Thursday, November 12, 2009

Generic Unfocused Role-Playing Systems

So, yesterday was Veteran’s Day (no comment) and I didn’t post anything as I slept in till one, spent the day mostly doing yard work, and then finished up watching the Firefly series with my wife. Regarding the latter, I have managed to get my lovely spouse addicted to the series over the last couple weeks, and boy was she pissed when we got through the last episode: how dare this show get cancelled! And this is from a woman with immense dislike/disdain for a) westerns, and b) science fiction. Guess it was a good show, huh? Stupid FOX network.

ANYWAY, I did have a chance to wander down to Gary’s and read through the GURPS core books (now in its 4th edition!), but I just didn’t take the time to post my opinion. Please allow me to do so now (if briefly):

First, let me just say that GURPS, in its current incarnation seems very nice, smart, and even a little sexy. The system is of course elegant in its own way, certainly consistent, and GURPS is perhaps the best supported game on the market in terms of both quantity and quality of supplemental texts.

The fact that it’s divided into two core books is a bit off-putting (to me) who would prefer RPGs to return to the days of smaller more concise rule sets, but whatever. The main thing I wanted to look for was anything that would stand out as clear objectives of game play in the book…i.e. does anything in the rule set tell one how to play this damn game in the first place? This is due to the comment thread on my axiom post of the other day; check it out to see what I mean.

See, to me it appears that one thing RPG designers have gotten away from is explaining just what the hell people are expected to do with their gigantic rule books. Game authors simply assume that people buying their games are role-players who have played before or have friends who have, and who are going to simply using the author’s new game to play the same way they always have, just using a new set of rules. I believe this is a problem for a couple/few different reasons:

1 – it completely neglects the idea of growing the hobby, by limiting texts to existing role-players.
2 – it assumes that all role-playing gamers “play the same way” as the game author (which may not be accurate)
3 – it assumes that existing gamers know how to play the damn game (at least in the fashion the designer intends).

Now that being said, GURPS is a game that’s been around for awhile and has a pretty decent following, and since I don’t play it, who am I to knock it?

Well, how about a potential player (with a game this large should I call myself a “potential investor?”)? I buy A LOT of games, and some (like Palladium) that might raise eyebrows from some folks. A game has got to offer me SOMEthing, though, if I am going to make a purchase and I can’t help take a critical eye to any prospective game.

So back to “clear objectives;” does GURPS have ‘em?

Well, not that I could find in the player’s book. This is simply a huge guide to making a character for the GURPS game. Subject to GM approval, of course. Created with an eye towards what’s “fun” to play, of course. With plenty of options for making a “heroic” character, of course.

Interestingly, GURPS points out that their character creation system is NOT as realistic as it could be, as “realism” would require randomness in chargen, rather than a balanced point buy (after all, some people are born smart AND strong, and some people are born neither). However, GURPS points out its system is designed to provide “game balance” (so that some characters don’t upstage others) AND also allows players to create HEROIC characters (rather than Joe Shmoes).

I call this interesting because it is very straight-forward and matter-o-fact about things other games do, but simply assume “need not be present in writing.” I give GURPS a thumbs up for being smart and classy even if, right here, it pretty much loses my interest (because I’m not interested particularly in playing characters that are “balanced” or “heroic” and I am no fan of the drawn-out process of point-buy chargen).

Still, it doesn’t tell non-GM players what exactly they’re supposed to do, except “look to the GM.” Ugh.

Now the GM Book DOES have some information on how to create an adventure and run a game, which is a step up from Rifts, but it’s still pretty abstract about it…and even a bit disingenuous from what I’d see as the GURPS stance. I’ll get to the latter point in a second; basically, the books states it is the GM’s job to CHALLENGE the players (though it doesn’t specify whether this means challenging the players, their characters, or both). GMs are supposed to use their role and understanding of the system to craft adventures that offer “a challenge.”

There is even a sidebar on “dungeons” (!!) and creating site-based adventures. Here we see the origin of the GURPS game…someone wanted to do D&D with an elegant, consistent system (that included rules for skills, advantages, and disadvantages) that could be easily ‘ported to other genres. Ugh…here I thought Steve Jackson had more high-minded motivations…I know a lot of people use GURPS for reasons other than creating site-based adventures.

But that’s just it. GMs are supposed to “challenge” their players? Really? Your telling me GURPS is designed to facilitate a gamist creative agenda?

If such is the case, where’s the meta-game? In the character creation system (min-maxing through the point-buy?)? In simply being smarter than the GM or the other players (where’s the “balance” in that?!)?

And here I thought GURPS was best suited for facilitating the simulationist, with setting books like “The Prisoner” and “Renaissance Italy.” I guess those supplements were simply written to allow players to be challenged by GMs in different settings, rather than allowing exploration of the unique setting material. Wow…I was waaay off! ; )

SO anyway, not exactly what I’m looking for in a game. I am too old, too busy, and (yes) too lazy to spend the time learning a universal system when I don’t personally believe all role-playing games can be distilled to universal game mechanics. I just don’t. Gamma World would not benefit from a GURPS-like system and neither would Hubris Game’s Maelstrom RPG (the former doesn’t require the extra rules to play, the latter is played with a system that resolves scenes not tasks…in many ways Maelstrom is far more elegant than GURPS). And as a stand-alone game? Eh…it’s a little bland (despite being sexier than its predecessors), while still somehow seeming “over-produced.”

On the other hand…for RPGs with cool settings that have totally lame systems (or settings that don’t HAVE RPGs), one could do a lot worse than picking up GURPS and the corresponding supplement (I see GURPS did a Blue Planet supplement in 2002). But you’ll probably need to bring your own clear, specific objectives to the table with you.

: )


  1. "I don’t personally believe all role-playing games can be distilled to universal game mechanics."

    Me neither. I always likes the IDEA of GURPS (especially since I like Steve Jackson, LOVED Illuminati and Car Wars, etc.) but never got around to playing it myself. There are too many other good systems out there to be explored, in my view. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

  2. You're welcome (and by the way, I played a lot of Car Wars back in the day myself...hard to say which I preferred more between CW and BattleTech...).

  3. I used to love GURPS in high school, but I grew disenchanted with it in college. That being said, I still have the GURPS Steampunk source book, my only remaining GURPS book, because it's so chock full of great ideas that I can't bear to part with it.

    I find that the expectations of a given GURPS game tend to be found in the supplements. That's probably not what someone like you is into, but I always found different flavor and direction in the different types of books, which usually had lots of great ideas for campaigns and adventures, both site based and otherwise, as well as different setups for the same game world/setting.

    If I were to buy a GURPS supplement now, it would probably be to mine it for ideas for a Savage Worlds game.... that's a generic system that I find to be much easier to handle, for both players and GMs.

    ...GURPS also had a few nitpicky bits I had trouble getting over, but that'll be a post on my blog someday, perhaps.

  4. "There is even a sidebar on “dungeons” (!!) and creating site-based adventures."

    And even then that section is lifted straight from third edition (and possibly even earlier). I was a bit surprised they kept it in.

    "I find that the expectations of a given GURPS game tend to be found in the supplements."

    This is more true than ever with the 4e supplements. The days of laser-focused supplements like The Prisoner or Age of Napoleon or what have you are long gone. Now you get these 256 page hardbacks about certain "genres". Even the Martial Arts book is as much about how to run a martial arts-themed campaign as about listings of new styles, weapons, and techniques. So you get plenty of info there, but yeah, you end up having to plunk down for (and wade through) yet another hefty hardcover.

  5. Looking forward to reading your thoughts Ryan.

    I actually grew disenchanted with GURPS in the 7th or 8th grade...pretty much shortly after I'd generated my first (and only) character for my friend's 1st edition copy. We then realized we could do nothing with it without at least one or more supplements (well, we could have had a fairly dull...for our 13 year old session, one without magic or high-technology or superpowers).

    "...That's probably not what someone like you would be into..."

    Hey, man, I'm into all sorts of stuff. As I said, I might pick up GURPS one of these days just to use with a setting I think is cool but that doesn't have a system (e.g. The Prisoner) or whose system has some "issues" (e.g. Blue Planer). Personally I HAVE been playing role-playing games for years and I probably COULD set my own expectations/objectives for the game if needed...but there are other people out there who aren't so "blessed." And I WANT to do, maybe.

    Remember, I also can't stand skill systems...see Axiom #1.
    ; )

  6. >>But that’s just it. GMs are supposed to “challenge” their players? Really? Your telling me GURPS is designed to facilitate a gamist creative agenda?

    There is absolutely no such thing as a "gamist creative agenda" unless one is specifically designing from a Forge point of view.

  7. @ Jim: Oh, Jim! ; )

    Actually, I don't believe the Forge-ites are still using the term (at least the vets, maybe not the 'rookies') but I find it convenient for pigeon-holing ("stereotyping").

    However, maybe in using loaded terms I lost my point: is this the only purpose of playing an RPG? To challenge the players and (as players) to face a challenge? Certainly for some games that's the case (Dungeons and Dragons, for example). For other games, "facing challenge" is a secondary consideration. GURPS promotes itself as a universal RPG, with a stated purpose (or expectation of play) that paints itself into a corner (unless a GM disregards what's stated in the "rules").

  8. I think it's the driving force behind adventure RPGs, a category GURPS certainly falls under.

  9. Would you call Traveller an adventure RPG? I would...and I wouldn't consider "challenging the players" to be the driving force behind it.

  10. "Game authors simply assume that people buying their games are role-players who have played before..."

    1 – it completely neglects the idea of growing the hobby, by limiting texts to existing role-players."

    My comment on this is that most RPG designers have left me out of the hobby. I consider myself an ordinary person not a die hard gamer. I just want some easy gaming now and then.

    Way back in the 80s we ordinary people could find 128 pages of "rules" that were mostly support reference and play our games and have fun. Not perfect rules, but a complete game.

    Today you gotta be a heavy duty gamer to want to wade through most books. (Not all of them, just a lot of them).

    I'm not whining about the "good ole days". I was working on a module recently and I noted how all the details in a game limit and stifle it (they are for the gamer not the ordinary person who wants things easy and simple).

    I been thinking about that and how I didn't like almost any game from the 80s to present because too many focused on the wrong details. And how the hobby revolves mostly around selling books to gamers and not games for more ordinary people.

    Wading through GURPS skill lists and I realized it was designed as a kludge to number crunching character designers, not adventure playing gamers. It didn't do anything very well even in trying to be "universal" because it had to try to appease the tweakers.

    Simple games must scare the crap out of designers. Or else all designers are hot-dice gamers who've worn the seat out of simple and need details.

    Or I'm just boring.

    But I do know I don't need 300 to 1,000 pages for an entire game (then gobs of supplements...). Indeed, I'm finding fewer details helps me play faster and with more fun. From the practical viewpoint: I can make things up faster and easier when there are fewer details.

  11. ... and I'd rather be playing adventures than reading rule books and designing characters any day...

  12. @JD: I'm on the same page as you, though as a guy who owns 50+ RPGs, I'm not sure I qualify as entirely "normal." As far as being boring...well, maybe you're just an old geezer like me!
    : )

  13. GURPS was born when Metagaming went under and Steve couldn't afford to buy the rights to his own (and much better) The Fantasy Trip. Steve based it on the Champions rule system because he thought that was the best game system around at the time.

    I remember having a few email exchanges with the SJ crew when GURPS 4E was announced; I said why not make the game more accessible for new players (by that I meant one book and simple)? The response was something along the lines of "GURPS players want complicated, we don't market to non-GURPS players."

    That's a much diluted version of the exchange but bottom line was: our game plan is to support people that play the way Steve does. In the same way that if you like fast and loose AND deadly fantasy you probably go for B/X. I know I do.

    Although I love B/X I play LL because I don't want to destroy my priceless B/X books!