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I was reading a Jeff Lees article about trying out GURPS (a system that I am interested in trying out in the future as one of my players GMs it already).  Jeff mentioned that because of the way GURPS is set up character generation is often difficult for first time players, putting them off before they start.

What happens is that they get exceedingly frustrated because the book offers no help when it comes creating a character. In D&D you can be like “I wanna play a fighter,” and then just flip to the page on the fighter class, and it’s all laid out for you. Someone who’s never played GURPS will have no idea how to make a fighter from looking at the book. They will see some abilities that would seem appropriate for a fighter, but they wont understand how to use those to actually create a character…
Once you know the system, you can just skip to the abilities you know you’ll need, and you know to ignore about 180 pages of things you’ll never use…
The other problem with this is that the players often don’t realize what abilities they should have taken. There are several thing in GURPS any competent fighter needs, and if you just hand a player a book, more likely then not they’ll produce a fighter who’s missing one of those crucial things.

Jeff Lees

Interestingly, while Jeff’s point about GURPS being particularly difficult to get your head around as a beginner may well be right, when starting Pathfinder we found many of the same problems equally applied to our group.  Now I know I am very rusty but back in the 80s I owned and had played at least 10-20 different rule sets and was well versed in different types of game mechanics.  The obvious things that I remember puzzling a number of us were…

  • What the hell is that box on the character sheet for (e.g. Spell Resistance)?
  • Okay understand that so where do I write it down on the character sheet (e.g. Darkvision/Stonecunning for a dwarf)?
  • How do I work that out (e.g. starting HP or number of spells in spellbook at first level)?
  • Which feats are going to be useful for this type of character?

It really surprised me that neither in the Core Rulebook nor anywhere obvious on the Piazo site, preferably as an easily downloadable PDF, there wasn’t a beginner’s walkthrough of what to do in what order, how to fill in your character sheet and some newbie suggestions for skills and feats.  The only way that I managed to work out how to fill in my early character sheets was to use Google to find forum messages from the many people who had the same problems I had in the past and I’m still not entirely sure I’ve got it completely right. The best I have since found is at Instructables.com and is downloadable (download link at the top of the page)

A really good example of this is how to work out hit points at first level where the only thing in the 575 rule book is this line on page 12.

Hit Points (hp): Hit points are an abstraction signifying how robust and healthy a creature is at the current moment. To determine a creature’s hit points, roll the dice indicated by its Hit Dice. A creature gains maximum hit points if its first Hit Die roll is for a character class level. Creatures whose first Hit Die comes from an NPC class or from his race roll their first Hit Die normally. Wounds subtract hit points, while healing (both natural and magical) restores hit points. Some abilities and spells grant temporary hit points that disappear after a specific duration. When a creature’s hit points drop below 0, it becomes unconscious. When a creature’s hit points reach a negative total equal to its Constitution score, it dies.

Pathfinder Core Rulebook

There just isn’t enough detail in here and the placement of it is in the Common Terms section rather than where I’d have expected to find it under either Classes or Additional Rules. I know what hit points are so I probably skim read the entry a couple of times but that’s hardly surprising.  It also states that “a creature gains” at which point like many people I assumed that we weren’t talking about a character.  Don’t even get me started on levelling up characters although I must give a massive head nod to Dani’s Obsidian Portal guide to levelling up without which I’d have been in real trouble.

Overall I really like what Piazo have done with the Core Rulebook but really how difficult would it have been to publish a short PDF that simply runs a complete newbie through basic character generation.  I think the key reason is that largely people who play games expect other people to learn to play from other players, joining sessions, finding games groups, etc.

This led me, along with the long running arguments on one of Jeff’s other threads on why he plays GURPS (I’m not adding a link as I don’t want to fuel the fire further) to wonder if D&D/Pathfinder so popular because we know roughly what to expect.  If that’s the case then when people look for other systems to play do they look for those similar to what they already know.  Does moving away from D20 systems feel unintuitive simply because we’d have to learn too much that we don’t already understand?  I’m by no means making the argument that we do, I don’t have the breadth of knowledge to fully comment.  It does make me wonder though if that’s one of the key reasons, beyond branding and nostalgia, that D&D and Pathfinder have quite such a market lead.