Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

RPG History According to Kevin Siembieda

“1986, Steve Jackson Games® releases GURPS®, the Generic Universal Role Playing System. Not take anything away from Steve Jackson, ‘cuz he is one of the great game designers or our industry, but the idea of a “universal” game system wasn’t new. Palladium Books had been doing for six years, starting with our first publication back in 1981. Today, those same basic rule and concept of play are still the foundation of our role-playing game, have spawned mega-hit RPG after hit, and is more popular than ever. ”

Okay. I was there.

The first gaming stuff I ever bought was the black pocket box Car Wars and the Double Arena expansion set, the Basic D & D boxed set with the Green Dragon on the cover, and an unbelievably weird game called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I continued to buy stuff for those games over the next several years, and also ended up playing the original First Edition AD&D, Gamma World, and Battletech.

I remember what the 80s gaming scene was like. And I remember vividly the fear and trembling with which I opened that GURPS box so long ago. Reading and playing that material with those first few world books that were released, it quickly became obvious that the bar for RPGs had been raised.

There’s a lot more to GURPS than simply coming up with a cross-genre “universal” system.

If you look at the early RPG’s, you see a lot of repetition and variation among the same set of ideas. You had attributes, classes, alignments, saving throws, and levels. Each of these ideas were generally made up of simple rules, but as the systems were extended with new rules, it would take more and more rules to make things to work and work together. In programming, we call this sort of thing a “kludge”. Kludges can work, but as you add features to them they tend to get unstable and unwieldy.

What Steve Jackson did with GURPS is this: He took all of the RPG ideas and came up with a higher level abstraction that could easily model any role playing character or situation. Levels disappeared and were replaced with “points”– a much more flexible and accurate representation of character value. Alignments disappeared and were replaced with more generic mental disadvantages and quirks. Classes disappeared and were replaced with generic advantages and skills lists. (An elven fighter/mage and a bionic superhero with psionic powers could be designed with ease. GURPS made blending various “class” concepts a cinch.) Extraneous attributes that weren’t really useful for anything were thrown out. Saving throws were derived naturally from attributes, skills, and advantages. “Monsters” were constructed with the same generic rules, instead of requiring a separate system.

Steve didn’t invent every single one of these ideas himself– he acknowledged his debt to other games. But he was the first to compile a system with this elegant combination of simplicity and scope. Steve applied the principles of good design to RPGs. His design was like that of a good software engineer. And not only did he solve the character/NPC/monster/multi-class problem, but he also hard wired his system to be easy to use in play and also to emphasize Role Playing over “Hack and Slash.”

Because GURPS is such a good design, its source books are easy to adapt to other systems. Sourcebooks from other systems are easy to adapt to GURPS. Because GURPS books don’t have to repeat the same old rules over and over, space is freed up and authors have room to try to make the definitive RPG treatment of their subject matter. Over time, GURPS has gone from being the simplest RPG to use to now having the most elaborate collection of optional add-ons of any system. And as far as background for science fiction campaigns, lots of settings have gotten RPG world books that probably wouldn’t have been covered otherwise. Settings that haven’t scored their own world books can be campaigned in by using the generic rules in GURPS Space and Ultra-tech.

Palladium has always had good artwork, fun books, lots of adventures, and innovative concepts. I’m sure the system has evolved over time. But GURPS set the standard for cohesion, consistency, modularity, and scope– and it has not been surpassed. Its more than just one the “same basic rule and concept” for several genres. It’s one system for any genre.


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