You might use GURPS to play a fantasy campaign, then try a cyberpunk campaign, then switch to superheroes next. Or you might just have a wizard with a machine gun alongside a psi-mutant cyborg on a Sherman tank. That’s the power of GURPS.
GURPS stands for Generic Universal RolePlaying System, and maybe it’s benefited over the years from that vaguely gross sounding but highly memorable name. It was first published by Steve Jackson Games in 1986, with new editions coming out every few years. The most recent, fourth edition, is still published by Steve Jackson Games.
If you’re not into RPGs, you might still have heard of GURPS. In 1990, the GURPS Cyberpunk book was part of a notorious incident in which the U.S. Secret Service raided Steve Jackson Games, seizing computer equipment and files. The reason for the raid was the company’s association with Lloyd Blankenship, author of GURPS Cyberpunk. Blankenship ran an online BBS service that discussed computer culture, and he’d consulted with computer security experts (and probably a few hackers) while working on the book. The agents who seized the Cyberpunk files were convinced that it was a real guide to computer fraud.
Now, I’m going to be totally honest — I’ve never played GURPS. I’ve always been intrigued by the idea, mostly by the possibilities for blending genres, but I just never got around to trying this game out. That’s ok, because I talked to Sean Punch, GURPS line editor, about the game’s current edition and all the possibilities (plus a few limitations) of a universal gaming system.
io9: GURPS 4th Edition has been around for over ten years now, which seems like forever for an edition of a popular RPG these days. What’s the secret to this edition’s longevity?
Sean Punch: GURPS Fourth Edition owes its longevity to a combination of factors, the most important of which is that SJ Games learns from its successes and failures. While we’re willing to release new editions when we see that they’re needed, we prefer not to redo everything from scratch. As a result, our games build on previous editions, keeping the good parts and growing more solid over time. Here’s the GURPS-specific version — I suppose you could call it a “secret” — for those who are interested in the details.
GURPS Third Edition had the largest library of any SJ Games product ever. While that was a good thing on the surface, growth was haphazard and led to more and more rules that weren’t totally compatible or that duplicated effort — the system was like a big pile of scrolls in some dusty ancient library. When that massive tower o’ supplements started to teeter, we realized that we had to reconcile it all, to consolidate thousands of pages of work. The heaps of supplements gave us plenty of great content to pick and choose from . . . but we knew we couldn’t put it all in one huge book!
The solution we chose was to plan the direction of Fourth Edition’s growth rather than to leave the system to grow by accretion as earlier editions did. To support this, we designed the GURPS Basic Set, Fourth Edition to serve as a strong foundation for content to come, so that contributors could spend more time using the existing framework to do new things than inventing completely new rules. We had the benefit of years of customer feedback to tell us what gamers deemed essential in the core and would could wait for later. The result was a solid frame
into which to plug later, optional modules.
Since then, we’ve done our best to check the first draft of each new supplement for compatibility with the Basic Set, and not to approve completely new subsystems if existing rules could do the job. That’s my job description, really! As a result, Fourth Edition isn’t collapsing under the weight of endless add-ons — the core continues to work as a basic game built on firm foundations for gamers who want only that, while we release a steady stream of completely optional supplements to keep the system alive and relevant.
io9: How has the way GURPS handles the idea of being a “generic” system changed over the years and through the editions?
Sean Punch: Mechanically, GURPS started out with a slant toward low-tech fantasy — an unsurprising bias, given the overwhelming dominance of that genre in RPGs both then and now. For instance, the combat system offered a lot more options for whacking your enemies with a sword than for shooting them with a gun, and early supplements lavished far more attention on magic and monsters than on technology. The stubs to support almost any genre were always there, and point-build allowed people to customize closely to personal needs, but there was a systemic bias toward elves, knights, and wizards.
That situation slowly improved as SJ Games released GURPS books aimed at other genres. By the time of GURPS Third Edition, it would have been fair to say that there was support for just about any genre or style of play. Still, that was often in a hard-to-find corner of some supplement — it wasn’t in the core. Fourth Edition created a level playing field. It raided the libraries of earlier editions for rules to support a wide variety of genres, it updated that content to be more self-consistent, and it offered the results in their most basic form right in the Basic
Another mechanical shift related to this was a change in the rules for designing characters. These drifted away from what I’d call “set-piece abilities” and toward custom-designed traits. This didn’t even exist in First Edition. It wasn’t until Third Edition that you could readily custom-build your character’s abilities by modifying the basic building blocks, if you had the right supplements. Fourth Edition lets you do this out of the box, and you can tweak anything that appears on the character sheet, if you’re willing to invest a little time and energy.
I consider this a separate facet because it helps to support not only genres (by allowing you to create heroes who are a better fit to the genre), but also differences in play style within a genre.
io9: Of course the cornerstone of GURPS is the ability to use the same rules for any type of game in any genre or setting. Are there a few settings that GURPS seems to work especially well for? Did you ever run into a genre that really seemed like it would be difficult for GURPS to handle?
Sean Punch: Though Fourth Edition has shed the bias toward low-tech fantasy that I mentioned earlier, those roots didn’t go away — we just added support for other genres. Also, classic fantasy is the dominant RPG genre, so the freelancers who propose and write most GURPS supplements generally favor it, whether because that’s what they like to play or because they know they’ll sell more copies and earn more royalties. Consequently, I think GURPS still works best in that genre.
Due to GURPS’ fundamental philosophy of starting from realism — that is, because we know and can measure reality, it works best to start with that and build speculative genres from there — GURPS also works quite well for games set in the real world. Historical and modern-day
stories are easy to tell, and the same goes for action, conspiracy, and horror variations on those.
Calling out difficult genres to handle is trickier, because with enough work, you truly can do anything. When people say, “GURPS doesn’t do X,” what they’re actually saying is, “I can’t do X straight out of the box — that takes too much effort for my liking.” Using a definition of “difficult” that’s “requires a lot of work,” I’d zero in on two sorts of games.
First are games where the usual heroes have a radically different scale or morphology from humans. By that I don’t mean androids, rubber-suit aliens, or nasty hobbitses — I mean giants, tiny pixies, or creatures with extra limbs and unusual body parts. The character-design system is flexible, but its zero-work baseline characters are humanoids of about human size. A lot of work is needed if your game needs titans, pixies, or intelligent animals. That last part in particular frustrates those who like “furry” gaming.
Second are games where the focus isn’t on heroes in the usual sense at all, but on organizations or domains. We do have rules for cities, mass combat, organizations, and other social phenomena, but those are brief and biased toward individual characters — that is, what you do in the city, how you lead your army or other organization, and so on. If your setting calls for actually playing a power bloc, bloodline, faction, or whatever instead of an individual, you’re in for a lot of extra work in GURPS.
io9: What do you think is the appeal of a universal RPG system?
Sean Punch: The appeal is buying one system instead of several. It’s the same appeal that a toy like Lego or a tool like a socket wrench has: You can use it in all kinds of ways, and you
can add the bits you need without having to pay for the basics over and over again.
That said, there’s also a small subset of gamers who love tinkering for its own sake. For them, an adaptable point-build system is attractive more because it can be twisted to do all kinds of weird and wonderful things than because it’s a cheap way to run a lot of fairly ordinary
io9: What’s your favorite GURPS anecdote? Something that happened in a GURPS game that couldn’t have happened with any other system?
Sean Punch: I’ve run not one but two campaigns that wouldn’t have been possible without the
degree of genre fluidity GURPS offers.
The first started out looking like fantasy, but then the heroes learned that their world was just one of many in a cosmic game where worlds and universes were at stake. They came into contact with some of the forces behind that and eventually drifted across many settings. I worked in a huge range of stuff, including a weird take on the real world, Hell, a cyberpunk background (hey, this was a while ago!), space travel, and a few dozen other backgrounds. At one point, the player-character group included several wizards, a cyborg wraith, a failed (but not fallen!) angel, a shapeshifting alien blob, and a Cold War mad scientist like something from a James Bond movie.
The second started out looking like modern-day conspiracy with emergent super-powers. As it turned out, the powers were behind a much bigger conflict in the galaxy, and species with developed abilities were doing crazy things with their gifts while battling enemies who didn’t possess such powers and hated those who did. This resulted in an alien invasion of Earth, with
the heroes using their powers to assist human resistance and ferret out power-using collaborators — and ultimately, things took to the stars. That called for rules that could handle virtually every kind of superhuman ability ever claimed in the legends of any culture, plus support for a broad range of technology levels.