Here is a brief summary of the most popular genres found in GURPS games.
Also known as sword and sorcery, this genre usually features medieval-level technology (swords, armour up to plate, animal-powered transport) with the addition of magic and, usually, other sentient races such as elves, orcs, and dwarves. It is probably the most popular genre for all role-playing games, including GURPS. The best-known fictional world in this genre, and one which is widely used as a campaign setting, is Middle Earth™ from JRR Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings™ saga. The official GURPS setting of Yrth is also an example. GURPS Fantasy covers this genre.
Many campaigns are set during historical times, sometimes with 'exotic' elements and sometimes without. A good example of exotic elements is the existence of healers who can do much better cures than were historically possible, thanks to either magic use or very advanced apothecary skills.These are often included by the GM because they are a useful resource in games involving combat to keep the characters alive and in one piece!
Some historical campaign settings stick closely to historical realities. GURPS World War II (a series of 3rd edition products) gave GMs and players the information necessary to play out front-line (and behind-the-lines) service in that war. But for those who wanted something exotic, there was also GURPS Weird War II which brought in horror or fantasy elements like undead Nazi stormtroopers. There are two particularly popular sub-categories of historical settings:
- Swashbuckling adventures are often based in the 17th and 18th centuries and portray the main character archetypes of the period: pirates, or swashbuckling swordsmen like the Three Musketeers.
- Pulp fiction adventures are usually set in the 1920s and '30s, though they also work well during the empire-building phase of the 19th century. They should give the feel of the 'Saturday matinee' films of the 1950s, with heroic figures battling sinister criminal masterminds or the hazards of the wilderness. Indiana Jones™ is a classic Pulp Fiction-style adventurer. The Third Edition version of GURPS Cliffhangers is now out of print but is available as a PDF from e23.
Horror campaigns rely on the buildup of fear and tension. They assume that there are powerful evil forces in the world, and the PCs must investigate and overcome them, knowing all along that the evil ones are more powerful than they are. The aim is to find ways to minimise the damage they can do without a full-frontal confrontation against them. For example, the PCs may try to foil the plans of a cult to summon its demon master - if the demon actually turns up in the scenario they are in big trouble! The Third Edition version of GURPS Horror is now out of print but is available as a PDF from e23, the Fourth Edition is being written.
Using future technology: starships, blasters, cybernetic implants, etc. There are generally thought to be three sub-genres of SF RPGs:
- Hard science
- The campaign features plausible scientific advances – starships, advanced weaponry, etc. but few if any cybernetic implants (and if they do occur, they are not significant in the campaign). Adventures use these advanced technologies in a limited way that keeps the focus on the PCs’ human attributes. GURPS Traveller (a 3rd Edition product) is a hard-science campaign setting.
- Space Opera
- Scientific advances are less well-defined. Starships and blasters work “because they do”, and when required they can be stretched in ways that would not fit the feeling of a ‘realistic’ hard-SF campaign. Often the setting involves mystic mind-powers that mimic the effects of the magic of fantasy settings. Star Wars™ is clearly in the space opera category. GURPS Space is the 4th edition resource for both hard science and space opera.
- Technology becomes focused on improvements to individuals. Cybernetic implants are common and significantly superior to the original human organs. Cyberpunk campaigns tend to be about low-status ‘street-runners’ pitting themselves against the giant multinational corporations and involve computer hacking and penetration of corporate security. William Gibson’s Neuromancer™ is generally thought to have been the first cyberpunk novel, and GURPS Cyberpunk (another 3rd Edition product now out of print but available as a PDF from e23) provides a campaign setting for the milieu.
For those who like the idea of advanced technology, but don’t fancy a setting where much of the gaming will be about computer hacking and corporate structures, along came Steampunk. It takes the kind of technology we are familiar with now, and imagines how it would have been built in the late 19th century. Steam-powered dirigibles, land monitors (tanks), mechanical horses (walking machines which fulfil the role of the car), and so forth are among the items thing that PCs may encounter. The adventures tend to be ‘investigate and fight’ ones with a light feel. The most familiar modern example is probably the Will Smith film Wild Wild West™, but Jules Verne’s works provide the right feel – take a look at Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea as an example of a submarine technology as envisioned by a Victorian writer. The Third Edition version of GURPS Steampunk is now out of print but is available as a PDF from e23.
Possibly a subset of SF campaigns, but superpower campaigns feel very different from the more 'realistic' SF genres. They are based on superhero characters with either advanced technologies at their disposal, exotic powers, or both. Superhero characters are massively more powerful than ‘normal’ humans, and face supervillains with similar powers. Superhero characters came from the world of 1930s comic books, best-known of which are Batman™ (superior technology) and Superman™ (exotic powers). See GURPS Supers.