Behind the Screen

Crunchy bits: Running and Enjoying Modern GURPS

It should be fairly clear now that my favorite game to run is Steve Jackson’s Generic Universal RolePlaying System, or GURPS. GURPS was introduced to me by the guy in my college gaming group who had been GMing a D&D 3.5 game when we first got together. As the game began to run out of steam, and I expressed an interest in running something, he told me he had played GURPS and had fun with it, so I should give it a try. The 4th edition had come out earlier that year, so I bought myself the Basic Set and started writing.

What I found was a system that did everything I needed, and then some. The only problem I have ever had with GURPS is that there are too many options, and that is a problem I had fun figuring out how to deal with. While some games have a settling period where you houserule around the wonky bits (i.e. Cyberpunk 2020), GURPS has a settling period where you figure out just how you want to play it. There are a huge variety of options, from games where you have cinematic “mook” rules and a skill tree with only 12-15 entries (notably the wildcard skills like Science! which include everything in their purview), to games where you keep 80 hour weekly time use tables, play on a battlemat, have your PCs roll accounting (TL8) in order to do their taxes, and calculate the effect of a prevailing wind on the range table. Personally, going all the way in either direction makes my head spin.

My group has settled on a happy medium where we use most of the core rules, have allow/disallow lists based on the setting, and throw in a few extras for flavor (a group favorite has always been hit locations). We found this out through trial and error, especially the allow/disallow part.The second campaign I ran in the system ran into some weirdness with that. Without getting into too much detail, the houserule that sprung from that was “if you can’t fit the character on one page, please pick a different concept”. Since then, I’ve been much more careful about putting a stake in the ground around what did and didn’t make sense for a setting.

This highlights the issue most people have with GURPS: by definition, it’s not ready to go out of the box. Most of its fans call GURPS a “toolkit”, in that you pick what part of the rulesets you want to use, and then make that into your game. In any other system, you use what’s in the book, and that will provide a playable game, no picking and choosing required. With houseruling being as common as it is, my theory is that people don’t have a problem with the toolkit approach, but rather that they tried to play GURPS or learn GURPS without understanding this fact. If you approach GURPS as a complete game rather than a toolkit, it’s a jumbled, contradictory mess.

The simplest way to make GURPS for you is to start from the bottom. Read GURPS Lite, the smallest (and free) distillation of the GURPS rules. Once you understand it and see areas where you’d like more detail or more options, buy the Basic Set. In most cases, the Basic Set will provide every additional thing you could want. Then, if you want to go into more detail in your setting, you can consider buying a supplement. Want magic? There are three different books, depending on whether you’d like an expansion of GURPS’ somewhat Vancian system (GURPS Magic), more magical setting material for a fantasy world (GURPS Fantasy), or some building blocks to write a completely different magic system (GURPS Thaumatology). There are three technology books, for different time periods (Low-Tech, High-Tech, and Ultra-Tech, respectively), and a number of different books for play styles (the Dungeon Fantasy series), settings (Infinite Worlds, Banestorm), and rules toolkits (Powers, Martial Arts). But what’s most powerful about the plethora of material is how little of it you need if you don’t want it.

GURPS is my favorite game mostly because I am a writer. The system gives me many tools to build the campaign I want, and have it feel different each time. Anything you could imagine doing is possible with this ruleset, and setting up the game you want is, in my opinion, very easy. Between a solid core mechanic and plenty of flexibility and expandability, GURPS will continue to be my go-to game until someone comes up with something better. It’s more likely than not that something better could only really take the form of GURPS 5th edition.


One thought on “Crunchy bits: Running and Enjoying Modern GURPS

  1. I used to really like GURPS after I got over AD&D and VtM. I’ve been playing GURPS off and on since the late 90’s. Now my wife and I have begun developing our own system from the modifications we used to customize our games.


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