GURPS In Retrospect
By Steve Jackson
The launch of GURPS Fourth Edition will be yet another milestone in a path that has stretched now for nearly 20 years. Since the release of Man to Man in 1986, we've published around 200 GURPS titles, and there are more than a million copies in print. And that's just in English; the game has been translated into Japanese, French, Spanish, German, Italian, Korean, and Portuguese.
Our path will take some interesting turns before long. The online version of GURPS is coming along; that will open up the system to a lot of people who have never seen it before, and make it possible for old groups, split up by time, to resume their adventuring. But how did we get where we are today?
It started before there was such a thing as Steve Jackson Games. My first RPG system was The Fantasy Trip, published by Metagaming starting in 1977. It had its strong and its weak points, but I liked it. (And some people are still playing it today.) But all things come to an end. My relationship with Metagaming ended, and a year or so after that, so did Metagaming itself. For quite a while I harbored hopes of buying the rights to publish it myself . . . but that proved not to be.
Now, the original impetus behind TFT was, quite frankly, to create a playable combat system for Dungeons & Dragons. That combat system was Melee, and followed by the magic version, Wizard. At the time those minigames were created, there was no thought of building them into a complete roleplaying game . . . they covered character creation and combat, and that was it. The decision to write a whole roleplaying system around them was Metagaming's. Not, I hasten to add, that any arm-twisting was required to get me to work on it. To the contrary; it was the biggest, neatest project I'd ever had, and the more we used Melee/Wizard combat to resolve D&D battles, the more the shortcomings of the rest of the 1970s-vintage D&D rules grated on me.
Thus, The Fantasy Trip. And it had its day in the sun . . . but sometime in late 1982, I had to admit that there would never be a new edition . . . at least, not from me. Time to move on. So I started thinking about what the next evolutionary step might be. The goal of TFT had been well met. It was now possible to play out positional, tactical combat in a RPG. But I had a new goal. I wanted to create a system that would work for any background, any genre. A universal system.
TFT had been solidly based in fantasy. But it might have grown into a universal system (Metagaming had actually started to move in that direction, and while I was trying to buy the game back, I made many, many pages of notes on how that might be done. Alas, lost now . . . I looked for them a few years ago and could not find them.) But that was no longer an option.
Obviously, the new game would have to be significantly different from TFT, both for legal safety and because I didn't want to repeat myself. But there were a few points about TFT where I felt I'd gotten things just exactly right; I didn't want to change those for the sake of change.
- The game used only 6-siders, and in moderate numbers. No polyhedra, no huge munchkiny handfuls of dice.
- Character creation was point-based. As far as I know, Melee was the first RPG(esque) game to do that. By the early 1980s, of course, it was a standard.
- The game was skill-based, without classes or levels.
- At the same time, there were some significant issues with TFT . . . issues that I wanted to address, and that in the addressing would let me differentiate the new game from the old one.
- TFT skills were "Boolean" . . . you either had them or you didn't. If you didn't have Broadsword skill, a broadsword was just a piece of metal in your hand. I wanted to represent the real-world fact that you can try almost anything, even if you haven't studied it, and that some skills will help you learn others. This, of course, became the GURPS default system.
- TFT lacked any way to represent "special abilities" . . . what we now know as advantages and disadvantages. (Incidentally, the Hero System was the first published game that I know of to extend point-based character creation to cover advantages and disadvantages. But that's not where I got the idea. Forrest Johnson had already written a Space Gamer article laying out the basic concept and giving advantages and disadvantages for Melee/Wizard characters. I bet he'd be delighted if he knew how many games had followed the trail he blazed.)
- The lists of skills and spells, which had seemed so long when I created TFT, proved not so long in practice. When campaigns ran for a year or more, experienced characters began to collect almost every ability they were eligible for . . . which meant that highly developed characters grew more similar rather than more distinct! Obviously, we needed more potential for character differentiation.
So I got started. There was a great deal of writing, and a great deal of rules tweaking, and eventually playtesting and more tweaking. Somewhere in there it became obvious that the combat system could be released first, as a game of its own. That's what happened. Man to Man was introduced at GenCon in 1985. And the gamers . . . both TFT fans, and those who had never seen TFT . . . liked it and wanted to know when the whole thing would be out. I was relieved, to say the least! The first supplement, Orcslayer, shipped before the end of the year. This was set in the fantasy world of Yrth, and introduced some characters that you'll meet again when GURPS Banestorm, the new Yrth worldbook, appears in 2005.
Onward to GURPS!
So GURPS became, not just the top priority, but very nearly the only priority for 1986. We started Roleplayer, a free newsletter for GURPS fans. SJ Games shipped only a single product in the first half of 1986 (Dueltrack, a Car Wars supplement). But that kept the doors open while we worked to finish the Basic Set and get it to the printers. I can clearly remember our "death march" to meet the final deadlines. We've had crunches since then, but never have so many people worked so long and hard . . . doing layout and pasteup until we couldn't see clearly, grabbing a nap under the layout table, and waking up to do it again.
And then came Origins and the release of the GURPS Basic Set. It was a boxed package, as was customary for RPGs in those days. It included the obligatory three books: Characters, Adventuring, and a pair of introductory adventures. And lo and behold, the gamers said it was good! And Man to Man was an Origins Award nominee at that same convention. By the end of the year, we'd shipped two worldbooks: GURPS Fantasy and GURPS Autoduel.
And the system grew. When GURPS was first released, people told me I was thinking too big. "How can it be a universal system when you don't have any worldbooks yet?" By the end of the year it was ". . . when you've only got two worldbooks?" . . . Soon it was ". . . only five worldbooks?" Then ". . . only 10 worldbooks?" But somewhere along there, people saw that yes, indeed, there was a lot of support, and that it was an ongoing thing. Now it's "But the system has 200 books! How can I buy all those?" The answer has always been "You don't need anything but the Basic Set. Buy the supplements that interest you."
The first edition sold out quickly, and the Basic Set reprint in 1987 was designated the Second Edition. There were a number of rules tweaks, but nothing earth-shaking, and a small change in presentation. The books in the box had heavier covers, printed in blue instead of just black-and-white.
The system went into a Third Edition in 1988. Times and styles had changed; instead of three books in a box, this was one single stand-alone book. At 256 pages, plus the 16-page "Instant Characters" booklet, it incorporated everything that had been in the boxed set. The new edition also benefited greatly from the work of system developer David Ladyman, who created the Speed/Range Table, a concept we are still using. This was also the point at which Will rolls were added to the system.
Other than that, the biggest change from Second Edition was the incorporation into the Basic Set of important new material from several worldbooks, creating new sections on Magic, Psionics, and Modern and Futuristic Weapons, and adding material in other places. The Third Edition of the Basic Set went through eight printings. The total number of copies in print of that edition alone approached 100,000!
Then in 1994, we shipped the "Third Edition Revised." There weren't any big rule changes here . . . it was a question of presentation. A great many important advantages, disadvantages, and skills had been added to the system since the release of the Third Edition. So we dropped the "Caravan to Ein Arris" adventure from the Basic Set (but it will be available again soon as a freebie from e23) and used the resulting 18 pages for all the most important new character information, plus a couple of useful tables.
In 1995, I did something very important for the line . . . I stepped aside from its day-to-day development. Sean "Dr. Kromm" Punch had been serving as a volunteer Q&A coordinator. We contracted him as full-time GURPS Line Editor. Note those very important words "full-time." Where before I had been able to give only a fraction of my attention to the continuing development of the system, now Kromm was able to think about it all the time. He continues to serve in that position, and now knows the game, I dare say, much better than I do. The top-to-bottom system revision that created the Fourth Edition would not have been possible without Kromm.
Kromm's first big job was to compile all the new advantages, disadvantages, and skills, from important to trivial, in GURPS Compendium I . . . just so nobody would feel they had to buy a new Basic Set just to get 18 new pages! The companion volume, GURPS Compendium II, likewise pulled together a great many rules options and expansions and added more. Both these were released in 1996.
In July 1998, we released the first edition of GURPS Lite, compiled by Kromm. This is a complete, playable set of RPG rules . . . the essence of GURPS in 32 pages. Although it's a free product, designed mostly for use by GMs in introducing new players to the system, it was also a significant step in system development. It proved once and for all that the GURPS system could be boiled down to a relatively small set of core rules . . . and GURPS Lite is proving very useful as we work with Worlds Apart to make GURPS Online happen.
GURPS Lite was also at the core of the last major evolution of GURPS before this new edition. That, of course, is the "Powered by GURPS" meta-line . . . books that include both background material and the Lite rules, so they can stand alone as fully playable RPGs. This started with the 1998 release of GURPS Discworld, which simply included the Lite rules as a supplement. Later "Powered by GURPS" releases have taken the Lite rules and incorporated them into the text, for greater ease of use. This approach has proven especially worthwhile with licensed products like the Hellboy Sourcebook and Roleplaying Game, which reach fans who have never played GURPS before.
Which brings us up to 2004, and the Fourth Edition. You've probably seen the pattern already. The development of GURPS has been a process of defining a core system, expanding it, then retooling the core system to more efficiently incorporate the expansions. Fourth Edition is the latest turn of the wheel, with the most sweeping set of changes yet . . . but at its heart, it's still GURPS. And that was the goal.
Article publication date: May 21, 2004
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