Review: GURPS for Dummies

Standard

A well written, digestible guide to creating characters and designing campaigns, but a guide GMs are perhaps more likely to read than players.

GURPS for Dummies, Wiley, 2006

GURPS for Dummies, Wiley, 2006

I’ve been meaning to do a review of this book for quite some time now, not only because I find it does a very good job at making GURPS less overwhelming, but also because not every RPG gets to have a mainstream book published for it.

This is not a new book; it was published in 2006, not too long after GURPS 4th edition came out. It is designed to serve as a reference both to players and GMs, devoting roughly half of its 400 pages to each.

Characters

Attributes, advantages, disadvantages, perks, skills, magic and combat. 

After a few pages introducing GURPS and explaining the basics of the attributes, a large section is devoted to making characters unique and presents advantages, disadvantages and quirks. This aspect of character creation has always seemed to me to be what sets GURPS apart from many RPGs, and getting it right is crucial to any book trying to achieve anything on this topic. The approach taken here is to organise them in categories, which makes the whole lot less overwhelming than the long, dry catalog that can be found in the Basic Set: Characters. It can also help GMs make the necessary selection between all these before they can ask the players to create characters for a new campaign.

The section on magic remains obviously based on what was available when the book was published: the standard rules of GURPS Magic. The section makes it very easy to grasp all there is to understand, from spells to powerstones, enchantment, etc. It’s a good thing the book manages to lay this out in a handful of paragraphs, since it makes it all the more accessible to players and encourages them to give more depth to their wizards than being a spell casting machine gun. However, of course, there’s nothing to expect on the topic of the new kinds of magic that developed over the years, since all this is pre-Thaumatology.

The combat chapter explains the GURPS-specific vocabulary (All-out attacks, Active defence, etc.) and give pointers to using the combat options in a sensible way. Since it remains focussed on characters, it contains for example a very handy guide to what weapon is best for each level of strength. Of course, this all remains subjective, but players who might haven’t yet made their mind on this delicate topic will appreciate getting quick and sound advice. This all remains within the scope of the Basic Combat Rules, but I think it’s a good think the book prefers explaining combat strategies and tactics rather than detailing the advanced combat rules.

To sum up, the first half is targeted at players who are new or new-ish to GURPS, but it can also be useful to GMs in that it shows how the information can be presented. It’s not always easy to convey the richness of GURPS without losing new players in the process; relying on the canvas proposed by this book is a safe bet. It’s also a good thing, because it’s not obvious that players are ready to read 200+ pages to create RPG characters.

Campaigns

GMing first steps, managing rules, designing adventures and campaigns, maps, NPCs.

The second half of the book, dedicated to GMing, is really well laid out. The campaign creation guide is structured as a set of questions you should ask yourself when you start designing your world. The purpose of these questions is not to make your world the most original there is, but rather to make sure it is consistent and believable. It’s too easy to get somewhat lost in the process of creating a whole world. The questions touch on every key topic: What is the standard level of education in your game world? Is it possible for mortals to communicate with a deity? How are wealth and resources redistributed in your game world? What institution or institutions keep your society together? To paraphrase the book, answering these questions is essential to making the strange seem normal, which, arguably, is sine qua non condition for players to immerse themselves in the game. I think this chapter will prove very useful to both GMs beginning their careers and veterans alike, who will find here a handy reference to proof-check their creations.

The book wraps up with a series of short chapters, presenting 10 ways to effectively spend character points, 10 good advantages and 10 disadvantages that won’t put a character too much at a disadvantage. To me, this is the weaker section of the book. It’s not a bad read, it’s just not terribly useful, especially after the first half did such a good job of giving advice in this area. It also seems a bit out of place, as it’s located after the GM half, at the very end. It feels like this is where the reader is reminded this is a For Dummies book, with an obligatory writing exercise no one really knew what to do with, that ended up tacked at the end of the book, for lack of a better place.

The second half really is the third book of the Basic Set: where the first two books explain the mechanics of playing, this volume distills the secrets of creating believable worlds. The writing is also very GURPSian, thorough and accessible at the same time. Given the topic here, this means the content is actually not limited to GURPS and will prove useful for designing a world for any game. Also, this being a GURPSian book, a glossary and an index can be found at the end of the volume.

Target audience

Who is this book for, in the end?

Though the book’s contents are really good overall, a weak point to me is that it doesn’t seem to have decided on its target audience. For example, from time to time, a sign is displayed in the margins, showing where rules have changed from the third edition to the fourth. However, I’m not too sure how they are useful: if the book is targeted at new players, they won’t care whether such and such rules have changed between the two editions. On the other hand, experienced players will already know what’s new with the fourth edition.

In a way, the book tries to answer the question of whether one can start with GURPS. I would think that the sole existence of this book suggests the answer to this question is no. It’s not easy to make your first steps in the word of RPGs and it’s even more difficult to try to do this alone. Expecting new players to buy a fairly large book to understand how to create characters for some game simply seems unrealistic to me. It’s not GURPS’ fault, it’s always been the main issue with RPGs.

So, if it’s not for newcomers, will GURPS for Dummies appeal to seasoned players and GMs? I really think so. Players ready to do some reading will find here a guide that’s easier to follow than the first volume of the Basic Set, and GMs will benefit greatly from all the advice on world building. A very good thing is how the book illustrates the different topics by using examples from actual campaigns the authors have run and characters they have played. The book draws from real life, so to speak, and this is so much better than random textbook examples.

Finally, as a nice touch, the book comes with foldout game aids containing assorted tables that are a nice alternative to the Combat Cards and the likes.

“GURPS for Dummies”, Wiley, 2006, around $22, also available (at a discount) from Warehouse23.

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