Carpe Blogiem: 10th Anniversary of GURPS 4th Edition

Today, is a special day for us GURPSers, today is the tenth birthday of GURPS, the previous edition was printed in 1988, and the first and second in 1986. That’s some heady stuff right there for a gamer, especially considering that other game systems (*cough* Dungeons and Dragons *cough*) have been through six editions since then – most of them while GURPS 4th edition was just starting off. But I’m not here to complain about other game systems and their longevity – I’m here to talk about GURPS. Its universal engine is often said to be able to do anything you can imagine – and really, it can. It does some things better than others (cinematic action vs. supers for example) and does have a few wrinkles…but as a whole the system just works and it does so damn near flawlessly. Previous editions of GURPS were touted for their authenticity on subjects and smoothness of play (which is more or less true), but 4th edition GURPS is a rare bird in the gaming community. It’s a true tool kit, it’s the erector set of the imagination. If you can visualize it, chances are that the GURPS engine can deliver on it (with a little work). So on this day of days, this high holy day for nerds I offer what I consider the highlights (both good and bad) of the system I love.

The Good
Where it shines.

  • GURPS is genre-universal” And damned if it isn’t. Want to run a space cowboy game with giant organic mechs and evil sentient stars? Fine. No problem. Want to run a gritty game of survivors during the Zombie Apocalypse? Yup. How about a nice game of thermonuclear war? Well…it’d be short, but yeah, you could do that. The point here is this: GURPS can take everything you want to do with a campaign and then give you the tools to run it like how you envisioned. The only other thing on the market that does this is FATE (which I’d argue is the other side of the coin that GURPS is printed on).
  • GURPS is well-researched” Oh, yes. GURPS tends to attract people who are into history, math, etc. because it’s a game that appeals to their sensibilities. Ditto for the writers. GURPS authors (excluding Y. T.) tend to be highly intelligent with lots of life experience and degrees behind their names. One of our authors is so well-known for his knowledge of firearms and military gear that fucking Jane’s has come to him on more than one occasion for his opinion. Another does copy-editing for bloody science papers. Yet another is a freaking professor of military history. The line editor is a particle physicist for gawdsake. I could go on. The point I’m trying to make here is not that “only smart people play GURPS” – that’s a elitist attitude and can go fuck itself, but this: you’re getting real world knowledge condensed down into a gameable format. Want to roleplay the War of the Roses? Okay. Want to be a special operator doing missions in ‘Nam? Okay. Hell, I’ve used GURPS books (usually GURPS Classics) as primers for topics I want to study later on – something that works quite well.
  • “It does anything from realistic action to over-the-top pulp!” And it does. It’s all about the dials the GM wants to toggle on or off. It does take a bit getting used to to figure out what needs to be “on” and what needs to be “off,” but all game systems have a learning curve. If you are a avid world-builder, writer, or other creative person GURPS is where you want to build your sandbox. You can create anything, do anything, run anything – sometimes this overwhelms folks “Where do I start?” but GURPS is making inroads on fixing that.
  • GURPS is front-loaded” When I say “front-loaded” here what do I mean? ?Well, it’s simply this, GURPS characters take so long to create (between two and three hours for most characters) because once the game begins updating your character takes maybe ten minutes. Because all the math is done for you and all you have to do is roll 3d6 and apply modifiers. Look at it like this: you’re investing your time up front because when you start playing you’re going to get more game time in. Hell, you can update a character in the middle of gameplay and it’s not going to slow anything down.

The Bad
Maybe it’s a system architecture failure or a misconception or whatever – these tend to shoot down any attempts to run a GURPS game (in my experience).

  • “Base Magic is Broken!” The base magic system is, well, kind of…broken. It never really got a update to 4th edition in the way that it should’ve. Several books have coming out offering different systems, but the first system new gamers are going to come in contact with is the basic magic system and it might turn them off. Why is it broken? Well, some spells allow you to do things you simply cannot do in GURPS any other way. That said, it can still work just fine as long as you can ignore some of the un-GURPS of certain spells. A revised version of GURPS Magic would go a long way to fixing this, but that’s a pipe dream at best.
  • “Math is hard” GURPS has this reputation for being some sort of math-intensive-make-your-calculus-teacher-proud-torture-exercise. It’s not. If you can add, subtract, multiply, divide, and use percentages that’s about all the math any player will need to use. The GM is going to need to know how to do cube roots or google them (i.e., ³√x). I can tell you as a long time GURPS play no one does them by hand – it’s easier to use a calculator, excel, etc. Given that many 3rd edition GURPS books were heavily math intensive and you’ve got a persistent (and incorrect) meme that just will not fucking die already.
  • GURPS is deadly!” Yes. It is. But there are rules you can “toggle” that makes it less so. Basic GURPS is what I like to call “semi-realistic,” that is if you get shot in real life you don’t tend to shake it off and go on. Getting shot hurts and you’re probably going to be incapacitated. Again, the GM can say “Cinematic rules are in effect” and suddenly being shot still hurts, but you can move on and keep the plot moving at a pace like the movies tend to portray.

The Ugly
Things that are missing or where GURPS performs…barely adequately.

  • GURPS can’t do supers!” Well, it can, but there are real holes that have been spackled over as best they could be and folks have moved on. A complaint I’ve often seen is Super ST – is it the most elegant solution? No. But it’s what we got and Bill Stoddard did the best he could with what he had. I personally think there needs to be some sort of “supers rules” set put together (like cinematic or realistic rules). That is create a campaign framework that relies not on a game mechanical effect, but on simple GM fiat. Invulnerability is the second most seen gripe I’ve noticed – GURPS doesn’t do absolutes and too me, that’s a feature, not a bug.
  • GURPS Ultra-Tech is a mess” This isn’t untrue, it and GURPS Bio-Tech are completely unlike the latter tech-catalogues and that’s too be expected – they came first! Do we need revised editions? Maybe, but the books more or less work and can be used as is. There are rumors of a ton of unimplemented errata that would probably solve a lot of issues. And given the fact that subject matter is controversial (as in, people have differing views about what might come first, technology-wise) and you have a recipe for oddness. The authors did a brilliant job with what they had I thought, but it needed to be laid out in a different way, much like how GURPS Low-Tech had “Companion” books so should GURPS Ultra-Tech get a companion series.
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  1. I don't think the average GURPS GM needs to even be able to use a calculator or Google cube roots. Yes, I do sometimes, but I'm probably reasonably a GURPS power-user. The only Basic Set rule that uses them is super-optional, only matters in some very specific circumstances, and even then you can get by with just using the table. In a game where characters are more-or-less human beings doing more-or-less human sorts of things, and precise rules for breaking inanimate objects aren't needed, it's never going to come up.

  2. That's true enough, but it HAS come up in my games before (okay, twice, but still it has come up). I expect it'd come up at least once, especially if the GM is using some of the alternate rules from other books.

  3. Good post.

    A few comments:

    Genre universal.

    Personally I think a lot of systems are genre universal. Toon for example can see the PCs go between all those campaigns. The tone though will always be kind of light hearted and less serious though unless the system is completely changed. GURPS does let you have the right tone in each of those settings.

    Well researched.

    Yeah some of those old GURPS world books were equivalent to an actual lecture or two of history.

    Base Magic is broken.

    It *is* possible for this to be fixed GURPS Plant Magic did one college, but it would be another 10 or so books to fix the rest. Or some brave soul could propose a series for Pyramid.

    That said at the same time authors or customers can make their own system or buy one of the newer more interesting option.

    GURPS cant do supers.

    I think it can do something like X1 or even the super Blade versus hordes of vampires, but something like the big fight in Avengers, without falling apart, I couldnt do that.

    Compare that to something like the previously mentioned rules light Toon. It would be so easy and appropriate given that so many treatments of superhero are animated nowdays.

  4. I think wanting to do something like Avengers is a pretty fair objective. The actual movie makes a surprisingly good campaign (three act structure, lot of social interaction, chance to show off powers, investigation and an epic multi session battle to rap it up).
    That last battle though, first I'd have to stat out everything in a way that makes Black Widow and Hawkeye compete/surive on the same stage as Hulk. Likely a lot of specific cinematic rules have to be used. Then though every thing the pcs do is likely to be power stunts or crazy one of actions. And theyre fighting against an army! Maybe some of the horde or even mass combat rules would help.

    But yeah doing something like X1, (even Spiderman) also a pretty realistic expectation, not so difficult at all.

  5. I think this is where Impulse Buys/Spending Points for effects really shines. Just give the supernormals more points in this area than the supers and go from there. That's what I've done anyways, well, that and a few other odds and rules, rules-wise.

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