01 March 2016

An Ode to GURPS Sourcebooks...

  GURPS.  Steve Jackson's Generic Universal Role Playing System.  Love it or hate it, its influence and legacy are certainly part of our hobby.  The roots of GURPs can be found in the Metagaming micro-games Melee and Wizard, and the supplement that turned them into the RPG The Fantasy Trip.  These were penned by Steve Jackson, and bear a striking resemblance to GURPS even now.  According to Jackson, GURPS was a placeholder name until they came up with something better, but it stuck.  The GURPS system came into my life in 1989, just three years into my RPG hobby.
  In those three gaming-heavy years I had delved into everything I could get my hands on - D&D, Traveller, Robotech, Battletech, Cyberpunk, Mekton, Marvel, Star Frontiers, Chill, Paranoia, and on and on.  We devoured every game that one of our group purchased, and although we played a LOT of BECMI D&D, AD&D and FASA Trek, we always had time to try something new.  With the exception of the 1987 MechWarrior RPG from FASA, every game we'd played included randomized character generation.  We just assumed that was part of playing an RPG.  We still refer to "rolling up" characters even when we're using point-buy systems, of which GURPS was my first.  The cover art here is the version of GURPS I was first introduced to by my friend Quoc Tran.  We were over at another friend's place, Chris Waters, watching Evil Dead 2 on a pirated VHS, and Quoc brought out this book - GURPS.  I had no idea what the hell a GURP was, but the dude in the orange armor immediately caught my attention.  Quoc, by the way, was an amazing artist himself.  I'll never forget the exquisite Castlevania-inspired art he did in our 8th grade art class, nor will I forget our mutual love of Bloom County.  But I digress.
  The dude in the orange armor spoke to me.  I wanted to know where that guy came from.  What kind of weapon was that?  That heavy duty cable made it look like it needed plenty of power to function.  Was there a HUD inside that helmet?  I opened the book and found something I'd never seen before- a game engine designed to do anything.  Literally ANYTHING.  Fantasy, sci-fi, modern, unholy mixtures thereof.  I hadn't yet gotten my first Shadowrun book, so magic and tech together was something we thought could be a very cool and unique thing.  Little did we know. 
  The idea that PCs were built upon points that could be used to balance magic, tech, skills, etc. was mind-blowing.  Advantages and disadvantages likewise.  You mean I can GET points for bad things I used to just roleplay, like annoying personal habits or age or clumsiness?  Wicked!  Now, MechWarrior had something like this, but nothing like the amazing breadth of the GURPS listings.  The idea of default skills was new, too.  DAMN this was cool.  Plus, a combat round represented 1 second of real time... and aiming was a thing... and armor both reduced damage and had a chance of deflecting damage...  SO MUCH CRUNCH.  And I loved every minute of it.

  The one thing better than GURPS was GURPS sourcebooks.  Now, just a few days ago my son Zane pulled a copy of GURPS Vikings off a shelf at Half Price Books and checked it out.  He recognized the word "Vikings" from his school mascot.  I saw the trade dress of the GURPS I started out with, the 3rd Edition with its BIG BLOCK SERIF TITLES.  I opened the book to find a very comfortable layout and page design.  Here was the GURPS sourcebooks that I fell in love with.  The book addressed both real Vikings and their cinematic counterparts in great detail.  It offered advice on how to use that information in game sessions, and examples thereof.  It offered examples of Viking buildings, arms, and customs.  Law.  It finished up with perhaps the best part of any of the GURPS sourcebooks - a very, very useful bibliography.

  Remember, folks, this was the Time Before The Internet.  In fact, every book from this vintage included a blurb about how to access the SJ Games BBS with your modem, at blinding speeds up to 2400 Baud.  Which I did a couple of times.  At 2400 Baud.  But again, I digress.  The point here is that back in my day (creak) we didn't have Google, nor did we have Internet access in the modern sense.  Some college folks could use the early 'Net, but it wasn't nearly what we have now.  If you wanted to learn more about a topic, it was off to the library with you, and the kind of bibliography that was present in every single GURPS sourcebook was extensive and extremely useful.  Much is made of Appendix N in the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide - as it should be - but each GURPS sourcebook had an Appendix N-like resource of its own.  Fantastic!

  There were GURPS sourcebooks for everything.  Fantasy, Space, Supers, Cliffhangers, Espionage.  Specific legends like GURPS Robin Hood.  Licensed intellectual properties like GURPS Conan or GURPS The Prisoner.  Even GURPS sourcebooks to run other RPGs in the GURPS system, like GURPS Bunnies & Burrows and GURPS Traveller (much later.)  GURPS Autoduel and GURPS OGRE took SJG board games and made them into roleplaying worlds.

  Now, I'll temper this with a bit of criticism.  GURPS never did work for us much beyond the range of normal humans.  That is, GURPS Supers rapidly became unwieldy.  GURPS Vehicles was math heavy and didn't model things the way we'd like.  GURPS Mecha was...  well, Dave Pulver tried.  GURPS just doesn't do larger scale very elegantly.  Armor divisors and the like make for slightly clunky game design. 

  BUT - the sourcebooks.  GURPS Espionage still sits on my nightstand among my go-to books for fun reading when I can't sleep.  GURPS Cyberpunk was legendary for earning Steve Jackson Games a visit from the US Secret Service.  GURPS Y2K held a lot of great information on what would happen if our technological society just collapsed.  Great stuff.  Tons of information, and a lot of inspiration.

  Then game GURPS 4th Edition, and Munchkin.  I name these both as they both had a huge effect on the GURPS Sourcebook stream more or less drying up.  GURPS 4th Edition went to an all-hardcover format, meaning fewer books that had higher cover prices.  Publication slowed.  It slowed further when Steve Jackson Games found themselves making money hand over fist with their Munchkin line of card games- so much so that GURPS, once their flagship product, became sidelined in favor of more Munchkin.  TONS more Munchkin.  GURPS slowly started to disappear from most Game Store shelves.  Right now, at the two Friendly Local Game Stores I frequent, only one has any GURPS books at all, and it's not one of the corebooks.  If you can't buy a corebook... you can't get a new player into the game.  Yes, there's a lot of GURPS available as PDF products, but at least for the short term there is still a real need for hardcopy books.  And those days seem to be largely at an end.

  I have GURPS Vikings and GURPS Middle Ages 1 in my messenger bag right now for recreation reading.  Both are incredibly fun books to read.  Both are very nostalgic for me due to their layout, their art, their trade dress.  They take me back to my early days of gaming in much the same way Mentzer D&D or Star Frontiers do, but to a slightly more advanced time when I was discovering point-buy systems, universal game mechanics and realizing there was more to the world than TSR, FASA and Palladium. (Give or take.)  I highly recommend taking a gander at some of the GURPS sourcebooks if you can find them.  They're a lot of fun to read, very well researched, and can serve as a springboard to knowing everything you ever wanted to know about a given genre through their most excellent bibliographies.
  Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to reboot to my TELIX.EXE floppy and dial into the SJG BBS.

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