There are a couple hot threads over on the SJG forums right now about where to take GURPS in order to expand the revenue base, which would turn into more product, higher quality product, and the kind of exponential growth (though that too would saturate eventually) that you need for a bit to have an RPG line stand neck-and-neck with a hot brand like Munchkin.
Though as Steve Jackson notes, if you have to choose between a meteor dropping on the D&D wing of Hasbro vs. the Magic the Gathering wing, you will probably hope and pray it hits D&D, since it’s the collectable card games and Munchkin-like sales that keep retailers afloat . . . at least for those that still shop in such places.
Here are some of the threads:
- Raise a Million For GURPS
- What are GURPS’ true strengths?
- Fan Documents: What would interest you?
- Report To The Stakeholders
So, I love me my GURPS, I do. It’s the primary system for which I write, and I like dealing with the company, and love dealing with Sean, Steven, and especially with the co-author pool that I interact with. I feel like there are very few topics Peter, Christopher, and I couldn’t make awesome. Christopher provides the inspiration, I’m a structure and metasystem fiend, and Peter has a feel for playability that can’t be beaten by many.
That being said, if I’m currently going to get drawn into a game by other, dollars to donuts it’s D&D, and these days, that’s more likely to be OSR than not, but also D&D5. Other than the various D&D-derived systems simply being the 800-lb gorilla on the market, there’s a few things that make for smooth entry.
One of the nicest things about the Basic D&D and S&W sets (and I feel this way just as strongly about the old WEG Star Wars RPG) is that you can sit a half-dozen or even a dozen people down at a table with nothing, and be playing in less than an hour. Perhaps much less. Even with limited copies of the rules.
- Easily assimilated, shared assumptions
- Enough choices to allow differentiation
- Few enough choices that speed is possible
- A good mutual model of how to turn imagination into action
- Results that meet expectations and do not break suspension of disbelief
The mechanics are mostly fairly simple, and when they’re not simple they’re at least chart-based. Still, I’d forgotten how many different types of tests there were. Roll high on d20 for hits and saving throw. Roll 1d6 for some things, and d100 for others. Sometimes you open doors or whatnot by rolling low on 1d6. That sort of thing.
Not to much to say about this one, because a lot of it applies to Basic D&D as well. The game has evolved a bit, but it is, especially in this latest incarnation, not so far removed from Basic D&D as to be a wildly different game.
Decide what you want to be, roll stats or (for even easier and more level-setting time) take the standard array, assign as you like, pick equipment, spells, some background, and go play.
It is definitely a more . . . deep . . . set of rules than Basic D&D was. Skills, backgrounds, flaws, and other details. Race is different than class, and which you choose matters if you want to be a specialist or a generalist.
On the other hand, unless you biff it completely, every class has something to do both in and out of combat, so unlike Basic D&D, where my elf might get killed if someone accidentally sneezes in the next room, by and large you can expect to be a tetch more robust. That’s good for bringing a new player into the game, since “you’re about to experience the joy of your fifth character tonight!” doesn’t necessarily bring new blood to the table in an era of Save Game.
Make it easy to hit the five points above.
Easily Assimilated Shared Assumptions
While GURPS’ flexibility to do any genre, any power level, any time period, any character is its core competency, from a “get people playing” perspective, that is all air through the engine, to paraphrase Captain Tightpants.
So what we need is something that nearly any player will be able to nod and say “yeah, I get that.” That leaves us with still quite a lot of choices, so let’s take a look.
A widely popular property
Most people know that SJG has the licence to Discworld. And despite me poking at Phil Masters in this post of one of the threads linked above, Phil (the Discworld RPG author, whose book is on hold right now due to market conditions) is correct that this series has sold 80,000,000 or so books. That ain’t nothing. But I get the feeling that the discworld is one of those things that’s ridiculously popular with those that have read it, but has little reach or influence outside.
It’s not Star Wars, It’s not Battlestar Galactica. It’s not Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, or one of the major video games, such as HALO or Fallout (the game that was almost GURPS-based, until stuff happened. You can Google that one yourself).
Harry Potter would be a spectacular fit for GURPS. The students are basically regular people, except they’re Wizards. The Wizarding World can be played as the weird place it is for those steeped in the movies and books, or for new people, they can play magically talented muggles, experiencing things for the first time just as we experienced it alongside Harry through the books and movies. As it turns out, the skill-based spells that the students studied are a rare exact match for GURPS’ native magic system. And the franchise has made about $25 billion worldwide, and has spawned theme parks, conventions, and all sorts of stuff.
Star Wars is big, immersive, and about to break out. But I don’t think that it’d be a great fit for GURPS, even if you could get the licence. Oh, sure it could be done, but I think it’d squeak too much around the edges, since GURPS tends to support mostly-quantifiable play, while Star Wars defies quantification in many respects, and falls flat (cough midicholrians cough) when it tries.
HALO, now, would be an excellent fit. It’s a gun-heavy game, and GURPS does guns as well or better than any system out there. Five games and a $3 billion dollar franchise, with efforts being probed to explore alternate media – though initial efforts haven’t gained the traction sought after. That might be a good thing, from an RPG perspective, in that licencing might not be crazy-town. Someone once mocked up – complete with stealng SJG trade dress – a GURPS HALO book even. I won’t post that picture – it’s easy to find if you look, though.
Battlestar Galactica, which has its own game (as do many of the others on this list) would be, with its slightly more modern-accessible tech, be in its own way a better fit for GURPS than Star Wars or Star Trek. BSG has big ships and big dogfights in space, but otherwise is missiles and guns and normal folks without any funky superpowers or magitech other than hyperdrive. While BSG was pretty good, it’s not an ongoing property the way that Star Wars is, so there’s limited appeal from a ‘grow the game along with the audience’ perspective.
Are there others? Sure. Most people would have heard of King Arthur, of course, and fantasy gaming is 800-lb gorilla of the RPG world. There is no licence to be had for a tale that old – you could just do it.
One fun option might be to get in on Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. +Sean Punch has already written the magnum opus on Zombies that could be mined for details, +Peter V. Dell’Orto and Sean also already have all the martial arts you would ever need for such. A setting book where you get to stomp on Victorian Zombie Ass would be a nice compliment, and having read the book and having every intention of seeing the movie, would be a nice, lightweight introduction to the game. It would probably be very conducive to a Dungeon Fantasy/Action style of play as well: rules-light, fun-heavy, trope-filled.
Finally, I’ve always thought that a good fit for GURPS would be the Aliens universe – specifically the Colonial Marines. Someone should write that. Hmm.
Another one that would work fairly well is Pirates of the Caribbean. (It always takes me three tries to spell Caribbean for some reason. It’s my Kryptonite when it comes to spelling). Again, leverages the very strong Horror/Zombies offerings already in print, limited character templates but with strong variety within those templates, and a high-fun, low-fidelity attitude that invites replay.
Getting away from space, pirates, and zombies . . . how about GURPS CSI or a TV property? GURPS Castle? The game has the chops to do procedurals and investigative work fairly well, and they both have the advantage of . . .
Right here, right now
One solution to the issue of having everyone understand the genre and assumptions is to have everyone living the genre and assumptions. To me, that means modern-day adventuring . . . which for a game like GURPS, lends itself best, I think, to either military or police action. This could be more Lethal Weapon movie style, or it could be Black Hawk Down. Or The Expendables, to go over the top. But “you’re playing soldiers in the modern day” is something that people can get. You can use Google for maps, leverage the fact that the internet exists, and otherwise make it easy for the GM and players to not worry about hidden game assumptions – up until you spring The Surprise on them, if there is one.
Enough for Differentiation/Few Enough for Speed
This is where GURPS needs to approach a starter differently than it does today, I think. Right now, if you want in on GURPS, you either go Lite (which is not a great starter product, though it is a great streamlined ruleset – the two are not the same) or you buy the core books.
That’s not where I’d go. I’d hearken back to the Powered by GURPS attempts, but bring in some differences.
The first is to look at the successful Spaceships line, which basically said “pick 20 mass slots, and you’ve got youself a ship.” If you don’t get crazy (and you can get crazy), you can very rapidly make an endless variety of ships by making no fewer than 20 choices.
So should it be with intro GURPS. Reach immediately for a treatment in the style of +Sean Punch‘s Pointless Slaying and Looting, from Pyramid #3/72. In it, Sean avoids the trap of potentially making 250 individual choices in a Dungeon Fantasy game (if you spent all 250 points one at a time) by making a selection from a much smaller set, with no points to speak of. Each selection does basically come in something like 20 or 25 points equivalent, but allows you to get descriptive about selection rather than accounting-based. +Christopher R. Rice followed suit in Pyramid #3/83 with Pointless Monster Hunting and gave that much more point-intensive genre equal treatment (characters are based most commonly on 400 points).
This would allow people to build flexible characters by picking from a list of descriptors, which also happen to have game mechanical value. Archetypes are 100 points, Major Abilities are 20 points, and Minor Abilities are 10 points. But in reality, you’d phrase this as archetypes are 10 slots, major abilites two, and minor abilities are one slot. A DF character might be allocated 25 slots. A Monster Hunters hero would be 40 slots. A more mundane but still heroic character might be 15 slots . . . and the archtypes toned down to be 6-8 slots instead of 10.
This means, much like spaceships, you make fewer than 20 choices, all with nifty descriptions, to make your character. Then you get playing.
This same approach should be done for equipment loadouts, with a few pieces of specific gear provided, and then something like my Schrodinger’s Backpack article (also from Pyr 3/83) to handwave away the “shopping trip” that can stand between game start and play start.
If you’ve never looked at the “Pointless” articles, they’re worth your time. I’d absolutely, 100% follow this path on all genre-specific treatments in a future GURPS line rollout, and a notional 4.5 edition or 5th edition would have an entire chapter detailing how to create slots, with lots of examples (take the two articles already written, and blow them out a bit more). This would also make for great fan-fodder, as people could come up with as many variations on slots as they’d like.
Imagination into Action
This is already GURPS’ strong suit, and at the core, there are very few actual game mechanics to worry about. A roll-under skill roll. Effect rolls (the most common is damage). Defense tests and contests – with a unifying mechanic if possible (I thought of one earlier today that I’m definitely going to refine). Maybe even redefine the reaction roll to roll-low instead of roll-high, so that influence skills and reaction modifiers are unified.
There might even be ways to simplify some of the tracking even further in some places – I’ve got some ideas percolating for injury and fatigue – and that’d be to the good. There are few enough individual mechanics that game play should be easy to assimilate. The basic 3d6 probability curve is easy to understand, look up, or memorize, so you will know instantly how frequently you expect to succeed in a given test. That’s important – it gives a feel for risk-reward. You know if you need a 15 to hit AC 4 in Basic D&D then you’ll hit one time in four. You know if you’re rolling Sword-10 in GURPS that you’ll throw a blow worthy of defending against 50% of the time, and your foe of equal skill will parry one time in four, or about one in three if he retreats.
Don’t Break Suspension of Disbelief
Again, since GURPS is based in real-world units, with real-world expectations, by and large this isn’t a problem for the game engine itself. The basic system has being hit by a sword or shot by a gun suck mightily for the victim, so players will rightly fear being hit and act accordingly. When GURPS is centered in mostly-real stuff (such as modern or near-future combat, men vs zombies, and traditional fantasy games) it shines here, and few things break the suspension of disbelief o’ meter hard enough to ruin fun (though watch out for dodging laser hits – that one can be tricky).
GURPS is a fine game engine. But it, at the moment, is not a fine introductory game experience. If you know most of the basics about RPGing in general, you can be fairly easily guided through the character generation process, but for newbies (or even newbies to GURPS) this can take a long time. Hours with paper and pencil, and not that much less, necessarily, with GURPS Character Assistant or a similar game aid.
GURPS tends to be “front-loaded” in terms of effort. You do a lot of work and write a lot of stuff down in the beginning, and after that, mostly what you need is on your sheet or an easy GM/friendly player reference (not always, but mostly). That again isn’t something that drives assimilartion and uptake, but it is something that rewards system familiarity and mastery. It’s like the art of building a 15th level Pathfinder character from a blank sheet of paper. There are lots of ways to do it, and lots of ways to do it wrong (since the Feat trees in Pathfinder reward system mastery).
What GURPS needs to grow is easy entry. I think this can be amply provided with the right vehicle, and by leveraging innovations that have been brought to the table (mostly through the excellent GURPS expansion system that is Pyramid Magazine, but there has been innovation via PDF release as well). It doesn’t have to be a huge, big-name, expensive licensed property. The point of a licence is to provide shared assumptions and a knowledge base. Heck, if one could play GURPS in the Pathfinder Golarion world (which I’ve done), or borrow from the worlds being populated by D&D5, that might work too (but maybe not; that’s not ‘bring new people into the hobby’ so much as ‘hope that in a month/year that Primary Game doesn’t have a release people will spend those dollars on GURPS).
Right now, I suspect GURPS doesn’t do as well as it could because of the first three of my “easy in” requirements. The game itself is the engine, Infinite Worlds requires too much research to understand easily, and the front-loaded nature of character generation is a barrier to entry.
Ease these, and it would be a lot easier to expand the total available market of gamers – specifically gamers that spend money.
More than GURPS
While my thoughts are, of course, geared to GURPS because of the active discussions going on in the forum threads linked above – which have seen enthusiastic and honest participation by SJG CEO +Phil Reed as well as insiders and oft-published notaries such as +Matt Riggsby (author), +Sean Punch (GURPS Line Editor), +Andrew Hackard (Munchkin), and the aforementioned Phil Masters (author). But they also lay out some useful criteria for game design as well as sub-system design.
Designing, say, a new grappling system for a game? It better have a good body of shared assumptions, not make all fighters the same, not take forever to detail someone skilled in the system, be fast to take from concept to in-game action, and not break reality. Same thing with overarching rules design.