GURPS has Complex Rules? I don’t think so.

Thursday is GURPS-Day, and I was going to make a post about attack and defense options on lulls and flurries again, but I’m going to return to that at a later date.

There’s an interesting thread on the Forums which makes the bald statement that GURPS seems to be engineered for people that enjoy really complex rules.”

This raised my hackles a bit, and I’ll tell you why: GURPS’ basic rules are not complex.

Ooo, I can hear the knives sharpening already . . .

What you Say?

They’re not complex. Seriously, there are about four or five rules you really need to know. You need to know what an attack-defense roll is. You need to know a reaction roll (and if reaction rolls had been made roll-low, use MoS to determine result, there would be one fewer mechanism) and it’s roll-high lookup. There’s a damage or effect roll, where you roll Nd6 for damage, fatigue, or control points. There’s the Quick Contest mechanic, and the infrequently used Regular Contest mechanic.

Those are the rules, really, at their core. The central mechanics. Want to hit something? Great. Roll an attack, roll a defense, if you hit, roll damage. That’s about as simple as you can get and still preserve the defense roll, which I like. A lot.

But everyone knows GURPS is complex. You’re on drugs.

The issue, such as it is, is less that the game is complex than that it suffers from option overload. This comes in two flavors.

Option Overload 1: Choices

You can hit someone with a sword.

Or, you can do an Committed Attack (Determined) with Rapid Strike and Telegraphic, aiming at the leg.

Or Deceptive Attack, Defensive Attack, All-Out Attack, Move-and-Attack, etc. Sweeps, kicks, punches, pointed sticks, Trip, Evade, etc.

Lots of choices. Block, Parry, Dodge, sometimes one or more of all of those.

These, though, are optional depth for those who want it. For those who don’t:

“I hit him with my sword.”“OK, roll to hit: 3d6, roll under your skill.”“I rolled 10 vs. my skill of 14. I hit.”“Your foe tries to parry your blow; he rolls vs his Parry score of 9; 11. Sucks to be him. Roll damage.”“Hah! I roll 2d-1 cut, and roll 8 points.”

If you want to say that’s flavorless, well, it’s the exact same flavor as most games have when you want to play fast and loose. That feels a lot like Pathfinder (though that doesn’t have the defense rolls) to me, and Pathfinder is plenty fun to play, and the 800-lb. gorilla of the gaming industry.

Option Overload 2: Modifiers

The place that does make things seem like a slippery slope to hell is that many of the things you can do cause your skill to be modified to do them. The act of shooting a gun at someone automatically requires a penalty – one of the steepest in GURPS – based on range.

If you choose to do so, you can get “I attack” replaced with “I do a Committed Attack (Determined), with Rapid Strike and Telegraphic, to the leg. That brings up a whole hose of modifiers and restrictions.

Ironically, this nets out to “roll at flat skill,” I’m pretty sure.

That’s complex, isn’t it? Not really. You figure out what you’re doing, and assign modifiers. If you don’t know them, you can either stop play and look them up (which everyone will say don’t do that) or just make something up.

The complexity, such as it is, only comes into play with the list of modifiers, which are in place to provide real choices to players as to what they do. If you don’t want that, and want rules-light “just tell me who hits whom and how hard,” then you can do that.

If you want to do a blow-by-blow detailed fight, well, you can. And in combat, by and large you’re talking either an Attack-Defense pair (a pair of sort-of opposed rolls), or a Quick Contest (directly opposed rolls).

Sometimes, in play, I’ll just hear the description of what the player wants to do, and roll dice. If the roll is really good or really bad, fine. Unless the modifiers are so extreme that ONLY a really good or bad roll can alter the outcome, you can just say “yep, you hit/miss.” If it’s in the middle, drag out the modifiers.

That probably bothers some people. That’s OK too.

Complexity Management

The key bit is not trying to eat an entire cow at once. If you aren’t familiar with the ebb and flow of the two or three basic resolution mechanics in GURPS, well, you’d better start with just that. At some point, you or your players might get the hankering for more detail. So you can then add on All-Out Attacks and Defenses. Later on, you can add the intermediate Committed and Defensive Attacks. Then you can toss in Rapid Strikes and other Attack Options. Then Techniques based on skills, many of which will drag in Quick Contests instead of Attack-Defense pairs.

Just don’t eat the entire baron of beef at once. You’ll get a bad case of indigestion, and that applies to game systems as well as yummy yummy cow parts.

OK, Now That Really IS Complex

I forgot one thing: building powers and advantages with the system of power, advantage, limitation that is presented in the basic rules.

I’ll admit those give me a terrible headache, though I’m growing more familiar with them, a touch, through my use of Divine Favor (which is basically powers and alternate abilities) in the GURPS Jade Regent game.

So, I’ll cop to that one full-on. That, to me, is actually complex.

Parting Shot

Maybe I’m splitting hairs, but I’m differentiating between detail and complexity here. I think they’re different. GURPS has a limited number of things you need to remember at it’s core, but it is a system with multiple optional levels of detail that can be employed depending on player and GM preference. As such, there’s more and more information (modifiers and options) you might have to know, but they’re not of the “special exception” basis, mostly, with very few new mechanics.

I’ve also been playing the game for almost 25 years, and that probably has something to do with it.

22 thoughts on “GURPS has Complex Rules? I don’t think so.

  1. The thing about GURPS is, it provides a lot of complexity if you want it and need it. Because some people want that complexity and detail, they sometimes gravitate towards GURPS. The problem is that many people see "lots of complexity is available" as "it's complex and love of complexity is required." It's not true, but it's hard to combat that perception.

    Plenty of games have had a pile of complexity, even contradictory and buried complexity (AD&D, I'm looking at you). But it wasn't perceived as especially complex. GURPS's problem is that people who want a robust but simple system see the folks who want a robust but complex system using it, and think, okay, it's not for me. It's really for both.

  2. Part of the complexity is definitely in the perception of how the mechanics work – and the notion that 'fights take forever' – the same thing they say about D&D 4e, and which can be true in that sort of wearing-down-the-hit-points sort of way. But my experience was that any delays in combat in GURPS were from playing new characters who didn't have any signature moves yet, and having to do some debating on what approach to take.

    Another area of complexity is the sheer number of advantages, disadvantages and skills. The Skills by Category list is helpful for some skill wrangling, as are archetypes of course, but the suggested skill/advantage/disadvantage lists from Dungeon Fantasy et al also help provide an example of how things should be. Your GM should be narrowing down the choices for you, so you're not wondering if a skill is important when he or she doesn't intend to use it in the first place.

    Finally, it's not a new game, so there's a metric ton (even in PDF form, think about that) of supplemental material and it's difficult to know if something has already been invented or needs to be created by the GM to suit your proposed campaign – short of learning what's out there in the wild.

  3. It's complex, in much the way that programming in C is complex. You definitely -can- build really big and complex things in C. But you can also do lots of powerful, useful stuff in C without excessive amounts of complexity. You've got to know how to choose the parts of your tool that are appropriate for what you're trying to do.

  4. I think one aspect hampering GURPS is that there's a "fractal" quality to the game, where people misidentify "optional" (or even "interesting") as "necessary."
    To offer an example, say you want to watch a movie. That's only two hours, right? Well, maybe seeing a documentary on the making of the film might prove insightful Or you might get more out of it if you understood the history of the actors, and saw how it stretched their abilities. Perhaps learning more about the period of the film would make it more enjoyable. You could research the screenwriter's process. How does this fit in with the director's oeuvre? Are there any sequels or interesting spin-off items that expand on the story? For an interesting-enough movie (say, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, or Citizen Kane), you could spend literally WEEKS delving into its baseline fractal qualities.
    None of this takes away from the fact that the core movie is only two hours.
    I feel it's similar to GURPS. The core game is fairly straightforward, but the other possibilities can expand in whatever direction you'd like, with little overarching demand from the game line about what is "necessary."
    To me, GURPS is a lot like New York City. There's never a point where anyone goes, "Welp, I've completely absorbed all there is to know about NYC." You could spend a year eating at all its restaurants and never encounter the same place twice. Or take a year immersing yourself into the Broadway theater culture . . . or spend that same year devoted to "Wicked." Perhaps you want to visit the MOMA for 365 days straight.
    There are no NYC Police telling you how you "should" experience the city; you do what you want, relying on your instinct or trusted guides to take you somewhere interesting. To me, GURPS is like that. Some people hate NYC for the same reason other love it: The possibilities are endless.


    Steven Marsh

  5. GURPS problem is not of complexity but of presentation. It takes more work to get going with a GURPS campaign than the alternatives for a chosen genre. A problem that can be fixed by SJ Games if they ever chose to do so.

    1. I agree. DF is a step in the right direction, but as a fan and a GM I'd love to see a one-book DF publication with enough rules in it to run the game, and just the rules you need.

      Not sure it would sell well enough to justify the investment it would take to happen. But a one-piece approach with the options you don't need hidden would be lovely.

    2. In fora that are not GURPS-focused (or even GURPS-friendly) the one thing that people keep coming back to is wanting something to wrap around GURPS Lite to make it into a full, if basic, system. Something akin to DF, designed to work as a complete product.

    3. I'd like to go the other way and strip GURPs down to a roughly 150-200 page rulebook. Something new players can digest easily, but still usable, unlike GURPS lite (IMO). I would particularly like to strip the skill list down to less then 50 options, maybe down to 10-20 bang skills. Hero Games tried this with Hero Sidekick. I loved it, but I don't know that it help sales any.

    4. Sean, Hero has also gone in the direction that Peter mentions above, with their Champions Complete – a narrowed down version of the whole Hero System, with a focus on superheroic play, with a default world. They're planning something similar for Fantasy Hero Complete, I believe.

    5. I read Sean Punch "justify investment" argument citing the decline of tabletop RPGs as the main argument and lack of freelancer interest as a secondary argument. The problem is that I feel that GURPS has declined faster than what it is warranted by the overall decline. It used to be the #3 or #4 roleplaying game.

      In contrast BRP/d100 seems to be holding its relative position and perhaps even increased their relative and absolute sales thanks to Mongoose Runequest/Legends/Openquest/Runequest 6.

      Then there is Fate, a relative of Fudge, which only now has a true generic corebook and stared as a family of ready to run RPGs.

      So what in the pipeline for ready to run? Discworld!. I am sure it is excellently done as usual for SJ Games but it will not serve as a intro or a hook into the broader line.

      I think on this issue SJ Game pursued a bad strategy and that unless Punch, Steve Jackson swallow their pride GURPS is going to continue to spiral into a very small niche.

      I am fairly active in the gaming community in Western PA and Eastern OH and the #1 complaint about GURPS has been consistently that it is too much work to make up a character or a campaign. I had players repeatly tell me since the late 90s and the revised 3rd edition book that if it wasn't me running it they would never play it.

      This is big difference from the late 80s and early 90s when my friends and I handed out worn out 2nd edition boxes and seen players successfully start up GURPS campaigns.

      And now with all the work done on the various PDF lines (DF, Action, Monster Hunter) it boils down 90% to being a presentation issue.

  6. It's fair to call a game system with hundreds of skills and options 'complex'; "what skill do I use here" is a form of complexity, and it shows up a lot more often with 400 skills than with 20. Likewise, systems like having easy/average/hard/very hard skills, and the cost curve for skills, adds a meaningful amount of complexity for little if any benefit.

    In general GURPS complexity is more an issue of a steep learning curve than actually being difficult to use in play, but that's still a problem, and it's what creates the perception of complexity (a high level d20 character is not simpler than a GURPS character, but the system is designed to get you gradually into the complexity, and many campaigns never progress to high level).

    1. See, this can be remidied to a point using existing rules in GURPS using "!" skills. They work like talents, are themed, and can potentially "group" skills together thematically, allowing players who want to specialize in an off the wall skill do so at a much more affordable price.

      Thing is, not many GM's use this option or tend to glance it over in favor of the more detailed approach, though something I feel would help appeal to more fantasy/action games that people tend to gravitate towards. The action point system that I have read of in some of Douglas' posts point to how these skills can "round out" other skills as well.

      Just my two cents though

    1. See this can work out really well, and I think having a "cheat sheet" of potential modifiers for people to choose from can go a long way too. Such things I believe do exist, though I often have to dig through various posts and google searches to find them with GURPS.

      Other systems though tend to do so with the book, or as a supplement easily accessible from their main page and a tad easier on the eyes than some of the Times New Roman font style. Although I personally love the format, many other people do not and often they claim that it makes them feel like they are reading a school book.

      Going back to Rob's AMAZING response, it kind of adds to that level as well… presentation can go a long way to smoothing out the unsavory perception mentioned in this post.

  7. My major issue with GUPRS 4 when it comes to complexity is skills.

    They did a really good job of cleaning up advantages and disadvantages, almost everything on the list feels like it should be there.

    I do think though that if they broadened out what some skills cover, added some more optional specialities in some cases, they could maintain the option range and most of the depth of detail, but yank a good 1/3 to half of the skills out, and get a cleaner game out of it.

    That's the main thing on a complexity front that jumps out at me.

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