Physiological Component

All emotions, not just fear, are fundamentally rooted in physiological sensations. And the method described above for evoking fear in players is exactly how a GM should go about evoking emotional engagement when it comes to all emotions. GMs should drop words like angry, sad, happy, and scared from their vocabulary. Never speak them when referring to a PCs emotional state. Instead, use the physiological components of those emotions, some of which are below, to evoke the emotion in your players.

Fear: Heavy breathing through the mouth, a dry mouth, sweat dripping into ones eye, knees shaking, muscles spasming, the hair on your skin stiffening like pin pricks, heart pumping, teeth chattering, knuckles tightening, vision blurring, everything becoming louder, inability to distinguish sounds.

Sadness: Muscles becoming weak and sore, endless tiredness, lack of energy, head feeling heavy, pressure building up behind the eyes and across the forehead, dizziness, skin feeling cold, slow movement and speech, lack of appetite, yet hollow stomach, hazy vision, limbs feeling heavy.

Joy: Light feeling in the forehead, muscles relaxing, limbs feeling lighter, energized, wanting to have physical contact with others, feeling compelled to move your body, smiling, energy rushing through your legs, skin feeling warm and soft, intermittent laughing.

Anger: Muscles tightening, fist clenching, teeth grinding, pulsing in your ears that makes it hard to hear, eyes focused, heart beating loudly, toes curling, cheeks becoming hot, lips pressed together, biting the lips, heavy breathing through the nose.

Using This In Your Game

The list above is not only an incomplete list of emotions, it’s an incomplete list of possible physiological components to those emotions. It’s up to you, as a GM and as a human being with your own experiences of different emotions throughout your personal life, to come up with a longer list and to utilize it in your game. As I said before, do your best as a GM to drop all usage of words like “happy, sad, angry and scared.” If you replace those words entirely with something like the descriptions written above you’ll be much more successful at evoking emotional engagement in your players, and ultimately enhancing the role-playing experience for all involved.

A method like this is especially important when dealing with character’s quirks and phobias. As we all know many players create characters with unique preferences and fears, and it’s hard to get a player to empathize and be engage with a character who is obsessed with cakes and deathly afraid of red tricycles (I’m sure you all know at least one player like this). Especially when it comes to phobias, it’s awkward to role-play a character’s phobia when the player almost never shares that fear. It doesn’t feel genuine, and in those situations it’s up to the GM to try to evoke fear in that player. Not only will that player role-play their character better in that situation, it adds depth and genuineness to an otherwise awkward role-playing situations.

Don’t forget that this method also works with describing NPCs! Telling the players that an NPC looks “happy” or “sad” isn’t very engaging. Just as you’d describe what a goblin looks like, in detail, to the players in order to make them feel more engaged, describe what being a sad NPC looks like without using the word “sad” or any of its synonyms.

At the end of the day this method is all about making the players feel the same emotions that their characters are feeling. Evoking emotions in the players makes them more engaged with their characters, with the game, and with the story being told. When a player is just told “you feel sad” the player will nod their head and sit back, disengaged from the story and the game. That’s because being told “you’re sad” is like reading a terrible book. Great books and works of literature evoke emotions in their readers, and GMs should endeavor to do the same.

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!!!