Archive for the ‘Tools and Techniques’ Category

Why GURPS is Good

September 28, 2010 Leave a comment

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.

Die Rolls

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.

Mad Skillz

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.

Categories: Tools and Techniques

The Trouble with World-Based Game Systems

August 31, 2010 1 comment

As a general rule, Ben and I have tended to stay platform-neutral in our posts. We’re less interested in what rules people use for their campaigns and more interested in how they craft them. I do, however, believe that certain rules systems constrict or expand the options available to players and GMs in ways that subtly influence the choices they make. I especially feel like this happens in game systems where the rules are tightly interwoven with the setting.

The Sapir-Whorf Theory of Game Systems

The Sapir-Whorf theory in linguistics, or at least the way that it has come to be popularly understood, is that language is the framework of thought, and that if a language lacks a word for a concept, it is more difficult for someone who thinks in that language to conceive and manipulate that concept. Similarly, if a language has numerous words with subtle distinctions for a similar idea, then a speaker/thinker of that language will be more adept at using that concept. The common (though unfortunately untrue) adage for this is “eskimos have thirty words for snow.” The implication is that different types of snow matter for them, and that their expanded vocabulary on the topic gives them the ability to speak (and therefore think) very quickly and precisely about complicated snow-related topics.

The flip side of this is the isolated tribe with no word for war. They don’t have the word because they don’t have the concept. This doesn’t mean that they couldn’t invent or come up with the concept. If they have an idea of two people fighting, or 5 people fighting, it is possible to envision five thousand people fighting. They could probably also come up with the idea of strategy, of feints and ambushes and flanking. But because they lack words for these things, they would speak and think about them cumbersomely. This is why people use jargon – it speeds and simplifies the ability to discuss complicated concepts. As their language expands to include new concepts, their ability to use those concepts also expands.

Like language is the framework of thought, game systems are the framework of the play experience; which one a group chooses to use can similarly empower or impede them.

Wizards Can’t Use Swords*

The most common place where we see this limiting effect is in the character generating process. Many game systems, particularly the ones that are tied to a specific setting, start by having the player select a few broad characteristics for their character. In Dungeons & Dragons, this is your character’s race and class. In Vampire, it’s their clan. In Shadowrun, it’s their race and archetype. You get the idea. Then, having selected these things, the character is granted certain strengths and weaknesses, and a pool of skills to choose from.

This is a common practice because it works. For one, it significantly speeds up the character creation process. It also does a good job of balancing the power levels of different players, preventing Scotty McMinmaxer from making a character with a grab bag of the most powerful skills from each class. Lastly, it ensures that the characters will have skills and abilities that are useful in most campaigns in that setting. These archetypes are tried and true, and there are good reasons to lead people towards them.

This sort of approach, however, can be stifling to creativity when it comes to character creation. It leads, perhaps even encourages, players to start their character concept by saying “I want to play a Dwarven Illusionist,” rather than “I want to play a character with a tragic past and a mean streak.” In a dungeon-crawling hack-and-slash campaign, it might be rewarding to play an archaeologist (that happens to know magic or swordplay or whatever) who studies ancient ruins and marvels at the architecture while the other players loot the treasure. But that occupation doesn’t show up on the list of classes, so people are unlikely consider it as an option.

I Don’t Have a Chapter Here for Spaceships

So let’s say that you are a new GM and your game group wants to play a campaign in a fantasy/space opera/cyberpunk/modern day setting. So you go to the store and you buy a system that is customized for such a setting. After a few sessions, you and your players have figured out the rules. After a few sessions, your players have decided what sort of characters they like. And by the end of that campaign, you’ve probably found your style as a GM.

Everyone had a good time, so it’s time to play the next campaign. What are you going to play? Chances are, it will be another campaign in the same milieu as the first. There are are a couple of reasons for this: Firstly, your players were interested in that milieu to begin with, and they had a good time, so it’s not shocking that they might want to do it again. The other reason isn’t quite as positive. For the vast majority of gamers, learning the rules is not the fun part, it’s the thing that you have to do to get to the fun part. So once they’ve learned a particular set of rules, they’re going to be averse to learning another one. If that set of rules is tightly coupled to a particular setting or genre, then that implicitly limits the group to playing that type of game.

When the group gets bored with their current genre and wants to try something new, they then have to learn another set of rules, and it is easy for people to associate the discomfort and disjointed play of learning new rules with the setting. In my opinion, this is why it is so common to hear somebody say “Yeah, I’ve been playing [setting-specific game system X] for years. I tried [other game system Y] once, but I just didn’t like it.”

Roll a d….26?

The other problem with world-based systems is that they tend to be opaque systems.  This is to say that they are optimized for making setting-specific tasks easy and flavorful, and not for letting GMs see how the sausage was made. There might be one set of rules for casting a spell, and a completely different set of rules for picking locks or shooting a gun, for instance.  The problem is that, inevitably, the GM will be faced with a situation that the rules just don’t cover.  In a system with a consistent and transparent set of rules for all/most situations, this isn’t so hard.  You come up with some sort of skill or default and an appropriate penalty, and you move on.  In opaque systems, this is more difficult.  At the core, the process is the same — the GM is deciding some way to handle it that is slightly outside the rules as written.  They are using judgment to decide how hard that thing should be, and they’re making a call as to how to handle it.  The problem is that if it takes too long it breaks the player experience.

Part of the reason that those first few session with a new rules system are so annoying is that the rules get in the way of getting immersed in the play experience.  When both the GM and the players are well-acquainted with the rules, they become natural and secondhand.  They fade into the background and people cease to really think about them.  Whenever the GM has to bust out the rule book and figure out how something works (otherwise known as every time that grappling occurs), the immersion is broken, and people are reminded that they are sitting around a table playing a game.  If the GM can say, “I don’t have anything for that. Uh…Roll skill and skill.” that’s not too disruptive. If, however, he has to pause the action to debate which of several disparate special-case rules to model his spur-of-the-moment house rule on, it’s going to be impossible for the players to stay in the flow.

Opaque systems also make custom character traits more difficult.  If your game system makes characters pay points for skills or abilities, or awards them benefits for taking on disadvantages, it is common for a player to want a skill or attribute that isn’t listed in the book.  Generic systems, because they have to be flexible to handle any sort of situation, usually provide guidelines for how to create new character attributes and cost them in a balanced way.  World-based systems, which are optimized for a particular setting, streamline the process by obfuscating how things are costed.  This makes life slightly more difficult for the GM, and can lead to good ideas being left unused because they’re not in the book.

Generic Systems are Hard

So if world-based systems are so constricting, why do people use them?  Because they’re quick, and they’re easy.  A system of rules that can accommodate combat using any sort of weapon from any time period is going to be more complex than one that only worries about swords and bows.  Creating characters is faster and easier if the book can guide you through the process and give you a small set of options to choose from.  My GMing style lends itself to discrete campaigns with a beginning and ending, and I like to change the setting dramatically from one campaign to the next to keep things fresh.  I also really enjoy non-traditional characters.  I think that it is more rewarding for the player to invent a character that intrigues them in a setting and then figure out how to make it work than it is to hand them a list of occupations to choose from.  So for me, the extra investment of learning a generic system is well worth it.  I wouldn’t judge someone for limiting their options by playing a setting-specific system as long as it is meeting their needs.  As always, the important thing is to make sure that you and your players are having as much fun as possible.

*Except Gandalf.

Making Maps

February 11, 2010 2 comments

In my previous post, I talked about some of the ways that I think about map making and the sort of mental hows. In this post, I’m going to talk more about what tools I use to make a map, some techniques I’ve used that have had good results and some resources I’ve found useful. But, before we get quite to those points, I want to ramble philosophically a bit. What I’m about to be talking about mostly applies to Big Maps because it applies to things prepared in advance, which is a major determiner for me. When I’m thinking about making a Big Map, I always try to make it in-character, if I can. If it’s not literally something the characters have, I at least try to make it look like something that could exist in the game world.

For the ski resort map that I mentioned before, I made a cheap-looking tri-fold brochure thing from one of the hotel chains in the valley. This was not only in-game, but meant I could excuse it looking bad and also not having any sense of scale whatsoever. For the tunnels under Niagara Falls later in the same campaign, I drew myself a map and then took a sharpie and drew a different map for the players. This, too, was an in-game prop. It was inaccurate and looked the part, so it was neat. For Kjemmen, I don’t imagine the PCs carrying around a map of the city with them everywhere, but I implied its existence in the game world by selecting a thematic font at least.

Disclaimer: You Do Not Have To Be A Great Artist

The two examples above of the ski resort and the tunnels also illustrate something which I think is important: a GM’s main job is not to draw things. As such, a lot of GM’s aren’t particularly skilled artists (I contend that most people are more capable than they think they are, but that’s another issue). The trick, I’ve found, about wanting to make a map yourself and not being a great artist is to find a reason that the map should look crappy. Just because you’re running a modern campaign needn’t mean that you have to produce maps as good as the United States Geological Survey.


The GIMP is a cross-platform image editing suite akin to Photoshop. The upside is, it’s free. The interface is a bit clunky for some tasks and it isn’t quite as powerful as PS, but man could I use that $700 for something else. There are a couple of the tools within the GIMP that I’ve found stunningly useful (regardless of what I’m doing in it): Layers, Layer Masks and Paths (click those links for some tutorials that’ll hopefully get you started). With a solid grasp of those, you can get a whole lot done.

Pen, pencil and paper are seriously not to be underrated. If the PCs want directions somewhere or are buying a map made by someone in a fantasy world, it will have been drawn by hand. Don’t be afraid to do it yourself. Sometimes fiddling with transparency in the GIMP takes more time than just drawing something lightly with a pencil.

I have only recently come across Google SketchUp in a serious way. I played around with it when it first came out, but it didn’t change my life. Recently, I messed around with it again and, once you get proficient with it (it’s easy to understand and learn from the program itself), you can make pretty detailed CAD-type models fairly quickly. You can then turn on “parallel projection” and use the top view to print out a map of your area. If you want, you could put the map markings on a different layer so you could use your model for other purposes, as well.


Google Maps is good for two things, really: inspiration and theft. If you’re looking for a rural town in England, you might could use it to get a feel for rural English towns and make your own from scratch. Alternatively, you could just use an existing one by taking screen grabs of your browser and piecing them together in the GIMP. You could then trace over the roads or make modifications if you feel the need.

map of Moscow

Click to embiggen.

For my map of Kjemmen, I needed a city that wasn’t on a coast and didn’t have a river. Those are really hard to find. I ended up piecing together screen grabs of Moscow, which does have a river, in the GIMP (pictured at left).

map of Kjemmen without markings

Click to embiggen.

I then used this as a basis for the major road network of Kjemmen, tracing the beltway and radial highways, then moving to smaller streets. I had to make up much of it on my own, especially since I was erasing the river and adding in the large chasm in the center of the city. You can see the end result at right and if you compare carefully to the Moscow map, you can find the blank spots I had to fill in with streets.

Finally, I made a version with a compass rose, the city’s name and other markings. Specifically, I made a version that indicated what territory was controlled by which noble house without assigning specific boundaries. If you’re terribly interested, you can look for yourself.

Other Resources

The folks at the Cartographers’ Guild fora are really friendly and there are some seriously awesome tutorials over there. I’ve learned a lot about how to leverage the GIMP from this place. A good place to start is the Tutorials subforum. in particular, I found this tutorial about making artistic regional maps useful, and this one about making coastlines (which is similar to the below-linked tutorial from Zombie Nirvana). Note that you have to create an account and be logged in to see the images in the forum.

Also, the Cartography tag at Zombie Nirvana Games has some really nice (though Photoshop-centric) tutorials, complete with videos. In particular, I got started with their post about using clouds to generate coastlines.

I hope that this gives some inspiration and direction to those of you who have maybe refrained from getting too into mapping in the past. Because I have a lot of fun tinkering with them, I tend to pour a lot of time into maps, but that needn’t be the case and I really think something good enough to be useful is way better than not making anything just because you can’t make a life-altering map. Have you had any interesting inspirations for maps or cool styles? Any resources you’ve found useful that I should know about? Talk about it below.

Categories: Tools and Techniques

Where A Map Can Take You

January 12, 2010 1 comment

I love props at the table. I may, one day, post about props in general, but I want to talk about a specific type of prop that I think people are, in general, pretty familiar with: the map. I divide maps into two gross categories: Big Maps and Little Maps. These names have nothing to do with the size of the paper the map is printed on or with the size of the area they cover. Rather, they have to do with the importance of the map to the campaign.

Big Maps

Big Maps are those that are applicable to your whole campaign. In Kjemmen, which is intended to take place pretty much entirely within the city of the same name, I have a map of the city, which is my Big Map. If you were doing a campaign where PCs were expected to planet hop, your Big Map might be the whole quadrant and/or their space ship.

I love big maps because they give the campaign a sense of place. They really ground the events for the players by letting them see where things are happening compared to other things. If you provide a big map (especially to each player so they can write on it), they’ll always be asking for you to pinpoint on the map where some location is that they’ve been.

Little Maps

Little Maps are incidental maps. Mostly, they’ll be good for just one scene. I don’t use miniatures, but if you do, I imagine all your battle maps are like this. If I need a map of a battle space, I generally draw one up on the spot and tell the players it’s loose and not to scale. We can point with our fingers and I arbitrate distances. In fact, for most Little Maps, I draw them up on the spur of the moment. I have an idea of what the space is like in my head already, so I sketch it out really quickly.

This requires some artistic ability, of course, but I’m mostly just drawing boxes, curves and circles on notebook paper, so it’s not that you need to have a degree in Architecture or whatever. I generally don’t even know when a Little Map is going to be needed ahead of time. You might be pretty sure that there’ll be a battle at the Keep this session, but my players regularly wonder what the layout of a random stretch of street is because they want to ambush someone in an unexpected location or whatever.

In The Middle

Okay, I lied. There’s sort of a third category. I ran a paranormal FBI campaign sort of like the X-Files. I even copied the episodic nature of the show (some cases unrelated to the over-all story). One of the cases took place in a ski town for which I made a map. Another had to do with the tunnels that are under Niagara Falls of which I made another map. Both of these maps were around for more than one session and I prepared them ahead of time, so they don’t really feel like Little Maps. However, neither was applicable to the entire campaign, so they don’t feel like Big Maps. My only point, really, in bringing them up is to say that these are also fine and a thing that I do. This isn’t a strict classification system.

So What Goes On There?

Another thing that I have sometimes found difficult is deciding what goes on a given map. Sometimes that means I’m having a hard time deciding the boundaries of a map. For Kjemmen, it’s easy: the game happens in the city so the map should be of the whole city and not much more. For a game set in, say, the Star Wars universe, though, do you want to have a map of the whole galaxy? Of just the little part of the rim where your smuggling-focused story takes place? It’s sort of a hard call. The only advice I can give you is that if your map is big, it gives the impression that your world is big (and fleshed out) as well, which is good. If your map is small, the players’ attention will be more focused on the region covered. I think the happy medium lies in having a map that covers more than you’ve strictly detailed out, but not more than you could make up details about if they go somewhere unexpected.

Another quandary is deciding what sort of markings should go on a map. For a region of land, say, you might be wanting to put cities and towns and roads and forests and rivers and bays and mountains and… all with names. You also want to print it out on an 8.5×11 piece of paper. Things can get a bit crammed. A couple of solution ideas I’ve had are: Cut your map up, which basically makes it larger, and hand out more than one sheet of map; Make more than one map. For Kjemmen, I wanted to include specific locations as well as the names of noble houses that controlled a given stretch of territory (which ended up being like landscape names). I printed off two maps for every player: one was the land-scape with the noble names and the other was dots and names for the specific locations they knew about.

Finally, is an idea I’m stealing from Stewart. Sometimes, the best map is not a map. He and I like to think of a campaign being centered in a specific location and so we talk about that aspect pretty early on when discussing campaign ideas. He ran a campaign called Amunaven for which all the PCs were among the youngest generation of a family of, more or less, gods. The eldest were on the order of Ares and the youngest more like Achilles. We had crazy abilities in a bronze age world and could teleport about with magical stones. So a map didn’t make sense, really, because he didn’t really want to hand us a globe. Instead, he handed us a family tree. The family was big (maybe 30 total members over 4 generations) and very central to the plot, so the family relationships were, in essence, the location of the campaign. This is more generally applicable than just family trees, of course: the point is to keep in mind that the purpose a map serves is to make concrete some aspect of the story that is central and omnipresent, which is often, but need not be the physical space it occurs in.

My next post will explore map making in a bit more technical detail: I’ll talk about some resources I’ve found helpful, some techniques I’ve used and probably share some examples. What kind of maps do you make for your campaigns? How do you decide what to map? Let us know in the comments.

Categories: Tools and Techniques