20 January 2018

A Legitimate Complaint Concerning GURPS

I recently encountered an article about GURPS. In the article, the author outlines some of the problems he has with GURPS (and, in particular, with the 4th edition of GURPS). Many of the things he has to say on the issue are valid, and as I've recently done a bit of dabbling in GURPS again and had a number of thoughts on the topic, it helped me to crystallise what I was thinking. So today, I'm going to discuss my reactions to the article.

A quick summary of the article, for those who don't want to click on the link above (and it is a lengthy read, so I don't blame you if you don't):
GURPS 3rd Edition was great, but in translating the system into a 4th edition, they made the game incomprehensible for new players, and their ancient, arcane, and inflexible policies on intellectual properties only exacerbate the problem.
So, in order for my attitudes towards GURPS to make sense, I'm going to provide a little bit of context in the form of my personal history with the system.

Early Experiences with GURPS

I was introduced to GURPS (as I was to so many games) by John Trobare. He had a copy of the third edition rules, and back when I was living with him in 1992 or thereabouts, he ran some games for me. I was further sucked into the system when I bought my first sourcebook: GURPS Camelot. I was a member of a medieval re-enactment group that focused on the Arthurian legends at the time, so I was a little obsessed. I soon started getting more supplements, and before long, I had to buy the main rules for myself. It was the only game I played for a time, and I was running my own adventures as well.

A year or two later, my circle of gamer friends started getting into Vampire: The Masquerade and Werewolf: The Apocalypse, and we soon became completely enraptured with that game line, buying and playing little else in the way of roleplaying games. And when Changeling: the Dreaming came out, I had little attention for anything else. I did manage to run a GURPS Time Travel campaign that was well received.

But the important thing is how GURPS was presented. Players bought the 3rd edition rulebook, which was rather basic. It included the most essential rules: character creation, task resolution, combat rules, a chapter on the most important rules necessary for magic and psionics, and the vital rules governing world-building/dimension hopping (things like tech level and wealth/equipment). This gave you enough information to run a basic modern game, or a simple fantasy game with no non-human races. 

Then you were able to purchase a vast array of sourcebooks that allowed you to use the system in any genre you liked. You could buy GURPS Fantasy to play standard non-humans like elves and dwarves, or GURPS Space to run a star-faring campaign. There were sourcebooks for horror, cyberpunk, superheroes, espionage, 1920's style pulp adventure, and many others. A number of sourcebooks let you play in a bunch of historical settings, from the Ice Age, Imperial Rome, and Ancient Greece through the history of Russia, China, or Japan, in the Aztec Empire or the Viking Age, to the old west or WWII. Some books gave you information to allow you to create or adapt your own settings; for example, GURPS Aliens and GURPS Fantasy Folk provided toolkits that let you design your own non-human races, in addition to several samples of these (for example, in Fantasy Folk, there were descriptions of standard fantasy creatures like elves, dwarves, halflings, and goblins, as well as less common beings like merfolk, insect men, reptile men, or centaurs, and an original species called Bales). There were books on creatures (GURPS Dinosaurs, GURPS Bestiary, GURPS Dragons, GURPS Spirits), on technology (GURPS Vehicles, GURPS High Tech, GURPS Magic Items, GURPS Robots), on original settings (GURPS Transhuman Space, GURPS Reign of Steel, GURPS Technomancer, GURPS Cthulhupunk), and on book adaptations (GURPS Humanx, GURPS Conan, GURPS Uplift, GURPS Discworld). They even had GURPS Lite, a free, boiled-down version of the rules to introduce players to the system and draw in new customers.

Fourth Edition

Then, in 2004, they released the fourth edition. The new edition was meant to solve a number of problems; most notably, to consolidate the myriad new character traits (skills, advantages, disadvantages, equipment, etc) that had previously been scattered across a range of sourcebooks. Previously, they had released two volumes of the GURPS Compendium that was a compilation of these new traits, but in fourth edition, they wanted every possible trait to be included in the core rulebook. Also in fourth edition, there were many rules updates and revisions. But perhaps the biggest change was the aesthetic: 3rd edition had always been simple black-and-white illustrations (usually line drawings) on plain white paper in softcover volumes. But with the success of more elaborate books such as 3rd edition D&D in 2000 and Vampire: the Masquerade and its sister games starting in 1992, they felt they needed more visually attractive tomes, so 4th edition was (at first) entirely in hardback with full colour illustrations. Later, motivated probably by declining sales as well as player feedback, they started releasing greyscale softcover versions of the books as well.

The fourth edition rulebook was split into two volumes: volume 1, Characters, contained all the information necessary for creating characters. Volume 2, Campaigns, had all the actual rules (task resolution, combat system, etc). But another major difference is that in third edition, the traits were grouped into categories (for example, skills were sorted into combat skills, technological skills, social skills, etc), but in fourth edition, they were all laid out alphabetically. While this made it easier to look up a specific characteristic, it also made it harder to navigate during the chargen process.

Also, fourth edition sourcebooks were all instructional tomes on world building. Fourth edition GURPS Fantasy does not detail how to play in a traditional elves-and-dwarves sword-and-sorcery setting; instead, it's a lengthy treatise on how to create a fantasy world of your own design. This makes it even harder for new players (and, more to the point, new GMs) to get into the game and start playing.

Why Does This Matter?

So this brings us to the chief complaint in the article referenced at the beginning of this post: 'GURPS isn't a game. It's an engine for building your own game.' In other words, there is so much potential detail crammed into the core rulebook that the first thing a GM needs to do is go through and select what traits will actually be useful in the game. Are you running a cyberpunk game? You won't need advantages like 'magical aptitude.' Will your players be playing pirates on the high seas? Get rid of the 'astrogation' skill. 

In itself, this isn't that big a problem. But especially when introducing new players to the system, handing someone a giant book and saying, 'Here's a list of all the traits that aren't available, so ignore them in this book' is more than a little daunting. When I run GURPS, I usually type up a document that describes what traits are available so the players don't even have to mess with anything that doesn't apply to the game in question.

This was all much easier for me, who had learned to play with third edition. I was already mostly familiar with the rules in fourth edition; I just needed to orient myself to the rules changes and get familiar with the new layout. I can now guide new players through the system as necessary.

People who have never played GURPS before don't have that advantage. Picking up the core rulebooks and trying to make sense of it all is a herculean task.

Intellectual Property

Steve Jackson Games is by far the most obsessed with maintaining their intellectual property rights. They make players jump through some ridiculous hoops to do anything with the system outside of playing in their living rooms. Even posting on your blog any homebrew rules required the inclusion of a copyright disclaimer to avoid potential legal action. Anything more involved needed a byzantine process of licensing; they won't even let players create their own custom macros to ease the process of using GURPS in online virtual gaming environments like Roll 20. They did finally relax some of their need for control in 2006, but it's still less than ideal.

This makes it even harder for new players to get into the game.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The author of the article that started this diatribe posted an update a few months later. He made a suggestion that I think is actually really insightful: genre-specific versions of GURPS Lite. His idea was to have a bunch of different versions of the free, boiled-down rules sets, specific to each genre. There could be, for example, GURPS Lite Fantasy, which includes just the parts of the system needed to play in a standard Tolkein-based fantasy setting (discard the rules for cyberware and FTL space travel, but include magic and fantasy races), and a GURPS Lite Covert Ops pdf would contain only the rules needed for high-tech spies and assassins (dispense with psionics and superpowers, but describe sniping rifles and surveillance equipment).

Of course, a lot of die-hard GURPS fans will point out that the GM should be able to sort out the necessary information, but that misses the point of bringing new players and GMs into the game. After all, Steve Jackson Games publishes financial reports, and the only product they have which is continually and reliably performing well is the Munchkin line. GURPS is doing better than any other non-Munchkin game, but it's still floundering.

And as the author of the original article points out, that makes it seem like SJG wants GURPS to fail. Which would be a shame, because, despite all its flaws, it's a good game, and has the potential to continue being really good.

If only they'd stop turning away potential new players.

Anyway. That's what I've got for this week. Remember to have fun playing games out there, whatever games you choose to play, and until next time, I bid you a fond 

Game on!

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