Roleplayer #19, April 1990

Converting a Campaign to GURPS

How to Help Players Make the Break

by Rich Ostorero

In any gaming group, one or two games dominate the agenda. This is natural – players want to get their money's worth from their gaming materials. But an unwanted side effect is a reluctance to try new game systems. Tact is essential when selling a new roleplaying system to a mature gaming group. This article is the story of such a conversion from FASA's systems to the GURPS system.

One of the selling points of GURPS is its adaptability to different adventure genres. The group I game with was dedicated to FASA Corporation's BattleTech boardgame and the roleplaying rules, MechWarrior. The group played the FASA games for two years; then one player noticed that the "characters" had become one-dimensional – the only important character abilities were 'Mech Piloting and Gunnery – 'Mech skills. Our characters had become little more than numbers. All of us liked the BattleTech universe and realized the endless adventure potential it held for fully-developed characters.

Fortunately, an experienced GURPS gamemaster, Hal Coppeck, proposed a new campaign called "GURPStech": GURPS characters in the dangerous BattleTech universe, making a living as mercenary Mech-Warriors. Hal was the logical choice to GM this campaign – he is a superlative gamemaster and an expert in both GURPS and BattleTech. The reaction of the group was mixed. The few who had played GURPS loved the idea; the rest resisted because they didn't know GURPS. Some players took a "wait and see" attitude. Hal convinced ten players to create characters for the game on the strength of the GURPS system; he convinced the rest to join when he said, "I have a few optional rules I want to try out."

Reconciling Two Systems

The most important question was: "How is Hal going to run BattleMech combat?" The solution was not a rigorous conversion of BattleTech to GURPS terms; that would have alienated the players who were unfamiliar with GURPS. The solution was to run 'Mech combats in the BattleTech manner, using the boardgame's regular distance and time factors. However, when a BattleTech skill roll is required to hit in combat, to stay standing after a difficult move, or for initiative in battle, a 3d roll against a GURPS skill or attribute replaced the BattleTech 2d rolls. The roll was modified per BattleTech for range, cover, and movement by DOUBLE the normal BattleTech amount. For example, an average GURPS mechwarrior with Gunner/9 ('Mech Beam Weapons) at 18 firing a particle projection cannon at a Medium range target (-2 BattleTech), after the firer's 'Mech ran (-2) and the target moved 4 (-1) hexes into a hex covered with light woods (-1) would have a net modifier of 2 × (-2-2-1-1) or -12 to skill, or 6 or less. This translates to about 9%. The same average BattleTech gunner (gunnery 4) would need to roll 4+2+2+1+1 = 10 or more; or 11.1%. Piloting rolls are handled the same way; use BattleTech, double the customary modifiers, roll 3d against skill.

Hal made other changes to the BattleTech system. The turn sequence and critical damage/critical failures rules from BattleTech were not satisfying. The Initiative roll – used to sequence movement and combat declarations in FASA games – was replaced by a quick Contest of Skill on each Warrior's Tactics ('Mech Combat) skill. Those who crit fail the roll move first, then those who missed move; then all non-crit successes move in order of the number by which the roll was made; then Critical Successes move. This gives good PC tacticians an advantage in battle.

To accommodate the GURPS Critical Success / Critical Failure concepts, the damage system required a small modification. BattleTech allows critical hits under only two conditions: whenever armor is penetrated, but only on a "check for crits" die roll of 8 or more on 2d; and whenever 2 on 2d is rolled for hit location, a crit to a torso is resolved. In GURPStech, any critical success on a Gunnery roll is a crit to the location where the hit lands, regardless of the armor in that location. These crits are in addition to crits for internal damage and special torso hits. The joy of a crit hit is often offset by the agony of a crit failure. On such a roll, the player rolls 3d and the GM tells the player what the 'Mech's "control panel" tells the pilot: "OK, Larson, your #2 medium laser is giving you a red idiot light after that abysmal miss on that Warhammer . . . " "OK, immediate action drill to fix the laser." "Make an Armoury ('Mech weapons) roll." "Made it by two." " . . . The laser had a wire knocked loose. Your immediate action drill got it back into place. The idiot light is out. It will work next turn."

The final change concerned "consciousness rolls" for warriors who suffer damage. We use a GURPS Health roll. Make the roll by 2 or more, and the pilot is undamaged. If the roll is missed, the pilot can take as much as 5 dice damage.

The Human Factor

We used a 150-point starting level. This seemed justified because 'MechWarriors are the killer elite of their universe and they train for years before they are entrusted with a 'Mech in combat. Most players want deft, smart Warriors with good DX and IQ. ST is not important for most characters, but HT is essential; one Warrior (mine!) died when a hit by 'Mechfire forced seven Death Rolls against a 10 HT. Most characters have ST 9, DX 17, IQ 12, HT 12. The high IQ helps the Gunnery and Pilot (BattleMech) skills (Hal allows Pilot ('Mech) the same bonuses for IQ 11 + as Gunnery skills). Basic skills for mercenaries include:

Pilot (BattleMech) – used for Piloting rolls
Gunner ('Mech Beam Weapons) – lasers and PPCs
Gunner ('Mech Projectile Weapons) – autocannons and MGs
Gunner ('Mech Long Range Missiles) – all LRM racks
Gunner ('Mech Short-range Missiles) – all SRM racks
Gunner ('Mech Flamer) – self-explanatory
Mechanic ('Mech) – all repairs other than weapons and armor
Armoury ('Mech weapons) – weapon maintenance
Armoury ('Mech Armor) – repair of armor damage
Tactics ('Mech Warfare) – used as described above
Other useful skills:
Guns (any)
Beam Weapons (for hand lasers)
First Aid
Strategy (Land Combat)
Diplomacy – very useful when negotiating a contract
Savoir-Faire – ditto

The balance of the skill points – from 20 to an incredible 65 – went into "specialist" skills. Most adventuring teams in movies and TV – the Magnificent Seven and the A-Team, for example, – use this approach to divide the workload and the dramatic spotlight. Every character gets a chance to be the center of attention. The PC merc company has many specialists: a super tech/engineer/computer hacker, a doctor, a "former intelligence operative," a classic FRPG "thief," a "reaction roll monster" for important social situations, a Linguist, and a out-of-'Mech combat monster who can use virtually any ranged weapon from Tech Levels 5 to 9. For those who enjoy the anonymity of a place in the ranks, a role as "Super Warrior" – crack pilot and gunner, but little else – is also possible.

Common advantages among the warriors in our group include the "combat" advantages such as High Pain Threshold, Combat Reflexes, and Toughness. The Out-of-'Mech gang – those who shine most when not at the controls of a 'Mech – likes Eidetic Memory, Charisma, and Voice. Why the latter two advantages? One member of the unit (mine!) is a diplomat with excellent social skills. He is the Reaction Roll Monster. With Voice and +3 Charisma, he is +5 to almost any reaction roll. Luck is very common because a warrior needs every edge he can get in the BattleTech universe.

Disadvantages include the usual mix of Mental and Social disads plus a holdover from FASA's MechWarrior RPG. A new character rolls 2d for his initial BattleMech in MechWarrior. We allow a warrior to take as a disadvantage a -1 to the 2d roll for -5 points. This is a disadvantage because a low 2d roll results in the warrior piloting a light (less capable) 'Mech, and every -1 makes a low roll more likely. Many players opted for these points as they were not counted against the -40 point disad limit. This rule resulted in a unit of lighter 'Mechs. For -40 points, a warrior may start Dispossessed – a common situation in the BattleTech universe. Such characters would get a 'Mech only if the unit had any spares to loan to a Dispossessed warrior. A Dispossessed character could earn a 'Mech from the unit after surviving many campaigns – this greatly inhibits the freedom of a Dispossessed Warrior to go somewhere else if conditions in the unit deteriorate.

The Nose of The Camel is Under The Tent . . .

This has become the most successful BattleTech campaign our group has played. The roleplayers are happy with their fully-realized characters and the armor-bashers are happy with the action. Many of the players who resisted the change to GURPS now embrace it as the best RPG system available. All it took to overcome the resistance was a good GM, an appealing background, and some creative rules design. Other GMs have taken the cue and run other games with GURPS such as Twilight: 2000. A GURPS Autoduel game is being planned for 1990.

Most gamers can be convinced to convert to GURPS as long as these four guidelines are used:

1. The flavor of the original game must be retained. The slight modification to the combat systems of BattleTech was essential to selling "GURPStech" to the group. This eased the fears of some players that the new campaign would not resemble BattleTech.

2. The True Believers must get heavily involved with assisting new players in character design. This also reduced the apprehension of the newcomers to GURPS.

3. The advantages of GURPS over other systems must be stressed relentlessly. The main advantage of GURPS for us was the full realization of characters' personalities. The four of us who are GURPS-literate pointed this out to the new players constantly. Soon they agreed with us.

4. The group must have a good GM. Hal was the right man in the right place at the right time. Ruthless consistency, complete knowledge of both games, and alarming creativity are the hallmarks of our GM.

The next time you hear the complaint: "I can't get my players to switch to GURPS" from a convention-goer, help him out with this example of a GURPS campaign conversion.

Our thanks to FASA for granting their permission to publish this article. BattleTech and its supplements are copyrighted by FASA Incorporated, and BattleTech is a registered trademark of FASA Incorporated.

(Back to Roleplayer #19 Table of Contents)

Copyright © 1997-2024 by Steve Jackson Games. All rights reserved.

Steve Jackson Games | GURPS | Roleplayer Index