This article originally appeared in Pyramid #21
Designer's Notes GURPS Goblins
by Malcolm Dale and Klaude Thomas
GURPS Goblins follows the adventures of a small group of near-humans subsisting in the teeming streets and dark alleyways of an alternative England. The year is 1830, the city is London, and the clothes are very stylish.
To the inhabitants of the finest metropolis on Earth, life is marvelously uncomplicated. Before them stand the perils of disease, alcoholism, the noose, and rampant immorality. Behind them is a childhood of hardship and danger, an education in the best British public and private schools imaginable, and a half a pork pie. In their hand is the other half a pork pie, and sixpence to buy a nice cup of tea to wash it down. If they are very lucky they'll also have the generous benefits of an apprenticeship to carry on with — perhaps a big red coat with shiny buttons, or a good, sharp ratting shovel.
It may come as a surprise to the reader to learn that GURPS Goblins was born in New Zealand in the mid-1980s. For those without an atlas to hand, New Zealand is about the size and population of Arizona, but is in a different hemisphere and is surrounded by water. A few people mistakenly believe that New Zealand is part of Australia — this has not been the case for some 100 million years.
The game began as an attempt to depict goblins from fiction and fairytale in roleplaying terms. In seeking to portray their merry lifestyle, it was thought that people might enjoy roleplaying goblins rather than chopping them up. There was, however, an ulterior motive. The rapacious behaviour and low moral character of PCs had come to be both disappointing and sickening. NPCs were expected to maintain a normal, functioning society — running shops and hospitals, making fine and beautiful treasures, and paying taxes, while PCs ran amok among them, taking whatever they wanted and acting as they liked — slaughtering and pillaging without care or constraint. Despairing of ever forcing players to behave decently, a society was created of non-player characters who behaved exactly as PCs did — unfettered by love, pity, honour, social conscience or other moral restraint. In short, goblins. Surprisingly, this society of scurrilous rogues and egotists functioned fairly well, with characters blending seamlessly into the crowd.
The society was first placed in a pseudo-medieval city, with a little cathedral, guildhall and the like. In seeking information to fill this empty stage, Malcolm came across a book which described an entire "goblin" society in every sordid detail — not in the dark ages but in the heart of the industrial revolution. The book was called London's Underworld, and was an extract from a huge work written in the 1850s and '60s by Henry Mayhew. Mr Mayhew had talked to poor people, and recorded their life stories in their own words, with a little description of them and sometimes a picture. These people led dreadful lives. Most of them survived by illegal means — pickpocketing or burglary for the gentlemen, prostitution for the ladies — while others performed extraordinary tasks for a living, wading in the mud of the Thames to find pieces of coal dropped off boats, shouting stories in the street for public amusement, shifting excrement, catching rats, or anything else to keep themselves fed. Goblins shifted easily from its garbled medieval cradle into this more vile, more coherent society. Goblins have always been industrial figures in fiction, and it was no trouble to get them out of their codpieces and into tailcoats.
The date of the game settled on 1830 for no particular reason. As it settled, higher ranks of society were added, and the whole social system filled out. It wasn't necessary to "goblify" London society very much . . . it was already horrible enough in its extremes. In fact, any aspect of society which the reader might find disgusting has most likely been taken from our own lurid history, without embellishment or exaggeration. Some facets of real history were too unpleasant for goblins, and were toned down in the interest of good taste. For example, there is no discrimination on the basis of sex or skin colour among goblins, whereas both were cornerstones of English society in the 1830s. Child abuse, poverty, alcoholism, leeching, venereal disease, black pudding and other unpalatable subjects are delved into thoroughly, but without unseemly relish. These features of the society are the "monsters" of the game — the evils which the PCs must fight and eventually vanquish.
By the time SJ Games saw the book, Goblins had been in existence for most of a decade, and had been published twice by a tiny company called Circle Games. The rationalising of the rules and the transformation into a GURPS product took two people more than 500 hours, and added well over 100 pages of source material. Over the erratic history of the game, numerous rules and systems for doing everything had developed with no coherent pattern whatsoever. These were mercilessly cut and tucked. Fortunately, some peculiarities survived, and just as fortunately most of them have been replaced with more sensible rules from the GURPS system. Death, which was impossible in the original game, has wormed its way back in, but there is still no necessity for it — a game can proceed very well without anyone killing or dying for months.
The final product is neither a depiction of the classic goblins of fiction, nor an accurate representation of 1830s London. It is a blend of the two which — like celery and peanut butter — go together better than you would expect. Yet, despite this fortuitous outcome, a curious question remains. Why would a game portraying 19th century London be written by roleplayers from New Zealand? A possible explanation is that 1830s London mirrors, in a more extreme form, the social climate of the game's inception.
At that time the players' actual lives were existentialistic mosaics of vacuous unemployment, unpleasant and meaningless employment, and continual struggle versus anxiety and depression. Unexpectedly, the full and glorious benefits of a tertiary education had resulted in a flotsam-like existence — flavoured with fleas, coffee, and the cheapest wine available. Malcolm was working as a valueless cog in a machine producing sprinkler parts. He envisioned that characters would obtain work in the service of their betters. The players, alienated from mainstream working class society, simply mugged and stole from whichever NPC appeared softest and richest. To compensate for this, the upper classes were given advantage of adding their social rank to their ability levels.
When we look at the use of alcohol within the game, we again find a relationship between reality and fiction. As a group of cynical ex-students with little or no social merit, drinking suspended morality and good judgment in favour of sex, melancholy, and ill health . . . three wonderfully effective forms of distraction. Indeed, one of the authors has quite often had cause to help the other off the floor following many a solitary round with the bottle. In the original game, drinking was the only path to social advancement. In GURPS Goblins, alcohol consumption is still very important. In 1830s London, in Whitechapel, drinking was absolutely central to social life.
Likewise, the essential poverty of unemployment, coupled with unlimited free time, gave rise to a lifestyle much like that of the beginning goblin, blessed with only their wits, half a pork pie, and sixpence. Of course, the inhabitants of Whitechapel were a great deal poorer than the unemployed of New Zealand. Nevertheless, expectations instilled with our education made the US$70 per week welfare pay-out seem like a pittance. Certainly, any debt or serious illness devastated one's finances and made for much wishful thinking about the fruits of criminal activity.
That these factors in the social environment should enter Goblins is not purely conjecture. In all of our early conversations about the essential philosophy beneath the game design, we agreed that Goblins should involve the players, as distinct from their characters. Take the example of sinfulness. Players appear to care very little if their character's soul is damned in perpetuity for murder. But they become extremely concerned if their character begins to suffer from some crippling disease. Likewise, the player barely gives a toss for his August Majesty's rank and heritage — the fact that King George also receives an enormous die modifier on everything he does is of far more significance. So a very earnest endeavour was made to think about how the player's minds worked, and then to write rules that worked with the motives observed.
In this sense, Goblins plumbs the dreadful side of roleplaying in a way that "dark" games, such as Vampire or Werewolf, do not. Goblin society is the world of the player, and they seem to carry the concerns of the real world into the game, enjoying the freedom to overcome the frustrating limitations of real life, often acting with unreasonable greed and vengeance. This may seem horrible, and I suppose it is, but it works well. The authors, of course, intend GURPS Goblins for charming, considerate roleplayers — none of whom would ever take a real ratting shovel to the fingers of an actual undertaker, or steal his nice white silk stockings, or drop a ratting ferret down his trousers and place bets upon the outcome — such a thing would be monstrous!
Article publication date: September 1, 1996
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