Why GURPS is Good
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.