GURPS Basic Set, Third Edition
GURPS -- one of the most famous game systems in existence, and currently one of the top three best sellers.
You've never heard of it, you say? (You're merely a hypothetical construction to make writing this review easier, you say?) All right. This will be as in-depth a review as I can make it.
GURPS is an attempt to be "the most flexible roleplaying system ever created," "the roleplaying game that everyone can enjoy," and "the most realistic, flexible and universal system ever developed."
Well, at least they set their sights high.
So, GURPS tries to be the omni-system: a system you can use for any setting and any campaign. This goal provides GURPS with its many strengths and is also the unavoidable cause of some of its weaknesses.
Let's break this book down, chapter by chapter.
Chapter 0: What Is Roleplaying?, Quick Start, Creating A Character
These sections are the traditional initiation to roleplaying that can be found in just about every system. The "what is roleplaying" section is nicely done, giving a wide range of examples and campaign types.
The quick start section is also well done. This is a page-long overview of the system, explaining the basic concepts. There are two basic concepts that you need to understand GURPS: the success roll and the character creation system. The success roll is a roll using 3 dice; any result equal to or less than the target number is a success and anything higher is a failure. Exceptionally good or bad rolls can cause "critical" successes and failures, which are usually interesting and sometimes spectacular.
The Creating A Character is another short overview, this time of the character creation system. These two pages bring out the strengths of the GURPS system as I see it.
1) No character classes. To quote the book, "Any character can learn any sort of ability or combination of abilities. The restrictions are those of realism and point totals, not artificial 'classes.'" This creates room for a variety of distinct, dynamic characters. You'll never have two characters that seem made with identical cookie-cutters because they both happen to be "first level monorail salesmen", or whatever.
2) Point-based character creation. The non-randomness of character creation allows you to create your own persona rather than have the dice determine one for you. The limited number of character points with which to buy abilities is useful both for play-balance (which can be sadly lacking in class-based systems) and to encourage players to give their characters weaknesses as well as strengths.
Chapter 1: Basic Attributes
There are only four attributes in GURPS: Strength (ST), Dexterity (DX), Intelligence (IQ), and Health (HT). Strength, Dexterity, and Health are quite sufficient for physical statistics. I am a bit more wary of a single Intelligence statistic. Fortunately, there are many ways to distinguish the mental abilities of two characters with equal IQ later in the rules.
If I were to change the statistics in GURPS, there would be only one addition. I would introduce the statistic of Emotional Intelligence: EQ. This would settle the problems that arise when stereotypical "intelligence", will, social ability, and alertness are all based on the same statistic.
Overall, though, GURPS gets by quite well on its four statistics. Only those who are very perfectionist will be dissatisfied.
One caveat, however: the chart given for descriptions of what, say, 12 ST or 8 IQ means in real-life terms is a bit inaccurate and misleading. There is another chart in a supplement (GURPS Compendium 1); if all you purchase is GURPS Basic Set, take a look in Compendium 1 or find the chart somewhere on the net.
Chapter 2: Physical Appearance In GURPS, your character may have any type of appearance you wish. This has no effect on the cost of your character unless you wish to be exceptionally good-looking (or bad-looking). Good looks will cost you points from your starting pool; bad looks will give you bonus points that you can spend in other areas.
Chapter 3: Wealth And Status No more "Every character starts out with 2,000 gp." You can have your character be richer than average, spending character points, or poorer, gaining you bonus points. Likewise, you can choose your character's social status and reputation. The reputation rules are quite well-done and concise.
Chapter 4: Advantages
This is the fun stuff.
Remember those 100 points you started out with to make your character? (You can start with more or less, depending on the campaign.) Well, you spent some on attributes and some on other factors. Now you can spend some of the rest to buy Advantages: neat things that you can do that nobody else can, special aptitudes, and so on.
The inclusion of Alertness, Acute Senses, Charisma, and Strong Will as advantages helps to round out the intellectual capacities of characters rather than a one-dimensional IQ statistic. Mathematical Ability, Literacy, Language Talent, and Musical Ability are all useful in this regard as well.
There are also abilities that can't be represented with a skill: Lightning Calculator, Intuition, Eidetic Memory, or Empathy. These are some of the most interesting ways to round out a character. Don't forget Magery; if you want to be a mage, that'll cost you points depending on your power level.
Characters can also buy Allies, Patrons and Contacts if they need some aid during an adventure; these are less often used because they lead to some occasionally annoying entanglements. It's nice to know that they exist if you want them, though.
Chapter 5: Disadvantages
My good friend Ben insists that it is more fun to pick disadvantages than advantages.
I am very thankful I am not one of Ben's characters.
This is a whole chapter of ways to get more points. No incipient munchkinism here, though: these aren't just point breaks. Each one will limit the behavior of your character in some way.
There are three categories of Disadvantage: Social, Physical, and Mental. Social Disadvantage include Wealth, Status, and Reputation as previously mentioned, but also include Social Stigma (e.g., "barbarian", a woman in the 18th century, African-Americans in the 19th century, etc.) There is also the ever-fun-to-roleplay Odious Personal Habits. As you might well imagine, the bad reactions you can recieve justify the extra points.
There is a full range of physical disadvantages, from Age to Blindness to One Eye to Fat to Albinism. These disadvantages are less popular in play because they are both a major hindrance and relatively less fun to roleplay, but, again, they exist when you want them.
The Mental Disadvantages are one of the high points of the system. You can have your character be Absent-Minded, have a strict Code of Honor, be very Truthful, or extremely Gullible. In each case you will receive bonus points, but you MUST roleplay your mental disadvantages or you will not recieve rewards during play!
This system of encouraging players to create interesting characters with well-defined systems of thought and then enforcing their choices is a brilliant way to encourage true roleplaying.
Chapter 6: Quirks
What fun! You can buy up to 5 quirks; each one will give you another bonus point. Quirks are just those fun little personality tidbits that make people interesting and make characters fun to play. "Drinks tonic water," "Wears silly hats," "Always carries a calculator," "Uses the phrase 'You'll never get away with this!' whenever possible" -- all of these are good Quirks.
Chapter 7: Skills
Skills the final component of the character creation system. Points will buy you a skill at a certain level, depending on the difficulty of the skill and your attributes. Most physical skills are based on DX and most mental skills are based on IQ.
For example, say you want your character to be a master poet. Well, Poetry is a skill of Average difficulty and based on IQ. You can look at the table of skill costs and see that if you want to buy Poetry at your IQ level plus 3, say, that will cost you 8 points. These are the skills that you will roll against in play, recall. So, a 12 or so is fairly good, a 8 is mediocre, a 20 is amazing, and a 5 is horrible.
"But what if I don't have Lockpicking skill and I'm trapped in a dungeon?" I hear you hypothetically ask. Well, that's where defaults come in. If you haven't put any points into a skill, you still have some chance of succeeding -- another nice innovation. Each skill will have a different default, usually something like IQ-5 or DX-4, and sometimes defaulting to a different skill minus a few points. Of course, some skills like Sign Language or Nuclear Physics don't have defaults: you just can't even try without training.
The skill system works quite nicely overall. Admittedly, there is a bit of overproliferation (witness: Accounting, Heraldry) but it's certainly managable. Unless a skill you want is extremely world-specific, you won't have to make it up. Even if you do, it's quite simple to create a description: choose an attribute to base it on, a difficulty, and any defaults.
Chapter 8: Equipment and Encumbrance
The lists of equipment in the back are perhaps a bit heavy on guns and a bit light on miscellaneous, but that's more or less to be expected. Armor is handled in a fairly intelligent manner: each type has a Passive Defense and a Damage Resistance. Passive Defense is the chance that your armor deflects blows: not bad for metal, weak for leather. It's added to your defense rolls. Also very significant is Damage Resistance. This reduces the amount of damage you take if you are hit. GURPS does a good job of making armor as effective as is realistic: if you're about to get stabbed with a knife, you *really* want that plate or leather armor, but if you're walking through the jungle, you *really* don't. A few modern armors are mentioned, and a couple of futuristic ones, but if you're looking for battlesuits and such you'll have to buy a supplement.
Weapons work fairly well also; there is a nice list of ancient, modern, and futuristic weapons in the back of the book. There are three kinds: crushing, cutting, and impaling. Each type is slightly different in end result although they are calculated similarly; impaling does more than cutting to unprotected skin and likewise cutting than crushing. On the other hand, crushing is a bit more likely to get through armor or break weapons.
GURPS also has quite detailed encumbrance rules. As the book says, "if you like, you can calculate the precise weight your character is carrying down to the coins in his pocket!" As the same sidebar rightly points out, these rules are completely optional. For those who complain about every included rule they don't use, they don't take up much space: my estimate is you'll pay about a quarter for them.
Chapter 9: Completing Your Character
Just how to fill in your character sheet (courteously included). Nothing particularly important here, other than a reminder to write a character story as a good way to encourage more real roleplaying.
Chapter 10: Character Development
This section is fairly easily summarized. As rewards for goals reached or good roleplaying, players get more character points in play that they can use as they see fit (within reasonability, of course). This chapter also includes realistic rules for aging in case you need them.
Chapter 11: Random Characters
This is a way to create a random character (well, duh). Frankly, this system is a bit weak, and gives the concept that it was slapped together and added on as a bit of a last-moment thought. On the other hand, it only takes up two pages and I'm not too fond of random characters anyways.
If you really want a random GURPS character, there's a well-done program that I've whiled away many an hour with at
Chapter 12: Success Rolls
This chapter elaborates more on the basic mechanic of GURPS, giving precise rules for critical successes and failures, contests of skills, and how to realistically make running, jumping, climbing, throwing, and swimming attempts. Personally, I don't use much of the "GURPS Olympics" type of rules, but if you're seeking realism, here it is. The success roll mechanic is quite well-thought-out, though.
Chapter 13: Basic Combat
Quite a nice system. Combat is turn-based, and each character has a Maneuver each turn, ranging from Move to Attack to All-Out Defense. Basic Combat is quite simple, easy to understand, and easy to resolve. Some may find it a bit overly simplistic, and for those people there exists:
Chapter 14: Advanced Combat
Break out the minis. GURPS Advanced Combat can be done on a hex grid, turning it into a more realistic, more detailed combat simulation. If you don't want this level of detail or you don't want the hassle of this level of simulation, there are still more useful rules, ranging from more Maneuvers to Hit Location rules to Close Combat. The only parts that are hard to understand here are Close Combat and some of the Ranged Weapons rules; if you find them confusing, feel free to ignore them. I find that using the advanced Manuevers and Hit Locations is usually plenty to get the authentic feel of blades-on-blades or laser bursts flying through the air without bogging down in a morass of rules.
Chapter 15: Injuries, Illness, and Fatigue
What can I say? It's Injuries, Illness, and Fatigue. Realistic as always. Again, it can be as complicated as you wish. The default rules are easy to use; the full rules are a bit complex for my tastes but make combat realistically lethal. (Of course, in cinematic campaigns, most of these are ignored with impunity.)
Chapter 16: Mounted and Vehicular Combat
This chapter is a bit weak, focusing mainly on fighting from the back of an animal. On the other hand, most of vehicle combat is fairly adequately covered by the skills system. If you're really looking for complex, down to the micrometer vehicle rules, GURPS Vehicles will be your best bet.
Chapter 17: Flight
This chapter's a page long. Nothing fancy. Just some basic physics expressed in GURPS terms.
Chapter 18: Animals
A bit erratic at times, this chapter can be useful but sometimes feels a bit of a kludge. For the most part, it's servicable.
Chapter 19: Magic
I've heard more complaints about the GURPS magic system than anything else about it. The system itself is simple -- each spell is a skill. That more or less covers it. The problem with the system as I see it is the lack of flavor. This lack is caused by the goal of GURPS itself -- to cover as many different worlds as possible. To do this, Steve Jackson simply could not have an explanation for magic in the Basic Set. The system presented, in my opinion, can be easily stretched to your preferences, and you can provide as much (or as little) flavor and whimsy as you wish. Note that there is a rather narrow range of spells in the Basic Set; enough to go dungeon-crawling, but not enough to satisfy every desire. For more spells, see GURPS Magic.
Chapter 20: Psionics
Psi is well done in GURPS. There are two components of each ability: power and skill. Power is bought as an Advantage, and skill as a skill (duh). Power and skill are simply that: raw ability and finesse, respectively. Admittedly there are only 10 pages of psi powers, but I've never felt a lack sorely enough to have to buy GURPS Psionics. I think that you can handle psi stuff well enough with just the Basic Set. The psi system is also surprisingly versatile; I found it works as a good model for the Force when one of my players wanted to be a Jedi at Illuminati University.
Chapter 21: Game Mastering
This chapter is filled with good advice. It's like the "what is roleplaying" section; if you're new to this thing, it'll be quite useful, and if you're an old hand it'll be a good skim-through filled with sage nodding of your head. Again, GURPS emphasizes roleplaying and getting into character more than other systems that I own.
Chapter 22: Game Worlds
GURPS's concept of Tech Levels is a good one for classifying equipment. This section also includes nice stuff on Travel, Laws, an unfortunately brief section on Economics, and rules about Jobs. All in all, a useful chapter.
Chapter 23: Writing Your Own Adventures
See my review of Chapter 21. Add in a brief paragraph or three on travel between game worlds that is an interesting if sketchy premise.
So, the big picture:
GURPS really accomplishes its goal. Players can be anything they want and the system handles it well -- with a few exceptions. If you're looking for characters that can lift tanks, shrug off nukes, and blast energy from their eyes, GURPS tends to get a little ragged around the edges. However, it works very well for almost any other type of campaign, whether it be low point, low powered fantasy, the amazingly high point total "men like gods" cinematic action of GURPS Black Ops or the random silliness of GURPS Illuminati University. GURPS also works well for many campaign types, from gritty realism with all rules turned on to high-powered action where characters get skill bonuses for attempting cool-sounding stunts. It can also handle psychological complexity ranging from a dungeon crawl to the most in-character acting you can think of.
What are its downsides? They mostly stem from the pressure of trying to be all things to all people. The system is reverse-engineered rather than forward-engineered: it focuses on effects rather than causes. This allows it to be useful in a diverse variety of campaigns, but requires GMs who want, say, a specific background for the magical system to create it themselves for their specific campaign.
Overall, it's an impressive achievement, and one I recommend highly as a tool for whenever you have a setting and no system.
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)