It’s more than just GURPS

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The first drafts of this post (dating back to a over year ago) used to contain a long description of the reasons I love GURPS as a system. Since then, Colin posted an excellent article detailing exactly that, and I share most of his views on this matter: GURPS is one of the most consistent and well-tested systems available on the market. I’ve been playing since ’88 and I’ve had the opportunity to play with most major systems, plus quite a few more obscure ones. GURPS, especially in its 4th Edition, can not only cope with any genre or style, but can help you make the most out of any theme. It’s not just compatible, it helps your stories come to life and shine where they need to shine, be precise where and when it makes sense or feels right to and let you hand-wave the rest with a two-line rule. Again, go read Colin’s post on his blog and watch the review the Gentleman Gamer made of GURPS.

A friendly community

In addition to being an excellent system, GURPS has developed a unique community around it. The game turns 30 this year, and not many games can claim such a longevity in the field. The community gathers old-timers, who were around since Man to Man and new comers, who have just a few months of Pathfinder under their belt and are curious about this game they’ve seen people play in a convention.

In many communities, it can be hard for people from different generations to get along together. In fact, for some, hostility toward newbies can be part of the identity of the community: “We were here before, we know better”.

It isn’t so with GURPS. From my experience, people from all kinds of horizons, with any level of experience can join the forums, ask a question and get helpful answers and friendly advice. If you’re after more and want to present your project, be it a new magic system, a complete world or adaptation for your new game, a PC or GMPC you want to play or anything else, go over to the forums and, provided you prepared a reasonably good write-up, the GURPS community will help you with it.

Dedicated, curious and creative

I should emphasise that well written questions and answers are appreciated, since this is to me one of the key aspects of this community. The average quality of blog posts, reviews, game aids, forum answers and questions is very high. Don’t take my word for it, see for yourself. Here are two reviews of After The End 1: Wastelanders, one at the Blind Mapmaker, and the other at Gaming Ballistic. One of the forum post I link to above now clocks at 125 pages of discussion, is nearly 10 years old and is still going! And what other game can claim to have a supplement entirely devoted to social interactions, ranks and prestige, that spawned two extensions of its own? GURPS has a community where having a curious and meticulous mind is much valued, and where putting said mind to work might well give birth to an interesting discussion, an article in Pyramid or even a whole supplement.

Speaking of Pyramid, having a monthly magazine dedicated to your system and being able to discuss with the authors in the forum is another big plus for me and another asset for the community. I know of no other game or system lucky enough to have such a publication (White Wolf Magazine was cancelled in 1995, and even Dungeon and Dragon have been put on a hiatus). Some have had fanzines running for years, but I believe the way the GURPS community tends to join forces and work on a single, common periodical remains not necessarily unique, but at least pretty distinctive.

I realise this might read as a love letter to the community, and maybe it is. Like many, I don’t participate that much though, and I only wish I had more time to do so, to give back in return. I started using GURPS for the system, and I kept using it for the community.

How did it go?

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Like every GM, I like to know how the sessions are going for the players: did they enjoy the game? Is is challenging enough? Player satisfaction is crucial to me, but I find that asking naively about it, as in “How did it go?”, has very little chance of bringing any helpful answer. So if that doesn’t cut it, how to ask about the game?

I found that the best way is to ask each player, separately and after each game, the same set of five questions:

  1. What does your character want to do next?
  2. What do you want to do next as a player?
  3. What have been the most important moments for the character?
  4. What have been the most important moments for the player?
  5. How does your character perceive the rest group?

First experience

I remember reading about this it on a (french) RPG forum, and thinking this sounded like an awkward thing to do, to question your players like this. I didn’t see myself circulating a questionaire and processing the answers in Excel. But I felt like being adventurous and I decided to give it a go nonetheless.

At the time, I was GMing a mystery-oriented scenario with a new-ish group of  players and things weren’t going too well. Little progress was being made during the sessions, the players kept ignoring or misunderstanding what seemed to be obvious clues and situations and morale was getting rather low. I had tried adding tension to the scenario through new GMPCs, understanding they were feeling unchallenged in the game, but I could never re-ignite the sacred fire.

So one day, after one of these sluggish game sessions, I emailed these five questions to the players. I confess I was expecting either no reply at all or something along the lines of “What the hell?”, but everyone replied, and I even got detailed answers to each question.

Reading through all this, I came to understand why the game wasn’t going so great.

Actually, I had failed to realise the group itself wasn’t working: the characters all had developed opposite objectives for themselves, and the players were looking for very different kinds of fun in the game. Moreover, I gave a strong mystery tone to the game and most players had entirely missed what was at stake, which meant that spotting valuable information or turning points in the plot was impossible to them. I wasn’t losing the players, I had already lost them.

This rather extreme experience had the merit of proving the point of asking these questions: to get honest answers and break assumptions.

What to expect

I’ve been asking these questions now after each game for the past three years and each time I’ve been remembered how important this is to driving a game. And it’s not just about failing games, successful ones benefit from this a lot as well. I believe the key is to ask the players to distinguish between their motives and that of their characters. They’re both equally important, and favouring one over the other, as a player or as a GM, is a recipe for a boring game. As soon as one player is bored, the whole group suffers. So the first two questions help to keep tabs on what keeps everyone motivated, in-game and in real life.

The next two are useful to evaluate how well the pace and the key moments of the scenario have been conveyed to the players. Has the section you identified as a climax been experienced as such by everyone at the table? Or has someone felt some other sequence in the scenario was more important, more intense for them or for their character? Again, both the distinction between players and characters and being able to compare the answers give insight as to whether the group, the scenario, the players and your style all fit together.

It’s also useful to the players as by answering the questions, they might develop a new perspective on the game, which might help them refocus their roleplay, better voice their expectations or shake off old habits. At the very least, it gives the players a frame within which they can think about their characters.

The last question allows both the players and you, the GM, to better think about and understand the relationship between the characters. In particular, this is once again an opportunity for you to spot a problem in the group and take care of it before it becomes uncurable, or this can be gold information for you to detect new dynamics to play with during the sessions.

Hot or cold

You can ask these questions either right after the game session, of some time later. I prefer the latter, for several reasons: first, everyone might be tired after a whole night of play, and the quality of the answers might suffer. Next, since it’s key that each player gets to think a bit about the questions before answering, and 3:26 AM might not be the right moment for this kind of exercise. At last, it’s also important the players are asked the questions and give their answers in isolation: we’re not here to open a debate between the players, but to get everyone to think about how the game plays for them.

 

Character death

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The Gnome Stew article featured in the newsletter the other day, Death and Genre, got me thinking about this rather controversial topic. Like Angela Murray, the author, I never really liked the idea of characters dying early and randomly.

The fun in dying

However, I realise this is a very valid way of playing, and that it also bring in much fun to the table, provided you lean on the roll-playing side of RPGs. I suppose a system encouraging quickly designed characters is preferable in this case: something like a strong dose of templates in GURPS, or very light systems like WaRP (the original system in Over the Edge and recently released as a standalone, context-free system by Atlas Games) or even pre-generated characters. I know that as a player, I would not like to spend more than twenty minutes on character creation if I should expect the poor chap to meet a cruel death in the next four hours. Note that games like Wraith or Paranoïa don’t count here: being dead is the starting point in Wraith, but this is the beginning of your real character career rather than the end, and getting killed repeatedly in Paranoïa is more of a game mechanic than a dramatic event in itself.

As good as dead

A character doesn’t need to die to become unplayable: a barbarian, a doctor or a spaceship pilot are of little use as soon as they’ve lost their last thread of sanity. This brings us to Call of Cthulhu, where complete madness is the best a player can hope for his character. I find this interesting, because Call of Cthulhu really is about ambiance and role-play, rather than hack and slash (or, possibly, hit and run…). Everyone knows the PCs will eventually lose their mind, the only questions are when and how. The new take on the Myth, Trail of Cthulhu, tries to put even more focus on the ambiance, by removing much of the randomness in the investigation part. The GM has even more time to spend on conveying the atmosphere and on building tension until the PCs face the ultimate horror of the scenario. I believe the whole point of these games, from a player perspective, is to explore the last days of an investigator of the unspeakable: the gradual fear and the irresistible vertigo in front of the unknown.

Worse than death

In other contexts, dying is not really an option or at least, a satisfactory option. Castle Falkenstein, like the novels that inspired the setting, promotes instead the idea of confronting the heroes with a fate worse than death. In these contexts, their life is not necessarily the most valuable asset the characters have; instead, they might face the dreadful prospect of seeing their honour spoiled, their intelligence put to question, their iron will bent like nothing and their friends overturned… All this can build up to the pinnacle of a session or a campaign, where the whole party can participate, along with the GM.

Killing PCs

In the end, I find the alternatives more attractive than straight death. Killing a character is usually not what I want to do as a GM: if I want to give players some sense of the danger they’re in, I can always have an NPC develop a close relationship with the PCs and then have something bad happen to this character. The players then can feel the danger, but they also get a chance to actually play this tension. Again, as is explicitly encouraged in games like Call of Cthulhu or Castle Falkenstein, substituting a carefully crafted, progressive slide towards unhappy events to the full stop of a sudden death opens rich perspectives in terms of role-play and story development.

Willingly killing your own PC

However, sometimes death can also bring something to the story. Players can choose to sacrifice their PC for the benefit of the rest of the group as well as that of dramatic tension. A well played sacrifice can really become memorable and turn an otherwise average character into something more, that’s really part of the story of the campaign. It’s another way for players to add something to the story and actually share storytelling with the GM. In this respect, losing a character through such a sacrifice reminds of character loss to insanity in Cthulhu games: it’s a great opportunity for a player to shine, and  for the PC in question to leave a dent in the world. Of course, it might not always be as easy as it sounds

Death as a bond

Character death can also be the start of a campaign, or a new start for an old one going a bit run of the mill. It might be a harsh but effective way to bring a group back together, or to give them a good reason the get along and work together. Finding a common goal to a party can be surprisingly difficult… The death as a bond trick can work especially well in campaigns spreading over several generations, like Pendragon, but also in standard, shorter campaigns, where group unity might be failing a bit.

My strengths and weaknesses as a GM

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I’m always trying to find ways to improve my GMing skills, by reading articles and books and by watching live sessions on Youtube. But to really improve, you can’t escape going through an honest assessment of you strengths and weaknesses. After some introspective thinking, here’s what I came up with (presented in a GURPS-compatible format, so everyone can reuse them for their own self analysis):

Disadvantage: Can’t say no (-10 points)

You allow too much freedom to players in the creation of their characters. You tend to assume they should be able to draw freely from the whole context and that it’s the GM role to arrange for the party to make sense and have some reason to exist as such. You really should learn to say “no” to some bogus concepts, the ones likely to actually impede the game later.

Advantage: Trained by a Rules Master (10 points)

You know the rules. You know the rules you want in and you know the rules you want out. You also handle rather well how to gradually introduce the rules to new players. You’ve never found yourself desperately browsing through your books in search of a specific bonus value and when you don’t remember something, you can often guess pretty accurately what it should be. It’s one area where playing a game like GURPS helps a lot: the rules make sense, and this in turn makes it easy to make up some rule and see whether it remains consistent with the rest.

Disadvantage: Wrong focus (-15 points)

You sometimes prepare what you like instead of what’s actually needed. Too often you realise that you have prepared a carefully worded letter, or an extremely detailed NPC, where some key element you have left to improvisation. You’re not bad at improvising, but you’re not great either and it’s likely players can feel the difference between something well prepared and something made up on the spot, like crossing an invisible veil. Of course, it’s even more obvious and hard to compensate for when you run solos. Since there’s only one player, there’s no debate about whether a plan is sound or if a way is safer than another. The decision is made real quick, and there’s no time to jot down a few notes, or rearrange the scenario.

Advantage: Bookworm (15 points)

You read a lot of material, from many games and from many sources. This helps to avoid getting trapped into the same old design reflexes and the same old campaigns over and over again. In other words, by listening what others have to say, you remain alert and open to new ideas. Also, you almost always manage to get something even from articles or books you don’t appreciate very much.

Disadvantage: Irregular player (-15 points)

You read a lot, but you don’t play a lot. A busy life, a tight schedule, the lack of players: you have all the excuses in the worlds, but in the end, you just don’t play as often as you would like to. You feel this lack of practice reflects on your skills as a GM. Your descriptions are good enough but could be better; some improvised NPCs have a bit too much in common with each other; some unexpected but excellent ideas raised by the players don’t get the attention and the reward they deserve… Even though the players don’t come to you complaining about this or that or anything, you really feel there is room for improvement here. Also, you always play as the GM, and it’s been years since you last played as an actual, regular player. This also has an impact on how much you feel you can connect with the players.

Advantage: Versatile (15 points)

You always try to have something for everyone during a session. This means that you try hard to make sure there always is an opportunity for each PC to shine: the retired Lieutenant gets a chance to tap his network in the army to work around some obstacle; a courtesan will have someone interesting to seduce and the naturalist will reveal the subterfuge of a crime, where the poison is not from some common snake but from a rare cross-breed between a viper and a cobra, a species a specimen of has been found in the house of this particular NPC… This also means that you try to give something to each player, whether they are butt-kickers, casual gamers, method actors, power gamers, specialists, storytellers or tacticians (to follow the seven types of players identified by Robin Law). Perhaps you used to do that intuitively before, but now that you’ve read Robin’s Laws of good Game Mastering, you finally have an actual method you can rely on to proof-check your scenarios.