Designers' Notes

GURPS High-Tech

by Shawn Fisher & Hans-Christian Vortisch

We have been fans of Michael Hurst's original GURPS High-Tech for almost as long as its existence; we both wrote other GURPS books that were inspired by it in one way or another. As equipment aficionados, firearm enthusiasts, and vehicle fans, we have tinkered with how to describe technology of all kinds in terms of the game for many years. How much damage does a flechette rifle do? How does a thermograph work? How fast can you distill ethanol for your armored car? What are the game stats for a flying boat?

When GURPS Basic Set Fourth Edition came along, it was clear from the outset that GURPS High-Tech was one of the other core books that would need to be updated. Rules- and stat-heavy, there was much that would have to be changed to align it with the new improved system. A few years earlier, still in the Third Edition era, we had conceived a joint-project called GURPS Gadgets, which was to be a gear catalog to update and expand High-Tech, and to address one of its few weaknesses, that being its focus on weaponry, especially military weapons. Gadgets was to address this, but never came to be.

Finally, in early 2004, we were extended an offer to write the new edition . . . something which we had dreamed of for a long time. However, we were not only contracted to update the old material, but to write a hugely expanded version for the Fourth Edition,a full-color, hardback book containing a whopping 240 pages of guns, gear, and vehicles (this was later even further increased to 256 pages!).

The main requirement was to change the outline of the book. The original book, as published in 1988 and revised (in details only) for two newer editions, was in many parts organized like a historical textbook, outlining technological developments as they occurred in history. The fourth edition was to become, first and foremost, an adventurer's catalog, not unlike GURPS Ultra-Tech. Thus, where the chapters in the old editions each addressed a different tech level, the chapters of the new edition had to cover a specific type of equipment instead -- survival and exploration equipment, weaponry, armor and defenses, medical technology, etc. An entirely new chapter on a few adventuring vehicles was to be thrown in, as well. Also, instead of TL4-7, as the old editions, it would now cover TL5-8.

Working closely together with David Pulver, who at the same time was working on the new edition of Ultra-Tech, we decided what gear to put in which chapter. We split the workload in half; Hans writing the chapters about weaponry and vehicles, and Shawn everything else.

The new organization makes it more easily accessible since individual items can be found more quickly, and the entire book is more generic and thus better suited to campaigns and settings that do not use historical Earth as background. That said, we included many historical examples and tidbits to explain the context of the equipment in a way that gamers would appreciate. Theodore Roosevelt kept extra pairs of eyeglasses while commanding the "Rough Riders"? Doc Holliday carried a Belgian Meteor "whippit" shotgun at the O.K. Corral?

Chapter One covers the basics: equipment statistics, design options, and explanations on the introduction of the Dirty Tech design textboxes. These boxes explain ways to make high-tech devices from scratch: armor, explosives, guns and ammunition, batteries, and so on. The goal here was to use as many of the background skills on the character sheet as possible.

Chapter Two was probably the most difficult chapter for Shawn to write. It describes the core technologies of a civilization -- power and information. Steam engines, generators, batteries, computers, slide rules, and office equipment. How do you copy a letter at TL5? What GURPS computer program does the ENIAC run? Books and libraries, database queries, and the Internet all get covered in Chapter 2. For purposes of brevity, much was left out -- microfilm and microfiche, nuclear power plants, and so on. Still, we feel the chapter is a good basic introduction to the type of technology for which an adventuring party might have a most pressing need.

In Chapter Three, Shawn went nuts. It's the tools and equipment chapter. Swiss army knives, survival kits, flashlights, hand-held sonar devices, night vision goggles. The list goes on and on and on. Climbing equipment, skis, snowshoes, scuba. We tried to be as generic as possible here, and still add historical flavor.

Chapter Four, required the most design work for Shawn. He had to find obscure body armor weights and costs, figure out their historical performance, and then massage the whole thing into a unified whole. This required a lot of communication back and forth between the authors and Sean Punch and David Pulver.

Chapter Five, Weaponry, turned out the longest, for several reasons. First, it covers the bulk of the material from the original editions, which was mainly weapons. Second, weapons are of special interest to many players. As GURPS Basic Set, Fourth Edition "only" lists a selection of generic weapons, this was the book to fill in the gaps. Also, guns are an especially notable part of popular culture, and many players want to get more specific when their characters' guns are concerned. Finally, this chapter includes many new rules to make gunplay more detailed, more interesting, and more fun. Covered are not only practically all the entries from the old editions, but also most of the stuff from GURPS Modern Firepower and GURPS Special Ops, and a lot from the various GURPS WWII books. The emphasis is on man-portable stuff useful to adventurers, but there are artillery pieces, missiles, and bombs.

Chapter Six is the espionage chapter: spytech and police equipment. Much of it was cribbed from GURPS Covert Ops, updated to Fourth Edition standards. Some of it is brand new, some based on David Pulver's Vehicle Design.

Chapter Seven is the medical chapter. It was written in parallel with the new edition of GURPS Bio-Tech. This is mostly brand new text, with extensive details on historical medical equipment.

Chapter Eight, Vehicles, covers an eclectic selection of vehicles for use by adventurers, from skateboards and motorbikes to jeeps, tanks, and flying boats. The vehicles described were primarily chosen for their potential use in adventures, but some also showcase special rules or features. While further books should considerably expand on this, High-Tech gives you a decent start.

How We Did It

We're often asked how one goes about writing a book. We won't lie to you: it's a massive undertaking. Be prepared for endless hours in front of a computer, chasing leads in the Internet, asking questions in various online forums full of experts, and ordering books from online retailers.

Some especially useful websites include:

Frankly, if you expect to do a decent job, we feel you'll spend all your advance royalties on books, books, and more books. Buy backorders of out-of-print historical journals, and any old catalogs you can find. Frequent garage sales, estate sales, and thumb through the bookshelves of used bookstores any chance you get.

We also contacted manufacturers, historians, historical re-enactors, military accoutrement aficionados, and called a few museums to set up a good time to visit. Tip: when you go to a museum, bring your own white cotton gloves in a little baggy. Ask polite, specific questions. Bring a notebook. You'll be surprised what you can get your hands on.


We eventually ran out of space; even 256 pages were not enough for all the gear that we researched and provided with GURPS stats. Here is a grab bag of outtakes that didn't make it.


In the interests of keeping High-Tech as generic as possible we used an item's full retail price, MSRP if you will. It would not be unreasonable to vary the price by 10-30% for market conditions, buying in bulk, etc. We assumed Merchant skill would drop the price for those with the requisite expertise. Used equipment would be even cheaper; half-price is a basic approximation. For "military surplus" equipment, meaning the stuff left over from a previous tech level, the price may be as little one-tenth of its original retail price, though equipment in good condition might actually increase in value -- as antiques!

Nuclear Power (TL7)

Nuclear power plants are essentially steam engines -- using a nuclear reaction rather than coal shoveled into a firebox, to create the steam which spins a turbine and creates electricity.

Self-Contained Nuclear Power Plant (TL8): This is nuclear-power-to-go: a sealed, computer-controlled nuclear power plant the size of city bus. It will operate, more or less without human intervention, for 30-50 years. It is specifically designed to be maintenance-free throughout its lifetime and can meet all the energy needs of a city of 50,000. $25 million, 250 tons., LC 1.

Nuclear Fuel (TL7)

Uranium is used as fuel in most nuclear reactors. Civilian power-plant grade U-235 (4% enrichment) is $500 per pound (about the size of a golf ball), and provides 150,000 kWh. Weapons-grade uranium is enriched to 90% or more; it is available on the open market for research and power production for $25,000 a pound (a "simple" nuclear bomb needs 70-90 pounds). LC0.

Historical Computers

Computers advance so rapidly throughout TL5-8 that a few sample computers can help show the rapid growth. Of course, these are intended to be general approximations, rather than exact simulations.

Difference Engine (TL5+1). Babbage's design was never completed. If it had been, it might look like this: macroframe computer with the hardened, electro-mechanical, and slow options. Complexity 0. $100,000, 4 tons, external power. LC4.

ENIAC (early TL7). One of the first all-electric computers, the ENIAC was a monstrous device with 19,000 vacuum tubes. Megacomputer with vacuum-tube option. Complexity 3. $10,000,000, 20 tons, external power. LC4.

UNIVAC (early TL7). The UNIVAC I was one of the first commercial computers. It had 5,400 vacuum tubes. Macroframe with vacuum-tube option. Complexity 2. $1,000,000, 2 tons, external power. LC4.

Bendex G-15A (TL7): The Bendex was one of the first successful business and research computers, with 800 vacuum tubes. Mainframe with vacuum-tube option. Complexity 1. $100,000, 1 ton, external power. LC4.

IBM 1401 (TL7). A major IBM product during the 1960s, it could be found in many large corporations and universities. Macroframe with transistor option. Complexity 3. $1,000,000, 2 tons, external power. LC4.

PDP-8 (TL7). A very common computer in middle-level business and science applications. Mainframe with transistor and compact options. Complexity 2. $200,000, 200 lbs., external power. LC4.

The machines require a primitive terminal and primitive storage, though magnetic tape is common for the later models.

Note that most of these computers cannot run a full suite of Software Tools, and so are restricted to running certain applications within the suite. The GM may, for instance, give a small bonus (+1 or +2) if the user is performing one of these limited functions against an adversary who does not have access to a computer.

Generally, however, primitive computers are simply basic tools for technological skills -- though the GM may declare that a bank of multiple computers can act as one or more Complexity levels higher, which may boost this high enough to act as Good-quality Software tools.

Alternately, the GM may declare that for certain applications the a computer's Complexity acts as a divisor on how long a project takes. For instance, a Complexity 3 computer may be treated as the equivalent of three skilled helpers (see Time Required, under New Inventions, p. B00). Note also that even primitive computers fulfill the requirements for Cryptography skill (p. B00), making the task much easier.

Infinite Weapons

The following firearms were intended to illustrate alternate technology paths or designs that could have been done historically, but just weren't.

Jarré-Armstrong Machine Carbine P/1860, .405 Pinfire (U.K., 1860-1869)

In 1859, Jean Jarré of Paris patented a selective-fire machine carbine that used his harmonica-type feed: the "magazine" is a steel block drilled with 20 holes that serve as chambers and are individually loaded with copper pinfire cartridges. The magazine is then inserted horizontally from the left into the gun, and slides to the right like a harmonica as the chambers are fired in series. The overall weapon is compact and well-finished with gleaming brass fittings. The Pattern 1860 was adopted by the British Army and Royal Marines.

This submachine gun is found on Etheria, a Quantum 6 world (see GURPS Infinite Worlds and GURPS Steampunk). Historically, Sir Robert Moray of the Royal Society of Science wrote of a British inventor who, in 1664, claimed to be able to construct a selective-fire black powder machine pistol! Unfortunately, the name of that genius is not known, nor whether he actually built such a device and how -- but the idea certainly is very old. "Machine carbine" is the old-fashioned British nomenclature for a submachine gun, which was still used during WWII. The pinfire was an early type of metallic cartridge that predated the more commonly known rimfire and centerfire variants still used today. Jarré patented and sold harmonica-type repeating weapons in the 1850s and 1860s. And Sir William Armstrong & Co. was an important English arms manufacturer in 1847-1897.

Barrett M97 Dragonfang, .50 Browning (USA, 1997-)

The M97 Dragonfang is a short-barreled, stockless personal defense weapon (PDW) designed for dragons and combat golems -- it would also be suited as a sidearm for large supers or mecha. Chambered for the .50 Browning round, it can deliver a considerable punch against other magical creatures as well as light vehicles. It lacks a stock and is intended to be fired one-handed.

Many dragons have their guns custom-enchanted. For example, giving it +1 Acc would add $6,250 (see pp. B481-483).

It fires solid projectiles (in the table) and APHEX (Dmg 6d×2(2) pi with 1d-2 [1d-2] cr ex follow-up) or SPDN (Dmg 6d×2(2) pi).

The Dragonfang is found on Merlin-1, a Quantum 3 world (see p. B529, GURPS Infinite Worlds, and GURPS Technomancer, where it first appeared). In real life, Ronnie Barrett patented his first .50-caliber semiautomatic sniper rifle in 1982. Shortening the M82 and providing a selective fire option is certainly possible, although it poses certain strength requirements on the user . . .

Gustloff MG88, 7.92×42mm Krieghoff (Germany, 1988-)

The Maschinengewehr 88 is the latest variant of the long line of German general-purpose machine guns (GPMG) tracing their origins back to the Gustloff MG44 developed by Professor Barnitzke. It employs a flywheel action that keeps weight low and allows a high rate of fire. Like the Mauser StG03 assault rifle (see GURPS Infinite Worlds), the MG88 fires a caseless telescoped round perfected in the 1970s. The weapon is still standard issue for the stormtroopers of the SS-Raben-Division in 2010.

The gun feeds from 150-round disintegrating belts (6 lbs., 6.5 lbs. in pouch) and the standard round is APHC-T (Dmg 7d+2(2) pi- inc). A spare barrel weighs 4 lbs.

The MG88 is used on Reich-5, a Quantum 3 world (see p. B543, GURPS Infinite Worlds, and GURPS Alternate Earths). Back in the real world, Professor Barnitzke existed, and patented a flywheel machine gun in the 1940s, but the gun never entered production. German small arms designers and the military had worked on caseless ammunition development since the 1940s, but historically only managed to make it work in the late 1980s, for use in the H&K G11 rifle. Gustloff-Werke produced many automatic weapons during WWII, and was one of the companies occupied with caseless ammunition research -- another being the Heinrich Krieghoff Waffenfabrik.

Weapons Table

See pp. B268-271 for an explanation of the statistics.

GUNS (SUBMACHINE GUN) (DX-4 or most other Guns at -2)






























Jarré-Armstrong P/1860, .405 Jarré


2d pi+

























Barrett M97 Dragonfang, .50 Browning


6d×2 pi+
























GUNS (LIGHT MACHINE GUN) (DX-4 or most other Guns at -2)











Empty Weight



















Gustloff MG88, 7.92×42mm


7d+2 pi






















[2, 3]

[1] Very unreliable. Malfunctions on 15+ (see page 407 of the Basic Set).

[2] Accessory rails (see GURPS High-Tech).

[3] Very reliable. Will not malfunction unless lack of maintenance lowers Malf. (see page 407).

Article publication date: November 9, 2007

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