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The Douchey DM » Advice, Reviews » Happy Jacks Interviews: Hero System and GURPS

Happy Jacks Interviews: Hero System and GURPS

We’ve now finished two interviews with some luminaries of the RPG hobby.

Our first interview was with Steven S. Long from Hero Games (Hero System).

Our second interview was with Steve Jackson, Sean Punch, Jason Levine and Phil Reed of Steve Jackson Games (GURPS, Munchkin, Zombie Dice, etc.).

It was a little surreal to be able to actually talk to these guys. I’ve been playing GURPS since the mid-80s and Hero since the early 90s, and I’ve logged far more hours of enjoyment than I can count with these systems.

I specifically didn’t ask them to compare and contrast Hero and GURPS for a few reasons. Firstly, I didn’t want to put any of them in the position to disparage another company’s product — and it’s difficult to answer a question like that without doing so. Secondly, I like both systems for very different reasons.

Char Gen: Similarities

As you can hear in the interviews, both systems use character points to build PCs. This is my preference. I enjoy random char gen (especially Traveller, as it’s a game in itself), as it makes me play characters I might not otherwise make, and that makes me flex my role-playing muscles.

But more often than not, I have an idea for a character, and I’d rather play a system that will let me make the character I’m envisioning, rather than shoehorn my concept into a less flexible system.

Each system also includes powers/advantages, disadvantages/complications to further tailor your character’s abilities and personality.

Char Gen: Differences

In the his interview, Steven Long describes Hero as “truly generic,” and this is accurate. You don’t buy a fireball, fire breath or lightning bolt. You buy a “blast” power, and you tailor that power with the special effects, advantages and limitations you want to make the power you envision.

GURPS offers both templated abilities (in the form of spells and psionic abilities) and more generic powers (in the advantages section). The powers aren’t as exhaustive and flexible, but they get the job done.

Hero, however, has a steeper learning curve than GURPS. As Mr. Long said in our interview, you pay the price for so much flexibility.

With either system, I think I could make the character I envision. If it was a truly weird concept, I think I would tend toward Hero, again, for the added flexibility.

In both systems, I would suggest coming up with a character concept first — and a detailed concept at that.  Trying to page through the character books in either system, looking for inspiration for a concept is a recipe for wasted hours. Concept first, then build it.

This is a different approach than other systems, like DnD4e, where everything is templated.

Combat Systems

Dice Mechanics.

Both Hero and GURPS use a 3d6 dice mechanic, and you want to roll low. The nice thing about this is that the dice mechanics are weighted to 10.5, which is the exact middle of the 3d6 bell curve. Unlike a d20 system, where you have a 5% chance of rolling each number, the extremes of the bell curve have very low probabilities: somewhere around .5 percent for a 3 or an 18, and those probabilities increase as you move toward 10.5.

Since both systems put purchased skills above the 10.5 mark, the systems are skewed toward success.

To-Hit Rolls

One of the differences between the systems is the to-hit rolls. In Hero it’s a single roll: your target number is 11 or less, add to this number your OCV (offensive combat value) and subtract your opponent’s DCV (defensive combat value). Then roll 3d6 and compare the roll to your adjusted target number.

GURPS generally uses two rolls for combat: an attack roll, which is the adjusted weapon skill level compared to 3d6; and a defense roll, compares 3d6 to a figured defense number derived from the target’s weapon skill (in the case of a parry), shield skill (in the case of a block) or move (in the case of a dodge). The GURPS system allows more flexibility to the defender, as he can choose which defense to roll against once he sees the attacker’s roll.

In both systems, armor soaks damage, rather than effecting a chance to hit (like AC in DnD). This is certainly a more realistic solution, but it does add another bit of math to combats.


The biggest difference between the systems is damage, and this is where the flavors of the systems really come to the surface. Like I said, both systems use armor to soak damage, rather than affect the chance to hit.

In Hero, most damage is what is referred to as “normal damage,” which does far more stun damage than it does body damage. To clarify, Hero has two types of hit points. Stun (which by default is 20 points) reflects being stunned and knocked out. Body (which by default is 10 points) reflect actual damage: cuts, impaling wounds — the kind of damage that takes time (or medical intervention) to heal.

An example: in my playtest of Big Blue Monkeys from Outer Space, one of the PCs was attacked simultaneously by two Big Blue Monkeys. Each did about 10d6 normal damage. Each attack will do (on average) 35 points of stun and 10 body. With the armor soak, the character took about 4 points to body (actually injury) and 54 points to stun. It knocked the PC out cold, but he really wasn’t in any danger of dying.

This is Hero’s biggest strength. When using normal damage rules, the system isn’t deadly, so either side can win a fight without anyone dying. This is what is meant (at least in the combat system) by “dramatic realism.” If you lose a fight, you don’t end up in the hospital, you eventually wake up, shake it off and go back for more.

For added realism, Hero includes optional hit-locations rules, so damage to certain parts of the body can receive multipliers to either stun or body (or both).

GURPS is realistic by default. Damage hurts your character. You suffer severe penalties when you lose hit points (there are exceptions) and it take a long time to heal (unless you have healers in your game).

In GURPS, you only have HP. You roll your damage, subtract the armor soak, and take that damage. There are about eight damage classes in GURPS: cutting (what blades do when they are slashed), impaling (arrows and pointed blades), crushing (fists, feet, clubs, etc), burning (fire and lasers), several flavors of piercing (mostly for bullets, and different for different calibers), and a few others. Some of these damage types have multipliers to the damage that gets through.

For even more realism, there are very detailed hit location rules, and different damage types have different multipliers, depending on the hit location. Cutting damage gets a multiplier for limbs, Impaling and piercing damage gets a multiplier for vitals. Everything gets multipliers for the head. And so on.

Both systems give to-hit penalties for targeting specific parts of the body, so the player has a decision point where he has to balance the reduced chance to hit with a (sometimes significant) damage multiplier.

The one thing I really like about both systems is that they allow for one-hit take downs. A lucky shot in the right location with a good damage roll can down many adversaries (this is very true in GURPS and slightly less so in Hero). This definitely affects the flavor of the game, and in some ways can get rid the game of the MMORGP concept of the “boss fights,” which I don’t like.

It allows the application of real-world tactics in a fight.


There are five foes in a room. Four look like footmen, with armor and swords. In the back in a mage. He looks dangerous. Instead of simply going into the room and staring a general brawl, the party can have their two archers pop around the door and try to shoot the mage in the head or vitals. Tough shots, to be sure, but if the archers are skilled they might pull it off.

If they do, the mage is out and they can take on the guards without having to worry about fireballs and the like.

To me, this is realistic. It requires the GM to think more tactically and put more forethought into his combat encounters (maybe the mage has a reverse missile spell up…), but it rewards the players for looking at the situation tactically and making good and smart decisions. A well-thought-out plan executed well will result in a decisive victory, and that makes sense.

Genre Preferences

In both interviews we asked what genres are best for the systems.

Steven Long described three that he felt were best suited to the system: superhero, pulp and fantasy.

The Steve Jackson crew (no surprise here) described genres that had little to do with the systems strengths or weakensses, but rather mentioned genres for their “fun” value. Zombie apocalypse, fantasy dungeon crawl, modern-day spy/special ops, etc.

I have some personal preferences, which I’ll detail now:


Hands down, I’d do it in Hero. With strange mutants with bizarre powers, the flexibility of Hero is a great boon. The combat system is forgiving and very four-color. The knockback rules make fights between bricks epic, destructive and sometimes hilarious.


This is a tough one, but I think I’d lean towards GURPs. Both systems do fantasy well, but GURPS gives you a more gritty fantasy. Although that seems like a oxymoron, it isn’t. A GURPS fantasy game can be deadly, yes. But when the party is faced with a dragon, they need to go about their attack in a smart way, or they’ll get stomped.

GURPS fantasy creates a flavor with a very dangerous, yet fantastic world. The magic system allows for powerful mages, but certainly not invincible.

After fights, wounds need to be tended to. Depending on how difficult the fight was, the party may need to make their way to the nearest town to recuperate for a few days.

Then again, the flexibility of Hero allows the GM to literally create his own magic system, and this is very attractive prospect to me.

For those who don’t want to reinvent the wheel, GURPS provides an excellent and very complete magic system in the basic books and GURPS Magic.


Hero. I might even choose Hero over Savage World, although that’s a tough call. Again, the normal damage system totally reflects the fierce, yet somehow un-deadly, fights you see in pulp.

Since running the playtest for Big Blue Monkeys from Outer Space, I’m convinced that Hero is a go-to system for pulp campaigns.

Modern Day

Hands down, I would choose GURPS. The combat system is deadly, and modern day guns work just like they do in real life. GURPS boasts a damn-near exhaustive list of skills to build nearly any modern day archetype.

Back in the third edition days, SJG published a source book called “Special Ops,” which was a source book for the real modern day supermen: Green Berets, SEALs, Delta Force, etc. It’s an awesome book and probably usable in 4th edition as well.

Science Fiction

I’ve never run a science fiction game in either Hero or GURPS (though I prepped a game that never happened in GURPS).

Knowing what I know about the systems, I can summarize what I think about both systems in the science fiction genre thusly,

Star Trek = GURPS

Star Wars = Hero

Those two lines should give just about everyone reading this the guidance for which system to choose for your preferred flavor of science fiction.


I really like both systems. I’m playing in a Hero fantasy game now, and I’m loving it. I’m going to start up a GURPS fantasy game later this year, and I’m furiously prepping it now.

Both systems have a difficult learning curve when it comes to char gen — but his is a price you pay for a generic system. Again, Hero’s learning curve is steeper, but it’s a more flexible system.

GURPS is more detailed and realistic. And if you include their setting books, you’re getting into the realm of historic reenactment.

I would say that the GURPS combat system is easier, and I’ve had several players say it’s easier (and more realistic) than DnD4e. Much of the burden for the combat system falls on the GM, which is good, as it insulate the players from the complexity of the system.

Hero, I think, gives more flexibility to the players, as it offers them more options in combat. But again, this comes at a price, but if your players are willing to learn a few more rules, it’s a fun game.

If I had to choose one system, it would be GURPS — but I tend to be a simulationist.

Luckily, I don’t have to choose. Between the two systems, I can play damn-near any genre a want. No, that’s incorrect: ANY genre I want.

Written by

Stu Venable is the producer of Happy Jacks RPG Podcast and writer and editor of He is founder and director of the Poxy Boggards and a member of Celtic Squall. He holds a degree in Journalism and Public Relations from California State University, Long Beach. He is a husband and a father. He hates puppies.

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2 Responses to "Happy Jacks Interviews: Hero System and GURPS"

  1. JazzIsBluesNo Gravatar says:

    Excellent summary Stu. Very analytical and well thought out. I’m really looking forward to playing Hero at OrcCon.


  2. MatthewNo Gravatar says:


    I really appreciated your seemingly rational discussion of these two awesome rpg systems. So many of the GURPS vs. Hero discussions I have read fall into very stereotypical and underinformed patterns. I was wondering, now that 2 years have passed, whether you have any further insight, through play experience, regarding comparative strengths and weaknesses of the 2 systems. For example: Have you had a chance to check out GURPS Powers to see how it compares to Hero power building?

    I really like that Hero 6th Ed. is built from the ground up to be very modifiable, and that Steve goes into lots of explanation for reasons behind system decisions and ways to tweak them. I feel as a gm and player that I am given the tools to create pretty much any power representation I can imagine. The downside is, as is emphasized in your discussion above, that Hero requires “work” on the part of the gm/player, and not everyone is able/willing to invest that energy and time.

    GURPS on the other hand presents a beautiful menu of pre-made power options, and wonderful setting books. However the ability to modify pre-made powers, or the in-house magic and psionic system seem more limited. I know that these option are expanded in GURPS Powers and Thaumatology, but I don’t know to what degree and a downside is that it requires two more books for a total of at least four vs. Hero’s big 2. However having so many “ready to play” options, characters and settings is a real advantage.

    There is also the issue of designing/building equipment. Again Hero seems very flexible in this department and relies on the basic power building system with modifiers, whereas it seems that GURPS uses a subsytem of equipment design that is more of a pre-designed “pick off a list” and if it isn’t available create by comparison model. Again this may be addressed and expanded in further GURPS supplements that I haven’t read.

    Obviously I like the consistency of Hero design, whereas GURPS seems a little more reliant on subsystems. Is that fair to say?

    The biggest question I have is whether you have found any power/character creation that can be done in one and can absolutely not be done in the other? For example have you ever come up with a character concept that could be fairly easily statted for one system and was either awkward or impossible in the other?

    Another question would be: would it be possible to combine the best of both systems into one? I could imagine that you might be able to port some of the best of GURPS features over to Hero without a lot of difficulty, but I am less certain that it could go the other way (unless of course the Powers book etc really expand the flexibility of the system).

    Anyway, thanks for any time you might take to try to answer the above, and it would be great if you could point me to any other useful discussion/comparisons of the two systems.


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