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Roll Perception Plus Awareness: GURPS

Welcome back to Roll Perception Plus Awareness, a column meant to introduce SF Signal readers to the world of roleplaying games. Today, I want to bring to your attention a game system I have only played as a game, once, but, like me, many gamers have taken inspiration and ideas from: GURPS.

GURPS is an acronym for Generic Universal RolePlaying System, and they mean it. Designed by Steve Jackson Games, it has been, since 2004, in its 4th edition; the first edition of GURPS dates back to the mid 80’s, and most of the lifetime game has been dominated by its 3rd edition, which dates back to 1988.

GURPS was innovative in its day for moving away from the idea of rolling stats, as Dungeons and Dragons did. Instead, characters are built on a pre-set amount of points determined by the GM to suit the power levels of the characters. Typical heroic characters might have 100-150 points, while Superheroes and their ilk would have 300-400 points, or more.

These points are spent to build the four attributes (Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence and Health) and skills. GURPS is famous for having a skill for everything and forcing a character to buy a skill in order to be able to do something effectively. If you recall the post on the Dresden Files Role Playing Game, I told you that characters without ranks in a skill get the skill at average. In GURPS, if you don’t have a skill, you can roll a “default” based on an attribute, which turns out to be definitely a risky, less than average proposition. Few players risk such rolls except in extremis. Thus, GURPS players often are conscientious in choosing a least a minimum level of skill in what can be an absurd and unwieldy number of skills.

In order to get more points (or to spend them), GURPS also pioneered the idea of advantages and disadvantages. Advantages (which cost points) can be as mundane as ambidexterity to things like superpowers, and disadvantages (which give the player extra points) can range from phobias to physical limitations. A common practice of “min-maxing” in GURPS is to pick a bunch of disadvantages that really don’t limit a character too much, and thus use the extra points to beef up skills and attributes. Curiosity, for example, is a 5 point disadvantage that is a natural for a wide swath of characters to naturally have…

The actual mechanic to do just about anything, aside from the complicated character sheet, is dead easy. Roll three six sided dice, factor in a penalty on difficulty to your skill level, and try to get a number below your effective skill roll. Thus, for example, if I were a GURPS character, I would have done a Writing skill roll to create this review.

Systems such as combat can be far more complex, but the basic mechanics I just described stand for a lot of play. The game system aims to be the one system that can play any setting, any concept, and any idea, or even mix and match them as desired. The system, though, lives up to the Generic title in a negative way as well. It’s extremely bland, and there is little within the mechanics or character sheets that help characters distinguish themselves from one another. Oh, there are disadvantages called “quirks” that are worth 1 point each, but those do not really help flesh out a character much.

It can be an awfully frustrating game to play, from my limited experience. Too many skills and fiddly bits to keep track of. The mechanics are antiquated by modern RPG standards. And, given its name, GURPS is too generic and not enough of a personality of its own for a GM to hook on and breathe life into. “Jack of all trades, master of none” is an expression that GURPS fits perfectly.

However, there is a reason why GURPS is popular far beyond the restrictions and disadvantages of the system, and that’s the supplements. After the basic GURPS system was created, Steve Jackson embarked on a campaign that continues to this day to create supplements to make GURPS live up to its ideal of being a system that you could drop into any setting and any world. These supplements can be full blown games powered by GURPS, such as Discworld, to campaign settings, like their version of the classic RPG Traveller. This also includes some of the large 4th edition supplements, such as the Vorkosigan Saga, based on Lois M Bujold’s novels.

However, the majority of GURPS supplements are “worldbooks”. It is these last, the worldbooks, that are the true strength and legacy of GURPS. These worldbooks, mostly created for the 3rd Edition, provide rules and information for GMs to run a campaign in that setting. The basic rules are still needed to actually play the game. But these worldbooks, around 250 in number, cover an amazing variety of topics and settings.

Like what, you might ask? A check of my own collection reveals books like: Imperial Rome, Ancient Greece, Space, Atlantis, Steampunk, Infinite Earths, Horror, and a bunch of others. I even have a couple of oddball ones, like The Prisoner (based on the 60’s Patrick McGoohan show).

So if I have only played GURPS for real, once, why would I and many gamers like me have a suite of these worldbooks? Simple. Even with the books full of GURPS statistics, the books themselves are full of ideas, background and information on that world, real or fictional. Indeed, the third edition worldbooks explicitly state in the text that the world and ideas “Can be used with any game system”. And it works. The quality of these books is high, and there is enough detail in with the “Crunchy” bits of character stats and skills that an enterprising game master can borrow ideas out them for other games. I avidly engage in this practice.

The worldbooks also provide extensive bibliographies to allow readers wanting to learn more about a topic to dig into materials shorn of any roleplaying material whatsoever. I’ve been turned onto a lot of good resources and books just looking through the bibliographies of the worldbooks I have.

What’s the value of GURPS for people who don’t want to play? I think the suite of GURPS books are useful inspirations for writer types, in addition to gamers. Take any two GURPS book titles at random, mash them together–and you have an unusual milieu to set a story or novel in, or the inspiration for one. Steampunk plus Ancient Rome! Atlantis plus Cyberpunk! Vikings plus Mars!

I have little desire to ever play GURPS, but the worldbooks have been an endless source of entertainment and inspiration.

About Paul Weimer (366 Articles)
Not really a Prince of Amber, but rather an ex-pat New Yorker that has found himself living in Minnesota, Paul Weimer has been reading SF and Fantasy for over 30 years and exploring the world of roleplaying games for over 25 years. Almost as long as he has been reading and watching movies, he has enjoyed telling people what he has thought of them. In addition to SF Signal, he can be found at his own blog, Blog Jvstin Style, Skiffy and Fanty, SFF Audio, Twitter, and many other places on the Internet!

8 Comments on Roll Perception Plus Awareness: GURPS

  1. It’s funny, I had exactly the same experience with GURPS, great worldbooks but never playing the game itself (when I still played RPGs). I specially liked the culture-specific books.


    Something RPG-related that I recently stumble over was Eclipse Phase, which is heavily inspired or informed by transhuman/posthuman/singularity-themed science fiction of recent years, with seems, thematically at least, suited to SFSignal readers. And they have an interesting business-modell (you can get their stuff for free from torrents, legally that is), thought I do wonder whether it actually works or whether they lost money on the stuff. I only looked through the core rulebook, which is beautifully designed, has even artwork by cover-wunderkind Stephan Martiniere.

  2. Hi Scotoma.


    I do own Eclipse Phase, too (the core book, and yes, I paid for it) , and will likely cover it in a future column of RPPA.

  3. Captain Obvious // August 22, 2011 at 7:47 am //

    I ran a GURPS game and it wasn’t a success.  The mechanics of the system were rather complex, I’m not sure if that’s true for all settings but this was a sf setting and it was complicated and as a result not very fun for anyone involved.  However as was stated above the source books are full of ideas.

    The group I normallyy game with just had an Eclipse Phase game and that was fun.  I do recommend that system, it is also pretty easy to use if your familiar with the Cthulhu system(which I also enjoy).  The world seems well thought out and rich with ideas to explore.  I am looking forward to adding that game to the regular repertoire

  4. I couldn’t have said it better myself, Paul.  GURPS is my favorite game that I never play.  Several of those source books are gaming gold. 

    I have played GURPS a few time at conventions and I did not find the system difficult to use with a pregen character in front of me.  Amber, my wife, had GURPS as her first RPG experience in college so the system is second nature to her.  She has offered to run games for me if we used the GURPS system but even my great desire to play instead of GM has not overruled my dislike of the mechanics.

  5. I ran GURPS campaigns for years.  It was always my favorite game system.  It was complex but that didn’t bother me, I suppose because when I was 18, I’d read the rule book for fun.  I had time back then.  I used it for Fantasy, Superhero and Horror campaigns. The best campaigns mixed all three.


    What I liked best about GURPS was it let you get close to ‘real world’ simulations, compared to D&D or Rifts (which was my favorite game I never played).  It didn’t scale perfectly, comic book superheros just weren’t quite possible. But I thought the quirks, advantages and disadvantages let you get much closer to creating a ‘real’ character than most of the competition.


    I still have a stack of worldbooks in my library.  If I ever had the time (unlikely since I’m writing novels now) I’d play again.

  6. I remember reading that Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esslemont’s Malazan books are based on their long-running GURPS campaign.

    Apparently GURPS is also a modified and expanded version of Steve Jackson’s earlier game The Fantasy Trip (which was an early tactical combat/RPG hybrid). When the publisher had a falling out with Jackson, he took his IP and vanished. Steve Jackson formed SJG and created GURPS (amongst other games too, of course) with the framework. 

  7. Ryan Viergutz // August 23, 2011 at 4:13 pm //

    I love the bibliographic list at the end of Gurps books.

  8. I played in, and ran, a number of great GURPS games. sci fi, cyberpunk, chinese steam  punk, paranoid dimension hopping vs. secret evil consiracies, were wolves. They rules did bog it down, and back at 1st edition there were things that simply didn’t work well. Also, you do need a lot of time and arithemtic wherewithal to write up a game.

    I don’t have it it in me to play it in my old age, I am sad to say. Pathfinder is about the most I can muster, and when I DM I cut and paste the monsters stats in from the SRD.

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