LOADING CLOSE

GURPS RPG System Review

Bottom line up front: I recommend that you check out GURPS. I’m a big fan of GURPS and it’s my preferred RPG rule set.

Note that I will be focusing on GURPS Fourth Edition in this article, with minor references to Third Edition.

Let’s start with why I like GURPS.

First:

All RPG’s contain models for combat. Complex models. Because combat in real life is crazy. There are examples of people being impaled by dozens of arrows who walk away from the encounter and live a long life.

During the American Revolutionary war one citizen engaged in a fight with a company of British regulars, who shot the citizen multiple times with muskets. The man continued to resist and kill a handful of his assailants and was ultimately beaten and stabbed multiple times by bayonets. He was left for dead by the British soldiers, but he ultimately recovered from his wounds and died several decades later in his bed of old age.

There is a report of a New York cop who was accidentally shot in the foot with a single .22 caliber bullet and within minutes was dead.

Both of these examples are obviously examples of the extremes, and if you are a Player Character running around in an RPG game world, then we want our characters to emulate the former example more than the latter.

So one of the challenges in designing a Role Playing Game rule set is to model extreme combat results like these.

In my review of several RPG’s, modelling combat with these examples seems impossible. However, GURPS has a pretty good model where combat attacks are proportional (so ‘big’ attacks can be expected to do ‘big’ damage and ‘small’ attacks can be expected to do ‘small’ damage). However, GURPS damage results are variable enough that a low threat attack can be devastating, but with a lot of luck, a character could shrug off a couple of ‘big’ attacks.

So in short, GURPS can yield variable results in a conflict, while maintaining a semblance of believability.

Second:

I love their magic system.

GURPS Magic is both complex and highly detailed with over 400 spells that players can ultimately choose from. Each spell is unique with a unique effect and result, but the spells seem balanced on hand. Complex and powerful spells require skills and prerequisite simple spells before they can be learned. So starting mages wont overwhelm a comparable swordman at the start, but in time when they advance in their magical capabilities, the mage will eventually get access to some awesome spells.

And the swordsman can tap into combat related Advantages and skills that keep him to comparable capabilities.

So those are my two prime reason to love GURPS! In short, GURPS is a well designed and well thought out Role Playing Game.

Complexity

But GURPs is complex!

GURPS has a reputation for being a complex game, when compared to other Role Playing Games and I’m going to assume that this reputation is true. While its detractors claim that this is a negative feature of GURPS, I disagree that this is a reason to ignore GURPS. There are certainly much more complex RPG’s that have been developed in the past (Role Master, Middle Earth RPG, TSR’s Top Secret, Twilight 2000, Earthdawn, Hero System, Alpha Omega, Traveller: ‘New Era’ with the ‘Fire, Fusion, & Steel Expansion’ all come to mind).

Indeed, GURPS was such a complicated RPG, that it’s the first RPG that ‘required’ players to use a computer character generator! (To be fair, the GURPS Character Assistant was initially a private development made by a fan and is now a software package available for purchase. Yes, it will help).

But let’s break down the complexity in detail so that you can see just how bad this system can get by evaluating the Player Character Sheet.

Step One: Attributes!

There are four Attributes for the GURPS RPGs:

  • Strength
  • Dexterity
  • Intelligence
  • Health

Strength primarily determines a characters ability to inflict damage with armed melee and unarmed combat. There are a couple of other secondary characteristics that determine how much weight a character can handled (things like encumbrance).

Dexterity is the attribute that is the basis for Dexterity based skills.

Intelligence is the attribute that is the basis for Intelligence based skills.

Health primarily determines how much punishment that a character can withstand. The two derived attributes from Health are Hit Points (wounds to resist dying) and Fatigue Points (wounds to resist falling unconscious).

I know. That’s some brutal complexity coming out of the gate! But just wait! It gets worse!

Advantages (and Perks)

Advantages are single block abilities or talents that give a character a benefit in the role playing game. Perks are simply one point ‘advantages’ that have very minor improvements but also help to define the character in a positive manner.

Oh my goodness! How can anyone handle this level of complexity! You’d have to be REALLY smart to play this game, right?

Disadvantages

Disadvantages are single block limits or deficiencies that penalize a character in a specific way. But these disadvantages provide a player with negative character points that can be used to boost Attributes, purchase more Advantages and improve Skills.

Skills? You haven’t mentioned skills yet! I know. Grab a brown paper bag and breath into it slowly until the wooziness passes. And keep reading.

Skills

GURPS is a skill based game. The vast majority of the game mechanics that a player will deal with in GURPS game will be in performing skill checks.

That’s IT what are people complaining about? I thought you said this game was “complex!”

And in reality this is where GURPS gets really complex. Figuring out the skill level of a character takes some mental gymnastics.

First each skill is going to be either a Dexterity or an Intelligence based skill. So go grab that attribute and that becomes the base value for the skill. (Note that there are a handful of skills based on the Health attribute but the math doesn’t change any).

Each skill is also classified by difficulty. There are four difficulty levels: Easy, Average, Hard, and Very Hard. Easy skills yield a +1 to that skills base level. Average skills don’t change the base value. Hard skills reduce the Base value by 1 and Very Hard skills reduce the base by 2.

Next, you as a player will assign how many character points (and this reflects the effort put in by the character to become good at this skill) to spend on becoming better at that skill. Character points spent in this way have diminishing results. So 1 character point increases the final skill level by 1. 2 character points increase the result by 2. But it takes 4 points to increase that skill by 3. To get that 4th increase it will take 8 character points. Cost to increase skills above that costs four more character points with each increase.

And to make things even more brutal, there are the Advantages and Disadvantages. Those can impact certain skills too, and need to be referred back to when calculating some skills.

But at the casual glance, this is it. Those are the defining principles for character generation.

The Rules

Yeah, but the rules are really hard. Right?

Sure.

When GURPS Fourth Edition was published, it had spring boarded off of a very successful decade of publishing Third Edition materials and had a very enthusiastic fan base. But Third Edition had become bulked out with optional rules that were spread over scores of supplements. A lot of the optional rules had been vetted, tested, discussed, and with Fourth Edition SJ Games developers were able to take that decades worth of experience and feedback to streamline and encapsulate the ideal version of GURPS.

Additionally, much of the in game calculations that had been adapted from Third Edition were simplified and streamlined.

And in spite of that, GURPS Fourth Edition Rules came out in two books; GURPS Characters and GURPS Campaigns, both of which totaled a whopping 576 pages of rules!

The GURPS Characters book is designed specifically for players and this book focuses on the information needed to create Player Characters. Including the photocopy-able character sheet at the end of Characters there are 336 pages to this book. But, one of the cool things that they do with Characters and Campaigns is that the books are sequential. The first page in GURPS Campaigns is labelled as page 337. So the Campaigns book covers the game mechanics on how to play the game. SJ Games determined that cost conscious customers would be able to limit this purchase for the Game Master only.

After that, there were a handful of supplements offered, such as my vaunted GURPS Magic which allows a magic heavy role playing campaign to expand upon the basic spells available with hundreds of more magical skills!

Lets take D&D 5E for comparison.

The Player’s Hand Book (10th printing) has 311 pages of rules (including some simple monsters and creatures as compared to GURPS Character’s 336 pages.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide has 315 pages (total up to 626 pages in comparison to GURPS 576 pages of total rules).

But if you talk to any self respecting D&D 5E player, they will tell you that you absolutely need to include Xanathar’s Guide to Everything (XGE) (and they’re correct, by the way) and that tacks on an additional 174 pages of rules (excluding Appendix B: Character Names).

Today, there is less material to pour through to learn GURPS than to pull off a basic good Dungeons and Dragons.

Class vs Skills based systems.

D&D 5E is a class based leveling system where players have simple choices in determining what their character is capable of doing. Pick a race, then pick the class. Fill in the blanks and you’re ready to go! It’s easy to put together a character because there aren’t many choices.

GURPS is far more complex because the GM will define a setting and issue a character point budget for everyone to start with. And in many respects, this makes a Session Zero more important in GURPS.

Because, with the open ended options available to GURPS players, you can practically make ANY character.

Want a wandering minstrel expert with the lute who dabbles in necromancy and is an ambidextrous adept with daggers? Sure.

His buddy could be a grizzled old war veteran who can wield a spear with deadly precision, whose right arm was amputated in the war and replaced with a strength augmented cybernetic arm. And his left eye was replaced with a cybernetic eye with night vision capabilities with hawk like zoom capabilities.

The third player could show up with a Dwarven outcast who apprenticed as a blacksmith, but ultimately found that she was a savant with magic and is a budding sorceress trained in most of the four elemental magics!

And the fourth character could be a displaced housewife from rural Ohio, who took a couple of Karate classes back in high school and got really good using nunchuks and happened to grab her katana when the time/space rift ripped her from her PTA meeting.

A fifth player could show up with a competent Ranger who could actually hit their target with Bow and Arrow, could track their quarry reliably, and blend into the shadows with frightening ease, and with a skill like ‘camouflage’ they could even conceal things from pursuers!

Leveling Up

D&D 5E (and most level based games) let you lock in your character’s limited capabilities at creation, and you get to run around with those capabilities for a couple of game sessions without changing anything.

GURPS is a point based system with no leveling. Typically, GM’s will reward players with 2-5 character points at the end of a good game session. Between that session, the players can buy up skills or save up character points over time for more expensive advantages. In this process, GURPS Player Characters slowly improve over time, honing skills on a week by week basis.

And in GURPS, your character improvement is limited only by plausibility and GM fiat. So that housewife with the katana? Suppose she stumbles across a boxed shotgun with a box of shells. The rest of the group don’t recognize the value, but our rural housewife grew up around boom sticks and after reading the included instructions (and dropping a couple of character points into the skill Guns: Shotguns) now has the ability to shoot hot lead in the next combat with a basic degree of competence!

Combat

GURPS is definitely more complex when it comes to combat.

In D&D 5E the player will be asked, “What’s your AC?” And new players will invariably ask, “Can I dodge or do something to avoid this attack?!?!” And the GM will say, “No . . . ”

There is just this instinct to try to stop from being harmed! And yes. GURPS employs that defensive nature into their combat mechanics.

Step one, an assailant makes a skill check to try to hit their opponent.

If they succeed then a defender may have the option to avoid the attack! (Surprised defenders or those not facing the attack don’t get to dodge).

The defender then makes a skill check to avoid the attack! (It’s much harder to cancel an attack in GURPS than it is to hit) but if you have a shield, you can use it to block that blast from that shotgun wielding housewife! There’s even a good chance that you can get that shield up and between you and all that hot lead.

But in GURPS there’s a chance that the slug rips through your shield, the effect of the shield mitigating some of that damage!

Woah! Wait! That sounds like combat could get to be pretty complex!

Yep. But lets get back to principles.

So far, you’ve figured out if the attack hit or missed. You figured out of the defense was effective or not.

Next comes damage! The attacker rolls damage (as proscribed by the weapon employed).

Then you get to figure out WHERE the attack hit.

Yeah. GURPS has hit locations. Head, hands, arms, legs, and torso. Feet too, by the way. Definitely more complex.

Lastly, armor mitigates damage in GURPS. And this is what armor does in real life.

Record the resultant damage and then lets move on with the next round!

GURPS definitely has a more complex combat mechanic than D&D 5E, but it’s verisimilitude to reality feels more realistic.

Squares vs Hexagons

Both games are designed to be played on a game map. (You could do ‘theater of the mind’ but neither game works well for that venue in my opinion).

D&D is played on a map with squares. It’s simple. And on a really bad day, a character can be ganged up by eight opponents. And if you move your token diagonally across the board you can get 50% further than moving orthogonally. Most people work well with the square hexes.

GURPS was actually designed to be played on a hexagonal map grid. On a bad day, getting jumped by more than six people is impossible. But getting more than three people around you is bad enough!

Further, facing matters in GURPS! Getting flanked in a fight makes it easier for an opponent to land a hit. That shield in your left hand can’t block attacks coming in from your right side.

In GURPS, that miniature isn’t just a place holder like in an 8 bit game on a square grid. That miniature is standing in for a real person with plausible limited capabilities and combat options that one might expect to deal with in real life!

Yes, GURPS is way more complex with its combat model. And GURPS Campaigns will teach you how to handle all the variables in it’s 240 well indexed pages.

Movement and Time

Most players are going to hate GURPS for pacing (especially if you are converting from D&D) based on GURPS passage of time and movement rules.

Because D&D is the gateway game for Role Playing Games we’ll use it for comparison (here too). D&D assumes that each turn is six seconds long. If you walk in D&D you can move your miniature 30′ or 6 hexes. That kinda makes sense because that’s a speed of 5 feet per second. Maybe a bit fast when compared to real life but 5 feet per turn (especially when D&D uses a 5 foot square grid) makes sense.

If you want to run in D&D you just double your “walk” move. So if you’re a great Barbarian, you can sprint along for 80′ (16 squares). Mechanically, this is an easy gaming rule for players to wrap their heads around. (Nice)!

GURPS assumes that its combat turns are 1 second long.

GURPS also assumes that you use a hexagon map (on pains of repeating myself) and each hex is 1 yard in diameter. (If you live in a country that hasn’t sent a man to the moon, you can assume that each hex is 1 meter in diameter, since they’re both similar in length and you’ll be just fine. However in the rest of this article, I’ll be using the scale of yards).

The walking speed in GURPS is 1 yard per turn. That’s also close to reality. (Nice).

However, if you want to run, the typical run speed in GURPS is 5 yards per turn. By comparison to D&D that’s 150 yards or 30 squares in a six second turn.

The reason why GURPS might be better in this respect, is because the typical person really moves that fast in real life when they run.

Another difference in combat sequencing is that if you Run in D&D you can’t perform an attack action.

In GURPS you can make an attack. It’s not as effective, because you are unstable, but it’s an option. Not a good one, but it’s an option. A realistic option unavailable in D&D.

And this can be the problem (for most impatient players). Suppose two hostile groups spot each other and they are 50 yards away from each other. After they exchange words, combat begins!

Turn one! Each participate takes a step forward and draws a primary weapon! Range to target: 48 yards.

Turn two! Each participant takes a step forward and readies a shield. (Smart combatants grab an arrow for their bow). Range to target: 46 yards.

Turn three? Each participant considers running, but no. Not a good idea. Archers will use the “ready weapon” action. Range to target: 44 yards.

While this is definitely a much more realistic approach to combat, a lot of players find this ‘pace’ of combat less interesting. Some even feel that their characters spend most of the time “doing nothing” way too often.

This will be bad if your players are are mostly casual. I’ve been in GURPS groups where the majority of the players were so casual, that they didn’t learn the GURPS rules and combat was painful. Each player would need to be hand held through their turn (and that group consisted of up to nine players) so a single combat turn would take a tremendous amount of time [sometimes as long a 30 minutes IRL to resolve a 1 second turn] as each player had to be presented with ALL of their options in turn. And I’d sit there and watch as the NEXT player would then have to have the same options repeated ad nauseum! Yes there were a couple of players who learned the rules and our turns would take five seconds to resolve, but that was still a painful experience! (Even for me)!

In contrast, if you have a group of invested players who actually study and learn the GURPS rules, an entire complex combat encounter can easily be resolved in well under 30 minutes. And as a GURPS GM with just such a group, I have pulled this off often. (I’ve hosted four hour GURPS sessions where we were able to have three pitched fights. Meanwhile the aforementioned game of casual players often had to spend two 6 – 8 hour sessions on a single similar fight . . .).

In reality, with a group of trained players, GURPS combat turns move at a faster pace. You wont “attack” each turn (until you have combatants in melee combat, or once reliable firearms are being used) but characters engaged in long actions are quick an easy to resolve.

Impatient Player: But why would I waste my time on a boring long action? Boring!

Let’s go back to my previous combat example.

On turn 5 the combatant’s are 40 yards apart. The archers are holding readied weapons and loose their arrows!

If one of those arrows hits an opponent, odds are pretty good that opponent is either down, or badly hurt.

Damage Means something in GURPS!

GURPS innovated combat when it first came out. (I started playing GURPS in its third edition, so I can’t speak to the earlier developmental editions, but still, GURPS did some cool new things with damage)!

In addition to doing a numerical amount of damage, GURPS introduced the RPG world to “damage types.”

Too keep things simple, GURPS has the three damage types of crushing, slashing, and impaling. (GURPS fourth edition introduced piercing damage for firearms). And these differences aren’t cosmetic differences like you find in D&D where damage type is modified by either susceptibility or resistance to different cosmetic damage types.

Crushing damage tends to do lots of damage and works like you would expect it to (in any other game).

Slashing damage is pretty hefty too. The interesting thing about slashing damage, is that the damage that bypasses armor, is increased by 50%. This reflects that traumatic damage is increased, because slashing weapons can hurt more.

Impaling damage tends to be lower, by comparison, but damage that bypasses armor is doubled. So that archer letting loose with that arrow at 40 yards has an attack that is going to hurt badly.

Another difference between GURPS and D&D is that GURPS characters generally have less hit points. Sure at low levels (D&D 2nd level) and GURPS have comparable Hit Point maximums, but since GURPS doesn’t have characters “leveling up” the GURPS hit points don’t increase to massive pools of damage absorbency that get whittled away with dozens of attacks over several turns.

Armor reduces damage in GURPS

In D&D armor reduces the chance of a character being hit.

In GURPS, armor does little to keep you from being hit. However, armor protects a character by reducing the damage inflicted. And this quality resembles reality.

Action (and Defense) Options

GURPS combat has more action options including more attack options.

D&D combat options are pretty easy to pick up and understand. Most of you know them so I won’t repeat any of them here.

In GURPS, you have more options available. Let me introduce you to some of these:

Wildly attack! A character who is within running range (5 to 6 yards for most warriors) has the option to race forward and to swing wildly at an opponent. You have a chance of hitting, but not a great chance. But (unlike D&D) you have the option to run AND attack.

Determined Attack: Two attacks! GURPS characters don’t get access to a “Two attacks per turn” advantage (or feat). Every character can choose to attack twice per turn. One problem is that you sacrifice the option to defend yourself on that turn.

Determined Attack: Precise. Need to make sure you hit with your melee weapon right now! This is your option. You get a +4 bonus on your to hit roll, but like the Two Attacks, you had better hit because you don’t get to defend yourself this turn.

Determined Attack: Strong. Just like the Precise attack, but instead of a +4 on the to hit on the attack, you get a +2 to damage (if you hit). This is a good option for a highly skilled warrior who has a good chance of landing a blow. Again, no defense for you on this turn!

Attack! This is the basic combat action to employ a weapon (melee, unarmed, or ranged) against an opponent. You get the option to defend yourself with this basic attack!

Opportunity Attacks? Nope. This is a weird invention of D&D and GURPS doesn’t have this option. Indeed, retreating from an opponent in combat is actually a good thing in GURPS. If you haven’t advanced on a turn and someone enters melee range, you can defensively give up territory and make it harder for the attacker to hit. Just like you would get in real life.

So those are most of the attack options. And GURPS has defensive actions options and half a dozen other action options that you just won’t find in D&D.

Reach

Weapons in real life have different lengths and are employed differently in combat.

D&D has some weapons that can reach out and hit someone 10 feet (two squares) away. But there aren’t that many of them.

In GURPS various weapons have up to four reach options: Close (employed vs opponent in the same hex), 1 yard of reach (1 hex away), 2 yards of reach (2 hexes away), and 3 yards of reach (3 hexes away).

Wait minute! Two characters can occupy the same hex in GURPS?!?!?
Yep. You can’t do that in D&D! It’s generally not a good idea in GURPS, but its an option.

One of the important characteristics of melee weapons is their reach quality. And it varies with some weapons. In GURPS, a spear can be gripped with a reach of 1 or 2. Pikes have a reach of 2 or 3.

Most conventional weapons (most swords, canes, batons, axes, etc) have a reach of 1. But if you rush at a pike man while waving a sword, that pike man will have the option to attack you based on the fact that their weapons reach exceeds yours!

But Why GURPS?

Verisimilitude

GURPS seems realistic. After reading the handful of the combat options that I’ve already outlined, you begin to see that GURPS combat feels a lot more real to life. You can easily imagine that your character is immersed in a real fight when playing GURPS as opposed to a fairy tale like board game.

If you think deeply about D&D, you are playing little more than a complex board game.

Sure GURPS is more complex and has a steeper learning curve than D&D, just like Axis and Allies is more complex and has a steeper learning curve than Risk!

For a player like me, who enjoys verisimilitude in my games, I can tell you that I’ve spent WAY more time playing Axis and Allies than I’ve played Risk! Similarly, I can make the same assertion regarding to GURPS and D&D.

Cross Genre/Cross Platform compatibility

When the Generic Universal Role Playing System (GURPS) was first envisioned at SJ Games Inc, RPG’s were genre specific. TSR was the leader in RPG design and creation, spring-boarding off of their initial success with Dungeons and Dragons, but they created other successful games such as Gama World, Boot Hill, Star Frontiers, and Top Secret. There were a lot of cool games and cool settings coming out! But then one day someone had the insane idea of transporting their D&D characters into one of these other published settings!

The big problem was that all of these different games were incompatible! They weren’t designed for characters to jump back and forth!

But fear not! TSR responded by publishing character conversion rules in their Dragon magazine! But then to get back to D&D from Gamma World after visiting Boot Hill, you needed to re-convert the Player Characters.

And in this environment, Steve Jackson commissioned his staff to design a Generic Universal Role Playing System. Something where it didn’t matter where the character came from. Didn’t matter what they did or didn’t know. Each could interact with each other with a common set of plausible rules, regardless whether they wielded a laser sword, bone spear, lightning bolt spells, shot guns, muskets, phaser blaster rifle, whatever!

No conversion necessary.

Mind you, in GURPS a contemporary SWAT team armored in kevlar and armed with autofiring HK MP-5’s will mow down a band of stone age neanderthals. Until they run out of ammo. And when one of those neanderthals gets into melee range, someone on the SWAT team is going to get hurt!

And (in theory) the GM has the capability to calculate the variance between technology, time, and talent to keep things balanced.

Foundation for RPG innovation

GURPS did a lot of things first.

Even if you don’t play this game, every Game Master should study GURPS, because its rules and game assumptions are so innovative. If you find a deficiency in another role playing game and need to find a solution that works better, GURPS probably has a working option that you can adapt for your game.

I have a friend who is a brilliant student of new RPG’s and he likes to point out new and neat new game rules that these new RPG’s.

Every time he has finished explaining these neat new rules, I rebut by saying “Yep, that was adapted from GURPS.”

In short D&D and GURPS are the foundations for all modern RPG’s.

Want a primer? GURPS has a ‘lite’ version of their rules appropriate called GURPS Lite and it’s free! You go ‘buy’ the pdf via Steve Jackson Games Website online store Warehouse 23 for free.

If you like what you see, you can purchase either their dead tree or pdf versions of their complete rules.

Best Forums Ever!

GURPS has attracted players and Game Masters who have an above average Intelligence Quotient. And that is abundantly obvious with a casual glance at the SJ Games Forums.

It’s one of the original RPG forums that started when discussion forums began to be a thing, and due to the awesome topics archived at these forums, I don’t see these forums going away any time soon.

Want to search for an obscure answer about any topic regarding any general RPG topic? Not only are you likely to find an answer, but you’ll likely find an intellectually superior and spirited debate on the topic.

And this type of content can elevate your game too!

Conclusion

I recommend that you check out GURPS.

It may not be your cup of tea, but if you find D&D to be a deficient game, have your group check out this rule set, especially if your players are grounded and have a love for realism.