The Problem with the Problem with GURPS

Wednesday , 7, June 2017 9 Comments

Joseph Mason ran a response to a recent Crit or Miss video that will be of interest to any student of rpg history and game design. The argument there was about “The Problem with GURPS”… which actually includes one of the best pitches for the GURPS line that I’ve seen anywhere. The reviewer sings its praises, talks about how well it works, explains how it really can do anything– it’s awesome.

The rules really do work as advertised– like when Firefly was brand new and everyone wanted to play it. The fact that no game existed for the property was no problem! Adapting GURPS to the show’s premise was a cinch. But here’s the crazy part. The guy says that as soon as “real” Firefly rpg came out, everything changed. The system inside that shiny hardback book full of glossy pictures…? It actually sucked compared to GURPS. But he didn’t want to play GURPS when he could play Firefly.

This is really rather baffling. I mean… if the play’s the thing, then which game book is on the table and its overall theme is sort of beside the point. Given the number of people running hacks of classic fantasy role-playing systems such as original D&D and Tunnels & Trolls and adapting them to whatever type of game they’re keen on playing, this is certainly not a universal sentiment.

I can’t imagine, really. Not that there aren’t some subjects that really do benefit from having focused design and development in service to aiding game masters bringing them to life. Check out the rules in Call of Cthulhu 7th edition that are specifically engineered to make Lovecraft-style scenes emerge in the course of actual play.

Which brings is to the real problem with GURPS. And I say this as a longtime fan of the game. I’ve got scads of GURPS supplements and my collection of second edition rules and source books is the pride of my game collection. But the thing about GURPS is that it looks at the bazillion ways that you could “roll up characters” in countless systems and it says, “yeah, all that roleplaying stuff… it’s dumb.” To GURPS, none of that is interesting because it just gets in the way of people doing what they want.

GURPS is the game for all the people that don’t want to stare at a list of six attributes generated by rolling 3d6 in order six times and then figure out what to do with them. It’s the game for people that know what they want and that can’t be helped by some lame system that “helps” by creating a lot of noise and gunk and cruft.

In the first place, I don’t think those people actually exist. I think most people’s instincts with regards to roleplaying are just plain terrible and they need more help from systems than they can really imagine. That’s debatable, of course. But more than that… GURPS abstracts away my favorite part of roleplaying game design: the implied setting that gets baked into the rules and that you put into play without fully thinking it through or rationalizing.

The best parts of games like Traveller, Car Wars, and BattleTech are the parts that would be lost in the translation when they’re adapted to the GURPS system.

GURPS really does have a wealth of rules that can be used to model just about any conceivable fiction property. But when the thing you want to interact with is defined by a set of microgame or minigame rules and a shared familiarity with the sorts of situations they tend to produce… then GURPS really is incapable of faking it.

  • Misha Burnett says:

    If the best part of a game is lost when adapted to GURPS, is that the fault of the system, or of the person doing the adaptation?

    • Jeffro says:

      It’s inherent in the abstraction that GURPS has committed to.

      It has nothing to do with the person doing the adaption.

      • Adam Simpson says:

        There is much debate on this but I agree with Jeffro. Adapting something to a rule system is about setting things up to play *inside* that rule system. Most of the time a rule system is geared towards a certain style of play that may not mesh well with the material you’re bringing into it. It doesn’t mean it spoils your game but you should realize things won’t be the same as the original rule set.

      • Mook says:

        I hear this mentioned — a *lot* — but it just doesn’t match my experience at all, and I’m not sure why.

        I’ve GMed probably a dozen different GURPS games in the past few years. The “Aliens” game felt like “Aliens.” The “Jem” game felt like “Jem.” The “D&D Cartoon” game even felt like the “D&D Cartoon.” On and on and on.

        I often hear that “all GURPS games feel like GURPS games,” but none of us seem to feel that way… and I wish I knew *why*, because it sure does seem like it would make GURPS more attractive to a lot of players!

  • Brian Renninger says:

    Yep, GURPS will produce a character that is much like a Traveller character. What it won’t do is reproduce the fun of rolling a character in the Traveller system which involves random luck and the decision to try for another term or not.

    • morganwestridge says:

      I have enjoyed rolling up lots of Traveller characters – it’s a game in itself – but ended up actually playing GURPS.

  • David says:

    “The system inside that shiny hardback book full of glossy pictures…? It actually sucked compared to GURPS. But he didn’t want to play GURPS when he could play Firefly.”

    This is a very intangible feeling that a lot of gamers have. And you can’t predict what rule or circumstance will trigger such a feeling in a gamer. I knew one player who like the continual light spell from 1st/2nd Edition AD&D that he could put on coins. D&D3E changed that spell to continual flame, and he hated it. You could still put a continual flame on a coin, but he just didn’t like the concept anymore.

    • Terry Sanders says:

      Thus the power of “branding.” The SPACE: 1889 rules were, to my mind, awful. When my turn came up to GM for the group I was in, I translated the whole thing to HERO System, and nobody complained. But that seems to be exceptional.

      I wonder, really–how much of it is simply that GURPS didn’t write a FIREFLY supplement with pseudo-Southern accents, random Chinese words, and scatters of “shiny” and “big damn heroes” all through it?

      And how much more was the GM’s not doing the up-front work, and bogging the players down in the technical part of character creation?

  • Salamandyr says:

    Huh, never would have accused GURPS of being opposed to roleplaying. My problem with is it decision paralysis combined with entirely too much detail to run a smooth game–when I can get a similar generic experience from MicroLite20.

    I think GURPS CAN impart all that flavor and implied assumptions that one could want, by choosing which options and books to allow, but the task of doing so is prodigious when you just wanna play!

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