Review: GURPS Thaumatology – Sorcery

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.

This week’s release was hinted at beforehand, but GURPS Thaumatology – Sorcery wasn’t exactly what I expected. Nevertheless, it’s a welcome addition to the ever-growing list of alternatives to the standard magic system from GURPS Magic.

Cover of GURPS Thaumatology - SorceryAs with last couple of titles in the Thaumatology series, prospective readers don’t actually need GURPS Thaumatology to use this book. Surprising is the fact that they don’t strictly need Powers or Magic either. Don’t let that fool you into thinking that you have an easy alternative magic system for new players here. Sorcery is almost on the level of Ritual Path Magic when it comes to the required rules-savvyness. If a GM is up to snuff, he can use the material to make it easier for inexperienced players to create magic-users, but like Ritual Path Magic the book on its own doesn’t quite provide a ready-to-use system replete with all the spells you could ever need.

Before I dive into the contents, a hint for prospective buyers: The material here is an expansion of the article “The Power of Sorcery” in Pyramid 3.63: Infinite Worlds II. As this wasn’t a magic issue of Pyramid you might have missed it, even if you have a subscription. The material has been greatly expanded from 7 pages to 32, but it’s still based on the same assumptions. If you like the Pyramid article, you will like the stand-alone treatment. The same goes for the opposite.

Facts

Author:  Jason Levine (“Reverend Pee Kitty / PK”)
Date of Publication:  2015/08/06
Format: PDF-only (Warehouse 23-only)
Page Count: 36 (1 title page, 1 content page, 1 index page, 1 page ad)
Price: $7.99 (PDF), $ 0.25 per page of content; Score of 4/10
Preview: http://www.warehouse23.com/products/gurps-thaumatology-sorcery

Review

The book is almost exclusively concerned with rules, but it does have a few nods to world-building mechanics (like the economics of enchantment) and atmosphere (rules for magical weapons etc.). It’s the first generic treatment of Magic as Powers as a stand-alone volume. Chinese Elemental Powers, while also using this approach, was a lot more setting specific and less comprehensive. Not that the volume at hand tries to present a ready-to-play magic kit, but its scope is much more inclusive.

The book is divided into three chapters. The first one comes in at 8 pages and explains how Sorcery works. This part is pretty exhaustive answering almost every question about the system that could come up. It offers some rules switches that give players more tactical options and explains in detail how the mechanics were arrived at. These “Under the Hood” boxes were always a strength in RPK’s work and they don’t disappoint here. In addition to that there is a discussion of spell types that gives us keywords like “Jet”, “Obvious”, “Buff” and “Weapon Buff” – in short things that really should have been in the fourth-edition treatment of GURPS Magic. This section doesn’t merely describe what the keywords mean, but also how to build spells of these types.

And this brings us to chapter two, which is basically a list of two GURPS Magic spells per college that have been given the Spells as Powers treatment and found a second life as abilities. This section is 15 pages long and takes up the lion’s share of the book. Now, that’s a bit more than three spells a page with ability write-ups, effects, point costs and spell statistics and that makes things a bit cramped. There are definitely a couple of very interesting ways of statting the abilities – my favourite is using Contact! as a base for Awaken Computer – but I can’t help but feel that this is neither very close to the original spells nor all that helpful for beginners. The grimoire in RPK’s Ritual Path Magic was much more  comprehensive and offered enough rituals for novice GMs to tide them over for a while. Maybe it would have been better to not directly mirror Magic in this regard. Readers who also own Pyramid 3.63 can, however, add a hefty dose of fire spells to the mix.

Chapter three brings us enchantment rules for sorcerers and that’s where the book really shines. In 7 pages RPK gives us comprehensive rules from spending character points to spending time (and risking failure) to the intrinsic value needed for enchanted items to the economics of enchantment. We learn why jewellery is so much easier to enchant than swords, why there are no magic clothes in this system (except for cloaks) and even how to make potions.

The book is rounded of with a sample character that shows us how compressed a sorcerer’s character sheet can be.

Meat

As I’ve said above, this book is almost all meat and will be rated accordingly. The heart of the content lies in the new advantage Sorcerous Empowerment. SoEmp works similar to Divine Favor from the eponymous volume in Powers series. Basically you have SoEmp as an enabling advantage that allows you to

a) improvise relatively weak spells (Improvisation)
b) improvise relatively powerful spells, but at a greater cost and risk (Hardcore Improvisation)
c) learn spells that cost less than the points you spent on SoEmp (Learned Spells)

Spells in this are always built as abilities and make use Sorcery Talent. They normally cost 1 FP and take 2 seconds to cast, but don’t usually mandate a skill roll or any ritual – except for hardcore improvisation. These changes make Sorcery feel quite different from Standard Magic, which is good. If you don’t like the psi-like lack of ritual, there’s an optional rule to add it back in. Sorcerers are as a rule less flexible than a fully-trained mage, but given enough power that gap closes. In any case, they have a lot of flexibility when it comes to very low-level effects, which is something that Standard Magic is not so good with.

There are however, two problems with this system. The first is that the more specialised you become the higher your level of SoEmp has to be to use hardcore improvisation and learned spells. While specialisation indeed benefits regular improvisation there aren’t that many spells you can use that way even with a very high SoEmp level. This is unfortunate, since most fictional examples present specialisation as a way to gain power more quickly. This is pretty much impossible under these rules. The other problem is more endemic to the Magic as Powers approach: It shares all the shortcomings of the standard ability system, namely that Innate Attack is very cheap and Affliction and some marginal abilities are very expensive.

For example, the relatively impotent effect of No-Smell costs 63 points, while a Sunbolt inflicting 15 dice of damage costs 60 points. Granted, not giving off any scent can occasionally be a life-saver, but I know which of those my players would choose. With most spells costing only a single fatigue point, the biggest balancing mechanism of Standard Magic is gone and the GM runs into the typical problems of a Supers game. Sure, you can set arbitrary limits on damage or pre-construct a list of of approved spells, but examples like that Sunbolt make things difficult for the GM.

Which brings us to the spell list in chapter two. The spells are not exactly conversions of the versions given in Magic, but more like re-imaginings, which makes them rather hard to compare to what various members of the GURPS community have produced over the years. The good thing about that is that they are often a lot less complicated than the spells in Magic. The bad thing is that they are sometimes really free-form and not quite rules-conforming (e.g. Grease giving only the bad effects of Control: Friction).

Having said that, some of RPK’s solutions to difficult conversion problems are sometimes nothing short of ingenious. I’ve already mentioned Awaken Computer, but any of the following are at least interesting to look at: Repel Animals, Haircut, Tanglefoot, Create Object, Disintegrate, Inspired Creation, Dispel Magic, Remove Curse, Lesser Geas and Reverse Missiles. Of course, they often do change some rather significant parts of the spells they re-build, but if nothing else they are very good studies in how to build abilities.

Chapter three contains a complete enchantment system that is the piece-de-resistance of the book. In contrast to everything that has gone on before, this part is plug-and-play. Instead of arbitrary energy costs for any given spell, it uses its character point cost as the basis then modifies it by the type of object it is cast on. This is similar to gadget limitations, but the implementation shows little of the origins. It is relatively simple and very elegant. Instead of Magic’s quick-and-dirty (less than a day, but low energy) and slow-and-sure (no limits, but taking years), the time used for enchantment is always somewhere in the middle (from days to months). That depends on how many character points the enchanter is willing to spend. The character-point intensive method is called Personal Sacrifice, the time-intensive is called Spectral Forging and is more dangerous. All powerful items need at least some personal sacrifice, though. No matter what kind of method you use, you will make frequent rolls and even if your critically fail there’s always a chance to start over without losing everything.

This excellent core system can be used with any magic system as long as you have the spells statted as abilities. In addition to this core RPK adds extra rules for the inherent value of items, economic considerations and optional rules for attuning items to the wearer if the GM is worried about Sorcery proliferation.

The sample character is nothing special, but rounds off the book nicely.

Meat score: 7.5 (empowered)

Cheese

As I’ve said, there’s little that relates to world-building or matters of atmosphere. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in a rules-focused book. Enchantment takes into consideration some world-building issues and the sample character could be easily be used for a Banestorm session or two.

Cheese score: 3

Sauce

The interior is sparsely illustrated and all the illustrations are relatively simple ones from third-edition sources, but they don’t distract much from the material. The cover, however is extremely uninspired merely combining the interior images into a ribbon. One of the illustrations is cropped in a way that you have no idea what’s going on. I much prefer some abstract styling like in Magical Styles – Dungeon Magic, Powers – Enhanced Senses or Power-Ups 8. That’s more recognisable and prettier at the same time.

The style is very readable and the editing is top-notch – I found one typo, but wouldn’t we happy if that was all we could find in our RPG books? It’s also the first RPG product I know of that has pull quotes from both My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and Homestuck. Isn’t that magical enough…

Sauce score: 5.5 (okay art, good writing and editing, lousy cover)

Generic Nutritional Substance

Of course any book about matters magical is not going to be appropriate for settings without supernatural elements. Apart from that, Sorcery is certainly generic enough to be dropped into many settings. You need only add Low-Tech to make up standard S&S, urban fantasy is generally fine with powers you find within your self and even for Science Fantasy it’s a good match.

Generic Nutritional Substance score: 7.5 (pretty generic supernatural upgrade for your campaign)

Summary

Sorcery brings many good things and some that are slightly disappointing. If you’re looking for something that makes your magic-users quick, somewhat flexible and not totally imbalanced, it is the book for you. If you only want a catalogue of GURPS Magic spells as powers, this isn’t it yet. If you’re looking for a good enchantment system and don’t mind the price tag, buy it!

Total score: 6,425  (good, but hampered by some hiccups)
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: 5.2125 (still average, though among the pricier GURPS PDFs due to its short 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.

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