I originally wrote this as a comment on It Came From the Bookshelf, but it looks like Blogger’s comment system simply ate it. So I’m expanding it as a response post instead.

As I mentioned earlier, It Came from the Bookshelf is a blog by John Frazer, who is using it to review every single book in his extensive RPG collection. This includes a few GURPS books, and not too long ago he finished making very insightful comments about pretty much the entire Transhuman Space line.

And a few days ago he made a post about GURPS Illuminati University! His review is quite negative and I’d even say scathing. While I can see where he’s coming from, I don’t think I’d go quite that far.

You know those times when a player tries to tell a story to their friends about this absolutely hilarious thing that happened in the player’s campaign? And that hilarious story ends up getting some polite chuckles at most, because it was only funny if you were there when it happened.

I’m sure lots of us have been on both ends of this situation multiple times, and know how it feels. And well, GURPS IOU is that hilarious story in book form.

If I remember its introduction correctly, there was this private BBS maintained by some people at SJG and their friends, and they used to run a silly campaign full of in-jokes and silly references to the Illuminati books and to lots of other media they liked. And then they turned that campaign into a book and published it. And that’s GURPS IOU: the story that’s only funny if you were there, in book form.

I can totally see how someone would loathe this silly, in-jokey setting if they were going into it right after reviewing every Transhuman Space book. I can totally see how someone can read it and simply not find it funny, too.

It’s probably not something Steve Jackson Games would have published today, but the mid-90’s were the golden age of cheaply-bound GURPS Third Edition books on exceedingly specific settings and topics. There were hundreds of the things! What’s one more? And their home game gets to be immortalized with an ISBN and everything! Plus it has illustrations by their artist player! Who happens to be Phil Foglio…

That “reference barrage” school of nerdy humor also seems to have been in vogue back then, which helps. Teenagers from Outer Space was out around the same time, for example, and was widely regarded as the state of the art in anime RPGs. It was basically a bundle of very specific anime references wrapped around a tiny handful of rules.

I read GURPS IOU very early in my “nerd career”, when I was really into that sort of humor. I was just learning about this whole world of stuff and it felt really awesome to get all the references (“Dr. What! I know what that is!”). And when I finally moved to another city for college and actually met enough people who also knew about those things, it felt awesome to tell these jokes to them and have them understand the references too. I didn’t get all of the jokes, but I got enough to spark those feelings above, and to add some of my own equally horrible ones to the lot when I GMed.

Call it weirdness, call it bad taste, but I got at least a couple of sessions of hilarious enjoyment out of this book. It holds a special nostalgic place in my heart for that. Even though it’s only funny if you were there.