It had to happen – a comparison between the 4th Editions of two major gaming systems. GURPS is not as big as D&D, of course, because no RPG is, but it is up there among the main systems that one would think of if asked to list some off the top of their head.
GURPS 4th came out a few years ago of course, and it is only coincidence that D&D, an older game, is also in its 4th edition at the moment. Still, I thought a comparison could be interesting. Rather than compare the games to each other (since they are different games in a lot of ways), I thought I might compare them to their predecessors.
GURPS is one system that has a strong identity and hasn’t changed radically in any of its editions. Point-based character creation, long lists of skills that represent task resolution, Advantages and Disadvantages, variable Magic system, lots of customizeability, etc. 4th Edition GURPS has a lot in common with 3rd Edition. It keeps all of the tropes of the previous editions and, in general, improvees on them or simplifies them slightly.
D&D, in contrast, underwent a big change with 3rd Edition, and in my opinion an even larger change in 4th Edition. Monks, Druids and Bards, who have been with D&D from the beginning, are no longer found in the core rulebooks. Gnomes are now monsters, and Eladrin, Dragonborn and Tieflings have been added to the core race list where they have never been found before. Rules changes are more significant than even 3rd Edition compared to AD&D 2nd Edition, in my opinion. In some cases these are simplifications or improvements, and in other cases I think the step was a step backwards.
As mentioned above, the rules changes in GURPS 4th Edition were basically improvements on the previous rules set. Costs of some Attributes and Skills are changed and more templates are available in the basic books. Defenses are simplified slightly. Really, its the same game, overhauled.
D&D has changed a lot with the 4th Edition. Races, Classes, Skills, levels and leveling, class abilities, magic items, entries in the MM, encounter-building, fixed Fort, Reflex and Will defenses, 50/50 saving throws…this is not just building on 3rd Edition, this is a different game in many significant ways.
Both 4th Editions were marked improvements on previous editions in terms of production values. The 4th Edition D&D core rulebooks are beautiful with better art and better layouts. They have better covers with glossy and matte surfaces. The use things like color-coding to help cue what abilities are and how they function, and their layout is a bit more logical than it has been in the past. There is also an improvement in the writing style and quality in some cases. 4th Edition GURPS also uses color coding, as well as little visual icons marking various types of Advantage or Disadvantage.
Overall, production values for the new D&D books are higher than everything out right now except for the new White Wolf Clanbooks, which are freakishly beautiful and well-done. But you really can’t compete with White Wolf when it comes to production values and sheer beauty of their books. GURPS production values are much higher than 3rd Edition, but you can’t expect Steve Jackson Games to keep up with Hasbro.
My first reaction when I read through the new GURPS 4th Edition books was “Wow, they improved everything and added almost everything I had as a house rule.” I really liked the books. They took what GURPS does well and they did it better. I bought the two main books and the Fantasy book outright even knowing that my current group doesn’t even like GURPS. I read them all and enjoyed them.
My first reaction to the new 4th Edition D&D books improved as I moved from the PhB to the DMG and finally to the MM. I thought “these are beautiful books that contain a different game from 3rd Edition rather than an improvement.” The PhB hit me as a superbly-presented sideways move. They got rid of some good things and added some bad things, and vise-versa. The DMG went over a little better – actually, its the one I’ve read the least at this point, but I thought “Ok, this is a very good DMG; better than the last ones.” The MM I really enjoyed. I liked the thoughtful and interesting re-builds of all of the creatures I’ve read so far, the new more efficient layout, the new art, and the racial stats in the back for all of the creatures I could think of wanting to play as a PC.
GURPS and D&D are very different games which have made very different moves with their 4th Edition offerings. GURPS takes the past and improves on it across the board. D&D takes the skeleton of 3rd Edition and builds what is essentially a new game. I’m pretty sure I like the new game a little better than I did 3.5, but it isn’t an overwhelming conversion. I’m still running a 3.5/Pathfinder module for Free RPG Day, and I really like what Paizo is putting out for 3.5. As for GURPS, on the other hand, there’s no reason whatsoever to keep using 3rd Edition unless you’re too broke to buy 4th Edition.