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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My GURPS Game in New York City

So I’ve been living in New York City for about 10 days now. I’m settled into my new job at Columbia, I’ve unpacked all my things in my apartment, and I’m ready to start recruiting for my GURPS game in New York City. I’m going to continue with the same setting I was running while in Chicago, which is a fantasy setting of my own creation. Having been here for only 10 days so far I have no idea where to hold a game and to find gamers. Luckily, through MeetUp I’ve been able find people interested in playing in my game. If by any chance you’re reading this and going “I live in New York, maybe I could play!” Please feel free to email me or visit the MeetUp page I have for my game! I also have an Obsidian Portal page for the campaign. I really hope that I’ll be able to find a good sized group of enthusiastic players who can meet twice a month! If there’s anywhere I should be able to find some role-players, it’s New York City.

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 🙂