Ah, GURPS. One of the most comprehensive toolkits on the RPG market, GURPS and its plethora of supplements offer the ability to play in almost any genre at almost any complexity level. The tradeoff here is that when you open the GURPS Basic Set for the first time, you are dazzled and overwhelmed by a vast range of options to select, dials to adjust, and levers to pull. Coming from a game like D&D, a GM starting with GURPS isn’t going to know where to, ahem, start. Steve Jackson Games realized that, and recruited two GURPS veterans to write How To Be A GURPS GM. While this slim volume is thin on generalizable GMing advice (with admittedly good reason), it does exactly what it says on the tin, and provides some guidance on how to actually make GURPS do what you want it to do.
There are three basic chapters in How To Be A GURPS GM: Preparing for Adventure, Creating the Adventure, and Running the Adventure. Each of these is split into the advice section and a worked examples section, and Running the Adventure has an additional breakout specifically for combat. Still, the advice falls out into three categories, and each follows different sorts of guidelines. Preparing for Adventure is primarily about setting up GURPS the way you want to, Creating the Adventure is about how to do prep in GURPS, and Running the Adventure is about how to run GURPS.
Preparing for Adventure
This is the section that covers the part of running GURPS that almost no one knows how to do going in, and as such it is very useful. There are three basic elements that are covered here: what supplements to use, how to model the genre and feel you want, and how to create characters in a way that respects both player freedom and GM expectations. We start off with a few lists of GURPS books. Now, if you’re like me and just bought every single one you could get your hands on this may be old news, but for people with things like “budgets” and “self-control”, this is a very useful section. Key books by genre tells you what you need if you’re running a fantasy or space opera or whatever other genre, both at the hardcover and at the smaller softcover level as well. Also useful here is a list of what the books actually are. Depending on the sort of GM you are and how much reading you do, knowing which books are rules, which are settings, and which are genre guides could be immensely helpful. And for a beginning GURPS GM, it tells you exactly what’s out there. So the genre selection advice flows from the supplement overview, but style and power level are more broadly applicable and also more important…in part because they’re things that are easiest to screw up. Power level is an expansion, to a degree, of the discussion in the Basic Set, but it doubles down on a basic GURPS axiom: everything on the character sheet should be worth the points it costs. Style comes into this too, because it’s up to the GM to tell the players that they can’t get points for disadvantages (and this is much more important for disadvantages than advantages) that won’t do anything. Also here is a more detailed discussion of Wealth and Status, two general character traits that can be easily abused. I did appreciate the examples given about how a low-Status character should be inconvenienced for the points they earned, though it’s a reminder that GURPS can provide a lot more detail than you’d often use. If you’re playing a game of mercenaries or a starship crew, it may be easier to dispense with Status entirely.
Creating the Adventure
Creating the Adventure is one section that has a large chunk of generic GM advice, mostly around campaign structures and story lineariity. These authors advocate for the Schrodinger’s Cat approach to adventure sites and encounters…you know, the idea that “if the PCs choose to go left, that’s where the castle is, but if they choose to go right…that’s where the castle is”. I get the impulse, especially as GURPS could require more mechanical prep than other games, but I find that, even if that sort of looseness with world design is something you can get away with, it can lead to bad habits. I’d prefer more advice for how one can minimize the prep they do and learn to be more reactive…these things can be very system-specific if they provide good mechanical shortcuts. The rest of the advice is solid, talking about a range of plot structures from sandbox to linear and noting high-prep and low-prep styles.
The section on NPC creation is GURPS-specific and important advice. The takeaway is that GURPS NPCs are like Whose Line is it Anyway: Everything’s made up and the points don’t matter. Here there are guidelines for how to balance human-human encounters, as well as a discussion of what NPC abilities will do to a combat, and how to structure combats to give highly optimized characters a challenge. GURPS is still missing anything resembling the Challenge Rating for D&D, but this advice is a good starting point and better than what was in the Basic Set.
There are other parts of this section on settings and plot, and some advice on character integration and skill use. The skill use section is wonderful, showing how broadly you can use the many skills in GURPS. The setting advice mostly starts to leak into the next section, talking about environmental hazards and combat setpieces.
Running the Adventure
Running the Adventure is basically two sections: some generic GM advice and combat. The GM advice about structuring sessions, taking notes, and using GURPS resources like the Time Use sheet is good, but it’s not novel. The authors don’t spend the majority of their page count on it, so I don’t have any real complaints. Combat is the real substantial part of this section, and is built around three basic skills: running GURPS combat quickly, running GURPS combat at the detail level you want, and running GURPS combat with enough system mastery to make it challenging. The first two skills are somewhat trade-offs to each other, and this book takes care of it with one of my favorite parts: a list of which combat rules to use for four or five different levels of detail, from the most basic to having everything turned on. This is incredibly helpful for any GURPS GM, but especially one that’s starting out. Similarly, talking about what advantages are useful and how to build effective combatants is very helpful and ties back into NPC creation in some important ways. One thing that I understand but was a bit dismayed by was that every major worked example in the combat section was for a fantasy game. I wanted to see more variety, but ultimately there’s good overriding logic for this. Fantasy characters can integrate magical abilities, but also they’re usually melee combatants, and the melee rules are more complicated than the ranged rules. A worked fantasy example allows the authors to go over the range of melee rules without torturing the example into a corner, as might have been required for something, say, modern day.
I found How To Be A GURPS GM quite useful. It is mostly focused on GURPS; as Steve Jackson Games already publishes “Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering”, there’s a reason to avoid overlap with generic advice. I think every toolkit system on the market could use a book like this; Genesys does have a good chunk of its setup advice contained within the core book, but Fate is missing some, especially now that the toolkits are coming out and the ecosystem is getting bigger. Still, GURPS benefits uniquely from this additional advice because it’s a toolkit on two axes: not only genre, but also style and complexity of play. I’d recommend this to anyone who runs GURPS; even if you have some experience, this book will help you build out different genres and styles, and feel more comfortable experimenting. And if you’re new, this book helps distill the Basic Set and figure out how to do what you want. If you’re not dedicated to GURPS in particular, Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering may be a better choice…though if you’re a brave soul who’s trying to start GMing with GURPS, I’d buy both.