Title: GURPS Basic Set, 3rd edition
Author: Steve Jackson
Creator: Steve Jackson Games
Publisher: Steve Jackson Games
Year: 1988
296 pages

Product Rating: 3 (***)
Game Play Rating: 3 (***)

Review by John H. Kim (Copyright 2000 John H. Kim)
cf. other reviews by John

         GURPS is an acronym for "Generic Universal Role Playing System", and is a system intended to be usable for almost any genre. This is the core rulebook of the GURPS system, which has hundreds of expansion books which cover different genres or worlds in more details: from GURPS Ice Age to GURPS Lensman. In practice, these core rules are mainly geared towards human characters in medieval-through-modern historical settings or some medieval-style fantasy. Other genres can be done, but they will require more work from the GM and/or support from other books.

Material

         The rulebook is full-size (8.5x11) and 256 pages. There is a detailed 4-page Table of Contents and a 5-page index, both very well done. After a brief introduction, pages 10-85 cover character creation. Pages 86-94 cover basic rolls, and 95-139 cover combat. The remainder of the chapters cover animals, magic, psionics, GM and world-building advice, a 14-page solo adventure, and an 18-page multiplayer adventure (both in the swords-and-sorcery genre).

Mechanics

         The mechanics are based mainly on rolling 3d6 (three six-sided dice added together), trying to roll less than a given number: your "effective skill" or just "skill". In general, there are four possible results: critical success, normal success, normal failure, and critical failure. Critical success is on a roll of 3-4, and a roll of 5 if effective skill is 15+, and on a roll of 6 if effective skill is 16+. Critical failure is on a roll of 18, and on a roll of 17 if skill is 15 or less, and any roll of more than 10 over your effective skill.

         This is not very natural to remember, but with some effort and/or time it is not difficult to get used to. Outside of combat, the meaning of "critical" results is almost always left up to the GM. In some cases, level of success is measured by how much you made your roll by (i.e. skill minus roll). Damage in combat is a different kind of roll which can be anything from 1d3-1 to 10d6 or more.

Character Creation

         Character creation is point-based, using a single pool of "character points" (100 to 145 for standard heroic PC's). A strength of GURPS system is the variety of characters it can create. Character points can be spent on the four base attributes, skills, and various Advantages: ranging from "Combat Reflexes" to "Common Sense" to "Military Rank". These core rules cover only human characters, but supplements cover aliens, superheroes, vampires, etc.

         The four attributes are a central part of the system and are often a contentious issue. The attributes are Strength (ST), Dexterity (DX), Intelligence (IQ), and Health (HT). Each of these starts at 10, and for humans supposedly ranges from 1 to 20 (although normal characters will be in the range 6-16).

         The attribute set is important because -- more so than most other systems -- GURPS characters are dominated by attribute over skill. Putting +1 in DX gives +1 to all physical skills (and helps speed) and +1 in IQ gives +1 to all mental skills, social skills, willpower rolls, and perception rolls.

         The skills themselves are very detailed. The Basic Set lists 188 skills, not including magic or psionic skills. Each skill can be bought at a base level for only 1/2 a point. Meanwhile putting in 8 times as much (4 points) only gets +3 to your 3d6 roll. This favors characters having a wide range of skills, since you can get twice as many skills for the same cost as +1 in all your skills.

         There are two notable problems with character creation system:

  1. The attribute dominance is such that naively-designed characters can often cost *less* if they have the exact same skill numbers and higher attributes. It is fairly common to see this in GURPS characters in books or by beginning players. The costs strongly favor having high attributes and mostly minimal points in each skill. Further, raising attributes with experience points costs double what it costs in character creation -- while skills are 1-for-1. This further encourages high-talent beginners rather than seasoned experts as characters.
  2. Since so much rests in the 4 attributes, it can be hard to maintain skill niches in a group of PC's, beyond mental types vs physical types. For example, suppose a PC group has a sage has a 16 IQ but no outdoor skills of any type, and ranger who has 10 IQ and 8 points in tracking and lots of other outdoor skills. For just 1/2 point, the sage can get "Tracking" skill better than the ranger.

         These problems are not insurmountable, of course. With some player cooperation and GM guidance, these can be avoided. However, they are definitely problems to watch out for.

Combat

         GURPS combat is divided into "Basic" and "Advanced". Basic combat has several combat maneuvers (normal attack, all-out attack, and all-out defense), and has only one pool of hit points. Advanced combat uses a detailed hex-map (1 hex = 1 yard), hit locations (12 on a human), extra modifiers, and special restrictions for close combat.

         The main feature of melee combat in both systems is that attack roll and defense roll are separate. The attacker rolls against her skill, and the defender rolls against his defense. The attack roll is your skill directly, while defense roll is usually (skill/2) plus bonuses for armor and shield.

         Damage works by rolling a number of d6's (plus or minus a bit) for the attack, and fixed number of points are subtracted for armor. i.e. 1d6+1 for broadsword with average strength, -4 for chainmail. A human PC can only take 10-20 points of damage (his HT attribute value) even if he is highly experienced. After that he passes out. It takes a little over twice that to kill a person.

         In Basic Combat, the only effect of damage is slow movement when you are near zero (1-3), and unconsciousness soon after you drop below zero. In Advanced Combat, each hit has a location (i.e. left hand, left arm, torso, head, etc.). The attacker chooses to strike for either a particular location or a fully random location. Damage to the limbs can disable that limb, but also has a maximum damage of HT/2 (arms or legs) or HT/3 (hands or feet). Damage to torso is the same as Basic Combat damage. Damage to head or vitals gets additional effects.

         The consequences of these mechanics include:

  1. Basic Combat resolution is fast since you don't need to compare numbers. A critical hit requires a critical on defense, but otherwise the defender just rolls his standard defense. On the other hand, combat between high-skill and/or well-armored combatants can take a long time since each hit has a good chance of being blocked (perhaps up to 90%). Advanced Combat uses the same system, but there are usually more modifiers to keep track of.
  2. Melee combat works as intended only in a fairly narrow range of defense rolls: roughly 10 to 14. If defense rolls are over 14, then chances are you will only hit by getting a critical - which is a fixed 6 or less (~9%) for skill 16 or more. If defense rolls are under 10, then attackers are almost always better off skipping any defense and instead using the all-out attack maneuver (which gives bonuses for foregoing a defense roll).
  3. Because combat changes so much over this range, combats can be tricky to balance. For example, a large shield can push a defense roll from 10 (i.e. 1 out of 2 attacks land) to 14 (i.e. 1 out of 10 attacks land). Similarly, just a few points of armor can make a huge difference in a typical melee combat. It can be a tricky job to create balanced combats which will threaten but not kill PC's -- you must look at the individual PC's and their exact equipment and stats.
  4. The Advanced Combat hit location rules are more realistic in some ways, but they have some odd consequences. In general, if you receive a low-to-medium damage strike (up to a hatchet swing by a typical-strength person), you would much prefer to take it in the torso than to a limb. However, a more massive attack (rifle or two-handed sword) is better to take in the limb. Also, aimed attacks never go astray -- i.e. if I aim for your right hand, there is no chance of hitting your arm or torso.

         How good/bad these features are depends on your preferences. In general, I would say that Basic Combat is fairly easy and as long as you aren't too picky and stay in the design range, it works fairly well. Advanced Combat is a can of worms. Unless handled well, it can be confusing to the players and *less* realistic than Basic Combat.

Magic and Psionics

         The magic system is based on buying spells where each spell is a skill. They are not divided by "level", but instead more powerful spells require knowing simpler spells as "prerequisites". In practice, a decent mage can buy each prerequisite spell for 1 point, and the most difficult spells require 15 or so prerequisites. Thus, a specialist mage built on the standard 145 points can have top spells in several fields.

         The Basic Set book includes 90 spells. The magic is described in rather dry and scientific terms. For example, there are elementals of earth/air/fire/water, but they are only described by 2-3 sentences of stats. The "Heat" spell raises temperature by 20 degrees per minute, advising the wizard to make a list of melting points of various materials. In general, magic for combat is sharply limited, but non-combat magic can be very powerful. A fantasy GM should be careful of magic overshadowing mundane skill use.

         The psionics system works differently, requiring buying levels of power in one of five different fields (Telepathy, ESP, etc.). Individual talents within each field are bought as skills. This works pretty well, but like with magic, a psionic PC is likely to be much more powerful in non-combat than an equal-point non-psionic PC.

Conclusion

         The basic GURPS system is quite workable within its design range of above-average but not superhuman PC's. As you get outside this range, the system is easily unbalanced -- in combat, magic, and psionics. Intelligent and selective use of optional rules and GM guidance can certainly address this, but that requires significant expertise.

         Character creation and development is extremely flexible, allowing a much wider range of PC's than most games. It also requires intelligent guidance to preserve skill niches, allow some concepts, and prevent abuse (esp. with magic and/or psionics).

         The system draws from both the Champions system, and also Steve Jackson's earlier RPG The Fantasy Trip (TFT). Champions features include: skills rolled under on 3d6; buying attributes and skills and extras with 100 points plus disadvantages; logarithmic range penalties (-2 to-hit for each distance doubled). TFT features include: the attribute set (except HT), +1 attribute = +1 skill, and many details of the hexmap movement in Advanced Combat.


John H. Kim <jhkim-at-darkshire-dot-net>
Last modified: Fri Apr 25 17:30:03 2003