GURPS Fourth Edition: Designer Notes

By Sean Punch

Since the earliest days of GURPS, one of its traditions has been “Designer’s Notes” – a look into the ideas, journeys, and challenges of making our sourcebooks. These notes are often a treasure trove of information, useful peeks behind the curtain even if you aren’t a die-hard GURPS fan. And if reading these notes makes you want to learn more about GURPS, then welcome aboard!

(originally published April 2004)

First, a confession: In 2002, if you had asked me as a gamer whether I thought that a Fourth Edition of GURPS would ever happen, I would have said, “No.” Third Edition was (and remains!) an excellent game, and with all those supplements printed over the years . . . well, I truly believed that there was too much inertia to overcome.

But as the line developer, I knew that all those supplements had made GURPS into a patchwork — a game built up by accretion. I had made an effort to avoid this since taking up the mantle in 1995, but GURPS was bigger than me or anyone else. So when Steve gave Fourth Edition a green light in the spring of 2002, I had already been thinking about what I would do were I to create a new edition.

What I wanted was only half the picture, though. Before I could write a single word, I had to consult my oracle: GURPS players. I pored over Steve’s 13-year-thick file of comments on Third Edition, as well as similar correspondence I had received in my seven years as line editor. That represented the bulk of customer input to GURPS’ designer and caretaker over the course of its lifetime.

Armed with that knowledge, my next move was to design a Web poll that would ferret out what current GURPS players felt was important. I based the questions in equal parts on the correspondence, SJ Games staff input, and of course my own ideas as a gamer and a developer. Then the poll went live . . . and garnered over 4,000 responses!

In mid-2002, David Pulver and I sat down and reduced the correspondence, the poll results, and our personal visions of the project to a list of desired changes to the Third Edition. From that, we created an outline. We divided this up and got to work.

The task was daunting, to be honest. We had to take apart the Basic Set, Third Edition, Compendium I, and Compendium II (over 400,000 words of text!) and revise and reassemble it all — in the context of 16 years of GURPS canon — in about a year. And the result had to be playable and fun.

This wasn’t easy, especially since David and I were working from opposite ends of Canada! It involved a lot of long-distance time . . . not to mention caffeine. To stay focused, we kept our list of changes and our outline nearby. And whenever we felt we had to deviate from the plan, we bounced the idea off the other guy for a reality check. Throughout, we held three guiding principles in mind:

  1. Make GURPS more scalable. Scalable to power level, technology level, the physical size of the heroes . . . everything.
  2. Cut out excess required detail to make GURPS more accessible to those who prefer to ignore the rules and get right to the game.
  3. Add more optional detail to give tweakers more knobs to fiddle with to get things “just right.”

By mid-2003, we had a first draft that fit the bill.

To stay on schedule, we had to forgo a public playtest (sorry!) and ask a group of staff, former staff, freelance writers, and senior MIBs to review our draft. Review it they did. For months, David and I had bursting inboxes! We made a lot of adjustments and plugged a lot of holes. It was nearly as much work as the text revision, but it was important to both of us that the assembled experts genuinely liked the end product.

After that, I gave the manuscript a final pass and handed it to Andrew Hackard for a good edit. Then the finished book went to Steve. As the original designer, Steve didn’t have to ask for final approval — we actively bothered him for it, in order to benefit from his experience and wisdom. And sure enough, Steve found a lot of little errors (and a few big ones!) and asked us to clean up some unclear turns of phrase. Then the text was really done.

More than two years after we started, we were finished. Finished, that is, except for the page design, layout, art, cover . . . all those major details that writers like me tend to take for granted. That’s a lot of hard work, and it’s still work in progress, but the results look good! I think GURPS fans are going to love it.

The Basic Set for Fourth Edition remains a best-seller of the GURPS line, and is the perfect gateway to what the system offers. If you’re just looking to get your toes wet, we recommend GURPS Lite, a 32-page distillation of the basics of the whole system. For fans missing some of their beloved supplements that have been out of print for years, you have reason to smile! We’ve recently started making many classic books available thanks to print-on-demand magic; for a full catalog of those offerings, see our On Demand page.