K David Ladage is very knowledgeable about GURPS, a tabletop role-playing game.
The GURPS Inception
In 1986, Steve Jackson Games released a role-playing game that was different from anything that had been released prior. GURPS was designed to be a game system that transcended genre. Where there existed fantasy, sci-fi, horror, and even superhero role-playing games, GURPS went in the direction if being all of those and more; 1986 saw both the 1st and 2nd editions of the system released as boxed sets.
GURPS, which is an acronym meaning Generic Universal Role-Playing System, accomplishes the task of being all genres by defining characters in terms of traits. Traits are purchased with points. Traits come in five basic flavors: attributes, advantages, disadvantages, quirks, and skills.
GURPS 3rd Edition was released two years later, in 1988. This became the definitive edition of the game for many years. The rules were extensively cross-referenced and well written. Supplements were released like clockwork; over the years, more than 250 source books would be written for this edition of the game. Although it never cracked into the top three for RPG sales, GURPS 3rd Edition became—and remains—one of the most successful lines of role-playing material ever published.
GURPS 3rd Edition was stable; perhaps too much so. The core rules, called the Basic Set, contained a fixed set of advantages, disadvantages, and skills. Over the course of 250+ books, many elements had been created that were essentially generic universal traits; since the page references involved in the extensive cross-referencing could not be mucked with, a GURPS 3rd Edition Revised core rulebook was produced. This book left all of the material in the front of the book alone. In the very back, in a 32-page area that originally held a sample fantasy adventure, a mini-supplement of material they wished could be in the core was included. But this was far from extensive.
Enter Sean "Dr. Kromm" Punch. Taking over as GURPS Line Editor in 1995 (and who over the years has become the face of GURPS) created a two-volume set of books in 1996 called GURPS Compendium I and GURPS Compendium II. Together, these books included everything that would have been in the core book had it been possible to expand it without breaking down all of the indexing of the system. This was (to borrow a term from Wizards of the Coast) GURPS 3.5. These two books gave GURPS 3rd Edition a new lease on life.
Sometime in either 2002 or 2003 (depending upon the source), Sean Punch and David Pulver were tasked with revising and updating GURPS to a new 4th edition. GURPS 3rd Edition was approaching 15 years of age; the sheer volume of material written for the system had created a level of cruft—piled on specialized sub-systems—which detracted from the streamlined beauty of the system. In 2004, GURPS 4th Edition was launched. Steve Jackson announced that the system would be extensively supported with premium product.
This fell apart quite quickly.
The Road to Hell...
Steve Jackson Games officially announced the (upcoming) release of GURPS 4th Edition on 16 March 2004 on their blog, called the Daily Illuminator. The books were to be released in August of that year with an aggressive release schedule through the end of the year. A web-chat took place to answer questions.
In this chat, they confirmed that GURPS would have a very aggressive release schedule; the books would all be long (see below), full-color, hardcover books—what I will call premium books.
These points are important to many fans of the system. Steve Jackson—the man and his company—were promising to bring premium production to their already premium content. If the fans were to be enticed to come over to the new system—as opposed to using the 3rd edition with whatever house rules they had developed over the years—they needed:
- Support: this meant releasing books for the new system, in the new premium format, to replace the extensive libraries most hard-core fans had acquired over the years. They needed to rebuild their library.
- Something Extra: this meant something to make the switch worthwhile.
An aggressive release schedule handled #1; premium books were unusual for Steve Jackson Games. It seemed to be an enticing carrot that could bring the old-guard over.
The first signs of cracks in the plan took place before month's end. On 26 March, ten days after the official announcement, a contest for designing the GURPS Basic Set covers was begun. The original so-called gorgeous artwork was almost universally regarded as anything but gorgeous. Since this is entirely an aesthetic issue, the good folks at Steve Jackson Games took this is stride and asked their fan base: can you do better? The answer was yes. For a while, the finalists in the contest (and the original designs) were available for viewing. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. The first hurdle was cleared with ease.
As the weeks slowly passed, Daily Illuminator announcements directed GURPS fans to chats discussing changes in the GURPS skill system, how things would get consolidated and streamlined, etc. All appeared to be going well. In fact, for all intent and purpose, it was. Announcements for the new system included:
- GURPS Basic Set in both deluxe and the standard print went to press on time and were released in August.
- GURPS Dragons shipped in June, becoming the first GURPS 4th Edition book to hit the shelves. Since this was released prior to the Basic Set, it was written as a hybrid, capable of easily being used with either the 3rd Edition or 4th Edition of the game.
- GURPS Lite, a PDF and free print release of the core rules distilled into 32 pages was released in July.
- GURPS Update, a document for all 3e → 4e conversions was released shortly after the Basic Set.
- GURPS GM's Screen was announced for September 2004 when 4th Edition was announced.
- GURPS Fantasy was announced for October 2004 when 4th Edition was announced.
- GURPS Magic was announced for November 2004 when 4th Edition was announced.
- GURPS Infinite Worlds (a time-travel, dimensional-hopping campaign setting) was announced for December 2004 when 4th Edition was announced.
- GURPS Banestorm had its play test announcement on 22 August.
- GURPS Bestiary had its play test announcement on 22 August.
- GURPS Interstellar Wars (a new line for Traveller) was announced on 15 October.
- GURPS Powers (a book for dealing with super-powered beings) was announced on 21 November.
- And so on
The aggression of the schedule was not in question. The ability for Steve Jackson Games to deliver on this schedule most certainly was. But more importantly, the ability for Steve Jackson Games to deliver on this schedule the premium production values was being tested early on.
The standard and deluxe printings of the GURPS Basic Set were a success. The original covers with the sub-standard artwork and flat, bland look were gone and replaced with the puzzle-look that had won the covers contest. These were seen as a great step forward and resulted in beautiful books. GURPS Dragons was a beautiful hardcover book with full-color art and set the standard for GURPS supplements. This book was considered a universal success.
GURPS Lite was seen as an odd booklet. The choices for advantages and skills to include in the trimmed list was suspect (e.g., Jumper), causing some to call into question the editorial choices made. Given that this was a PDF and free-print product, it was given some slack. In the end, it was considered a success.
GURPS Update—another PDF release—was considered by many to be too long. This was exacerbated by the fact that the initial announcement and follow-up web chats indicated that virtually no conversion would be needed. Explanations were offered indicating that the document focused mostly on adjusting the point values of characters rather than adjusting capability. Response to this was mixed. It is about this time that some of the old-guard GURPS fans were starting to question choices made in the new edition.
The first product to be seen as an objective failure was the GURPS GM's Screen. For a line that was touting itself as premium production, this fell flat. It was thin and flimsy; it had the artwork that was rejected for the original covers—93% of those polled voted against the art they used in this product (unfortunately, these poll results are no longer available on the Steve Jackson Games website).
GURPS Fantasy, GURPS Magic, and GURPS Infinite Worlds were all released on time. GURPS Fantasy was seen as a good, fresh look at the genre with few miss-steps. GURPS Infinite Worlds was an interesting compilation of alternate worlds and the campaign from GURPS 3e's Time Travel.
GURPS Magic, on the other hand...
When GURPS Magic hit the shelves, a lot of people were shocked to find that the system was not updated, fixed, corrected, or... well, anything. The issues that had been well documented were not corrected. The optional systems—those things that make GURPS the flexible tool-kit that it is—were left out completely.
Back when the GURPS Basic Set was released, the short chapter on magic (~20 pages) was excused as something it needed to include in order to be truly generic and universal. GURPS Magic, it was said, is where multiple systems and flavors of magic would be discussed and fleshed out. Left unsaid was the fact that the baseline system presented in the Basic Set was the same system that lacked flavor and feel from the older editions — the system so many GURPS fans abandoned and created house rules for; the same system abandoned in many GURPS settings and articles dealing with magic (GURPS Voodoo, Unlimited Mana, etc.). The flaws of the Basic Set rules were discussed at length following GURPS Magic's release. One of the biggest questions became why did GURPS 4th Edition create a universal talent system for skills if Magical Aptitude (the original GURPS talent) was not going to use those rules?
Magic suffered not only from creative lapses, but editorial lapses as well. A series of charts in the book detailing the steps needed to reach a particular spell included calculations indicating how many spells were prerequisites for a given spell. This chart was intended to allow a Game Master to move a spell without making it too easy or too hard to obtain. The problem: a large chunk of the calculations were just plain wrong.
The discussions for GURPS Magic and how this book was a failure continued for some time. Then, Steve Jackson Games announced GURPS Thaumatology. This book is the one they would include alternative magical systems and corrections for GURPS Magic.
Thus, GURPS Magic—only the third supplement for GURPS 4th Edition—would cause Steve Jackson Games to announce GURPS Thaumatology which had the singular goal of erasing GURPS Magic from our collective memory.
GURPS Bestiary was announced while the GURPS Basic Set was just being released. In December—four months later—the play test seemed to be having trouble. The Basic Set sold out of its initial print run, so the system was doing well (even though the GURPS Online project was cancelled about this time).
The Basic Set devotes one-third of the space to animals as it does to magic. The 3rd Edition book GURPS Bestiary was a relatively popular book. It went through multiple printings and revisions, it spawned several side-books (GURPS Space Bestiary, GURPS Fantasy Bestiary, GURPS Creatures of the Night, GURPS Dragons, etc.). Many—myself included—feel that a role playing system without a good manual of monsters is incomplete.
What was promised was a book that gave stats for real-world creatures, and rules for how to create interesting monsters, variations, and such—all while keeping in mind the creature's role in its ecology and environment. What we got was nothing.
In the decade since GURPS 4th Edition was released, no proper bestiary book has ever been produced. This was the first of many realizations that GURPS was not going to live up to the promise.
Did We Say "Aggressive"?
It did not take long before books began to slip in the official schedule. The original aggressive schedule was supposed to be one premium book per quarter, plus the three books that were scheduled to be produced in the last quarter of 2004 (i.e., GURPS Fantasy, GURPS Magic, and GURPS Infinite Worlds). Had this schedule been kept, Steve Jackson Games would have 63 premium books in the GURPS 4th Edition library as of this writing (December 2019)—15 years.
In this same timeframe, the number of products—please note, I did not say books—that have been produced for GURPS 4th Edition is 210 stand-alone items, and 122 issues of the PDF magazine, Pyramid (which was shut down in December of 2018). This is impressive. A total of 332 products.
This comes out to approximately one product every two or three weeks. The problem is that these products consist almost entirely of electronic releases (i.e., PDF). In fact, it was not long into GURPS 4th Edition's history that Pyramid became the primary method of supporting the GURPS line.
As premium books were produced, they would generally last one print run; most never seen in print form again. Others might get a softcover, grey-scale reprint. But the vast majority would move straight to PDF only.
Trying to cross-reference this mess is a bigger nightmare than GURPS 3rd Edition ever reached.
After the fiasco with GURPS Magic, GURPS Bestiary, and several other planned books, the support for GURPS 4th Edition was pushed down to a less premium level. Add to this the revelation that far more of Steve Jackson Games' cash flow is derived from the card game Munchkin than from the GURPS line, and support gets pushed into other shorter-cycle venues.
GURPS is not the main focus of Steve Jackson Games. It has not been for some time; it will not be in the foreseeable future. Role-Playing Games are a sideline business for the company as Munchkin takes over the vast majority of their resources.
Additionally, Steve Jackson is a man who wants to do some things simply because he wants to do them. And this is a good thing! Thanks to this sort of drive, a Kickstarter campaign raised nearly one million dollars to revive the OGRE line! You cannot argue with success like that.
But he is just one man, and Steve Jackson Games has limited resources. When Munchkin takes up most of the time, and other projects eat into what it left... things like GURPS fall to the sidelines.
None of this is to say they are wrong. Steve Jackson Games is a business. Like any other business, they look at their market and adjust accordingly. But as a GURPS fan, this makes me sad. So let's look at what I think needs to happen.
What Needs to Happen?
First, we need to establish some assumptions (so let us recap some points from above):
- GURPS is, at its core, one of the most robust role-playing systems ever written.
- GURPS 3rd Edition suffered from a decade of cruft piling on top of the core engine.
- GURPS Compendium I and GURPS Compendium II spared GURPS the need to go to a 4th Edition for several years
- GURPS 4th Edition had lofty goals, and fell flat on some. A few miss-steps were caused by having goals that were unattainable or unsustainable (depending upon whom you ask); others were caused by internal editorial and design choices
- GURPS 4th Edition is not getting the support and attention it needs thanks to a company that needs to focus on its largest money-maker.
All of this said... I think it is time for Steve Jackson to either sell GURPS to another company, or create a spin-off, which can treat GURPS as its primary focus. Role-playing is far from dead! Pathfinder is doing well; Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition is doing well; Dragon Age; Edge of the Empire; 13th Age; and many, many other RPGs are doing well. A smaller, more agile company with GURPS as its primary focus could do well for itself.
Assuming this were to happen, a 5th Edition should be created. The core set should have:
- a Characters book
- a Campaigns book
- a Creatures book
The books should be 256+ page, greyscale books. GURPS is—and should always be—a premium content brand, not a premium production brand. Pretty pictures are useless if the content is not there. Excellent content is not made better with pretty pictures. Good, solid, black-and-white art is perfect for the style GURPS uses.
Primary subsystems (e.g., technological levels) should be handled in the most simple and basic manner. Books going into these concepts in detail should be planned and assigned as the 5th Edition is being put together.
Specialized subsystems (e.g., magic, powers) should be left out of the core books entirely. Books detailing these concepts in detail should be planned and assigned as the 5th Edition is being put together as well.
Applications of the subsystems (e.g., specific magic systems, psionics, super-powers, alternate tech trees) should be planned as well. Books should be produced for these purposes.
So... hardcover or softcover? That should be the customer's choice. The entire line should be available as PDF files, and (via a good print-on-demand service) available as either hardcover or softcover books. Once a book is in print... leave it that way forever!
These are my thoughts on the matter. Share your thought below!
GURPS 5th Edition
black knight on April 13, 2020:
I think the path forward would be to embrace the best library in gaming. The 3rd edition sourcebooks. No other generic system can touch it. Release 3.5 (3 + C1/2). But retain some reasonable backwards compatibility. ST as health and HT as fatigue as the standard. Then make money like most other RPGs do today, by supporting the DM with accessories and by having major digital support (roll20), an updated character generator, miniatures. Judiciously re-release sourcebooks that are tougher to find.
Chaorro on August 18, 2019:
Magic and Powers are not optional in the core rule books. They need to be there and they need to be proper, full, solid and understandable. Without it you are not universal. The core rules should allow me to play high-fantasy just as much as it should allow me to play SciFi.
Also, a monster manual is not optional either. It needs to be there and contain a mix of real animals, SciFi creatures and fantasy monsters. It also needs to be long to works properly.
All in all the GURPS core set, which should include a monster manual, should be somewhere in the vicinity of 1000 pages total to satisfy basic gaming needs.
That may seem unreasonable, but that's as much as end has and dnd isn't trying to be universal.
Deacon on November 13, 2017:
I wanted to develop an online open set of rules which was effectively a conversion of Gurps for use as a plugin for things like roguelikes or other Computer RPGs. However it is touchy doing anything with Gurps compared to the d20 system, adapting FATE, etc.
Anyway adaptation to a computer is one way of forcing you to consider and rationalise rules systems.
Brax on June 26, 2017:
I partially agree with you...
I may be in the minority here, but I don't use hardback books anymore. I very much prefer PDF publications. I can quickly reference them and search them. In fact, unless it's the only option, I will NOT buy another hardback/softback. Period.
Concerning the game itself, I only have a couple players left who will even consider playing in a GURPS game. They consider the rules cumbersome and complicated (esp with GURPS Martial Arts). They also hate GURPS Magic, preferring the feel of D&D.
I've played many systems since my last GURPS game and I've noticed modern gaming systems have less pension for complexity. Abstraction replaces complexity and they tend to wrap around their genre.. I'm thinking Burning Wheel / Mouse Guard, GUMSHOE, Nemesis, etc. What I dislike about the modern systems is their lack of grit. GURPS was always great in that respect. I'd like to see a 5th edition of GURPS come out but launch in a slightly different direction.. As for the direction, I'm of two minds. A streamlined ruleset would be very much welcomed, but now that online gaming has taken off (thanks to Roll20 and FantasyGrounds) it would be interesting to see a game system designed from the ground up to run purely inside an online system. I know that comment will earn me the ire from several folks here, but it's actually my preferred method of play now. I agree that Steve Jackson should probably open up the system. It would probably go a long way towards getting community support for GURPS.
I'd also like to say something about GURPS Magic. I've been so disappointed in the magic system for some time. I really want to see a new and different direction here. Some of the mini/micro PDF sets are impressive (such as Divine Favor), but God help me if I have to get into the OCD-creating activities of creating advantages and powers. Thaumatology was a nice read, but I felt it was incomplete... I didn't feel it gave you a full magic system and still relied on you to customize. Seriously, I spent more time customizing GURPS for my custom campaign than I did writing the backstory. Very annoying... That said, I don't think I could have done it in any other system.
Now that I've gotten all this out, I think 5th edition would be successful if Steve opened it up (made it free to use for anyone), made it new and fresh, and then streamlined it. Perhaps even consider the mainline stats... I.e. Why is a smart person always strong willed?
Gianluca on December 17, 2016:
Im quite New to GURPS but I cant see much of the trouble you explain. I cant compare it with 3e (it'd be another dozen of books to read), but 4th is just fine. I researched other systems and theres nothing even close to gurps, despite its flaws. In the other hand, the psionics and powers system in general is well balanced and explained for me, and it offers you an infinity of possibilities to make... Im running some pseudo d&d game with my friends, who the most doesnt even know english. It's difficult, but not imposible tho.
tantric on November 22, 2016:
i so agree about the pretty pictures - the only need for images is when images convey information. this is pretty radical, but i think corebooks should be copylefted. SRD gurps. open the gates - let the thousand flowers bloom.
Cwalda on October 05, 2016:
Well, I've been playing GURPS for 12 or 13 years now. And my whole group basicly sticked to 3.5E. GURPS 4E really had some awesome ideas but from what i have tasted the delivery was fairly confusing. Especialy if your whole group doesn't use english as native language (wich of course is not SJG to blame). For half of my group was the main issue alphabetical sorting of everything in core books. I was looking forward to the next edition of GURPS until year ago or so but I've almost given up the hope. Let's face the facts. SJG make a majority of money on card and board games. I consider it as an outcome of the society of today. You can learn Munchkin or board game in couple of hours. To learn the GURPS, you need weeks just to test the basic rulebooks not to mention the expansions. And the sad thing is that too few people simply has that dedication. For SJG it is more profitable to do another card or board game than use that time and manpower for GURPS. The goal of today is that everything (including games we play for fun) has to be as fast and spimple as possible. Although I can clearly see the shift away from these tendencies from bunch of people. It is possible, that we are just aging though :-P
What I am trying so say is that there is simply too low demand for another GURPS right now. Only the hardcore fans are waiting for it. But there is no hunger for pen and paper roleplaying now. Considering the problems 4E had in the past (for me the biggest letdown was the Magic) and you have had pointed yourself the future of GURPS doesn't look much bright right now. Don't get me wrong. I still anticipiate the 5E. But I don't think we'll see it sooner than in 5 years. I'd say maybe even 2024 as 20 year anniversary of 4E. We'll have to stay with our house-rules or pick another systém, I am afraid...
Beaux Cagle on September 24, 2016:
I agree with everything you printed here! Though I originally started at 14 years old, in 1985, with D&D, from the moment I found GURPS (2 years later) i was hooked. I collected all the books and subsequent editions...until the 4th edition. I run some pretty heavy Psionic games, and the new GURPS "Psionic Rules" are AWFUL! Psionics, in the 4th edition, are treated as Advantages--for EACH skill/power! It makes a full-scale Telepath unbelievably expensive to build.
In any case, I still use GURPS, but I use Edition 3.5 and have transported some parts of Edition 4 (the actual improvements, as I see them) into my system and I am content with the way it works from there. I even bought some of the 4th edition expansion books BUT I always sit down in the book store and READ THEM FIRST! That way I can decide if they are worth the price or if the are just a load of crap like ~some~ books have been!
K David Ladage (author) from Cedar Rapids, IA on July 19, 2016:
Agreed that an indication as to how they are to be handled in separate books should be included... but a fairly useless sub-set of a specialized sub-system is a waste of printed paper, in my opinion.
G on July 07, 2016:
Specialized sub-systems, powers and magic are two examples you use, should be included in the basic set. At the very least, some indication of how these would be handled should be included.
The lack of 'The Force' in Edge of the Empire is a major reason why my gaming group did not switch from Saga Edition.
Ian Hoegfeldt on December 14, 2015:
The basics of GURPS is great, in theory. The biggest problems with it is also its greatest asset: it is incredibly complex and flexible. The system in fourth edition had tried to be too generic, and in doing so mad following it or finding anything simply annoying. Each ability was given modifications, talents, skills, etc. in doing so trying to build a character or a race went from minutes to hours. It needs a drastic overhaul to revitalize it. A multiple level of complexity system that allows new players to create a basic character in minutes and a new GM to be able to play in under an hour. The system then can build on complexity and grow with the players. Each sub system can be added in or not as the players grow into the game. It also needs much better production values. The 4th ed books used horrible poser based artwork, bad section color coding and really just bad art direction. I've wondered how much it would cost to buy the rights to GURPS to be able to give it the revamping it deserves. It could be #1 in game sales if it was properly handled and turn D&D into a footnote.
Rafael Moreno on April 23, 2015:
I do agree that GURPS is a solid system (my preferred one, still) and that a 5th edition would be awesome, but only if the system was sold to another company focused on doing it right.
Adam on July 27, 2014:
I agree that GURPS is one of the best systems ever designed, 4E was released with the best of intentions by one of the best companies in the RPG hobby, but that 4E has also turned into a giant cluster-F-bomb, and a 5E reboot is desperately needed.
The only way to make money on print product is to mass produce or go POD, and SJGames can't do POD right now, so rather than work with rpgnow, the shaft everybody. If they will only mass produce, then by all means go B&W, softcover, to maximize profitability and keep costs down for customers. I hate the micro-production, 4E is more of a nightmare than 3E for navigation purposes, so yes, ditch that process and go for bigger books, too.
I disagree with leaving out subsystems though. With 4E, Powers was a half-baked idea at release, at best, now, with 5E, it should be in the core rules all in one chapter - Powers - the, whether that's psionics, magic, superpowers, whatever, here's how they work chapter. I also disagree with 3 books - I'd rather 1 big book (campaigns+characters) as the core, and optional bestiaries for whatever you need (Earth Bestiary - full of every real-world creature that has existed and how to use it in-game, usable in all genres/games, then for special genres: Fantasy Bestiary, Space Bestiary, Horror Bestiary, etc.)
Jim on May 15, 2014:
You make a well-supported argument for a GURPS spin-off. I suspect the GURPS design team at SJG is excellent, but that they aren't getting the resources they need to move product, so I'd like to see those people stay with the system. Moving back to more basic production value, in favor of continued excellent content, is a good idea for GURPS, and probably SJG in general. They don't seem to be able to be efficient about high production value projects.
I think I disagree that the "specialized sub-systems" like magic, psi, and super-powers need to be eliminated from the Basic Set. I don't think the game can be truly generic without including the several most-used of these. You would need to make a case for other content being more important.
GURPS character management is complex, so I think a tool like GURPS Character Assistant is required. That said, GCA is in dire need of an update. (Disclosure: I have written such an updated tool, so I _could_ be biased. Judge me accordingly.)
K David Ladage (author) from Cedar Rapids, IA on February 25, 2014:
I am in no way attempting to say that GURPS needs to become D&D. You are most correct when you say that these are different products. And yes, I have seen the specialized monster books (Creatures of the Night, etc.). As one of the authors of the 3e Bestiary, I think it is as core to the rules as the combat system. But hey... this is all just my opinion. :)
Just past by on February 24, 2014:
So many wrong things written here.
The main one is your need to mimicry the D&D. There is no need to do that. GURPS's different product. It doesn't have to consist of 3 books: PHB, DMG and Monster Manual. You're trying to kill GURPS and make it D&D instead.
And Bestiary. No really. Why do you say that? Are you aware of Creatures of the Night for 4th edition? Monster Hunter - the Enemy, Zombies and lots of stuff in other books speaking about how to create an animal, demon, goblin etc. There are even sites where you can get some conversion of the most popular D&D monsters.
. . .