Volume 16, Number 3, Summer, 1998


Playing for keeps

By William H. Stoddard

Many libertarians have heard of Steve Jackson Games, thanks to the Secret Service. On March 1, 1990, the game publisher’s offices in Austin were raided, as was the home of Loyd Blankenship, the author of the GURPS Cyberpunk supplement to their GURPS game system; every computer containing files relating to the Cyberpunk project was seized (see http://www.sjgames.com/SS/ for a detailed account). Steve Jackson Games’ lawsuit against the Secret Service brought them $50,000 in damages and $250,000 in legal costs and is considered one of the major cases in computer law.

However, there are other reasons for libertarians, and especially members of the Libertarian Futurist Society, to find Steve Jackson Games worthy of interest. Several features of their principal role-playing game system, GURPS, are congruent with the libertarian outlook. Despite the significant overlap between science fiction fandom and role-playing, not all science fiction fans are or need to be gamers; but it’s at least worth recognizing worthwhile achievements in fields related to science fiction, whether gaming or comics (I have in mind V for Vendetta, nominated for the Prometheus Award several years past). Three specific points stand out: the GURPS emphasis on freedom of choice in creating characters and worlds; the specifically libertarian notes that turn up here and there in published GURPS material; and the more general “the way things work” slant on history and social organization in GURPS publications.

As to the first, the emphasis on freedom of choice in GURPS starts with its name, which stands for Generic Universal Role-Playing System. Unlike role-playing games of an earlier generation, but like a number of others currently on the market, GURPS aims to provide a generalized set of rules as a framework for games in many different genres and settings. There are many ways in which both the setting, created by the game master, and the characters, created by the players, can be customized to fit an individual vision.

As a general rule, the game master for a single game (a scenario) or a series of games (a campaign) has a function analogous to that of an entrepreneur. They create a setting within which the players can create characters and make choices for those characters, and they determine the outcomes of those choices. There is, in effect, a contract between the players and the game master, one that provides a structure for an ongoing relationship.

One vital feature of GURPS is a system in which making up a character involves balancing costs against benefits. Basic attributes and skills, rated on a numerical scale, have point costs, as do special talents; on the other hand, a variety of weaknesses and failings have negative point costs—players can gain more effective characters to play by defining those characters as having weaknesses.

In effect, a player who choses to play a character with a social handicap such as Poverty, a physical handicap such as Bad Sight, or a personality trait such as Megalomania or Sense of Duty is accepting a contract under which they can be required to have their character face difficulties that make a story more interesting, in return for having a more capable and heroic character overall. And since each character starts out with a number of free points assigned by the game master, the game master can define the overall feeling of the campaign by deciding to give 50 points (slightly above average normal people), or 100 (people on the threshold of heroism), or 250 (superheroes), or some other number. This point value becomes part of the overall contract that the game master offers the players as a group.

In addition to the basic system, Steve Jackson Games has published well over 100 supplemental books of various types. Some offer detailed rules for magic, or psionic powers, or the design of vehicles or robots. Some survey a genre such as horror or time travel and suggest various ways of building a campaign within it. Some present original worlds as campaign settings, or guides to specific historic periods, or adaptations of published fictional worlds such as the Uplift and Lensman universes. And some present characters suitable for play within various genres, which can either be used as is or taken as examples of “how to do it” for the player who wants to create an original character.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that many GURPS players—and I include myself—end up buying many more GURPS books than they actually plan to use in play, for the sheer entertainment value of reading them. The combination of generally careful research with imaginative world and character portraits can be as entertaining here as in good science fiction.

Steve Jackson Games does not appear to impose any political slant on their writers, as is true of most of the more successful game publishers; Bruce Baugh, the founder of christlib, a Christian libertarian mailing list, has commented on the freedom from such pressures at White Wolf, publisher of a series of horror games. But stray remarks here and there will sound familiar in outlook to libertarian readers. Perhaps the single best example is the Control Ratings scale in GURPS Space (p. 122), which ranks societies from 0 (anarchy) to 6 (total control), a choice of fundamental variable that nearly every libertarian supports but that mystifies people who think in terms of Left vs Right and see fascism and socialism as diametric opposites. A few pages away, the author of GURPS Space comments that “An anarchy may be a lawless mob, or a crew of clear-eyed, strong-backed pioneers. Control rating...is usually 0—but if all your gun-toting neighbors disapprove of what you’re doing, it is effectively illegal!” (p. 119)

A more pervasive theme, as I remarked earlier, is the fascination of GURPS writers with The Way Things Work. GURPS worldbooks are not two-dimensional stage sets good only as backdrops for melodrama. Their writers have learned from science fiction writers from Wells to Heinlein to Bujold that both the nuances of everyday life and the interests of the powerful need to be thought out in portraying a fictional society or history.

GURPS Vehicles, for example, offers not only rules for designing vehicles, but rules for determining how much they cost—what it costs to design them, to build prototypes, to build production lines, to buy parts, to hire labor, to crew them, to fuel them, and even to pay taxes (license fees), insurance, and interest on loans. I recently bought the second edition of this supplement after I had worked out the economics and technology of railroads with the first edition and a textbook on railway engineering; not only did the second edition discuss rail transport, but its conclusions were remarkably close to my own best estimates. Many published science fiction writers take less care in world creation. I have found equal care in such supplements as Dinosaurs and Bio-Tech, whose reviews of current knowledge in the life sciences are first-rate popularizations of difficult technical fields.

If you don’t intend ever to run or play in a role-playing game, there isn’t much reason for you to buy anything published by Steve Jackson Games. But they still deserve your respect for pursuing some of the same goals that, it may be hoped, inform our annual choice of Prometheus Award recipients—imaginative speculation informed by knowledge of the real world. And for those of you who do game, if you have somehow not discovered GURPS (or their other games, such as Car Wars, Dino Hunt, In Nomine, Toon, or the conspiratorial trading card game Illuminati: New World Order), by all means take a look at it. The combination of flexibility in genre and setting with constant focus on the individual character makes it one of the most useful systems on the market. No one game can do everything—GURPS isn’t ideally suited to high-powered superheroics or mythic fantasy—but it probably comes as close to the promise of its title as any game could.

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