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Tuesday, 5 December 2017

I dodged a bullet

A couple of recent posts have picked away at the problems I have with GURPS, but that's only one half of the picture. My relationship with GURPS is as much love as hate. At the core of it, 4th edition is a very elegant edifice. The trouble is that the edifice in question is overgrown with a riotous ivy of special cases and the rules are scattered all over the place like so many broken vases.

But I’m not going to gripe about GURPS today. Coming up on Friday we have the Christmas special scenario. That’s actually system-agnostic but when my group ran it we used GURPS 4e, which gives me an excuse to redress the balance a little by defending a much-maligned GURPS rule, namely the ability to use Dodge against missile weapons.

First off, this isn’t Matrix-style stuff. You aren’t leaning aside to let that bullet go whistling past. There’s a temptation to think that one dice roll means one specific action, but that’s not it. When somebody’s shooting at you and you make a Dodge roll, that roll represents all the ducking and weaving you’ve been doing to make yourself a harder target.

Recently in our Wild West game we had a situation where we were shooting at some fellows on horseback. How do you make a Dodge when you’re planted in the saddle?

You could say that it’s impossible to Dodge while on horseback, but the logical outcome then would be for everybody to dismount at the start of every battle. Not much in keeping with the spirit of a Wild West game, that. Which is why GURPS 4e does allow Dodging while riding.

The rule is on page 398 (you really have to go digging around for these rules) and it states that you can Dodge normally in the saddle if you have Riding skill of 12+, but you lose -1 from Dodge for each point of Riding skill below 12.

How is it possible? Remember what I said. Dodge isn't one single action, like darting out of the way before a bullet hits. It's more of a way of representing dodging and weaving about during the fight that makes you less likely to get hit. So when you're firing from horseback, the horses aren't stationary firing platforms like the turret of a tank. Horses don't stay stock-still like that. They would be constantly wheeling and milling about. And if you can ride well, you can combine that with crouching in the saddle and so on to make yourself a trickier target to get a bead on. You see exactly that technique in a movie like The Outlaw Josey Wales. That’s what the rule on page 398 is modelling.

Love-hate, remember, so I still can’t resist a little gripe. That “full Dodge if you have Riding 12, but…” is a typical off-the-cuff GURPS rule. These special cases are strewn throughout the books. They’re obviously just made up out of desperation as the designer was having to colour in these corners of the game, and because the number is arbitrary it’s hard to remember. It’s not a rule that’s repeated throughout – “you can do First Aid on jet-skis if you have Skiing 12”, etc.

Control of the horse isn’t automatic at Riding skill 12, so why create a special case? Just use the rules that are already written, for Pete’s sake. That’s what infuriates me about GURPS. It’s like going round the Ashmolean Museum to find it’s been redecorated by a Vegas hotelier. The GURPS books list a few dozen people responsible for “rules refinement”, so that’d be why. Too many cooks, guys.

A better rule would be this: "in order to qualify to make a Dodge roll when mounted, you must first succeed in a Riding roll". So that way you can attempt to dodge if you can control the horse. Easier to remember, and more logical.

One day (I mean, one month) I’m going to rewrite GURPS 4e to streamline and rationalize the whole thing. In the meantime, here are some GURPS Legend character generation rules to be going on with. And whatever system you favour, be sure to come back on Friday for the Yuletide adventure.


  1. If GURPS had a streamlined 'retro-clone' (or whatever you'd want to call it) I'd certainly be interested... something that weeded out the chaff and took it back to it's simple core.
    I suppose that's sorta what GURPS Lite is...

    1. It's what GURPS Lite ought to be. What's really needed is a 50-page strip-down of 4e (a huge improvement on 3e) reducing it to the clean system it would have been if not for a team of designers packing it with fiddly special case rules.

    2. My gaming group way back in the 90s had a 10 page home-grown system that was, in many ways, GURPS with the serial numbers filed off. We used it for an action oriented sci-fi game which was intentionally just trope after trope after trope.

      GURPS Lite, if I recall correctly, rules compatible with GURPS, which is both its genius and its downfall. It prevents the growing of a second system, and helps sell settings books (which to my mind were the point of GURPS, one set of rules, infinite supplements).

    3. Alright, I pulled my old notes up and jiggered something up. It's about 3 pages, but it sorta evolved into a new thing. I guess I gotta playtest it now...

    4. 3 pages sounds like quite a brutal hack-back of the GURPS system, Erik. Could still be a perfectly good set of rules, though. Oliver Johnson ran one of our most memorable campaigns using rules that fit on half a page.

    5. 3 pages is a bit of a lie. It's currently three (well, 2.5) handwritten pages of notes on core mechanics. When you consider GURPS lite is 38 pages, but half a dozen of those are "what is Role Playing" and "How do die roles work" and another ten are merits/flaws/skill listings, you really can strip down a lot. It would expand if anyone other than me used it.

      My struggle, mechanically, with GURPS actually wasn't a lot of the little special case rules, as we tended to ignore them anyway. It was the skill defaulting mechanic. It was the kind of thing that was SO COOL when I first read it, but in play means constantly checking to see what tree of skills at what level of defaulting gets you to the final value for a particular situation. It also made character creation a pain, as it lead to lots of tweaking and math to spend 1/4 of a character point.

      If you recognize that 3d6 gives you a nice bell curve, and bell curves have standard deviations, then you can rapidly erase a bunch of special cases by just using standard dev everywhere.

  2. Jamie is having an interesting discussion on Twitter with Teofilo Hurtado about this, and they make some good points worth reposting here:

    Teofilo: "I agree B398 rule is weird. But it's compensated by the fact that (unless you ride a trained warhorse) Riding skills in a firefight have a -3 or -6 penalty (B396), which means a hefty penalty to Dodge. Not to mention dangers from your mount's Fright Check when it hears a shot!"

    Jamie: "Right. But yet again these are all special case rules. Nobody has time to go searching for them in play. It would be better to say that whenever one skill is dependent on another (eg fighting from horseback) roll the first skill to be able to use the second. In all cases."

    Teofilo: "An easy way to handle this is using the same rule as vehicular dodge (B375): Half Riding skill, rounded down, plus any bonus from your horse's Mount skill (if any). It gives a Dodge roll of 5-7 against guns, which seems about right."

    Jamie: "Except you'd really like one rule that can be applied to Dodge, Guns, Sword, etc... rather than the many little subclauses GURPS would like us to remember."

  3. And on a completely different subject, Megara sent out .pdfs of FL7 to the backers and it looks gooooooooddd.

    1. Did they now? Well, that's the PDF I made for them, so if you spot any mistakes do let me know so I can correct them before we publish the paperback.

  4. I'll let you know if I find anything. Probably the first thing I'll do is use Find to locate the various Tick-boxes and put them in my Master sheet for you guys. I'll make a start on that Thursday or so.

    1. That will be really helpful. Thanks, John. Megara aren't actually authorised to hand out PDFs of the book -- their licence just allows them to print and ship the 500 hardbacks -- but now that they've done it without consulting us we may as well get some use out of it. I'll be so glad to see the back of all this.