GURPS 4, Innovation 0

I’ve finally got hold of GURPS 4th Edition Characters, the first half of the updated version of GURPS. First impressions are……well, let’s just say they’re mixed and I’ll explain later.

The best way to get into GURPS is to go Lite. GURPS Lite is a 32 page PDF that’s freely downloadable. It’s a micro distillation of all you need to get started with GURPS in one handy package, and excited me mightily to much I just had to grab the full version.

With 3rd Edition, the core GURPS rules came in one softbound book of tightly packed, poorly laid out text – but it was pretty much all there provided you didn’t want to run a superhero game. With this 4th edition a decision was made to expand the content and split them into two 300-page books entitled Characters and Campaigns. It’s a good choice, as it means that the Character book can go into a lot of depth and cover more than the previous edition. The layout is, quite simply, beautiful; it’s clear, open, and the use of colour is very good throughout.

That said, the Characters book isn’t without it’s faults. As it’s Book One of a two-book set, it doesn’t provide very much at all beyond charactere generation. The basic combat rules are duplicated from the 32-page GURPS Lite, and skill use and reaction rolls are sketched over only briefly. It’s just enough to be able to actually run a game though, so it is a worthwhile inclusion, though I would have liked just a little more depth.

More serious though is the lack of character and racial templates. Considering that this book is supposed to be the resource for GURPS character generation, I’d have expected a whole gamut of templates covering everything from the core fantasy races and characters through to aliens and asteroid belters. Instead we get dragon, felines, vampires and a detective – and that’s about it. That’s quite a big blooper. Surely the more obscure skills (bicycling?) could have been sidelined to make this book more usable across any genre straight away. Both existing worldbooks (with a little number crunching) and future supplements will fix this, but it’s a bad omission.

One other thing that niggles is the half-way method that superheroics have been handled. Superpowers have been classified as Advantages whereas really I’d like them to be treated separately. As a result what powers are in the book (and there aren’t many – Flight but no Force Field or Energy Blast “Advantages”) are just mixed in with “Social Status” and “One arm stronger than the other”. Jeez. Powers should have a chapter and heading all to themselves like Magic and Psionics. It would sure make the GM’s job easier when it comes to telling the player what’s allowed and what isn’t.

Another problem is that the whole perceived power level of the game has increased. The baseline for GURPS 3rd Edition was 100 points, plus 40 points of disadvantages, though it was stressed throughout that the GM could set the level anywhere from 25 points to several hundreds. In 4th Edition the power level is left very vague and no baseline is drawn at all. Given that this is probably the first (and maybe only) book players are going to get, a starting group of gamers really need some guidelines in this book. What they do get however is an example character created with 250 points + disadvantages, and the (excellent) iconic characters range in power from 250 points all the way to 1,600!!! There should be examples all the way from 25 points up to show the flexibility of the system, and a line needs to be drawn around the 100 point mark so the players (and GMs without Book 2) know where to start.

That said, the rules are much better than what’s gone before. This is merely a rules evolution however – exerienced GURPSets won’t see all that much to change – rather than a revolution. The cleanup has generated a few inconsisencies (shield skill for example) but nothing earth shattering. It’s definitely playable, and more attractive (to me) than previous editions.

In short – it’s better, the layout is modern and clear, but it’s neither as Generic nor Universal out of the box as it promises to be. I just can’t really understand why GURPS needs to spend 600+ pages to do what HERO Systems got right 15 years ago with their 4th Edition in just 230.

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