Saturday, October 20, 2012

[Campaign Analysis] GURPS Tales of the Solar Patrol

A week before my unscheduled life interruption, I wrapped up a short six-session campaign, the retro sci-fi Tales of the Solar Patrol, based on the PDF-only setting of the same name. The system was GURPS, handily the same system the setting is written for, and was part of my mission to find a generic system I felt comfortable with devoting the time required for mastery. Here, then, are my thoughts on the campaign in particular and how it ran with GURPS, the red-headed stepchild of my gaming collection.

As I was preparing to run a new campaign for the group, I decided to try something new - I put the issue to a vote. I knew I was going to run something with GURPS, but I was having trouble narrowing down the choices. So I drafted up a list of a half-dozen choices, each with a few sentences of description, and emailed my players, asking them to pick a primary choice (worth two votes) and a secondary choice (worth one vote). I was surprised by the results. My personal favorite (a campaign set in Ken Hite's "Day After Ragnarok" setting) garnered no votes and Solar Patrol, a setting I've been wanting to run since it came out a few years back but had kind of assumed no one wanted to play, emerged a clear winner. This despite the fact that we've never been much for sci-fi gaming and one person who voted for it had even stated on a previous occasion that she was adamantly uninterested in the genre.

I really enjoyed giving my players a hand in choosing the campaign, but one issue did emerge over the ensuing sessions: the player who had not voted for the campaign was not very engaged with the game events. Little wonder, as there was obviously no interest from the get-go. For future voting rounds, I'm going to allow for each player to nominate a candidate for veto along with primary/secondary votes. I'm not sure if this player would have vetoed Solar Patrol (it's not like he hated the concept), but the veto will be there as both a device of empowerment for the players and a sort of moral parachute for me - if a player doesn't vote for the winning campaign but didn't veto it either, they don't have much right to sulk about it, I'd think. Of course, the veto might also ensure a sort of "lowest common denominator" effect, but we'll see if that turns out to be problem and deal with it accordingly.

As for the campaign, I thought it went really well. I'd envisioned it as a short-form game from the beginning - there's only so much you can do with a bunch of cadets before it either gets formulaic or the campaign morphs into something else entirely. This was the first time in a while where I ran entirely home-brewed adventures, and that was a lot of fun. I particularly took advantage of the flexibility offered by running my own stuff by making adjustments and changes on the fly, adapting to player actions and questions as they came up, introducing setting elements and NPCs as appropriate. The most memorable session was probably a free-form unescorted romp through Venusport, the setting's own "wretched hive of scum and villainy", that had me juggling four separate plot threads as each of the four players went off in different directions and got in varying degrees of trouble, ranging from minor (hooking up with a fellow cadet in the back of a seedy bar) to major (getting kidnapped by a local smuggler syndicate). Because it was a short-form campaign, I also felt free to totally let go and make major changes to the setting as the campaign unfolded (wiping out most of the Solar Patrol and launching the Second Solar War, for example). And it all ended with the android PC detonating her atomic core to kill the bad guy and save the world, showing everyone that robots can be heroes too.

It was kind of ironic that I ended up running Solar Patrol with the system intended. The PDF is mostly background and would port very easily to other systems, and I'd considered several over the years. So how did it run with GURPS? My answer would be that it ran well, but with a couple caveats. I ran the campaign with several of the system's Cinematic rules in place, and that made things go very smoothly for the most part. I still would not be ready to run a highly "realistic" GURPS campaign with lots of options switched on. In order to simplify character creation (since the group consisted of players with zero to marginal familiarity with the system), I had everyone write up a description of their characters, then I drafted the actual character sheets and handed them out at the first session. (This was made much easier by the fact that Solar Patrol includes handy templates to speed up character creation.) The players picked things up quickly and did a good job of integrating their Advantages and Disadvantages into play, something I always worry about, since GURPS characters can have quite a laundry list of Ads and Disads. I particularly appreciated the flexibility of the system in translating the players' qualitative descriptions into game stats. (One player, for example, wanted to have a type of ridiculous luck that always came at the expense of major personal injury, something not covered directly by the rules but easily adaptable.)

On the other hand, even with simplified character creation and cinematic rules in effect, GURPS is still GURPS - granular, detailed, and intricate. Forgetting even a single rule can have dramatic effects on how the system plays. For example, during one of the first sessions I ran a "combat crash course" for the group by pitting the PC cadets against each other in non-lethal boffer combat. Thanks to me forgetting a couple rules, what should have been a quick, simple combat turned into a brutal slugfest both in-game and at the table. GURPS doesn't just reward system mastery, it very nearly requires it. Certainly, the more you know the system, the more you can get out of it. This is an admirable quality once you get to a certain point, but that learning curve can be brutal.

So I'm setting GURPS aside for now and moving on to another candidate. This was my plan all along (unless and until I get a home run candidate), but I thought I was going to try another GURPS campaign before I moved on so that I could dig down into the system a bit more. But after my brush with death, I've re-evaluated and have decided to get going with another system and see if it's maybe a bit better fit. More on that in a forthcoming post, I'm sure. In the meantime, I haven't refuted GURPS or sworn off it for a year and a day or anything, and in the end I may well return to it as my choice of system to master - but I've got to shop around a little before I make that decision.

Update: Peter Dell'Orto of the always-excellent Dungeon Fantasy blog has posted some thoughts in response to this post.
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