The Nature of GURPS

GURPS makes almost no assumptions
about the kind of game you want to play.

In the past week or so, two different people have asked me what I think is the most important thing to know about GURPS before reading it for the first time, and I eventually landed on the above. To me, that is the most critically important thing to keep in mind as you start poking around the Basic Set (or GURPS Lite). It’s something that sets it apart from most other RPGs, and knowing it beforehand will save you all kinds of time, confusion, and frustration. (The same may be true to varying extents for other universal systems, but, well, I only play GURPS.)

The majority of RPGs limit themselves to a specific setting or type of game. Modern day secret agents, medieval knights and castles, anthropomorphized mice or bunnies, far-future space adventures, gritty and realistic WWII battles, over-the-top wuxia, four-color superheroes — whatever it is, most RPGs have a specific idea of the kind of game they’ll be used for, and all of the rules and lore are written to support that kind of game. In AD&D, the rules assume a Troll will regenerate from any damage except fire, and a green dragon’s breath weapon will be chlorine gas. In Fate, the characters will be proactive, capable people leading dramatic lives. In Tales From the Loop, the PCs are kids, a group of friends solving a mystery together. And so on.

Individual GMs and groups may depart from those assumptions, of course, but they will likely have to cobble together their own rules to do so.

And then there’s GURPS.

It has character creation guidelines for cowboys, and cavemen, and space knights, and detectives, and more — all along with options to support those PCs in whatever setting they find themselves. But it also provides options for characters with six mouths, or four arms, or who are a brain in a jar with a robot body, or a ghost, or who need to drink blood every day to stay alive, on and on (and on and on!)

My go-to example has always been a model kit vs. a Lego set. Most RPGs, like a model, have pre-shaped pieces that fit together in one ideal way. You can leave some pieces off, or paint that P-51 Mustang neon green, but the assumption is that you’re going to mostly use the pieces the way they were intended to be used. A Lego set, on the other hand, often has a specific end-product that they provide instructions for (my first set was a blue lunar lander), but — and this is the critical difference — you can then rearrange those blocks to build a boat, or a plane, or a robot, or a van, or a three-handled, moss-covered, family gradunza.

In my opinion, not understanding this fundamental difference before approaching the GURPS Basic Set accounts for the great majority of those new players who feel overwhelmed or that the game itself is too complex (“There are rules for everything!”). This buffet of optional rules doesn’t just suggest the GM make some choices before gameplay, it demands it. The scope of GURPS is amazing. I’ve used it for everything for decades now. But if you approach the rules as if they are describing a single unified setting or play style, you will be disappointed. They are not; they are describing ways of playing hundreds of different games, all with the same basic framework.

If you’re just beginning the foray into GURPS, knowing this should help out a lot. Recognize that the Basic Set isn’t just providing consistent rules for this setting or that kind of game; it’s trying to provide rules for all of them. It doesn’t have a Piloting skill or an Invisibility advantage because you’ll need it for your Old West game… it has them because after that Old West game, you might be playing an Air Force pilot or a demon (or someone possessed by the ghost of their great-grandmother, or a talking duck who finds himself in Cleveland, or…)

Somewhat related, for GMs I recommend the great Traits Sorter at the SJGames site (or the Traits Sorter at the all-around excellent GURPS Calculator page). These allow you to pick and choose all of the Advantages, Disadvantages, and Skills relevant to your specific game, and print out the final lists. Extremely helpful for helping players narrow their focus during character creation!

I’d love to hear other answers to “What is the most important thing to know about GURPS before reading it for the first time?” The comments below await.


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  1. It really is the most important feature — and caveat — to the game. There’s quite an onus on the GM to make sure the actual game being played is a manageable subset of the rules so players aren’t overwhelmed by options. There’s a pretty amazing book, “How to Be a GURPS GM,” available by some guy that really helps out with creating a streamlined game. I recommend everyone planning on being a GM for GURPS read it.

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