Steve Jackson’s GURPS, 3rd Edition (Revised) is (as one might expect) the third, revised edition of GURPS, whose first edition was published in 1986. Also, as one might expect, it is published by Steve Jackson Games1, founded by GURPS designer Steve Jackson (human Texan)2.
In a previous review, I discussed the sad history of the venerable tabletop roleplaying game The Fantasy Trip (TFT). It was doomed to decades of oblivion by a combination of clashing personalities and business setbacks. But all was not lost. We soon heard that Steve Jackson was working on a great unnamed roleplaying system, to be given a shinier name once Steve Jackson thought of one. In 1986, that shiny new name was revealed: GURPS. Which stood for Generic Universal Roleplaying System.
GURPS prevails. While a 4thedition is available, this is a (commissioned) review of the 3rdedition.
GURPS, 3rd Edition (Revised) is a perfect-bound trade softcover. At 256 pages (plus ancillary tables and materials), GURPS is considerably bulkier than TFT. As well, while clearly sharing a lineage with TFT, GURPS is sufficiently different in detail as to be an entirely different game from TFT.
The book is well organized and easy to read (which is not true of many games of this vintage). Two formats appear over and over: single columns with narrow sidebars expanding on various details, and double-columned text. The detailed table of contents is backed up with a detailed index. Spot-checks indicate the index is correct.
The core mechanic is extremely straightforward: roll three six-sided dice. If the total is less than the designated target number, success. If above, failure. Particularly low rolls are special successes. Exceedingly high rolls are special failures.
As one might guess from the name, the intention was to provide a game that could be used to play any genre. To facilitate this, GURPS has genre-specific modular rule add-ons. The consequence of this is that despite the simple core mechanics, GURPS can be potentially quite complicated. I suppose the key is to add as many rules as it takes for people to lose track of the sub-mechanics, then remove the last rule implemented before confusion manifested.
There are, of course, quirks related to the designer’s region of origin3. Most notably, GURPS uses the quaint American measuring system. For players familiar with metric, two conversion tables are provided (one rounds for ease of use, the other is actually correct). Unlike
Mutants and Masterminds certain games I could mention, the conversion tables are actually correct.
Despite the “universal” in the name, GURPS works best for heroic but mundane characters. GURPS would not be my system of choice for superheroes. My memory of playing the game is that I found it flexible but a bit clunky. Presumably, if I’d played it more, the mechanics would have become second-nature4.
What the above leaves out is GURPS’ true strength. Steve Jackson Games published a bewildering range of sourcebooks (“options, rules, statistics, and ready-to-use items and creatures”) and Worldbooks (“campaign backgrounds”). The Worldbooks cover specific genres and historical periods, as well as popular fictional worlds, ranging from Discworld to The Book of the New Sun. There are even GURPS books for other roleplaying games, such as Traveller. Even if one did not care for GURPS’ mechanics, the Worldbooks are an invaluable resource.
I did not find GURPS, 3rd Editionat Barnes & Noble, Book Depository, or at Chapters-Indigo.
Now for the excessively long nitty-gritty. The sheer amount of detail may be daunting, but it does all fit into 256 pages. And it’s easy to find when needed.
Creating a character (basically, sections 1 through 10)
1. Basic attributes
Like TFT (and Champions, cited in the opening pages as an influence), players have a pool of character points, which they spend to acquire talents and skills. There are only so many points and a great many things on which these points could be spent. Judicious budgeting is required.
Where TFT had Strength, Dexterity, and IQ, GURPS has Strength, Dexterity, IQ, and Health, all of which start with a value of 10. Whereas many point systems use linear costs (each additional increment costing as much as the previous one), in this system costs increase once thresholds are exceeded: going from Dexterity 10 to 11 costs 10 points, but going from Dexterity 13 to 14 costs 15 points.
(One can obtain points to spend elsewhere by reducing attributes below 10; ten additional character points are acquired for each one-point reduction below 10.)
2. Physical appearance
What it says on the tin.
3. Wealth and status
Also, what it says on the tin.
There is a counterintuitive consequence of the system, which is that if the character is designed as poor, they will remain poor until that drawback is paid over via character points no matter how much money comes their way. Ever wonder why Peter Parker could never catch a break, financially? Because he was designed poor.
Knacks and such that provide player characters with benefits.
One of the key elements in the character point budget, disadvantages provide more points to spend by saddling the character with social, physical, or other challenges that will inconvenience them.
These are minor inconveniences not significant enough to qualify as full disadvantages.
What it says on the tin. Like Traveller and RuneQuest, GURPS eschews character classes (where individuals from common occupations have the same pool of magical and mundane skills) in favour of individualized skill systems. Skills are comparatively cheap (although the cost system can get arcane) but due to GURPS’ modular nature, the total number of skills available to buy can be very, very large, far more than any one person can afford.
8. Equipment and encumbrance
Gear has weight. Load your character with an excessive quantity of gear and there are … consequences.
9. Completing your character
Applying the finishing touches.
10. Character development
C lassic Traveller
11. Random characters
This provides a quick random generation system, suitable for players who don’t want to learn how to budget character points and also for gamemasters who need to create non-player-characters on the fly.
12. Success rolls
An expanded discussion of game mechanics.
13. Basic combat
How to hurt each other.
14. Advanced combat
How to hurt each other, in greater detail.
Like RuneQuest, GURPS combat is influenced by the designer’s experience in the Society for Creative Anachronism. Some of the design choices are a bit counterintuitive: shields make characters harder to hit, but if they are hit, the shields will not reduce damage taken.
15. Injuries, illness, and fatigue
The game mechanic consequences of being hurt in combat, catching a disease, or excessive exertion.
16. Mounted and vehicle combat
What it says on the tin.
Also, what it says on the tin. Not sure this needed its own chapter.
Rules and stat blocks pertaining to non-sentient beings.
The fantastic way to break reality. Advanced spells often have prerequisite spells, which means players who want to be mages may have to be even more judicious about budgeting character points.
Magic needs energy, which may be drawn from either Strength or Health. This has the counterintuitive consequence that sometimes the most ripped character in a GURPS game is the party sorcerer.
The pseudoscientific way to break reality. Curse you, John W. Campbell, Jr.
Psionics are rated in power and skill: the difference between eliminating a foe by raising the temperature of their planet to one million Kelvin, and eliminating them by tying the capillaries in their brain into small, decorative knots.
Advice on how to run GURPS.
22. Game worlds
Commentary on settings.
23. Writing your own adventures
Advice on creating adventures.
Interesting trivium about roleplaying in general: in the early days, many companies assumed most players would want to create their own worlds and adventures. The existence of a market for such took some time for companies to notice.
Charts and tables
All the charts and tables in one handy place.
What it says on the tin.
What it says on the tin.
What it says on the tin. The index is notable because it exists at all, and because it is, as far as I could tell, correct. Neither of these facts should be notable and yet … they are.
1: I can foresee this being confusing so here’s my convention for this review: “Steve Jackson” refers to the human who founded Steve Jackson Games. “Steve Jackson Games” refers to the game company that the human founded.
2: Not to be confused with the British Steve Jackson, also human and also a game designer. The two Jacksons at one point distributed each other’s games, and the Texan Steve Jackson wrote three books for the British Steve Jackson’s Fighting Fantasy series. If I have to reference the British Steve Jackson, it will be as the British Steve Jackson.
3: The page 193 sidebar on slavery and how to determine how submissive one’s slave is being one prominent example. I wonder if it was cut from GURPS 4E?
4: The rule seemed to be that Hero System (Champions and such) and GURPS fulfilled similar needs sufficiently differently that people who liked one tended not to like the other (like oxygen and carbon monoxide with respect to hemoglobin; binding with one means not binding to the other).