Using gaming resources to help your writing. – PART 1: GURPS Sourcebooks

If you’ve been around me or even just casually glanced around the site, you can probably deduce that gaming is a large slice of my hobbies. It should therefore come as no surprise that it creeps into every other aspect of my life.  Recently, I got into an interesting conversation with some friends of mine where we discussed alternate sources of inspiration to help in our writing. My contribution was that I have often used role-playing game resources to help me work out characters and scenes in my writing. It led to some pretty interesting ideas and that led to this article.

Some quick background on me and RPGs. I got into Dungeons and Dragons in 5th grade way way back in the before time, in the long, long, ago. My friends and I dove wholesale into it and instantly adored it. And yes I had to weather the attacks on my precious collection as my well-meaning mother tossed out all my books because talks shows and “Mazes and Monsters” had led her to believe that it was somehow bad for me. On the contrary, I think it did me nothing but good, since all you need to play is some graph paper, a character sheet,  a few dice, and some tables to help resolve conflicts, the theater of the mind goes into overdrive. I’ve played many systems since then, from Star Frontiers and Twilight 2000 to Pathfinder and Cthulhu Live. My RPG days are somewhat behind me, though I’m still a regular at Fantasy Flight’s Rogue Trader and I will probably get roped into Only War.  So how does that help me with my writing?  Well, obviously, anything that helps get the old imagination machine chugging is a good thing for writing. But yeah, we’re going to get a lot more specific.

Enter Steve Jackson Games’ Generic Universal Roleplaying System or GURPS.

So why did I pick on GURPS when there are so many other game systems out there?  Well, the big hint is in the “G”.  GENERIC.  Other role-playing systems tailor themselves to work within their chosen universe. Even worse (for the writer), they work within their own intellectual properties which pretty much means you can’t use their stuff to write your book.  (You can’t use GURPS stuff verbatim to write your original works either, but it’s easier to adapt.) Additionally, every new game system comes with a new set of rules not just on how the games work, not just the actual book-keeping of the game like how to generate characters etc, but also how their particular universes work.  Most of the game systems out there are very genre or IP specific.  It’s rough to try and use Pathfinder to play Vampire:The Masquerade, heck they even vary from edition to edition, take for example, the massive changes between Dungeons and Dragons edition 3.5 and 4th edition D&D

What GURPS did is make one UNIVERSAL set of GENERIC rules for ROLEPLAYING (see what I did there?).  Using GURPS you can literally play in any world you want.  Even, and especially, ones you just make up.  The GURPS basic rules are not tied to any single genre, story, or IP.  They’re just there to help with the book-keeping. Which from a writer’s point of view, we don’t really need (unless you want it, and we’ll talk about that in Part 3)

What also makes GURPS really fantastic is their concept of Tech Level(TL).  Each GURPS world/adventure is set within a certain TL.  Tech Level 0 is pretty much the Stone Age.  Tech Level 12 is super-future science fiction, the stuff of ringworlds and dyson spheres and faster-than-light travel.  Everything else falls somewhere in between. And that certainly includes whatever story you’re working on.

  1. SOURCEBOOKS – Worldbuilding and Research

If the GURPS Basic rules don’t include the worlds you’re going to play in (write in?), where do you get that information?  The answer is the GURPS sourcebooks. The GURPS sourcebooks are undoubtedly the easiest way to use the GURPS system to help your writing.  Why? Well, they are well researched and organized, and they can help you tremendously with your worldbuilding. Now, obviously, you don’t want to crib directly from them, but just skimming through a few is obviously going to get the old gears turning. GURPS has been around since 1986 and has proven to be a robust system.  It’s not the only generic ruleset out there but it is the most commercially successful.  That means that it has the most sourcebooks. And there are literally hundreds of them! (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_GURPS_books)

Needless to say, not all of them will be useful.  Some of them are simply too specific and are tied too closely to various IPs to be useful to a writer not engaged in authoring franchise fiction. But many of them are descriptions of historical settings (Rome, Greece, etc…), time periods (Age of Napoleon, Middle-Ages, WWII, etc..), or genres (Steampunk, Mecha, Cops, Horror, etc…) and are very useful to give a writer an in-depth snapshot into a world. This is perfect to fire up the old imagination for worldbuilding and to kickstart your research. Every sourcebook includes a bibliography and that’s a perfect place to find what others think are seminal works related to the subject you’re writing about.

Say you’re writing a fantasy novel set in a time that mirrors our own Middle-Ages (TL3) and you just want a quick head-start on some of your worldbuilding.  Why not grab GURPS Middle-Ages and at your fingertips, you’ve got lists of surnames and common names, what sort of clothing people wore, types of currency, a load of history (not that useful for your fantasy novel, but you might get some ideas to play with), and even what were the common superstitions.  Then you also get some maps of what Medieval Europe was like, what diversity and prejudices people held and against who (again, good for ideas), and a host of possible locations to set scenes.  Not counting the bibliography.  Pretty neat huh?  (By the way Steve Jackson Games has been kind enough to put many of their bibliographies online.  You can peruse them here: http://www.sjgames.com/gurps/biblios.html.  Another fantastic resource!)

But Mike, have you heard of this new thing called “The Internet”? All the kids are using it and I can get all that stuff on there. Why even mess with this GURPS stuff?

The biggest plus is having all that stuff in one place.  Also keep in mind, the GURPS sourcebooks aren’t the end of your research.  They’re the beginning of it.  Or quick-reference stuff when you want to know something that might be a bit obscure.  For instance, say you need to know how many rads your hero might be exposed to in your post-nuclear-apocalyptic opus.  Well, sure you can find that on the interwebs.  But if you’ve got your trusty GURPS Compendium II there’s a handy chart for that kind of stuff right on pg 146.  Oh and look at that in the side-bar, some information about wolfsbane and coating it on weapons?  Ooh.  Now maybe the bad guy coats his swords in wolfsbane when he has to face your hero in the Thunderdome (or the non-copyrighted equivalent thereof).  Or maybe you just want a quick guesstimate of how many cubic yards are in a Star Cruiser.  You’re not going to use it in your story, but you just need kind of a mental picture to get the imagery going.  Well, luckily, you’ve got GURPS Space and it goes into more detail than you really need. I find that I use the GURPS sourcebooks a lot like a thesaurus.  Yes, I might find the word I’m looking for, but often, I find a pretty cool word right next to it that I hadn’t even thought about.

Another good use for the sourcebooks is another form of research. Say I’ve just had a brilliant idea of doing a Western but it is different. This Western has magic and supernatural stuff in it, maybe undead and some other stuff I haven’t come up with yet.  I know I want my story to be a Western, because I want some gunplay and the theme is about justice. But I also want some magic in it. I really liked Stephen King’s Wizard and Glass and I want my story to be like that.  Well right off, I know I’m dealing with around Tech Level 6.  So now GURPS already gives me a ton of resources I can check for anything within that Tech Level and earlier.  In some of my other research, I discover that this is a sub-genre of Fantasy a lot of folks call ‘Weird West’.  Then I find out that Deadlands was a game entirely set in a similar setting.  I get the GURPS Deadlands supplement and check it out. Now I can’t use all the Deadlands stuff, unless I’m writing franchise fiction for Deadlands.  But it does give me a really good instant snapshot at what has already been done.  Also, it lets me know what aficionados will consider cliché.  What are the memes inherent in that sub-genre?  What are the tropes?  What are the rules that readers expect and which ones can I break without violating their trust? The same goes for all the other genres, Steampunk, Horror, etc.  Obviously, I want my story to be as original as possible, so maybe by looking at the genre sourcebooks I can get an idea of how I can play off an expected trope and turn it into a great twist at the end of Act 2.

Sure, I can do the same thing on the internet and at the bookstore (in fact, I probably should), but I doubt I’ll find it all in one place.  Well, there’s TvTropes… (careful with that link, it is a notorious time vampire, especially if you hit the  “Random” button).

Where can you get the sourcebooks? Well, your trusty friendly local game store for one.  But there’s a catch.  A lot of the sourcebooks are for earlier editions and many have gone out of print.  What then?  Well, eBay is always a good resource if you want hard copies.  But if you’re not picky and a pdf will work, then you’re in luck.  Check out e23 (scroll down to find the GURPS stuff).  That’s Steve Jackson Games digital content provider.  Pdfs of sourcebooks as far as the eye can see.  And very affordable.

Want to see what GURPS is all about firsthand?  Well, you can get a free version of  the basic rules here.

Anyway, that’s my spiel about GURPS sourcebooks.  Hopefully, it was useful. If not, then maybe the next session will be.

In Part 2, I’m going to talk about the second way I sometimes use GURPS to help my writing.  Generating balanced characters quickly.

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