Simplify the Game with GM Style, Not Rules

Tool box

An easy way to simplify GURPS is to adjust the GM style to fit the kind of game that your group wants to play. Many groups assume that, because GURPS has rules for a wide variety of situations, they need to use those rules in order to model their game. Not true! GURPS is great for less complex games and less-rules-intensive play. The GM just needs to set the right expectations.

Toolkits Can Simplify

GURPS is often described as an RPG toolkit: it contains all the tools you need to run any kind of game you can imagine. All you have to do is pull the right tools out of the box by choosing the right rules, genre restrictions, etc.

The toolkit metaphor is accurate but misleading because it emphasizes all the tools available. As a result, too many people have the impression that GURPS is rules heavy; they see the full toolkit and assume that that’s what they have to play with. But, an important part of a tool kit is that it holds a bunch of tools that you don’t need for the project in question. When you’re actually doing construction, you pull out a couple of tools and you work with those tools. You don’t work with the whole toolkit at once. And, as long as your chosen tools are doing what you need, you can ignore everything else in the toolkit. You only need to open up the toolkit again when you realize that you need another tool that you haven’t yet pulled out.

One of the ways that the GURPS toolkit enables gamers to simplify is by turning rules off. The Introduction to the Basic Set is clear that the participants can choose what rules to use:

“The rulebooks include a lot of detail, but…all that detail is optional – use it only when it makes the game more fun” (p. B8).

The GURPS combat system—a part of the game that can seem rules-dense—is explicitly described as a part of the game that can be turned on and off. Again from Basic Set:

“But the combat system is ‘modular’; you can use all the rules for a complex, detailed, realistic combat simulation – or just those in Chapter 11 for a quick game” (p. B9).

Rules or GM Style?

Because GURPS has rules to cover such a variety of situations, it’s possible to find a rule that creates the effect you want. But, that doesn’t mean that’s the only way to create that effect. You can also create effects by changing the way that the gamemaster runs the game.

Let’s take a concrete example. Let’s say that you want to run a hack-and-slash campaign, and you’re worried about the rules for shock penalties slowing down the excitement. You have options for how to create that effect.

The first option that most people will think about is looking for rules to counteract shock penalties. In this case, there’s an advantage that has that effect: High Pain Threshold. By having all the PCs buy High Pain Threshold (and with the GM giving that advantage to all the relevant NPCs), that rule is turned off.

But, what if you’re not fluent in GURPS and don’t know which advantage has that effect? What if you’re not certain that there is such an advantage? Or what if you are running a game for new players that are trying to learn success rolls and DR, and aren’t yet ready to grapple with High Pain Threshold? That’s where option 2 comes in: just change your GM style.

The GM can decide that, for this campaign, shock penalties don’t fit into the game. As a result, the GM can simply handwave away shock penalties: no advantage needed, no rules lookups to determine what the advantage is or what other consequences it has. There’s nothing wrong with this method of play! As long as the GM is clear with the players so that everyone has the same expectations, there’s no problem.

Ideas for GM Style Modifications

Almost any part of GURPS can be simplified through GM style rather than rules. Here’s a short list to get you started:

  • Combat can be streamlined by eliminating shock, wounding modifiers, postures, and hit locations.
  • Fatigue can be turned off, or only assessed at the GM’s discretion.
  • Encumbrance can be ignored or tracked for only major items to simplify bookkeeping.
  • Magic can be simplified by substituting GM judgment for prerequisite lists.

If you want to simplify the game, go for it! Just make sure that the GM communicates with the players so everyone is on the same page. If for some reason the simplified gameplay ends up broken, you can always revisit the decisions with the group to create a game that everyone enjoys.

2 thoughts on “Simplify the Game with GM Style, Not Rules”

  1. I think this quote fits here:
    “your mind is your ‘game legs’,
    the rules are a crutch. You do not need the crutch
    if your legs can do the job on their own.”

    EABA V2.01 – Greg Porter

    1. “If you can do it eyeballi[ng] this doesn’t count as a system, you can do that in any other system too.”

      I have a very different take on that. Part of the strength of GURPS as a system is that it is possible to eyeball values and get workable, playable results. That’s only possible because GURPS is very well thought out, from the 50,000 foot view level of task difficulty modifiers to the hyper-granular level of “how likely are you to find someone in this small town that has this rare skill?”

      You can eyeball things in other systems, but how well it works will vary dramatically. Eyeball a new character class in DnD 4e, and it probably will be unbalanced relative to the other characters in the party. The system emphasizes crunch, and so the lack of mechanical balance matters.

      Conversely, FATE will allow you to eyeball things really easily. But, if you decide that you want a game to focus on those eyeballed details and you want more precision, you’re out of luck.

      GURPS does a really good job of providing support for both approaches, and everything in between. If you want the heavy rules, you can buy the supplement. If you want the rules-lite version, you have enough guidance in the Basic Set to make intelligent choices. And if you want to mix and match, by expanding the rule depth in one area (with supplements or house rules) while keeping things simple in other areas, the gameplay itself can naturally accommodate those varying degrees of exactness without problems.

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