The first two versions of GURPS came in a box with four booklets. These were “Characters”, “Adventuring”, a pair of adventures (one solo, and one GM), and the “Charts and Tables” booklet. It had been in development for several years, and as the culmination of an effort to do a ‘generic’ system it was very interesting.

First (and Second) Edition Basic Set could create any sort of human character you might want…. Well, as long as he lived in a medieval world. The set made no bones about the fact that it was designed with a historical-style European medieval milieu in mind. Doing every possible thing in one package is a tall order, so the system was intended to be modular. Fantasy would bring in magic, Space would add skills and equipment and rules for the future among the stars, and so on. So the ‘universal’ system was only universal by extension. But it was a good foundation, and the ability to ‘add on’ further abilities was pretty obvious.

The system itself is point-based, where characters are ‘built’ with a budget to insure that everyone in a party is roughly equally competent, and the player gets the character he wants instead of the one the dice give him. In 1986 this was not a new idea, but it was not yet a popular one, and GURPS had what I believe is the first ‘skill-centric’ point system. The system was dedicated to cutting back on the number of ‘knobs’ to fiddle with: there are four attributes, Strength (ST), Dexterity (DX), Intelligence (IQ), and Health (HT). There are a few other secondary statistics, but these, unlike, say, in Champions, cannot be modified (for instance, Hit Points are equal to HT). Advantages provide a bunch of different abilities that can be useful, while Disadvantages give the player more points to work with in return for limiting the character in play either physically or mentally. And then there’s the skill list. As a skill-centric game, the list is quite long, and paying for them is slightly complicated. You spend points for skills, and the more you spend, the higher your skill is. However, all of this is relative the base attribute of the skill, and the costs depend on whether it is a physical skill or a mental skill and how difficult of a skill it is. The good news is that the costs are easily summarized in a pair of small tables, and once calculated during character creation does not cause any problems during play.

The combat system is very detailed, sticking with the Steve Jackson tradition of one-second turns tracking everything that goes on. Instead of the abstracted 10-second exchange of blows seen in D&D, every swing and parry is accounted for. One second seemed a bit fast to me at first, though thinking back to my (limited) experience with boffer-LARPing, I realized it was about right. Characters roll to attack, and if they succeed, the target can roll to defend, if he is aware of the attack, and is free to do something (dodge, parry, block). Also, the possibility of attacks being ‘glanced off’ tough armor or shields was included as passive defense (PD), which added to all defense rolls (and allows rolls when there is no active defense). The efforts to streamline the system save it here: other than damage, all rolls are 3d6 skill checks. Defense (not technically a skill) operates the same way—and so does lock-picking. The way to resolve things is simple, leaving the clutter to what is being resolved. For any muscle-powered weapon, damage is based off of strength. In general, if you want a good detailed melee combat system, any version of GURPS will do it very well.

By the time the system was two years old, the supplements had been rolling out, and it was decided to include as much of the ‘basics’ from other genres into the main rules as possible. It was also decided to put everything into one 256-page book, as getting rid of the box allowed SJG to lower the price. A basic magic system and psionics system were included, and the skill list greatly expanded to include contemporary skills and a few SF-based ones.

I’ve always preferred ‘done in one’ RPGs, where everything needed to play comes in one book, and GURPS 3E did that very well. As long as you wanted to do fantasy with light magic, or something contemporary, Basic Set was all that was really needed. That isn’t to say it had everything you might ever want, even within those strictures; there will always be ‘one more thing’ in any situation. And of course, the system as a whole went far beyond it’s core competencies: Supers, Magic (lots of Magic), Space, Psionics all added lots of rules on their own, and there were new things included in every book, no matter how mundane the subject. And many of these new advantages or skills were generally useful; the fact that they had to be published in multiple places was a continuing problem.

The solution to this was GURPS Basic Set Third Edition – Revised in 1995, which took out the GM adventure “Caravan to Ein Arris” and replaced it with pages of more advantages, disadvantages, and skills. The following year, Compendium I and II were released, which gathered together all the published elements of GURPS that were not entirely unique to one setting or genre. The two were very well done, and became standard reference for later books.

For me, the two Compendiums shook my interest in GURPS. They were obviously needed, and cool in a certain sense. But it showcased an amount of rules bloat I was not comfortable with. Compendium II I was particularly unhappy with; it was the GM’s half of the set, and I considered much of the material in there to be less important or not well done (there is something like three different simple ‘mass combat’ systems in the book, and I don’t care for any of them).

Of course, this was at the start of a long dry-spell of RPGs for me, so it did not matter too much, and did not drive me into the arms of any other system, as I wasn’t using any system at that point. (As it was, it did help drive my interest in BESM.)

In 2004, GURPS 4th Edition was released. I was back into gaming, but not into RPGs, so my reaction was somewhat academic. There were a number of changes, which raised mixed feelings for me. I’ve recently gotten the new edition, and am generally happy.

The Basic Set is now two books, Characters and Campaigns, breaking the ‘done in one’ structure I prefer. However, the goal is to have as much of the entire system contained in the Basic Set as possible, so that it is no longer ‘universal—by extension’. Also, almost everything needed to play is still in the first book, including a very simple version of the combat system. Certainly, it can be ‘faked’ with the free GURPS Lite and the first book without any trouble for an inventive GM.

The system has changed. Third Edition was really just First Edition with more stuff and a few tweaks. Nothing really basic to the system changed. This time, a number of things have.

A) The costs of attributes has changed. Originally, GURPS tried to enforce a ‘bell curve’ by making higher attribute scores cost progressively more. Now it’s all flat. Also, GURPS considered all attributes equal—that is, they had the same cost. Now, DX and IQ cost twice as much as ST and HT. This last is understandable, DX and IQ determine almost every skill score there is; raise one of them, and about half your skills go up a level. The flat costs are a streamlining measure, and one that initially upset me, but now that I’ve had six years to get over it, I find I don’t mind the change. Whether it will cause any problematic changes in attribute scores still needs to be seen. So far, it seems like the extra cost for modest DX or IQ changes has a much greater effect.

B) Hit Points are based off of ST instead of HT. Fatigue is based off of HT instead of ST. This was a popular house rule even before it was published in Compendium I as a optional rule. The original idea is that fatigue is a reduction of strength caused by exertion, and that the healthier you are, the harder you are to kill. I had bought into that, and did not ever see any real need to use the optional rule. I changed my mind when I looked at it from the standpoint that a bigger creature will have higher strength (but may still become fatigued at the same rate) and more hit points (but not necessarily be any healthier). Also, it makes sense for a healthier person to take longer to become winded (lose all/most fatigue).

C) All the secondary attributes can now be changed on their own. This was something that slowly cropped up over the course of Third Edition, and was given as an optional rule in Compendium I. This was desperately needed. In many cases, it should be held to a minimum for human characters, but some tweaking will help some character concepts, and it helps with non-human characters a lot, since the base values are figured on human norms.

D) Relative size is directly addressed in character creation. This is another place where Third Edition desperately needed improvement, and I can only regret that Fourth Edition doesn’t go quite far enough. Size Modifier has always been in the system, it is the bonus for aiming at/trying to spot a large object, or the penalty for a small one. Now, it is a secondary characteristic for all characters (humans, outside exceptional circumstances, are +0, of course). It doesn’t have that big a defined game effect, and the problems of scaling equipment up/down is glossed over, but the concept is there in the core rules. Finally.

E) Skill costs are simplified. Physical skills were more difficult to learn at a high level than mental skills. Now they share the same progression chart. Also, the ability to take a bunch of little skills has been limited; it was possible to put a 1/2 point into a skill, now the minimum is 1.

F) Passive Defense is gone. There’s a good article out there showing how PD could cause some strange math. So, it has been decided that if a blow ‘glanced off’ armor, you’ll see it when the armor’s normal Damage Resistance stops all the damage from a low damage roll (instead of that being possible as well as the defense roll…). Also, shields still provide PD, but now it is called ‘Defense Bonus’. Considering that shields are specialized defensive equipment, it makes sense.

G) Auto-fire has changed. While the melee combat always felt very good, I never felt ranged combat was nearly as smooth. Most of this really comes down to the way fully automatic weapons worked. First, it involved a separate table that determined how many shots in a burst hit depending on the number of shots in the burst, and how much the roll was made by. The problem was that this table only went up to four shots, and a separate attack roll was needed for each set of four shots. Considering that machine guns that fire 20 shots per second (that’s five attack rolls for four round bursts) are common today, this was not good. The new system simply compares how much the roll was made by to the gun’s recoil number, one hit per multiple of RCL the roll was made by, up to the number of shots fired. (There’s still problems there, but it is an improvement.)

H) Enhancements and Limitations are parts of the core system. These are ideas that were created by GURPS Supers. Instead of having a big list of every single advantage and disadvantage in every single form it could take, there is a shorter (but still very long) list that can be consistently modified to generate the particular effect wanted. This wasn’t necessary with a lot of the down-to-earth abilities originally used in GURPS, but as it went further afield it was necessary. This really adds a lot to the flexibility of the system, but it does add complexity—bring a calculator. A nice side effect is the idea of self-control numbers. These adjust the cost of mental disadvantages depending on just how likely the character is to succumb to it. Now you can easily have a character who is a little bit Overconfident, without having to define a new, lower-point version of the disadvantage.

I) Almost everything is in the core system. It sure seems like everything is here, but if it was, books like Powers would not need to exist. But, this version of Basic Set truly feels universal. There are a few off-the-wall things that always bamboozled me in Third Edition. Most of them are pretty obvious to do in Fourth Edition, which shows that it is much more flexible than before.

The complexity of Fourth Edition is decidedly up from Third Edition. However, it at least so far feels like everything is better integrated, as actual rules, not just as text. So, I’d say it is noticeably less complex than Third Edition + Compendiums was. I’d also say the scope of what it can handle is up from what Third Edition + Compendiums could do. I hope I can get a chance to find out for certain soon.