Sunday, July 3, 2011

Nerd Butter: GURPS, the start

Nerd Butter: For everything, there is a qualifying level and then there is another, superlative, exemplary level. There are many Olympic athletes, but only a few medalists. You might be a sports fan, or you can be the guy in the stadium with baseball stitching painted in his beer belly. There are readers, and there are people who read their favorite book on every vacation and obsess over it when you think you've misplaced it but then you find Starship Troopers sandwiched between your unused socks. And so it is with being a nerd. There are nerd requisites--what I call Nerd Bread--and then there are nerd specialities--Nerd Butter. While just about every nerd should be into Nerd Bread, Nerd Butter is what sets you apart as a nerd of a special caliber, and as a qualified nerd of a special caliber--just browse around the blog for evidence--I will review a few of these nerd specialties. And in the end, it's the specialties that make being a nerd so fun. Hence, nerd bread and butter.

Since the first Nerd Bread entry was on RPGs (that's role-playing games, if you don't remember), the first Nerd Butter entry will be on a specific RPG. This RPG is little known, but powerful and dangerous. Many have only heard of it, and fear it when they do, but those who try it often become hopelessly addicted to it. In fact, it's a little like another fabled object of occult power and dread.

Three games for dungeon-delvers leveling high,
D&D, D20 and Pathfinder true,
Two games for others where their sanities die,
World of Darkness and Call of Cthulhu,
One for the nerd who wants all in one rules-system to lie.
One RPG to rule over all, one RPG to guide them,
One RPG to build them all and in the basement find them,
In the game of GURPS where all characters may live and die.

GURPS is the the Generic Universal Role-Playing System, developed by Steve Jackson Games. It is the love of my gaming life, and its current edition (the fourth) has the stamina to last for many more years.

Why others fear it
At first glance, GURPS looks like it's about the same size as any other RPG basic set. Like D&D, the basic rules are divided into two books--a character-oriented book and a campaign-oriented book. But whereas the D&D books are cluttered with setting fluff and pretty-pretty pictures, the GURPS basic set is much more concentrated. Taken together, the basic set is 576 pages, and the character book--which consists of 336 pages--pretty densely presents players with all the choices to make their character. This is quite a bit more character-creating meat than most role-players are accustomed to, and having choices can be scary. Seriously.

Most veterans of RPGs come from Dungeons and Dragons, where there's just a few options. Pick a race, pick a class, and then make a few pretty obvious choices to allocate some randomized attributes. There's more variation introduced through advancement, but creating a character offers little in the way of choice. Because of that, any game of D&D will feature an assortment of races and classes that looks pretty ridiculous from a narrative perspective--an orc shaman, dwarf fighter, elf cleric, and human rogue, for instance. This is purely mechanical, because in D&D the rules don't offer much incentive for the players to make a party of four elf rangers, even if they all want to do so.

In GURPS, the granularity is turned up to the max so that a GM could dictate "make a human slave gladiator" and four players could come up with characters that fit the limited description but still be vastly different in game functionality and role-playing 'flavor'. This comes at the cost of strict game balance and of the feeling of large, discrete chunks that you get in D&D. In GURPS, it is possible for a 50 point soldier character to be more effective in combat than a 250 point policeman, because that policeman likely has a lot of points sunk into investigation and other characteristics not related to fighting. In the finely balanced D&D system, however, a first level Rogue is almost always going to be close to a first level Sorceror in terms of combat effectiveness, and generally no fifth level character will be remotely threatened by a first level character. And in D&D, since you have these large, discrete choices for character roles, it makes forming a party a cut-and-dry process--"Okay, we have a healer and a ranged attacker, who's going to make a tank and who's going to be our support fighter?" But since GURPS has finely tuned granularity, players have a much more vague sense of whether they've capably covered a field of threats, and they almost certainly won't if the GM knows what he is doing and appropriately evil.

Why it is dangerous
It may sound silly when you consider the superficial content of systems like D&D, but GURPS features a dangerous combat system. In a game that is highly based on artificial balance--the hallmark of D&D since its beginning--you can expect that no one hit from an enemy will immediately imperil a player's character. The opposition is not always so lucky, and it creates a gaming world where being labeled as a 'player character' means that the character is automatically in a different league than the rest of the world. This is not the case in GURPS, unless the GM so desires it that he really nerfs the stuffing out of the system. GURPS is designed with dramatic, or cinematic, realism in mind, and it's not uncommon for the first hit in combat to disable a fighter.

GURPS has rules for limb hit locations, crippling, and dismemberment. That means that even a basic slavering orc--through luck or guile--can chop your foot off in combat. That's a finisher, nine times out of ten. It also means that if you take on three brigands at once, relying on your staff mastery to fend off the attacks, that a lucky backstab from the third guy can end your moment of glory right quick.

Not to mention that the standard methods of healing in GURPS take time. In a game of D&D, it's not unusual for a fighter to drop "unconscious", be revived, and help to finish off the baddie who dropped him in the first place. In GURPS, though, even magical healing or superscience resurrection will generally take a while, and if you don't have those going for you, you could take weeks to heal from a nasty wound incurred in session one of your campaign.

"...even a basic slavering orc--through luck or guile--can chop your foot off in combat. That's a finisher, nine times out of ten."

This, coupled with the fact that the GM can use the environment and good tactics to make that 25 point midget into a deadly threat, means that GURPS combat can be very tense and uncertain. In my games of GURPS, the players have all developed a healthy fear of martial conflict with anyone, and it makes for an interesting dynamic when just being a braggart can be a truly hazardous trait.

The other great thing about GURPS is that the core rules dynamics account for a lot of things that are largely ignored in other systems. This is mostly done through the Fatigue stat, which can be affected by deliberate exertion that represents you straining yourself while pushing your limits. If the GM wants the resolution to be cranked up, though, Fatigue can also be reduced due to severe hunger, deadly thirst, and sleep exhaustion. In my current gritty fantasy campaign, for instance, the players hesitate to leave town and continue their journey, since it's a serious risk when your group might run out of food mid-journey. Other game systems can be tweaked to represent these elements at the GM's discretion, but only GURPS accounts for these elements in the Basic Set.

Why it is awesome
If you're asking how GURPS can be awesome after all this, it's probably not the system for you. I mean, if deadliness, versimilitude, and tremendous granularity are negatives to you, GURPS can be daunting. That's why GURPS is Nerd Butter and not Bread--it takes a special kind of nerd to want to dive into this system, but those who do generally decide that it is inimitable and indefatigable.

Every game system has one or two traits that really stick out to me, defining the game's mechanics and the flavor of playing in it. For D&D, that would be the class-system and three-word description for most PCs--'fourth level paladin', for instance. For World of Darkness, it's the morality and madness dynamic of the storytelling system. For GURPS, it's Basic Lift and encumbrance. Most other games leave your strength attribute as an abstraction, and weights, even if ostensibly called pounds, mean very little. A D&D human of average strength, for instance, can carry a hundred pounds on their back and fight without penalty. But in GURPS if you have average strength and twenty-one pounds of chuck on your back, it'll slow you down a bit, forty-one pounds a bit more, and so on.

"If you're asking how GURPS can be awesome after all this, it's probably not the system for you."

It's not just that I love incremental encumbrance (but I do, I really do!), but that aspect of GURPS represents a dedication to maintaining a certain fidelity to reality that I love. If I don't know how strong--in terms of game-abstract numbers--a character is, I can visualize how much he can carry and figure his strength based on that. It's very telling that the GURPS forums are filled with people talking about how they would assign this real-world person or that movie character stats--the system is versatile and tangible enough that players with a bit of experience feel comfortable tackling such issues.

The other awesome thing about GURPS is that its versatility lends itself to any genre, and this means that the library of GURPS supplements is huge and accommodates everything from Star Trek-style play to frakkin' Watership Down. Heck, if you had a weird enough GM, you could even combine the two and have phaser-wielding bunnies transporting between burrows in their never-ending quest to escape Bigwig and find out a way to destroy his shield-equipped farm combine of death.

If you do this, please send me an account of it.

There are supplements for half a dozen distinct science-fiction settings and play styles, historical World War II combat or Indiana Jones-style 'Weird War II' stuff, fantasy ranging from Conan-style barbarian play to Dungeon Fantasy--GURPS' answer to those wanting more instanced, D&D-style campaigns--and more. GURPS is quite literally the system you can play again and again without ever repeating your setting unless you want to do so. But it has the depth and resolution to make playing in one long campaign thoroughly engrossing as well.

In Conclusion...?
If you've ever heard of GURPS before, you might notice that I don't really discuss GURPS in terms of complexity or learning curve. The system certainly has a bad rep among gamers (admittedly, mostly D&D players) as being the RPG of math majors, but this is generally a false reputation. Sure, addressing GURPS and all of its options at once can be daunting, and trying to remember everything that comes up during your game session or craft a specific PC effect in the 'best' (read: cheapest) way possible is difficult and takes some practice. But that's beside the point.

GURPS is still a very simple, elegant system at its core. Roll 3d6. You almost always want low results. That's the core dynamic for a player. The other is really common to all RPGs: describe your actions in specific detail so you and your GM can figure out what applies best. This is true for deciding what combat mechanic fits your Wolverine death-leap or Legolas surfing schtick, but it also applies to GURPS' character creation. If you don't bother to describe that your character has an infirm mother, you might miss out on the fun of adding a Dependent as a role-playing disadvantage that can have sweeping ramifications on the course of the game.

For the GURPS GM, the most important rule is to learn when to drop optional rules or fuzz over the details. If it isn't important, don't make your players worry about the details of equipment weight. Use the rules as they matter, and you'll find that GURPS gives you a good level of scaling resolution--when you want more crunch, more specifics, they're there for your use.

In the end, GURPS is a dream system for players and GMs. Players have something that can match up to the outrageous description and details of their characters, encouraging them to better realize their game avatars than any other system I've tried. And Game Masters are equipped with a broad set of exhaustive tools that can be used to fit whatever setting--original or long-established--in which they wish to place their campaign. Unlike just about any RPG system out there, you can fine tune your particular Fantasy campaign to have major mechanical differences from the next, but still keeping it well within the customization bounds of the published rules.

As you can imagine from my long-winded style and GURPS' everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach to gaming, this will be the first of many GURPS-related articles.


  1. Excellent overview and some great points in here!

  2. Great overview! I agree on pretty much every point you made (and I'm also stealing the phrase 'Nerd Butter' :P)