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Close to the Edit

4e Or Not 4e, that is the Question!

by Ross Winn
Oct 11,2004


4e Or Not 4e, that is the Question!

This column has always been about what I need or want to write. There is no contractual obligation for me to write about any certain topic, or game, or at any particular length. The topics that I write about are important to me. Much of what I have attempted is to establish a lexicon and communicate important ideas (again, to me). Now whether or not I have been successful is another issue altogether, and that is for you to decide.

I love games, and I love RPGs most of all games. I hate to say negative things or give negative reviews. You just will not see me do it, whether I think a game is actively bad or just not my taste. I also like RPG designers, and I do not want to take a dump all over someone's dream, at least not in print-I may talk trash from time to time, but that is my own failing. Of course, there is also the part of me that Mom taught. She taught me that if I could not say something nice, then I should not say anything at all (thanks Mom!). I have yet to be able to completely honor my mother's wishes. After all, no product is perfect and no one game the end-all or be-all, but boy does GURPS 4e try.

I am going to write about GURPS 4e this month because it is important to me. GURPS was one of the first designed universal systems. It made sense. Hero System was never designed from the ground up. It just morphed that way. BRP was used for many different things, but it always seemed to be an afterthought; sort of a, 'well we know how to use this, so let's use this' approach. GURPS was different. From the first time I became aware of GURPS it was plainly stated that the system was universal. The idea of a universal system caused something of a stir. Three editions later, GURPS 4e has caused quite a stir as well. When it was rumored, hinted at, discussed, and announced, the revision ignited discussions everywhere it touched.

I was excited to hear of the revision. I was excited to see it, and I am excited to talk about it. While I think that I should state clearly at the outset that this revision is very well done, I should also say that there are issues. Some of the things I may point out here are not bad, they are not even middling, and they just may not be to my taste. There are two issues I have with the book itself, and one issue I have with the revision.

GURPS may well be the largest game in print today, by page count alone. There are many supplements. While sales figures are private, I believe that GURPS is in the top ten, and maybe even the top three RPGs sold in the US. SJG, wisely, did not want to turn all of those pages into pulp. They wanted to preserve the wealth of source material. Now I am sure there were business reasons to do so, but I also believe that the people at SJG actually wanted the players to have access to all that had gone before. SJG has always taken the feelings of the consumers to mind when doing anything like this, and it is laudable.

The other side of all of the material for GURPS is that the sheer volume of the rules was daunting to the extreme. A few years ago SJG decided to publish two compendia just to make character generation and combat (barely) manageable. There were hundreds of rules, rulings, and special cases that all had to be addressed by the new edition. So where did they start? They started by hiring the best people for the job.

Sean Punch is the 'shaper' of GURPS. He has been the line editor for GURPS since 1995. His first credited appearance as a GURPS writer was co-author of GURPS Fantasy Folk (Second Edition). His most noteworthy achievement until now is the compilation of the two GURPS Compendia. Sean will soon celebrate his tenth year as Line Editor for GURPS, a notable accomplishment itself. Anyone making a living for ten years in the RPG industry is worth mentioning.

David Pulver is the 'mechanist' of GURPS. His first credited appearance as an RPG writer was in 1989 for the now defunct Challenge Magazine. His first work for GURPS was Ultra Tech in 1989. He is also widely known as one of the RPG industry's premier 'gear-heads', having worked on products and systems as diverse as D20 Mecha and BESM. He is best known in GURPS for his work on GURPS Vehicles. I think his finest work, and one of the first 'Powered by GURPS' releases, is Transhuman Space. Though he left Steve Jackson Games to join Guardians of Order in October of 2003, he remained part of the revision team for GURPS 4e and will remain a part of the GURPS landscape for some time.

GURPS 3e was more in need of a revision that nearly any game I play on a regular basis. A decade of publication, and supplements that number in the dozens, are a sure way to test the limits of any game. GURPS was no exception to this. Rumors began circulating more than two years ago. A newsgroup on Pyramid's own server was established to discuss 'if and when a revision should take place', and to 'discuss ideas', if memory serves.

Ideas were discussed and though I did not participate in the discussion, some of them were intriguing. However, I think that the final product, which sits on my desk like a set of encyclopedias, is quite a bit better than anything SJG has done to date. Well, it does not really look like a whole set of encyclopedias, just two volumes. It is quite massive, and that is my main gripe with it.

GURPS is without question better for the revision, but the barrier to entry is now out of the reach of many, and out of the patience of some. Literally, everything that we have seen in both compendia and the basic set is now a part of the core rules. Frankly, I think it is too much. Add to this the price, seventy-four dollars for the basic set, and I doubt that I will be alone in this.

The simplification and clarity of the rules is brilliant in that it will be very little work, if any, to use 3e material for 4e. It won't even be much of a stretch to use 2e or 1e books as well. The text is well written and clear, even though the description of the 'payload' ability did turn my stomach. Payload "is not just for machines - a zombie might have a colony of spiders or snakes living in its body, for example." I won't miss PD, and I think that it will be much easier for players to get the gist of the rules from the text. Instead of the confusing combination of PD and DR, "you may have multiple layers of DR with different combinations of modifiers. You must specify the order of the layers - from outermost to innermost - when you create your character."

The price still bothers me, for other reasons separate from the barrier to entry issue. If the standards of art and layout were up to the standards of White Wolf or Wizards, I think I would be less quick to judge. The art is uneven, at best, and in many places downright awful. The other issue is the binding. Even reading on the plane on the way home from GenCon the binding was beginning to wear on the Characters book. Now the binding may be a peculiarity of the review copy I received, we shall see.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: It has come to my attention that there is a binding issue with some copies of the GURPS 4e revision. As of this writing, SJG is doing everything in their power to deal with this issue, but has not acknowledged a print-wide issue.

Even with a few niggling details, the actual layout and organization of the book is much clearer and simpler than anything SJG has done to date. The color-coded page borders and the clearly delineated caution icons in the text are well used. Frankly there is not a single bad thing about the game itself.

One of the things that I think makes any game playable is how little knowledge and text you need to start playing. I suppose SJG has given a nod to this with GURPS Lite, which also has a new fourth edition, but I am unsure. Were I Steve Jackson, I would soon publish a player's book. A book of about 64 pages to allow entry into the world of GURPS and an explanation of the rules that is less than forty dollars. Something similar to the forthcoming GMs Screen, for players. Since I am most definitely not Steve Jackson, we shall see how SJG handles the issue. Admittedly, there have been custom versions of the rules published in the "Powered by GURPS" releases. As I mentioned there is a new GURPS Lite. I just do not think that this is enough.

Maybe I am just cranky in my old age (who am I kidding, of course I am). GURPS 4e is brilliant, versatile, and inclusive. It is, finally, a truly balanced universal game. Putting the art aside, you should buy this book.

I did mention that I had one problem with the game revision, and I wouldn't want to keep you in suspense. The streamlining of attribute costs in GURPS 4e may be considered by many to be a breath of fresh air. I do not agree. I cannot, because I think it was a mistake. Progressive increases in attributes are important in a GURPS game of any genre. While this change to a fixed cost makes the math slightly easier in character generation, it makes a few other things less attractive. The much less expensive attributes make higher-value skills less attractive, and make lower-value skills nearly meaningless when a player has a high attribute score. Since the lion's share of GURPS is based on the scores of DEX and INT, this is exacerbated. However that has been a problem throughout the history of GURPS, so I will not bother to belabor the point too much.

While GURPS 4e may not be as successful a revision in total dollars as D&D 3e was, I do think it will both incense and impress players of every previous version of GURPS. While it may have set the bar a bit over the heads of new players, experienced hands will find much to like in the revisions. GURPS books have always had more than their share of poor art, and 4e is no exception. Aside from the poor art, the layout and organization of the books are excellent. Finally, while I may feel that the price is too high, it does include nearly every rule ever conceived (or nearly so). I think every GURPS fan should buy this book.

So what are you waiting for?

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What do you think?

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