Wednesday, October 9, 2019

GURPS - Basic Set (3rd Edition) - Chapters 1-12

Part 2

This book tricked me into feeling really old. I was reading a sidebar near the front, page 10. It was about character types. It started in with warriors, and the first sentence read, "Whatever the time period, he (or she!) knows several weapon skills . . ."

That parenthetical, with its jaunty little exclamation point that seemed to scream "look at me, I remembered women exist, aren't I progressive" . . . it was kind of dizzying. What was going on here? It sent me racing towards the title page. Copyright 2002.

This book was printed in 2002, and it put an exclamation point on a reminder that warriors could be women. I found that odd. It made me alert for other archaic ideas and attitudes.

Like when it said that characters with dwarfism couldn't have average physical appearance because "you can either be thought 'cute and charming' or noticeably unappealing." My first reaction was, "whoa, that's ableist as fuck," but then, a moment later, my second thought was, "wait, was Peter Dinklage not in the public eye in 2002, is that the reason 'sexy as hell' isn't one of the options?"

Or later, with the epilepsy disadvantage, where it claimed that "savages" (ugh) would sometimes worship a character who had a seizure in front of them (or run in terror if the persuasion roll failed). That was a real holy shit moment, because it's just, you know, unadulterated racism dropped into the middle of a fairly dry book.

I was wracking my brain, trying to remember what 2002 was really like. I was in my second year of college at the time, and I do have memories of people being noticeably less sensitive, but "human beings with dwarfism are either cute little cherubs or disgusting trolls" and "people without advanced technology would shit their pants at seeing a common medical condition" - were those acceptable things to say in public?

That got me thinking. There is something conspicuously missing from the book's otherwise comprehensive skill section. It has separate skills for packing animals, poetry, skiing, accounting, and plumbing . . . but no hacking. The extant computer skills mention writing programs, playing games, and calling up data, but nothing about email. The research skill contains precisely 0 words about the internet.

There was a moment where I allowed myself to feel really old. Where I recalled Guide to the Anarachs, published the same year, and the way it said the internet was basically overhyped, and wouldn't dramatically change anything about the way we lived.

Maybe I've lived through a major cultural transformation. Maybe it happened when I was young enough that my own youth now seems alien to me. Maybe my habits, expectations, and even values have been so changed by a seismic shift in technology that I could not recognize the world in which I grew up.

Or maybe, the GURPS 3rd edition Basic Set was initially written in 1988, with minor revisions in 1994 and my particular book had a copywrite date of 2002 because that's just when it happened to be printed.

So, um, I guess GURPS 3rd edition looks all right compared to AD&D 2e. When I think about the low points of the Complete* series, maybe "only male characters can take the eunuch disadvantage" doesn't seem so surprising. It was of its time and place. Maybe a little better, but not by enough that it becomes worth mentioning.

And mechanically . . . it's better than AD&D 2e, I'll give it that. However, the GURPS Basic Set introduction has one of the worst game pitches I've ever heard. It just comes off as terribly naive. It's generic because it doesn't make sense to have different rules, all you need is one framework plus options. It's universal because it's realistic. Things are measured in pounds, inches, and seconds. That means you can convert other products easily. It's roleplaying because . . . it just is, okay. It's not hack and slash (despite so much of its rules being devoted to combat and weapons), it's a system designed to "make true roleplaying possible." And it's a system, because it wasn't cobbled together over the course of years from a dozen different ad-hoc house rules, which maybe seemed like a more pointed statement in 1988 than it does today.

I don't want to seem too down on GURPS as a project. There's a lot of really interesting rpg stuff that would never have seen the light of day if not for its ambition. It's just that seeing the 1988 perspective, it's clear that they hadn't even begun to understand the real controversies that would come to define the medium. It talks about the "twin traps of watered down combat [. . .] and incompatibility." And, it's like, neither of those things is even in the top ten concerns I have when comparing roleplaying systems.

Just applying the term "watered down" to combat is betraying a fundamental doctrinal assumption that a lot of games would disagree with. Maybe the reason a lightning bolt and a .45 pistol feel the same is because the game doesn't care to model combat with any degree of precision beyond "some things will kill you dead." I'm trying at this moment to think of how GURPS: Chuubo's Marvelous Wish Granting Engine would work and I'm getting hung up on the idea that it "waters down" combat to such a degree that getting shot with a .45 pistol is mechanically very similar to someone looking up your name in the phonebook (now I'm showing my age).

I guess what I'm feeling is a kind of second-hand embarrassment at the arrogance of youth. You're just starting out in the world, you see opportunities to make your mark, and you're certain that you can improve upon the things that inspire you. And you probably can, but your narrow range of experience fills you with a grandiosity the world cannot sustain. I was that way in 2002. And GURPS was that way in 1988.

The GUPRS introduction was convinced it could solve roleplaying. It didn't, of course, but I'm glad that it didn't, because from my elevated viewpoint here in 2019, one of the most beautiful things about the last 40 years of rpgs are their startling diversity.


  1. Replies
    1. I still have half the book to go.

    2. Not at all. It's not obvious that I should break my format when I divide a book into parts. Or, for that matter, that the number of posts per book should be based on the book's length. I could probably have done a more interesting second post about Autumn Nightmares than I did with GURPS part two.