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I swear to god!

By Jack Spencer Jr.


I swear to god, if I see one more GURPS knock-off I'm going to shoot myself in the head. I mean it. I'm going to go down to the local gun shop. Tell the guy "I would like to purchase a gun." He'll say "Well, there's a waiting period in this state." I'll say "Fine," and fill out all the proper forms. Then I'll go to Burger King for some lunch, head home and mark the day on my calendar with one of those smiley faces with the bullet hole in the forehead. Then I'll go to the store for some stencils. More on this in a minute, I have plans for the stencils. I'll spend the waiting period going about my business as if nothing is different. In my experience, if you let on to people that you plan to shoot yourself in the head they will try to stop you. Or they'll try to get you to leave them your stuff. "Hey, man. Can I have you Player's Handbook when you die?" Goddamn vultures. Then on the day I'll pick up my gun. I'll only need one bullet but I'll waste the money on a whole box. Some people get suspicious if you only buy one bullet, you see. Besides, what am I saving the money for? Might as well pick up some accessories like a holster, a set of those earmuffs, and the yellow sunglasses. Damn, but I look sharp in those things. When I get home, I would've already put the stencils on that game. Remember the game? That GURPS rip-off that I'm blowing my brains out over? I'll position it so that my brains will spatter on the cover so that when they find my body, the police will lift of the stencil and find on the cover written in gray and red the word "GURPS."

Now, what has sparked such lengthy ire, you might ask. It wasn't one game but two: Simply Roleplaying! From Microtactics and Action! System by Gold Rush Games. These are probably both very fine games and worth playing. My problem is not with the games themselves but with the thinking that brought them into existence in the first place. I should probably also note that I have neither played nor completely read either game. I did peruse flip through them enough to turn away in disgust. You see, I've read it all before.

Many are no doubt getting all worked over this. How dare you judge these games without even reading them, much less playing them. Neither game is at all like GURPS. You're just a pompous ass ranting like a foot-stomping two-year-old. I have a pretty simple answer to these people.

Go Fuck Yourself

I'm not talking about the games themselves here. This isn't a review. I'm talking about the design philosophy behind them. Looking at them from this angle, these games are nothing new. In fact they are very old.

It's as old as Dungeons & Dragons, in fact. I don't think the average role-player understands how deeply ol' D&D is ingrained in RPG design. In an essay, Sandy Petersen wrote about how role-playing games don't have designer notes where the author gives insight into the mental process of their game's design, usually what games they took ideas from. He writes:

Yet few games admit their debts, except possibly to mention D&D as the origin of role-playing, as though its only contribution was the basic concept of role-playing itself.

Designer notes are not relevant here, but this statement is. D&D has had a profound effect on RPG design and simply how people think an RPG is supposed to be played. People learn vicariously for the most part. They watch others and then imitate that behavior. Monkey see, monkey do. I know I do this. I learned to pull the onion out of an onion ring from my father. It never really occurred to me that I could just eat the stupid onion. Now it's become habit.

Role-playing has picked up many habits. Not necessarily bad habits, but habits that don't really make sense in a way like shelling onion rings. In general, a role-playing game works like this, stop me if I'm wrong:

  • The players first create their characters. Player characters, or PCs tend to have a number of stats which has a numerical value assigned either by a point allocating system, a random dice roll, or a similar method. Other details are usually decided upon such as class, profession, skills and so on.
  • One player is the game master. He runs the show and probably owns the book. He's the one who'll cook up the plots for the PCs. All the players really have to do is react in character to what the GM comes up with.
  • The act of role-playing is generally just a bunch of people sitting around talking until they hit a resolution point where the GM presents the character(s) with an obstacle. Resolving this usually requires a dice roll of some kind, using the PC's stats to either increase or decrease the chances of success.
  • Combat is drawn out in loving detail, breaking down time into small segments of 5-30 seconds or so. A great detail of attention is applied how much a PC can accomplish each segment as well as how much damage a weapon will do, chances to hit and sometimes finer details like hit locations and such.
  • At the end of each session, players are rewarded point which are then used to increase the PC's abilities.

Sound familiar? It should. Nearly every RPG on the market works in this manner. Is this a bad thing? Yes and no. It's not a bad thing that there are games that work like this, but it is bad that with very few exceptions nearly all games work like this. Worse yet, most roleplayers seem to think that this is the only way an RPG can work.

I suppose I'm asking too much of Action! and Simply Roleplaying! Not every game is going to contain innovation nor do they aspire to. Innovation won't be found in unique dice-rolling techniques or in skill list breakdowns. But I'm not necessarily looking for innovation. Just a reason to keep reading when I open the book. In this case, both fall down because they went down the generic/universal RPG road to hell.

To many, GURPS was the first generic/universal RPG worth a damn and remain the only one worth a damn today to some. These days there's also d20 causing a splash in a little pond with its Open Gaming License (and both Action! And Simply Roleplaying! have their own licensing deal too, but I won't go into that). There are others out there like Fuzion, Hero and CORE but for generic/universal the safe money is either on GURPS, with its well-established name and generally regarded as well done series of source material, or d20, because it's D&D. Everyone else is an also ran in this area.

But generic/universal RPGs also have a fatal flaw that is inherent. What I mean is, the problem with a generic/universal RPG is that it's generic and tries too hard to be universal. Such a game tends to be flavorless because no specific mode or style of play is really given. It's generic. Without this, all you have is a disembodied set of rules. You have the how to play, but not the why to play. Why play this game over any other out there? Universal is a concept so wrong it screams of stupidity. By this, most publishers mean "can be used for any genre" or that whatever sort of game style you mean to play, you can use these rules or these core rules, anyway. No set of rules can cover every genre or playing style adequately. GURPS kind of fails once you bring in firearms. Universal is some kind of Holy Grail that really can't be accomplished. I suppose the base die-rolling technique can be ported but so much would need to be placed on top of that to adequately make a decent game, you might as well consider it a separate game rather than a universal system.

Besides, what is the purpose of being universal? So players only have to learn one game system? Are people so stupid that they can't learn another game system? So you can port characters from one genre to another? Far be it from me to tell others how to play, but why the hell are you doing that? I've been playing for over ten years and I've never heard of anyone ever doing such a thing.

Let me finish with something a tad more on the positive side. The last RPG I'd read that really struck me, floored me actually, I'm still racing to catch up, was De Profundis published in English by Hogshead Publishing and Polish by Portal Publishing. The concept of the psychodrama is a little wonky, even for me, but the way the game is played it just so fitting to the style of H.P. Lovecraft I may never look at Call of Cthulhu, either version.

Here's a good way to find out if you've got something innovative or a retread. Convert the game to d20 or GURPS or whatever. Action! and Simply Roleplaying! do so without a lot of effort. A couple patch rules or add-ons perhaps but otherwise it translates pretty much intact. De Profundis defies conversion because the basic means to play are so different that conversion is impossible.

Does this mean De Profundis is a better game? Hell, no. My own attempts to play it fizzled, unfortunately. But at least it was different. At least it wasn't just GURPS again.

This article was the winner of last issues competition.

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