GURPS: The Synthesizer of RPGs

Happy GURPSDay to all, and to all a happy GURPSDay!

Today, I’m continuing to muse a bit on just why it is that I enjoy GURPS so much, to the point that it is the only game I’ve GMed in decades, and also sketch out a little about my early gaming history. I talk a lot about RPGs here, obviously, so I feel like it could be helpful for readers to have some idea of where I’m coming from, game-wise; the primordial RPG soup from which I sprang, to give some context. However, I also know that waxing nostalgic about games isn’t everyone’s cup o’ tea, hence the early warning here at the top.

In 1983, I was a nerdy and affable high school kid who loved Star Wars (“Return of the Jedi” had just come out!), Tolkien, and comic books. All of those pursuits were immediately eclipsed after that invite to my first game of Dungeons & Dragons.

You got to actually be the hero, instead of just reading about him. You could do anything in the story you wanted to, go anywhere that struck your fancy. You got to roll all kinds of weird dice, speak your own gaming language with friends that outsiders just didn’t understand, hang around with buddies for days eating pizza, drinking the Dew, and just generally laughing yourself silly and having the time of your life.

I couldn’t understand why the entire world was into this “RPG” thing (I still don’t).

After a few years of hardcore, full-immersion into anything and everything D&D, I began expanding my gaming horizons. D&D continued, of course, but it was now peppered with doses of science fiction (Star Frontiers, Gamma World), secret agents (Top Secret, James Bond: 007), super-heroes (Marvel Super-Heroes), horror (Call of Cthulhu), Old West (Boot Hill), and more; whatever we could get our grubby little gamer hands on, really.

It was glorious, and idyllic, and the stuff of which geek dreams are made, but eventually a few cracks started to appear. First, I just got bored with reading rulebook after rulebook. Why should I have to learn a whole new system for every game I want to play? That’s not the fun part for me. Second, D&D itself was beginning to lose some luster. There are only so many dungeons you can explore and old wizards you can help before it all starts feeling familiar.

And then… there was GURPS.

I want to say I saw an ad for it in “Dragon” magazine. I don’t actually remember such an ad, I just can’t think of where else I would have heard about it… avenues for RPG geekery were pretty few and far between before the internet explosion. At any rate, it sounded like the perfect game for me (Generic! Universal! One game to rule them all, and in the darkness bind them!) and I got my hands on the First Edition (Second?) boxed set.

I devoured it. I loved it. I tattooed key rules with pen ink and a sewing needle… point is, I had found my gaming grail, gave it a big friendly hug, and we walked off together into the sunset hand-in-hand. It was very Scott Pilgrim, at least in my memory.

I wanted to immediately switch the D&D game I was running to GURPS, but the group wasn’t having it. So, I slowly bided my time. A year later, that game was coming to a close and, lo and behold… a new GURPS edition!

I devoured it. I lov– well, you know. Our D&D game ended and I finally got to run my first GURPS game, using the venerable Third Edition. I haven’t GMed using any other rules since that fateful day probably, oh, 28 years ago? I’ve never felt the need to. Over dozens of games and probably hundreds of characters, GURPS has gracefully handled each and every one of them, from the lowliest stable boy with gout to the mightiest demi-god space ranger with four arms and laser vision.

But… why does GURPS click so well with me?

I think the easiest way to answer that is to let you know one thing: my absolute favorite toy as a child were Legos. I would spend entire weekends cross-legged in the center of Lego mountains putting together worlds to play in. I kept a massive 6×3 crater plate and roaded moonbase more or less intact for like three years, my magnum opus. Having a Kenner X-Wing for my first action figure, Luke, was awesome; but with Legos, I could build him an X-Wing (mine was a boss red, with a blue stripe down the body). And a motorcycle. And a landspeeder. And a cantina. And a bajillion other monuments of youthful creativity.

That’s always been my answer to the inevitable, “Um, why do you like GURPS so much?” Because it isn’t 100% this game, or 100% that game — it’s about 90-95% of every game I ever want to play, and that’s plenty good enough for me. I put it together for an age of sail pirate adventure, then reassemble it for some Knights of the Old Republic, then again for a Bunnies & Burrows romp, and on and on and on.

It occurred to me this morning, though, that — as terrible as it might sound — not everyone loved or played with a lot Legos in their childhood. I know, I know, but it’s true.

For those poor souls, a new example: “GURPS: The Synthesizer of RPGs.” Meaning, some people prefer to learn and play a single instrument — guitar (D&D), piano (Numenera), bone kazoo (Everway), whatever (F.A.T.A.L.) — or even a few instruments. But some people prefer the synthesizer, because it can be all the instruments.

I’m the synthesizer type.

Sticking with the music analogy, another dividing point is whether one prefers breadth of knowledge, or depth.

For example, let’s picture a young musician whose deepest passion is music, in the “devours, loves, tattoos” kind of way. She learns to play guitar and loves how it sounds, but there are just some jams where it doesn’t quite cut it. She can choose breadth, and move on to a different instrument to use during those times. Or she can choose depth, and play and practice that guitar until everything about it is second nature, to the point where it fits in everywhere.

I’m the depth type, especially when every new thing about GURPS I commit to memory, or that fades away into the background where the rules belong, literally makes it that much easier for every game I run in the future.

So, there you go. GURPS is my Legos. GURPS is my synthesizer, the one I know well enough to mimic any other instrument I need. If you prefer model kits or “real” instruments to those things, then GURPS is probably not the system for you. Otherwise, I’d say at least give it a look. You might like what you find.

I now climb off my pre-holiday weekend virtual soapbox and get ready for a lovely, restful, quiet long weekend. I hope you’re doing something similar!


If you enjoyed this post and others like it, might you consider the Game Geekery Patreon?

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.