Is "GURPS" evitative?

In skimming the second issue of The Path of Cunning I came across Roger Bell_West’s mournful editorial about the simplicity and repulsive reputation of GURPS.

My experience has been a little bit like Roger’s. In 2003 I moved away from Canberra and the remains of my role-playing circles of university days. Seeking players within three hours’ drive of where I now live I found them all playing D&D, which does not float my boat at all. I could not scare up any interest in my favourite RPG, ForeSight, because players could not by any means obtain a copy. It is only fair that they should not be enthusiastic about that. Now, I like to run a wide variety of games in different settings and genres, so in early 2005 I turned to GURPS as a well-supported general-purpose game that was in print.

In the subsequent fifteen years I have been able to recruit players on the Steve Jackson Games forums for PBP and PBVOIP games. Apart from that I have found only three players willing to try GURPS — three who hadn’t heard of it before. We tried it, and they didn’t like it, or didn’t like my GMing, or both. Everyone else that I have encountered, if they have heard of GURPS they refuse to play it, some because of its reputation, some because of prior experience.

In the early days of my exile I used to return to Canberra annually for Phenomenon. Despite ForeSight’s deep obscurity, I could fill five or six seatings of a ForeSight adventure for groups of five. When I offered GURPS I heard crickets.

I still have friends on the Steve Jackson Games forums (also, at Andrew Hackard’s urging, a burgeoning “ignore” list). But I don’t play GURPS any more, and likely never will. And I don’t think my efforts are well spent in, for instance, helping to play-test more GURPS books. Like Roger I could probably hack GURPS down from 570 pages to one line that didn’t bother me with its complexity and disorganisation. But one of the things that would have to go is the name, because I find that in these parts the value of the brand “GURPS” is large and negative.

Most of you will likely disagree when I say that for my taste GURPS needs to be drastically simplified and generalised, and re-organised to be properly modular rather than being presented as a salmagundi of disparate components. I don’t think you can disagree that it ought to fake its own death and start a new life under a different name, wearing a false nose and dark glasses.

(Would you like this to be considered as a letter for issue #3?)

The recent Discworld and Dungeon Fantasy RPGs make their GURPS-ness relatively inobvious (not that they’re hiding it), but I think it’s fair to say that neither has been a runaway success.

4e tried to regularise things from 3e, and I think it moved in the right direction but nothing like far enough. When I’ve been reading e.g. @JGD’s Disadvantage of the Week threads on the SJGames forum, very often the reaction has been “nobody I know has ever used this” or “this might be good for the occasional NPC, but no PC will ever have it” – and there are several holdovers from earlier editions which might well be better as a special case of a more general trait.

On the other hand this can be overdone: I’ve played HeroQuest and that’s just flat. Here is a situation, choose your best skill and blather about why you should be allowed to use it. Is that really so very far from “The Gun Is Your Skill List” in The Munchkin’s Guide to Powergaming? (“Performance: KLIK. ‘You like my singing, DON’T YOU?’”)

GURPS was a rarity when it came out; there have been other attempts at generic systems (arguably BRP, certainly Amazing Engine) but it’s the one that’s lasted. Is it possible to have a flavoursome generic system without massive complexity? I don’t know. On the other hand the trend in non-D&D RPG design has been for simplification, so that while you may need to learn a new system for each game that’s no longer the huge burden it was when the new system was RuneQuest or Aftermath.

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My one big sample is my time in San Diego, a span from 1992 to 2016 during which I ran 35 campaigns for a total of 41 players. I once ran into a gamer—the roommate of one of my players—who refused to play GURPS. I asked his reasons, and he had been told by somebody else that GURPS was terrible, and believed it; it didn’t make any impression on him that I had played GURPS or that his roommate had also done so. I classified him as an idiot and never offered him a prospectus.

My sample is probably statistically anomalous, though. And it’s certainly not produced by going to conventions and offering to run a single session of GURPS.

It seems to me that the costs of elaborate startup—needing roughly an entire session to generate player characters before the campaign even starts, for example—are more of a burden if you are running a single session than if you are asking for a commitment to half a year, or two or three years. In the lattter case you can amortize the costs over several or many sessions, trading them against the enjoyment of those same sessions. So by telling players that I’m asking them to sign up for on ongoing campaign I may be selecting for players predisposed to make that trade.

On the other hand, my friend in Lawrence has told me of running sessions of RPGs for people there (mostly younger than he is) and having them enjoy them, but not have any thought of committing to a continuing campaign, or any reliability in showing up. He looks at this as a generational shift, which it might be—sort of a gaming analog of hooking up as opposed to going steady. Players who approach things that way may be less amenable to offers of long term campaigns. Or not; I’m just speculating.

When I’m already talking to someone, generally the system doesn’t matter. Here’s a campaign, I say, in which the PCs are doing such-and-such; yes, that sounds good. Oh, and we’re using GURPS. Fair enough.

The avoidance I’ve met is more with convention game listings, where especially in the last 2-3 years I’ve found that I get rather fewer signups for a GURPS game than for the same sort of scenario with another system. I’d expect something similar advertising for players elsewhere.

Yeah, that’s a different situation than mine. I’ve only asked strangers to sign up for a campaign once, at the local gaming club after we moved to Riverside. And that’s not quite the same as looking for players at a convention, which I’ve just never done; I went to conventions to have conversations and, if possible, be on panels, not to play games. (Note that these were science fiction conventions for the most part; I’ve only been to one gaming convention in my life.)

My recruitment isn’t entirely from established players, though. All through my San Diego career, I regularly invited in players who’d never gamed with me before. Initially they were mostly friends of my established players (I remember one of my women players telling another that I was “a great GM for women,” which I took as a compliment); three of the players in my first cycle of campaigns accounting for a large number of added players. Later I started getting players who’d learned about me through the Steve Jackson Games boards. In fact that’s how my initial contact here in the Inland Empire learned of me.

Big Eyes Small Mouth (the second edition) seems to be notably less complex than GURPS. I made up a lot more NPCs for BESM, because it took substantially less time; I had a binder full of them in “Manse,” for example. And FUDGE is as simple or complex as you want it to be. On the other hand, Champions seems to me to be complex enough to be painful, which is not how I feel about GURPS.

Better not, I think. I already regret having obtruded unwelcome comments into a space meant for GURPS fans. It’s too late now to delete the OP before anyone reads it; I’ll just apologise for my peevishness and try to live it down.

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For what it’s worth I don’t regard at as in an any way objectionable.

Neither do I, and it goes well with a letter we’ve had by e-mail.

I think we come from subcultures that are strangely similar in some ways. I’d guess that Bill Stoddard doesn’t find it impertinent either.

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Good god, no. I object to personal attacks, not least because they lack logical substance; but I don’t object to disagreement or criticism. And I don’t see anything even approaching personal attack in your comments.

The GURPS core books are organized as handbooks, not textbooks. This is indeed a terrible way to introduce a game of any complexity.

I personally find doing GURPS “properly” cumbersome, but with a little player-GM trust the appropriate pruning of options can be done on the fly, and I mostly play with folks I trust this way.

Lots of folks like the low-cinematic plausible world modeling that is the GURPS default, but the thing I like the most about GURPS is that it contains a comprehensive character description language.

Shame about the bad rep though.

I remember in the 1990s a big discussion about whether rulebooks should be tutorial or reference in design. The consensus at the time was for reference, because you learn the game once but play it more than once.

On the other hand I learned to play GURPS3 from a combination of the books and being in games, and while we all learned GURPS4 at about the same time I’ve always had people to bounce things off.

I’ve heard this myself more than once, but it creates a huge barrier to learning the rules in the first place, and GURPS is slowly dying due to the lack of new blood. GURPS needs an on-ramp.

I had to look up what evitative meant!

Wasn’t there a GURPS Lite for one of the editions? Dos that need to be resurrected as a cheap GURPS Quickstart pdf?

I loved GURPS all to bits when I first encountered it, because it:

  1. Wasn’t just another bloody game about orcs, swords and wizards. I could do anything with it. Like all the anythings we’d been doing CoC/BRP hacks to do… wild west, Mad Max, aliens colonial marines…
  2. Was points buy and let you design a character, instead of being stuck with a character class and the results of random rolls.
  3. Character improvement is under player control, rather than some levelling up nonsense.
  4. XP was not all about killing people and taking their stuff.

These days I’m spoiled for choice for games which do all of the above.

I fell out of love with GURPS (and to be fair, with some other systems) as a go-to game for me to run campaigns for a variety of reasons, including:

  • The Speed/range table of 3rd edition onwards. I have moaned about it elsewhere on these forums. So I wouldn’t want to run GURPS as a con game, because I’d have to explain that I was running a hybrid of 2nd and 4th ed, and might give folks a false impression of the system.

  • Too many bloody sourcebooks which I didn’t own and didn’t care about BUT I had players who did own them and who constantly wanted to impose extra rules and twiddly bits on MY campaigns. Frak off. If you want to have a game filled with martial arts moves and special rules for speed-loading matchlock pistols, then go away and run your own bloody game.

  • The insistence that the GURPS way was the right way, instead of adapting to the source material. I bought the GURPS version of Werewolf the Apocalypse. I would have loved to run it in GURPS because the WoD system was clunky. But instead of GURPS saying Yeah all werewolves get 3 Gifts - they cost 10 points each, they statted them up using existing GURPS rules, so some cost 5 points and some cost 75 points. That just broke character gen and game balance. I gave my copy of the book away, unused.

  • If a typical character sheet is 3 or more pages long, you are doing it wrong. To be frank, if the character sheet is only 2 sides, but you constantly have to flip back and forth between them, you are doing it wrong.

  • When it comes to stuff like Encumbrance, or bonuses/penalties for Tech Level or Cultural Familiarity, or reach of weapons, my lack of interest knows no bounds.

It is kind of weird. GURPS was my go-to system for a decade or so because it was less crunchy than Aftermath and less annoying than AD&D. Currently is has a level of crunch and annoyance which means I keep my GURPS books for nostalgia rather than for actual use.


For GURPS Werewolf and indeed Vampire, I think the problem was that some gifts were worth way more than others - early WoD wasn’t exactly the most balanced of games - and the idea was to try to maintain some sort of balance between characters.

Points are always a bit iffy though. Sometimes they mean game utility, sometimes they mean difficulty of acquisition. Sword skill is “worth”, in game utility, more in fantasyland than in SF-land. But when high-tech hand weapons can produce one shot kills of anything human, so are hit points. Bad Temper is more of a problem in civilisation than it is in the Wild West. Blindness at TL0 is close to a death sentence; not so much at TL12. There are very few games in which Nuclear Physics skill is worth more than Pistol. And so on.

For GURPS Werewolf and indeed Vampire, I think the problem was that some gifts were worth way more than others - early WoD wasn’t exactly the most balanced of games - and the idea was to try to maintain some sort of balance between characters.

Yeah but it felt like a ‘GURPS balance’ not an actual game balance, because it was based on what GURPS had done mechanically in previous sourcebooks. So - to give some fictitious examples - imagine the gifts were Custard 10’ Radius which the GURPS Desserts sourcebook said cost 1000 points and Speak With Squid, which the GURPS Cephalopods sourcebook said cost 5 points. Those were therefore 1000 points and 5 points in GURPS Werewolf.

The logic of going “Ooooh, drowning people in custard is much more deadly than speaking to squid” trumped the fact that the custard summoner didn’t have enough points left to walk and chew gum at the same time, whilst the squid talker had so many points left over they could boost all their stats to Incredible Hulk level and become much more deadly than an ocean of custard.

The gifts in WoD are unbalanced. But everyone gets the same number of dots to put in stats, skills and backgrounds.

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I’m not seeing why that, in particular, is a problem. If I take something really powerful, for a lot of points, of course I end up with fewer points to take other things. That’s inherent in any point allocation mechanic.

It’s different if one of the really high-point things is actually less powerful than other high-point things. But if I spend 1000 points to be the proverbial one-trick pony, well, that was my choice, and I haven’t been wronged by not having points left over for other tricks.

GURPS Lite was updated for 4e, and is free. There are complaints that you have to register with the website to download it …

It was GURPS’ idea though, not Werewolf’s. Character balance is a design choice, arguably suitable for some styles of play but not for others. Sometimes [combat] capability on par with the rest of the group is not what makes a character fun to play. Imposing character parity on Werewolf changed it a lot, and an adaptation isn’t supposed to.

Besides, Werewolf was for adventures in a very particular setting and set of circumstances, in which various abilities are of particular use values that diverge from their use values in the generic setting and circumstances the GURPS’ designers designed for. In particular, my group found that werewolves had such a superabundance of combat dangerousity that the large gap between a ragabash and a whatchamacallit didn’t really matter. I recall an adventure in which our party were stalking a vampire elder, and disintegrated because we saw the moonrise (Werewolf was a very stupid game). My character was the storyteller type. “Galliard”, I think. Anyway, he ended up confronting the vampire alone. The fight lasted one combat turn, and the vampire didn’t so much as glove me. Another player was playing a Child of Gaia Ahroun (I think). Combat monster. But we very, very rarely met anything that was tough enough that he got to shine, because even our Theurge and our Ragabash were catastrophe in a can against most threats.

This reminds me of a superhero riddle.

Q: What’s the difference between Superman and the Martian Manhunter?

A: If you ask Blue Beetle, nothing.

Anyway, werewolf Gifts are often in the category of “when you need a corkscrew you can’t substitute a howitzer”. Each Gift gave a character a moment to shine whether that was shelling an enemy magazine or releasing a trapped spirit from a winebottle. It is a highly questionable design decision to say that “this character gets to be versatile and competent because his special-occasions ability is not generally impressive, whereas this other character gets to be a crock 95% of the time because the ability that she uses one session in five sounds awesome”.

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