GURPS, HUH! What is it good for . . . ?

While the song continues “absolutely nuthin’,” and proceeds to say it again, this isn’t so for GURPS. After I posted today’s GURPSDay script pull, someone asked in a seemingly non-trollish way why play GURPS instead of the other seemingly eight billion games out there.

It’s a good question.

My RPG History

Like most, I got my start with D&D – specifically my friend Howard introduced me to AD&D, and he had all the books (and he was one of the first to have an actual IBM PC, which meant we would gather at his house to play Wizardry, as well). That was my introduction to RPGing in general. We did try (very briefly) Star Frontiers as well. Then I started collecting at home. I got the Red and Blue box D&D games from my parents. I was given the Top Secret RPG as well, which I was fascinated by because it had a gun on the front, and the art seemed very edgy to my pre-teen self.

After a while, I fell in with a fairly serious gaming crowd, helmed by a future art director for Accolade, and a bunch of other good guys, including one who would be the best man at my wedding. We played what seemed like darn near everything, and made up characters for many more games. I remember D&D, Twilight: 2000, Robot Warriors, Champions, Bushido, Lords of Creation, a ridiculously epic Warhammer RPG campaign, WEG d6 Star Wars, Ringworld, and MERP. At least.

And then Mark came over with a game called GURPS. One game, he said, could do everything. No longer would need to learn a new system for each setting we wanted to play.

I was hooked. This was 1989.

I went off to college, then, and I continued my RPG habit, picking up the next generation of RPGs, including Dark Conspiracy, the second edition of Twilight: 2000, and Shadowrun. But all in all, none of them – with the exception of the d6 Star Wars system – held my attention like GURPS did. I tried to run Dark Conpiracy, I really did. But wow, was it incoherent and hard to run. So in a game with 15 players, I took nearly every GURPS book I owned, so it would seem, and ran a great campaign.

Oh, it was fraught with newbie GM errors. Too many sourcebooks, way too much “let me look that up.” But it was glorious, and was consistent in a way that other games weren’t.

In grad school, I really discovered the internet, and started on usegroups, such as I became a regular abuser of the GURPS Vehicles rules, and my first practical use of multivariable calculus was to design proper hull shapes for spaceships built in the Vehicles system. I even got one or two modules in to the game, and started receiving my first playtest credits.

When I wound up in Minnesota in 2000, I started writing for real, contributing a few articles to Pyramid magazine. Playtested more. Then Lead Playtested, and got some nice compliments for my work on High-Tech and Tactical Shooting as lead playtester.

By that time, I was basically playing GURPS, GURPS, and nothing but the GURPS.

Which brings us to the basic question again: Why?

Why GURPS for Me?

Of all the reasons to play, what are my top few?

3d6 Roll Low

I’ll come right out and say it: very little beats the 3d6 bell curve for enough mean-centering to have a solid expectation of what happens, and enough variation to keep things tense. Applying all of the modifiers needed to the target number (usually skill) and then rolling under that is the central mechanic, and it just works for me.

Point Buy Anything

By careful selection of what is allowed in character creation, folks can create any type of character they want, and the GMs can sculpt the creation to ensure fit with the game. “Kitchen sink” play really isn’t recommended by me, but past that, giving each person a common currency has value. A common method and understanding of how to make characters is right up there, even surpasses, the point buy bit. There is a common language of character generation that once you start to generate some familiarity, applies universally. It’s just handy.

The Size and Speed Range Table

The compliment to the 3d6 roll low mechanic is the basic mechanism for scaling and penalties in GURPS, which can be found in the Size and Speed/Range table. It works beautifully with the 3d6 bell curve and gives a progression where every six steps is a factor of 10 in effect (and having tried to make one for 3d10 using an actual 10-step decibel scaling, making it work as well as GURPS makes it work is Just That Hard, so kudos). That doesn’t seem like much, but when you are trying to put things on the right footing, understanding that table and its interplay with 3d6 gets you 90% of the way to representing just about anything you want.

Verisimilitude Uber Alles

People say that GURPS is a “realistic” system, and there’s an element of truth to it. People say that GURPS is a “simulationist” system, and well, it can be.

But where GURPS shines, and is at its strongest, is in the realm of verisimilitude. What is that? “The appearance of being true or real.”

GURPS strength isn’t “realism,” because it’s perfectly plausible and fun and doable to play over-the-top supers in GURPS. My character The Commander in Christopher Rice’s Aeon Campaign is a Captain America type. He can probably bench press 1,250 lbs, and is a fantastic fighter, and has telekinetic powers and some spiffy magical abilities that are nascent.

But when all is said and done, when he does something, the response is “I can see how that would happen.” GURPS is grounded in this, the “seeming of reality,” in a way that is mostly fantastic.

There are a few things that I raise my eyebrow at, and have written extensively about on this blog. But ultimately, it’s the feeling of “yeah, that feels right” that keeps bringing me back to GURPS as a favored system.

One Hit, One Kill (and Fragility)


I could probably go on about certain things, but one thing that is just nice about GURPS is that when you get hit, it matters. like the agency in worrying about defending myself, and not subsuming everything into a target number (that being said, a way of doing that on the GM side would be nice for speed’s sake, and no, I don’t care that it’s asymmetric, because the GM has quite enough to worry about, thanks). I like being able to call my shot, and pick my defense, and having those choices matter.

I don’t much like analysis paralysis, and what do I do now?! slowing down the game, but there are ways around that.

But the fact that there’s tension, that a bullet to the head is a real threat, that you don’t have to invent reasons why you can invoke some sort of coup de grace rule because the native rules don’t allow for slitting the throat of a sleeping foe? That’s tension. And tension is drama, and drama is story.

So when all is said and done, you can be more heroic in a game with this level of lethality, because how heroic, really, is it to fight a horde of orcs when you know there’s no risk?

Guns. Lots of Guns

This one’s idiosyncratic to me, but as you might have been able to figure out from the blog name, I’m a bit of a firearms and ballistics enthusiast. And with no exceptions, GURPS handles it better than any game I’ve ever played.

If I’m going to play a game using guns, I want it in GURPS. In fact, the verisimilitude and fidelity of how firearms work in the system makes me want to play games that use them.

Rules, Borders, and an End Zone

Anything may be attempted. That was an old metarule from the early days of gaming. It’s still a good design goal. GURPS supports this well, with a good core mechanic that is at the basis quite simple. Roll 3d6 low vs a target number. Your foe may get a chance to counteract you with a similar roll. If not, roll for effect, or just describe one. If the designers had made the Reaction Roll “roll low” instead of “roll high,” that one rule would take care of the basis of all of GURPS. 

Everything else is gravy and extra. Lots of help is provided in choosing target numbers (that’s what most of the great books of modifiers are, or powers, or weapons stats – help with choosing target numbers), and there are a few different flavors of the same mechanic above (the quick contest, for example is roll vs target number, and then the result is based on the margin of success of both contestants, which basically removes a roll from the equation).

The rep for mathiness is exaggerated. Character creation is front loaded, which means that yeah, you might need to slap modifiers and limitations on things to get just the right feel for a particular power if you’re playing in a game with them. But that’s not required, and truth be told it’s my least favorite part of the system. The math that GURPS was legendary for largely was the result of GURPS Vehicles, which requires math because it IS supposed to be a crunchy, simulationist book.

The other, Catch-22 reason for GURPS “mathiness?” It’s because a game system rooted in real world units, reactions, and behavior can actually use the math. When I threw down ridiculous math in The Deadly Spring (seriously: it has the Nasty Transcendental Equation Table because a bow requires some figuring of sin theta over theta or some such to work out some things), it’s not because I hate my audience. It’s because if I used that particular math, the results would be really satisfying. And it was done in a way that once you’re done, is all you really need to worry about for the rest of the game was Damage 1d+2, Acc 2, Range 230/310 yds. That’s just a stat line . . . but the math allows you to ensure self-consistency and persistent verisimilitude.

And that’s important. Because the key to a great game is great friends, great beer, great pizza, and great stories, with a minimum of “what the f**k did the rules just say happened?” I might complain about a particular penalty. I have complained about a particular plot element. But there are only a few situations where folks just shake their head and say “nope nope nope.”

So the game rages on.

Other Thoughts from Other Folks

The G+ thread tha t spawned this post had other folks chiming in. Here’s a record of what they said.

Mark Z

What sets it apart from other systems for me are two things, mainly.

The simplicity and elegance of the core mechanic of 3d6, roll under. Unlike most other systems, that creates a bell curve, entirely changing the dynamics of the probabilities. Much to the better, in my view.

Second, the basic verisimilitude. I don’t like to call it realism, because that’s not really correct, but the point is that for me and my players the system almost always produces intuitive results. There is never a headscratching moment as something blatantly out of whack happens.

Actually, three things. Options. Bot for character building, supporting a hack-and-slash playstyle as well as a RP-heavy one, but also mechanically. In D&D I often wish that my character could focus on defending, having successfully aggro’d the enemy. The game just doesn’t provide for it, though. GURPS does.
Or taking careful aim, to take a guard out in one shot – unless you’re a Rogue with high damage bonuses, no can do. All of these limitations limit my roleplaying, and that bugs me and doesn’t happen with GURPS.

That’s what I love 🙂

Just don’t read the book and think you have to use everything. It’s often called “front-loaded” because the GM has to sit down before the game and dcide which set of rules to use. GURPS, in some sense is a toolkit to build the game you want.

Christopher Rice

So what is different about GURPS from other game systems?

Firstly, unless you like a specific mechanic or game feature from an existing game you can usually port over the game setting to GURPS. Say you want to run a Forgotten Realms campaign (and there are many who do this), you can easily take the setting info and then use the GURPS engine. In fact, in this case, it’s even easier as you have GURPS Dungeon Fantasy (a even more simplified version of this is coming out later this year).

Second (and this runs pretty close to the first), is that since GURPS can do just about anything, when you want to change genres (what sort of campaign you are playing, e.g., supers or sci-fi), modes (how the game itself is played, e.g., Watchmen vs. X-Men or Aliens vs. Firefly), and/or austerity (how the campaign reacts to player actions, e.g., Watchmen is very austere – actions have consequences, while Firefly is moderately austere – actions have consequences if it would produce or heighten the drama of the situation) you don’t have to change the game system itself. Thus you get more hours into a single engine and increase system mastery over all. This allows you to run more complex or custom games and is a feedback loop. The more you run the more you know, the more you know the more you can run.

Third, there is a lot of support for GURPS in a wide variety of places. Be that officially (the various books, tools, and so on put out by Steve Jackson Games) or unofficially (the various blogs, websites, etc. put out by fans or authors). The forums and GURPS Discord are also great places to go and ask questions. Moreover, you can usually contact the authors or line editors of GURPS and get fairly straightforward answers. I feel this is an important part of GURPS as there are not many other games you where you can get that sort of direct contact from the people who wrote the game material you may be using.

Fourth, GURPS complexity is all front-loaded at character creation. Now, this is the sort of thing often derided by gamers, but I think it’s a feature, not a bug. For example, yes, it may take 1.5-2 hours to create a GURPS character and maybe twice that if you’re new to the system, but once that character is created the “maintenance” (e.g., spending XP to advance yourself) is a matter of minutes. This is different from say Pathfinder or DnD 5th edition because it’s easy to start, but feat choices, upgrading stats, skill, etc. can take much longer. Overall, with GURPS you actually spend less time doing these sorts of things.

Fifth, there is a set of rules you can download off of the main SJGames site called “GURPS Lite” that introduces you to the concept of the game and you can play just that if you want.

Sixth, you decide the rules complexity and/or density. No one plays with every single rule GURPS has in its various tomes. GMs pick and choose which rules they want to play with that focus on the things they want to focus on. Want a light mechanics game? Doable. Want a seat of the pants game? Doable. Want to figure out how can swing first because of the length of their weapon? Doable. And it all feeds back into the second point I illustrated.

Seventh, GURPS is a game engine that is “a la carte” but still universal. You can pick and choose the pieces you like and ignore the ones you don’t. Moreover, you can reuse characters from multiple settings (if that’s your thing) as a “genre mash-up.” This feeds back into the system’s flexibility.

Eighth, there is a learning curve (as with all games) and GURPS has an unfair reputation for require complexity and mathematical know-how. If you can add, subtract, divide, multiply, and read percentages then you can play GURPS. There are a few outliers (some formulas require a cube root for instance), but in those situations there is a handy reference nearby doing all the math for you for the most common circumstances.

Ninth, GURPS does something that is more or less unique: you can take real world items, measurements, etc. and use them right in the game itself. It uses those measurements so you can do exactly that.

Tenth, and lastly, while GURPS may seem like a simulationist dream (or nightmare), GURPS is a very narrativist game. Every scrap of real world information, mechanics, etc. are there to serve to heighten the drama of the game. If it doesn’t then the GM can simply ignore it. These the (paraphrased) words of the line editor himself.

I think that’s all I have to say. If you have further questions, feel free to contact myself or one of the others. We’ll help you all we can to see if GURPS is a good fit.

GodBeastX (M. A.)

GURPS is meant to play the way you want to play. The rules are presented to you in a “This is how it can work if you want”. If you see a math formula you don’t like, don’t use it.

To give you an example, the GM book has a table for modifiers on distances when using ranged attacks. This table is suggested to be ignored in books that surround fast-paced action with a “Close enough” idea. That is what makes GURPS beautiful to me. It’s a game for creating a game the way you like it.


4 thoughts on “GURPS, HUH! What is it good for . . . ?

  1. Good stuff! We like the system for much the same reasons. This makes me want to go back and finish up my Likes/Dislikes for a few other systems I’ve played in the past – I’ll get to that eventually!

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