No, really, why not D&D?

by mshrm

That last post seemed to stir up some response, with some great discussion over on G+, so I thought I would throw a little more fuel on the fire. As the wise man said, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” ūüėČ

But, seriously, I’m not knocking on the D&D ecosystem. It was what started me on this road.* It’s my gaming roots. Clearly, the idea of playing desperate men and women crawling into a hole in the ground to whack monsters and take their money is an idea that has resonance, even today, decades after the original ideas came up.

I absolutely do not want to push negativity.**  I would rather lift GURPS up than push down the whole wide world of Dungeons And-Or Dragons.

So, that out of the way, I’ll double-down: GURPS has the level of focus that I like, a level of focus that I haven’t seen offered by any edition or variant of D&D.

Here’s an example. I’ll keep picking on the hit points. Everybody loves to pick on the hit points. Some of the G+ discussion centered around how the D&D HP is an abstraction. Take your 20th level fighter, who can jump off a cliff and survive, where her 1st level self would have died outright.

Yes, yes. <waves hands> I know, there are various “massive damage” rules that kick in to discourage high-level fighters from choosing to eat a giant-sized bowl¬†of damage. Doesn’t matter. Say the fighter would have to make extra rolls if she took 50 points of damage, but the actual damage from the fall was only 45 points. That’s plenty enough to kill a 1st level fighter. ¬†(Or, at least, it was in my day. I hear recent editions have given 1st level characters lots of HP? Or something?)

I’ve heard folks complain about that 20th level fighter leaping off the cliff, saying it’s unrealistic. That’s not my beef at all. Take Conan, for example. He’s pretty high level, right? Throw Conan off a cliff. ¬†What happens?

I’ll tell you what absolutely¬†does not happen: ¬†Conan¬†does not fall to the base of the cliff, impact, and die of his injuries! Even if he’s already tossed a dozen soldiers to their deaths off that same cliff, it’s just not going to happen. Sure, it’s a lethal cliff… but he’ll grab the edge. Or a branch on the way down. Or something. So, by that standard, the classic D&D HP mechanic does its job. ¬†D&D Conan goes over the cliff, marks off some HP, dusts himself off, and keeps on truckin’.

But, then, I’ve got the nagging voice in the back of my head, saying, “Sure, but if he grabbed the edge at the last minute to save himself, why is his miniature now at the bottom of the cliff? Shouldn’t he now engage in an exciting battle of strength, using one arm to fend off the enemy’s kicks? … rather than now being out of reach, telling them that they’re #1 in Cimmerian¬†sign language?”

Myself, I’ll want a game that will focus in tight enough to detail the fending-off-on-the-cliff-edge. GURPS does that for me. The various D&D’s set their focus a bit fuzzier, and accept that the mechanics aren’t going to support certain outcomes, in themselves. That sort of cliff’s-edge detail becomes something injected by the DM.

And if you were playing some kind of war game, where the focus is at a higher level of granularity, you wouldn’t even have talked about the time Conan had the exciting battle against the angry demon worshipers at the top of the Cliffs Of Poor Risk Management. You would roll Conan’s dice once and note down: “Conan sacks temple, takes out¬†100 gold and 1d4 distressed damsels.”

If the war game were at the level of Risk or the like, Conan himself would be abstracted away. He would be a joke after a good roll: ¬†“My one figure took out your whole temple complex! They must have had Conan along! Hey, little figure guy, what is best in life?”

These aren’t flaws and virtues of the different systems. The problem is figuring out the style and level of detail that you’re looking for, and then choose the system that supports that kind of play. For me, that’s GURPS. Specifically, the 4th edition. ¬†Third was great, but Fourth really knocked off all the barnacles and shined up all the brass.

Is it complicated? You’ll hear this one a lot, but I think folks are just repeating what they heard from a grumpy Usenet post from 1992. You could make the case that some parts of Third Edition were a bit complex. (Hey, I loved¬†GURPS Vehicles. I’m not afraid of a very occasional¬†cube root. I use spreadsheets no matter what game I’m running.***) Fourth Edition does a great job a scaling to whatever your game requires… just so long as you’re clear on what that is.

Carrying on with the sad, threadbare hit points question…

Two other GURPS campaigns, besides the current Dungeon Fantasy one, have appeared in this forum:  the Space Cowboys game, and the Marvel Supers 1200 game. They had some pretty different requirements, when it came to the sturdiness of the PCs.

The Space Cowboys game¬†was designed from the beginning to be low-combat. The goal was to do a “slice of life”, “normal guys in an exotic situation” story. If somebody pulled a gun, the metaphorical soundtrack would do something dramatic and we would cut to commercial. Folks built their characters accordingly. You could feel the difference, in play, in combat, between Bubba and Osolo. If you’re familiar with¬†Firefly, it was like the difference between Jayne and Simon. (If you’re¬†not familiar with¬†Firefly, what are you thinking?!? Stop wasting your time here and go watch it! NOW!)

I haven’t actually tried it — threatened more than once — but based on the Space Cowboys experience, I have no doubt that GURPS could handle a high school slap fight, realistically and satisfyingly. No doubt whatsoever.

At the other end, the Supers 1200 game was based on the Marvel Universe, where folks are more sturdy than in the real world. I knew, up front, that I was going to have to rig the game to make that happen. It’s a beyond-cinematic world. So, acting on advice from the forums, I declared that everybody in the universe who had a name, also had Injury Tolerance: Damage Reduction, which divides injury suffered. Fragile ol’ Aunt May had IT: DR 4, dividing any injury she took by 4. (Face it, it’s easy to put Aunt May into a coma but it’s really hard to put her down for the count. Look at the lady’s history.) Actual heroes had more, lots more. It was strictly explained as plot protection… which is to say, it wasn’t explained at all, just noted as How The World Works.

People addressed the issue in other ways, of course. At least one took Unkillable, and I seem to recall a lot of Regeneration and Very Rapid Healing. The point is, we were able to “bolt on” the ruggedness of comic book characters as needed.

Another thing that you’ll hear from the 1990’s is that GURPS can’t do supers right. I would dispute that. In actual play,¬†Araignee Rose felt like Spider-Man. Goliath felt like… well, Goliath. The other one. The dead one. From the comics. You know what I mean. Again, I’ll admit there used to be a grain of truth to the complaint: I tried to run a supers game in Third Edition and had difficulties, back in the mid-90’s. These days, with the current edition? Nope, no problem. The engine supported it. (My energy level¬†didn’t, but that’s another story for another time.)

I would go so far as to say that in my opinion, in a lot of ways, GURPS did a better job at supers than HERO System. (I haven’t seen the latest edition, so I’m talking FREd and the big blue book that had Seeker about to die on the cover.) I ran HERO System for a long while, and I started to notice that every PC I saw was doing pretty much the same amount of damage, roughly the same chance to hit, same small set of disadvantages… everybody was starting to blur into everybody else. With its tighter, more detailed focus, GURPS fixed that problem.

So, there you go. That’s what I was trying to say before. More of it, at least. ūüėČ

* Ok, I’ll admit it. The thing that drew my attention in the first place was the nifty maps. They were what started me on this road. “What’s this ‘S’ on the wall mean? How about this square with an ‘X’ in it, sitting in the middle of the hallway?” Little did I know, that square with an ‘X’ would turn out to be the most lethal thing thus far in the current dungeon, a pit trap.

** This may come as a shock to some. ūüėČ

*** Not really. Almost. I ran some White Wolf,¬†World of Darkness stuff, way back when, that didn’t have any need for math stronger than counting on fingers. Take that how you will.