Review: GURPS Dungeon Fantasy 17: Guilds

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.

Matt Riggsby seems to be on a roll, when it comes to Dungeon Fantasy. A month after kicking off the Treasure subseries,  he brings us GURPS Dungeon Fantasy 17: Guilds just before Christmas (Is it just me or would that release have been better for Treasures? Well the vagaries of publishing, I guess).

Cover page for GURPS Dungeon Fantasy 17 - GuildsNow, I am on record for saying Riggsby’s last book was less DF than what we’re used to. This doesn’t quite apply to this title, even though it does have applications outside of Dungeon Fantasy. Before I elaborate further let me say that the book builds on the social rules for DF that Dr. Kromm introduced in “Traits for Town” (Pyramid 3.58: Urban Fantasy II). In fact, pretty much the whole of the article is reproduced – not counting the “Professional Discounts” box, but that one has been expanded for each discussed guild. So if you thought about buying Pyramid 58 just for this article, you can just buy Riggsby’s book instead. If you already bought it, don’t begrudge SJGames the slight recycling.

Facts

Author:  Matt Riggsby (a.k.a. Turhan’s Bey Company on the fora)
Date of Publication:  2015/12/10
Format: PDF-only (Warehouse 23-only)
Page Count: 31 (1 title page, 1 content page, 1 index page, 1 page ad)
Price: $7.99 (PDF), $ 0.26 per page of content; Score of 4/10
Preview: http://www.warehouse23.com/products/gurps-dungeon-fantasy-17-guilds

Review

As a DF product kind of dealing with setting details, Guilds is a square peg in a round hole, but much less so than Treasures. Yes, it deals with worldbuilding too, but it does so in a style that is decidedly dungeon-fantasyesque. Nevertheless, the book is pretty much balanced between rules and setting tips.

The book is split in two chapters and an appendix of rank titles. The first chapter reproduces Kromm’s rules, which is important as this reintroduces social traits into Dungeon Fantasy. Then Riggsby takes us by the hand and shows us easy-to-use ways of using organisations in DF. He makes heavy use of the Pulling Rank rules first introduced in the Action series and expanded by the good doctor and Riggsby himself.  There is also some historical background information, but that amounts only to two paragraphs.

The second chapter details fifteen types of organisation (along with a couple of variants) for use in your campaigns. Each of those takes up one and a quarter page or so and they tie into DF templates a lot. The three questions “Who are they?”, “What do they want?” and “What can they provide?” are answered in some detail for each. Be warned though that these are very much types, not ready-to-use sample organisations akin to the magical styles in Dungeon Magic. The appendix of rank titles is just that: titles for each of the organisation types.

Meat

So, why would you want to add in all these fiddly social bits into a beer-and-pretzel game like DF? Simple: to give the players more options for customising their characters. The cleric who holds high rank a congregation will play differently from the one who’s someone in a noble court and the one who rubs shoulders with university-types. Organisations also provide ample plot hooks, but that’s a setting (and therefore cheese) thing.

The basics here are Kromm’s rules, but everything concerning guilds comes from Riggsby. The assistance rules from Pulling Rank et. al are nicely streamlined to fit a DF setting and not bog down play. All the different types of assistance are detailed complete with samples. The guild entries show at a glance what each can easily provide and what not.

Ease of use is a big thing here. We get a complete listing of DF professions with sources, a a complete overview of social traits, a sorting of professions in each guild (who are the masters, rank & file, hired help?) and a rank range for each organisation. Especially nice is that guilds don’t always use Administration for the assistance rolls. Intimidation or Streetwise might work just as well. There’s a lot of simple stuff like adding rank to contest skill rolls or wealth level to sell loot that might also work well outside of DF, even if they are a bit gamist.

Add to that some odds and ends (rules for technical jargon, cants and slangs are neat) and you’ve described most of the book’s rules. There’s nothing in here that doesn’t work, although there are no complete revelations for those who already know the Pyramid article.

Meat score: 8.5 (extra half-point for streamlining)

Cheese

As this is a balanced kind of book, setting matters just as much and although we don’t get any cute worked examples, this book can be a great help, especially for the beginner GM who just starts exploring their world. Riggsby explains why leaving the dungeon from time to time is a good idea. He shows how each of the guild types can provide hooks for further adventures and how advancement in rank can serve as a means to achieve the game’s ultimate goal: get better bling and cooler powers.

We do learn a little bit about historical guilds and communication problems that made large organisations impossible in the middle ages, but that information is relatively sparse. Don’t buy the book for its real-world data. The rank names are, unfortunately, mostly boring. Apart from one or two odd men out most of the tables have nothing interesting to them. The Congregation table is at least an odd mixture of religions, but only the Hermetic Cabal titles are truly close to old D&D weirdness. Who wouldn’t love to be called “Hidden Instrument of the Verities”?

As it stands Guilds is a good stepping stone to a more nuanced style of play and might lead people who cut their teeth on that other game and DF to actual worldbuilding. It’s only a first step, though, and it is a bit constrained by its length. Personally I would have liked a Dungeon Magic approach better with detailed worked examples added to the generic types. Even a half-page sample for each type would have been nice. Maybe we can still get this as a follow-up? Pretty please?

Cheese score: 7 (good framework in need of filling)

Sauce

There’s a very limited amount of pictures in the book, but most are appropriate if unspectacular. I like the ornamental title pages, as I’ve said before, but it’s nothing special. There are some jokes in Kromm’s text that make you laugh out loud, Riggsby’s jokes are more wry and less frequent, but they are well-executed and his writing is fluent and easy to read. There’s one cut-and-paste error, but apart from that the editing is good. The only surprise concerning the sauce was a pull quote from Pope Francis. The pope in Dungeon Fantasy – now that’s an association you’ll have a hard time severing.

Sauce score: 7 (okay art, nice jokes, good writing and editing)

Generic Nutritional Substance

The information, while DF-centric, is useful for any kind of fantasy campaign and might be even used for some that take place in higher-tech settings. By their very nature most of the guilds are, however, tied to a setting where there’s some pretty rigorous diversion of labour. In campaigns where there’s none of that, the write-ups will be much less useful.

Generic Nutritional Substance score: 7 (generic enough)

Summary

Dungeon Fantasy: Guilds is no must-have title for those who strictly adhere to the genre’s core values, but for those who want to stray a bit farther afield it is more than useful. More than some DF titles it is a toolkit, though – albeit a toolkit that takes the novice GM’s hand and leads them into that fearsome land of social roleplaying.

Total score: 7.4875  (a really good book, especially for less experienced GMs)
Total score is composed of a weighted average of Meat (32.5%), Cheese (32.5%), Sauce (20%) and Generic Nutritional Substance (15%). This is a balanced book

Value score: 5.74375 (cost-to-length ratio is always hard to beat)
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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Review: GURPS Aliens: Sparrials

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.

Elizabeth McCoy’s GURPS Aliens: Sparrials, is I think, her first independent offering for GURPS in a while. That is if I know how to use the search function on Warehouse 23 (Hint for all those who are confused: She’s listed as both Beth McCoy and Elizabeth McCoy). It’s not what I thought of when I saw the hints, but it isn’t all that unexpected. The Aliens entry has been on the e23 wishlist for quite some time. And Sparrials are shoe-in to kick-start the line. Title page of GURPS Aliens: Sparrials

 

You might ask what’s so special about the little squirrel-monkeys if you only skimmed the four pages in the original GURPS Aliens (which are pretty much reproduced completely in this volume by the way). Sparrials are pretty much as adaptable as humans in an SF setting (lacking only strength) and include iconic characters like Serron of Irregular Webcomic fame. Okay, maybe Serron is the only fictional Sparrial ever, but they are pretty cool anyway. (Edit: the author informs me that there is at least one more fictional Sparrial – although minor)

For those of you who haven’t encountered them in the German translation of the 3rd Edition version of Space, here the short version: Sparrials are limber aliens with interesting dominance mechanics, compulsive kleptomania and the ability to smell (among other things) lies.

Facts

Author:  Elizabeth McCoy (a.k.a. Archangel Beth)
Date of Publication:  2015/12/03
Format: PDF-only (Warehouse 23-only)
Page Count: 30 (1 title page, 1 content page, 1 index page, 1 page ad)
Price: $7.99 (PDF), $ 0.27 per page of content; Score of 4/10
Preview: http://www.warehouse23.com/media/SJG37-1684_preview.pdf

Review

The most surprising part about this book is that it’s a setting book that’s almost more meaty than cheesy. Yes, it describes an alien species, but it certainly doesn’t skimp on rule mechanics. We get the updated 4th Edition stats as expected, but we also get hints on what advantages, disadvantages and skills make sense for Sparrial PCs. We get variant races for dropping them into Fantasy, a species-specific martial arts style and preferred psionics and spells. Add to that a sub-chapter on template selection (with a fully-fleshed out pilot one) and a 7-page chapter on gear including pets and spaceships and you’re not going to end up with an all-fluff book.

What’s also surprising is the fact that the whole shebang is 30 pages instead of the 12 or 21 advertised on the wishlist – a wise decision that one can hope will continue to other books in this series and the – hopefully upcoming – Fantasy Folk one. Apart from the usual 4 spare pages we have a 9-page chapter that deals mostly with the game stats for the race, an 8-page chapter that contains much on Sparrial psychology, culture and society and the mentioned 7-page chapter on gear. On the whole, this looks like the sweet spot for any species book this side of elves, dwarves and orcs.

Meat

So, how does all that meat hold up? Very well for the most part. The basic stats make sense, even though both Short Lifespan and Increased Consumption are classic free points disads in many campaigns. The racial strength penalty is also a bonus in most non-military SF campaigns. With their high DX Sparrials are no longer point neutral in 4th Edition, which is probably a good thing. I’m only missing Brachiator for the originally tree-dwelling squirrel monkeys, but it can be bought by exceptional characters (and is largely irrelevant in SF if artificial gravity exists).

There are some neat titbits in there like the rules for albino eyesight riding gear for goat-headed, snake-necked sloths and scent-based attraction. But there’s also some (very) slightly wonky stuff like the ageing thresholds thresholds that don’t mesh with the rules for Short Lifespan and missing rules for Pacifism: Cannot Kill Except in Self-Defence. Overall there’s nothing substantial to complain about and almost anything you’d need to know about Sparrials is in there. There are no sample organisations, but even that makes sense: Sparrials are notoriously hard at coordinating above the family level. They have no large governments or even military forces.

For a minor race described on four pages in a decades-old book, this is an excellent treatment rules-wise. The Sparrial pets and the spaceship tie round things out nicely and the template makes you wish there was an SF equivalent to Dungeon Fantasy.

Meat score: 7 (would steal back from any Sparrial hacker)

Cheese

As shiny as the meaty bits are, such a book still stands and falls with its cheesy content and the McCoy doesn’t disappoint there either. Yes, the book uses most of the old GURPS Aliens content verbatim, but it also adds a lot of new stuff. Especially the kinship society and one-on-one dominance receive a lot of attention, as do child-rearing, culture and relations with aliens. Players shouldn’t have any problems making their Sparrial character fit into an existing group and GMs are given a lot of ideas to integrate  the squirrely aliens into their campaigns – that goes even for Banestorm and Dungeon Fantasy. As the Sparrials were quite low-tech before first contact, they don’t need many changes to exist between orcs and elves. With their low ST they might even be somewhat better balanced in a fantasy campaign.

There are no real disappointments for those who want extensive non-rules information about a species. Even the sample character and the adventure seeds are interesting – if reused from the original treatment.

Cheese score: 9 (Sparrials are very competent cooks)

Sauce

There aren’t many pictures in the book and both of those showing actual Sparrials are re-used from GURPS Aliens. There’s one that might show a Sparrial dwelling, but I’m not sure what it signifies. There is a generic spaceship picture in Christopher Shy’s gorgeous style, but it’s incongruous with the other art and appears twice on consecutive pages only clipped and skewed differently. All in all a quite disappointing showing.

Writing is good, but some of the direct speech in the prose text is a bit jarring. Those were taken verbatim from the original and the age shows. Some editorial decisions are a bit weird – size modifier considerations come before we know Sparrials actual height – but nothing major.

Sauce score: 5.5 (meh art, mostly good writing and editing)

Generic Nutritional Substance

As every species treatment is necessarily tied to setting, the Sparrials don’t do so well here, but they can reasonably be added to any setting that does contain multiple sapient species this side of grim dark treatments.

Generic Nutritional Substance score: 6.5 (still good for a species book)

Summary

Aliens: Sparrials honestly isn’t something I would have bought if I didn’t have fierce desire to support GURPS and a wallet that doesn’t cringe on these kinds of expenditures any more. I am, however, glad that I did buy it. Sparrials probably won’t show up in any of my campaigns any time soon, but Elizabeth McCoy shows us how to do a species splatbook GURPS-style. If you think your campaign needs more colourful thieves, this is the book for you.

Total score: 7.275  (a steal)
Total score is composed of a weighted average of Meat (32.5%), Cheese (32.5%), Sauce (20%) and Generic Nutritional Substance (15%). This is a balanced book

Value score: 5.6375 (not quite a steal due to 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.