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Gamemaster’s Guidepost – Emulation & Simulation Part I

I’m giving over the website to an awesome Twitter friend, Christopher Rice, where he will tell you all about the fabulous world of GURPS! No, that’s not what Klingons do after they eat…I’ll let him explain. Take it away Chris!

While I am no published fiction writer, I am a modestly published role-playing game author. One of the lures I experienced when I first started role-playing a jillion years ago was being able to take my favorite fictional world and convert it into a playable game format. I did this many, many times during my youth until I eventually decided that playing in someone else’s world was not good enough. I had to build my own. I like to think that this is a common story amongst gamers and it is something I’ve heard from many others over the years. Unfortunately, there are several issues that come with trying to convert someone else’s vision; chief among them is that you are not the author. You don’t know what he was thinking when he built his super duper awesome magic system you just have to replicate right now. You only know what he committed to paper. Most times this doesn’t cause a problem, but it’s that one rare instance it does that can drive a gamer mad. Another issue I’ve come across is forcing a particular game system to match a fictional setting. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons does not a good Known Space campaign make. Unless the system is genre independent or closely matches the genre of the fiction to be emulated, it can cause headaches. Bad. Painful. Migraine. Cheetah in my skull headaches.

This is why I love GURPS. I mean, the name says it all: Generic Universal Role Playing System. It can do damn near anything and do it well. Of course, opponents of GURPS will bring up a few of its issues (math heavy, steep learning curve, high point totals, the list goes on). However, none of those are actual issues – just incorrect public perceptions of the system. Here are two of my favorites gripes:

  • GURPS uses too much math! I don’t wanna do cube roots.” – GURPS assumes you know basic math (multiplication, division, addition, subtraction, etc.) and you have knowledge of fractional numbers/decimals. It looks like a lot of math because the system front-loads most calculations needed for game play before game play actually begins. Where one system might require you to add your attribute plus your skill level plus other trait modifiers to get your target number for a roll in any given scene − GURPS has you do the trait/modifier work first and write the basic skill level on the character sheet. After that, situational modifiers are a simple plus or minus to the basic level. Moreover, while it does have cube roots, only math geeks or masochists don’t use a spreadsheet or calculator. I know I do.
  • GURPS is too complex/has a steep learning curve.” – Have you seen the free GURPS Lite that Steve Jackson Games puts out? If you think GURPS is too complex, you’re probably using too many optional rules. Best thing to do when starting out is to use just the basic rules and ignore tactical combat. Better yet, just use GURPS Lite until you get the hang of it.

Every system has its faults but in my (not so humble) opinion, GURPS tends to realism and errs on the side of playability when that’s not possible. It makes a perfect system to run games in your favorite fictional setting as long as you’re willing to put in a little elbow grease. Of course, the things that make it useful for emulation also make it useful for simulation. One of the things that irks the hell out of me as a potential reader is inconsistency. Let’s take a typical fantasy setting and assume that magic in the setting is not common or but not rare. It’s somewhere in the middle. Common enough that people recognize it when they see it but not know exactly what it is. Let’s assume one author decides to rigorously flesh out his magic system and another goes with (a oldie but goodie) the “magic can do anything” approach. “MAGIC, DO AS YOU WILL!” Oh wait, sorry, I was channeling a ancient cartoon for a second. One defines what it can do, what it cannot do, what no one knows it can do, and what no one knows it can’t do. The other one just writes what he thinks is “cool” and goes from there. Now look, some authors work good either way, but I tend to like the guy who really puts thought into his work versus the seat of his pants guy. It’s probably for the same reason that I tend to like serious fiction over humorous fiction, boxers over briefs, and chocolate over vanilla. Some authors make the latter method work in a way I like (The Belgariad and The Malloreon, by David Eddings) some use the former method so rigorously it takes all the wonder out of it (The Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson). And before the Internet comes after me with fire and pitchforks, I like both authors and have read their material numerous times. I can dislike a portion of what someone does without disliking the whole bloody thing. Yesh. Grow-up Internet.

So back to the topic I have so far ramblingly led you away from, dear reader: emulation and simulation. Some authors put together a “bible” – a book of information about their fictional world. The more complex the world, the more complex the bible needs to be. I feel authors and game designers are two sides of the same coin. Both like to create worlds and populate them with people, but one wants to play in it and the other wants you to play in it. This is why I think authors can gain a lot of mileage from using a gaming system to help keep their own work balanced and consistent. For instance, an author could use a gaming system when designing how psychic powers or magic works in his world. Doing this allows for a more consistent feel because it provides a framework for those abilities to operate in. This in turn makes it easier for the reader to suspend his disbelief. In short, using a game system (especially GURPS) to design sections of your fictional world will probably make you a better author. But don’t take my word for it – go see if it works for you. If not, that’s fine, but I’m willing to bet that it will. Enough of my rambling.

 Look out for part two of this post (next week) where I use GURPS to emulate a favorite fictional universe.

 Thanks for sharing this awesome gaming world with everyone! Check out Christopher Rice’s blog for more about him and his GURPS! Want to chat with him? Follow him on Twitter!

First GURPS reference

GURPS uses too much math reference

GURPS Lite reference


David Eddings reference

Robert Jordan reference

Bible reference

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4 Comments on “Gamemaster’s Guidepost – Emulation & Simulation Part I”

  1. C.R. Rice May 3, 2013 at 8:04 am #

    Reblogged this on Ravens N' Pennies.

  2. cpbialois May 3, 2013 at 10:23 am #

    Great post! I used to play tons of rpgs and have incorporated what I viewed as the necessary items from various character sheets when I have an idea bouncing around. It makes things so much easier, especially when you don’t really know your character and need to add things as you go. Thanks for the vindication! 🙂

  3. Islandia June 19, 2013 at 4:12 am #

    Very good information. Lucky me I recently found your website by chance (stumbleupon).
    I’ve saved it for later!


  1. Gamemaster’s Guidepost – Emulation & Simulation Part II | Dr. Shay West - May 10, 2013

    […] Please welcome back Christopher Rice as he delves deeper into the world of GURPS! If you missed part I, click here. […]

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