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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

GURPS Is Not The Fantasy Trip

Over in the comments on the post about the scarcity of non-D&D games in the Old School Renaissance, JDJarvis raised the issue of whether GURPS is the new and improved Fantasy Trip system. I still have my copies of The Fantasy Trip books, and I played a lot of GURPS, too, so it may be surprising that I disagree completely: GURPS is not The Fantasy Trip. It is clearly related, but they aren't as close as people think.

The most obvious thing to say first is that GURPS cannot legally be a new and improved Fantasy Trip. Steve Jackson designed The Fantasy Trip for Metagaming Concepts as a work-for-hire. It began as a man-to-man medieval wargame, Melee, which drew from traditions of board games instead of from miniatures wargaming. Wizard was added as a fantasy spell dueling companion, and then Howard Thompson saw the possibility of creating a cheap competitor to D&D, so he asked Jackson to expand it into an RPG. When Metagaming went under and Jackson moved on, he was unable to get the rights to TFT, so he designed a new man-to-man medieval wargame called simply Man-to-Man. GURPS is descended from Man-to-Man, not The Fantasy Trip.

Man-to-Man and Melee share some similarities, but many of them are just typical of board wargames: hexes instead of squares, each hex the size of one figure, a tight focus on one action per turn, combined with very short turns and success rolls required for most actions. Because figures in strategic or tactical board games typically have only a few stats, TFT is restricted to four, and GURPS is restricted to six, some of which have the same names. Jackson also deliberately chose a d6-only approach for both games.

Many of these elements are shared with other RPGs; the five-to-six second turn and success roll for every action, combined with distances measured in hexes or squares approximately the size of one figure, has pretty much become the standard. So is using one of the main stats as a target number for roll-under success rolls, which arguably could be said to be a true survival of TFT in GURPS; but then, BRP had some roll-under attribute checks, as did Champions/Hero System.

GURPS is, in some ways, more a descendant of Champions than The Fantasy Trip. Both TFT and Champions roll 3d6 less than a target number, but TFT adds one or more dice for more difficult actions, while GURPS and Champions would use adjustments to the target number. Even more obvious, the GURPS character building system is more like Champions than TFT, with a pool of character points spent to buy attributes, advantages and skills, and disadvantages to get extra character points. TFT instead only uses a small pool of points split between the three attributes, with no distinction in costs, followed by purchasing Talents with IQ points. Talents don't really work like either advantages or skills in GURPS; they all require a minimum IQ score, and instead of changing the target number for skills, they reduce the number of dice rolled. Jackson basically abandoned the TFT Talent system to design a more Champions-like system.

I said in my reply to JD that the way damage is marked off against an attribute -- ST in TFT, HT in GURPS -- and the damage/fatigue split, with fatigue being erased after shorter periods of rest than damage, could probably be considered a true inheritance from TFT. But again, Champions does this, and unlike TFT, Champions has separate stats for maximum fatigue and damage, as does GURPS.

Probably the closest resemblance GURPS has to TFT is in the spell system. TFT uses a minimum IQ score restriction, which GURPS only uses for a few spells, but GURPS Magic does have an elaborate spell prerequisite tree which makes it feel a little bit like TFT. It's also a roll for success spell point system, exactly like TFT. A few spell descriptions, as well as the alchemy rules, resemble TFT descriptions.

So, on the whole, although there are clear borrowings from TFT, I would not today consider GURPS to be an improved Fantasy Trip. Aside from the elements that clearly resemble other games more than they resemble TFT, I think in my personal opinion it's not really an improvement.


  1. TFT was one of my favourite fantasy rpgs in the early '80's, and the nineties was the 'decade of GURPS' for me, so I've played a lot of both games, and I agree that although there were many design concepts that Steve Jackson carried over from TFT, GURPS is a different game altogether. I've always thought, too, as you point out, that GURPS owes a lot to Champions.

    I should mention that Man to Man was really just a trial run of the combat system for GURPS. GURPS was always the intended end product (although not the intended name - that was just a working title until they could come up with something better). I was a play tester for Man to Man and Steve told me about his plans for GURPS quite some time before the draft manuscript of Man to Man was available.

  2. My copy of Man-to-Man is in storage, so I can't confirm, but it's possible it had the early GURPS logo on it, which would confirm your recollection. But in any case, it shows how GURPS was designed as a tactical combat system first, with the RPG system elaborated from that, in much the same way that TFT started as Melee.

  3. As Sean states GURPS did not descend from Man to Man. Man to Man is the combat system for GURPS as stated in the introduction to Man To Man.

    During the brief run of Interplay magazine one can see TFT being developed by it's publisher and fans into a game with wider range then TFT itself was originally created for. Looking at GURPS from that direction and it doesn't look like too different a beast, certainly not as shocking a difference as 2nd ed AD&D and 3rd ed D&D.

    It (GURPS) always felt like a pickier and more granular game of TFT to me.

  4. If you liked TFT you should check out Dark City Games. They have revived the system sort of and expanded it into sci-fi and western as well as fantasy. Lots of pre-programmed modules available to!

  5. Is there a GURPS 1st Edition? I've seen 2nd Editions (from time to time) on eBay, but have never seen a 1st ed.

    I started playing GURPS with the first printing of the 3rd Edition, but have always wondered how it differed from previous incarnations.

    I sure wish there was an OGL and RetroClone available for GURPS. I think that it's a great system and would love to see 3rd party resources for a 3d6 roll-under system that wasn't locked up with copyright, trademark and the host of other legalities which prohibit others from building upon a foundation of solid gaming.

  6. @Fenway: I've seen it before. There's a couple other TFT clones out there as well.

    @t: I'm sure there was. I may still have the books from the GURPS boxed set, which was either 1st or 2nd. Publishing editions aren't like software versions, where you can theoretically delay release of early versions or skip some version numbers. At least, they weren't similar until WotC came along...

    What you'd probably have to do for a GURPS "retroclone" would be what I did for my take on TFT: write mods for Microlite 20 to convert it to a GURPS look-alike.

  7. @t - There is, and I had it. I got the GURPS 1st edition boxed set as soon as it came out. Still have it, albiet in worn-out pieces, in my games pile.

    It was basically the same as 3rd edition but with a different (and much more clunky to play) ranged weapon system and a few even clunkier rules. It's not a system I'd be nostalgic for; later versions of GURPS really did make the core system work better IME.