Review: GURPS Social Engineering – Back to School

As all my other reviews this one will be rated according to meat (rules, stats, game mechanics), cheese (setting, characters, story), sauce (form, writing, style, art) and generic nutritional substance (universal nature, adaptability). At the end you find a weighted average of those components and a value score that also takes into account price per page.

While not completely unexpected Social Engineering – Back to School is certainly a welcome addition to William H. Stoddard’s oeuvre. Even more welcome is the fact that it weighs in at the same size as Locations – Worminghall, which it complements nicely without being a bona fide companion volume. It is, however, a bona fide Social Engineering supplement down to the tile (sorry, Boardroom and Curia, but it’s the name that tells).

Cover of GURPS Social Engineering - Back to School

So what does it offer? Back to School is the go-to book for GMs who want to set a campaign at a school, dojo or bootcamp and not just tally the hours spent there. It expands considerably on the rules for learning presented in Characters. Readers of Worminghall will find some familiar titbits like the study roll, but the rules here are far more comprehensive and the tweaks suggest some serious playtesting. Also some of the contents are really unexpected – though always in a good way.


Author: William H. Stoddard (WHS)
Date of Publication: 2015/07/09
Format: PDF-only (Warehouse 23-only)
Page Count:  41 (1 title page, 1 content page, 2 index pages, 1 page ad)
Price: $7.99 (PDF), $ 0.22 per page of content; Score of 5/10


Unsurprisingly, the book is very rules-focused. At the same time it does offer considerable insight in common social situations and ways in which teaching and learning might crop up in a game. Like with Social Engineering itself that makes the distinction on whether the book deals mainly with rules or plot ideas a bit fuzzy, but in the end the rules are certainly have the lion’s share.

Readers who liked the mother volume of the series will also like this one, unless they really don’t like learning in their games. As the title suggests rules and ideas for school settings make up a big part of the book, but even if you aren’t running Harry Potter with the serial numbers filed off, you will get quite a bit out of this book. Apart from one-shots there’s hardly a campaign that won’t benefit from at least some of its contents. Okay, there aren’t any gold-for-skill rules like those you find in Dungeon Fantasy, but that’s about it.

The book is divided into four chapters: The first deals with teaching from a student’s perspective and comes in at eleven pages. The second does the same from a teacher’s perspective and is ten pages long. Relevant traits, skills, techniques and methods are split between both these sections. The split is useful for when you have a certain focus in mind for your campaign, but makes it a bit more difficult to find what you were looking for if you want to represent both the students’ and the teachers’ point of view in your campaign. The third chapter deals with schools as organisations and takes up nine pages. This makes use of mechanics taken from Social Engineering itself as well as Boardroom and Curia and Social Engineering – Pulling Rank, though its main focus is on relationships, situations and structures. The final chapter deals with campaign ideas and is only three pages long without any rules.

This is rounded off by a handy two page appendix that lists all the standard learning times and all the traits that affect it, two pages of bibliography and a two-page index, both of which are nice and thorough.


Practically everything that could concern learning is touched upon. Finding teachers or schools, using unusual teaching situations or materials, the effects of various traits on teaching and learning, but also spells, special abilities, futuristic and realistic drugs, legendary teaching and how to price a school as a patron (and what that means for its facilities, staff etc.). The most useful rule by far is the study which replaces automatic gain of valuable study hours by something that is influenced by each student’s character sheet.

Now that comprehensive treatment is just what you’d expect when Mr. Stoddard tackles a subject, but there’s more. We learn new things about skills in general and how their transmission is affected by tech level, language comprehension and available facilities. The author also manages to plug a couple of annoying holes in the basic set. No longer is it possible to just drop 16 points in a spell “because I used it in game”. Skill use under pressure is certainly one of the nicest rules fix for this very reason. I also appreciate that learning is now affected by Laziness (which used to be free points for mages).

Surprisingly enough you’ll also find comprehensive rules for brainwashing (and -hacking) in the section on “Coercive Teaching” that’s sure to please all the Snape fans. That together with spells and powers for teaching and studying round the subject off in satisfyingly universal way.

Meat score: 9 (A++)


For a meaty book there’s certainly a lot of soft cheesy material here. While the first two chapters are certainly rule-focussed they also provide lots of bits to build your own setting. The rules take a back seat in chapter 3, although the rules-conscious social engineer won’t be disappointed there either. The chapter basically covers all the bases when it comes to designing your own base for teaching including the owners and their motivations. True, it’s not exactly the cheese lovers paradise, but it’ll get you far.

Chapter four may be a bit short with only three pages, but more unusual ideas in there (like the invaded house trope) will certainly prove inspiring to GMs. Personally, I will start cribbing for my own magic school campaign as soon as I finish this review.

The bibliography also provides some pointers for inspiration and it is a welcome change of pace that even smaller books like this one get a bibliography now. The only jarring thing is that the only mention of Terry Pratchett is in a pull-quote.

On the whole the book has a lot to offer on the dramatic side of things too. Just what you’d expect from it being part of the Social Engineering series.

Cheese score: 7 (pretty much the perfect cordon bleu if you ask me)


Compared to some of the recent GURPS releases (Zombies – Day One I’m looking at you), the art of Back to School is actually pretty good. Not perfect, but fitting and refreshingly non-ugly. While I have the feeling that at least some of the images have been reused I cannot trace them back to specific locations. Most of them are very focused on books and sometimes it’s hard to tell how they’re relevant to the section they’re in, but they’re certainly inspirational. The image on page 36 makes me want to run an illegal education of the masses campaign for a steampunk setting. It’s a bit of a pity that the title page is really uninspiring, but the mass of text in the title excuses that shortcome.

The editing, while still above industry standard is not quite up to GURPS standards. There are a couple of minor errors in grammar and sentence structure that cropped up even on my first reading. They’re most likely due to rearranging text blocks, but they do distract a bit.

Also distracting is that some of student/teacher traits show up in the wrong chapter, for example there are a couple of spells that are clearly geared towards students, but show up under teachers because there is no section for spells in student chapter. Minor, but not perfect.

Sauce score: 7 (good art, good writing, imperfect editing)

Generic Nutritional Substance

Now, I know I talked a lot about schools in this review, but this book isn’t just about that. It also deals with dojos, monasteries, universities, on-the-job and vocational training, military boot camps, apprenticeships, tutoring and ‘schools for gifted youngsters’. It’s not only for the Harry Potter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer crowds.

Back to School has rules for teaching by gesture (“Anybody wants to play pre-verbal stone-age tribesmen?”), by lecturing, by telepresence and by immersion into virtual realities. It gives you a version of Blessed that’s the mythical equivalent of Weapon Master for teachers. It shows you how to rehearse in your dreams, use illusions during teaching, help your students by reading their minds and how to make your own teaching materials. Within the subject matter you cannot be more generic.

Generic Nutritional Substance score: 10 (Gold star!)


If Back to School were a print-only book, it would get an easily accessible spot on my GURPS book-shelve. You might not need it all the time if you’re running a regular high fantasy, cop drama or space opera, but it will be useful time and again. For campaigns where learning is the actual focus, be they set in some anime universe or in Hogwarts, the book is absolutely invaluable.

Total score: 8.45  (top percentile)
Total score is composed of a weighted average of Meat (50%), Cheese (15%), Sauce (20%) and Generic Nutritional Substance (15%). This is a meat-oriented book. A “cheesy” setting- or drama-orientied book would turn the percentages for cheese and meat around.

Value score: 6.725 (only hampered by its length)
Value Score is composed of the average of Total and Price.

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.

Step-by-Step: DSA GURPS Conversion I – The Basics

Even the most dedicated GURPS fan has to admit that their favourite system is kind of lacking in rich, detailed settings that you can just lose yourself in. However, it offers all the tools needed to make every setting a GURPS setting. This guide shows you one way of doing such a conversion. It uses the German RPG Das Schwarze Auge (DSA) as an example.

1) Take a deep breath and think on why you want to convert this specific setting.

Whether the setting is another RPG system, a novel, a film, a computer game or a TV series you first need to be sure what you’re going for. A novel might be very good on its own, but not lend itself to an RPG experience. A film might not be so much fun if your players can’t think of cool one-liners and you have to imagine all the special effects. The intrigues and relationships that make up a TV series might not be so much fun if your characters never get to see what motivates them, because that happens in NPC-only scenes.

RPG settings are easier in this regard – they already work well for groups of PCs – but they pose an additional question: Why aren’t you just playing the setting using its original rules? Valid answers are lack of realism (D&D, DSA), plain shoddy rules (everything from Palladium), new editions every couple of years (D&D, Shadowrun, DSA), overly complicated rules (DSA), rules that don’t allow certain character concepts (D&D) or unwillingness of your players to try new things. The last point needs to be emphasised. If your players are happy to try the other rule system, at least give it a try. There’s no point in converting a whole setting if you are only doing it for yourself, even if you love converting settings.

I’ve already outlined the reasons why I think converting DSA to GURPS is a good idea here.

2) Start with what you need.

Converting a setting means you’re going to be in for the long haul, but that doesn’t mean you should disregard short-term needs. It’s best to start off with asking your players what they would want to play. Making those starting characters possible should be one of your first goals. But you also need to know what should happen with the rest of the setting.

In the case of our DSA campaign, we actually converted an existing group of characters:

1) Borlox, the dwarven mercenary. Racial stats for dwarves were an obvious start, but also rules for appropriate gear and such.
2) Kalman, the half-elven hunter. Besides racial stats for half-elves, I also needed to decide how to handle ranged weapons. I decided as a more realistic style than in my Forgotten Realms campaign and didn’t hand out Heroic Archer to a starting character. That meant none of the others got Weapon Master either.
3) Stiblet, the human priest of Hesinde. The main thing here was to figure out how to handle divine miracles and fortunately Powers – Divine Favor is a good fit. Apart from a number of custom-made learned miracles and a couple of tiny tweaks to dice rolls the system works fine.
4) Vitus, the human transformation mage. Apart from the two or three new spells there was also the issue of how to arrange the magic system. Nothing Thaumatology and Magical Styles couldn’t solve.
5) Woltan, the warrior. Nothing more than a fighting style for his academy and a decision on how to trade points of equipment was needed.

With the starting characters I knew I needed to flesh out two races, divine influences and standard magic as taught at mages’ academy.

Now all the characters also had an ethnic origin that was somewhat reflected in their disadvantages, language selection and even skills. Should this be converted into hard and fast rules? I am kind of averse to giving different cultures different stats and in the end I decided to use emblematic traits to give some flavour without mandating that every Thorwalian knows how to row a boat.

Some characters also had Special Abilities – DSA’s answer to D&D feats. These are almost exclusively used for combat, magic and supernatural tricks. They can be learned and most of the combat ones make more sense as techniques, manoeuvres and perks. I mean it’s hard to imagine why you have to buy a special ability just to learn how to feint. It’s not hard to just make ad hoc judgements about whether a given combat ability falls into the purview of a perk, technique or manoeuvre.

Magical abilities are harder to pin down and more likely to cause problems. There aren’t very many that are ubiquitous, but every mage starts out with a couple of those, including staff enchantment rituals and arcane meditation, which is a way to gain more magical energy. These were likely to be complicated so I decided to just use DSA rules without setting a cost for the first few sessions. This brings us to step three.

3) Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Not worrying about some aspects of the setting is absolutely fine. Things can work by fiat until you work out more detailed rules. Just don’t skimp on the points necessary to buy the rules-compliant abilities later.

That’s especially the case for minor things that are there mainly for flavour: minor social traits, the exact way some ritual or piece of equipment works, exact spell costs and the final contents of the magical colleges. If it’s not of vital importance for your starting characters, ignore it!

4) Paint with broad strokes.

Related to the previous step, but even more important: While it’s fine to ignore details, you should know where you want to go with the setting as a whole. Even if you don’t plan on using some aspects of the setting any time soon, you should know the general rules you want to work. This is always important for supernatural and exotic powers and abilities, but cinematic conventions and the influence of ultra-tech or superscience bear thinking about.

For a fantasy setting like DSA supernatural stuff far outnumbers all other considerations. The setting’s main kind of magic consists of skill-like spells. Mages, elves, druids, witches, geodes they all use some variant of this. Other ways to work magic exist, but they are far less prominent in the setting. Making this spell magic work well is the bulk of the conversion work. It’s also important to differentiate the different magical traditions from each other without making them completely incompatible. For this reason they will all use a core of GURPS Magic with switches and variants taken from GURPS Thaumatology. They depend on mana level, but those aren’t extremely varied with most of the world being normal mana. Of course, in DSA it is possible to construct low and no mana zones by using certain stones as building material, so this evens out.

Other magical traditions and the less common rituals of the traditions mentioned above will use other magic systems taken from other sources. One thing that is clear though is that the “Magic as Powers” approach will be used only sparingly. All magic uses up energy sources and powers don’t mix very well with a “spells as skills” approach in this case.

Divine powers on the other hand will be common, but fickle. Those don’t use energy pools and depend on sanctity instead of mana. Basically the system presented in GURPS Powers: Divine Favor is used.

There are some kinds of powers that seem to stand in between those two groups like shamans, the Gjalskerlander Beast-Warrior or the Ferkina Possessed. These special cases are set aside for a consideration at a later time. There might be a space for spirit-based or chi-based powers in DSA, even if the setting calls everything magic or divine agency.

Apart from the supernatural, there isn’t all that much out of the ordinary. Combat-oriented characters can be distinguished by skills, weapons, armour and martial styles. Social structures can be easily described with GURPS terminology, especially if you’re using GURPS Social Engineering. Races are rather straightforward to convert, even though their special legal statuses are often hidden in other publications (DSA doesn’t care for assigning points even to pretty hefty cases of Legal Immunity). Technology is an eclectic mix of TL 0-4 as is typical for fantasy settings, but nothing a base TL can’t handle.

The next part of this series will deal with how to handle the conversion of a setting’s races and give examples for the most important ones in DSA.

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

GURPS DSA – Wirklich eine gute Idee?

This is a German variant of the English article. There isn’t much here that isn’t in the English version.

In der irrigen Annahme, dass jemand aus Deutschland daran interessiert sein könnte, hier noch eine Version des letzten Artikels in der Originalsprache des Schwarzen Auges.

Als langjähriger Freund und Playtester von GURPS habe ich schon manche Konversion unternommen, aber von DSA hatte ich mich immer ferngehalten bis alter Freund mal wieder spielen wollte und wir nach zwei Abenteuern feststellen mussten, dass niemand die Regeln mochte.

Für den geneigten deutschen Leser – d.h. jemanden, dem Pen & Paper Rollenspiele bekannt sind – brauche ich nicht viele Worte um DSA zu machen, aber ein paar Stichpunkte zu den Eigenschaften des Settings sind natürlich nützlich.


1) DSA ist ein dichtes Setting. Nicht jeder Spielleiter – auch nicht jeder GURPS-SL – ist gut im Worlbuilding und DSA hat genug Material, dass so ein Makel nie auffallen wird. Die Welt ist – für eine Fantasywelt – auch nicht zu unlogisch (jaja, die Klimazonen, ich weiß).

2) Der Support mit neuem Material ist sichergestellt. Alte Abenteuer sind auch gut als PDF zu erhalten. Insgesamt ist der Support vergleichbar mit GURPS, wenn auch mit anderer Stoßrichtung (Setting, Abenteuer) und etwas schwankender Qualität.

3) Durch die Abenteuer und das sehr ausgestaltete Setting nimmt DSA dem Spielleiter viel ab. Wer keine vorgefertigten Abenteuer mag, ist natürlich falsch beraten DSA oder eine GURPS-Variante zu seinem System zu erküren.

4) Es gibt jede Menge originelle Charakterkonzepte. Nicht nur vermeidet man den Standard-Krieger und -Magier, Charaktere wie Schelm, Zibilja, Kristallomant oder Geweihter laden zum etwas anderen Rollenspiel ein. Abstimmung mit Gruppe und SL ist dabei natürlich immer wichtig.

5) Die große Fangemeinde macht das Finden von Spielern recht einfach. Ob das auch für die GURPS-Variante zutrifft kann ich nicht sagen, aber eine bestehende DSA-Gruppe zu überzeugen, die GURPS-Regeln auszuprobieren war bei mir machbar.


1) Das Setting kann überwältigend sein. Der prospektive SL sollte sich klar machen, wie nahe er am “offiziellen” Aventurien bleiben will und wie fanatisch seine Spieler auf dem Kanon beharren. Abenteuer sind besonders schlimm in dieser Hinsicht mit ihren Orts- und Zeitbeschränkungen. Jedoch ist es häufig möglich letztere zu umgehen, wenn man den Kleinkram überliest. Ortsbeschränkungen sind dagegen oft nicht zu ändern, auch wenn die Abenteuer es manchmal übertreiben. Hier könnte eine gute Liste Abhilfe schaffen, aber bislang konnte ich noch nichts finden.

2) Über die Regeln kann man einiges sagen, aber viel Gutes ist nicht dabei. Ohne Automatisierung ist die Charaktererstellung ein einziger Horror, die Talent-Probe ist ein schlechter Witz, der aber für 50% des Spiels verantwortlich ist, Sonderfertigkeiten machen aus realistischer Perspektive selten Sinn und Beschränkungen wie Elfische Weltsicht sind einfach blöd. Vieles was an der vierten Edition gut ist (echte Vor- und Nachteile, mehr Kampfoptionen, Variation von Zaubern) wurde von anderen Systeme (v.a. GURPS) mehr schlecht als recht übernommen. Schwer wiegt auch die Tatsache, dass vieles einfach nicht so zum Hintergrund passt wie man ihn aus Romanen und Zitaten kennt.

3) DSA-Fans sind oft recht fanatisch. Einerseits ist das gut, da die Spieler dann nicht schnell die Lust verlieren, andererseits muss man sich als SL oft mal auf die Finger klopfen lassen. Und es ist auch nicht witzig sich von realweltlichen Praioten runterputzen zu lassen, nur weil man eine Hexe in der Gruppe hat.

4) Die Kosten für die Materialien sind hoch. Auch wenn man sich als GURPS-SL auf die Basics beschränken kann wird man doch an Schwerter & Helden, Zauberei & Hexenwerk, Götter & Dämonen und einigen Hintergrundwerken nicht vorbei kommen. Selbst als PDF laufen diese drei veralteten “Grund”regelwerke auf 60€ heraus. Das (gerade noch) aktuelle Wege-Paket schlägt sohar mit 90€ zu Buche. Und damit sind noch nicht die Hintergrüne und Abenteuer abgedeckt. Okay, GURPS ist auch nicht gerade billig, aber die Vielzahl von DSA-Regionalbänden kann den Erwerb recht teuer machen (zumal nicht alle als PDF vorhanden sind).

5) Der Sprach-Mix macht’s schwer. Die vierte Edition von GURPS gibt es nur auf Englisch und DSA gibt es praktisch nur auf Deutsch. Ich muss tatsächlich mal nachfragen, ob es legal ist Übersetzungen zu posten. DSA mit englischen Skills und Disadvantages zu spielen macht jedenfalls nicht soviel Spaß.


Warum sollte man sich überhaupt an einer Konversion versuchen? Da gibt es durchaus Gründe dafür:

1) Etwas, das GURPS immer wieder Probleme bereitet, ist das Fehlen detaillierter Settings. Ja, es gibt die Infinite Worlds, in die man jedes Setting einbetten kann. Sowohl für Infinite Worlds als auch für Banestorm gibt es sogar eine kleine Quellenbücher, aber das war’s dann auch schon, wenn man sich nicht auf Transhuman Space und dessen Übergang von 3. auf 4. Edition einlassen will. GURPS ist nichts für SLs, die ein komplettes Setting mit allen wichtigen NSCs, detaillierten Stadtbeschreibungen und einer fortlaufenden Timeline erwarten. Das heisst aber nicht, dass jeder GURPS-SL ständig nur eigene Sachen erfinden will. Manchmal ist es auch einfach schön sich einfach auf eine existierende Welt einzulassen.

2) DSA ist, im Gegensatz zu Spaßvögeln wie D&D und Rifts, einfach zu konvertieren. Ja, es gibt viel Material, aber vieles davon braucht keine Spielwerte. Es gibt nicht in jedem dritten Buch zwanzig neue Rassen und Monster. Das Regelsystem versucht realistisch zu sein (Attacken und Paraden, Rüstungen, die tatsächlich Schaden aufhalten, keine arbiträren “3 x pro Tag”-Kräfte, energiebasierte Zauber und so weiter und so fort. Wenn man sich von der inneraventurischen Wirklichkeit leiten lässt, so muss man nicht alle Heldentypen konvertieren, sondern kann sich auf den gesunden Menschenverstand der Spieler verlassen. Natürlich sind Magie und Götterwirken eine Ausnahme. Natürlich müssen Rassen und Kreaturen Stats haben, aber das ist kein unüberwindliches Problem.

3) GURPS macht DSA tatsächlich besser. Techlevel, Vertrautheiten, Martial-Arts-Stile, Göttliche Gnade, detaillierte Rüstungen, Regeln für Höhlenforschung, ausgewogene Vor- und Nachteile, realistische Fertigkeiten, Start mit erfahrenen Charakteren und vieles mehr.

Nicht so schönes

Einige Sachen komplizieren die Konversion:

1) GURPS Magic braucht nach all den Jahren immer noch ein Patch. Eines der wenigen Büchern, bei denen die Qualität auf der Strecke blieb.

2) Es gibt immer noch kein aktuelles GURPS Bestiarium. Man kann aber auf andere Publikationen und die alte Version zurückgreifen.

3) Gibt es überhaupt ein Interesse daran. Klar mache ich das sowieso für meine Gruppe, aber es wäre schon schön zu wissen, dass andere auch daran Interesse hätten. Warum sollte man’s sonst posten? Kommentare sind also sehr willkommen.

Für’s Erste wird das der letzte GURPS DSA Artikel in deutscher Sprache sein. Vielleicht schreibe ich ja noch Übersetzungen für die folgenden Artikel, wenn ich ein paar Hits aus Deutschland kriege. Bei Kommentaren schreib ich definitiv was.

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