The Slow End of GURPS


So a few months back, the folks at Steve Jackson Games started posting a few short essays from their creators and designers celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Fourth Edition of GURPS, their long-running RPG rules designed to be used with virtually any genre of roleplaying. They had essays from folks like Sean Punch, Phil Masters, Kenneth Hite, Bill Stoddard, Steven Marsh, and more. I won’t link all of them, but you can find a listing of all ten of them right over here.

I thought the whole thing was just a little depressing, partly because there were so dang few contributors to the series — they couldn’t even get Steve Jackson, the designer of GURPS and founder of the company, to write up an essay — and partly because the glory days of GURPS are so far in the past.

I didn’t really discover GURPS until after I got out of college and learned they’d put out a sourcebook for George R.R. Martin’s shared-world Wild Cards series, which was, at the time, my favorite book series. As it turned out, the local B. Dalton store didn’t have GURPS Wild Cards, but they did have GURPS Horror, so I picked that up and soon started buying as many of their sourcebooks as I could. In my first post-college job, I’d get home in the evenings, bored out of my skull, and create new GURPS characters — filled up multiple legal pads, just because I loved the detail of their character-design system. I never got to play it — I’ve never lived anywhere where anyone else was interested in the game — but holy zamboni, did I love making new GURPS characters and reading GURPS books.

Around 2004, they announced they were creating the Fourth Edition of the game, I picked up the Basic Set eagerly — and found that I really didn’t enjoy it. I felt like the new version was a lot more complicated — the 3rd-edition GURPS Vehicles supplement had allowed for insane levels of micro-detail, giving RPG gearheads tons of numbers they could crunch all day. And the Fourth Edition rules moved some of that number-crunching detail into character generation, where I’d always enjoyed the more plug-and-play aspects of the 3rd-edition rules. In addition, most of the new rulebooks were hardcovers and a lot more expensive, and I got more and more indifferent to the game as time went by.

But more depressing than one guy losing interest in a roleplaying game has been the decline in GURPS’ status as one of the powerhouse RPG systems and the steep drop in the number of GURPS books published. I’d expected the Fourth Edition books to start out with the core sourcebooks — the Basic Set, Fantasy, Magic, Space — and ramp up to include more far-ranging and esoteric titles. But the Fourth Edition books never got much beyond the core books. A few more unusual sourcebooks were produced, but most of those were only available as digital PDFs. Still, there were a lot of 3rd-edition sourcebooks that I thought were surely going to be republished in Fourth Edition — Cyberpunk, Illuminati, Steampunk, Warehouse 23 — that remain orphaned in 3rd. Sure, you could use the info in the old sourcebooks to play in Fourth Edition, but it still felt like GURPS’s legendary genre diversity had fallen by the wayside.

There were a couple different reasons for the reduction in GURPS titles — first, traditional RPGs had crashed and crashed hard. Magic: The Gathering had more gamers focusing on collectible card games, D&D’s Open Gaming License had tons of companies building new games that operated under D&D’s rules, and computer games, including MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, were a massive and growing entertainment industry that traditional pen-and-paper roleplaying games just couldn’t compete against.

And within Steve Jackson Games, Munchkin happened. Munchkin was and remains massively popular. And SJG isn’t a gigantic company — it’s a moderately popular and successful publisher, and as long as Munchkin was making money hand over fist, it just made good sense to put more of the company’s resources into publicizing Munchkin and creating new Munchkin sets. That meant that attention and support for GURPS and most other games had to drop.

The company is still publishing GURPS books digitally, but last year, they released only one GURPS book in hardcover — GURPS Zombies. As far as I can tell, they haven’t released any books in print in 2014. I’m sure they can keep releasing mini-rulebooks on PDF from now ’til doomsday, but no print products at all in over a year? That’s not a sign of a healthy system. That’s a sign of a dead RPG.

It’s not just a problem for Steve Jackson Games. I think it’s a symptom of a weak market for nearly all pen-and-paper RPGs. I know, we (and I’m including myself in this) talk a lot about the resurgence of interest in roleplaying games. They get talked about a lot in the mass media — it’s not at all uncommon to read an article in a major newspaper or magazine that focuses on people playing RPGs. But what worries me is that most of those articles focus on Dungeons & Dragons, maybe Pathfinder — and that most of them focus on RPG fans returning to games after years away from the hobby. The other games we hear folks talk about are things like Paranoia or Chill or another game that’s getting a Kickstarter designed to appeal to fans of the old game. In other words, the gaming resurgence we keep talking about is more about nostalgia, and I worry that people will end up abandoning the hobby again once they hit on something else to feel nostalgic about.

Still, I do wish that SJG had chosen to commemorate the 10th year anniversary by announcing some neat new print products. As it was, it seemed less like a celebration and more like a eulogy.


  1. Siskoid Said,

    November 10, 2014 @ 6:46 am


    I have a near-complete collection of GURPS 3rd because part of the joy was collecting those more “esoteric” sourcebook, whether you’d ever use them in a game or not. While I took on board some of the tweaks from GURPS 4 Lite, I found I had no interest in an edition that treated characters, powers, everything like Vehicles 2nd. Too much mechanical crunch, not enough flavor.

    But being out of print won’t stop me from running games with GURPS 3rd. Just like I will still use AD&D 2nd if pressed to play that genre.

  2. scottslemmons Said,

    November 10, 2014 @ 7:01 am

    I collected the 3rd edition books almost the same way! “Ooh, this sounds vaguely interesting! I MUST SEE IF THERE IS A RANDOM TIDBIT OF ENTERTAINING INFORMATION INSIDE!”

    And yeah, if I ever got to roleplay anything again, and I got a choice of the system I’d use, it’d totally be GURPS 3rd. There’s still never been a more fun system than that, especially for building characters. 🙂

  3. Bert Knabe Said,

    November 10, 2014 @ 7:22 am

    Scott, I love GURPS 3rd edition. Never picked up 4th at all. I didn’t have much time for roleplaying when you were at the AJ, but if I’d known you were into GURPS and never played I’d have probably found time or a one shot or a short campaign just so you could play.

    I was kind of a game collector. I couldn’t really afford to collect a huge number but at one time I had about 10 commercial games and I’ve got a few hundred free indies on CD someplace. :^)

  4. scottslemmons Said,

    November 10, 2014 @ 8:05 am

    Bert, I’m entirely addicted to collecting and then never playing games. I’ve got about a bookshelf-and-a-half of RPG books, a shelf unit full of board games, a whole file full of digital RPGs, most of which I’ve never gotten around to reading. (The Bundle of Holding has much to answer for…)

  5. Bert Knabe Said,

    November 10, 2014 @ 8:16 am

    Yeah, I reached a point where I enjoyed creating characters as much or more than actually playing. Partially because there’s no scheduling conflicts creating characters by yourself.

  6. Maxo Said,

    November 10, 2014 @ 9:03 am

    I came to gaming late, so by the time I started playing GURPS seemed to be already falling by the wayside. But, everyone I gamed with would talk about it all the time, always with a wistful fondness that made me wish I could take a crack at it. This made me want to scare up a game all over again!

  7. scottslemmons Said,

    November 10, 2014 @ 9:06 am

    Maxo, the best thing about the game now is that they have almost all of their sourcebooks, from almost every edition, available digitally. They’re more difficult to read that way, but at least they’re not completely unavailable, like most other extinct companies’ books…

  8. Andy Said,

    November 10, 2014 @ 12:38 pm

    Well written, Scott. You make some good points. Still love both versions, and I think 4e fixes a lot of things that stuck in my (and some other gamers’) craws.

  9. scottslemmons Said,

    November 10, 2014 @ 1:00 pm

    Fair ’nuff, Andy. I’m not a fan of how 4e works on a lot of things, but I’d let it slide if the system were being supported. It mostly just bugged me that there was a big congratulatory party for a system the company was basically ignoring into the grave. :/

  10. J. Michael Neal Said,

    November 10, 2014 @ 2:23 pm

    I was a huge fan of In Nomine, another SJG product (well, licensed from the makers of the original French version, though I like the American one more). It’s been out of print for a decade or more now but SJG has held on to the license, so there’s no chance of anyone else picking it up.

  11. scottslemmons Said,

    November 10, 2014 @ 2:52 pm

    And In Nomine was a great deal of fun, too. It’s disappointing that it’s not being supported anymore. :/