GURPS and Methodology

The thing I love about GURPS as a set of rules is the flexibility available. Most people are aware that the rules are generic, allowing for the full range of options across multiple genres, but most tend to be unaware that GURPS is highly adaptable in terms of methodology.

Methodology is how we play. There are countless small elements which affect the experience we have at the table and most of these methodological pieces are invisible. Because we assume the methods we use are the way RPGs are played, we rarely examine them. Rarer still is the person who will challenge and question, or even change their methods.

GURPS is essentially descriptive as a set of rules. This is unusual because most game designers create prescriptive games which give us not only some rules to adjudicate with but also a set of implicit (sometimes explicit) methods.

More explicit methodology tends to exist in the indie games and storytelling games communities, largely because these groups have spent time experimenting with how to achieve their goals in gaming. More traditional roleplayers tend to assume the Old Ways are the best ways. They may be right, depending on what experience they are seeking at the table. There is, after all, no bad or wrong methodology.

I am experimenting with methodology. I have two very distinct styles of play which I enjoy: I’ll call the first skirmish play, a subset of Wargaming; the second style is Otherworld-immersion. On the one hand, I enjoy a good tactical battle with miniatures and detailed mechanisms for movement and many attack/defence options. On the other hand, I want to lose myself in a fantastic Otherworld as I take on the role of a persona I care about.

The biggest lesson has been to separate those tastes: skirmish play is, by definition, short-lived and small scale; Otherworld-immersion is long-form and more serious. The mistake in the past has been to mix the two. The result was that I would have to switch between deeply immersive exploration of the fantasy and highly tactical skirmish combat. The former deep Otherworld-immersion is destroyed as soon as the miniatures and rules come to the fore; the Wargaming is spoiled by long periods of not fighting.

GURPS handles both styles of play pretty well. I can strip back the rules in use to optimise for Otherworld-immersion and run a grounded game where the mechanisms support the kind of fantasy realism I am seeking. I can pile on the detail and combat options to play a skirmish battle game. You can switch between easily because the core rules are the same. I get to have pizza and ice cream but the big learning has been to separate the dishes.

Which brings me to the third style of play I have realised I enjoy: the learning game. This has been in my repertoire for the longest time because I used to play alone as a teen just to learn how a game plays. The focus tends to be on the mechanisms of the rules, but it doesn’t have to be limited to that. Solo play, then, is the primary tool I have for learning to play better.

Recently, I have begun to realise that practicing my methodologies solo is a great tool for working out not only what I want to experience, but how to deliver it at the table. Thus, playing solo for Otherworld-immersion has become a thing: I do have to switch between player and arbiter modes, but the learning lies in noticing how decisions around methodology affect the experience.

Sometimes I play solo in skirmish mode. This is focused on learning the combat rules at first, but there is value in developing one’s tactical skills through gaming alone too. This allows me to explore the ways in which my chosen rules affect the experience of Wargaming. It’s very illuminating.

The trick is to decide on your goals in every single instance of play you experience. It’s not enough to assume others will share your tastes and it’s useful to realise that most gamers have deeply ingrained methodological habits which they are loathe to alter. Talking about it is necessary if you hope to affect any change in your outcomes.

The big thing I am learning is that it’s also valid to play alone. To experiment with GURPS as a rules set has been great. Now I am experimenting with GURPS under different methodological approaches and finding it’s remarkably versatile.

As I step deeper into the kinds of experiences I am seeking to achieve at the table, I find it useful to play around with games alone. There’s no one else to interfere with the process.

Game on!

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