GURPS DSA – A Good Idea?

You can find a German variant of this article here.

Das Schwarze Auge / The Dark Eye, commonly known as DSA among fans and detractors alike, ranks among the top three RPGs in Germany, but has never quite managed to gain a foothold anywhere else. Americans are most likely to recognize it as the engine that ran the three PC games released under the name “Realms of Arkania” in the nineties.

Now, there’s a couple of reasons why DSA has a very loyal following in Germany and also why it never made much headway anywhere else. And some of these make you really wish for a comprehensive GURPS conversion of the setting.

The Good

1) The setting is extremely dense. There are hidden secrets in every other town. History stretches back to reptilian precursor races. Named NPCs interact in a complex political web. Current events are very detailed and reported from multiple points of view. There’s a host of academies, holy orders, army units and fighting instructors for your characters to learn from and interact with. There are complete libraries of books to look for, ancient evils to defeat and countless causes to fight for.
If your players want to get involved in their campaign world, they’ll find hooks aplenty. Even if they don’t want to do a lot of work themselves, you can easily provide them with connections that have the right flavour.

2) The system is extremely well-supported. You want to game in a certain part of the world? There’s a regional module for you. You want to know more about secret societies or mage academies? Three modules each. Need to know more about elves or dwarves? Of course, there’s a supplement! Want to play in another time period? There’s limited support even for that. Need more info on magical artefacts? Of course, there’s a book on that. Want to read in-universe tracts about your chosen deity? The last ones will be out within the year. Maps? There are detailed posters of every spot on the continent; major cities are also mapped. Adventure modules? 250 and counting. You need an official in-universe newspaper? That was revamped a bit and now includes more scenarios than news, but there’s 150 back issues you can peruse if you prefer the straight dope.
Imagine the Forgotten Realms and cram all that detail into its western coast from Icewind Dale to Calimshan. Then multiply the number of relevant supplements by five and the number of adventure modules by fifteen. Then you come close the level of support DSA offers to the GM with deeper pockets. Note that there are PDF versions and second-hand copies that offer much cheaper alternatives.

3) The system takes a lot of work off the GM’s shoulders. I know not everybody likes adventure modules, but for the GM with a full-time job they often spell the difference between running a game or not. For everyone else they are at least a nice diversion or useful for mining for ideas. In contrast to the usual D20 dungeon the last two and a half decades of DSA has seen a varied mix ranging from intrigue and detective stories, to war, exploration and mystic themes, to more traditional dungeons, but ones that actually make sense. The same goes for much of the support supplements. DSA is pretty much the anti-GURPS in this regard. There’s very little world-building and system-tuning required by the GM.

4) The system helps players who have trouble coming up with original character concepts. The use of archetypes and the extremely dense background material are helpful for  players and GMs alike. You won’t end playing a level one fighter that is only distinguished through his random attributes, race selection and starting feat. You will have disadvantages that define you, a place ore unit where you learned your trade, ready-made connections and antipathies and even a reason to go adventuring.

5) There’s a huge fan following in Germany, which makes it very easy to get new players. Everybody plays in the same world and there aren’t all that many ways to tweak the system and world, so you can even introduce characters from other GMs’ campaigns. Of course, that also means there’s quite a lot of unofficial material readily available. A lot of it is quite good and actually on par with D20 titles.

The Bad

1) The setting can be overwhelming. There’s a myriad of details to take into account. For example, you need a very clear idea of when and where to start your campaign, because there are metaplots that will radically change your world. If you decide to leave them out, a large amount of the support elements will become unusable or take a considerable amount of work to adapt. Worst of all are the adventure modules – a significant number of which thrust the characters into the limelight of politics and unfolding supernatural events. Many players are aware of those and will want to take part in them. They might object if you change the world too much.
In the end player and GM freedom are often restricted by the burgeoning realms of the writers’ imagination. Take into account that the early generation of writers were German literature and anthropology students and you get deliberate restrictions that railroad you into a direction the writers thought proper for your game.

2) The rules show a a truly Teutonic obsession with details: For example every skill roll sees three twenty-sided dice rolled to beat three different attributes with skill points used to make up the difference. Where GURPS has four skill difficulties with everyday names (cost progression 1-2-4-8-12…), DSA sports nine difficulties from A* to H (cost progression a convenient 1-1-2-3-4-6-7-8-10-11-13-14-16-17-19-21-22-24-26-27-29 – for type A that is). The system did not use to be so complicated, but in the current edition it is virtually impossible to make a character without using a spreadsheet. Granted, spreadsheets are a good idea for every point-build system, but DSA takes complications to unhealthy heights. It used to be a half-way beginner-friendly system, but it shed that with its 4th Edition.
At the same time the system makes it very hard for beginning characters to succeed at anything. An average character who has spent years training in a skill has less than half a chance to beat an unmodified skill roll – and few skill rolls in adventures and examples are unmodified, most carry a penalty. A trained warrior who has spent six years or more doing weapons training has less than half a chance to hit an opponent before they get a chance to defend. Combat takes forever, especially since characters can often take three or four sword hits without much of an effect.Part of these problems stem from marrying what was originally a D&D-esque random roll system with a point-based system (that incidentally steals a lot of small details from GURPS). The effect isn’t very pretty in play and encourages players to invest heavily in attributes and take the maximum disadvantages before start of play. Attributes are even more important than in GURPS, but at the same time there are so many and all are important for spells that the average player is easily lured into munchkinny builds.

3) The fan base has a large number of fanatics. Even in the good old times before the internet you could post a notice in the game shop and have people ring you up only to tell you about how the Praiotian inquisition was the best thing ever and that you were a disgusting heretic for having a witch in your group. The internet hasn’t made things easier. It’s probably a good idea to never invite more than one unknown player into your group. DSA players are often defensive, because their system is often to maligned by others. DSA has a bit of a reputation as simplistic, illogical, goody-two-shoes system and if you like it very much that can hurt.

4) The system is huge and can be costly. It also tends to reinvent itself every eight years on average. Thankfully these reinventions don’t really introduce huge world-sweeping changes on their own (like in the Forgotten Realms), but you still need to shell out for new basic rules and all the extras you need to make your characters work. This is all the more infuriating, because the changes are often very subtle (4th Edition to 4.1 to 5 for example didn’t change the basic mechanics at all). On the whole this a system to sink a lot money in if you want to cover all eventualities.

5) All the nice things can only be had in German. Sure, there’s an English version consisting of like three books and there used to be versions in French and Dutch, but basically you need to either be a German native speaker or somebody with a degree in German and a huge interest in translating this stuff.

The Beautiful

Now, most of what I said serves only to whet the appetite of the average GURPS GM. Why?

1) The one huge drawback of GURPS is the lack of detailed settings. The only exception is Transhuman Space and that has to deal with an awkward 3rd/4th Edition split. Sure, GURPS attracts GMs who want to stat their own settings or run real-world campaigns, but when you’re short on players you tend to run back to vaguely Tolkieneque fantasy. DSA nicely fills that gap in GURPS.

2) There’s nothing in the setting that makes it very hard to convert. DSA tries to be realistic even if falls far short of this goal. The system is already skill-based, combat is more or less realistic with parries, dodging and armour that stops damage. Most non-supernatural stuff works on a somewhat logical basis and spell magic is skill-based, differentiated by spell traits and uses energy points.
There are a limited number of creatures, cultures, races and magics and most of the latter can be given more flavour by representing them as different GURPS variants. The same goes for DSA adventures. Instead of a different monster with three dozen modifiers per room, you’ll mainly face humanoids, animals and maybe a monster or two with at most a couple of special abilities each.
Compared to other RPG settings like D&D, Rifts or Star Trek (any incarnation) converting the DSA setting isn’t much of a chore.

3) GURPS actually makes DSA better. Tech levels, familiarities, martial arts and magical styles, divine favour, detailed armour, spelunking rules, supernatural abilities, a balanced disadvantage system, the possibility to start with experienced characters…
The possibilities are staggering.

The Not So Beautiful

There are still some things that complicate a GURPS DSA conversion:

1) The GURPS Magic spell system is still in bad need of a fix.
2) There’s no bestiary yet and that slows down creature conversion.
3) Is there even any interest in this? American GURPS players might be interested in the setting, but can’t take advantage of the German material, while German DSA players might be interested in better rules, but don’t want to buy a minimum of six English rulebooks (Characters, Campaigns, Powers, Low-Tech, Magic, Thaumatology and Martial Arts). I mean obviously I’m doing this for my own group anyway, but is there any interest online? Feedback is very welcome, especially on whether this should be German-only or English-only content or something both could appreciate.

The first part of my step-by-step conversion guide for DSA is available here.

The material presented here is my original creation, intended for use with the GURPS system from Steve Jackson Games. This material is not official and is not endorsed by Steve Jackson Games.

GURPS is a registered trademark of Steve Jackson Games, and the art here is copyrighted by Steve Jackson Games. All rights are reserved by SJ Games. This material is used here in accordance with the SJ Games online policy

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