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RPG Codex Interview: Sean Punch, GURPS Line Editor, on P&P, Fallout, Digital Media, and RPG Design

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RPG Codex Interview: Sean Punch, GURPS Line Editor, on P&P, Fallout, Digital Media, and RPG Design

Interview - posted by Grunker on Thu 17 May 2012, 09:20:03

Tags: Fallout; GURPS; PnP Interview; Sean Punch

Over the course of the next year, the RPG Codex will be doing a line of retrospective interviews on pen & paper role-playing systems, including questions focusing on P&P's relationships with the digital media and computer RPGs. For the first of these interviews, we have reached out to Sean Punch - also known as Kromm - to talk about GURPS, arguably the most open-ended role-playing system ever made. Some call it the system to end all systems, some call it needlessly complicated. The system primarily aims for freedom of choice: it can be used for any setting, at any time, in any conceivable way. Fallout 1 was originally supposed to use GURPS as its underlying rule system, but for reasons that are not completely clear, that failed to happen. In this interview, we ask Sean about the Fallout incident, as well as about many other things - read on!

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your responsibilities at Steve Jackson Games? What project(s) are you currently involved with?

SP: Sean Punch: I'm a 44-year-old Canadian from Halifax, Nova Scotia, although I've been based in Montréal, Québec since 1990. I originally set out to study the sciences, and earned a BS in physics and an MS in theoretical particle physics (establishing that I'm a major dweeb), but I've worked full-time in the pen-and-paper games business since 1995. Specifically, I've been the "GURPS Line Editor" at Steve Jackson Games for the past 17 years. And yes, I do work from Montréal despite SJ Games being in Austin, Texas -- SJ Games started employing full-time telecommuters three or four years before the term "telecommuter" entered the common lexicon.

My responsibilities as GURPS Line Editor are diverse; SJ Games is a small publisher, so everybody wears many hats. I'm involved with every GURPS project on some level, although my role varies from item to item. I seek freelance writers for products we know we want to publish and also evaluate proposals submitted out of the blue, and I approve project outlines either way. I advise freelancers on house style and GURPS rules as they work, and then I review their writing, at any stage from first draft to final proof. I do sometimes serve as an old-fashioned i-dotting, t-crossing editor... and as a compiler, reviser, or developer, as necessary. I have the last word on rules canon and editorial style for writers, because my job's raison d'être is to ensure consistency across the product line. Finally, I write as often as I can -- in my heart, I'm an author first!

Not that I do everything -- I'm part of a team. For instance, I almost never tackle all of the above tasks for any one project; it takes three or four of us to do that. I play at best a minor role in the game's graphical presentation. Anything to do with layout, art, and cover design is handled by people who do that stuff for a living; my hands-on skills concern the written word and rules design. Finally, I don't make judgment calls about freelance writing rates, product price tags, release dates, or how many copies we print on what kind of paper. Such "money decisions" are made above my pay grade.

Currently, I'm editing a new edition of the Discworld RPG, a GURPS-powered standalone game based on the works of Terry Pratchett. That's almost 400,000 words long, so it's just about the only project I'm working on right now. My loyal assistant, Jason Levine, is running interference for me on everything else!​

As far as the particulars of the creative process behind GURPS are concerned, how is the design and work flow organized at SJ Games? How many people are involved in writing and editing the game, and how do you test it for balance?

SP: Our publication schedule is mostly submissions-driven: Freelance writers petition us to write GURPS books -- sometimes by looking at a "wish list" of what we want, other times by throwing ideas at us to see what sticks -- and when we see a proposal that looks good, we work with the writer to develop an outline. When that's approved, the writer gets a contract and starts work. The first draft is subject to in-house editorial review and, if it looks good, to external review. This might mean a playtest involving a large number of applicants, a focused review by a few long-time playtesters, or a peer review by other SJ Games writers, depending on length and content. After that comes the writer's final draft, followed by editing and finally the production process (layout, art, etc.). Toward the end, the production is proofed by people who know the material, and then it's time to publish.

Staff writing looks quite similar, except that it has to jump through fewer hoops to get approval. Cutting out the need to find a writer and approve every step, and using people who work here and thus who are intimately familiar with our style, means that staff projects take less time. On the other hand, staff members who are writing are too busy to do all the other stuff, so we have to be careful!

I already touched on "testing" earlier. Nothing gets published without some level of review. At the stingiest, when the content is staff-written and built on strong rules foundations, we require at least one other staff member to criticize the manuscript. If it's solid, but complex enough to need second opinions, we show it to other freelance writers so that they can run a professional eye over it -- and if it's so complicated that this would be begging an unfair favor, we ask a few long-time playtesters to do this task instead. Any material that's more tentative than that gets a playtest, where we solicit for a mob of GURPS fans to tell us why they would be good playtesters, pick anywhere from a dozen to 50 people whose applications impress us, and then have those lucky few jump up and down on the draft, trying to break it.

Rereading all that, I'd say that between writer, editor, and at least one other staff reviewer who checks things independently of the editor, no fewer than three people are involved in writing and editing any project. In reality, other staff members get pulled in, too -- outlines need brainstorming, playtests require management, and editors consult one another on style. Even before the production steps, it isn't especially uncommon for four or five staff, plus the writer, to end up involved. Playtesters and reviewers also get input, and as I said, they can be quite numerous.​

To you, what are the most significant design principles and core values behind GURPS?

SP: I've answered that question dozens of ways in 17 years, but here are a few vital principles that always seem to make the cut:

- Options. However many expansions it has and however long these run, GURPS is a simple game at heart; e.g., characters are built on one variety of points, and most tasks involve rolling three six-sided dice under a target number. Likewise, GURPS makes no assumptions about genre or power level, and few about realism level or play style (although I'll admit that it does slightly favor verisimilitude, and avoids competitive, PvP gaming). However, it offers all kinds of options to adjust complexity, genre, power level, realism level, and so on. That's the heart and hallmark of a GURPS product: it offers tons of options that enable the gamer to customize her gaming experience.

- Austerity. GURPS is a sprawling product line, and I'd never lie and say that we don't expand it all the time, because we're famous for doing exactly that. However, a few basic systems underlie everything, and we try not to introduce new game mechanics or character abilities until we're sure that the existing stuff won't do the job. Most of the expansions you see demonstrate how to use the available tools to do new jobs. They don't add new concepts that break old ones; they just expand gamers' options.

- Consistency. We make a serious effort to ensure that every product works with every other one, and that new rules respect old rules (although they might add special cases or extra detail). Likewise, we take editorial style and even text formatting seriously, so you know what sections to expect in a particular kind of GURPS book, where to find things, and how to read the stats.​

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GURPS is designed as a universal role-playing system that can be used for anything in any manner. What are the main challenges involved in creating such a system?

SP: Before I give my answer, I should point out that Steve Jackson created the system. I revised GURPS Third Edition into GURPS Fourth Edition, but I didn't design the game. Thus, the toughest challenges were Steve's to face! That said, speaking from 17 years' work as the game's developer, I can identify the biggest challenge that I have had to help writers and editors confront: Thinking outside the box.

A GURPS writer or editor cannot safely make assumptions about what will be used with what else, because the game isn't hermetic -- it lacks the crutches of a single genre and setting, and of fixed levels of power and realism. When working on GURPS, you can never forget that what you're writing might be used for everyone from wimpy fantasy peasants and horror-movie victims, through classic fantasy heroes and modern Navy SEALs, all the way up to superheroes and demigods. You must accept swords in the future and ray guns in the distant past, and using modern-day rifles to battle dinosaurs and dragons. You can't assume "normal human strength and intellect," or even that a given adventure will involve humans! Thus, you have to be good at preemptive thinking, offering options to handle bizarre situations and anticipating corner cases.

On a fundamental design level, this most often means that charts, tables, formulas, and number ranges have to extend beyond "normal" limits. Less mathematically, it forces writers to include a lot of little asides on how to use the material outside of its natural habitat. It isn't acceptable to stop at the boundaries of a genre and say, "No support past this point." One has to be an open-ended thinker. If you're coming from another game system -- one with a sharp set of assumptions, and perhaps a canonical setting -- this is like rolling in the snow after a sauna.​

GURPS has been used to translate other rule systems (e.g., Traveller or Deadlands), literary sources (Discworld, Lensman), and even video game settings (Myth, Alpha Centauri). Do you believe some material is better suited for translation to GURPS than other, and how do you choose what licenses to work with? Are there any common guidelines used across these translations?

SP: Licensing is definitely a "money decision," and as I said earlier, I don't make money decisions. My bosses handle that, and because such decisions concern money, they're in part made on the grounds of which intellectual properties (IPs) look popular and promise good sales. Just as often, though, those guys initially approach an IP holder because they find the IP cool -- we're all geeks, after all! After that, we have to look at how much the IP holder wants for the license, how well we think the licensed product will sell, what support the other party is offering (e.g., art or advertising), and whether we can accept various terms and conditions (approvals, limits on supporting content and reprints, etc.). All these things make up my bosses' mind on which licenses get the green light.

The more hands-on people -- writers and editors -- develop what they're asked to develop. The guidelines used are mostly the same as those for other GURPS books. The main difference is that writers have to respect the IP holder's wishes with regard to things like spoilers and setting canon. Sometimes there are some unusual conditions; for instance, the Discworld RPG has to be in British English, even though we normally publish in American English, because the source material is British and everybody on all sides feels that this is what customers will expect. We've also had audience maturity level come up, although in most cases, the IP holder wants us to be more raw, not less, as our house style is fairly G-rated.

Do I think that some works are better suited to adaptation than others? Yes. GURPS is mostly a prescriptive, mathematical rules set; it tries to assign stats to everything. It also takes the classic RPG outlook that there will be several, equally powerful protagonists who work in a group, and it gives agency to the players in the form of letting their characters resist or avoid nasty effects, and even acquire traits (like "Luck") that can skew the odds in their favor. Thus, it's easy to adapt a setting whose creator works from a meticulous and occasionally quantitative "story bible," wherein the most important plot arcs involve groups of peers whom she's somewhat interested in keeping around. Conversely, it's hard to adapt a setting imagined by a vague, hand-waving creator, or that focuses on a lone hero, or where the universe steals the spotlight from the protagonists as people. In other words, pure "auteur" fiction without character agency isn't a great fit to an RPG where free-willed players will want to roleplay the heroes as equally free-willed people.​

The 4th edition of GURPS has introduced many significant rule changes. Which are your favourites and/or the ones you are most proud of?

SP: Honestly, the true rules changes aren't that numerous, and I'm not especially proud of any one over all the others. There's a whole class of simplifications -- using flat pricing for attributes, reducing the number of cost schedules for skills, removing a fussy modifier from every defense roll in combat (so-called Passive Defense, which varied by body part and angle of attack), etc. -- that I'm proud of because they speed up prep and play. I'm also happy with changes that make the game more rational, like swapping the basis of Hit Points from Health to Strength (because both Hit Points and Strength rate bulk and size) and that of Fatigue Points from Strength to Health (because both Fatigue Points and Health rate fitness). And I'm glad that we added a few new options that plug holes; e.g., there was formerly no formal way to do nothing on your turn on combat! Collectively, this stuff means that the game seems more natural and less like a math exam, but it is definitely a collective thing; I have no favorite child.​

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Those critically inclined have argued that GURPS 4th ed. does not pay as much attention to realism and detail as the game did earlier. For every low tech companion there are 3 dungeon fantasy. Is it hard to balance the diverging needs and concerns of the GURPS audience?

SP: I would strongly disagree with the assertion that publication count or page count says much about system focus. That's like saying that since a tool kit has 40 screwdrivers and one hammer, screws are more important to the carpenter than nails. Some ideas demand more complexity, but complexity isn't synonymous with importance.

In the specific case of realism and real-world detail, there's the further fact that the world since 2004 -- the year we published Fourth Edition -- is the world of easy Google look-ups and Wikipedia. This means that a lot of the details we could expect people to pay for between 1986 (when GURPS was born) and 2004 are now available for free -- why would people buy them? Mostly, gamers want game stats for such things, and these are fairly compact. For made-up worlds and speculative genres, though, we're still obliged as creators to explain the background and other details, because customers can't just go look those up. Thus, that stuff gets more word count.

At its core, Fourth Edition can be more realistic if you want it to be, because we've made that a priority. Just about all the writers of books on realistic subject matter are either experts on the topic or excellent researchers. Not that the game's earlier editions didn't have such people, but these days, the fact that customers can easily call us out on errors thanks to accessible electronic resources forces us to prioritize that.

What people who would disagree with me often miss is what I said earlier about options: We stick a lot of the high-realism rules in boxes and mark them "optional." GURPS always did this, but earlier editions were more prone to forcing those rules on the reader. I did away with that hand-forcing in Fourth Edition, and I feel that's a change for the better, as it meets the needs of a larger audience. Indeed, that's how we balance those needs (since you asked!). However, not everybody likes to have to think about which options to use, and I suppose that those who don't might -- in not reading the options closely -- reach the incorrect conclusion that we've moved away from realism.

I should add that there are also gamers for whom "attention to realism and detail" is code for "GURPS Vehicles." We haven't published a Fourth Edition version of that book yet, and people who think that designing vehicles lies at the heart of realism and detail are clearly unhappy about this status quo. Some of them like to criticize the book's absence as a design flaw affecting the entire edition. The reality is that the book has been delayed by several kinds of bad luck. Of course, not all realism fans are fond of actual reality!​

Sales of the electronic (.pdf) version of GURPS are going up and the GURPS character builder is getting more advanced and user friendly. Do you believe the future of GURPS is tied to the computer? Does a shift to the digital medium imply a different kind of role-playing experience or a different set of design priorities?

SP: All pen-and-paper RPGs today must face the reality that they're competing with digital games in an increasingly digital world. I cannot promise that GURPS is destined to become ever more computer-oriented, until it's basically a digital product in every sense, because that would be another one of those serious "money decisions" that I'm not authorized to make. However, it's safe to say that if GURPS carries on in future decades and gets more editions, it will require a higher degree of digital integration.

In the hypothetical future where that happens, I think that both designers and gamers will have different experiences. Designers will have to think in terms of hypertext, and putting their content in databases, and dealing with the fact that really, they're working on an extended, living technical manual, not a series of discrete fiction works that happen to have rules. Not all writers will like that -- lots of writers prefer essays and turns of phrase to easily referenced data structures. Likewise, I believe that gamers will increasingly seek like minds across the Internet, and will no longer regard being in the same room as a prerequisite to being in the same RPG campaign; that's actually already true to an extent in both the campaign I play in and the one I run.​

Fallout 1 was initially supposed to utilize GURPS for its rule system, but in the end it did not. The only information we have been able to find on the subject is that SJ Games were concerned about the amount of blood and gore in the game. Can you tell us more about why a GURPS Fallout failed to happen?

SP: Ultimately, the issue was that the license didn't word the approval process in a way that was good for either party, and it was simply easier to design a new RPG engine than to redo the licensing agreement and all of the approvals. That might sound extreme, but the RPG elements of a CRPG are minor next to the storyboards, level designs, visuals, audio, and all that other good stuff. Whether the specific concern that led to the discovery of the approval issue was somebody at SJ Games disliking blood and gore, I cannot say -- I did not then and do not now handle licensing, and I never saw so much as a screenshot at the time. I can say that geeky guys at my own pay grade on both sides regretted seeing the plug pulled, but apparently my bosses and their bosses viewed that as the right move for financial reasons. To this day, I remain skeptical of claims that a single cut scene, loading screen, dialog line, etc. caused the parting of ways.​

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In the past years, has there been any new discussion on using GURPS for computer role-playing games? What do you think are the chances of such a thing happening?

SP: SJ Games has always been very open in its quest to work with a CRPG creator -- we never really stopped discussing it. If the right partner came along, I'm positive that the company would go for it. However, the Fallout experience doubtless casts a shadow over the matter, because it implies that it might be hard for the developers of traditional RPGs and CRPGs to cooperate. That's really too bad, but perhaps it's a necessary evil. It's quite possible that the worlds differ so much that it isn't sensible to lurch headlong into such collaboration.

As for the odds... I have no idea. I would like to believe "100%," because like so many gamers in 2012, cooperative digital games fit my schedule and social situation better than face-to-face RPGs. Also, the audience for CRPGs is orders of magnitude larger, and that means better sales -- which, I won't lie, tempts me entirely on the grounds of a bigger paycheck. However, what I would like to see happen isn't the same as what will happen. All I can do is confirm that if SJ Games is approached by a CRPG developer, and if my bosses then accord me a vote or a decision, I intend to come down in favor of it.​

If you received a proposal to use GURPS for a video game, what would be your main criteria for evaluating and accepting or rejecting it?

SP: Steve Jackson would be the one to do that. He might consult me on the basis that I play more video games than he does, but I wouldn't be the one establishing criteria. SJ Games has always required the promise of creative approval and regular development input in all of its partnership deals, though, and I think that constant would remain an important concern for a video game. And of course some promise of strong sales would be nice... a newcomer on the scene, with no portfolio, would be a big gamble.

If I had a say in it -- and again, this is blue-sky talking -- I would want a game that promised to take GURPS' generic, genre-crossing approach and run with it. We're approaching a time when persistent characters portable between genres and even game styles is going to be a selling point for digital games, and GURPS is well-positioned to provide the guts of an RPG engine there. And if I could pick a publisher I admire, it would probably be Valve.​

Are there any GURPS features that you think could be translated particularly well into a cRPG, and any that simply could not be adequately translated? What advice would you give to someone aiming to use GURPS for a cRPG?

SP: I think that GURPS' mathematical basis lends it well to adaptation to digital gaming. Abilities are bought with points, and most of the complaints about that have to do with accounting, which computers handle seamlessly. Tasks are resolved with random rolls adjusted by modifiers, and most of the grumpiness about that stems from the number of rolls required and keeping track of all the modifiers. Again, a digital environment solves the problems. And thanks to GURPS' propensity for assigning stats to everything, it would be relatively easy to rate items and people in relative terms, in the style of video games everywhere. If anything, a CRPG would enable GURPS to go as far as it wants in the detail department, which is how it naturally leans.

On the other hand, GURPS does make a lot of things optional, and many of the options demand judgment calls on the part of a Game Master (GM). Really, CRPGs don't fare well with that kind of qualitative thinking. The designers would have to assume the role of the GM and make all those calls ahead of time. Where the rules leave things fuzzy and up to the advanced gamer to figure out, the designers would have to consult with us, I suppose, and hammer out clear answers that are well-suited to code.

Thus, someone aiming to use GURPS for a CRPG would have to have a few staff members who actually know and play GURPS. They would have to be open to a regular dialog with pen-and-paper guys like me. Whatever their funky idea for plots and worlds and other stuff that will ultimately sell the game to end users, they would have to put RPG-engine development first, sorting that out and solving the logic puzzles early in the design process.​

How do you envisage the future of GURPS? What do you feel are some of the directions the system could further evolve in?

SP: It's hard to see the future. Obviously, I'm pro-video games and would love to see GURPS at the heart of some CRPGs; that would be the most radical evolution, I think, because it's a near-complete change of game type. As a former scientist, a telecommuter, and a computer gamer -- and as a line developer tasked to keep a big system internally consistent -- I would also be interested in a move toward "pen-and-paper" games as databases of consistent, hyperlinked rules that are updated in real time, delivered digitally, and possible sold on a DLC basis. Whether either of these directions would be sensible is hard to predict, because they rely on finding suitable partners and convincing a fairly conservative customer base to change media.​

To conclude this interview, what are the common mistakes people make when designing their own role-playing system? What questions would you recommend they pose to themselves and the system they are developing?

SP: Most of the worst games have major logic holes or easy exploits. While it's fine to plug these with a warning ("Warning to the GM - This is a huge exploit. Don't allow it!"), or even to embrace them as fun, it isn't fine to sweep them under the carpet, because gamers will find them and it only takes one jerk to abuse them to convince a group never to touch the game. Many dodgy games try to be too original with all kinds of flaky new mechanics or toys (beads, cards, chips, plastic overlays, dice that nobody can find, and goodness-knows-what-else), when as I said, gamers are conservative, and mostly expect characters built around a few attributes and some powers and/or skills, who do stuff by rolling dice. Finally, a lot of bad games are the work of designers who don't think like gamers -- people who never stop to realize that the complexity of their system isn't fun, or that their clever idea won't make sense to people with different backgrounds from their own.

Designers need to be gamers first and writers second. Their writing skills are ultimately more important for the game's presentation, but that comes after its design. They need to read and, more important, play lots of games. Then they have to ask, "Okay, now what will my game do differently to justify its existence?" If it's all about some hard-to-grasp gimmick, they should quit while they're ahead. The best games are those that subtly-but-clearly borrow familiar ideas from older games, taking all the best concepts, discarding the worst, and smoothing over the joints. I suppose that the ultimate skill to learn is "standing on the shoulders of giants without falling off or angering the giants."​

We thank Sean Punch kindly for his time and cross our fingers for a GURPS CRPG some time in the future! Additional thanks go to Ms. @Crooked Bee and Mr. @Alex!

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