Help Me Understand the GURPS Design Perspective

innerdude

Adventurer
On the eve of our gaming group getting together tomorrow, I've found myself mustering very little enthusiasm for the current campaign.

And I don't know if it's the system (GURPS 3e), the campaign (a supers setting riffed directly from Brandon Sanderson's Reckoners novels), the GM's handling of the "plot" (is there a plot? None of the characters know a damn thing about anything, so we're mostly wandering aimlessly) . . . but the whole thing is falling way beyond flat for me, and is coming nigh unto full-on cratering.

Truthfully it's probably a combination of all of the above (in addition to disliking GURPS and the plot being non-existent, supers is my least favorite speculative fiction genre by a country mile). But we're now 9 or 10 sessions in to the campaign. And I've played two other GURPS 3e campaigns that lasted about as long as this one.

So while my experience with GURPS probably barely crosses the "total newbie" threshold, I can say without any hesitation, after 30+ sessions of GURPS, I just don't get it.

Or more appropriately, I just don't get who this system is for.

And the inner gnome tinker inside my head wants to know why. It's about exploring the design space of GURPS as an academic exercise.

I'd describe GURPS as being "high input dependent exception based design."

The "exception based design" qualifier is easy to spot, as every modifier to the base mechanic in GURPS is a circumstantial exception. It's a modifier based on range/distance/speed, some mitigating character advantage/disadvantage, equipment modifiers, modifiers based on previously completed (or aborted) actions (things like readying a weapon, facing, available active defenses, etc.).

Obviously this is hardly new design space. It's pretty much de rigueur for what we'd consider "modern" game design, and considering GURPS first arrived on the scene in 1986, this isn't "new tech" on the design scene.

To me the difference with GURPS lies in that every exception is "high input dependent"---the frequency and breadth of inputs needed to adjudicate a single rules application is high. At least, if you're playing rules-as-written.

At it's core, GURPS' base resolution mechanic is simple. Roll 3d6, try to roll less than a target number. Yet this simplicity could be used to much greater effect if the players are willing to remove the high input dependencies and simply accept that the relative scale of results are to be applied as broad strokes rather than singular, narrow ranges. But the very essence of GURPS plays against the "broad strokes" approach.

For me, rules adjudication is about finding out what happened in the fictional state. Yet GURPS very much seems to believe that the rules should explain---in as concrete, representative terms as possible---how things happened in the fiction. And that the how should be transparent to every player.

The ethos seems to be, if you account for as many "pre-input" factors as possible, it leads to more satisfying outcomes and adjudication on the back end, because there's less volatility between GM and players about "what actually just happened inside the game world."

The very ethos of GURPS expects that you will embrace as much of the system as you're willing to handle---and not only does the system generally give off that vibe in its writing, you're exposed to that same line of thinking from long-time, experienced GURPS fans. Playing GURPS is a complete waste of time if you're not using Compendium I and II, Martial Arts, Magic, and Psionics. Oh, and you should really use UltraTech I and II, and Sci-Fi as well.

To really "get" the point of GURPS, it seems, you're supposed to embrace the crunch. Wrap it lovingly around you. Because if you actually don't want that level of crunch, why did you choose GURPS in the first place? If you're going to just kind-of, sort-of eyeball stuff and make off-the-cuff adjudications, wouldn't it be better to go with a system that's designed to do that?

So what kind of players does a "high input dependency" game appeal to? What kind of "fun" should I be getting from this kind of system that I'm not achieving?
 
There's a level of detail in GURPS seldom found elsewhere in rpg-ing. This, from 4e GURPS Low-Tech, is, I think, a good example of your concept of exception based design -

At TL3-4, glasses are held up to the eyes by the frame or a handle (a lorgnette design), occupying a hand, or are clamped to the nose (a pince-nez design). Pince-nez fall off on a roll of 12 or less on 3d if the wearer moves faster than a walk; they’re often attached to a chain.​
 

DrunkonDuty

Explorer
Yeah, GURPS is very crunchy. Too crunchy for me. And I say this as a HERO player.

I think GURPS works better with less. Use the minimum rules you need to achieve the style of game you want.

That being said I do like the GURPS source books. They are great inspiration for settings even if you aren't using the GURPS rules.
 

pemerton

Legend
For me, rules adjudication is about finding out what happened in the fictional state. Yet GURPS very much seems to believe that the rules should explain---in as concrete, representative terms as possible---how things happened in the fiction. And that the how should be transparent to every player.

The ethos seems to be, if you account for as many "pre-input" factors as possible, it leads to more satisfying outcomes and adjudication on the back end, because there's less volatility between GM and players about "what actually just happened inside the game world."

<snip>

So what kind of players does a "high input dependency" game appeal to? What kind of "fun" should I be getting from this kind of system that I'm not achieving?
I've never played GURPS but I've played bucketloads (as in thousands of hours) of Rolemaster, which has a comparable design ethos. (It's d100 rather than 3d6 but in this context that's just detail.)

I think that Ron Edwards discussion of Purist for System RPGing in this essay is the best thing I've ever read about this sort of RPGing. More than anything else it helped me understand what I was doing when I was playing RM, why some issues seemed to recur without easy solution, why the debates on the publisher forum revolved around the issues that they did, etc.

The bottom line is that, exactly as you say, the mechanical resolution should map not just to what but to how. Therefore metagame mechanics and "fortune in the middle" are anathema. (So as you say everything is "pre-input" - and the roll comes at the end of all that. Nothing is narrated post-hoc to explain the rolled outcome. It's a completely different design ethos from classic D&D.)

Who does it appeal to? Someone who wants the system to deliver the fiction. It's an alternative to authorship. I don't play RM anymore, but I still get the appeal of it. It combines some of the ethos of neutral refereeing with this crystalline beauty of the fictional world unfolding before your eyes with these rolls of the dice. . . .
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Hm. No, GURPS is not designed for the system to deliver the fiction. The system rather strictly does not itself offer much in terms of new elements or action in the fiction that wasn't intended by one of the actors in the fiction. This, as compared to, say, Cortex+, which explicitly has moments where new elements get added to the fiction that were not planned by players or GM.

I am not sure the term "design ethos" is what I'd use - the basic design of GURPS dates back to before we'd really explored RPG design possibilities very far that broader families of games would be identifiable.

GURPS is probably best described by the results it gives - fairly detailed, gritty action resolution. GURPS Supers... is an artifact of calling the system "Generic" when it is really not. The core mechanics of the system are not a great model for superhero action, IMHO, but since it was supposed to be "generic" they had to try.
 

Celebrim

Legend
In the early 90's I left D&D in frustration over its lack of skill system, inelegance, and inability to deal with combat maneuvers or really much of any other sort of cinematic rather than abstract combat propositions. My assumption was that GURPS would deliver the experience I was looking for.

And I did learn a lot of things trying to run a GURPS campaign, but ultimately I decided that GURPS read far better than it played. There are a number of problems:

a) It's too extensible and specific. It may be realistic that skills represent highly specialized knowledge but it's terrible for gameplay.
b) 3d6 is a terrible fortune mechanic. Having results glom around an average result may be a natural idea, but it's terrible for gameplay.
c) Point buy is a lousy chargen mechanic, especially in such a free form and extensible system, and most especially in a social game. Not only is it less balanced, but counter-intuitively it reduces player freedom. You end up as the players gain system mastery with a bunch of specialists that can only do a limited number of things well. I think it's worth noting that that in cRPGs true point buy is usually used only in single player games.

What GURPS is trying to accomplish is something I call "cinematic". A rules system is cinematic if the propositions and resolutions within the rules explicitly make clear to everyone collectively playing the game the sort of things which should be imagined. I don't however think that it is accomplishing that goal very well. The GURPS design dates to a period in RPG design history were realism was fetishized as the solution for every table issue. Whatever was ailing your game could be solved by greater realism. GURPS is what cured me of that mindset, though it took going into a GURPS rules subset called GULLIVER in an attempt to fix what was wrong with GURPS before I really started questioning my assumptions about how to play an RPG.

Aside from that you're dealing with a genre (Supers) that requires highly proactive villains that bring the protagonists into action, and it sounds like you have a GM that is trying instead to wing a loose sandbox game and you've ended up in a rowboat world. Rowboat worlds are characterized by complete freedom of choice but no real content to interact with and often very limited ability to carry out a plan even if you had a clue which way to go.

'Supers' as a genre by reputation requires players that counter-intuitively prefer low melodrama as a primary aesthetic of play. To make it work I think requires players that actively RP with each other.

GURPS has influenced the way I run many games, but I'd never go back.
 

Kel Ardan

Explorer
As someone who has been playing Gurps on and off over the past 26 years or so (got it for my 18th birthday) I feel its for the ultimate crunch/ fatal players. The super games seem to always turn into more of a Image comic style Wetworks game instead of a Fluffy old DC or Marvel comic game because people die, all the time. Depending on Tech levels it can be a better Sci Fi game then others or a better Cyberpunk/ Shadowrun game as well but it really is about being able to everything with crunch to me. Also playing a fantasy game where if you get hit once or twice you will probably die makes it very fatal. I'd say the best Gurps games I had ever played was a "Black Ops" campaign (Black Ops is a book for Gurps), where we dealt with the Alien and Magical Monster menaces to keep the world safe (Mix of Hellboy and Men in Black).


Just my $0.02
 

darjr

I crit!
I loved GURPS. Till I was a player in a longer term campaign. Maybe my tastes just changed and I didn’t notice. Maybe it was 4th edition itself.

The problem I have with GURPS is that way too much crunch has to be figured out at the table during play. Not enough is cooked ahead of time to make play smooth enough for me.
 

John Dallman

Explorer
Life is a bit busy for me at present, but I'll try to answer some more at the weekend. Until then, here's an answer I compiled for SE.RPG (with help from the SJ Games GURPS forum) on how GURPS rules are intended to be interpreted:

Rule Zero
The game assumes that there is a GM, and that their rulings will be sensible, at least for their desired game. A GM does have to establish what kind of game they want to run, and it is assumed that the overall game objective is fun for the players and GM. Enabling adversarial play is not a priority, nor is ensuring that play will comply with a specific authorial vision.

GURPS is a toolkit, not a game-ready-to-play.
It is not expected that everything from all published GURPS 4e supplements, or even everything in the core rules, will be available to characters in any given single campaign. Some rules are mutually exclusive, on the grounds of different assumptions about genre and play style. For example, the gritty-realism martial arts or shooting rules likely have no place in an anime campaign set in a Japanese high-school.

"Use the rules you need for your game, but no more."
It is quite normal for campaigns to have some house rules, or conventions about which optional rules will be used. Changing these during a campaign is best done with player agreement, if at all. Do not expect different GM's campaigns, or even two campaigns run by the same GM, to be completely compatible.

GURPS is a point-buy system
If you want something, you should buy it, rather than trying to contort rules into giving it to you for free. Disadvantages are only worth points if they will cause you problems, likewise limitations on advantages and other traits. Buy the effect, not the description: the description and special effects can be defined later.

The "ABC" principle
Abilities should be:
  • Accurate, to your vision
  • Basic, in that it uses the least convoluted of the possible ways of buying it
  • Cheap in that if there are several viable ways of doing something, use the one that costs the fewest points is a good guideline but not an iron-clad rule.
Character design involves social mechanics and personality-defining traits, as well as combat abilities. The game mechanics don't ensure that every character has something to contribute to every problem, that's a matter for character design.

Play style concepts
The default play style assumed in the rules writing is "realistic cinematic." Characters need to make plans, assemble resources, and use good tactics. Things that are difficult in reality are difficult in the game, and it is assumed that players, guided by the GM, will make reasonable efforts to find bonuses for equipment, taking time, and so on to improve their odds of success. Characters should not assume that everything they might want to do will be possible for them; finding the easier way to cope with a problem is sensible.

The source material for the game is quite varied. Because the game is intended to be generic and universal, it concentrates on the basic foundations of storytelling, rather than current fashions. You're as likely to see The Scarlet Pimpernel referenced as Firefly or Mass Effect.

Rules concepts
  1. The rules are written in informal language, and are not intended to support legalistic interpretation, especially across multiple books. They say what they mean to say, and if they do not say something, that should be viewed as intentional. They are not written to be proof against exploits and rules holes: dealing with those is part of the GM's job.
  2. Because there are many optional rules, there may be several RAW answers to a question. Deciding how things work is the GM's job, although suggestions from players should be considered. More recently published rules are intended to take priority over older ones. Specific rules override general ones. Generalising specific rules should be done with caution, if at all.
  3. An appeal to reality, or at least Occam's Razor for things that are not real, is generally worth considering. Using rules interpretations that make sense and are fun is more important than sticking to the letter of the rules.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
Point buy is a lousy chargen mechanic, especially in such a free form and extensible system, and most especially in a social game. Not only is it less balanced, but counter-intuitively it reduces player freedom. You end up as the players gain system mastery with a bunch of specialists that can only do a limited number of things well.
As a HEROphile, I have to disagree with this...pretty much completely. I’m no lover of GURPS, but in the many times I’ve played it- including as a playtester for the odd product or two- this resembles no GURPS campaign I’ve ever seen.

To the original point, IME, GURPS shines best when used for games where grim & gritty is expected & desired. So quasi-hitorical, noir, super spy, survival horror, classic horror, hard Sci-Fi, swords & sorcery, and low/medium power Supers and the like all have a natural home in GURPS.
 
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evileeyore

Mrrrph
Playing GURPS is a complete waste of time if you're not using Compendium I and II, Martial Arts, Magic, and Psionics. Oh, and you should really use UltraTech I and II, and Sci-Fi as well.
Any 'fan; saying that should be ignored... in the same way you'd naturally ignore someone proclaiming that the only way to play D&D is to use books X-Z and 'anyone not using those books isn't playing 'real D&D'."

To really "get" the point of GURPS, it seems, you're supposed to embrace the crunch. Wrap it lovingly around you.
Nah. Now, don't get me wrong, there is some crunch, whole heaping boxes of it. But there are also supplements explicitly designed around excising crunch and running minimalist or narrativist.


The point of GURPS isn’t to use all the rules all the time.

It’s to use the rules that add to the style of game you’re running.
doctorbadwolf gets it.

And I have nothing I can really add to John Dallman's post, it's complete in its perfection.


I've run grim and gritty, high loose Action!, 4-Color supers, over-the-top kitchen sink Gygaxian Dungeon Fantasy, super spies, Lovercraftian horror, low-magic Conan fantasy, etc. GURPS has been my goto system since the late '80s.
 

Saelorn

Adventurer
GURPS is a toolkit, not a game-ready-to-play.
This is the most important factor, and also the reason why it's such a pain to run the game. Not only are you supposed to liberally excise all of the rules that don't support your specific game style, but the GM actually needs to go through and define everything that exists in their game.

It isn't as simple as toggling a couple of switches, to say that elves exist but Klingons don't. The GM has to manually go in and create the template for what an elf looks like in their world. They essentially have to create, as though they were characters, every single type of thing that they'll need.

It's not enough to say that you want to play Giant Robots, and apply some standardized rules for that. The GM needs to go through and stat out all of the giant robots, before the players can choose between them. If you just hand the rules to the players, and ask them to create their own giant robots, then it's not going to work out.
 

John Dallman

Explorer
It isn't as simple as toggling a couple of switches, to say that elves exist but Klingons don't. The GM has to manually go in and create the template for what an elf looks like in their world.
Or use one of several templates already published in existing settings.
They essentially have to create, as though they were characters, every single type of thing that they'll need.
Nope. It is not in any way necessary to design-with-points all the races in the world, only the ones that are liable to be PCs. Nor is it necessary to design opponents with character points: it's far quicker to just chose their attributes and abilities. If you were designing a D&D wizard as an enemy, you wouldn't roll his stats and hit dice, would you? You'd just pick them.

It is sometimes worth doing full character sheets for NPCs, if the party are likely to associate with them for a long time and get a good idea of their abilities. I've done this for exactly one NPC in my current GURPS campaign, which has run for about 180 sessions so far. She's a mathematician who doesn't go on adventures, but tries to weave the information adventurers come back with into a coherent theory of the universe.
 

Saelorn

Adventurer
Or use one of several templates already published in existing settings.
If you do that, then you move away from the one great strength of the system - the ability to model exactly what you want, exactly as you imagine it. The rules of the game are capable of modeling anything you can think of... as long as you go through the work of actually building that model out of the component parts provided.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
As a HEROphile, I have to disagree with this...pretty much completely. I’m no lover of GURPS, but in the many times I’ve played it- including as a playtester for the odd product or two- this resembles no GURPS campaign I’ve ever seen.

To the original point, IME, GURPS shines best when used for games where grim & gritty is expected & desired. So quasi-hitorical, noir, super spy, survival horror, classic horror, hard Sci-Fi, swords & sorcery, and low/medium power Supers and the like all have a natural home in GURPS.
Yeah, point buy works for certain genres of games, particularly superhero games where the character abilities, skills, and powers are generally designed to fit a player's desires. I've played Champions, Mutants and Masterminds, Mighty Protectors (the latest point-buy version of Villains and Vigilantes) and they all work pretty well. I've played GURPS but never in a superhero setting - always more mundane and gritty. I fact, compared to the others, I'm convinced GURPS would suck as a 4-color superhero game.

GURPS is a good system for some things. It can do Thieves World style fantasy well. We played a pretty bang-up good Star Trek campaign with it. GURPS Traveller was a very good version of that game. But, for a generic universal system, it's best within a certain segment of the spectrum of RPGs.
 

Celebrim

Legend
As a HEROphile, I have to disagree with this...pretty much completely. I’m no lover of GURPS, but in the many times I’ve played it- including as a playtester for the odd product or two- this resembles no GURPS campaign I’ve ever seen.
Everyone has different experiences, but it's a danger so obvious that it is even called out in several places in the text as potential problems you may encounter - "Johnny One-Tricks" I think the are called in one place.

And it's a danger I've seen repeated in every single point buy system I've ever played in, including for example White Wolf's WOD system. The most successful strategies involve dumping all your points into being really good at one thing, and then using that great big hammer to treat every problem as a nail.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
To clarify: I have seen “Johnny One-Tricks” in GURPS. But I’ve seen as many in class-based and other systems as much as I have in GURPS and other point-buy systems.

Which is to say, I don’t think it’s a system issue, it’s a player/playstyle thing.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
And it's a danger I've seen repeated in every single point buy system I've ever played in, including for example White Wolf's WOD system. The most successful strategies involve dumping all your points into being really good at one thing, and then using that great big hammer to treat every problem as a nail.
Successful... but at what? If a Johnny One-Trick can be successful at or dominate everything, it means the approach the campaign is probably unbalanced.
 

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