Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Nineties GURPS: the Apex of Freakishly Weird Gaming

I’m always surprised hear current GURPS fans complain about the OSR’s penchant for all things “gonzo.” I mean, what self-respecting game-geek isn’t going to take a system that covers every possible genre and then mash them all together? What hard core GURPS junkie has the self control not to push the limits of the system…? Turn all the dials…? Crank everything to eleven? How can you game with this system and not be infected– nay, overwhelmed!– by Steve Jackson’s dark and demented brand of humor?

Sure, he always had a thing for multiple worlds and time periods colliding and interacting. It all started with Cidri… and continued on with Yrth. A lot of it was understated, but the door to more weirdness was always left open. And almost every campaign setup seemed to have pre-installed options to allow for “illuminated” varieties of play. It wasn’t until 1995 that this sort of thing could be taken to its logical conclusion. The stage was set for the final culmination of the implied setting of GURPS: Illuminati University.

I love this bit from the introduction: “IOU is the campaign setting that will let you use everything in the GURPS system.” Awesome. What purchaser of the second edition GURPS Basic Set did not yearn for this? Who wasn’t vaguely disappointed by the initial system’s limitations and heavy tilt toward realism and “serious” role playing…? But the mold set by the earliest supplements were still in place even at this late date. This is still pretty much a straight-up “world book.” There’s nothing on the back cluing you in on which supplements you were “required” to have to run it. You had to flip to the introduction to find out that GURPS Magic, GURPS Time Travel , GURPS Grimoire, GURPS Supers, GURPS Psionics, and GURPS Fantasy Folk would all be a good idea for this. And there’s no templates. None at all. Just ten or eleven “character types” each with points budgets, a brief description, and then suggested advantages, disadvantages, and skills. That is, of course, the old school GURPS way– exactly the same format as first edition GURPS Autoduel. The assumption is clearly… if you’re playing GURPS, you’re going to be rolling your own.

Still, I pick this book up… and I can barely believe this thing exists. I’m of course predisposed to be slightly in awe of the earliest TSR, GDW, and Metagaming products that all came out years before I ever even picked up a hobby game. But this stuff that came out during the time that I’d sort of dropped out of gaming always seemed strangely overwrought to me. (The oldest games seemed to require someone else’s nostalgia in order to fully appreciate them. But Newer games all seem to be somebody else’s inside joke.) Oh, I’d still wander in to game stores and peruse the new books in the comfortingly ubiquitous two yards of GURPS and Palladium books that were always there up until the big D20 glut of the oughties. And yeah, I never really saw anything that could draw me back into serious gaming until I got smitten with the GURPS Traveller line. I have to wonder though… if I had seen IOU on the shelf during that delicate period, would it have damaged my psyche so much that I’d never come back to gaming again, ever…? Only Dr. What⁷ knows.

So who came up with the conglomeration of gaming weirdness that is IOU? To a large extent, it’s the spawn of convention play and a bunch of people from the Illuminati BBS. Oh, I remember that thing. I guess stuff like GEnie and the old bulletin board systems were still in use during the early nineties. The internet hadn’t slurped all that stuff away, yet. I remember that old BBS, though. I don’t think I ever got the nerve to call into it. (The long distance charges were huge even at 2400 baud!) The people that did have the gumption to brave that digital frontier were evidently the sort that would play games like this one. The title page lists a huge number of them, including Archangel Beth, Stefan Jones, Justin Case, Chad Irby, Freshthing TSRminator, Dean Dr. What, and THE Unseen Dean Cloudcat. In other words… about the same crowd of miscreants and ne’re-do-wells that populate the Steve Jackson Games Forums to this day.

And the game the emerged from GURPS’ rabid, cult-like following was surprisingly prescient. They basically invented Harry Potter. No, really…! Instead of Hogwarts you’ve got the IOU campus. Instead of Muggles, you’ve got Mundanes. Instead of Quidditch you’ve got Moopsball. The parallels are pretty shocking. And beyond a thinly veiled excuse to break out every single GURPS book at once, you also get a brutal, scathing, no-holds-barred take down of collegiate life. Reading this book brings memories of my college back into sharp detail. It’s uncanny. Much is made of the importance of prospective students’ credit ratings. Under the faculty character type, it says that teaching skill is optional. Ally and Ally Group are altered to allow for unwilling allies… in order to more correctly model the nature of academic politics. And of course, everyone has an unusual background and the entire campus is a weirdness magnet of epic proportions.

The crazy thing is… this setting almost starts to make sense. You could imagine a decadent alien city-world running in a very similar fashion. It might be impossible to get from place to place without relevant Area Knowledge skill. There might be all manner of deadly strangeness that can only be avoided with sufficiently high Survival skill. And the application of Weird Science and Weird Magic skill in the context of a campaign like this sounds fascinating– there are entire potential supplements wrapped up in that topic– or at least a few Pyramid articles….

So I come away from this frightening train wreck of a book with a grudging respect. The underlying game system is solid, of course. The premise is strong enough to serve as the basis for pretty much the book series of the last decade. When you dig past the jokes and the silliness, the satirical depiction of life on campus is painfully and horribly realistic. But even if all of this sort of thing isn’t your cup of tea, it is at the least fascinating to see what the people who helped make GURPS what it is could do when they had the chance to really let loose and make exactly the sort of game that they’d always wanted to play. The results are mind-blowing.

This review was made possible by a generous donation to the Space Gaming Historical Archives by Chris Mata.

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3 responses to “Nineties GURPS: the Apex of Freakishly Weird Gaming

  1. Karl Gallagher August 5, 2013 at 11:32 am

    I’ve never gotten to run a game of IOU. I did get a Pyramid article (“The Hills Are Alive With the Sound of Panic”) out of it, spawned by a discussion with my wife over what Hysteria majors would actually do once they graduated.

  2. dgarsys August 6, 2013 at 9:59 pm

    I loved that book from the moment I saw it. I even ended up getting an article into the Pyramid based on the premise of a live-fire game of Killer co-opted as an intro history course….

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