The RPG Origins of Fallout - Part 2: GURPS

In the previous installment we discussed how Wasteland, the original inspiration behind Fallout, was shaped by the design capabilities of several tabletop game designers. In this installment that tradition continues with the application of GURPS to the Wasteland-inspired Fallout...until it wasn't.

GURPS Gets Involved

R. Scott Campbell, told No Mutants Allowed the origins of Fallout and its roots in RPGs:

During this time, I was playing in and running copious amounts of pencil-and-paper Role-Playing games after work. There was a time that four nights a week was a different campaign -- from D&D, to Star Wars, to Shadowrun, to GURPS. As it turns out, people who spend all day making games, also like spending their nights playing them. Go figure...More and more dice-throwing geeks joined in, and a new game called Magic: The Gathering began to take over. One night, Tim Cain showed me his GURPS Character Creator he was working on. It was using his own GUI system and parsed all of the data through text files, making it easy to anyone to add new stuff. I showed off my GURPS Vehicle Creator I was programming, with a cool UI and automated math calculations. From that point on, we kept saying to ourselves, "We really need to make a GURPS game."


Campbell decided to go after the GURPS license:

Tim had proposed the idea to management to make a new RPG based on the GURPS license. Yes, from what I hear, "What's a GURPS?" was actually asked by someone. Tim sold them on the idea that because GURPS is a generic system, once we make one game, we'll be able to reuse the core mechanics to make any other kind of RPG. Somehow they said "Yes."


The proposal to Steve Jackson Games received a cool reception. He'd been burned by computer conversions before. Jackson himself wasn't swayed by Interplay's CRPG history or even promises of creative control, but up-front licensing incentives got his attention.

The initial draft of the game took full advantage of GURPS' flexibility, beginning in a haunted house, transitioning to a Jurassic world in the past, and then aboard a spaceship, and then a cyberpunk future where dinosaurs have evolved, to a standard heroic fantasy world. The entire plot revolves around evolution and the death of a human ancestor. It's as weird as it sounds.

The Wasteland Connection

Eventually, the team hit on Wasteland as inspiration:

The Wasteland franchise had ended tragically in 1990 with EA's abysmal sequel Fountain of Dreams. Why not resurrect that incredible game and give it the justice it deserved? Everyone immediately loved the idea. Tim even mentioned that Steve Jackson Games was working on GURPS: Survivor; a role-playing sourcebook with rules for post-apocalyptic adventuring. What a perfect fit! The ball was in motion; our first game was going to be GURPS: Wasteland.


There was just one problem: EA still had the rights. That didn't stop Campbell's team. Tim Cain came up with the idea of underground cities created to survive a nuclear war, which in turn spawned fallout shelters that forced our protagonist to venture outside when his shelter began to fail.

With the setting established, the next step was in determining how to apply pen-and-paper rules to a computer game, particularly the open sandbox style that was possible due to a human game master making real-time decisions:

For example, if the GM said, "There are two bandits ahead of you.", there would always be a variety of actions from the players. "I sneak into the bushes to lay an ambush." "I take cover and ready my bow." "I approach to parley." " I run up and intimidate them into giving me their money." "I run past them shouting, 'Oh god, it's right behind me! Run!'" It was rare that players in a paper-and-pencil game would just say, "We attack them."


This led to one of Fallout's design rules: multiple decisions were possible to overcome any obstacle. It was a rule that was established by Wasteland but inspired by pen-and-paper play. Because GURPS was such a skill-heavy game, there were often useless skills -- another trait that bedeviled Wasteland players. As such, the design team decided there would be no useless skills. Other elements were also shared with Wasteland, including dark humor (but not slapstick). The team also designed that all attributes should be valued, from brute force to sneaking around to fast-talking. And finally, Campbell's design team decided that all actions should have repercussions, including violence against children.

Things were moving along well, with a completed interface that managed to capture the complexity of GURPS. Then the team hit a roadblock.

The Fallout from Fallout

Fallout, like Wasteland, gleefully pushed the boundaries of taste, particularly in the aforementioned violence against children. The opening movie hammered that point home:

So, Leonard and Jason had just completed the opening movie for the game. It was a slow pan-out from an old 50's style black and white television showing quick documentary style scenes that silently gave the player an idea of the dystopian future they were about to step into. In one of these quick scenes, two soldiers in power-armor shoot a kneeling and unarmed man in the back of the head, and then gleefully wave to the camera. It was a tiny scene, but one that let you know that you were about to play a violent game. We all liked the movie and, just to keep Steve Jackson Games in the loop, a copy was sent to them. And then it happened. The response came back "Unapproved". The reason? They stated that "The movie was too violent".


Campbell shifted gears from GURPS' attributes to a new system featuring Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility and Luck (SPECIAL) and thus ended the team's relationship:

As the split between Fallout and GURPS became imminent, Steve Jackson remarked “The GURPS implementation they've created is 'worth' saving.” When the contract was referenced over approval rights, Interplay discovered several flaws, which in turn developed into a legal squabble over the contract itself. Eventually, the companies ended with a mutual decision to part ways. Chris Taylor, while agreeing that the split was a blow to the project, said "instead of compromising and making an inferior product -- Fallout will be produced with conviction." The title was changed to the final version: Fallout: A Post Nuclear Role Playing Game and the SPECIAL character system was designed.


And yet there was still one more influence that RPGs would have on Fallout.

The Tarrasque Rears its Head

Deathclaws, the mutated monsters roaming the Wasteland, were originally conceived by Campbell as a furry cross between a wolverine and bear. It was too furry for the designers (presumably for the purposes of rendering it in video game format), so they came up with another idea:

...the newly formed Black Isle started work on what would be Planescape: Torment. One of the first art pieces was a monstrous creature called a Terrasque. It was sculpted in clay and was then point-by-painstaking-point digitized into a 3D model. As Planescape moved forward, it turned out that the Terrasque wouldn't actually be featured in its design -- leaving that tasty model in disuse. Thus, the furry wolverine-bear became a hairless reptilian biped. (Take a look at page 339 of the D&D second edition Monster Manual. Holy cats! It's a Deathclaw!)


In short, the tarrasque mutated into the deathclaw in Fallout!

In the final installment we will take a look at Fallout's attempt to transition back into the pen-and-paper world that spawned it.

Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, and communicator. You can follow him at Patreon.
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