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.

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Indie Music Is So 80s: Part 2

Read my first post and Part 3 on how indie music sounds like 80s music.

So 14 months ago I wrote about how I though the aesthetic of 80s music was “invading” modern indie music. Well I think the invasion is complete. Trust me, I’m not complaining, as my top tracks of 2013 is full of music that is clearly influenced by the sounds of the 80s.

Since my previous post was written in October of 2012, there’s a lot of music that’s been released since then, and I though I’d go through some of that music. If you like indie music with an 80s tinge, check out some of the bands below. Many of the bands appeared on my previous list, but these are new songs from 2013!

Whitby” by The Octopus Project

It’s a War” by Blackbird Blackbird

While I’m Alive” by STRFKR

So Strange” by Superhumanoids

Replicants” by MillionYoung

Closer Than This” by St. Lucia

Mosaic” by Fear of Men

In Vertigo” by Beach Fossils

A Dancing Shell” by Wild Nothing

Still Left With Me” by Craft Spells

No Stranger” by Small Black

Pretty Boy” by Young Galaxy

Oostende” by Keep Shelly in Athens

All I Wanna Do Is Live” by Flaamingos

The Mother We Share” by CHVRCHES

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.

Indie Bands With Female Singers

Check out Part 2!

Many of my favorite indie bands have female singers, and I tend to prefer them over male leads. No real reason why, I just do. Maybe it’s because I grew up on classic rock, which is mostly devoid of female singers? Regardless, I’d like to share some of my favorite female indie singers with you, and give you a sample of their talent. This isn’t an exhaustive list of indie bands with female singers, nor is it a “best of” list in any way. It’s just a sample of the many great indie bands out there with female leads.

Sarah Barthel of Phantogram: “When I’m Small

Channy Leaneagh of Polica: “Amongster

Claire Boucher as Grimes: “Genesis

Alexis Krauss of Sleigh Bells: “Rill Rill

Yukimi Nagano of Little Dragon: “Ritual Union

Frankie Rose as herself: “Know Me

Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak and Dungeonesse: “Civilian” & “Shucks

Emily Haines of Metric: “Breathing Underwater

Megan James of Purity Ring: “Fineshrine

Samantha Urbani of Friends: “Friend Crush

Elena Tonra of Daughter: “Candles (Live)

Caroline Polachek of Chairlift: “I Belong In Your Arms

Natasha Khan of Bat For Lashes: “Horses of the Sun

Suzanne Aztoria of Trailer Trash Tracys: “You Wish You Were Red

Denise Nouvion of Memoryhouse: “The Kids Were Wrong

Molly Hamilton of Widowspeak: “Gun Shy

Victoria Legrand of Beach House: “Lazuli

Jana Hunter of Lower Dens: “I Get Nervous

Alaina Moore of Tennis: “Origins

Jonna Lee of iamamiwhoami: “; John

Sarah Chernoff of Superhumanoids: “Palm Springs

Chan Marshall as Cat Power: Ruin

Santi White of Santigold: “The Keepers

Jessica Weiss of Fear of Men: “Mosaic

Aleksa Palladino of Exitmusic: “The Night

Kristin Gundred of Dum Dum Girls: “Lord Knows

Jasmine White-Glutz of No Joy: “Lunar Phobia

Patience Hodgson of The Grates: “Turn Me On

Alejandra Deheza of School of Seven Bells: “Windstorm

Andrea Estella of Twin Sister: “Lady Daydream

Lauren Mayberry of CHVRCHES: “Recover

Chloe Chaidez of Kitten: “Cut it Out

Katie Harkin of Sky Larkin: “Motto

My Top Songs of 2013

My Top 10 Songs of 2013 (In No Particular Order)

Oostende” by Keep Shelly in Athens

Black Out Days” by Phantogram

Ironworks” by Baths

Hit Me Up Again” by Summer Hearts

Shucks” by Dungeonesse

A Dancing Shell” by Wild Nothing

Mute” by Youth Lagoon

In Vertigo” by Beach Fossils

The Beauty Surrounds” by Houses

You’re Not Good Enough” by Blood Orange

 

Honorable Mention (Also In No Particular Order)

Recover” by CHVRCHES

Nunca” by Trails and Ways

Cirrus” by Bonobo

Swapping Spit” by Big Deal

Let is Spill” by Los Campesinos!

Open” by Rhye

The Front” by Quasimoto

Best of Friends” by Palma Violets

The Aesthetic of the 80s is Invading ‘Indie’ Music

Check out Part 2 and Part 3 on this topic!

Am I the only one that has noticed that the 1980s are coming back with a vengeance? Everywhere I look in youth culture (my culture) I find remnants of and aspirations towards the aesthetic of the 1980s. This post will mostly focus on ‘indie’ music, but even outside of music you can see it everywhere. Mullets, skinny jeans, high pants, denim jackets, neon colors, teased hair, shoulder pads, leggings, headbands, aviators etc…go to any college campus (or Williamsburg) and you’ll easily find an example of the fashions listed above. Granted, it’s not all a copy of the 80s aesthetic, perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that it’s all “influence” by the 80s. Nonetheless, I can remember my grandmother telling me that fashions repeated themselves every 30 years, and many people in the 1980s said that their fashion was inspired by the 1950, so maybe the cycle is repeating itself in the 2010s?

However my only claim to hipster credibility is in regards to music, so that’s were I’d like to focus this post. When I was in high school and in my early college years (2005-2010), “indie music,” to me at least, meant mostly music coming out of the post-punk revival of the mid 2000s. Bands like Interpol, Bloc Party, Vampire Weekend, Arcade Fire, The Kooks, Bombay Bicycle Club, The Cribs, We Were Promised Jetpacks, The Maccabees, Razorlight, Cage the ElephantTegan and Sara, and The Strokes all came to epitomize this post-punk sound, and much of what has constituted “indie” music for the past several years has been largely (or at least partially) defined by this post-punk sound.

However over the past couples of years I’ve noticed a change in so-called “indie” music, specifically a shift towards music that is more reliant on electronic/synth-heavy/low-fi techniques and sounds. Instead of extolling upon what I’m referring to, I’d rather give you examples. Check out these bands/songs: MGMT, Animal Collective, Matt & Kim, Passion Pit, The Naked and Famous, Everything Everything, M83, The xx, Foster the People, Say Hi To Your Mom, The Radio Dept, Crystal Castles, Beach Fossils, Wild Nothing, Washed Out, WU LYF, Phantogram, Sunglasses, Youth Lagoon, Grimes, Deerhunter, Future Islands, Neon Indians, Craft Spells, The War on Drugs, Little Dragon, Frankie Rose, Mystery Jets, Diiv, Ice Choir, Big TroublesGeographer, Stranger Talk, Nightbox, Yeasayer, Hooray for Earth, Crystal Fighters, Purity Ring, Stars, Twin Shadows, Baths, Generationals, Hot Chip, Freelance Whales, The Limousines and Small Black.

You may have noticed that the list above is in a vaguely chronological order (or maybe you didn’t notice because it’s a stupidly long list and you didn’t listen to the songs)? Most of the songs on the latter part of the list have been released in the past 18 months, and those latter songs are where you really find the spirit of the 80s in full force. Many of them sound so much like 80s songs that I bet you could convince some people they were actually recorded in the 80s. The songs above by M83, Frankie Rose, Ice Choir, Twin Shadows and Small Black are strong examples.

Pinning down exactly where this “resurgence” of 80s-style music is coming from is not clear. It’s easy just to say it’s a cultural zeitgeist, a la repeating music/fashion styles every 30 years (thank you, wise old grandma). But it’s important not to overlook music from the early and mid 2000s that has influenced the music coming out today. The success of bands like The Postal Service, Daft Punk and The Killers certainly has help moved this style along. I even remember when The Killers came onto the scene and people were accusing them of being “just another 80s ripe-off band” (and the like). Now, almost 10 years later, bands that sound much more like 80s music are becoming very popular and are not garnering any criticism (at least that I’ve seen) for their stylistic resemblance to 80s music.

But what’s really interesting to me is that this music, while heavily emulating 80s music, is doing so unironically (and what have hipsters ever done that wasn’t ironic)? There’s no sense (at least among those consuming the music) that this style of music is meant to be an emulation or ironic replication of 80s music. Accordingly, it’s never called or referred to as music similar to 80s music. I may be describing it to you as similar to 80s music, but I almost never hear others refer to it in that way. The music is always called something like “electro-indie pop,” “synth-washed noise pop,” “low-fi electronic indie,” “indie electronic,” or just “indie.”

But how popular will this trend become? Will it swing into full force, perhaps helping to define the sound of the decade? Or will it last only a few years and remain mostly an underground thing? It’s too hard and too soon to say of course, but many of the bands mentioned above are becoming very popular, and could hardly be considered “underground” anymore. And if, at this time last year, you had told me that Mercedes-Benz would be using dubstep in their commercials, I would have told you there’s no way that dubstep would become that popular. So who knows how popular or widespread this aesthetic that’s influenced by the 1980s will become? Maybe we’ll soon see Taylor Swift playing synth? That will be the day…

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!!!