Saturday, June 25, 2016

Review: Basic Set - Characters

The man, the myth,
the legend, Basic Set in the
So, this is a daunting review. The book that is supposed to be the first book you look at (if it isn't GURPS Lite) but it is also the book you always need to have because it is so fundamental. It's *the* instructions manual. Instead of doing a straight up review in my familiar format of summarize a chapter, and editorialize, I think I'm going to approach it as a "suggested reading" list depending on experience level. I have certain assumptions about how things go, so this is going to be, like any review, subjective. Feel free to disagree with it hardcore in the comments.


A very gangsta first page
from the table of contents.
The book is 336 pages, and the Basic Set in its entirety has a funny paging mechanism where the pages in the second book (Campaigns) continue where the first book leaves off. Subtracting the 8 page index and character sheet template from the end, and the 9 pages of preamble, we have 319 pages of content left. The first chapter is 22 pages, and describes the very general properties of a GURPS character, the next chapter is an 89 page list of advantages, then the next 48 page chapter covers the disadvantages. The next 67 page chapter covers skills and techniques. After this is a brief 20 page magic chapter and a tiny 4 page psionics chapter (magic powers by another name, but handled differently.) We then have a 6 page chapter on the GURPS template concept with some examples. We have a decent 26 page chapter on equipment next, most of it combat or survival gear. Next is a 7 page chapter that explains how to grow a character mechanically, an 11 page index of all the traits from chapters 2-5, a 17 page example of some various characters statted out in GURPS format, and a 5 page summary of combat rules, greatly expanded in the Campaign volume.
These were somehow more
dense than the first page.
The vast majority of this book is content (it's a huge index) and guidance (since it's basically "how to make a character.") With little historical background fluff or setting building. It handles the concept very generically. Illustrations are all very cohesive, and organization of the book is basically as good as it can be. If I had to critique anything about the book, it's that it absolutely assumes that you have the second volume as well. A good percentage of the content does work on its lonesome, but a lot of traits that deal with detailed mechanics directly reference Campaigns. I also think a beginner friendly set that is somewhere between GURPS Lite and Basic Set- Characters would be helpful, but for what it is, it is good.


A small preamble explaining the history of GURPS up until now. It talks about how 4th edition has improved over 3rd edition, a small talk on what roleplaying is, and how best (according to the authors) to learn GURPS, and ends with a short Quick Start section.
For new players, the Quick Start section and the little subsection before it, How to Learn GURPS, are probably the most important pieces of the chapter. If you like director commentaries on your DVDs and the like, the rest of the chapter might be interesting.

Creating a Character

This chapter explains a lot of the basic fundamental mechanics of GURPS and how to build a character. It introduces the Attributes, Secondary Characteristics, advice for "realistic" builds, Size Modifier, Age, and Appearance, Technology Level, Culture, Language, Wealth, Reputation, Status, and Rank
I feel like everything after secondary attribute is pretty peripheral. No mistake, it is important, but I think it should have either:
  1. Been listed under Advantages/Disadvantages as appropriate
  2. Relegated to another section.
I think they are important in some games, useful in even more, but I wouldn't group them with the fundamentals. I think in the perfect character building process, a player, especially if new to GURPS, before reading anything else in the book and being overwhelmed, write a background based on the content that comes before the section on Basic Attributes. After discussing this background with a GM (and deciding if you'll make the character or if the GM will) reading Basic Attributes is probably critical, and reading Secondary Characteristics is helpful as well. Everything else in the chapter you may skim over looking at all the big bold words and seeing if anything inspires you or triggers a thought about what you want your character to be.


This chapter is basically, as the name implies, a catalog of advantages. The list  is comprehensive, sensibly alphabetized, and very detailed. It covers the wide gamut of use cases, and ends with a section on how to customize advantages (and from a later chapter, disadvantages) even further to make very specific versions of abilities with discounts and extra charges as appropriate. If you see Absolute Direction, and you like that, but you really want a more thematic version where you need to meditate for several minutes to get a bearing, you have rules to do that here.
For new players, I'd recommend just scanning through the list, don't burn yourself out reading 89 pages of what amounts to something of a dictionary, just glance at all the ability names and see if they evoke something that speaks to you about the character you have in mind.


Disadvantages are the opposite of advantages, and this chapter is basically an index of them. Helpful advice at the beginning of the chapter mentions that not all disadvantages have to be "negative," or unheroic. Disadvantages are just restrictions placed on a character that limit options in one way or another. Pay careful attention to the discussion on Self-Control Rolls at the beginning of the chapter.
The chapter ends with Quirks, very small disadvantages with little to nil mechanical effect. I think the section does a slightly bad job of explaining that quirks are meant to be unique, and that the list in the book is not meant to be exhaustive, but just a suggestion of starting points, but other than that, this chapter is on-point.
For new readers, again, like Advantages, I'd recommend just skimming through the chapter hovering over words that seem interesting, and quickly flipping through otherwise. Keep searching for descriptors that breathe life into the character that you defined earlier.


Skills are things a character can do. If advantages are like special abilities and properties of a character, a skill is just a thing you can do. The beginning of the chapter is very informative, but a little dense, in my opinion. Near the end of the chapter we have Techniques. I think the concept is fine, but it may be a bit convoluted, especially for novice players, so come back to that section after playing a few sessions.
For new players, I recommend looking at the Difficulty Level description on p.168, Specialties on p.169, Buying Skills, on p.170,  and the first section on skill defaults on p.173. Also, as said earlier, you can probably safely avoid the Techniques section for now until you've been playing for a while, at which point, you might want to read over all the other things I recommended you skip.


This chapter is a quick guide on using the "vanilla" magic system for GURPS, where every spell is a skill with prerequisites and a dependence on the Magery advantage. The spell list is decent, but brief. If you enjoy the system, you can get GURPS Magic, which has a ton more spells that follow the same rules.
For new players, skip this section unless you are both playing in a campaign with magic, and you are playing as a magic user. Otherwise, reading from the start of the chapter on 235, until Burning HP on p.237, High Skill and Cost to Maintain, on p.238, everything from Spell Classes on p.239 to 242, and then browsing the spell list (look at the titles first, don't read entire paragraphs about spells that don't sound interesting to you.) that starts on p.243 to, of course, find spells you'd like to use. More experienced magic players should re-read the beginning of the chapter, or more likely, and probably better, the introduction to the GURPS Magic book which has all this information and more.


This is a very brief introduction to the GURPS concept of Powers, related advantages that all come from a related origin. Think of it like Magic but with different pros and cons.
Personally, I think the chapter is lacking. You can give it a glance, but the details in GURPS Powers are almost critical to really getting your money's worth in this paradigm.


This chapter to me seems a bit out of place in the Characters book, but oh well. It discusses variations on the theme of template, which is almost intuitive: it's simply a grouping of attributes, advantages, and disadvantages that defines a type of thing. If, for example, all elves, lawyers, mammals, etc. have a bunch of traits in common, grouping them up into a meta-trait can make setting up a bunch of similar characters quicker.
For the player new to GURPS, you probably just need to look at an example or two and make sure you get what's going on.


This chapter starts with a discussion of money, and cost of living, which is kinda interesting for a chapter called Equipment. It then goes into a description of attributes of equipments, and a few small, but serviceable lists of equipment. My only complaint is that the explanations of the attributes feel a little jumbled, and maybe they could have been organized a bit better, so that, for example, melee only attributes aren't explained in the same list as ranged weapon attributes.
For new players, the first two pages are helpful (though off-topic.) Look for equipment you need first for your character concept, then find what columns are relevant for that equipment. Remember to look at the mundane equipment (that is, all the stuff that isn't armor or weapons,) a lot of it is necessary for some tasks people take for granted.

Character Development

GURPS is known as a "point-buy" system, so the currency of *most* development is character points, this chapter specifies a few ways to make sense of earning and spending points, and other ways that characters might acquire traits or lose points besides. This chapter covers a pretty important concept, but I feel like it is a bit more confusing than it should be or needs to be. This chapter is probably the biggest problem in the whole book, and I think it's because it mixes realistic, cinematic, fantastic, magical, and sci-fi methods of character development. When approaching this chapter, more than any other, it is important to remember that everything here is optional, and because of that, a lot of ideas are incompatible.

Traits List

Basically a table of advantages, disadvantages, skills, and spells. No especial criticism or praise is warranted, but thinking about it, when I said to skim through the sections only reading the entries that catch your fancy, it might be even better to actually look at these tables first... though that might be more boring than quickly flipping through pages and giving glances at each.

Iconic Characters

Basic Set - Campaigns introduces the Infinite Worlds setting, a sci-fi hodgepodge kitchen sink setting with sliders, time-travelers, magic, etc. Basically, an excuse setting that really highlights the breadth of what GURPS is capable of, in terms of handling anachronistic technology, weird science, paranormal forces, what have you.
With that explained, Iconic Characters is an example of several key NPCs from that setting, giving an idea of what character sheets at very different power levels might look like from the "nominally hypercompetent" 200 point William Headley, to the deific 1,665 point C31R07.
For new players, take a look at the filled out character sheets and see if you can understand what you are looking at. I think Professor William Headley is a good example of a magic using character, and Haut-Cornet Louis d'Antares is a good example of a character with psionics. Most other character are good examples of exceptional, but (mostly) mundane characters, though, I'd ignore the robot which seems like a case study in "how to make something ridiculous if you have all the points in the world."

Combat Lite

This is almost literally, word for word, the combat section from GURPS Lite, and that is *almost* good enough really. It's a bit brief for my taste, but the "real" combat chapters in Basic Set - Campaigns fill in the gaps.
A new player should probably read this chapter in whole if in a game where any fighting will take place. That's fine, it's a short chapter. You might skip it though and glean bits from Campaigns before coming back though, especially if using tactical combat (playing on a mat/grid) so you don't bore yourself with redundancy.

Other Thoughts

I think the default character sheet is a bit of a joke, there's no way to fit the volumes of information that they want in that space, but meh. The book is overall great, with one big flaw (kinda resolved) and two meh chapters (Magic and Psionics) which have been supplemented with better books, so today it's not the problem it was over a decade ago.
This book 95% of what you need to play a satisfying GURPS game, but getting the second volume is highly recommended because of all the details it adds. As I said earlier, this book kinda assumes you have both, and there is not an exceptionally good reason for someone that *likes* GURPS to not have both, unless you are really hurting for money. That said, these two books are probably among the few you can get in both print and PDF at a fair price still.

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