The Future of GURPS
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!