Types of Role-Playing GamesEdit

GURPS is a tabletop Role-Playing Game (RPG). Players do not dress up for the game or physically act out what their characters are doing (that’s Live Action Role-Playing, or LARPing), nor is it run on a computer (that’s computer, or computer-moderated, gaming).

GURPS players dress in their normal clothes and sit around a table face-to-face to play. You don't need to worry about looking weird! Games can be run over the Net, but that’s definitely a lesser option, generally a backup tactic for when a group can’t get together.

The Game MasterEdit

The game is run by one of the players, called the Game Master – conversationally, that’s always abbreviated to GM. In some groups two or more players take it in turn to be the GM, each running an adventure or campaign in turn. Other groups prefer to stick with the same GM throughout. The GM’s role is the same as that of the computer in computer RPGs: they hold the details of the adventure, and decide whether the Player Characters (PCs) succeed at what they’re trying to do. The difference is that the GM can deal with the unexpected. If a players decide to try something that the computer programmers decided not to allow for in the game, their characters literally can’t do it because the programme does not offer that option. A GURPS GM can judge what the effect would be, and run with the completely unexpected idea.

Another difference between a GM and a computer is that the GM often designs the adventure themselves, often with the group in mind. That allows them to tailor adventures either to the abilities or histories of the PCs or to the interests of the players, and produces a much more involving game.

Here’s what to expect if you turn up to a GURPS game:

The VenueEdit

Tabletop RPGs like GURPS can be run anywhere you can be comfortable. Some groups get together in venues available for hire – I know of some in the back rooms of pubs or in comic stores – but the majority play in the homes of their members. Ideally, the room will contain a large enough table for them all to sit around, but gamers will make do with whatever furniture there is. As it’s a social occasion, most group share nibbles: biscuits/cookies, sweets/candy, cakes, etc. If you regularly play at the same person’s house, it’s good manners for everyone to contribute to these and not impose too much on the host.

The EquipmentEdit

GURPS uses very little playing equipment. Each player will have a character sheet recording their character’s traits, and some six-sided dice. Normally you only need three, but gamers do love to accumulate dice…

You also need some rule-books. A group could get away with just one copy of each of the two GURPS Basic Set books (Characters and Campaigns), but ideally there would be one copy of Characters for each player. There is often a bottleneck between adventures when players are looking to spend the Character Points they have been awarded and everyone needs to check on the cost of things and the various rules at the same time. If the campaign setting is covered by a world-book, that will be another essential.

There are plenty of optional extras. Other rule books usually head the list, containing optional rules that the GM has decided are included in his campaign setting.

Battlemats and figures come next. Battlemats are large sheets, preferably marked in 1” hexagons (hexes, in GURPS terms). If they are laminated, the GM can use non-permanent pens to draw the location of action scenes for everyone to see. Figures can then be placed on the battlemat to represent all those involved in an action scene. This makes the exact situation clear to everyone: just by looking at the battlemat they can see which PCs can aid whom, sight-lines for missile fire or spellcasting, and their movement options. You can buy a wide range of plastic or whitemetal figures from specialised suppliers and paint them up, or you can use any token you like to represent yourself. As long as everyone knows that the top hat represents Fangor the Bloodthirsty, it serves the same function as a finely-painted miniature. Another option is GURPS Cardboard Heroes, a collection of printed figures designed for the purpose.

The GM’s Screen is another option. It is a cardboard screen which stands around the GM’s space on the table. As well as protecting the adventure details and the GM’s dice-rolls from the players’ eyes, it will have the most commonly-used tables up in front of the GM for quick reference. It may be a commercially-produced one, or the GM can produce his own with the tables and other references most relevant to his campaign.


The GM is the centre of attention while the game is on. He has the details of the adventure in front of him – perhaps a published ‘module’, maybe something he designed himself. From these notes, he tells the players what their characters know and can see (or otherwise perceive). At the beginning of the gaming session, the GM generally recaps what has gone before just to remind the players:

GM: You have accepted the commission from Lord Beresford to escort his friend Mr Gideon and his new wife to visit her family in Constantinople. You are making the journey on this new-fangled railway service, the Orient Express.

Then he brings them up to date with where they are now and what is happening around them. He will not tell them everything, but decide on what is obvious to everyone and only give out that information:

GM: It’s the evening of the second day, and you are in the dining-car, having dinner. You notice some agitation amongst the waiters. They are whispering to themselves and peering out of the windows on the left side of the carriage whenever the train goes around a bend to the left.

Players can ask for further details of anything that they think may be significant.

Theo: Can I hear what the waiters are whispering?

At this point the rules of probability take over. GURPS characters have a number of traits which are expressed as a numerical value, usually from 3 upwards. (See the page Creating A Character to learn more.) The GURPS system requires that when there is a chance that a character will succeed in doing something, but it is not certain, three six-sided dice are rolled under the appropriate trait value. Often the roll (or the value) is modified depending on the situation.

The GM in this case rules that trying to overhear whispers over the clattering of a train on the tracks is more difficult than normal, and apply a -2 disadvantage to Theo’s chance to hear anything. The GM usually makes Perception rolls like this so that players don’t necessarily know that there is anything to hear – in this case he does, so the GM lets the player make the roll.

GM: Make a Listening roll at -2 because of the noise of the train. [A Listening roll is the same as an Intelligence (IQ) roll, unless the player has another trait which modifies that.]
Theo: I have Acute Hearing +2 [an Advantage for which Theo’s player chose to pay character points] which cancels that out (rolls the dice) – A 12. [He rolled under his IQ attribute.] Yes, I can hear what they are saying.
GM: But they’re speaking in French. Do you speak French?
Theo: Yes, I speak accented French. [French is a language skill which can be learned to different levels. ‘Accented’ means that Theo is quite fluent, but obviously a foreigner. However, even under stress he can understand the waiters.]
GM: They are talking about ‘le train Fantôme’ – the Ghost Train. Some of them reckon that it’s behind you. Others say it’s a myth.
Theo: When the train next bends to the left, I’m joining them and looking out of the window…

Combat is handled in much the same manner. Characters have various combat skills, most of which are based on the PC’s Dexterity (DX). We move on to the point where zombies from the Ghost Train have boarded the Orient Express and reached the restaurant car where the PCs have erected a barricade. Theo has been back to his cabin to fetch his revolver.

Theo: I’ll aim for a round, then shoot the first zombie as it approaches the barricade. In the leg, to try and knock it over. If I don’t think it’ll reach the barricade in the turn I shoot, I’ll do a determined All-Out Attack. (This shows the versatility of GURPS. Theo's player has decided that rather than simply say that he's shooting the zombie, she can specify more precisely what he's trying to do. It both adds realism to the action scene, and if she chooses the right action she can increase her chance of taking the zombie out of the fight.)
GM: Roll it.

Theo’s player checks her character sheet. His DX is 12 and he has Guns (Revolver) at DX+3, so his chance of a simple hit on a man-sized target at point-blank range is 15. Against that, he has to count modifiers.

He’s chosen to shoot the zombie in the leg, in the hope of breaking it so the zombie falls over. That’s a more difficult shot, so it has a -2 modifier.

The GM says that by the time Theo shoots, the zombie will be about 3 yards away. so there is a -1 modifier for the extra range.

He is taking the time to Aim, which delays his shot but adds something for the pistol’s innate accuracy. Theo’s revolver is a .38 calibre, and has an Accuracy rating of 2, so that cancels out the -2 for the leg-shot.

Judging that the zombie won’t reach the barricade in the turn that he’s shooting, and there are no other threats likely to harm him, Theo determines to do an All-Out Attack. He concentrates entirely on the shot. By ignoring his surroundings, he's leaving himself wide-open to any unexpected counter-attacks, but that gives him another +1.

His total effective skill is 15. He rolls three dice, and adds them up.

Theo: Seven. I’ve hit him.

The GM now rolls for the zombie. Against a bullet, the only defence the zombie has is to Dodge, and his chances are small. These zombies are slow, so his Dodge score is only 7. The GM rolls a 9 on his three dice.

GM: The zombie tries to jump aside from your shot, but fails completely. Roll your damage.

Theo's player checks her character sheet again and sees that his revolver does 2d-1 damage. That’s two dice, minus one, so he rolls his two dice and scores 10 on them, then takes away one.

Theo: Nine points of damage.

The GM records that on the zombie’s space in his notes. The zombie’s withered flesh effectively provides armour over its bones which give Damage Resistance of 2 (DR2). That reduces the damage done by any attack by two points, taking the nine points down to seven. The zombie has 14 hit points (that’s the amount of damage it will take to ‘kill’ it), but if an attack does half as much damage as that to a limb, it will be broken. Theo’s attack, after subtracting the DR, did half the zombie’s hit points in damage, and broke the leg. He has succeeded in the idea his player had, of knocking the zombie over before it reaches the barricade.

GM: The zombie crashes to the side as its leg gives way under it. Unfortunately for you, zombies don’t feel pain so it doesn’t stop. It begins crawling towards you, and meanwhile another is stepping over its body…