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My take on "GURPS High-Tech Revisited"

Updated: Aug 26, 2020



This is a long and rambling post. Be warned.

Eight years after High-Tech, in Pyramid 70, Fourth Edition Festival, Hans-Christian Vortisch wrote "High-Tech Revisited" addressing a few things he would change about High-Tech. Sadly, I was simply too busy finishing my doctoral work to produce my part of that article. Hans listed in the article a few rules and tweaks he'd like to re-address. So, here it is, albeit five years late.


My enthusiasm for GURPS started in 1988 when I bought the first edition of GURPS High-Tech at my friendly local gaming store. The book, in my mind, was perfect. I don't know Michael Hurst; I've never met or even corresponded with him. But his book was the one that ticked all the boxes for me in terms of an awesome gaming book -- history, weird facts, and detailed gaming rules and stats. After reading it, I collected as many GURPS books as my high-school budget could afford.



Things changed when I playtested my first GURPS book, the first edition of GURPS Vehicles in 1993. Since then I have been a playtester, lead playtester, or as an additional material contributor, mentioned in special thanks, etc. in a large number of GURPS books, probably most of the GURPS books SJGAMES has published in the last 30 years.


My niche or specialty has been equipment, gear, vehicles, weapons, etc. For some 30 years I've been a GURPS gearhead; I don't claim I was the only one, or the best one, just that I was one of the group digging into the manuscripts back when the playtests were handled by snail mail. Part of the reason for my success at contributing to so many books over the years stems from how I prepare for games for my own group.


The first step for me is to build a list of all equipment and technology in the campaign. I use a spreadsheet and include a column for the name of the item, its description, cost, and weight. As I build the list I try to write in the description block the rules for using the item. This has to be short to fit in a single line on the spreadsheet when printed on copy paper. You may recognize this format. Take this item from High-Tech: Small Propane Tank. A small cylinder for camp stoves, lanterns, etc. (4dx2 burn ex). $5, 1 lb. It's very close to the format you see in most GURPS books now, adapted from some of the brief descriptions in GURPS Basic Set, Third Edition. By including the rules for using the item in the short description it provides some explicit game effect when using the item without reading a long paragraph from a book -- as you see in GURPS Space, Third Edition. Aspirin helps with mild pain, flashlights cast a beam only so far, most tools can be used as a certain type of weapon, etc. You can see this most clearly in GURPS Traveller, Ground Forces in Personal Issue, p.103, which largely originated from my lists, compared to GURPS Basic Set, Fourth Edition in the section on Miscellaneous Equipment, p. 288, which also came from my lists. After co-writing High-Tech the whole thing has come full circle now, of course, in that GURPS Action and GURPS Monster Hunters shortened the longer High-Tech entries into a compact list form -- much as the lists started.


A little side story of note. Back in the late 1990s I ran a long series of WWII campaigns and created a detailed equipment list for my players. At the time I had mined the third edition of GURPS High-Tech for all it was worth, but there was little else of use from GURPS for the period. I started researching on my own, drawing from official military manuals, newspaper ads, period catalogs (some originals and some re-prints), and so forth. The list expanded to include weapons, explosives, armor, camping and exploration gear, radios, spy gear, and so forth. It kept going and going. This eventually ran to something like 20 single-spaced pages.


While I was running this campaign in 2000, I saw a post on a WWII listserv from GURPS editor Gene Seabolt. He hinted that the company he worked for might be working on a WWII series. Since I had worked with Gene on a playtest, I emailed Gene my gear list and volunteered to help; he wrote back, accepting the help and making me a sort of unofficial series assistant. That led to me writing two books in the series, Hand of Steel and Dogfaces. (There is a manuscript on the Pacific war in SJGames's hands, too, in which I wrote a couple of the chapters on the Marines and Jungle Warfare -- maybe it will see the light of day eventually.) In GURPS WWII, the Personal Gear section includes the compact format of my original lists. Gene had his hand in editing and tweaking this, of course, but the content is quite similar to my original lists. Lots of people helped make GURPS WWII a great series. I'm glad to have been able to contribute.


When GURPS Fourth Edition was being planned a few years later, SJGAMES reached out to me to help write GURPS High-Tech for the next edition. The latest Third Edition version of High-Tech had been updated pretty nicely by David Pulver, and he was busy working on the Fourth Edition of Ultra-Tech.


I paired up with Hans-Christian Vortisch (another redoubtable WWII series author and contributor) and we were off. Hans and I also produced a "Designer's Notes" article about the writing process of GURPS High-Tech for Pyramid 2 which can be found here.



I realize that's a lengthy preamble, but nevertheless it's part of my High-Tech story.


I should note a few things about the book first. GURPS High-Tech errata can be found here. Hans and I have since co-written GURPS Loadouts: Monster Hunters, which has some nice gear lists and weapons (found here) and GURPS Gun-Fu along with Sean Punch. Hans wrote GURPS Tactical Shooting. The two together do for gunplay what GURPS Martial Arts does for fisticuffs. Hans also wrote GURPS High-Tech gun expansions, which can be found here and here, as well as a great article on obscure guns in Pyramid 3/100 Pyramid Secrets, found here. We teamed up again and wrote "Post-Apocalyptic Guns" in Pyramid #3/88: The End Is Nigh for the launch of GURPS After the End. I co-wrote an article with C.R. Rice called "The Witched Gun" in Pyramid #3/111: Combat II, which focused on cultural attributions of magic and superstition to firearms.


Other books and articles have come out since High-Tech's publication. There's been a fair bit of expansion of High-Tech since it first came out, including the outstanding Low-Tech series, which covers a lot of ground that's useful at TL5 and above -- particularly the medical rules. I think the current best update on electronics, computers, networks, etc. is in High-Tech: Electricity and Electronics by William H. Stoddard, which is a great 55-page expansion of High-Tech. The article "Modern Warfighter Gear" by Kenneth Peters in Pyramid 3/57 Gunplay adds a number of items and options applicable to later TL8 soldiers and gunfighters and is generally a very nice update to High-Tech.


Core Technologies

Using David Pulver's Ultra-Tech as the model, we built High-Tech to match in terms of chapters and categories of equipment. We were made cognizant of two things from the powers that be -- make it compatible with Basic Set, and don't step on Ultra-Tech's toes. David Pulver and I conversed a lot as he was writing Ultra-Tech at the same time Hans and I were writing High-Tech.


I was most happy with the section The Printed Page. Being an unashamed bibliophile, I was thrilled to include GURPS rules for using books and libraries. Rules for using a book in a game, such as default skill use, as well as using libraries for Research of skill bonuses were fun to think about and write.


I have always felt that I gave the section on computers short shrift. This was somewhat intentional, int that I kept things fairly simple, knowing \David was writing his tech book, and that the genre of tech where computers would be most important. Bill Stoddard's High-Tech: Electricity and Electronics adds all the additional details one could ever want for computers. Thomas Weigel provided another take on computers in his article “Thinking Machines” in Pyramid #3/37: Tech and Toys II. Both of these are useful, but suffer from increased complexity and/or horning in on Ultra-Tech's computers. What's missing still is a more complete look at mechanical computers and such. Low-Tech includes the Pascaline and the Stepped Reckoner, which is really just an early form of the TL5 mechanical computer. GURPS Steampunk: Steam and Shellfire does a fine job of handling the Babbage Engine business.


General Equipment

Tools: This section is pretty strong. I might add a box on modern blacksmithing, and weapons- and armor-making. Look for that here later.


Industrial Equipment: If I were going to go back to this section I'd look closer at the "Rapid Prototyping" portion. I currently own two 3d-printers; one FDM and one DLP. Thirteen years later, I'd update the language to 2019 standards and add stats for more devices. (You can find a 3d printer in High-Tech: Electricity and Electronics, p 24.).


Other things I would add: A Crooke's tube, as used by the protagonists in Lovecraft's The Shunned House. The book is generally lacking a variety of small drones and UAVs, which have become ubiquitous in the hands of soldiers and terrorists today.


Of this chapter, I think the most overlooked rules additions are:

  1. Using quality load-bearing gear and packs to get a "quality bonus" on certain rolls. "Modern Warfighter Gear" by Kenneth Peters in Pyramid 3/57 Gunplay adds to these.

  2. Survival kits as a bonus to Survival skill.

  3. Describing just what are "personal basics" for the first time in GURPS!

  4. Hourly hiking speed equal to half Move.

  5. Shelter bonuses for HT-based Survival rolls.

Defenses

The most common questions about High-Tech are regarding the armor. Why doesn't it play nice with Ultra-Tech and Low-Tech? Why are these values different than the other books? Well, it's surprisingly simple. As we were writing the book we were explicitly told by the powers that be, "no design systems." The book was to be a catalog, period. As such, the book doesn't have an armor design system, but instead individual items. That makes the book stand out from the other tech books. Of course, it also makes it faster and easier to use.


The research process for the book was pretty straightforward -- I found an item that I thought adventurers would use, I perused all the sources I could find, accumulating the hard data like weight, cost, and performance, and I set the stats based on the research. Fortunately, these items are well-described in military manuals, law enforcement tests, and so forth. So in High-Tech my job was a lot easier, unlike a notional approach taken in other books, where authors tried to make their system fit reality -- I just had to make one item fit reality. If the stats in High-Tech seem off, that's on me. If they don't fit the assumptions of other authors, you can see why that's likely a difference in approaches. Pick which approach you like.


Since the book has come out there's been a number of efforts at bringing that section in line with the other tech books. For the record, if I were replacing the armor in High-Tech now in an updated edition, I'd want it to use David Pulver's excellent Pyramid articles in Pyramid #3/52: Low-Tech II and Pyramid #3/70: Cutting Edge. These two provide all the bells and whistles for modern armor, and play well with Low-Tech and Ultra-Tech. Problem solved! Thanks, David!


Another issue that has come up is the use of the partial coverage rule (n-in-6 chance of protection) covered in Hitting ’Em Where It Hurts on p. 69, I made that an optional rule in High-Tech because I thought it was an especially fiddly rule, and it wasn't required in Basic Set or Ultra-Tech. Useful, but maybe too time-consuming in most games because it requires extra rolls on every single attack. That is something I think the players and GM should decide. Other, later GURPS books made this roll an explicit requirement.


If I were doing it now, I would suggest rating most of the torso armor in High-Tech as protecting only a 4/6 or 5/6 as most real-world armor protects less of the full torso then 6/6. A concealable ballistic vest protects more than just vitals, but nowhere near the full torso. Even a 3/6 might be worth considering for the particularly lightweight vests. At the time I was told to consider the Targeting Chinks in Armor rule in Basic Set (p. 400) to suffice. Enough said on that!


Another armor item that came up is the box High-Tech Low-Tech on page 65. The intention there was to give a back-of-the-envelope guide for gamer's wanting advice on using advanced material on low-tech armor. At that point no other such rules were available. I think Pulver's "Low-Tech Armor" in Pyramid 3/52 Low-Tech II is far better, but the box still works if all you have is Basic Set and High-Tech. One point of errata: on the titanium section it should say "1/3 less weight."


The Advanced Body Armor in the torso armor section sometimes has raised questions. The Pinnacle Armor was getting a lot of attention when we turned in the manuscript in 2006. The Army's testing center couldn't decide how to handle it, and the company had a lot of ex-Army brass in support, and plenty of PR backing it. The thing was all over the media, who treated it as a scandal that troops were not being given the best armor available. If we didn't address it, the thinking was that the owners of this new HT book would complain it wasn't up to date. As it turned out, the armor was turned down over what was essentially reliability problems in regards to the disc adhesive. In hot temperatures, the armor discs eventually separated from the carrier. This was not good in a desert war! If I were to include it now, post-controversy, I'd likely address this with a discussion on armor health. Something like this:


Armor HT: Armor, like most gadgets in GURPS, has HT 10 (see Slime, Sand, and

Equipment Failure, Basic Set p. 485). Solid metal items should be rugged, with HT 12. Any time the GM thinks armor is being neglected, mishandled, or abused, roll versus HT. Failure means the armor loses half DR; on a critical failure this is not visible until it used to turn a blow! At the crucial moment the armor cracks, shatters, etc. Armor that is particularly weak or prone to shatter in use, such as ceramic plates, may reduce the armor to HT 8.

The trauma plates in High-Tech discuss an optional rule to make semi-ablative DR (p. B47)." I still think that is a good call for ceramic plates, but some suggest making them fully ablative. Because ceramic plates can degrade over time, maybe use the Armor HT rule above. Note this is different from the Armor Damage rules in Low-Tech Companion 3, which I helped write, and are based on intentional attacks on the armor itself.


When it comes to clothing, fashion, and details, there is a great expansion for clothing that fits most of the High-Tech eras in GURPS Steampunk 2: Steam and Shellfire. This details all the clothing of the Victorian era, with a few steampunk adaptions, and a new "medium" category of clothing. Outstanding!


Medical

While I was writing High-Tech David Morgan-Mar was writing GURPS Bio-Tech. I collaborated with him to make sure that the gear rules in High-Tech meshed with Bio-Tech. As I recall, I was a good bit further along on High-Tech gear than he was on Bio-Tech gear and so the equipment there -- within my allotted TLs -- has a good bit of High-Tech influence. I would, after seeing Bio-Tech and Low-Tech, like to bring in a lot of things from those books to High-Tech. I especially liked the surgery rules on tourniquets and pressure points for controlling bleeding in Low-Tech, and the hospitalization and post-surgical treatment rules in Bio-Tech. They would be a perfect fit for High-Tech.


Roll the End Credits

The other chapters of High-Tech stand pretty well. There's probably some stuff there that needs updating, but it's not come up on my radar. The spy chapter was pulled from Covert Ops, mostly, itself an update of Espionage.


I am personally very pleased with the book, and happy it's still in print over a decade later. I'm also happy so much of the book has been parted out in other books, where needed. So much of High-Tech was a synthesis, that only seems fitting.


Perhaps in the future, I will write more tech-themed books. We will see.

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