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!

 

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The Future of GURPS?

Check our my Future of GURPS: Part 2

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!

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.

Why I Play GURPS Over Other RPG Systems

I’ve been playing table-top role-playing games since I was 15 (and I’m currently 23). Over the past 8 years I’ve played many RPG systems. I started when my friend in high school introduced me to Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition (technically 3.5). I ran several D&D 3.5 games during high school, but never branched out into other RPG systems. Once I got to college though, that situation changed dramatically. The University of Maine at Farmington has a very well-organized gaming group called the Table Gaming Club (TGC). The TGC was a gold mine of gaming opportunities! The TGC was the oldest club on campus, dating back to the 70s. It was one of the only clubs to have its own space (that was not administered by Student Government), and they had whole bookshelves full of RPG books, along with board game and console games. I quickly joined the club, and was an officer in the club my whole tenure at UMF (including serving as the TGC President).

During my time in the TGC I played in, and ran, many different game systems. I continued playing D&D 3.5, I played D&D 4th Edition, AD&D 2nd Edition, Pathfinder, Star Wars Saga, World Of Darkness (Vampire, Mage, Promethean, and Hunter), Shadowrun 2nd Edition, Savage Worlds, d20 Modern, Spycraft, Traveller (from Mongoose Publishing), Unknown Armies, dabbled in Alternity (the old TSR Sci-Fi game), and GURPS (Generic Universal Role Playing System). While some of these systems I only played only once or twice, and others I played for years, GURPS quickly stood out as my preferred system. I should qualify that by saying GURPS is my favorite system for fantasy games, and for modern-setting games. Because GURPS generally stresses realism (and I’ll detail what that means in a little bit), it doesn’t work well with certain settings. It works great with fantasy (which one could argue isn’t very ‘realistic’), but where it can clashes with setting is in space-opera type games. I ran a Star Wars Saga game for over a year, and I thought I’d give Star Wars a try with GURPS. It did not work out, to say the least. Besides the fact that any realistic blaster would nearly obliterate a person, any competent Jedi would be something like 500+ character points (read: Too much). Plus spending the time making up a system for the Force, and all the different force powers was not something I wanted to do. There was also the fact that Star Wars Saga is a superb system (really what D&D 4th Edition should have been), and I just couldn’t justify the time to convert. So if you’re interested in a Star Wars game, Star Wars Saga is without a doubt the way to go.

That being said, I feel that GURPS is a much better system for playing fantasy RPGs then D&D 3.5, and especially D&D 4th (truth be told…ANY fantasy system is better than D&D 4th Edition). GURPS is my favorite system because it is realistic. First I need to define exactly what I mean by “realistic.” I am not talking about realism for realism’s sake. This is escapism after all, the idea is not to emulate real life as much as possible. When I say “realistic,” what I mean is that the system makes conceptual sense, along with mechanical sense. Both D&D and GURPS work mechanically. Their rules are fairly straight forward, relatively balanced, internally consistant, and the basic mechanics are applied evenly throughout the intricacies of the system. Both games can be picked up and enjoyed. Most table-top RPGs with mechanics that do not work will not be successful, so most games available are mechanically sound. GURPS’ mechanics work great, in my opinion. But what is special about GURPS’ mechanics is that they also make conceptual sense. Everything in GURPS is “realistic” in that the mechanics represent sensical and logic possibilities in the world. This is best explained by counter-example. Ask a group of D&D players exactly what “Hit Points” and “Armor Class” mean, and you will bear witness to an intense debate. This is because while these constructs work great mechanically, when analyzed as representations of something the could possibly exist in the real world, they disintegrate conceptually. Let’s take Armor Class (AC) for example. In D&D 3.5, AC is almost entirely based on what type of armor you’re wearing, and it’s supposed to represent how hard you are to hit. You’d think, logically, that how agile and quick you are would help you dodge attacks, but having an 18 Dexterity, which is supposed to be the near pinnacle of human agility, only give you a bonus to your AC of +4, which is the equivalent of wearing a mundane chain shirt. The average character has a Dexterity of 10, which give no bonus to AC. So if your entire AC is based on armor, then just standing still and just looking at your enemy is as effective a defense as actively trying to dodge. Then there’s the question of whether an attack misses your body or just deflects off your armor when your attacker doesn’t beat your AC. There’s also the issue of if an attack beats your AC, it does damage as if you were not wearing armor. It’s either all or nothing with AC. Hit Points (HP) are even worse. In D&D 3.5 your HP goes up exponentially with every level. Mechanically, what this leads to is if your level 20 character walks out into a field, naked, and get’s shot with 50 arrows, they will be perfectly fine. Your maximum HP can be 3000, and until you’re at 0 HP, you act as if you’d never been touched by a weapon. Even if the rules say you’ve been “hit”  20 times by a sword, or spell, or dragon’s breath, it somehow has literally no effect on your ability to function.

GURPS doesn’t have this problem. In GURPS, whether you get hit or not depends not only on your attackers skill, but on your skill at defending yourself (you know, like how combat actually works). And in GURPS, your HP doesn’t increase arbitrarily (few things are arbitrary in GURPS). It can increase slightly, but even the strongest characters will only have double the average person’s HP (where as in D&D 3.5, your HP doubles the first time you level up). In GURPS you can be a Navy Seal, and if you get shot in the leg, it’s not gonna be all that different from if a normal civilian got shot in the leg. In GURPS, your characters’ awesomeness is not based on a collection of magic items, or min/maxed feats, or some unique (and probably broken) special ability, your character is awesome because of their awesome skills! In GURPS, the most powerful and deadly character I ever played was a Samurai. This samurai never wore armor, he used only a mundane sword, never used any magical item or any magic, and was the most badass mother fucker I’ve ever player. My GM couldn’t lay a finger on him for weeks. This focus on character, and the character’s ability, versus a focus on magic items, arbitrary special abilities, and combinations of feats/skill/items leads to very different kinds of games. This can be epitomized when you ask a D&D and a GURPS player about their characters. Ask me about my Samurai, and I’d say something like “Well he’s a master Samurai who killed his master because he order him to murder innocent families. He now lives on the road and on the run, being constantly chased by his former classmates at his dojo. He’s quite, reserved, stoic, lives extremely frugally, and is the deadliest swordsman on the whole continent. He has come to learn that there is no honor in serving a master with no honor, and he seeks a place in this world where his skill can be used to serve a better, higher purpose.” Ask a D&D player about their character and you’ll hear something like “Well my character has 10 levels in (class 1), 3 levels in (class 2), and 7 levels in (prestige class 3). This allows him to use (ability one) in combination with (ability 2) and (feat 3) that I took to do (x amount of damage). His AC is (x), and he has a +5 (whatever) that allows him to do extra damage against (x type) enemies.” Do you see the difference in these two descriptions? The former is a character with a story, a narrative, a personality, and with human flaws. The latter is a mathematical construct, designed for maximum efficiency and output, lacking of anything that would differential it from a well constructed BOT on a World of Warcraft server farming for gold.

This is why I play GURPS, because when the rules are meant to reflect the way the world works, players focus on making “real” characters. When an RPG system is nothing more than an internally consistent set of mechanics that make no attempt to emulate real human experience, players play to the rules. In GURPS, the rules are a tool by which you can actualize your character. In D&D (and similar systems), the rules are a tool in which you actualize the rules. They are arbitrary, self-referencial, and exists only for their own purpose, not to actualize something about your character. GURPS is a class-less and level-less system. Your character is based on skills, advantages and disadvantages (Yes, disadvantages…GURPS actually has you quantify your character’s flaws…you know, those things real people have).

In D&D you commonly get a situation like this: Player X selects a set of abilities/feats that allows them to perform some special attack that does an extremely high amount of damage (let’s say it’s a fire based attack). Because this is D&D, pretty much the whole game is focused on combat. So as a GM, you have this player who’s blowing through all your challenges because they’ve min/maxed to get this over-powered ability. Often you’ll respond by putting that player up against monsters that are resistant to fire, for example. When you do you, Player X says something like “you just did that so I couldn’t use my ability.” At that moment, all immersion is shattered. The pretense that the game is something other than a delicate balancing act of arbitrary abilities and mechanical quirks is gone. The player min/maxed his character exactly because that’s what the rules incentivize him to do, and the GM presented the fire-resistant monsters to counter this broken character. None of this was done for character development, plot development, or because it made sense, it was done to reestablish the mechanical balance that allows the grind to continue. This never happens in GURPS. First off, in GURPS all skills and abilities are equal, whether social, mental or physical. In D&D any skill based around combat is overly complicated, where as any skill not useful in combat is significantly reduced in complexity. This means that D&D games will be mainly focused on combat and grinding. Whereas GURPS games can be a mix of anything. I’ve had many GURPS games where no combat was performed. This means that if you mix/max your character to do one thing really well, it’s very easy to counter that in GURPS. If you have a player who’s put all their points into Karate, for example, just present them with a social situation. They can’t say something like “you only did that to counter my character’s abilities” because their character is the unrealistic one, and it only embarrasses the player and shows how useless their character actually is. Well rounded characters survive in GURPS, not characters designed for maximum damage output. And if you do have characters that are killing machines, just present them with equal powerful killing machines. Again the “you only did that to counter my character’s abilities” excuse doesn’t work, because if a renegade master Samurai exists, it only makes sense that a master assassin would be sent after him.

Because GURPS works conceptually, along with mechanically, it allows it to function in pretty much any setting (hence the “Generic Universal” Role Playing System). It doesn’t have to fit within a specific and narrow setting. Notice how the d20 versions of settings that are not fantasy systems are generally terrible? d20 Modern, d20 Star Wars, Spycraft etc…Yes it’s a great thing that the d20 system is open source content, but it translates very poorly outside of fantasy games. GURPS is the opposite. If there’s a mechanical problem, or something’s not directly addressed by the rules, 90% of the time it can be resolved by asking yourself “how would it work in real life.”  GURPS’ fidelity is what makes it so versatile.

GURPS is a wonderfully underrated system. I know many people who don’t like it solely because they can’t “figure it out.” But what they always mean by that is they can’t figure out how to cheat the system. They can’t find the holes in the rules that allows them to break the rules. They can’t see a clear path that allows them to min/max one particular action or skill. They can’t see an easy combination of abilities that gives them the biggest bonuses. This is only true for a few people I’ve met though. Most role-players I’ve introduced to GURPS love it. I’ve been running a GURPS fantasy game for almost 2 years now, and I played in a GURPS fantasy game for the 2 years preceding my game.

In the near future I will be writing more about role-playing, and I’m sure some posts be specifically about GURPS. Until then, go take a look at GURPS (currently in its 4th Edition). It’s a wonderful system, and I plan on sticking with it for a long time! And as always, feel free to ask any questions, or challenge anything I said 🙂

A Role-player’s Luck

I am an avid role-player. When I say “role-player,” I mean someone who plays tabletop, pen & paper RPGs. The most famous of these RPGs is Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), but there are many RPGs other than D&D on the marketplace. I started playing D&D in high school, and once I got to college I started playing other RPGs, like GURPS, World of Darkness, Star Wars Saga, Pathfinder, Savage Worlds etc.

Anyway…this post was originally titled “A Role-player’s Lament.” I had just moved to Chicago, and I was having real trouble recruiting people for my game. At first I was optimistic. I travelled to the biggest gaming store in Chicago, Chicagoland Games: Dice Dojo, which was a big help. The employees, owners, and people there was extremely nice and welcoming. They hooked me up with several online RPG groups that operate in the Chicago area to facilitate gaming. I was really excited that I now had hundreds of people I could contact, and that I could schedule gaming events they could all see online!

In an attempt to meet some people face to face, I went to the Dice Dojo’s RPG night, and this is where my lamentation began. Not because of the people there, don’t get me wrong, but because of what they were playing. They were all playing either D&D 4th Edition or Pathfinder, and they were doing “organized play.” I really liked the people I met, but I hated organized play. D&D and Pathfinder (Pathfinder is a update to D&D 3rd Edition, so I’ll just use the term “D&D” to describe them both) are already systems I don’t like, and organized play was even worse (I’ll get to why in a minute).

So at this point I was a little disappointed that D&D is what everyone seemed to be wanting to play, and not many people seemed interested in my game, which uses GURPS rules (instead of D&D rules). At this point I was still optimistic about recruiting however, seeing that I had so many resources at my hands. There were three websites I used to recruit players. One allowed me to send emails to 500+ people who play RPGs in Chicago. The other allowed me to organized events on a community calendar that hundreds of people could see. And the last was a nation wide RPG social networking site with 15,000+ members that will match people with my game depending on their preferences! These resources seemed infinite, and I was very optimistic.

However, this post would not have originally been titled “A Role-player’s Lament” if it had all gone well. Using these resources I tried to plan a preliminary game, and while about 7 people said “maybe,” no one came. I then tried for a more permanent schedule, setting up my campaign with a definitive day and time. Using the website with 500+ people, I got one reply; the website with 15,000+ people, I got one reply; the community calendar website, I got zero replies. At this point I had exhausted all my recruiting efforts, and I only had two people interested. During this time I also met a very nice gentleman on a bus (at 2:30am coming from downtown) who just happened to play RPGs and was interested, so now I had three people.

At his point I was highly discouraged, I wasn’t even convinced that these three people would actually come through and show up, but I was planning the game anyway. This is when I started writing my “lament.” In my discouragement, I was going to write a long blog post about how D&D is terrible, how it discourages role-playing and narrative building and encourages shallow stereotypes and power-gaming. I was going to write about how D&D’s rules make no conceptual sense and are arbitrary and focus only on combat while mitigating other aspects of character development. I was going to write about how “organized” play is the epitome of all the bad traits of D&D, how it felt like playing World of Warcraft and how I hated it so much I could only play 2 games before I couldn’t take anymore. Yet before I had a chance to write that post, my fortune turned around, completely.

I and another student in my graduate program created a Facebook group for the incoming students, and we had the invite to the group sent to the program list server. Soon we had over 80 of our fellow students join the group, and naturally we all started talking and getting to know one another. One person organized a contact sheet, and as people stared posting on it, one person said on the sheet that their interests include RPGs. I saw an opportunity for recruitment and sent him a message inviting him to my game. He was happy to join, and he suggested that I post an invite on the facebook page of the grad program for all the members to see.

At first I was apprehensive, thinking to myself that it wasn’t appropriate for the site of the grad program, that it would only make me look like a geek, and that no one would be interested. However, I overcame these insecurities and posted a quick, vague invite anyway.

I was absolutely shocked not only at the number of people who had played RPGs before and were interested, but also the number of people who had never played RPGs before and were still interested! As of right now I have 9 people from my program who want to play in my game! NINE PEOPLE from a facebook group with only 86 members! With my unforseen success, I created another facebook group specifically for the game, which now has the 9 people from my programs, along with the 3 original people I had already recruited (none of whom seem to be flaking on playing)!

I am almost too lucky in this regard, because anyone who has played RPGs knows 12 players is way to many. A game preferably has no more then 6 players, but in the past I’ve run games with up to 7 or 8 people. So while I don’t want to discourage people from playing, and I especially don’t want to tell people there’s no room for them, I’m kinda hoping that some people will decide not to partake once they try it, either because it’s not for them or they can’t make the time commitment. If I still have too many players, I’ll just have to run two games, rotating them every other week. That way people who can play every week can play in both games (with different characters), while those who would rather only play every other week can do so. Hopefully this strategy would make it so each game has no more then 7 players.

Regardless, I want to make sure I can accommodate all those who are interested in my game, so I’m gonna do my best! Let’s see how it goes, but I’m once again optimistic 🙂