I felt betrayed when I sat down to read the Keeper’s Guide for Call of Cthulhu seventh edition earlier this year. Granted, I bought first edition GURPS Horror way back when I didn’t know anything about anything. And hey… at the time I was really only going to use it for the monsters and the psionics system. But I really did feel that there was just no way that GURPS could have given me what Call of Cthulhu promised.
In the first place, GURPS never says anywhere that you need to go read at least six Lovecraft stories before you even think about running a horror game. Secondly, there are rules in there that would never be included in a GURPS product. They’re not only never would have occurred to me, but they’re engineered in subtle ways to produce a type of gameplay that recapitulates the source material. Yes, I could steal those things and incorporate them into a GURPS campaign. But GURPS by itself would never instruct me in that sort of thing because it lies outside of the scope of what it really specializes in.
Now… that’s all feelings. Or “theory” if you prefer. Let me tell you about reality.
I go sit down to play someone else’s Call of Cthulhu game… and it doesn’t even use ten percent of the rules. You make a character, sure. You make a lot of skill checks during play. You get into the combat system occasionally. But what is the campaign about, really? It’s sort of a monster-of-the-week X-files type thing, but set in the twenties. The Keeper doesn’t seem inclined to really kill player characters. The players don’t drive play, they mostly just bop along to some kind of climatic horror moment. A powerful time lord type patron holds everything together so that we can have modular units of adventure– improvised short stories whose outlines are plotted in advance. There’s basically no significant player autonomy and you can’t lose. It’s like being dropped into a text adventure where you can’t do anything except gradually move the plot forward to its inevitable conclusion.
The thing about that sort of play? It largely turns the rule book into a prop. It obviates the discipline of roleplaying game design. If this is what you think roleplaying is, then you will play pretty much any rpg the same way regardless of its rules. And anytime people on the internet are discussing rpg history and rpg design, you will butt into their conversations and inform them that “system doesn’t matter” and “it’s the game master that makes a great campaign.”
Those people are legion. But here’s the thing: even if they were right, they can’t do me any good. They might have the happiest players on the planet, sure. But they aren’t giving me anything that can help me get a better playing experience for the people that sit down at my table. Of course, the moment they express something that is reproducible, they void their own argument. No wonder they’re so unhelpful!
The problem with that style of play is that system really doesn’t matter. And I wanted to say that that’s the sort of rpg majority for whom GURPS is the best fit for, but it really isn’t. Heck, those people could run original D&D or Tunnels & Trolls and it wouldn’t make a difference. In fact, those earlier rules sets might even be a better fit because they’d never be tempted to waste time constructing powers or creatures according to the GURPS rules system with rules that don’t actually do anything for them anyway. Honestly, all they really need is to just make stuff up for the purposes of creating the illusion of an rpg!
But yeah, GURPS does have an implied setting. It’s called “more realism for less effort than any other game ever thought to try for.” The combat system is where this really comes to the fore. For martial arts and firearms especially, there’s all kinds of stuff baked in that gives me outcomes that are far better than anything I would ever think to serve up on my own. And even better… the system rewards players that want take the time to develop their own tactics, moves, and combinations. Yes, I can’t handwave all of this in a rules-light system if realistic combat is not my thing.
The point is, system does matter. And I’m not dependent on falling in with that one great game master in a thousand. GURPS itself brings something to the table– and if it’s the sort of thing you want, then you won’t want to settle for any of the countless half baked systems out there that don’t even try to address what matters within the GURPS scene. At the same time, GURPS does expect you to know what you want. It won’t tell you what books to read and it won’t run you through the boot camp of “stripped down basic set plus introductory module” that games for more casual audiences tend to provide.
Yes, I’m still upset about GURPS Horror. And I’m still curious as to what would happen to a campaign that allowed the Call of Cthulhu rules to actually bring something to the table. But the way people tend to approach these things, I’m unlikely to find out just what that is unless I take the time to make it happen myself. Given that most pre-packaged scenarios are not engineered to help with this, you pretty much have to be a game designer to pull this off. This was true back in the eighties– and it’s still true today!