GURPS has a wide variety of published rulebooks, and the list of PDF supplements is one of the largest in the industry. As a result, it can be overwhelming for new players to determine what books to get. Many of the books offer specialized rules for specific genres, abilities, or settings, but some resources are useful across a wide variety of games. This post will highlight GURPS books that are useful to the rules light crowd.
If you are curious about GURPS but fear that the rules are intimidating, this list will point you towards rulebooks that support streamlined, simple mechanics.
As a bonus: until 15 December 2016, Steve Jackson Games is running a GURPS PDF special. All GURPS PDFs are 40% off! If you’ve been thinking about getting started with GURPS, or adding some books to your collection, now is the time!
GURPS Basic Set: Characters and Campaigns
If you want to play GURPS, the two volume Basic Set is all you truly need. You can create your characters, build settings, run campaigns, engage in combat, and do all the core elements of roleplaying from these two books. Volume 1, Characters, covers the rules for building and equipping player characters; Volume 2, Campaigns, focuses on running the game, resolving actions, and interacting with the world at large.
When reading the Basic Set, remember that the core rules of the game are simple: there are success rolls, reaction rolls, and damage rolls. Everything else is optional detail, and it can be changed or ignored as appropriate for your game.
GURPS Action 2: Exploits
Action 2: Exploits is officially the GM book for faced-paced action hero games. Unofficially, this is one of the most useful GM supplements—period. Exploits contains advice on stock adventuring skills, tips for quick-and-dirty difficulty estimates, and guidelines for different phases of adventures, from setting the narrative hook through cleaning up afterwards.
For rules light games, Exploits has particularly valuable suggestions on using difficulty modifiers to set the difficulty for adventure scenes, using complimentary skills to overcome larger challenges, and what rules options to turn off in order to keep up the pace.
GURPS Thaumatology: Ritual Path Magic
Ritual path magic, or RPM, is a great rules light alternative to the default GURPS magic system. Magic in the Basic Set (and in the GURPS Magic supplement) is a skill-based system that has lots of pre-built spells. The drawback is that each spell is its own effect, and there are a number of rules for different types of spells that need to be learned as well.
By contrast, RPM is based on a simple casting system. Players create their intended spells by describing the spell effects. The spell description determines how much energy the spell requires, and then the character gathers the energy using the appropriate magic skill.
How to Be a GURPS GM
How to Be a GURPS GM is a crash course in running roleplaying games in GURPS. It walks a new (or new-to-GURPS) game master through how to set up a campaign, direct character creation, build encounters, and run the adventure.
For gamers that want to run a rules-light version of GURPS, there’s a lot of advice about which game options to use (and what to turn off). The advice is particularly detailed for adjusting combat complexity, which is valuable because combat can be one of the more overwhelming parts of GURPS games.
Of course, one of the benefits of all the GURPS publications is that there are worked examples of almost any situation you can imagine. If you want inspiration for running a social encounter-heavy game, GURPS Social Engineering awaits. If you want to play a game with psionic abilities, just turn to GURPS Psionic Powers. There are books for genres (including fantasy, horror, superheroes, steampunk), books for technology and equipment (if you want to play a stone-age survival campaign or a futuristic space war), and just about anything else you can imagine.
If you’ve wanted to see how GURPS can handle any particular type of game, the GURPS PDF sale is a great opportunity to expand your collection. Again, all GURPS PDFs are 40% off at Warehouse 23, the online store for Steve Jackson Games.
And, if you have other GURPS books to recommend—especially for rules light gaming!—please share them in the comments.
GURPS combat uses a lot of dice rolls. In addition to attacks and damage rolls, GURPS uses rolls for active defenses, skill checks to handle difficult terrain or maintain concentration, and even morale checks to determine if enemies will flee.
Good GMs know that it is important to keep combat moving in order to maintain player engagement. One way to maintain the focus on the player’s decisions is to streamline NPC time. With all the dice rolls in combat, one easy way to spend less time resolving NPC actions is to pre-roll the dice for NPCs.
Rolling in Advance
When players roll the dice, it’s exciting! They want to find out the result of their actions. Every roleplayer will have memories of phenomenal rolls that snatched victory from the jaws of defeat—or embarrassing recollections of a truly unlucky roll at the worst possible moment.
Waiting for NPCs to resolve their actions is less interesting. The players want to know what happened, but the suspense of figuring out the dice roll is far less engaging. And, if the players spend too much time waiting for NPCs to finish, they become bored.
While rolling and adding up dice can be time-consuming in game, there’s no reason that the GM has to spend that time during the game. The GM can instead pre-generate a sequence of dice rolls and simply refer to that list during the game.
How to Pre-Roll
The easiest way to generate a list of dice rolls is to use a digital dice roller and record the results in the order they were rolled. Because all success rolls in GURPS use 3d6, the GM can create a list of 3d6 roll results. Then, whenever the GM needs a success roll for an NPC, he or she can look up the next result on the list, use that number, and cross it off. As long as the dice roller is random, there’s no functional difference between rolling in the moment and using the very next entry in a pre-generated list.
There’s one caveat: the GM can’t look at the number before deciding what the NPC will do! The NPC doesn’t have foreknowledge and so the GM shouldn’t be able to strategically choose the skill or modifiers in order to ensure a success (or failure). The GM needs to choose the action, determine the effective skill level, and only then look at the list. The GM also has to take the very next number; it’s no fair skipping around to avoid a critical hit or miss!
This technique can be expanded for other common rolls. For instance, if many NPCs will be making 2d damage rolls, the GM can generate a separate list of 2d results. However, the biggest payoff comes from the 3d6 list because the vast majority of GURPS rolls use 3d6.
Creating Pre-Rolled Lists in Excel
If you have Microsoft Excel, you can easily create lists of pre-rolled dice results. Other spreadsheet programs will have similar functions, but you may need to adjust the formula to match the program’s function names.
In Excel, create a new spreadsheet and select a blank cell. Then, use Excel’s built-in random number generator to roll three dice by copying and pasting the the following formula:
The RANDBETWEEN function generates a random number between the two bounding numbers, so RANDBETWEEN(1,6) is equivalent to rolling a single d6. Since we want to roll 3d6, we use that formula three times and add them together.
From there, we can copy and paste that formula into additional cells until we have enough results. Note that each time you change a cell (including pasting this formula into a new cell), Excel will recalculate all the formulas in the spreadsheet. So, you’ll see the numbers change as long as you are building the sheet. That’s fine. Just print out the spreadsheet when you’re done, and use those numbers.
If you want to roll a different set of dice, you can do so by changing the formula. If you decide to roll damage, remember that GURPS does not allow damage to go below 1 (for crushing damage, below 0). You can use the MAX function to impose a lower bound on the result. For example, to calculate 1d-3 piercing damage, you can use the formula below:
There are a lot of ways for magic to function in game worlds. If you like the idea of wizards and witches that are not limited to specific spell lists, then ritual path magic may be the system for you. GURPS Thaumatology: Ritual Path Magic, by Jason “PK” Levine, is a 54 page supplement that outlines rules for casting magic by gathering energy from the environment and shaping that energy into spell effects.
The first section, on the character traits that go into ritual path magic (RPM) casters, totals 10 pages. There are four major traits that make up RPM characters: the core skill of Thaumatology, the specific path skills that the caster specializes in, the Magery advantage, and the Ritual Adept advantage.
In the standard GURPS magic system, magic users learn each spell as a separate skill. By contrast, RPM casters can learn just a single skill: Thaumatology. This skill allows the caster to attempt any spell, although there are severe penalties for attempts at default.
Most casters will choose to specialize in one or more paths of study. Ritual path magic uses nine path skills—domains of expertise, such as Path of Body for interacting with living creatures, Path of Energy for manipulating light, heat, and kinetics, and Path of Magic for interacting with mystical forces. Between the nine paths, almost any effect can be created, and the GM is welcome to choose alternate paths to reflect the ontology of his or her world.
To be more effective, RPM casters will usually take the Ritual Adept advantage. Ritual Adept speeds up the casting process significantly, and it also eliminates a variety of casting restrictions such as having to use a consecrated space or needing a connection with the spell’s subject. In practice, a RPM caster without Ritual Adept will be extremely limited or will need to absorb large casting penalties.
Finally, Magery (Ritual Path) works differently than in standard magic. Instead of increasing the effective skill for spells (like a Talent), RPM Magery increases the skill cap on path skills, provides a larger mana reserve for casting, and allows casters to have more conditional spells (which are spells that have been prepared ahead of time and can be triggered at will).
The character traits that make up RPM are clean and elegant. Compared to the long and cumbersome spell list for regular magic, ritual path magic is accessible, logical, and simple.
The second chapter, on performing ritual path magic, is 9 pages long. There is a lot packed into this chapter, but the basic casting process is straightforward. First, the caster determines what effect he or she will create, and therefore calculates the total energy cost of the spell. Second, the caster determines the relevant skill for the spell. Third, the caster gathers energy, from a combination of path skill rolls, mana reserves, sacrificing HP or FP, and specialized artifacts. Finally, once the energy has been gathered, the caster makes a success roll in order to actually cast the spell.
The first part—defining the ritual—is unique to RPM. Because the spell effects are not determined in advance, the caster’s player and the GM need to define what the spell is. To do so, they will build the casting out of the categories of spell effects.
There are seven kinds of spell effects, ranging from the simple sense effects to powerful manipulation effects like create or transform. Each effect has an energy cost. For instance, creating an itch would require a Control effect from the Path of Body, for a base cost of 5 energy.
The base cost can be modified in a number of ways: by adding bonuses or penalties to the subject, by changing the range or damage, etc. For particularly unnatural effects (like creating lightning from a clear sky), the GM can multiply the spell’s cost by requiring a Greater effect.
Once the spell’s energy cost is determined, the player needs to determine what path skill to use for the casting, which will be the lowest path skill involved in the ritual. The player also determines penalties if the caster does not have Ritual Adept or Magery (Ritual Path).
Step 3, acquiring the energy, is usually the most time-consuming part of RPM casting (in game time, and sometimes in real time). The caster rolls against his or her effective path skill; the margin of success determines how many energy points he or she gathers. Many spells will require multiple gatherings, and each attempt to gather energy takes five seconds (or five minutes for non-adept casters!). The caster can also gather energy by tapping a mana reserve or sacrificing HP/FP.
Once the final point of energy is gathered, the caster makes a final success roll against his or her effective path skill in order to cast the spell.
There’s a lot packed into this chapter, and unfortunately the system requires some page-flipping to find the relevant modifiers. Casting the spell uses the modifiers under Choose the Skill; Acquire the Energy uses both the Choose the Skill and Acquire the Energy modifiers. However, the system itself is very straightforward, and after a few castings the process flows much more smoothly.
Advanced Magic, the third chapter, is also the longest at 14 pages. It covers a range of rules for using RPM effectively. Since RPM castings require multiple seconds of game time, there are specialized rules for “blocking” spells and prepared rituals called “conditional rituals” that can be unleashed in a moment. There are also rules for charms and elixers, castings in places of power and with the support of magical grimores, and suggestions for alternative sets of paths.
This chapter isn’t mandatory, but it’s hard to imagine a RPM game that wouldn’t want to use at least some of these rules.
The fourth chapter is a 13-page list of example castings. The samples give a good idea of how flexible ritual path magic is. GMs in particular should read through this list to get an intuitive feel for how to use spell effects to create casting rituals, as well as when to use greater effects in rituals.
Appendix: Botches and Quirks
The last two pages of content list example botches and quirks that the GM can impose on spellcasters. When the caster fails his or her rolls to gather energy for the spell, the result is a complication in the spell. These can be minor quirks, such as nominal damage or visible indications of your casting, or they can be serious bursts of uncontrolled magical energy. The GM is free to create their own botches and quirks; the appendix provides some ideas that the GM can use in their campaigns.
Ritual Path Magic has quickly become one of the most popular alternate magic systems for GURPS, and it’s easy to see why. For a generic, universal system, the basic GURPS magic rules feel cumbersome and fiddly. By contrast, ritual path magic is truly universal—the casters can create any effect, and the rules don’t require elaborate prerequisite chains or idiosyncratic spell descriptions.
The Thaumatology: Ritual Path Magic supplement is a great foundation for this approach to magic. The system is well designed and the rules cover most of the common situations that GMs will need to handle. There are some sections that are very dense with modifiers and occasional sections that are edited down so concisely that they require too much page turning to find the relevant information. But, presentation and layout issues aside, the volume as a whole is a good value.
As with any ruleset, there are advantages and drawbacks. The biggest negative to RPM is that it requires GM oversight to make sure that players don’t create world-shattering effects. It’s not a difficult task, but for new GMs or GMs that have to corral min-maxing players, RPM may be too demanding. However, it is a lot easier to learn the RPM system than the basic magic system, so it may be simpler for a GM to become comfortable with RPM than to master the more convoluted aspects of basic GURPS magic.
Halloween is coming soon, and GURPS can help you add a little horror to your roleplaying campaign! Almost any game can add elements of horror in order to deepen the experience. We’re used to seeing stories add humor to lighten things up with comic relief; the same principle can work in the other direction. GURPS provides a specific mechanic to help establish that a situation is dangerous: fright checks.
Horror stories often feature vulnerability or helplessness on the part of the protagonists, fear, and uncertainty. In the full-blown horror genre, these elements can dominate the story. But, when added in small doses, they provide contrast to show just how heroic the characters are. After all, heroes are more impressive when they rise above terrifying circumstances and succeed despite great personal risk.
Using Fright Checks
One of the easiest ways to add a horror element to your games is to include fright checks. When faced with scary, risky, or just plain dangerous situations, ask the players to make a fright check in order to proceed—or suffer the consequences from putting their necks on the line!
Fright checks are described in the Basic Set, pp. B360–B361. The core concept is simple: when characters face a fear-inducing situation, they must make a Will-based success roll. If the player succeeds at the roll, the character can act normally. However, a failed fright check indicates that the character was overwhelmed by fear, and as a result suffers a setback ranging from being stunned to suffering traumatic mental injury.
What should trigger a fright check? It depends on your campaign premise and the characters, but the general idea is things that are unusually scary—not just ordinary adventuring experiences. In a warfare campaign going over the top of a trench into enemy machine guns qualifies. In a fantasy campaign, the GM could call for a fright check when encountering a primordial evil beast. For an action and adventure campaign, the moment in which the protagonists realize how outnumbered they are could justify a fright check.
Because fright checks are success rolls, the GM can streamline fright checks by assigning a generic task difficulty modifier instead of looking up and synthesizing a list of individual modifiers. That’s it! Just choose a modifier that represents how fear-inducing the situation is, make a Will-based roll, and narrate the result like any other success roll.
Rule of 14
One of the ways that fright checks can differ from generic success rolls in the Rule of 14. The GM can choose to invoke the Fright Check Rule of 14 to cap effective skill at 14. No matter how strong a character’s will is, there’s always a small chance of failing a fright check.
The Fright Check Rule of 14 is, like all of GURPS, an optional rule. The rule exists primarily for storytelling reasons rather than as a mechanical requirement. In short, one of the tropes of horror is that any character can be overcome with terror in a stressful circumstance. While most RPG genres emphasize the competence of the PCs, horror needs to balance PC agency with vulnerability. If a character is entirely immune to terror, it takes away a lot of the suspense. So, the Rule of 14 ensures that there is always a roughly 1-in-10 chance of failure.
In non-horror genres, the Fright Check Rule of 14 may be inappropriate. For instance, a four-color hero might have an exceptional will and narratively wouldn’t be overcome with fear. Likewise, a supernatural monster hunter campaign might feature a protagonist that stands out because of his or her preternatural calm in the face of the macabre. And, the GM can make the Rule of 14 irrelevant by using larger task difficulty modifiers when necessary. As a result, the Fright Check Rule of 14 is not necessary when requiring fright checks.
Failing Fright Checks
The most unique (and therefore most confusing) part of fright checks is the mechanic for resolving failed fright checks. The good news is that, again, it’s an optional mechanic. Just like a GM can ignore the critical miss table and narrate their own result for a critical miss on an attack roll, the GM can narrate their own consequence for a failed fright check roll.
The official mechanic for failed fright checks uses two rolls. The first is the original success roll. The player takes their margin of failure from this roll. The second element is an extra 3d6 roll. The player adds these two numbers—the margin of failure and the separate 3d6 roll—and looks up the sum on the Fright Check table.
Higher totals lead to worse consequences for the failed fright check. So, the margin of failure matters. However, the separate roll adds a substantial random element. As a result, it’s possible for a narrow failure to result in moderately severe consequences. Conversely, it may be possible for a player to escape from even a horribly failed roll with nothing more than a minor setback.
The choice to use two rolls seems driven by genre conventions rather than mechanical requirements. Unpredictability is a trademark of the horror genre, so the outside possibility of a serious disaster even for relatively narrow failures adds to the suspense. But, because there’s not a mechanical need to have a second roll, there’s no inherent problem with the GM ignoring the Fright Check table and instead determining their own result.
Every Thursday, Douglas Cole at Gaming Ballistic compiles posts from the GURPS blogosphere. This week, there are a couple of posts that I want to flag for the Just Roll 3d6 audience:
Ken DeLyzer writes on Game Mastery, or ‘How I learned to love the story.’ The key takeaway is that the most important part of the gaming experience is the stories that the participants generate together. If you can build a story that draws the players in, the details of the rules, mechanics, and balance will all fade away.
Derrick White’s post 10 Points of Flavor suggests having a flavor-only pool of points for character creation, in order to make the characters more three-dimensional. This is a great suggestion for overcoming the urge to optimize every element of every build.
Warren “Mook” Wilson gives some advice on running one-shots, including how to use Halloween as an opportunity to introduce new players to the fun of RPGs, in Halloween One-Shots.
In the heat of combat, the last thing you want to do is pause to look up a a rule. GURPS has detailed weapon statistics that players can write on their character sheets before the game, but sometimes the GM needs to improvise. The PCs accidentally alerted the night watch and you need a polearm’s damage? A character turns a length of rope into a makeshift lasso? When the GM needs to come up with damage numbers on the fly, it can be helpful to make a ballpark estimate of how much damage an attack should generate.
This post provides order-of-magnitude estimates for how much damage weapons do. This is a deliberate oversimplification meant to give GMs guidance when figuring out reasonable estimates: it rounds numbers from the Basic Set, skips over rules in supplement volumes, and doesn’t look at special kinds of damage like armor divisors, fragmentation, and cyclic damage. Using this scale, GMs can choose damage rolls that pass the eyeball test.
Damage Roll Estimates
1d-3: Attacks that deal this level of damage are minor. When relevant, any kind of armor can absorb this magnitude of damage. Any injury that gets through won’t have much effect unless the character is damaged repeatedly.
Bite (average strength)
Fire (momentary exposure)
Punch (average strength)
1d-2: This category is a little more dangerous. Weak armor may not absorb all the damage, but the injury isn’t usually severe on its own.
Bite (above-average strength)
Kick (average strength)
Punch (above-average strength)
1d-1: This level of damage starts to leave an impact. A high roll can take out nearly half of a character’s HP without protection, and multiple hits will quickly accumulate the injury even under the best of circumstances.
Bow (average strength)
Fire (sustained exposure)
Kick (above-average strength)
Knife (average strength)
1d: Attacks at this level can knock out a normal, unarmored human in two hits! Even a single hit can cripple a limb or cause major injury.
Bite (extraordinary strength)
Bow (above-average strength)
Knife (above-average strength)
Longbow (average strength)
Poison (strong, e.g. arsenic)
Punch (extraordinary strength)
1d+1: Armor is almost mandatory to withstand these attacks. Unprotected characters can expect to lose limbs or collapse from shock.
Axe (average strength)
Bow (extraordinary strength)
Crossbow (average strength)
Kick (above-average strength)
Longbow (above-average strength)
Spear (average strength)
Sword (average strength)
2d: These attacks can fell an unprotected human in a single blow, and even armored characters will be in trouble if they suffer multiple attacks!
Axe (above-average strength)
Crossbow (above-average strength)
Knife (extraordinary strength)
Longbow (extraordinary strength)
Poison (severe, e.g. cobra venom)
Quarterstaff (average strength)
Spear (extraordinary strength)
Sword (above-average strength)
3d: At this level, even basic armor may not be enough to keep a character alive. Unarmored characters will need a great deal of luck to withstand an attack and continue functioning.
Axe (extraordinary strength)
Crossbow (extraordinary strength)
Quarterstaff (extraordinary strength)
4d: Unless you are extraordinarily well protected and lucky, your character is out of the battle once one of these blows lands.
Poison (deadly, e.g. cyanide)
Beyond 4d: Attacks that do more than 4d damage tend to be either superscience weapons, futuristic technology, or weapons designed for heavy targets rather than attacking individuals. You can scale the numbers as large as needed, but it may make more sense to give the weapon an armor divisor or affliction rather than just increasing the numbers.
In the examples above, “average,” “above average,” and “extraordinary” refer to the human norm (specifically ST levels of 10, 12, and 15). It’s not uncommon for realistic animals to reach ST levels of 20, and of course fictional creatures can have far higher strength levels. In those cases, extrapolate as necessary!
The damage rolls were chosen based on the GURPS logarithmic progression. GURPS uses a six step progression in several places, most notably the Size/Speed/Range table, to scale modifiers among several orders of magnitude. The progression goes: 1, 1.5, 2, 3, 5, 7, 10, and then repeats with the new order of magnitude as the base level (so 10*1.5 = 15, 10*2 = 20, etc.). The damage rolls listed yield an average damage that roughly tracks this progression.
With the Dungeon Fantasy Boxed Set Kickstarter active, this post will discuss why Dungeon Fantasy is an awesome game. GURPS Dungeon Fantasy is easily the bestselling gaming line for GURPS, and dungeon delving fantasy games in general make up the vast majority of the RPG market. It’s no accident that dungeon dives are so popular, so let’s discuss why!
This post will discuss why dungeon fantasy is awesome in two ways. First, I’ll discuss why the genre of fantasty-based dungeon adventures is so popular. Then, I’ll explore why the GURPS version of that genre, the Dungeon Fantasy line, stands out.
Fantasy Dungeons are Fun
There are a lot of varieties of dungeon-based fantasy, but most games revolve around some core similarities:
Larger-than-life heroes: The protagonists of dungeon fantasy games are Heroes with a capital H. They are capable of great feats and take on challenges that would kill lesser mortals. The power scale for dungeon games characters ranges from starting adventurers that already stand out as exceptional when compared to most people, all the way up to demigods that directly affect the forces of creation. As larger-than-life characters, players can imagine themselves as true champions in the world.
Life-and-death encounters: One of the key elements of the dungeon delving genre is combat against evildoers. Your adventurers can wipe out the orcs guarding the prized treasure, or they can go toe-to-toe with the supernatural beasts that have awakened in the deep. Players get a vicarious thrill from showing off their abilities in the face of deadly threats, and the dungeon fantasy genre provides endless encounters for characters to demonstrate feats of bravery, daring, and awesomeness.
Fantasy settings: Dungeon delving games generally take place in fantasy worlds inspired by great works like Beowulf, The Lord of the Rings, and The Wizard of Earthsea. In these worlds, humans are joined by other races like elves and dwarves, suggesting that the world is much larger and more mysterious than our own. Magic is real, and players are empowered to participate in a world that is affected by supernatural forces and creatures. The world is populated by mythic beasts like dragons and vampires, which pose challenges worthy of their larger-than-life protagonists. These environments carry rich tropes from world mythologies and primordial imagery that can embody the deepest human emotions. Put simply, fantasy brings to life millenia of human storytelling.
Dungeon delving adventures: The dungeons that the adventurers explore are themselves exciting because they build on the quest archetype. Dungeons can hide buried treasure, supernatural forces that must be defeated, and everything in between. Dungeons also bring danger. Explorers can be threatened by the physical environment, by the creatures that roam the depths, and by traps set to protect the prizes buried far beneath the surface.
Awe-inspiring missions: The goals of dungeon diving are exciting. Character can explore for lost treasures from legend or can search for magical artifacts that can shift the world’s balance of power. They can also hunt villains that embody evil, or even attempt to prevent earth-shattering disasters and conflagrations.
GURPS Dungeon Fantasy Rocks
The Dungeon Fantasy line within GURPS is a phenomenal representation of the dungeon exploration genre. There are a lot of reasons to choose GURPS as your system for dungeon adventures.
New Player Friendly
If you are new to RPGs, GURPS Dungeon Fantasy is a great entry point to the RPG hobby:
Simple core mechanics: GURPS runs entirely on a simple 3d6 system. Roll 3 normal dice, add the result, and compare to your target number. Some of the game rules add details to this mechanic; for instance, the GM can modify your target number if the task is easier or harder than usual. But, the basic system is incredibly simple to understand.
Quick-start character templates: The character templates are straightforward. It’s easy for brand new players to be up and running quickly because they only need to make a couple of decisions in order to customize their character. Many RPGs require players to flip through multiple chapters of the characters book in order to create their adventurer; GURPS can lay out all your choices in short blocks of text.
“You describe it, you can try it”: GURPS is designed to enable players to describe what they want to do, and the GM can interpret that action into the game mechanics. For instance, characters don’t need to have a special ability in order to grapple or slam into their opponent; if the player wants to wrestle an opponent, he or she can attempt a skill roll. The character sheet becomes a reference tool instead of a crutch; the character’s options are as wide as the player’s imagination.
Player choices matter: every RPG needs to balance luck with player autonomy. GURPS errs on the side of making player choices matter. The 3d6 system creates a bell curve, so extreme results are rare. In practice, that means that players are less likely to be overcome by bad rolls of the dice, and it engages players by showing that they can directly influence the fate of their characters. Preparing for a challenge, making a smart tactical choice, or earning a bonus makes a bigger impact than raw luck.
For Experienced Players
Don’t be fooled into thinking that Dungeon Fantasy is just for new players! Because Dungeon Fantasy is built on the GURPS system, it has tons of options to meet every player’s needs.
Variety of character choices: The templates for GURPS Dungeon Fantasy permit the players to choose a wide range of character builds. The Kickstarter package includes nine racial backgrounds and eleven character professions; the full published Dungeon Fantasy line goes up to hundreds of worked character options.
Active defense: GURPS features active defenses; when a character is attacked, they get to choose how to defend themselves and attempt a skill roll. This adds a level of tactical thinking that is absent from RPGs that just roll against a passive defense (like an armor class level). In GURPS, players have meaningful decisions about how to stay safe in combat. Deciding to block an attack with a shield is mechanically different than trying to dodge an attack, and those differences make combat feel more interesting.
No second-class skills: Many dungeon diving RPGs place a premium on combat, and other adventuring activities get short shrift. Because GURPS is a skill-based system, combat skills like Brawling or Missile spells are governed by the same mechanics as non-combat skills like Diplomacy, Streetwise, and Hidden Lore. That means that your game is not limited to hack-and-slash playing—unless you want it to be!
Extensive supplements: The GURPS Dungeon Fantasy line is one of the best supported RPGs out there. SJ Games has published literally dozens of volumes that add options for characters, monsters, treasure, magic, allies and henchmen, adventures in town or in the wilderness, and more. In addition, the monthly Pyramid magazine publishes dungeon fantasy articles on a regular basis. Odds are good that GURPS has a dungeon fantasy supplement for whatever direction you want to take your game.
Full GURPS compatibility: Because Dungeon Fantasy is built on the GURPS ruleset, players can tap the full breadth of GURPS resources for their games. If you want to include gadgeteering or high technology into your dungeon game, the GURPS technology volumes stand at the ready. If you want to customize the magic system to use rituals, petitions to the spirit world, or rune-based invocations, you can incorporate rules from the Thaumatology line. GURPS Martial Arts unlocks tons of combat options; Social Engineering brings a similar depth to political intrigue, negotiating, and other interpersonal encounters. In short: if you want to take your game in a new direction, chances are good that GURPS has a way to do it.
Universal system: GURPS is a universal system, so it can run scenarios that are published for any game system. If you find an interesting adventure, it doesn’t matter if it’s designed for a different game. You can run it in GURPS.
The big news from Steve Jackson Games is the Dungeon Fantasy boxed set on Kickstarter. Dungeon Fantasy is the most popular genre line for GURPS, and sword-and-sorcery, hack-n-slash gaming is the single most popular form of roleplaying games in general. This boxed set should appeal to the vast majority of roleplayers, and this set in particular is designed as a standalone GURPS kit that is built for both new roleplayers and existing gamers.
This Kickstarter is incredibly exciting for Just Roll 3d6’s audience.
The box is designed as an entry product for Dungeon Fantasy games. You don’t need any other GURPS products to run the games, making it perfect for new players.
The five books in the box are comprehensive enough to run your game well past the beginner stages. You’ll get a wide variety of adventurers, combat and exploration rules, a huge manual of spells, a full book of monsters to throw at the heroes, and adventure hooks to keep even the most experienced gamers hooked.
The rules in this set are streamlined to make GURPS more accessible. Some of the detailed options have been pared back so that it’s easier to jump into a game. From improved character templates to a rewritten and refined magic volume to game mastering advice, the books are designed to make GURPS easy!
The boxed set includes a ready-to-run adventure, taking adventurers through a hack-n-slash quest that showcases why dungeon delving is such a roleplaying staple.
The set appears to be a great value. For just $50, you get five full-color rulebooks, combat maps and character figurines, and dice. Many RPGs charge that much for just the printed player’s manual! The Kickstarter has add-on options for a gamemaster screen ($20), PDF versions of the books ($35), and electronic versions of the entire existing Dungeon Fantasy line, as well as Pyramid magazine articles on Dungeon Fantasy available a la carte or in bundles.
Shipping costs can be high for international customers, but the PDF-only option for $35 is a great alternative. You’ll get all 400+ pages of content that can easily be referenced on your tablet or shared with your virtual gaming table.
If you are at all interested in GURPS or dungeon-dive roleplaying games, you should back this Kickstarter. The success of projects like this is important to show demand for more GURPS products, as well as to demonstrate the market for other RPGs content. In short, funding this project is a vote for the continued development of all RPG content. SJ Games has clearly taken the time to produce a well-designed product, and it deserves support from the RPG community.
Most people assume that GURPS character creation requires counting points. If they like that approach, they tend to enjoy GURPS. However, for players that dislike the kind of character creation that point buy systems encourage, they find GURPS intimidating, tedious, or overly complicated.
The reality is that there are a lot of ways to build a GURPS character. This post will discuss several popular character creation mechanics. Each method has its strengths and weaknesses. By choosing a mechanic that best fits the kind of game and participants that you have, you can create a more satisfying gaming experience.
Point buy is the default method of GURPS character creation. The GM sets a point budget, determines what traits are available or restricted in the campaign, and lets the players build their character within those guidelines.
Point buy is the most flexible method for character generation. In theory, the players can build whatever they want as long as they are willing to pay the cost. In practice, it’s not quite that simple: the GM can impose a surcharge for exotic traits like an Unusual Background cost, and the GM has to be willing to rule out abilities that conflict with the campaign assumptions or undermine other characters’ roles. But, even with these caveats, point buy is incredibly flexible.
Point buy also suits players that enjoy the character building game. For players who love the puzzle of optimizing their build and for power gamers that thrive on creating the most effective character possible, the point buy mechanic allows them to run wild.
However, the point buy approach places specific demands on the players and GM. First, the participants need to understand GURPS’ rules well enough to know how to find the traits they need (or to build the ones that aren’t available out of the box). For some games, this isn’t a difficult requirement. But, in other games, that complexity can overwhelm the participants.
Second, point buy works best if the players use similar levels of rules sophistication in building their characters. If one player has munchkin-ed their character via skill levels, talents, higher purposes, and other bonuses, and another player is building their character with a minimal working knowledge of the rules options, there’s potential conflict looming. The detailed, mechanically precise character needs to be confronted with limitations and precisely crafted challenges in order to take advantage of its design choices; by contrast, the minimal character would be torn to pieces in a campaign that used the same level of rules minutiae. It’s possible for the GM to balance those perspectives, but it is a challenging balancing act, especially when you add player temperaments to the equation.
Finally, point buy takes real world time. Each point is potentially another decision about how to build the character, and there are lots of interrelated tradeoffs to consider. It takes players a while to work through their character with that level of precision.
Because point buy is so rules- and detail-oriented, it can be a burden for many new or inexperienced players. It’s a very powerful approach to roleplaying, but it’s also intimidating.
Templates are a streamlined version of the point buy approach. Templates provide prepackaged combinations of traits that go well together, allowing players to choose the template package as a whole. Some templates allow players to select among a couple of choices within a grouping: for instance, take three of the following five skills. Other templates leave the player with a handful of points to spend outside of the template’s parameters. It is very rare for templates to make all the choices for a player, so the player can still customize their character based on the template choices.
Character templates appear in the vast majority of GURPS publications, including the Basic Set. The most extensive treatment of templates is the Template Toolkit 1: Characters supplement, but they also figure prominently in the first volume of each worked genre line (Dungeon Fantasy, Action!, Monster Hunters, and After the End).
Templates sacrifice some of the flexibility of the point buy approach for a streamlined character creation process. Instead of choosing among hundreds of options, the player can create a character with a dozen decision points. This makes templates extremely attractive for quickly starting a game.
Another advantage of the template approach is that it is one of the few character creation methods in GURPS that produces balanced characters. In general, there is no way to ensure that two 300-point characters are balanced. Even though the characters are built on the same budget, they may be designed for radically different kinds of games and hence built to face entirely separate kinds of challenges. Well-crafted templates, however, can focus the character options into a handful of ideas that are equally capable within the context of the game campaign.
However, templates require prep work to set up. There are lots of published GURPS templates, including key character archetypes in the Dungeon Fantasy, Action!, Monster Hunters, and After the End lines, and if those templates fit the campaign concept the prep work is minimal. If the templates need to be created from scratch, however, the GM needs to invest a lot more effort.
In addition, templates still require relatively detailed rules knowledge. Players can’t evaluate the choices on a template if they don’t know what the traits mean. Depending on the template complexity, this can impose a substantial burden on players.
Buckets of Points
The buckets of points approach aims to streamline the decision-making involved in the point buy method without requiring the upfront work of template generation. The GM sets a point budget for characters, but then sets additional limits for how many points need to (or can be) spent on specific elements of character creation. For instance, a 250 point character could have 150 points allocated to the attribute bucket, 50 points allocated to advantages, and a final 50 points available for skills.
The bucket of points approach is described in Pyramid 3/65 Alternate GURPS III, and Sean Punch outlines a number of options for using this approach. The GM can make the point buckets cover all the character points available, or the players can be given some points that can be spent in any category. Some GMs may want to permit exchanges between the categories, while others may want the categories completely independent. There are options for how to handle disadvantage points, awarded character points, and even subcategories of buckets.
The major advantage to the buckets of points approach is that it requires far less prep time than template creation. Buckets of points also preserve the flexibility of the point buy approach.
The disadvantage to the buckets of points approach is that it still relies on rules knowledge by the players and GM to determine what to take within their point budgets.
There are also approaches to character creation that de-emphasize the points mechanic. One example of a points-free approach is aptitude slots. Instead of making the players choose among traits with different point values, the player has a certain number of aptitude slots to allocate for his or her character, and the aptitude slots each represent a roughly equivalent number of points.
This approach stems from the “pointless” method introduced for the Dungeon Fantasy and Monster Hunters lines (published by Sean Punch in Pyramid 3/72 Alternate Dungeons and by Christopher Rice in Pyramid 3/83 Alternate GURPS IV, respectively). There are differences in terminology between the two versions, but the basic idea is that aptitudes of roughly equal value are presented to players, and the players decide to take aptitudes until their character runs out of aptitude slots.
The pointless aptitude slots approach is great for simplifying and speeding up character creation because it reduces the number of complexity of choices that the players face. For Dungeon Fantasy or Monster Hunters, the setup work is also done; GMs can tinker with the list of aptitude options, but they can also work straight from the articles.
For other genres, the aptitude slot route requires some GM time. Aptitude slots are probably faster to create than templates but slower than buckets of points; the actual result will depend on the GM’s experience more than anything else.
Like templates, aptitude slots have the potential to enforce balanced characters. However, templates are easier to balance because they can restrict the player decisions more precisely.
All of the options so far are either built on points explicitly or group traits together based on roughly equal point values. However, it’s not necessary to have characters that are based on points at all. Plug-and-play characters ignore point cost entirely; they simply give the player a set number of slots to fill, and the player can put whatever is appropriate into those slots.
The best example of a plug-and-play character that I know about is the Seven-Minutes GURPS Character by Warren “Mook” Wilson. The player chooses from three sentences to describe his or her character’s attributes, and plugs in the appropriate numbers to the character sheet. Then, the player plugs in three descriptions for advantages and one disadvantage description (which don’t have to perfectly match “official” GURPS traits). Finally, the player plugs in four skills (including one wildcard) to finish off the character.
Plug-and-play characters dramatically simplify the choices that players need to make in order to create their characters. They also are more forgiving for players who don’t know GURPS rules inside and out because they don’t require players to translate ideas into official GURPS builds. As long as the player and GM have a shared understanding of what the descriptions mean, they can play the game. Finally, they are very quick to create, both during character creation as well as during the GM prep; creating the right number of blanks only takes a few minutes and the seven minute estimate for actual character creation is a realistic possibility.
Plug-and-play characters provide a lot of player flexibility, but in a very different way than point buy mechanisms. With point buys, player flexibility comes from their ability to create their character within a point budget – they can spend their point budget on anything within the rules (unless the GM vetoes it). By contrast, plug-and-play characters permit flexibility in the sense of not needing a published trait; the player can create whatever trait they want for the character. But this descriptive flexibility comes at a cost of having a more limited number of choices than in all but the most stingy point budgets or templates.
Because plug-and-play characters have a limited number of choices, the characters tend to be one-dimensional. They don’t have to be—and GMs can permit players to fill more slots in order to create more well-rounded characters—but the shorter the template, the more likely that the character represents a single niche.
Plug-and-play characters require a strong guiding hand from the GM during character creation in order to make sure the descriptive elements are reasonable given the campaign setting and the roles of the other PCs. This is a slightly different kind of burden than in point-buy campaigns. In point-buy situations, the GM needs to understand GURPS rules well enough to prevent excessive munchkin-ing or abusive combinations of traits. With plug-and-play characters, the GM needs to be able to develop a shared understanding with the player about what those descriptions mean and what the player can expect to do during the campaign. They are related skills, to be sure, but there are differences of emphasis.
There’s also a potential problem in that plug-and-play characters may not necessarily translate into “real” GURPS characters built using the official rules. However, that concern is probably minor. Plug-and-play characters will play just like normal GURPS characters. The biggest difference is in the point costs; similar-looking plug-and-play characters can have radically different point costs because of how the descriptive elements correspond to official rules. However, there’s no rule that PCs have to be built on similar point budgets, and even equal point-cost characters can be unbalanced. So, this concern doesn’t have much practical impact.
Finally, crunch-heavy game mechanics need some extra thought in plug-and-play characters. Do magic users need to spend a skill slot on every individual spell? How powerful is each spell? Does each psionic ability need to be enumerated, and what is the cost to activate that ability? What exactly can a ninja do in battle, and how does that affect his or her opponents? These issues probably require some discussion between the players and GM before the game starts to make sure everyone is on the same page.
These five methods for building GURPS characters offer a lot of options for players and GMs. There’s no right answer for how to build a GURPS character; the key question is what method matches the needs of your players and GM.
If your biggest need is for players to build their characters quickly, without a lot of rules knowledge, then plug-and-play characters are the best choice. If your players have a little bit of rules familiarity, then templates and aptitude slots are almost as fast as plug-and-play characters. The bucket of points method requires both time and rules knowledge, and the point buy method is the worst choice for fast and new-player-oriented games.
If the limiting factor for your games is your GM’s prep time, then your best option is point buy, followed closely by plug-and-play characters and bucket of points options. Aptitude slots and templates will require more GM time, especially if the GM is building the choices from scratch.
If your players want to leverage their knowledge of the rules, enjoy crunchy games, and see character building as a puzzle to optimize, then point buy mechanics are perfect for your game. The buckets of points approach can give the players most of the flexibility of the point buy experience while providing some boundaries on their choices, which can help avoid munchkin-ing. Templates and aptitude slots take away a lot of the building fun from players, and plug-and-play characters will leave these players very unsatisfied.At the end of the day, the best character creation method is the method that gets the players to the table and lets them play the game that they want. By understanding the strengths of several different character creation options, you can make it easier to choose the right method to start playing!
Balancing combat in GURPS can be challenging, especially for new GMs. Running combat encounters is much easier when the GM knows how to abort a battle that is overwhelming the player characters.
Sometimes, the players deliberately bite off more than they can chew; in those cases, it makes sense for the battle to carry a lot of risk, and the GM is justified in letting the players suffer the total party kill that they have brought upon themselves. But most of the time, TPKs emerge by accident; the GM miscalculates what the PCs can handle, and the resulting carnage is a serious disappointment. GMs therefore want to minimize the risk of accidentally annihilating the party.
There are some obvious ways to bail from combat if an encounter is too deadly: having the NPCs suddenly pull their punches, adjusting stats on the fly, or fudging dice rolls. However, these actions can leave both the GM and players feeling cheated. It’s nice to avoid a total party kill, but it’s better to not put the players into that situation in the first place.
Fortunately, there are also ways to escape from combat situations that don’t undermine the narrative of the game. This post will discuss some of those techniques for GMs to end the combat without breaking the game’s immersion.
Negotiating a Cease Fire
Not every combat needs to continue until one side dies or passes out. One side may recognize that the other side wants something other than their death, and can offer to negotiate in exchange for safety. Or, the participants may be governed by a code of conduct (or legal norms) that accord privileges to those wishing to negotiate a stand-down.
In Pirates of the Carribbean, Jack Sparrow is captured at gunpoint when he remembers that the pirate code entitles him to parlay. He invokes his right to negotiate with the captain and is guaranteed safety until the negotiations are concluded. Jack is not out of the woods—and in fact his negotiations do not end well—but he averts his nearly certainty death at the hands of the crew.
The GM should make sure that his or her players know negotiated surrender is an option. But, the GM can also take the initiative in calling for negotiations. When the NPCs are firmly in control, negotiating for their goal is less risky than chancing a lucky shot from the PCs. As a result, the NPCs may have an incentive to de-escalate the situation and make the PCs bear the burden of their loss in the terms of surrender.
To set up a negotiated settlement, the GM should think through what motivates the NPCs. If the NPCs are simply cannon fodder for adventurers, then negotiation isn’t likely. However, if the NPCs have their own goals, pressures, and responsibilities, then there is room to negotiate a solution that moves the NPCs closer to their objectives.
Changing the Environment
Most new GMs think about the combat environment as a constant: once the space is set up, the characters make the action happen. But, the environment doesn’t have to be fixed. A power outage can cause the lights to go out, letting some characters escape, or the ledge suspended over a chasm can crack, threatening the safety of the characters standing there. Even something as simple as the passage of time can have an effect: when the sun rises, undead may have to retreat to the shadows.
If the PCs are truly overwhelmed, the GM can strategically change the environment to give them the initiative or provide a route for escape.
Changing the environment works best when the GM doesn’t save it for emergencies only. If the GM only changes the environment when the PCs are up against the wall, it feels like a cop-out. But, the GM can make environmental changes regular parts of the combat experience. Mist and smoke can obscure the battlefield as combat goes on; the walls can start to crack from the force of repeated impacts. Rivers can flood, fires can spread, reinforcements and allies can show up, and mana levels can ebb and flow. Having the environment change every round or two of combat makes battles feel more dynamic.
A savvy GM will mix up the impact of environmental changes. If the environment always benefits the players, it feels gimmicky. But if the changes sometimes benefit the opposition, they makes combat feel more uncertain and tense. Some environmental changes can be neutral, forcing both parties to adapt their tactics; others can be curve balls that change the whole dynamic of the encounter.
The GM can also gain credibility when changing the environment by linking environment changes to combat events. A boulder is unlikely to appear out of nowhere and cut off the pursuers—but if the characters were setting off explosives, suddenly the resulting avalanche is a creative effect of their actions.
Shifting the Threat
When one threat is poised to wipe out the party, the GM can breathe life into the encounter by shifting the threat to an even greater danger.
In The Fellowship of the Ring, the party seems doomed when they are surrounded by goblins deep in the mines of Moria. But, when the goblins hear a noise from the depths, they run away in a blind panic and leave the party to their own devices. Why? Because it turns out that goblins are not the worst thing in the dungeon—not by a long shot. The dungeon is also inhabited by a Balrog, a demon that so outclasses the goblins that they will flee for their lives even in the face of overwhelming victory against the party. With the goblins dispersing, Gandalf is free to lead the group on a wild race to escape the Balrog and find safety.
This trope of shifting the threat occurs in many works. For instance, in Jurassic Park, the protagonists are trapped by velociraptors in the Visitor Center, and they seem doomed until a T-rex breaks in and takes out the raptors. A variation of this trick occurs in Star Wars IV: A New Hope; the Tuscan Raiders that have captured Luke are scared away by the sound of a desert creature (that turns out to be a ruse played by Obi-Wan Kenobi).
Shifting the threat is a little bit of a deus ex machinca, so it needs to be used with care. It works best when the now-vulnerable antagonists have reason to think that the new threat is more dangerous, and it keeps the tension high if the PCs face greater risk as well. Note that the risk doesn’t have to be the same: the Balrog is threatening as a magical creature, while the goblins simply posed a mundane threat. What matters is that the stakes feel raised.
A little bit of foreshadowing can also improve how shifting the threat is received. The tyrannosaur is set up as a dangerous predatory early in Jurassic Park, so the T-rex’s attack doesn’t come out of nowhere.
To prepare the game for a possible shift in threat, the GM can think about who or what else is involved in the game world. Are there mutual opponents that can intrude? Do the antagonists have their own rivals that may interfere? Setting up these kinds of interconnected plot lines also makes the world feel three-dimensional, which enhances the atmosphere of the game.
Playing into Overconfidence
Finally, the antagonists do not need to go for the killing blow right away. Villains are frequently victims of their own hubris. They stop to gloat, to share their plans for inevitable victory, and to force the protagonists to watch their triumph.
If it fits with the personality of the NPCs, this option can be used to end a combat scene without a TPK. The player characters can be surrounded and lectured by the antagonist, who accidentally reveals a secret that the PCs can exploit. Or, the PCs may simply have enough time to catch their breath, recover a fatigue point, and overwhelm the opposition with a surprise all-out blitz.
Antagonists will frequently choose to capture the main characters and lock them away rather than killing them outright. GMs can easily use that option in order to end the combat and steer the campaign into a jail break scene. Depending on the genre of the game, it may be appropriate to include an interrogation session or an attempt to torture the PCs for further information; in other genres, the PCs may discover additional captives that can be allies in their escape attempt. Sometimes, the PCs may be able to bribe a guard to help them sneak away; other times, the captors are simply inattentive or overlook crucial details. Any of these options creates interesting possibilities for the game to advance.
Summary: Keep the Story Going
These four techniques to abort a combat scene all give GMs the ability to adjust on the fly if an encounter is too challenging for the PCs. The important thing is that all of these methods keep the story going. By adding twists to the situation, the GM can make the story more compelling. Having these techniques in your back pocket is a far better solution than simply fudging die rolls.