Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

The Iconography of Early GURPS Products

The front and back of the original GURPS boxed set.

The first thing that you’d notice is the box. Why a boxed basic set, you ask…? Because Holmes-Moldvay-Mentzer, that’s why! Very little was released in gaming during the mid-eighties that wasn’t in packaging that aped Red Box D&D, though Palladium was already pioneering the use of perfect bound books as their primary means of presenting their games. Steve Jackson Games would follow suit with third edition GURPS and even after moving on to the hardback books of fourth edition, the core game is still a “Basic Set.” (To change the name at this point would confuse too many store owners and distributors, so the original name remains….)

The second edition GURPS booklets.

The second thing that you’d notice is… the gorgeous Denis Loubet paintings. The first features sword… and sorcery even though magic ultimately got cut from the core set. The second features and the a street thug blowing up a defenseless automobile on some sort of city block. Given that this is a Steve Jackson Games production, one naturally assumes that this is meant to invoke a pitched battle on the streets of Midville. A more generic view would interpret it as emblematic of post-apocalyptic gaming in general– which was relatively popular at the time. Finally… the third piece Traveller in particular and space-themed role playing in general. You might quibble with the use of spaceships on the box cover of a game that has no rules for them, but really… you can play a great deal of Traveller using just Book 1: Characters & Combat, and this set functions neatly as a drop-in replacement for those rules.

A few of the earliest world books for GURPS.

Opening the second edition box up for the first time, you’re in for a surprise. The covers for the two game booklets are drab and understated… and they are in probably the strangest and most boring color of blue that was ever used in the history of gaming. It’s almost like the special blue pencils that artists use for sketching out guidelines so that they won’t be picked up by cameras. And while these booklets are not particularly snazzy, this turns out to be an extremely apt metaphor for how these rules are intended to function. They are meant to fade in the background while your characters take center stage in your game-world.

And speaking of game-worlds… the combination of a world book with the Basic Set gives you sort of a Wizard of Oz type of effect. When you start out with the nearly colorless contents of the Basic Set… you’re in Kansas. But when you go out and buy a world book from Steve Jackson Games… you’re not in Kansas anymore! You’re suddenly in full, crisp Technicolor. In those days, there really was no other plan on the table beyond making more of these things. The definition of supplement given in the game’s glossary is this: “A set of rules designed to add onto the basic GURPS rules, defining a particular game-world and explaining the special situations, abilities, hazards, rewards, etc., found there.” As GURPS developed up through fourth edition, the supplements gradually became more and more generic and less world-specific. (The only world-books for fourth edition that I can think of right off are Interstellar Wars, the Vorkosigan book, and the upcoming Discworld supplement.)

The back covers to GURPS Fantasy and GURPS Autoduel….

One thing that was done on the back covers of the first two world books was to continue the overarching hex theme of the Basic Set box cover. The sorceress on the back of GURPS Fantasy looks like she was translated directly off a GURPS Battle Map..! The consistent use of hexes in this manner subtly reinforces the idea that, though these are all different worlds, the rules and characters can all cross over to each other because they’re completely compatible. And more than that… the use of hexes signaled that Steve Jackson Games was going to continue creating world books in such a way that they would tessellate to cover every conceivable game-setting. And that is of course exactly what they did.

It’s not quite clear from the credits who it was that came up with this notion of using the hex as the fundamental and unifying theme of the GURPS line… but whoever it was, I think it is pure genius.

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14 responses to “The Iconography of Early GURPS Products

  1. MishaBurnett July 1, 2013 at 6:26 am

    Thank you for posting these pictures. I agree with what you have to say about iconography, but mostly it’s just that those images bring back such good memories.

  2. Jason Packer July 1, 2013 at 9:33 am

    I had copies of every image you showed here. I was such a GURPS fanboy that I bought things like Horror just to have them around, even though I had no desire to play in a horror-based campaign at all.

    As far as settings go, would you include Banestorm as a “world book”?

    • jeffro July 1, 2013 at 9:34 am

      I bought Horror because of the full Psionic rules that were in there. Also… it was the closest thing we had to a monster manual at the time….

      Oh yeah, Banestorm is definitely a world book. How could I forget!

  3. Jimmy Anderson July 1, 2013 at 11:09 pm

    I would also add that this brings back memories, though I never played or DM’d a single GURPS session. :-) I was introduced to RPGs via D&D 2nd edition, then Traveller, then Top Secret. :-)

    I recently bought a few sets of dice on eBay, even though I have no plans (sadly) to RPG anytime soon. :-(

    • jeffro July 2, 2013 at 8:07 am

      Those dice want to be used. I can sense a disturbance in the ether– almost as if they are crying out. Fear. Loneliness. An abiding desolation. Only you can bring them the peace they so richly deserve.

  4. PeterD July 2, 2013 at 8:02 am

    Wow, I never saw 2nd edition. I only had 1st edition, with the nice boxed set and the coverless interior books. What’s left of them is in a folder in a box near my bookcase. They got used until they fell to pieces, and then we moved up to 3rd edition via update (never figuring out the little changes from 1e to 2e we hadn’t seen were causing some of our biggest “Huh?” moments.)

    • jeffro July 2, 2013 at 8:05 am

      I’ve never seen first edition GURPS. It is a rare, mythic beast in my subconscious– on par with The Fantasy Trip, the original OD&D booklets, and Holmes blue-box basic.

      • Tom Vallejos July 3, 2013 at 1:38 pm

        I did have a copy of it buried somewhere. A friend sold it to me back in ’88 for $15.

      • PeterD July 4, 2013 at 10:52 am

        I’ll have to find my remnants and take a picture. I bought the boxed set as soon as it came out – early enough that it came with a $5 rebate card I could use if I sent in my Man-to-Man proof of purchase (I didn’t cut up my MtM to do it, though). I’ll dig around tomorrow and see what I turn up.

  5. morrisonmp July 4, 2013 at 8:33 am

    I started GURPS with that 2nd Edition box set. I loved those hexes on the cover and the ideas they sparked. Fantasy, Humanx, and Horseclans were my first GURPS sourcebooks and like you – I was fascinated by the use of “real-world” in Yrth. I’ve soured on GURPS as a system – but I still most of my original sourcebooks and I still buy new ones, especially GURPS Fantasy/Banestorm releases. I’ve run Harkwood as more times than I’ve run Keep on the Borderlands.

    • jeffro July 4, 2013 at 8:57 am

      Oh wow… Horseclans! I never saw that one, but I’m sure I would have gotten it if it had been on the store shelf. When GURPS came out, I was excited at the prospects of getting games for one setting/series after another– stuff that just wouldn’t have otherwise gotten a game. Humanx and Horseclans typify that sort of thing….

  6. Pingback: Book Review: A Throne of Bones | Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

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