Level One Wonk: Universal Gaming with GURPS

Are you a Butt-Kicker, a Specialist, or a Story-Teller? There is a huge world of games out there to satisfy every player’s and group’s style. And while there are academic discussions in every corner of the internet, sometimes it’s best to start at level one. Join the Level One Wonk in exploring the possibilities that RPGs have to offer, from Aberrant to Zorcerer of Zo. Today we talk about the potent flexibility of universal systems, using the oddly named but otherwise excellent GURPS as our prime example!

Whether you’re a GM or a player, learning new games takes time. And if you’re a GM, it’s rare to find a game that does exactly what you want. Beyond that, if your group tends towards games with heavy simulation or tactical elements, there’s even more work in learning systems and doing prep. Now imagine you want to play in a genre that isn’t well-supported, or even switch genres mid-game with a time travel or dimension hopping plot line. How are you going to do this? The answer is with a universal system.

Game publishers have been using the “house system” strategy since the late 1970s. A “house system” is a core set of mechanics which can be adapted for multiple settings and genres with minimal rework, and having a set of rules like this allowed a lot of publishers to release more and more complete products back when the industry was saturated and intensely competitive. Chaosium was arguably the first company to market a universal system to players directly, selling a setting-free version of their house system as Basic Roleplaying. In 1986, though, Steve Jackson Games took a slightly different tack. Though GURPS was a modification of an earlier game called The Fantasy Trip, the GURPS publication strategy was to provide tools for players to write their own settings that all worked around one set of rules. GURPS Space, GURPS Fantasy, and others all provided a building block approach at a time when games and their supplements were tied to their settings, be it Glorantha (Runequest), Greyhawk (Dungeons and Dragons) or the Imperium (Traveller).

GURPS is one of the most well-known universal systems today, along with the Hero System which was first released in 1990. Though there are many newer systems with broad genre applicability, the sort of mechanically intensive play supported by GURPs is mostly only supported by the most recent editions of these older games. GURPS 4th edition is a well-designed and tight game, but it’s going to require a bit more work to get set up compared to a narrower crunchy game like D&D. Still, if you go in with the right approach, you’ll find games like GURPS help enable some of your wildest campaign ideas that you never thought you’d have detailed rules for.


When you typically run a game, a lot of the constraints are embedded in the system. In D&D, spells have levels which are gated based on the level of the character, and different classes have different spells they can access. GURPS has a robust magic system, but if you want to differentiate between a wizard and a warlock you’re going to have to write it yourself. Similarly, the default GURPS magic system provides dozens of spells and a full set of prerequisites for all of them, but it’s all optional. This can make setting up something like magic in GURPS more daunting, but it also means you can easily tweak even the smallest details if you’d like.

The bigger issues arise when looking at the rules as a whole. In the Equipment chapter of the GURPS Basic Set, there are statistics for bolas and javelins maybe one page away from similar entries for heavy machine guns, force swords, and mono-wire. The vast majority of games won’t allow all of those weapons, and those which do need to be designed around some form of balancing mechanic. At a high level, the GM needs to draw a boundary around what his campaign world includes to make these rules work. Fortunately, many games including GURPS have gating mechanics. The two basic ones from GURPS are Tech Level and ability categorization. Tech Level breaks the world into 13  eras, ranging from paleolithic (TL0) to far-future (TL12). Every item and many skills are gated by Tech Level. For skills, tech level doesn’t only tell you when a skill first becomes available, but also how broadly applicable it is. This helps simulate the challenge a modern car mechanic may face if he had to work on a 19th century steam engine. Ability categorizations apply to the main part of characterization that TL does not: the long list of advantages and disadvantages. Advantages and disadvantages which don’t belong in a realistic campaign are tagged as supernatural, while advantages and disadvantages which don’t belong with conventional humans in any genre are tagged as exotic.

Even with the systems that GURPS has for helping to specify a game, GMs need to make judgment calls. Like many mechanics-intensive games, GURPS is susceptible to significant disparities in power, both because of system mastery as well as plain old character focus. While it is equally possible to make a rough-and-tumble mercenary and a wily merchant (and a professional clown, talking dogs and computer hacking seagulls, and possibly a sentient blueberry muffin), only the GM knows for certain which characters are going to have enough to do in their intended game. If a player is making a character focused on science and technology, social interactions, or anything else outside of your vision of a campaign’s primary activities, it is incumbent on you the GM to make an honest appraisal of whether that character is going to be fun or merely in the background. Communicate with your players about what concepts fit: your supernatural horror game needs a tank commander like a dungeon crawl needs a party clown.

The easiest gating mechanic that many GMs forget is simply to restrict what books you’ll allow. Your game of Ancient Greek heroes may not be imbalanced by including the rules for Pankration in GURPS: Martial Arts, but that particular supplement introduces a lot of complexity for what’s likely to be little payoff (unless you want martial arts to be a focus). Similarly, if the magic system in the core book works fine for you, including GURPS: Magic or GURPS: Thaumatology in your list of allowed books may create more headaches than the new rules are worth. Most of the GURPS supplements are fantastic, but there’s more than enough material for a game in the Basic Set and reducing the reading list makes things easier for players.


GURPS can be tough for players not only because of the relative complexity, but also because there’s so much flexibility in how to execute a character concept with the mechanics. I’ve found that GURPS character creation works best if you try to write the character prior to engaging with the rules. If the GM agrees that the character fits with the campaign idea and the power level, then set out to translate what you’ve already written into the rules. One of GURPS biggest strengths and weaknesses is the staggering number of options available, so narrowing it down before cracking a rulebook helps.

The other benefit to writing a character concept prior to actually creating the character is that it gives you a chance to talk with your GM about the range of concepts they’re looking for and their vision for the campaign. This is a two-way street, also! As a GM my players have often brought things to me that I had never considered, but in a lot of cases those ideas made great additions to a game. If the idea is too far afield your GM will tell you, but having that conversation will help the GM understand what you want to do with your character regardless of whether you go with your original idea or revise it.

In the same vein, have conversations with the other players, whether your group does character creation in a group or not. These conversations have two effects: first, they help you establish what everyone is playing, if there are overlaps, and how your group is likely to work together. Second, if there are players with more GURPS experience, they can point out ways to improve your character build or possible gaps in your skills or equipment.

Universal systems like GURPS give your group a lot of power to play exactly the game you want without having to invent or adapt things from other systems or from thin air. Unfortunately, when a system tries to have rules for everything, it ends up with a lot of rules. While there’s no doubt that learning GURPS takes some work, once you know what you’re doing you’re rewarded with a system which is rich with detail and can adapt to virtually any imaginable setting. It’s not going to replace every game in your library, but it will serve as an easy toolkit for writing new worlds and campaigns as well as a go-to system for the settings and concepts a bit too niche or weird to have their own published system.

GURPS products are available on the Steve Jackson Games web store, Warehouse 23. Additionally, Steve Jackson Games has begun reprinting GURPS hardcopy sourcebooks using Amazon Createspace.

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