Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Category Archives: GURPS

Amazon Women, Pulp Fantasy, and Old School Game Mastering Advice in The Fantasy Trip

The year was 1980 and Steve Jackson’s first complete role-playing game design hit the market. A pivotal time in gaming to be sure!

Sign of the times: there are no amateurish drawings of naked women in the pages of this module. But take heart! This game nevertheless has its foot firmly planted in the staggeringly awesome days of gaming’s primordial past. A scantily clad Amazon chick not only appears on the cover but also as an explicit option for unironic play:

AMAZON: The beautiful, dangerous female warrior. She probably has high DX and wears little armor. Talents
include Sex Appeal, Unarmed Combat, Bow, and Thrown Weapons — plus several other weapon talents.


If you shelled out big bucks for the recent monster-sized Kickstarter edition of this game, don’t bother to look for this. This was evidently expurgated for being way too spicy for the high strung pearl-clutching gamers of today. (Fortunately for us pulp fantasy fans, Tarzan remains in the archetype list for the Woodsman “class”– though the name was character type was updated to “Ranger”.)

One surprising bit that was left 100% intact, however, is this choice bit from the game’s background setting of Cidri:

This enormous polyglot world was chosen as a background for two very good and totally opposite reasons. The first is variety. Cidri is big enough to hold thousands of Earths; it has room for the world of every Game Master who’ll ever put pencil to hex-paper. There’s room here for every sort of fantasy adventure to coexist — in a logical manner. And it provides a workable rationale for the weird melange of legend, historical fact, prehistory, science fiction, and sheer wild imagination that characterizes the work of the best fantasy gamers.

What an astonishing line there!

Granted, anyone that is familiar with role-playing games of the 1970’s could see why Steve Jackson would say such a thing. And Cidri is truly a bizarre game setting. It’s like Philip José Farmer’s World of Tiers series mashed up with Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber. It’s like a weird inversion of the default setting of the much later Steve Jackon  release of GURPS Fourth Edition– instead of “Infinite Worlds” it’s Infinite World!

Rough sketch for the cover of the Melee MicroGame? A stray illustration from the 1980 edition of In the Labyrinth? No on both counts! It’s a picture of Dejah Thoris by Frank Frazetta!

But look at that sentence again. It is very much like how I have (on many occasions) attempted to describe the best work of A. Merritt, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Leigh Brackett to a generation that is almost entirely unfamiliar with the pulp era. And here Steve Jackson in 1980 casually declares the work of the best fantasy gamers to be JUST LIKE THAT. He had no idea that there was about to be a sea change in how people even conceived fantasy to even work!

Incredible. The intrinsically weird/pulpy foundations of fantasy gaming confirmed!

But wait, there’s more treasures to unearth in this old game!

In Steve Perrin’s review of it from the April/May 1980 issue of Different Worlds, he says this: “Perhaps the best part of the book is a column by publisher Howard Thompson, describing the story-telling requirements of being a GM. Truer words were never spoken.” Story-telling? Sounds potentially heretical to me! Too bad purchasers of the new edition will not have the benefit of this awesomely TRUE gaming wisdom from the dawn of the hobby. Steve Jackson deleted it for some reason!

But don’t worry. I have the text right here:


Most of you will eventually want to design your own labyrinths and take a turn at being Game Master. A fantasy role playing game is certainly more enjoyable when you can provide fun and adventure for your friends. In our experience, there is one philosophy of game-mastering that consistently leads to success. That is this: A GM is a solo entertainer of an unusual new variety. He is a writer, performer, and group facilitator rolled into one. Players participate in an adventure campaign for entertainment — not to let the GM be a petty god and manipulate their characters at will. It takes practice, attention, and sensitivity to lead a group through an adventure and leave them feeling good (win or lose) when it’s over. Thinking of yourself as a semi-professional entertainer like a bard or other
small-group yarn-spinner will help.

Don’t try to control the action or predetermine specific outcomes for everything. Your labyrinth and its supporting environment must be flexible enough to evolve as a result of the players’ actions, be they successes or failures. There must be room for players to build, destroy, live and die as they choose. This doesn’t mean that things should be easy. Player characters will get killed — fairly regularly, for the careless or headstrong. As a GM, you must be firm – but not so attached to your creation that it doesn’t also become something of the players’.

You needn’t bully your players or allow them to intimidate you. There will be points of disagreement during play, of course – but the best way to handle them is to postpone any
real discussion until a “critique” period after the game session. Players should feel free to ask questions or make comments about the GM’s actions, but it shouldn’t go farther than a few brief comments while play is going on. If you goof, and a player catches it immediately, you ought to fix it then and there IF you can do it without breaking the “feel” of the adventure. The ability to do this is a mark of the experienced GM. Real disagreements should always be discussed AFTER an adventure, in preparation for the next. You can stand by your actions and refuse to discuss them — but to the detriment of your campaign.

Remember – you are an entertainer. The adventure unfolding is your “act.” Nurture the story, let it build, involve players in the action. Within the framework you’ve constructed, let events happen as they will. What you and your players will create is a spontaneous experience that can be a rewarding entertainment “high.”

— Howard Thompson

This is solid, straight ahead advice. If all you had were a bunch of fantasy game materials from the seventies you’d probably hit on this eventually. The Hickman Revolution was a not even a glimmer in anyone’s eye at this point, of course. And Steve Jackson’s own particular brand of role-playing philosophy (which would fully flower in the mid-eighties with GURPS) was not yet in evidence in any of The Fantasy Trip’s material.

Of course the approach to role-playing that would become dominant in this century in the aftermath of TSR’s demise was even further off. Which is intriguing. One thing that sets The Fantasy Trip apart from original D&D that it has in common with D&D 3.5 is the hyper-regulated combat and movement system.

Here is Steve Jackson’s own rationale for why he developed it from his designer’s notes in The Space Gamer 29, July 1980:

It started in early 1977. I had just found out, much to my surprise, that I could design games… people were buying Ogre, But the game that I was playing a lot of myself was Dungeons & Dragons. And like everyone else who tried an early version of D&D, I wanted to make some changes. The polyhedral dice were irritating– but the biggest problem was combat. The D&D combat rules were confusing and unsatisfying. No tactics, no real movement– you just rolled dice and died. T&T was the same way. Monsters! Monsters! was more detailed in some ways, but still allowed no tactics. So I did something about it.

Amazons from the original edition of Dungeons & Dragons and 4th Edition Tunnels & Trolls. If your game doesn’t have them, it sucks!

Indeed he did. Steve Jackson would end up making two of the greatest microgames in history, which is pretty cool given that he’d already created the definitive microgame with his debut game design.

Steve Jackson is far from being the only person that could look at the first two role-playing games and declare the combat system to be completely broken. Of course at the time he wrote that, we were decades away from anyone being able to provide a cogent argument for why the nature of those early systems were a feature, not a bug. But given everything we’ve seen in five decades of role-playing at the tabletop, we have to ask. Is a hyper-regulated combat system intrinsically bad for rpgs? Is that the root cause that made D&D 3.5’s completely linear “everybody wins nobody dies” adventures the gaming travesty that it is…?

It’s a reasonable question, really. After all, the Melee/Wizard adventure “The Lost Lair” published in The Dungeoneer 11 in 1979 did not embody the design principles outlined in Jaquaying the Dungeon even though it was created by the person whose name would become synonymous with the idea.

The seeds of destruction really are there, perhaps. But given Howard Thompson’s spot on game mastering advice included in the original edition of In the Labyrinth, I have to say…. It doesn’t have to be that way!

Happy Birthday to Douglas Cole!

Okay, y’all. It’s a special day: Douglas Cole’s birthday. And that means you need an excuse to buy yourself a present!

For old school tabletop fantasy roleplayers, let me suggest The Manor Issue #8 for its really cool article on grappling. If you are a GURPS gamer and haven’t gotten it, yet… let me point you to GURPS Martial Arts: Technical Grappling. Because, gosh darn it… at some point you want to be able to “distinguish between between bear and lion attacks.” (Admit it… you have to want to know that even if you don’t play GURPS!!!)

Who is Douglas Cole, you ask? Only the guy that wrote the Violent Resolution series, the best set of articles you’ll find from this year on the topic of game design and trends in role-playing games. I declared Doug to be the top gaming blogger of 2014 last year. Now he’s on my shortlist for best fan writer for 2015.

Go check out his stuff already!

Here’s what I said about his Pyramid articles ages ago:

Armor Revisted — “This is a fascinating article.  On the one hand, it is a concise set of designer’s notes that explains the foundational premise of the GURPS firearms rules.  On the other… it provides two additional dials that can be applied the the weapons and armor stats in the game.  As a bonus, these are explained in such a way that it is clear when and why to do things in the alternate way.  A big part of running a game depends on being able to visualize what is happening before the players begin to interact with it.  This article explains what the core combat rules actually mean in such a way that a GM that understands this can better improvise his rulings on the fly.  This is surprisingly interesting given the technical nature of the ideas.”

The Deadly Spring — “This will probably be the most infamous Pyramid article of all time.  Good grief!  You choose the materials and specifications… plug in to a variety of equations… and maybe you’ll have a bow at the end.  I majored in math and I don’t understand half this stuff.  (Physics departments produce an entirely different strain of nerdiness, I suppose.)  This article makes the unplayable Striker look like a chump’s game.  It includes some sample bows, but… for me… a generic bow is sufficient for most of what I want to do.”

The Last Gasp — “These rules are really, really neat. It’s kind of mind blowing that a game that has been developed for as long as GURPS has can be improved like this. Wow! Groups that can handle the extra bookkeeping will be richly repaid. (The one adventure that I designed myself for convention play would have benefited greatly from these rules. I didn’t want to kill the player characters within the allotted time, but some sort of penalty for wasting time and energy could have greatly increased the dramatic tension of the session. The long-term fatigue rules here are exactly the sort of thing I was struggling to improvise for myself.)”

Cold Booting a GURPS Traveller Convention Game

Running con games scares me half to death. I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know who will come. I don’t know how to prepare. What if I stink? What if no one comes? What if someone gets so mad that they flip the table over? I’m panicking just thinking about it!!! But maybe I don’t need to.

Okay… let’s just lay down some basic constraints and see what we can do with them:

  • We’re using GURPS Basic Set Fourth Edition as a drop-in replacement for classic Traveller Book One, “Characters & Combat.”
  • World generation is by Traveller Book Three, “Worlds and Adventures.”
  • Space combat… if it comes up… is role played. We are not going to be playing any serious tactical space combat during this session, but if something like that turns up… I’ll improvise challenges, setbacks, situations, and tasks that will determine the outcome.
  • There are two target audiences for this session. One is the person that is new to both GURPS and Traveller and that wants to try it out… or any space themed role playing game for that matter. The other is the dedicated local fan that I would not know about except for the fact that they’ve found me on the convention schedule.

Okay, that is not so bad.

Next major issue: I am not making pre-gens for the session. It would take me hours to make a set of crappy characters that may not be what anyone wants to play anyway. I remember at Origins 2011 someone complaining about a GURPS game where they got stuck playing the medic and didn’t do anything except heal the combat monster that got to have all the fun. To heck with that! Why would you let someone into a GURPS session where they can’t play exactly the sort of character they want to play?! The system being what it is, it’d be crazy not let people play whatever they want. To everyone that has chaffed against nonsensical race, class, and level restrictions… I have your antidote right here!

Also: I am not handing people any character templates. In the first place, they are not GURPS; in some sense they’re even antithetical to GURPS. (Well… 2e GURPS, anyway.) I’m not using them. I will make a list of suggested advantages and skills based on what I can manage and what I can expect to teach, but that’s it. If someone shows up that knows what they’re doing, they’ll be welcome to dig through the book and get exactly what they want. If a new player has something very specific in mind for an ability, I’ll be happy to look it up on the spot if it won’t take too long. Under the extreme time pressure we’ll be facing, I’m liable to just mark down “40 points of Awesome” on the character sheet and then just make things up from there.

Okay… things are starting to fall in place now. Let’s talk setting:

  • This is in the far, far future of the Traveller setting. Its wealth of material is here for me to plunder… not for it to give me a headache. I am not even going to attempt to portray a strict canonical session… and if super duper hard science detail is your thing, then I hope you can play in such a way that your expertise explains my rulings after the fact. No, really… invest in the game in such a way that I can leverage your out-of-game knowledge. You can do that by speculating in character as to why something weird actually makes sense… and then letting me reframe the situation to account for that if it turns out to be possible. (Of course, I can’t explain this in a convention environment… but this is what I’d aim for normally in just about any role playing game I’m running.)
  • This will be a Galactic Empire setting. The central powers will have Jump-36 drives and warp gates connecting the largest population centers. Ring worlds, rosettes, and Dyson spheres will be commonplace. On the other hand, the frontiers will be more like old school Traveller with all the hoopla being far away and even Jump-6 vessels being prohibitively expensive.
  • This will be a massively cosmopolitan and heterogeneous setting. Any kind of alien character will be possible. (If we’re going to play GURPS, we might as well take advantage of it!)

If we budget one hour for character generation, then that leaves three hours for the game proper. We want to get to the action right away while showcasing the strengths of the system. We also want to tilt things towards the classic Traveller stereotypes. So, that narrows things down even further:

  • The basic format of the campaign is ex-military criminals taking on odd jobs from patrons.
  • There will be guns that fire bullets instead of funky laser beams.
  • There will be cutlasses.
  • There will be a bar brawl.
  • The authorities will be outwitted.
  • There will be a mysterious alien artifact involved.
  • There will be a showdown in a stupidly crazy high tech environment– giant machines and fans churning around, being all dangerous and stuff.

So really… I just need a list of skills and advantages, a patron, and a matte painting type world setting to serve as a backdrop. I need to brush up on the bottom 10% of the GURPS combat rules… and I’m mostly good to go.

If we’re going with a big show-down finale, then we are on the well worn ground of a Car Wars game. If playing out the end game will take an hour or so… then that leaves two hours for the players to investigate, plan, build, and find allies. The structure of the middle part of the game will be like the old Zork and Adventureland games: lots of things that can be interacted with and solved in whatever order the players want. All we have to do is ensure that something big is going to go down and then turn them loose to get ready for it.

Voila: instant con session.

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.

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.