Friday 21 June 2024

Review: GURPS Realm Management

Review: GURPS Realm Management

Back in the day, when a D&D adventurer reached a certain level, he would begin to attract followers, and then would build a stronghold or a tower, and become a ruler of a domain. This aspect of the game was deprecated in D&D 3.0 because… I don’t know why, just because. Still, even D&D 3.0 had the vestigial Stronghold Builder’s Guidebook that is actually a pretty damn good book. However, the actual domain management didn’t exist. There were some third-party supplements that tackled this, and one of the better ones, in my opinion, is Empire by Alderac Entertainment Group (EDIT: I take that back). Domain management always has been on my mind, especially when I was reading rulesets for various PBEM strategy games over the years. But let me stop blabbing about D&D and talk about GURPS – what’s the situation with domain management gameplay in GURPS? It’s not very good.


GURPS Realm Management was in development for quite a long time, and when it was announced, I was excited like a Marvel soyjak. After all Realm Management was supposed to plug a hole in the system’s lineup of books, covering a major aspect of the game that was not explored before. With Realm Management out, the 4th edition of GURPS would be much closer to what I would call complete, with only GURPS Vehicles missing. There also was a very questionable advertisement campaign – the author was telling people to go to the SJGames forums and post as much as possible about how excited they are for GURPS Realm Management. Allegedly, that was done to make the higher-ups see the excitement and approve companion books, as the author had cut out a lot of content from the book. I found this strategy revolting – artificial hype makes me much less likely to buy a product than natural excitement. I guess I should also mention that it’s been more than three years since the release, and no companion books have materialized or have been even hinted at.


But anyway, after a long wait that included a prolonged playtest, the book was finally out. At this point, I still had my mouth open, pointing excitedly at the book. The book seemed great to me, but when I decided to read it much more thoroughly and try to come up with some actual practical examples of realms, then my opinion changed. So, let’s take a look at what the book has to offer!


The Introduction page says that GURPS has a propensity for realism, gameability, and adaptability, so ruling over a kingdom shouldn’t be hard with the right rules, and that this book provides such rules. So, we have three keywords here: realism, gameability, and adaptability. Then, the introduction says the book presents a mini-game that can be used to simulate running a kingdom or a nation, but that’s not what the book is for. “It’s meant for campaigns that emulate certain types of fiction and pop culture, …”, but what types of fiction and pop culture? I’m not sure what it’s talking about, and I find it puzzling that half of the book, the actual “management” part of Realm Management, is a mini-game about running a kingdom that you’re not supposed to use to run a kingdom, according to the very same book. Or, perhaps, I have very poor reading comprehension, I’m not a native English speaker after all.


There are only two chapters – the first chapter is the “Realm” part, and the second chapter is the “Management” part. The first chapter warns the reader that this is not a “bean counting” system, but something more abstract. There goes the “realism” part mentioned on the previous page – I really don’t think you can realistically describe a realm without “bean counting” of some degree.


First, you have to define the size of your realm. The map is not required, you just need to know the area to assign a Realm Size Value that ranges from a village with an area of 0.5 square miles to all inhabited solar systems in a galaxy. I have to say that as soon as areas become larger than a planet, realm size becomes very vague.


Then, you have to assign Resource Points, abbreviated as RPs. They represent the realm’s combined manpower, assets, and general “power.” You use up these Resource Points during your turn, spending them to perform actions. Here’s one of the weird things – the GM decides how many RP a realm starts with, and size doesn’t matter. However, each Resource Point costs 0.5% of a realm’s base Realm Value, and bigger realms generally have higher Realm Value. So, a Resource Point of Latvia costs several orders of magnitude less than a Resource Point of China, but can be used to accomplish just as much, when, for example, Latvia uses 2 RPs to use the Sabotage maneuver on China.

                The other problem is that there are absolutely no guidelines for how many Resource Points should a realm have. Resource Points are abstract, but you still have to know how many abstract points you need. When making characters, we know that a normal human has ST 10, DX 10, HT 10, HP 10, FP 10, but for realms, there’s no way to tell. Should you give yourself 5 RPs? Should you give yourself 500 RP? Who knows?


Now, Resource Points were not made equal – there are four different categories – Agriculture Points, Luxury/Precious Goods Points, Natural Resources Points, and Workforce Points. Agriculture Points consist of livestock, fiber crops, food crops, fuel crops, and function crops. You would think that they are required to feed your realm, but realms are considered to be feeding themselves by default. Agriculture Points can only be lost to random events and sabotage, and they cannot be spent on anything but Trade. But why would anyone buy them if the only way to use them is trading them away? Even if you get a famine random event that depletes your Agriculture Points, you can use Natural Resource Points to negate the effects, because those also contain edible resources, such as fish, game, and berries. In some situations, even Luxury/Precious Goods Points can be spent on that, as they can represent edible stuff. Overall, it seems that the Agricultural Points are pointless. Pun intended.


Natural Resource Points represent a realm’s access to raw materials such as lumber, metals, and stone, but it also includes certain edible resources, as I said before, and may intersect with Luxury/Precious Goods Points. Can you guess how you can use them? You can trade them away or convert them to Luxury/Precious Goods Points and trade those away!


Luxury/Precious Goods Points represent finished products. If you possess the skill of pattern recognition, you probably can guess how they can be used. That’s right – you trade them away! Although, there is a way to spend them to get a bonus to Marshal Manpower maneuver. That’s it.


Now, the Workforce Points. They represent all the people of your realm that do stuff. Now, these points are actually useful, as you have to spend these points to perform realm maneuvers.


After that, you define other properties of the realm, such as its population, citizen loyalty, infrastructure rating, conformity rating, openness rating.


Let’s take a look at some of this stuff. For example, Infrastructure Rating. The book says that it “gives a modifier to Management Skill rolls when it comes to moving troops, garnering information, or anything else the GM deems infrastructure would affect.” Let’s see… “moving troops.” What does that mean? That’s a use of the Marshal Manpower maneuver to move troops to resist an invasion or send in forces to invade. Realms in this mini-game are abstract, homogenous blobs, so moving troops to resist an invasion doesn’t even make sense. The troops are already there, distances are meaningless here. In GURPS Mass Combat, there is indeed a roll tied to forced march, and I guess the Infrastructure Rating would affect it. I also find it strange that the Infrastructure Rating isn’t even mentioned in the Marshal Manpower maneuver. Other than that, the only mentions of Infrastructure Rating in the game are ways to increase or decrease it. But since the “moving troops” thing is so vague, this rating seems completely meaningless. Why bother increasing or decreasing it if it doesn’t actually do anything?


Then, there’s a bunch of government types. All of them have suggestions for Control Rating, Conformity Rating, and Openness Rating, and associated benefits and drawbacks. Government types do not cost anything during realm creation, but they sure aren’t equal in terms of in-game balance. You know, I already made a video on why I think that balance is overrated, but this book presents a mini-game, so it probably should actually concern itself with balance a bit. Anarchy has no benefits or drawbacks. Weird. Colonialism gives +2 on all Gather/Extract maneuvers, but its drawback is a -1 to Infrastructure Rating. I already said that infrastructure is meaningless, so colonialism is strictly positive. Cybercracy reduces time for all tasks by 10%. Since each turn in this mini-game represents a month, and there is no way to split a turn into ten sub-turns, I have no idea what this 10% decrease actually means. Meritocracy has a benefit of a whopping +2 to rolls using Workforce Points, and they all use Workforce Points. This is in no way balanced by the -2 to the check for rebellion, as with the +2 bonus you’re unlikely to have a rebelling realm. Technocracy gives a meaningless +1 to Infrastructure Rating, but reduces revenue by 10%. Excellent.


Then, you have to choose an economy type. Each economy type has a benefit and a drawback. For example, capitalism has a chance to increase your revenue. The drawback is that you have to roll against your Management Skill every 2d turns, and on a critical failure, you lose 1dx10% of your Resource Points that, as we’ve seen before, are mostly useless anyway. And after that, you ignore this drawback for 4d turns. So, it’s barely a drawback at all. Mercantilism increases the cost of buying Resource Points and decreases earnings from selling Resource Points, so it’s basically meaningless. Post-scarcity/utopian economy gives a bonus to Status and Citizen Loyalty, but whenever you gain a Workforce Point, and that is the only useful Resource Point, you have to roll under 4 + ConR or lose that point. I have to remind you that the highest rating is 6 – basically a hive mind. So, post-scarcity societies will have some serious trouble gaining Workforce Points, and will just have to perform the Do Nothing maneuver every turn. Not very exciting, isn’t it? Traditional economy gives you an extra 1d Workforce Points. But as we have established before, it’s unclear if that’s a lot or a minor bonus, as we don’t know how many Workforce Points is “normal.”


After that, you have to define your realm’s Management Skill. This is something like a wildcard skill that is used for most maneuvers. You can also modify it to be able to perform multiple actions in the same turn better.


Then, you also get Education Rating and Habitability that don’t really do that much. Habitability does apply modifiers for some skill rolls for characters, but it does absolutely nothing and cannot be interacted with in the context of the Realm Management mini-game.


After you do all this and apply whatever other realm modifiers you want, you calculate your Realm Value and Military Resources. Then you’re done – you have a realm.


But what do you do with the realm? You manage it, and that’s what Chapter 2 is devoted to. This is the mini-game part of the book that gives you mechanics for interactions between realms and within realms. Each turn is equal to one month, but the GM may change that if he wants to. The turn starts with a roll for random events for each realm, then each realm performs a maneuver. The chapter describes itself as “Combat Lite… for realms,” but it feels nothing like it. Combat has a goal – you have to defeat your enemy. Realms have no hit points, they only have these ratings that don’t really mean anything, and Resource Points that don’t really do anything. Sure, you could conquer another realm, but the book says to use GURPS Mass Combat for that, which makes Realm Management useless in that regard. I do not understand what’s the point of this entire chapter is, as your actions feel as if they serve no purpose. The relative standing of the realms can only change by accumulating Resource Points, and those are abstract – so you do not really know what’s going on and how well you’re doing – you just see some numbers go up and some numbers go down.


The author said on the forums that this is supposed to be merely a storytelling tool, but when every part of this “story” is purely abstract, how do you even translate it into something concrete? I can’t really see it as a storytelling tool. And if this abstract stuff is all up to GM fiat, then why does this chapter even exist? And if this chapter shouldn’t exist, then what purpose do most of the things from the first chapter serve, if they merely give some modifiers to maneuvers from this chapter? And why does Chapter Two say that is simulates interactions between realms when the introduction says that it wasn’t made for that?


Overall, I think the author got overambitious with this project and didn’t think it through very well. I understand that making a domain management ruleset for GURPS is no easy task, since GURPS is generic and universal, and that narrowing down the scope would be a much better idea. For example, combining and expanding the medieval manor management rules from Pyramid and writing Medieval Realm Management would work much better. A separate book could’ve been written for Ultra-Tech Realms and Modern Realms. But what we got is an utter mess, with a half of the book being a boardgame that doesn’t actually function, and the other half being purely descriptive.


You may or may not remember the initial hype before the release of GURPS Realm Management, but after the release there’s been almost an uncomfortable silence. If so many people wanted this book so much, where are the impressions and stories of this book being used in the game? It’s been more than three years, and I’ve seen literally zero instances of anyone ever talking about having used GURPS Realm Management. The only few mentions that I see are people wanting to use the book, but then giving up the idea after trying to make sense of it.

                GURPS Realm Management simply doesn’t function. I don’t think it’s worth buying or even pirating. Many say that GURPS Magic or GURPS Ultra-Tech are the worst GURPS books, but I would say that GURPS Realm Management takes the cake here. And it’s a shame, because I know that the author can do better – he wrote some of the best Pyramid articles, but this book definitely was a miss. And since it already occupies this niche in the ruleset, we are not going to see anything better.


                But hey, let’s not be so negative! If you’re looking for a good realm management ruleset, you really should check out ACKS or ACKS II. Alexander Macris did an excellent job, and the rules are very much functional. However, they are not generic, so keep that in mind. What I like the most about ACKS domain rules is that the prices were derived from the same source as GURPS – historical grain prices. If you compare these prices and cost of living tables between GURPS and ACKS you will find that they are almost the same. This gives us a conversion rate of 1 gp = $100, which means that ~90% of the domain management rules from ACKS can be used in GURPS as-is without any changes. Mass combat in Domains at War: Battles and Domains at War: Campaigns also works better than GURPS Mass Combat, and I’ll probably show them off in the future.

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