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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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.

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!!!

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 🙂