In my last post I revealed my renewed interest in GURPS aka the Generic Universal Roleplaying System by Steve Jackson Games. Back in the 1990s when I first got into roleplaying games I quickly stumbled upon GURPS in one of our local game stores and was quickly enamored with it. The game promised infinite options. One system to rule them all. A game which I could use to run games in any genre I choose, in every setting I can come up with, without learning new rules every time. Unfortunately – as the newbie I was back then (and still sometimes are) – I made the mistake of approaching GURPS like any other roleplaying game. So I read the Basic Set (it was 3rd Edition Revised at the time) from start to finish, bought a couple of exciting sourcebooks and felt terribly overwhelmed.
You have to understand that GURPS is not your ordinary tabletop RPG. It’s more of a toolbox which allows you to create a roleplaying game. Before starting the GM hast to make up their mind on which rules to use, which advantages and disadvantages or which skills are available in the setting. Using every rule and allowing every option is just insane. Some people might actually do this, but in my perspective that’s just a recipe for disaster. The one thing I always liked about GURPS was its simple core mechanic. To make any kind of test you roll 3d6, add modifiers as directed by the GM and compare the result against the skill or attribute tested. If you result was equal or below the tested trait, you succeed. Easy.
Combat can be made as simple or as complicated as you want. You can run GURPS combat using hex grids and miniatures or you can just use theater of the mind. If you like things a bit more complex, you can use damage multipliers (like 1x for crushing attacks, 1.5x for cutting damage etc.). You can use hit locations which adds another layer of complexity, realism and lethality to the combat, or you can keep things simple. GURPS has a rather long list of skills, but if you wish, you can make use of so-called Wild Card skill or Bang! skills which cover extremely broad categories of ability. Like a Science! skill which contain every field of science, or a Gun! skill which allows characters to use every kind of firearm, or even a Knight! skill which covers everything a knight should be able to do from horseriding to splitting skulls with axes and swords.
As soon as you start to realize that you are allowed to pick and choose which rules to use and that the game doesn’t break when you leave out anything, it becomes much less daunting. I can wholeheartedly recommend checking out Chris Normand’s videos on GURPS on YouTube. He has – in my opinion done a marvelous job at explaining on how GURPS works and what you have to do as a GM if you want to run games using the system.
Have you ever played or run GURPS? What are your thoughts on the subject? Please post your comments below!
I agree. Wildcard skills in particular make things easy, at least from a mechanical standpoint. They remind me a little of the background careers in Barbarians of Lemuria. In that game you don’t have skills for specific things like stealth or driving, you have ranks in your various careers. Anything you attempt that could reasonably be considered part of that career lets you use your career rank on the roll. So, if you had 3 ranks in “Burglar”, you could use that in your roll to pick a lock. If your only career was “Clergyman” you – most likely – would not get any bonus to your lock picking attempt.
It was a real “mind blown” moment when I realized this is a thing. This alone makes GURPS way more rules-light than I ever thought possible.
I’ve run quite a bit of GURPS, from the first edition on up. Despite it’s reputation it’s pretty easy to understand, and if you’re into tactical combat, it provides that in spades. Best of all, you can start simple and work your way up to crunchy. Start with “I swing and roll a 9.” “You hit, roll damage.” Sooner or later, someone will say “I want to aim for the eyes.” Then you can bust out that rule.
However there are a lot of choices now, and I don’t use GURPS as much as I’d like. I think there are a few reasons for this: 1) If you want to play in a modern or sci-fi setting it’s a bit more complex, and a lot more deadly. GURPS is about realism and real bullets kill. 2) It is fairly involved to pick up and decide which rules you want and which you don’t. There’s GURPS Lite to show to your players – and for most, that’s all they need. That’s an easy start to the system if you don’t mind remembering the more detailed rules for your players and helping with character design. There are some great stripped down rulebooks that give you all the rules you need for a specific setting. They are great for cutting through the analysis/paralysis that plagues a GM starting a new campaign. 3) It’s realistic, and I like cinematic. This is the big one for me. I want chandelier swinging and clever quips that stun unwary villain’s. GURPS does have rules for this now (It probably has for a long time), but I haven’t given them the try that they deserve.
Any setting? Sure, why not.
Any genre? Nope. That’s a lie. Whether you mean “fiction genre” or “play style”, GURPS (like any other game) can cover some very well, some not so well, some very badly, and some not at all.
Would you please elaborate? What play styles and fiction genres don’t work that well with GURPS in your experience? This might help me avoid trying to shoehorn GURPS into something it really doesn’t fit that well.
GURPS is built on the premise that the game mechanics should simulate how the real world works, from a point of view that is pretty mechanical (in the scientific sense).
This doesn’t sit very well with literary genres where the world doesn’t necessarily work in a “realistic” or consistent way. Sean Nicolson above mentioned “cinematic”. Pulp would be another. Or comedy. Superheroes are famously quite difficult to play in GURPS, especially if supers and ordinary characters are mixed (there are dozens of discussions about this).
It also doesn’t sit well with literary genres that are less concerned with action and more with emotions, development arcs, drama. Sure, you _can_ play soap opera in GURPS, but the system does nothing to support that. (Look at Hillfolk or Pasion de las Pasiones as counter-examples).
GURPS’ approach also leads to a definite play style. GM-less, story-driven, drama-driven, shared narrative authority, PC-vs-PC, FKR, are all examples of play styles/elements that are not in GURPS’ DNA.
PbtA games, for example, or Swords Without Master, or On Mighty Thews, are built on a completely different premise: supporting the narrative elements that characterise a specific genre, and they _play_ differently. Games like Witch: The Road to Lindisfarne are completely focused on improv and heavily immersive emotional roleplaying. Games like A Quiet Year, Kingdom and Microscope stretch the very definition of “RPG”.
Let’s be clear: I’m _not_ criticising GURPS or its approach here, I’m merely pointing out that it is just _one_ of the many possible approaches, and it does bring its own distinct flavour, strengths and weaknesses.
Thanks! You make a couple of good points. I agree that GURPS might not be a good fit for certain playstyles. I guess “any genre” was a bit hyperbolic.
It definitely has a better claim to that than d&d5e…