Us old timers ‘member how in the early to mid 90’s, good ol’ D&D really fell out of fashion amongst the hardcore gamers. In fact, some downright looked down on D&D players for a while. I remember going to a con, signing up to DM a D&D table and getting all kinds of remarks, ranging from good natured ribbing to some downright mean comments about taking care of the kids table. But that’s a subject for a later time…
While this was going on, there were a lot of other games and systems out there. In a lot of ways, this was a good time, where experimenting was encouraged and you got a better perspective and more diverse experiences. Amongst the more popular systems in my neck of the woods were Vampire, Call of Cthulhu, Cyberpunk and especially GURPS. I got quite heavily into GURPS.
For those unfamiliar, GURPS means Generic Universal RolePlaying System (Bad joke time: a friend ran a heavily house-ruled version. His name started with a B, so naturally the game became known as BURPS). It was made by Steve Jackson Games (SJG) and both the first and second editions were released in 1986. The concept of GURPS was to transcend genre – it could be fantasy, sci-fi, modern horror, a western or whatever you desired. It was a point-buy system where you formed your character from four attributes, advantages, skills and disadvantages. All rolls were made with 3d6, with a goal of rolling on or under the difficulty.
GURPS hit its third edition in 1988 and that (and the later revised edition pictured here) became the definitive edition of the system. It survived for a whopping 16 years and in that span more than 250 books were released for the system. It’s important to note that sales are very rarely released for RPG products so most of the time you have to rely on anecdotal evidence, but it seems to be more or less undisputed that GURPS 3e was amongst the most successful RPG lines and products of all time.
GURPS was an exceptionally well produced and written system but that, in a way, also became its flaw. Because everything was nailed down so completely you were incredibly reliant on tables and charts, so you could rely on any book to correctly reference another book. This also meant a lot of looking things up and slowing the game down unnecessarily. However, once the revised edition (3.5 if you will) was released, this became slightly more streamlined.
As previously mentioned, there was an incredible flow of supplements and sourcebooks for GURPS 3e, ranging from settings to cultures to fantasy and high tech. Now, it would be far outside the scope of this article to rate all of them here, but polling GURPS fans seems to indicate Illuminati, Voodoo, Magic, Horror and Arabian Nights are must-haves. Some of my other favourites include Cthulhupunk (yep, a mix of Lovecraft and Cyberpunk. It’s a thing and it works surprisingly well), Cabal and Aztecs. Of course, with more than 15 books every year for 3e, some will not be good. I cannot remember any spectacular failures off the top of my mind but I do remember a lot of bland ones. There was also the risk of more than one interpretation of the same thing, which can (and did) sometimes cause trouble in a system like GURPS.
A missed opportunity
While GURPS was a very popular system throughout the 90’s it should be kept in mind that at the time, RPG’s simply were not as popular as they had been in the 80’s. Cross promotions, marketing and licensing were pretty much the only way to get new eyeballs on your brand – especially if you were not D&D. As I have previously discussed, an awful lot of video game designers are pen-and-paper players and that has influenced video game design a lot in the last two decades. Interplay was very interested in making a game based on GURPS rules, particularly because of the generic rules – which meant that you could make several games based on the same set of rules regardless of the game world. Apparently, SJG were quite skeptical to begin with but after discussions Interplay hit upon the idea to create a GURPS: Wasteland game for two reasons – they had created the classic Wasteland and SJG was working on a book called Survivor which was based on a post-apocalyptic world. They had to drop the Wasteland name and connection due to publishing issues, but kept the theme.
In 1997 the deal between the two was terminated. Urban legend has always maintained that the split was anything but friendly, but according to several reliable sources that simply wasn’t the case. The split was mutual and, while there were some issues that seem like they could have been solved if certain parties weren’t too stubborn, mostly friendly. Steve Jackson himself was quoted as saying “The GURPS implementation they’ve created is worth saving.”. This lead to the development team creating the SPECIAL system (which is according to them based on the six attributes of D&D plus Luck) and some changes to the game system. And, most importantly, to the new name – Fallout. Fallout was a great commercial success and a critical darling and remains a classic to this day, deservedly (I should note that I am a shameless Fallout fanboy). It was followed by Fallout 2, which is even better and later by the modern era Fallout 3, Fallout: New Vegas and Fallout 4 – all great games. There are some other minor titles but in the grand scheme of things they don’t really matter for this discussion. In short, if you are a computer or video gamer and are not familiar with the Fallout franchise, you probably live under a rock. GURPS, however, is a different story…
Whatever happened to GURPS?
The fourth edition of GURPS was released in 2004. Once SJG made it public that 4e was on its way, they also released a publishing schedule and it was quite something. Not only was the intention to keep the pace of release, but also to increase production values. Most GURPS books until then were printed on decent quality paper in black and white with some illustrations. The new line was meant to be mostly high quality paper and full colour.
However, some saw the formations of cracks in the plan when SJG announced a contest to design and illustrate the basic set book covers. The finalists were considered not that impressive. I mean no disrespect to anyone, and it’s been a long time, but this was not well handled by anyone as I remember it. The sheer volume of material planned for the first year of release was staggering and many players had difficulty believing that SJG could release their products so fast.
The release of the 4e basic set was a success and the new covers were fine. The same could be said for the first few products. However, when GURPS Magic was released, a lot of us were worried. Because of the nature of GURPS, where magic is not necessarily a part of the game, there is only so much of it and its mechanics in the basic rules. For those who want and need magic in their GURPS, it’s vital that the magic system is done well. 3e Magic was a good book, an absolute must if you intended to use magic. It wasn’t perfect, but did the job. 4e Magic neither updated nor fixed the established problems and there was a complete lack of options, which are oh so vital in a generic system. There were also several editorial errors in the book that required that both players and GM’s needed to recalculate an awful lot of things just for the mechanics of the book to be correct.
And that was just the start. To this day, there has not been released the often promised GURPS Bestiary. The publishing schedule has been gutted – while a lot of products have been released (around 150), a vast majority of those have been short PDF exclusives. There is a severe lack of the depth of 3e currently. But here’s the thing – there’s nothing wrong with 4e. 3e was as far as I’m concerned a superior version, but 4e is fine. What really happened is that SJG has largely abandoned GURPS. GURPS is not dead, but it’s on life support.
Why did SJG mostly abandon GURPS? Was it because of a dip in sales or popularity? Critical reception? What happened?
Simply put: Munchkin happened. Since SJG released the card game Munchkin, it has completely dominated their sales and most of their focus has been on that product. The emphasis simply isn’t on GURPS anymore. It’s a pity, but SJG is a business and I can’t really blame them. It should also be noted that in the same period, D&D was in the middle of a colossal comeback following 3e and 3.5, not mention the recruitment from the Lord of the Rings films.
SJG not participating in what would become Fallout is not what killed GURPS, despite many believing it to be the case. But I cannot but wonder what could have been if Fallout had been a GURPS game, what that would have meant for the GURPS brand. Where would GURPS, SJG and for that matter Munchkin be now?