When I interviewed GURPS Line Manager Sean “Dr Kromm” Punch back in April, he said something that resonated with me strongly and has stuck with me ever since. Roughly paraphrasing, Sean outlined his belief that the main difference between GURPS and most other roleplaying games revolves around the idea of the prescriptive versus the descriptive.
Most games, he suggests, are prescriptive: much like when a doctor suggests an approach to dealing with an illness, many RPGs are a game designer’s attempt to recommend an approach to playing in a particular manner and within a particular set of assumptions.
By contrast, GURPS is a descriptive game: it tells you how it can be used but doesn’t prescribe much at all – you have to work out for yourself the details of your world, your characters, and your approach to play. Thus, GURPS is pretty good at emulating any particular world, character, or situation. Where other games might be tightly designed to deliver a 100% experience in one prescribed arena, GURPS is 80% good for anything.
While those words proved provocative to some, to me they resonated: yes, this is the strength and the weakness of GURPS. The game can handle anything but you, as GM, have to put in a lot more spadework up front to shape the game to your needs. The players too need to have strong character concepts before they even contemplate building their alter-egos.
For beginners, Sean recommends the “genre treatments” – such as Dungeon Fantasy or Action! – which act as a prescription for the novice GM and player group. I’d echo that those products are invaluable… or, at least they have been for me.
The D100 Prescription
That said… this week I have been considering accepting some prescriptions for my gaming: RuneQuest Glorantha and Mythras are back on my radar.
Why take a prescription? In simple terms, it’s easier in the short term. Investing in learning GURPS has great value and is certainly worthwhile. That said, it is actually easier to just set up a game using someone else’s vision.
RuneQuest Glorantha offers me, as I mentioned last week, a world that I truly admire and want to explore. In this case, it seems perfectly natural to take the prescription that The Chaosium offers: all the work has been done for me and, in truth, there are three offerings in that world in print to boot.
Personally, I love the D100 system upon which RuneQuest is based, but if you prefer D20 then there is 13th Age in Glorantha… and there’s HeroQuest Glorantha for those who want an even more narrative-focused approach. Why would I invest time in converting it all to GURPS? That seems like a lot of hard work.
For a more Bronze Age or Dark Age fantasy, based on the D100 system but offering a broader prescription to allow for a homebrew world, Mythras is another solid offering – this time from The Design Mechanism. I have long admired this game and, for me, it represents the best of what RuneQuest gave me but divorces it from Greg Stafford’s world of Glorantha. Certainly, I could build a fantasy world using GURPS… but, honestly, I can be up and playing quicker if I grab Mythras off the shelf.
The dilemma for me comes down to the tension between learning a whole new game versus investing time in shaping the game I already know (and love) to a world. If the world has legs, perhaps I am a fool not to build it in GURPS. That said, given my track record for short-lived games, accepting the two D100 prescriptions on hand seems to make some sense: I can be up and playing both quite quickly because they are both familiar and have similar mechanisms.
I don’t know what you make of that, but please do feel free to drop your comments below. I’d love to hear what you have to say.