“Whom do you serve?” –Sauruman

I love tinkering with rules and mechanics. The things I’ve published have all been basically tweaks to the rules and mechanics of GURPS. I did do one for Frag, once. (Huh . . . all my old articles are available as free samples. Weird.)


But why? The system is pretty darn cool as it is. It’s a freshly-cut Christmas tree, and you can put whatever lights and ornaments you want on it. You have to choose carefully, though. The box of stuff that comes with GURPS will overload any tree. And you’ll lose the specialness of a particular arrangement if it’s ornaments and glitter crowded and overlapping from base to star.

And yet, I write rules. Some of them are really complicated. Some seem that way, but are pretty workable in play.

I write rules in service of narrative. No, really. Why else would you do it? The old Star Wars RPG by West End Games was (and is!) one of my favorite treatments of Star Wars. Ever. It took five minutes or so to make a character (just pick out a template and assign the dice pool the GM gives you), and was able to help steer stunningly playable narrative that just felt like Star Wars. You just needed a ‘blaster,’ or maybe if you were badass, a ‘heavy blaster.’ If you wanted to call it a DL-44 Heavy Blaster Pistol, well, fine. Who cares? Much like Episodes IV-VI, it was all story, flash, and fun, and point-five past lightspeed and stupid comments about making the Kessel Run in less than some number of parsecs. And Han shooting first.

That didn’t mean they didn’t publish weapon, gadget, and especially starship expansions. They did, and I greedily consumed them. But mostly it was flash, and the most fun was had with my group back in college (with me as player) and in grad school (this time as GM) was heavy on plot, and a lot of “roll and shout.” And whip out lightsabers. Any game is made better with lightsabers.

OK, enough Star Wars – but how can someone as detail oriented as I am just love the hell out of such an almost aggressively non-simulationist game? Expectations. For a grounded/realistic game, you’re going to want to ensure your players’ expectations for a believable outcome do not clash with what the results of the game mechanics bring. The outcome must be plausible, believable (not necessarily realistic), and rare events must be, well . . . rare. Or at least something that happens due to good planning (like the nifty rules for “Tactics Re-rolls” on GURPS High Tech  p. 60 of GURPS Martial Arts) or the various versions of luck, such as Destiny Points from Monster Hunters or the Advantage of the same name in Basic.

So the bow design rules were targeted at having a weapon of choice for punching through armor be a gun, not a composite bow. It was not hard to match Strongbow, Arm ST+2, and a Composite Bow with (say) ST 13 to have an effective ST 17 and thr+3, for 1d+5 damage . . . about as much penetration (and injury, though that bothers me not at all; arrows are nasty) as a .40 S&W.

The Last Gasp came from a desire to have lulls and flurries in GURPS combat. But I wanted it playable, so my first thought was “you have to spend a point every time you roll dice.” That didn’t quite work out, but what did come out – Action Points where most normal actions were 1 AP, “All-Out” actions were 2 AP, and various other actions were fairly simple – is intuitive enough that everyone who’s tried it (and written me back to comment) has enjoyed the feel. Once I had Action Points, though, Fatigue Points needed to recover more slowly. That, however, is worthy of its own post.

Technical Grappling? That one was inspired by a desire to have the quality of a grapple not be fixed (currently, a successful grappling attack inflicts -4 DX. Period.), ensure that strength was restored to it’s real-world importance, and allow grappling matches to have all the wonderful color and flavor that hand-to-hand striking and armed combat currently enjoy thanks to Sean and Peter’s GURPS Martial Arts.

What does that have to do with expectations? I studied Hwa Rang Do at the Minneapolis Academy for about ten years. We did serious grappling for eight or nine of them. And the rapidity and finality of “you’re grappled, you’re Arm Locked, you’re crippled” that fell out of certain applications of the existing rules just wasn’t right for reality, and strained suspension of disbelief in any realistic game. Not all grappling combats go like Black Widow taking on a bunch of guys in Iron Man 2. So I came up with an idea. That led to more thoughts. Then a system. Pretty soon, I had enough that I wanted to do a proposal, and after some back-and-forth emails, I had a contract.

So: Whom do I serve? I serve storytelling. I serve telling a believable narrative that allows (but never requires) people to have their characters enter the story in a meaningful way. Granted, I’m a geek with a rather technical background, so frequently that means math as the basis for what I do. I collaborate with people who smack me around when that math needs to be done mid-play, though.

Keeps me honest. We all need that.

6 thoughts on ““Whom do you serve?” –Sauruman

  1. "(like the nifty rules for "Tactics Re-rolls" from GURPS High Tech)"

    I think those first showed up in GURPS Martial Arts, out of a conversation where I demanded Tactics do something and Sean Punch made up an awesome rule. I could be wrong. Years have passed.

    In any case, I am looking forward to TG more than just about anyone except you. It really does for Martial Arts what Martial Arts does for Basic Set's combat rules.

  2. You're right, it was Martial Arts! If I remember the playtest correctly, I suggested the re-rolls, thinking no one would like it, and was shocked when everyone loved it. I'd have to check the records. Which I don't have anymore.

    I'll edit the post as soon as I figure out how. πŸ™‚

  3. I'm getting a very FATE-ish vibe from this blog post. In fact, if you haven't already, I recommend that you go over to the Fate Kickstarter Project and pledge some cash for Fate Core. Even $1 will get you access to the draft of the book (the final PDF of the book will be available in a pay what you wish basis) and of some of the support material. A $10 pledge will get you a metric ton of PDFs, worth at least $50 and probably $100+. I'm pledging for the two hardcovers (Core and Toolkit), given that the prices are quite reasonable, and that the shipping to Europe is more than reasonable.

    Link to the project: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/evilhat/fate-core

    1. BTW, for those who find that this post is "Almost Spam" (I must say, that minus the bad grammar and spelling, though I'm not the best there, as my proofreaders can certainly testify, this really reads like one of these posts that only serve to provide link juice so fake goods), I'll give you two quotes that sum Fate very well

      [Fate is] "the sort of RPG that focuses on modeling fiction, not physics"
      — Fred Hicks, Evil Hat Co-Founder and Co-president

      There is a significant amount of rationale behind Fate design decisions that starts with, "I am the laziest GM on the planet and want to do as little work as I can reasonably get away with".
      — Leonard Balsera, Fate System Developer for Evil Hat Productions

      Even if you don't want to touch "narrative games" with a 10-foot pole, do yourself a favor, and read read Fate. IMHO, you'll come a better GM out of it.

    2. I do not consider this anything resembling spam. It's a good, important perspective on both game design and storytelling. My sister-in-law is a professor at Olin in MA, and also a member of a fiction-writing group. Her biggest complaint, relayed to me over the holiday break, was when writers show their work TOO MUCH in the story. It reeks of "look how clever I am" and usually can be picked apart by even a half-competent subject-matter expert.

      "The Force" was Awesome when it was just the Force. Toss in the Plot Device Which Shall Not Be Named (but rhymes with mini-Delorians) and you have (a) ruined my childhood, thanks much, and (b) engaged in "tell, don't show" rather than "show, don't tell."

      There's GM advice in there somewhere.

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