Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Why GURPS is an Old School Game

Thought I'd step away from all the D&D drama to talk about another game system - GURPS. My good buddy SAH sometimes gives me a hard time for talking smack about GURPS, and I'll admit, there are things I don't like about the system. But having been pondering all this "old school" navel-gazing that's going on, I began to realize that a lot of what people see as attributes to systems they feel are "old school", GURPS can provide for you. I'll list a few of these, in no particular order.

* GURPS is, at it's heart, a pretty simple system. You can very easily run a full-blooded GURPS game just using GURPS Lite, a free 32 page PDF available on the web. Yeah, it's not all chock-full of a dizzying array of skills, ads/disads, and spells/powers/etc., but GURPS Lite gives you everything you need to make a character and resolve combat, injury, and other rules-related tasks.

* Character creation can be very easy. Yes, it can also be very, very time consuming, but if all you're doing is building a 100 point PC without a slew of tweaks, you can put that character together relatively quickly. As a quick experiment...

100 Point GURPS PC:

Attributes (90 pts)

ST 12 (20 pts)
DX 12 (40 pts)
IQ 11 (20 pts)
HT 11 (10 pts)

Advantages & Disadvantages (-15 pts)

Ads: High Pain Threshold (10 pts)
Disads: Bloodlust (-10 pts), Bad Temper (-10 pts), Gluttony (-5 pts)

Skills (25 pts)

Bows (DX/A): 12 (2 pts)
Brawling (DX/E): 13 (2 pta)
Broadsword (DX/A): 13 (4 pts)
Carousing (HT/E): 12 (2 pts)
Climbing (DX/A): 12 (2 pts)
First Aid (IQ/E) : 11 (1 pt)
Intimidation (IQ/A): 11 (2 pts)
Observation (IQ/A): 11 (2 pts)
Riding (DX/A): 11 (1 pt)
Scrounging (IQ/E): 11 (1 pt)
Shield (DX/E): 13 (2 pts)
Stealth (DX/A): 12 (2 pts)
Survival (IQ/A): 11 (2 pts)

Gear ($1,000 to spend)

Broadsword ($500)
Leather Armor ($340)
Medium Shield ($60)
Large Knife ($40)

Leaves him with about $60 in pocket money.

This didn't actually take me that long to do, maybe 10-15 minutes. The most time-consuming part of it was actually typing it all out. Yeah, he doesn't have all the bells and whistles attached and I didn't spend forever agonizing over his ads and disads and quirks and charisma and starting wealth etc., but you don't really need to do any of that if you don't want to - there's a default for just about everything. Is this as simple as rolling up a PC in Basic D&D? No. But it's not that much more time consuming once you get the hang of it - knowing which skills are associated with which attributes and what their difficulties are is 90% of the brainpower needed.

* GURPS can be a very deadly system. A smart PC can live a long and profitable life. A stupid PC can die a quick and painful death. It requires players to fight out a combat with some brainpower, not just wading into amongst the bad guys and having at it. In this way, like the older systems, it encourages playing smart and using your head, rather than relying on the dice to keep you alive, because the dice can be a fickle mistress indeed.

* GURPS doesn't tell you how to play. By and large, beyond the understanding of the mechanics and some vague advice like "be prepared when you start each session" and "keep the mechanics to a minimum for newer playes", GURPS doesn't try to tell you how to "play the game". You can be as free-form or as railroady as you want, the system doesn't care.

* The products emphasize settings and rules supplements, not regimented A to B to C adventures. SJG has published a few adventures over the years, but by and large they leave the actual adventure building to the GM. Instead, they focus on giving the GM the tools they need to run the game, then say "use what you want, ignore the rest". You're buying books like GURPS Martial Arts, not GURPS Hong Kong Action Theatre, or GURPS Rome, not GURPS Ancient Political Intrigue. Some of these genre and setting books lend themselves to a certain play style more than others, but even GURPS Cliffhangers leaves the way a GM runs their "pulp action" games wide open to interpretation, and you can take it or leave it as you see fit. It's all about plugging into the game what you want, and leaving the rest of it behind.

* GURPS encourages you to manage your rules as you see fit. You can either run GURPS using the Lite rules (and even play with those to make things even easier), or you can go full-throttle rules madness and buy every supplement you want and incorporate every variable/skill/advantage/power you feel like. The players can either be all over the variables and get as crunch-geeky as they want, or the GM can keep it all "under the hood" and just ask for rolls and do the tweaky bits themselves. This way the game can be played as rules-intense or as rules-casual as you like.

So yeah, while there are a lot of reasons to like GURPS or not like GURPS, it's a system that is still going strong after 20+ years and four different iterations, and through all of those changes, it still remains a solid system and one that can take a 20 year old supplement and incorporate it into the newest rules version with little to no effort. Even though the book now uses glossy pages and there's a bunch of "newfangled" color art in the core books, it's still by and large the same old engine under the hood, and it's definitely worth considering the next time you want to get in some "old school" gaming without necessarily turning to D&D.


Anonymous said...

Good write-up. GURPS is a great game if you want a more simulationist system than D&D. We use it for our ongoing WWII campaign where it's deadly combat and thorough skill system enforces the playstyle perfectly. Mind you, we've used it for Conan-style S&S before, and had a blast.

Even if you're not likely to be playing GURPS, the third edition sourcebooks are probably the best RPG source material ever made - full of tonnes of fluffy information that's perfect for campaign building.

Mike D. said...

I cherish my collection of 3rd Edition source books (and even the rules themselves though they rarely see use). Some of the best material for gaming you can find.

I still have the Man-To-Man combat supplement that preceded GURPS. Some good ol' school pit fights were had with that little book.

Robert said...

Make some templates and you can make character building even faster.

Extend the idea of templates, and you could build classes with levels. e.g. First-level costs x CP and starts you with these ads and skills. Second-level costs y additional CP and advances you to these skills.

Now rename CP to XP...


Jack Badelaire said...

Robert, I was even thinking that myself. For those people adverse to "skill-based systems", you can simply have a set of "class-based actions" which default to Attribute -5. You have to buy "levels" of each class, each "level" costing 10 CP, and each "level" raises the rating level by one point, so a "Level 1 Fighter" with a DX of 10 would have Broadsword Skill of 6, while a "Level 5 Fighter" with the same DX would have a Broadsword skill of 10, and so on and so forth. It's one of the things the new GURPS 4E "Powers" books is supposed to get into - you could just put together power packages that the PC buys up at each level to advance in ability, etc..

All sorts of crazy stuff you can do with GURPS...

Anonymous said...

Then there's the brilliant Dungeon Fantasy series for 4e GURPS. They do a terrific job of taking GURPS and turning it into something very, very Classic D&D like.

Highly recommended!