The Rules-Light GURPS Shopping Guide

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

GURPS Basic Set
GURPS Basic Set

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

GURPS Action 2: Exploits
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

GURPS Thaumatology: Ritual Path Magic cover
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 cover
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.

Other Resources

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 Thaumatology: Ritual Path Magic Review

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.

Learning Magic

Harry Dresden, a prototypical example of a ritual path magic caster
Harry Dresden, the protagonist of The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher, is a prototypical example of a ritual path magic caster

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.

Performing Magic

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

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 Grimore

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.


GURPS Thaumatology: Ritual Path Magic cover
GURPS Thaumatology: Ritual Path Magic

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.

GURPS Thaumatology: Ritual Path Magic is available as a PDF download from Warehouse 23 for $9.99.

Encouraging Faster Play with Perks

One of the most common ways that play slows down is when participants need to calculate a lot of modifiers on the fly. Combat is an obvious example: if a player needs to determine their effective skill with a specific weapon and technique while performing a specific maneuver, and then needs to determine what the damage is for that attack, there are a lot of variables in play.

Whenever there are a lot of options for how to execute a skill, there is an opportunity to streamline the play experience with Perks. Perks are introduced in Basic Set as 1 point advantages that characters can purchase:

“A perk can provide a modest bonus (up to +2) to an attribute, skill, or reaction roll in relatively rare circumstances” (p. B100).

To speed up play, GMs and players can choose to use Perks to give small bonuses for pre-selecting the relevant options and doing the math before play starts. This post will show a couple of canonical examples of these Perks before introducing some new options.

Trademark Move Perks

GURPS Power-Ups 2: Perks
GURPS Power-Ups 2: Perks

The Trademark Move perk is described in Power-Ups 2: Perks. A player can purchase this Perk for a specific combination of combat options—maneuver, weapon, technique, and hit location. Pre-selecting these options means that all the relevant modifiers, damage dice, etc. can be calculated in advance, so there’s no need to determine the details at the table.

In exchange for pre-selecting the options (and spending 1 character point on the Perk), the player gets a +1 bonus any time he or she uses the Trademark Move exactly as defined.

Trademark Move is a great Perk because it gives a mechanical incentive for players to choose a streamlined play option. It also works well narratively—the character has practiced his or her Trademark Move enough that he or she is a little more skilled at that move than ordinary skill rolls. Because the Trademark Move Perk only costs a point, it is easy to add in between sessions when a player learns how his or her character wants to be played in combat: just spend a point from the session advancement budget on the relevant Trademark Move.

Ritual Mastery Perks

GURPS Thaumatology: Ritual Path Magic cover
GURPS Thaumatology: Ritual Path Magic

Melee combat attacks are not the only situation in which there are a lot of modifiers flying around. The Ritual Path Magic system, detailed in Thaumatology: Ritual Path Magic, also involves on-the-fly determination of how to construct magic rituals, the energy costs, and the relevant skill(s).

To speed up that process, Ritual Path Magic offers the Ritual Mastery Perk. Whenever a character attempts a predefined ritual and has the associated Ritual Mastery Perk, he or she gets a +2 bonus to all rolls for that ritual.

Like the Trademark Move Perk, Ritual Mastery is a great way to mechanically reward players for doing the math before the game starts. Working a ritual becomes much faster when the ritual is defined (and agreed to with the GM) before play begins.

Trademark Moves for Ranged Attacks

GURPS Martial Arts
GURPS Martial Arts

The examples for Trademark Moves are all melee attacks, but there’s no reason characters couldn’t use a Trademark Move for a ranged attack as well. The GM could even permit a two-turn Trademark Move: Aim for one turn, then do a specified Attack maneuver with this weapon and these combat options—for instance, hit location or using a prediction shot (which is a Deceptive Attack applied to ranged combat; see Martial Arts, p. 121). For the two-turn version, the GM should consider making the Perk a +2 bonus.

Other Situations

As long as the situation is narrow enough, the GM can encourage players to buy Perks covering other kinds of skill uses that have lots of modifiers. The basic idea is to look for situations that have a comparable level of specificity to the Perks above.

If you are playing a game with detailed social interaction rules, there might be an opportunity for a Perk that involves a combination of social skills. For instance, scanning an audience for a good person to question, asking for information in an appropriate way, and then ascertaining whether the person’s body language is trustworthy or deceptive could be a “social trademark move” that can be treated as a single roll of the lowest base skill among Observation, Diplomacy, and Body Language, with an additional +1 bonus from the Perk.