First published in 1986 by Steve Jackson Games, who also do Munchkin and Zombie Dice, GURPS (Generic Universal RolePlaying System) quickly became one of the standard non-D&D roleplaying game mainstays and has has been a popular choice for many a gaming group. GURPS has gone through a number of editions throughout its years with the most recent 4th edition being published in 2004. Due to its universal nature it has also attracted a horde of supplements of all types. If there’s a setting that you are interested in playing in, the chances are there is a sourcebook for you (although we looked and couldn’t find the Zombie Caveman Kilt Wearing Ninjas With Lasers setting).
We’ve been keen to play it for many, many, many years now and the Grand Gaming Experiment gave us the opportunity to give it a shot. So with all this anticipation and excitement, did it live up to our expectations?
GURPS is all about one core concept, shown in its name: it is the Generic Universal RolePlaying System. It is designed to be an all-purpose system allowing anything from cavemen to space sagas and everything in between. A “Basic Set” of two books contains
the core rules, and then there are optional supplements for a variety of settings (see Books, below).
We played in a mostly Fantasy setting, with a splash of Steampunk thrown in for good measure. To keep things simple, I did not use any additional sourcebooks (although there are many available that could have been selected).
What You Need
To play GURPS, you don’t need much. You should have the two basic rulebooks, the Basic Set Characters and Campaigns. The Characters book is like the traditional D&D Player’s Handbook, and Campaigns is like the standard Dungeon Master’s Guide. These books contain all you need to get started with GURPS (but see Books, below, for more information).
Technically, you don’t even need the books as a free GURPS Lite rules set is also available for download (see Links, below). The Lite rules provide all the basic rules for character creation and playing the game. In fact, the limited subset of options available can actually using the Lite rules other than the books a far simpler option. The Lite rules don’t contain things like Magic or much for Supers, but if you want to try the game at no cost: go for it.
Even if you do buy the books, the Lite rules mean that you can get away with a single copy of each. I printed off the Lite rules for all my players, and then used the books as an additional resource for anything outside the Lite rules.
Naturally, you will also need dice: nothing fancy, just d6s. You should have at least 3 per player.
GURPS is a class-less points-buy system, which works quite well for spanning the range of characters that can be created. Differing powers of characters are from a different number of points. At character creation, the GM will allocate the number of points that may be spent (the “Power Level”). A typical Fantasy adventurer would be 100-200 points; a superhero would be at least triple that. For our game, I set a Power Level of 150 points.
The character creation rules cover the creation of pretty much anything. Elven mage? Sure. Superhero? Yep. Intergalactic starship? Same rules. While there are a few extra rules to deal with things like magic and vehicles, ultimately they’re all characters created with a certain amount of points using the same basic rules.
The tremendous advantage to this is that you can create almost any type of character that you want. It also, unfortunately, means that there are a LOT of options to go through. Add to this that for most games, many options will be invalid because of the setting and you end up with the character creation process getting to be a little overwhelming at times. We found that the absolute most important thing for creating a GURPS character is to have a solid character concept, so you know what kinds of things you’re looking for and then go from there.
There are four overall parts to a GURPS character:
- Attributes: Basic physical and mental capabilities, like Strength and Intelligence
- Advantages: Positive special abilities, like Luck or Infravision
- Disadvantages: Negative special abilities (that cost negative points) like Colour Blindness or Stubbornness
- Skills: Applications of abilities, like Acrobatics or Riding
Attributes are very expensive but have the most benefit, whilst Skills are the opposite: they’re cheap but focussed. Because of how the default level for Skills works, we found it most useful to spend a small amount of points in a wide range of skills, rather than focus too heavily on just a handful. This meant that our characters were able to do quite a lot with an average ability rather than suffering from what would effectively be an ‘untrained’ penalty to checks.
Advantages are the defining characteristics of most characters, ranging from simple things like Luck to more superhuman ones like Unkillable. Advantages are characterised based on Mental/Physical/Social, and Exotic/Supernatural/Mundane, which can make it somewhat easier to pick out which are available (most Exotic/Supernatural Advantages are off-limits for regular Humans). Choosing Advantages is somewhat time-consuming due to the number of options, but ultimately this is what gives the character their ‘flavour’.
Disadvantages are the opposite of Advantages. They gain you points, but are, well, disadvantageous. Whilst there are a lot of nice and flavourful options, it is makes sense to try to “synergise” your Advantages and Disadvantages, such as by taking Daredevil and Overconfidence.
As with any points-buy system, there is a lot of potential for min-maxing in GURPS, especially when Disadvantages come into play. There is normally some cap on Disadvantages, such as no more than 50% of the base points (I dictated no more than 50 points of the 150 points I set, so, 33%), but the most important guideline is that the GM must pay attention and enforce effects. For example, if someone takes Pyromania, make sure you put them in situations where lighting a fire is not only easy, but also a very bad idea!
The character creation is not light on the GM, in general. Races, for example, are templates, which are either made by hand or pulled from a supplementary source book. I wanted Elves and Dwarves: the templates I could find weren’t generic enough, so I made my own. Free and customizable: yes! Play straight out of the box? No…
This kind of character generation certainly appeals to certain players more than others. In general, some players favour or disfavour points-buy systems, but beyond that, some players will revel in the options and the freedom, whilst others will feel swamped by the number of choices. Adding extra sourcebooks will compound either feeling. Your results may vary. As a quite technically-minded person, I enjoyed the character creation process, but as GM I also had read far more of the rules than the players, which made it somewhat easier.
Lets be clear about this: the rules for GURPS are complex and technical. Working out how much damage you do with a sword is painful, combat complex and time-consuming, and that’s before you get into the rules for differing gravities. As befits a game trying to cover everything, it covers everything… and in a lot of detail.
All rolls in GURPS are 3d6 against some characteristic, be it a Skill, Attribute, or something else. A low roll is good: you must roll equal to or under your characteristic. Very low natural rolls may cause critical success, and very high rolls may cause critical failures, but naturally (given the system’s complexity) exactly what those thresholds are varies depending on your skill.
An attack might proceed something like this:
- You roll against your weapon skill, such as Rapier. This is calculated based on your Attribute and Skill.
- If you succeed, the target may attempt an Active Defence. They may have Dodge, Block, or Parry capabilities, which are also precalculated based on various things. If they succeed, the attack fails.
- If not defended against, you deal damage. This is where it gets messy. Firstly, the Rapier is Thrusting, so you take your base Thrusting damage from a table based on your Strength. Then, the Rapier has a damage bonus of its own: you add these and roll. You then subtract the enemy’s damage reduction (from their armour). Some weapons also divide the damage reduction before its applied. Finally, since the Rapier is Impaling, you apply a damage multiplier to the damage that gets past the damage reduction. Finally, based on that damage and the target’s health, you may cause various effects like Shock, Knockback, or more.
Apart from the complexity, we also found that the combats were quite time-consuming. It’s fairly easy to get at least one good Active Defence, so various techniques like Feinting are needed to actually hurt people. Needless to say, I’ve heard GURPS works better for high-tech campaigns where you don’t have to worry about half of this and our experience with combat would certainly go some way to confirming it.
During our game, one of the characters happened to, well, sort of… fall off an airship from 1000 feet. As one does. Unfortunately, this meant looking up the falling damage rules. Since the game is designed for everything, it caters for everything. 50ft giant falling 5km on a planet with 0.3 Earth gravity? The rules can handle it. So how do the rules handle falling damage? With great complexity…
Falling damage is in two steps: the second step is taking a certain amount of damage based on your velocity and hitpoints. The hitpoints adjustment is so things take an appropriate amount of damage for their size. That’s fine. The velocity, however… whilst there are some guidelines and a table to aid you, the rules are basically just a game transcription of the physics equation that defines velocity under constant acceleration (v2 = u2 + ½ at2). This means the rule includes a square root term… Yes, that’s right, a square root in a roleplaying game…
This example of the falling damage may seem like its just one rule, but its indicative of the overall rule system in GURPS. As I keep mentioning, it can do everything… which means it can get rather complex if you let it.
Despite quite liking the character creation process in GURPS, I have to say, really didn’t like the overall rules systems. I was repeatedly cringing at how overcomplicated they were and how much time it took to do everything.
As a GM, I was annoyed that there were no encounter guidelines. I had a party of 6 characters at 150 points… what foes should they fight? How many, and at what points? I basically had to guess and see what happened. There is also no book of pre-built monsters / enemies. You may argue, well that’s the beauty of the system, there are no rules potentially defining a ‘setting’. The point I’m trying to make, however, is that some templates or guidelines would have made the job of GM significantly easier – at least to start with.
Magic, Psionics, Etc
The core set includes rules for Magic, Psionics, and modifying special abilities to create special powers (particularly for superheroes). There are supplementary books which expand these rules (such as GURPS Magic), but you can play with just the core rules.
Due to the setting, we only used Magic. Magic in (core) GURPS uses Fatigue Points as mana, and requires learning each spell as a Skill. This means two things: firstly, mages are inexplicably tough from high Health (for the Fatigue Points), and mages have to sink a lot of points into spells if they want to accomplish much at the detriment of any other skills that they might like to take.
The spells in the core set are not exactly world-destroyingly powerful either, and you need to take chains of prerequisites to access more powerful spells. You also have to channel mana into spells for a few rounds before casting, and characters are very vulnerable at this point, which made us feel like mages in core GURPS are a little bit weak, since a dude with a sword can just bash people every round. Having said all of that, the option of using magic is definitely there if you want to use it.
For a more fleshed out magic system, a supplementary book is recommended. GURPS Magic is the obvious choice, but GURPS Powers (used for superheroes) can make for a good alternative magic system if you’re interested in mixing things up a bit.
To give some idea as to what a GURPS character looks like, here is a sample. Our Dice of Doom Podcast 027 discussed how anything can be done it GURPS: even ponies. After the mandatory 10 minutes of mockery that I was subjected too, I present to you Rainbow Dash, from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.
This is a somewhat simplified sheet, to make it easier to read. For a full character sheet you will generally keep track of things like the points cost of each item, and notes about how you calculated some things (like damage).
You can see with this example the process of the character concept and creation concept in GURPS. I started with the core Advantages and Disadvantages to being a pony at all: Hooves, Horizontal, and Weak Bite. I then added the traits which make her a pegasus: Flight (Winged), and Walk on Cloud (which is in italics because I had to invent it: I made it a 10 point advantage…). In a campaign, the GM could supply these as a pony or pegasus Template.
I then moved on to defining her Attributes, Advantages, and Disadvantages to reflect her physical, mental, and social capabilities and limitations. For physical capabilities, a very high DX combined with tweaks to Speed, Move, and Air Move, and the Advantage Enhanced Move (Air) 4, allowed her to reach her top speed of slightly over the speed of sound. For the mental and social, it was mainly a matter of picking Advantages and Disadvantages. Because I had a very clear idea of the character, it was much easier to pick these since I knew what kinds of things I was looking for.
Finally, I finished off with the Skills, and tied it all together by calculating Attack, Damage, and Active Defences.
As is standard for our Gaming Experiment, we played GURPS for one month. Character creation went fairly smoothly, in part because I had supplied the Lite rules and additional instructions to each player. Whilst it is definitely complex, many in the group enjoyed the open-ended freedom that GURPS offers.
Unfortunately, it didn’t go so well from there. As stated before, we found the rules rather complex and difficult to pick up. Combat took us a very long time. The completely unfamiliar combat system combined with the multitude of possible actions and the general complexity made it difficult to pick up and run with. The Active Defences mechanic meant that many attacks were simply Blocked, Dodged, or Parried, which was frustrating: no-one likes succeeding in an attack roll only to have it thwarted. The 1-second rounds were also a bit annoying: you can’t do very much in one second.
However, this was somewhat hurt by the first combat encounter, which was facing off with well armed and armoured guards, in a precarious situation where outflanking was impossible. Later on, I found combats were much smoother if the enemies didn’t have such good Active Defences and DR, and / or the PCs outnumbered the enemies and could flank them. It would have been nice if the books had given some advice on encounters.
For the game we played, I think GURPS performed well in a few ways. Firstly, we were playing a slightly Steampunk game, and the TL (Technology Level) rules catered for this quite nicely: I didn’t feel like I was having to bend the rules to make the setting fit. Secondly, people could indeed play anything they wanted, and we saw some quite unique characters that may not have been possible in another system.
On the flip side, there were definitely things that I think could have been better. Magic (at least in the Basic Set) felt somewhat underwhelming, and the balance of weapons felt a bit off. The rules for different kinds of weapons, hit locations, and so on, were definitely too complex and the rules scattered across 3 or 4 sections of the books.
Finally, there were a few things that I personally disliked. The entire Disadvantages system is very open to exploitation. I think all but one player took Overconfidence because that’s pretty much how they act anyway and so it was basically free points. The game, on the whole, doesn’t really try to make things easy for either new players or new GMs: the rules are pretty much just rules, with a shortage of guidelines and advice. It is definitely not a game for teaching new gamers.
As mentioned, there are two core “Basic Set” books in 4th Edition GURPS: Characters, and Campaigns. Characters is roughly equivalent to the D&D Player’s Handbook, whilst Campaigns is roughly the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Normally you will require both books for any GURPS game (although you could possibly make do with just the Lite rules, as stated above).
The books themselves are reasonably attractive: they’re full-colour and of a good quality. The artwork isn’t amazing and is re-used a lot, but it’s definitely not bad. The sections are colour-coded on the edges of the pages, which is immensely useful, and there are some quite good indices at the back for both general concepts and Advantages / Disadvantages / Skills.
The books are quite indicative of the feel of the game. When I first opened the Characters book, the style struck me as being quite similar to the 2nd Edition AD&D books… in a bad way. And what with some of the needless rules complexity, I wasn’t far off: GURPS still feels like an 80s game. On the bright side, the books, and subsequently the rules, are considerably easier to navigate than the 2E AD&D ones.
In addition to the core books, there are many optional supplements, most of which are designed for certain settings. For example, for a Fantasy book, there is a GURPS Fantasy (mostly world-building rather than rules), GURPS Magic, a specific setting called Banestorm, and more. For other settings, there are books such as GURPS Space, GURPS Supers, and more. There are also a variety of e-books available, such as the Dungeon Fantasy series which is designed to cut down the rules to offer a D&D-esque dungeon crawl.
My main issue with the books is a complete lack of a Monsters Manual equivalent. There is simply no published book where I can pick it up and pull out the stats for monsters / enemies. Sure, it’s a generic system, but if there were a GURPS Fantasy Enemies or something I would have bought it. The best I could find for the human foes my characters had to face were templates: I still had to put work into working out the full stats of the foes. Irritating. I mean, the D&D 3.5 DMG manages to have full stats for NPCs of every class of every level 1-20, including equipment and spells. GURPS can’t tell me the Strength of an Orc.
The game is designed such that it can be played with a hex grid, with miniatures (not that we did). There are a lot of technical combat rules which rely on positioning and so-on, and would benefit significantly with the visualisation. That said, the game performs reasonably well without: it’s certainly not essential.
As mentioned, the game uses 3d6 for almost everything, so 3 dice per player will be sufficient in many cases. There are some situations where more than 3 dice are required, such as for large amounts of damage (such as falling from an airship…). I would recommend the GM having at least 10, and certain kinds of games (like Supers) will need more dice (because large amounts of damage will be more common).
GURPS is definitely not a game for everyone: I think it has the most appeal to people who want complete freedom in their characters and games, whilst not minding the complexity. It also is designed to handle crossed settings very well, so if you’re wanting game with parallel universes, time travelling, or something like that, then GURPS will work quite well. (The default setting involves parallel universes)
GURPS is one of these games that is so famous you just have to try it… just to say you have. If you’re wanting to mix up your roleplaying and try something different, I think GURPS is a reasonable candidate. Since it’s quite different to a lots of games (especially D&D-like ones), it lends some diversity, and also the buy-in is pretty cheap: you can either go for the Lite rules (which are free), or if you go for the books you can easily manage with just one copy of each of Characters and Campaigns, and the books aren’t particularly expensive.
As the GM of our GURPS game, I can say this for my experience: I enjoyed it. I doubt I will ever push for playing it again, and my books will probably just sit around and gather dust, but I definitely enjoyed it as a one-month experiment.
GURPS can be found on Amazon here:
- GURPS Basic Set: Characters (4th Edition)
- GURPS Basic Set: Campaigns (4th Edition)
- GURPS Magic (for 4th Edition)
- GURPS Fantasy (for 4th Edition)
- GURPS Space (for 4th Edition)
- GURPS Banestorm (for 4th Edition) (fantasy setting)
- Gurps Powers, Fourth Edition (superheroes, can also be used as an alternative magic system)
We also discuss our experiences playing GURPS on the following podcasts:
- Dice of Doom Podcast 025: GURPS First Impressions and Playing Heros and Sidekicks
- Dice of Doom Podcast 027: GURPS Review and Gaming Group Roundtable and Methods of Running Multiple RPG Groups Playing the Same Adventure
Update: Fixed up a weird factual error that managed to slip past the editing process…