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.