Monday, December 8, 2008

GURPS I hardly knew ye

I never thought I'd see the day. But it looks like I'm ready to hang GURPS up. Or at least relegate it to that "thrid tier" of game systems I'll occasionally dust off for very specific one-shots or short campaigns. Ironically, this is the exact category GURPS has always occupied in my game group, but the fact that I've now willingly placed it there (as opposed to trying fruitlessly to redeem it from that purgatory) is pretty major for me.

This abrupt sea change is due to a variety of factors, but the catalyst can be laid at the feet of Kurt Wiegel and his review of Basic Roleplaying.

I'm a big fan of BRP-derived games, Call of Cthulhu and Pendragon being foremost in that category. And despite my long-standing allegiance to GURPS (readers will perhaps recall that it was the second RPG I ever bought, some months after picking up the Mentzer Red Box), I've long felt a sense of vague dissatisfaction with the system, particularly since the Compendia came out about ten years ago. So I've kept my eye out and my ear to the ground, looking for a universal system that would really work for my needs. And I found it in BRP.

I may not have come to this conclusion quite so quickly were it not for a unique confluence of two campaigns.

On the one hand, we have my semi-regular Rifts hexcrawl with Alex; on the other hand, a long-awaited GURPS Banestorm campaign I was going to run for Des. The former campaign was being run with Palladium's house system, but heavily house-ruled (mainly in the realm of MDC, which I've never particularly cared for). The latter campaign got two sessions in before it was put on pause due to Des's hectic grad student schedule and my own issues with running the game using GURPS.

In the case of the Rifts game, I realized soon after picking up BRP that I'd finally found my system to use in running Rifts. I've tinkered with GURPS and BESM conversions for Rifts in the past, but BRP has just the right balance between simplicity and crunchiness that I'm looking for these days. And it's a system that's, in its basics, familiar to me, one that I'm comfortable with. So Rifts got put on hold so I can work on a BRP conversion (thus the City State games I'll be running for the near future).

I might have been satisfied with letting BRP and GURPS co-exist, but the Banestorm campaign finally convinced me to give GURPS the old heave-ho. (When we resume the Banestorm campaign, I'll use BRP for that as well.) It finally occurs to me that GURPS is every bit as guilty as D&D 3.5 in its insistence on having a rule for everything--and the commensurate demands that places on the GM's prep work. The excess of prep work is what finally turned me off of 3.5 for good, and it's done the same for GURPS.

Of course, GURPS was never a "rules lite" system--at least not if you wanted to utilize the full possibilities of the system--but ever since Steve Jackson Games brought on a particle physicist as line editor, well, things have gotten decidedly more...crunchy. And not in a good way.

Don't get me wrong, I have nothing but respect for Sean Punch (or David Pulver, for that matter), but they definitely changed the "feel" of GURPS. I'm using the old Harkwood supplement to kick off the Banestorm campaign, and back in 1988, the year that product was published, you could fit a GURPS NPC's statblock into about three column inches, tops. Now it's not uncommon to see a stat block (not counting the NPC's background and description, mind) take up a whole column, and sometimes even a whole page!

A quote I ran across on an RPGsite post (in the middle of an otherwise headache-inducing rant against AD&D) summarized how the mighty fell:

AD&D belongs in the same category as Starfleet Battles, GURPS, Palladium, Advanced Squad Leader and Car Wars as being a ruleset based on a decent core game until the creator decided to make more of EVERYTHING and do it in a way that made the game, slow, cumbersome, obtuse, and confusing to all but a small subset of people. (Who in the grand history of selling things to a devoted subset eventually fade away with very few replacements effectively killing your sales into a niche. See American comic books, the SHMUP videogame genre, and hex and chit wargames as notable examples.)


My last defense of GURPS was the chargen system, particularly the use of advantages and disadvantages to help flesh your character out and ensure "balance". Kurt Wiegel even faults BRP in his review for its lack of an advantage/disadvantage system, which he says makes the rules seem "old fashioned." Well, call me old fashioned too, I guess, because I've come to the conclusion that advantage/disadvantage systems are utter bollocks, so to speak. Why? Because you end up with a laundry list of terms that you have to memorize what they do, when you can use them, etc. And as a GM, I can hardly be bothered to figure out what spells a wizard has memorized in D&D, let alone keep tabs on an NPC's advantages/disadvantages. When to roll for this, when you get a bonus for that. The fact that advantages and disadvantages are always "on" makes them far more troublesome than spells, say, which you only have to look up the details for when you want to actively use one. Since it's so easy to forget about who has what advantage or disadvantage, during our Banestorm sessions I found myself playing the NPCs like I wanted them to be played, never mind their quirks and drawbacks.

I've seen several people online (including Sean Punch--what's up with designers not using the very systems they designed?) say that the GM shouldn't bother with advantages/disadvantages, that they're just a tool for players. Apart from the obvious question that raises ("Then why do you publish full NPC stat blocks in your books?"), I say why bother the players with the system too?

Anyway, this all just reflects my shifting interests in how I want to spend my gaming time, etc., etc. It's just pretty remarkable for me, personally, since I've championed GURPS since I was in junior high.

In the end, this quote I snagged off a forum post (I neglected to note the author or link) sums things up nicely:

One thing about advantages and disadvantages is that they're yet more tweaks and special cases. I'm OK with GURPS but the plethora of advantages/disadvantages gets overwhelming. Feats and especially Powers in D&D are "exception-based" rules run amok. Even Stunts in Spirit of the Century get a little confusing at times; a former character had Inner Strength, and I kept having to look up exactly what that meant.


Away with all of it, I say! Play your character the way you want, and I'll do the same with my NPCs!

I can still see using GURPS for a few things, so I'm hanging on to my Basic Set and a few of the choicer 3rd edition sourcebooks, but I'm selling off all of my 4e hardbacks and some 3e books too. Take a look if you or someone on your holiday list is a GURPShead in need of some cheap books. :)

Now I've got some work to do on my BRP Rifts conversion...
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