A few weeks ago I talked about why game systems that are closely tied to specific settings can limit the options for players and GMs. Implicit in that is that I have a preference for rules systems that are more universal. In particular, I’m a big fan of GURPS (Generic Universal Role-Playing System). This isn’t meant to be a critique of the other universal rules systems; I haven’t played them enough to criticize them. But I did want to point out some of the things that GURPS does right, and why I think they are important. If you’re not familiar with the GURPS system, you may be interested in looking at GURPS Lite, a free and downloadable abridged version of the rules.
The Character Creation System
This is, far and away, my favorite thing about GURPS. GURPS works on a point-based system, where a player purchases the various attributes, advantages, and skills that make up their character. Additionally, they can choose to acquire disadvantages that will give them more points. As characters progress, the GM can choose to give them more points that they can put into their character. There are no XP and no levels, just points.
There are no classes or limitations on what skills a player may take, so there’s nothing stopping a thief from wielding a broadsword, or a barbarian from learning how to pick a lock. There are templates and examples of typical character archetypes provided, but in my experience they are more of a hindrance than a help once you get familiar with the system.
The thing that I love about this system is that it frees the GM and the players to create any type of character that they find interesting. If you want to play a WW2 fighter ace who worked as a chemist before he joined the war, GURPS can do that. If you want to play a sentient goat with psychic powers, GURPS can do that. And if you want to play a plain old fighter with a big sword, well of course it can do that too. In addition to expanding the options available to players, this also encourages them to build well-rounded characters. Giving a savage warrior a gift for music can add some depth to a character, and the player is more likely to do it if they aren’t being penalized for taking a cross-class skill.
I also really like the system of rewarding players for taking on disadvantages, as the best characters are defined by their weaknesses more than their strengths. Players, particularly during the character-creation process, will usually want to make their character as powerful as possible (because playing a character that’s bad at things isn’t fun). By providing them an incentive to take on disadvantages, the system encourages them to make characters that will be more rewarding to play.
There is, of course, a drawback to all of this flexibility. It is possible to create characters that are overly specialized and narrow in their focus. It is just as possible to make a character that has a wide variety of skills, but isn’t actually good enough at any one thing to stand out. Also, some skills and advantages are more effective than others. This means that it’s possible to create a character that, while having the same number of points as his peers, is considerably less effective. This is why the templates and examples are provided, and why people who are new to the system should be encourage to use them. A master craftsman uses sharp tools.
It Feels Real
GURPS is supposed to be able to handle pretty much any kind of character or campaign, in pretty much any setting. To accomplish this, they’ve created a set of base rules that models reality as much as possible. The best way to accomplish this is to try and model reality as best as possible, and then allow for modifications on the baseline.
Rolls to see if something happens are determined by rolling 3 six-sided dice and summing the results. If the roll is under your character’s skill or relevant attribute, they succeed (which somewhat counterintuitively means that you want low rolls). This creates a crude bell curve, where a 3 is the lowest possible roll, and an 18 is the highest. Much like a d20-based system, the chances of rolling 10 or less is 50%. But the chances of rolling a 12 or under are almost 75%. And the chances of rolling a 3 or an 18 are both about 0.5%. This means that astronomical successes or failures are unlikely, and a character with reasonable levels in a skill can count on it to succeed most of the time. It also means that the best possible die roll comes up 1 time in 200, instead of 1 time in 20. On the one hand, there are fewer “did you see that!” moments. On the other hand, the ones that come up are even more significant. More importantly to me, fluke failures occur very rarely, so a character who invests in having a high skill in something that rely on it succeeding most of the time.
Speaking of skills, I really like the way that they handle them. Each skill has a difficulty associated with it, and that difficulty determines how much it costs per point to improve it. So learning to fight with a knife is easier than a flail, for instance. Also, skills are based on attributes. This means that if a smart character and an average character spend the same amount of time (represented by the number of points) studying math, the smart character is better at it.
They also account for learning curves – the first level of a skill costs one point, the second one costs two, the third costs 4 (and each one above that costs 4 more). This somewhat realistically represents the way that people learn. If you take an intro to Karate class, you are going to improve significantly in your first 6 months of study. You go from zero to decent. If you study for another year, you will continue to get noticeably better. After that, it takes a lot of time and effort to make noticeable improvement. Thie fact that a small investment creates a significant improvement incentivizes players to put a few points into skills outside of their core strengths. If your barbarian puts a points or two into stealth or fast-talk, it can really open up their options during play.
Lastly, GURPS has default rules to handle a situation where a character doesn’t have the skill that is required. If, for instance, your character is forced to use a shield to defend themselves even though they have no experience with shields, they get a default score of their dexterity minus four. This means that while they’re not really experienced with it, and probably won’t be very good at it, they can still make an attempt. This also does a good job of modeling reality when it comes to people with remarkable natural gifts (which describes many RPG characters). Even though I bowled in a league for several years, it was not uncommon for people who have never bowled before to beat me. Why? I’m a klutz, and they are naturally dextrous. In spite of the penalties that they incur by not having put points into Games(Bowling), their default skill is still higher than my skill that I’ve put points into. It sucks for me, but it demonstrates why the model is a good one.
Over the years, I’ve heard many times advice against sharing campaign stories. Generally, it’s just as deep as the title of this post. Some seem to merely have memorized this piece of advice, but, of course, I’d like to take a little bit to analyze it. Picture, if you will, the stereotypical situation: While browsing the shelves at your FLGS, some fellow nerd notices that you’ve picked up the source book on Northern Halflings. As a way to introduce himself, he tells you how he once played a Northern Halfling back in the prior edition of the rules. In that campaign, his buddy Jeremy played a half-orc barbarian and was always saying inappropriate things. Once, they were sneaking into this Necromancer’s lair to get a gemstone to cure the citizens of the kingdom from a plague and when they got to the ritual chamber, it turned out that the Necromancer was…and at this point, no one but Jeremy and his friends knows what happens because you’ve zoned out while listening.
To be fair, we’ve probably all told a story about our friend Jeremy and his half-orc that’s only tangentially related to the topic at hand or that we let drag on too long, etc. But poor story-telling aside, it still seems as if campaign war stories are harder to tell well than other stories about your life. Why is that? I feel that there are basically two things at work, here.
Not Enough Context
Can you imagine picking a scene, or even a whole chapter out of your favorite book and trying to tell someone about the best part? How terrible would that be? For anything good to make any sense, you’d have to keep explaining everything in parenthesis: “Then Gandalf (he’s this old Wizard guy who always blahs and says bloo) says to Aragorn (he’s a Ranger (which is a group of guys who roam the north) and heir of Elendil (who was…)) that he’s got to reforge his sword at Rivendell (which is where a bunch of Elves live). See, the sword was important because…” Anything worth relating will probably need a fairly nuanced understanding of the material, but in the space of an anecdote you’re effectively just explaining the joke.
This is the you-had-to-be-there factor. It’s not that the funny (or whimsy or whatever) only existed in that moment, it’s that it relies on an intuitive understanding of some fairly complex relationships between ideas that really can’t elegantly be compressed. This could be solved or worked around by either figuring out how to make a (much) longer story entertaining so as to build up the intuitive understanding over time, or by being even more concise and abandon an attempt to convey something subtle.
Nothing To Care About
If you consider most campaigns, there’s not a lot of characterization (evidenced by folks’ tendency to describe their character by race and class, or whatever equivalent) and not a lot of plot. If the campaign is a series of went in that hole and killed that thing and got this loot, you’re just not giving another human being a lot of hooks to get invested in or people to relate to.
It’s not that there’s nothing to be invested in. The dungeon crawl style campaign is a mostly visceral experience. You can describe what you did in what order and what happened because of it, but if it’s mostly mechanics and dice rolls, then it boils down to a few sentences pretty quick and it’s very, very hard to convey that sense of accomplishment, or winning; that “and that felt good” aspect. Imagine someone who was very into extremely difficult jigsaw puzzles trying to tell you about their latest conquest. There’s no denying the accomplishment or their feeling of satisfaction, but there’s not a lot of narrative arc to the tale.
The Counter Example
This is not precisely a counter-example, but I have a friend (besides Stewart) who I have talked to about Kjemmen from a very early stage in order to bounce ideas off of, etc. Since he was around as the world was getting built and heard about the PCs as they were getting built and then heard the beginning of the story as it was unfolding… he now asks me for an update when we see each other. It was sort of a disorienting experience when I realized I was being asked to relate a campaign story. But I realized that the above two things don’t apply at all in this case.
First off, Kjemmen isn’t a dungeon crawl. The characters have personalities and goals and ways of thinking. The world is deep and (at least to me and the folks involved, including my only-sort-of-involved friend) interesting. The events of one session can have repercussions for a long time to come or represent the culmination of lots of various plot threads. So there’s plenty of hooks for a third party to get emotionally invested in. Secondly, I haven’t been trying to compress it. So all the subtle and complex relationships between ideas have been built up over time with him. If I say, “…and it’s not like Phethil would blah,” my friend will say, “God no. That would be insane!” without my having to explain why.
I don’t really view the telling of good campaign stories as a problem to be solved or anything, so I don’t want to draw any conclusions about how to do it right. However, I would like to draw your attention to the idea that a character-focused story has a lot more meat for people to get invested in and that this kind of thing is a hallmark of the Dann Campaign. This isn’t just true of third parties to whom you (or your players) are trying to explain some aspect of the campaign. This goes for you and your players. Without a character-based (or at the least a story-heavy) campaign, the emotional investment has to come solely from shared experience, problem solving and the like, which are purely meta-game concepts. On the other hand, with that focus on story, you can get investment in other people’s characters, in NPCs, in the culture of the game world, etc in addition to those meta-game sources of investment.