Putting on our uber-geek hats, let’s continue our RPG comparison series, which started with a look at AD&D in part 1, and Rolemaster in part 2. If you’re a writer and have zero interest in game mechanics, race to the bottom for world-building book recommendations.
OK, OK, it is now turn to my qualified favorite: the Generic Universal Role-Playing System (GURPS) and its cinematic cousin, Big-Eyes Small Mouth (BESM)! (They are not made by the same companies, but their systems are similar enough to be discussed in the same article). As I’ve done with the others, I’ll evaluate the game system from four angles: how it works, is it fun to play, is it fun to run, and how useful is it for writers as a world building model?
Basic Mechanics and Overview: GURPS
To play GURPS, you need 3 six-sided dice (no funky dice) and these two books:
The first book is all about making characters, wonderfully flawed and interesting characters to match any concept you can dream of. The second is about making and running worlds for those characters.
GURPS is one of the most elegant, flexible systems I’ve ever played. It’s been the most fun to play from a player’s perspective, but it takes a lot of setup work for the Gamemaster (GM), and starts to break down over longer campaigns. The hard part about GURPS is limiting the scope to the right blend of simple, flexible rules. It scan get as simple, or as complicated and realistic as you want, and you can use it for any genre, from high fantasy to detective mysteries, to urban intrigue, modern supernatural, cyberpunk, or space opera.
The key defining factor that distinguishes GURPs from D&D and Rolemaster is that there are no character classes, nor are there experience levels. GURPS is organic. There’s no single path to success, and if you can imagine it, you can build it. Instead of rolling stats, picking a class, and then writing down abilities and choosing skills based on that class, GURPS says: here’s 100 points to spend. Spend them on whatever you want. Stats cost points, skills cost points, and abilities cost points. You can take character defects and disadvantages (is your character alcoholic? Do you compulsively gamble?) to offset point costs for other advantages. Skills that are difficult to learn (say, astrophysics in a Space Opera, or magic spells in a fantasy) are Very Hard, and cost more points. Skills that are trivial (driving a car) or moderate (swinging a sword) cost fewer points to learn.
Let’s compare the case of the D&D wizard vs. the GURPS wizard. The D&D wizard starts with fewer hit points, a small number of spells, and constraints: you can’t use a sword and be an effective wizard. You can’t wear armor and be an effective wizard.
In GURPS, everyone starts as “average and unskilled”, and you “purchase” what makes you different. Want to be a wizard? Buy the magic ability. Want to learn a spell? It’s a skill, just like any other (as long as you’ve bought the prerequisite magic ability). Want to swing a sword instead of a staff? Sure… spend your points on a sword skill instead of a staff skill.
Here’s the catch. Each spell is a skill. If you’re not good at that skill, you have to spend rounds concentrating, and it makes your character tired. You need to say magic words and wave your hands around. The better you get at the spell, the less tired it makes you, and the less visible things you have to do. If you’re really good at the spell, you can cast it with your mind alone. So, as a starting character, the more spells you have, the more you’ll suck at casting them. And, you may not want to waste points on learning to use a sword if you’re wanting to be a classic wizard.
Another neat factor: need more character points for spells? The default starting age is about 18 years gold. Take the “Old Age” advantage, and start at 40, 50, or 60 years old. Your strength might go down, but you’ll have more points for spells. Voila: classic wizard, grown organically, with the freedom to have chosen unique features along the way.
Overall situation resolution in GURPS?
GURPS mechanics are fairly simple once you’ve made your character. You have three stats: ST (strength), IQ, and DX (dexterity). All skills are based on these. Each stat runs between 2 and 18, with an average of 10. If you have a DX of 14, and your marksmanship is rated at DX-3, then to hit something you roll 3d6 and see if you can roll 11 or below. Low rolls are good. High stats are good.
The Combat system works the same as the skill system. You have a target number you must roll beneath. Unlike D&D, with its abstract system of hit point and 10 second rounds, GURPS’s combat around are single-action, 1-second slices. This makes for some discrete and intense combat, giving the player a high degree of control. Instead of rolling to see the result of a series of thrusts and parries, you roll for each individual swing. It’s relatively easy to say, “I want to shoot that guy between the slit of the visor, right through the eyeball, with my crossbow.” D&D just doesn’t allow for this. In GURPS, it’s simple to calculate (I think that’s a -9 modifier to your skill, which makes it REALLY difficult to roll)… and if you’re successful, the guy’s pretty much dead, without having to worry about hit points.
The other neat thing about GURPS is how it handles melee combat. Let’s compare it to D&D. In D&D, you roll to attack. If your roll succeeds, you hit. The defender doesn’t have the chance to defend, you either hit or you miss. The defender’s ability to avoid damage (parry, for example) is accounted for abstractly between the defender’s Armor Class (which makes it harder for you to succeed) and hit points (which kind of equates to life, but also equates to an ability to take less life threatening damage). It’s clunky, conceptually. Once you hit, you roll for damage: the damage is based on weapon type (a sword is 1d10), plus your modifier for strength.
GURPS reverses this. Roll to attack. A success means you hit if the defender is just standing passively. Usually, your opponent is not. The defender then rolls to see if they parry or dodge. If they do, you miss. If they don’t you hit. Armor is factored in by damage reduction. If the damage is less than the armor’s DR, then no damage done. Damage in excess of DR is inflicted.
Damage is also reversed. Instead of being based on weapon with a modifier for strength, melee damage is based mostly on your character’s strength (guns are different), with a modifier for the weapon. A knife might be ST + 4. Your ST might give you a default “swing” damage of 2D(6). Every swing attack you do will start with 2D6, and then you add the weapon’s “advantage” on top of it.
Here was the really neat thing. Let’s say the sword ends up doing 12 points of damage, and the armor’s DR is 8. Only four points of damage gets through… but wait. The sword is sharp. Sharp damage doubles anything that gets through… so, 8 point done. What ends up happening is that large blunt weapons do lots of damage, but don’t do “extra”… it’s less lethal. Small sharp weapons might do less overall damage, but whatever gets past the armor is more lethal. It’s why we sharpen our spears and put blades on clubs to make them into axes. GURPS is a very rational system, and this is a nuance that no D&D derivative has ever had.
Magic is also unlike D&D. In short, it’s skill based, and you can cast spells you know as frequently as you need to as long as you’re not fatigued. Casting spells make you tired, but this gives the player a more dynamic, flexible experience than the old memorization/spell preparation method of D&D. GURPS uses spell colleges (essentially skill trees), with prerequisites. Want to learn how to throw a fireball? You have to learn how to ignite a flame first, and bring that up to a minimum level of proficiency before you can start throwing points into your fireball spell (skill).
How flexible/fun/powerful is GURPS world building?
Getting into world building: GURPS lets you model any world with as much detail as you want. The GM has to set the limits to determine the flavor of the world. A historic adventure, for example, wouldn’t allow players to spend the spell points on superhero flight or “can breathe in space”, even though they’re in the rule book.
But, where GURPS really shines for world building: their sourcebooks. Ancient Rome. Low-Tech. Celtic Hero. Their sourcebooks are written like history books geared towards believable storytelling, with all the game rules in the margins of the book. GURPS Science Fiction is a treasure trove of star system and space opera world building.
How fun is it to play GURPS? (Character perspective)
My most fun gaming experiences have been in GURPS, playing under a GM skilled in the system. In an alternate-earth “sliders” style campaign, I built a Jesuit priest/cowboy, skilled in revolvers, with a very small handful of spells (invisibility and deflect bullets). Very awesome in a western-style CTHULHU setting in an alternate Colorado Springs. The system allowed for some high-speed, cinematic style of storytelling during combat without being bogged down in rules.
I also learned something else from GURPS. A small thing, really, but it makes a subtle, tactile difference in the game. Everything is resolved rolling 3 (or more) 6-sided dice. Compare to D&D, where you roll… a single 20-sided die. (Never mind the bell curve math that makes GURPS yet again more elegant than a linear system). Throwing a chunk of dice in your hands and rolling them on the table is much more fun than … one. Personal opinion. Make the game a little more fun.
How fun is it to run GURPS? (GM perspective)
GURPS takes work as a GM. You have to build your world, and decide what options are available to your players to set your theme. In designing scenarios and adventures, the lack of D&D style “levels” makes it harder to achieve a balanced challenge. Its flexibility is its weakness, if time to prepare is an issue.
Big-Eyes Small Mouth (BESM)
To play BESM, all you need is 1 book, and 2 six sided dice:
Unfortunately, BESM is out of print, but I scarfed 2 of the used copies up for myself.
BESM is almost identical to GURPS in concept (point based, no levels, build your character to your genre), but highly simplified. It’s designed to simulate the high-action cinematic style of anime. Combat works the same, in principle, without the nuances of damage (attacks that are successful do full damage, just like in a video game).
Because it’s so close to GURPS in concept (without complexity), I’ll only highlight the differences.
BESM uses three stats: Body, Mind, and Soul. Your basic combat score is the average of the three, taking into account physical ability, the intellectual understanding of where and how to strike, and plain luck or karma. It’s a unique, and somewhat Asian take on the whole thing, and I found the artistic abstraction here appropriate to an anime feel.
How flexible/fun/powerful is BESM world building?
BESM gives you tools to design many character concepts, just like GURPS. However, it leaves world building largely to the GM. There just aren’t that many BESM books past the core rulebook (which is unfortunately out of print).
How flexible/fun/powerful is character building?
Really damned fun, and a bit easier than GURPS. Because of its ease, I’ve used BESM to model some of the characters in my writing, just to keep track of their abilities, without having to do all the work that GURPS requires for unique and custom powers (like Aradma’s ability to summon and control plantlife).
How fun is it to play or run? (Character perspective)
I don’t know yet. I’m running a BESM adventure set in Ahmbren this Saturday.
Bottom line for non-gaming writers:
BESM and GURPS can be fun to make characters with, of all flavors. For world building, the GURPS sourcebooks are unparalleled, and will provide great value for any non-gaming spec fic writer. The following are good investments for any spec-fic writer, gamer or no (each are linked to Amazon, where you can see descriptions). You will not be inundated with game mechanics and stats–these are easily marked and separated from the world-building text.
The following provides gear, tools, and weaponry info and culture from stone age through pre-modern.
If you are building space opera worlds, you need THIS BOOK:
Out of print, but used:
I learned more about Roman daily life in this book than I did living in Rome and history class:
I’ve used this for steampunk inspiration:
There is much, more. Go to Amazon and search for: GURPS Aztecs, GURPS Ice Age, GURPS Dinosaurs, GURPS Egypt, GURPS Japan. Of special mention for your Lovecraftians out there, GURPS Cthulhupunk, a blend between the Call of Cthulhu of Lovecraft and the cyberpunk genre:
You get the idea. Awesome world-building books for the spec-fic writer.
Until next week!