Saturday, November 16, 2019
Why I Like: GURPS!
I've written before a bit on a thing that annoys me about GURPS, which is the lack of any really quick way to generate characters without having to think about them. A random generation system for the game would go a long way. Unfortunately, in experimenting with them, it occurred to me that any such system would have to be closely tied to the particular setting of the game in question. And that's a key to one of the things I really love about the game.
See, most people think that GURPS is a game. It isn't, really. It's a toolkit to make a game. It's a set of rules that hang together in particular ways which can be picked among like creating a salad at a salad bar. A little bit of this, some of that, and do we want to have a detailed grappling system? Are rules for social interactions going to be something we should pay attention to? It's possible, of course, to pick among these on the fly, using the GURPS Social Engineering rules in a situation where social interaction has become important, but skipping back to the normal, simpler methods laid out in the basic rules for skill use in most cases. There are some cases where that won't work, like using or not using an optional rule like "The Last Gasp", which deals in great detail with the way that short-term fatigue in a combat situation works at the expense of greatly increased recordkeeping. Using the rule also changes elements of character creation, so it has to pretty much be chosen at the outset of the game or not used—though obviously a creative Referee could find a way to handle switching it in and out, but it seems to me like that would still be clumsy. In any case, the specific rules in use have to be picked by the Referee based on what the game will emphasize or not emphasize. Will players have a lot of options to customize their equipment, or will it all just be used at a more basic, even semi-abstracted level? Is wealth an important concept and money a subject of recordkeeping, or should it be treated abstractly?
As a result of this, a game of GURPS will only mostly resemble other games of GURPS. A lot of the choices made, however, will have to do with worldbuilding elements. And that is what really attracts me to the game. I really like worldbuilding. I keep a file with campaign ideas, which currently reaches number 114. Almost every one of those represents an entire worldbuilding exercise. Some of them are explicitly designed for a particular game, like the Flanaess Sector idea—though that one could certainly be done in GURPS as well, especially now that much of the work of converting various AD&D monsters has already been done by an excellent rules mechanic—or some of the ones that are explicitly intended to show off a particular set of rules and, usually, setting. Examples of the latter are some Glorantha-based RuneQuest games, Space 1889 (using the original rules, not the Savage Worlds conversion currently in print), obscure games like Aftermath! or Shattered Dreams, or whatever. But still, most of the campaigns I dream up are worldbuilding exercises, like the "Dawn of the Elves" game that envisions a world divided up between various "wug" races such as insect-men, fish-men, dragons, and the like, and a primitive, yet highly adaptable and curious, race of elves, before they develop their elven civilizations and nurture humanity to reach its potential. Some of those I could easily do in another game—AD&D could probably handle the "Dawn of the Elves" setting—but GURPS gives me the option to more closely tailor everything to exactly the vision that comes flowing from my dreams.
Megalania, for example, pretty closely resembles the dragon that bedevils Conan and Valeria in "Red Nails", so it seems like something I could use! Who cares that the species probably went extinct around 50,000 years ago? A 20+ foot long venomous lizard is something that fits a sword & sorcery setting! Another (probable) anachronism that fits the setting is Homo floresiensis, a diminutive species of hominin that happens to exist right in the region of Sundaland. While current research seems to indicate that it went extinct around the same time as Megalania, it was initially thought to have existed as recently as 12,000 years ago, which is also within the right time frame. Anyway, the point is that I can take all of these elements and easily come up with GURPS statistics, along with statistics for bronze weaponry, appropriate armor, and so on, all without having to completely rebalance the game as I might have to do to run it using a D&D-type.
This brings me, roundabout, to another thing I really like about GURPS. It's a great simulation. I know that "simulationism" gets a bad rap these days, but that's just because people have different tastes. My tastes run to games that can give me a feel similar to what I might feel if I were in a particular situation. That is, I like "immersion" in my games, and I get immersion from feeling like the things happening at the games table could happen, theoretically, if the situation in question were occurring. We shouldn't call this "realism", because the situation can include elements that are "unrealistic" like superpowers. However, GURPS also allows a Referee to fine-tune the "realism" too. Magic, as I have said recently, exists in the real world, and is therefore "realistic" in that sense, but that doesn't mean that magic acts like the magic systems of your favorite novel or RPG. No one can wave their hand and shoot a fireball at people who annoy them, not without extensive preparations and technological assistance anyway. GURPS allows a Referee to select magic systems that are more or less like those in a particular novel, like a default system that Steve Jackson dreamed up some 30-odd years ago, or like a great number of other systems. Or, as I note in the previously-mentioned article on this blog, a Referee could select elements that more closely resemble the sorts of things that magicians have done for millennia—and still do today—here in the real world, even to the point of cutting off any animistic hypothesis in favor of a materialistic one if that's the way that world should work. (As an aside, there is probably still room for fine-tuning the game in that arena, but the point is that such a thing can be done, and done fairly easily.)
On the other hand, GURPS can also be run as a very cut-down, fast and loose, largely abstracted game, too. Really, the game system only insists on the basic mechanics of a 3d6 roll under a target for success (with critical success and failure as possibilities), a number of d6 and adds for effect (mostly damage, but the mechanic has been adapted for a couple of other results as well), 3d6 with high results being good for reactions, and occasionally 3d6 plus degree of failure for effects that are impacted by the degree of failure (this is mostly only the effect of failed fear rolls). It wouldn't be impossible to run a game which removed the Health stat, for example, bringing the game a bit closer to its predecessor, The Fantasy Trip. Such a game would probably, in fact, bring the costs of all stats into line with each other, where currently Strength and Health each cost half as much as Dexterity or IQ. There are proposals in various short articles for the game to add stats, so why shouldn't a Referee consider simplifying instead?
I could go on about specific things, like the way that the game currently handles different martial arts styles—or styles of any particular thing, such as magical styles, styles of civic arts, or whatever—but I think that I've gotten my main points across. The game is flexible enough to really support my worldbuilding ambitions, offers a range of verisimilitude and detail from highly abstracted to deeply simulated, and a depth of detail that other games can't really match (it's the only game I know of that can usefully simulate Wolverine's adamantium skeleton out of the box, for example, with specific advantages to make unbreakable bones) without a much greater outlay of rules tinkering. I do wish that some things were able to be handled with randomization that aren't, and some things are presented in absolute terms that might be usefully treated with a range of values (see, for one example, the previously-mentioned unbreakable bones), but those are relatively minor complaints in the end.
Next time, I'll probably talk about AD&D 1E. Or maybe something else. Who knows?