Review: GURPS Mars Attacks

Updated 12/06/2017 after PDF release to fix price mistake

After far too much time off the radar I’ll tackle one of the two delicious GURPS hardcovers that came out late last year. It’s not exactly hot off the press any more, but it only got to Germany six weeks ago, so it’s not exactly cold review by that standard either. Anyway, just have a look at that gorgeous cover:

GURPS Mars Attacks Cover

Facts

Author: Jason “PK” Levine (a.k.a. Reverend Pee Kitty)
Date of Publication: 29/12/2016 (date of announcement of store availability)
Format: Hardcover and PDF (Warehouse-23)
Page Count: 96 (1 title page, 2 content pages, 2 index pages, 1 page ad)
Price: $24.95 (hardcover), $0.27 per page of content; Score of 6/10 for the hardcover (+2 for being a full-colour hardcover book),
$15.00 (PDF), $0.17 per page of content, Score of 8/10 (+1 for full-colour)
Preview: http://www.warehouse23.com/media/SJG31-2510_preview.pdf

Review

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.

The first thing that grabs you about the book is the art. You don’t even have to like the B-movie alien horror style to see that this is heads and shoulders above the usual GURPS fare. Moreover, it fits the mood for the setting perfectly. Then there’s the fact that it’s the first full-colour hardcover GURPS book since Low-Tech, albeit the smallest one in existence. Yes, it’s smaller than GURPS Dragons and GURPS Alpha Centauri! It’s still a good size for bringing it to your gaming table, but it won’t give you full-text search.

With the technical stuff out of the way, let’s have a look at the content. This is most certainly a setting book with a useful amount of meaty stats, but not enough to make it a meat-cheese hybrid. Only a little bit over twenty pages deal directly with rules and most of these are character templates. The history of the invasion, different aspects of Martian society, command structure (basically the same) and technology get a lot room as do human responses, the breakdown of global society and game-mastery things like setting the mood, making things memorable and maintaining a good pacing. Indeed, the book does a very good job at streamlining play both on the meta-level and the rules themselves.

GURPS Mars Attacks is divided in five chapters, a short introduction to the franchise and the usual comprehensive index. First we get a timeline of the Martian menace going back to the beginning of the 20th century, then we get an in-depth look at both the Martians and humanity with its allies. Their respective technology is also discussed in story terms in these two chapters. Chapter four deals with character traits and templates – both racial and occupational. The final chapter deals mostly with plots, atmosphere and setting dials, but also includes some NPC write-ups (as you might imagine there aren’t very many).

Mars Attacks is supposed to be a stand-alone book, ready to play with nothing but the Basic Set, but even the introduction strongly suggests Ultra-Tech. I would add High-Tech to the list (the only normal vehicle not covered in here is a jet fighter) and both the Action series Power-Ups 5: Impulse Buys is a perfect fit for this style of gaming. More tech books can be added to taste, but they aren’t a necessity. 3rd Edition GURPS Atomic Horror is not a bad addition though. Even if a lot of its salient points have been covered in Mars Attacks it’s a good lead-in for the pre-invasion games and adds a ton of details for a 1950s campaign.

Meat

While stats and rules aren’t the focus, there is a lot of meaty stuff in Mars Attacks still. We get stats for the zany Martian weapons and vehicles and monster stat blocks for their experiments (including “upgraded” humans and giant insects). Giant robots get both the vehicle and monster treatment for use by and against PCs. There are streamlined tech level rules that reduce the penalties for high TLs and variant gadgeteering rules that allow for taking shortcuts in exchange for weird bugs.

We also get a comprehensive treatment of available character traits for both the Martian and human side, including Wildcard Skills and what to do if your players want to play less nasty Martians. Character templates and the accompanying lenses cover most of the common roles you’d expect to pop up, but the variety and niche protection is less than in dedicated series like GURPS Action, Monster Hunters or After the End. There are rules for adapting templates from the former two for a Mars Attacks game, but a small tie-in to the latter would have been even more àpropos, in my opinion.

There are some nice titbits I wouldn’t have expected like half a page of cybernetic limbs with point costs and Range Bands that replace regular range penalties with broader ranges for basic combat. Hilariously, you can also reconstruct the Martian weakness for awful country music, even though that’s not a standard assumption.

All in all, the only thing that seems to be missing is standard military loadout for the humans (the Martians are covered). I’m guessing that there were reasons for not making this an even 100-pages and setting-specific stuff is certainly more important than things you can look up in other books. Still it hurts playability for the target audience.

Meat score: 7.5 (weird tech win)

Cheese

For such a campy setting, there’s certainly a lot of non-campy backstory involved and that makes it possible to play a Mars Attacks campaign straight with the weirdness taking a backseat to the action and horror. That was probably a good decision. After all you can always turn the camp dial to eleven. The book actually uses the three dials of camp, darkness and gore to help the GM get a feeling for how to stage their scenes.The deeper themes of the story aren’t neglected, but they seldom take centre-stage.

Most of the GM advice is about making each session a rip-roaring tale of gruesome adventure and – above all – fun. The last chapter makes it easy to set up good campaign starters (and continuations) even for the less experienced GM. The seeds listed here and in the vignettes should keep players occupied for a long time. What’s missing is a sample adventure or at least a detailed look at an alien base through human eyes. While the book does a good job of inspiring GMs, it’s still bit more work than the popular GURPS series, including Dungeon Fantasy. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but Mars Attacks is more like regular GURPS in this way and not necessarily the first book to give to a newbie after Caravan to Ein Arris.

Having said that there is still a plethora of information in here that can be used to stage a multitude of scenarios: hapless civilians being caught in a surprise invasion, alien sadists rampaging through the countryside, secretive scientists preparing for the alien menace and special forces infiltrating the enemy’s bases. The fact that the aliens are always considered as a playable faction is a definite plus and lends itself to periodic changes of perspective. The alien mindset is very well represented and helps players portray sadistic, status-obsessed Martians without going completely off the deep end. The preferred option is still playing humane Martians, though, which is probably a good idea for any sort of extended campaign.

For those interested in such matters, the canonical story given here is different from both the trading card series and the movie, but makes more sense than either. I can’t speak for the comics – maybe those are closer. In any case, there are also a lot of divergence points offered, so that nothing is set in stone and can be changed by the GM – or the actions of the players!

Apart from the absence of an intro adventure there is very little that’s missing from a setting point of view.

Cheese score: 8.5 (Martians are very thorough)

Sauce

This is the first GURPS book in while that really makes you happy about how things look and it’s the first full-colour one since GURPS Dragons (remember that first 4th Edition book?). While the art style might not be everybody’s cup of tea, it’s a perfect fit for this style of game. Readers who get really turned off by the art will probably think the same thing about the content. Even the sexualised nature of some of the original artwork is addressed and in a mature manner too.

The writing is top-notch as you’d expect it from PK, but for most of this book he set his humour to extra-dry , which makes it all the funnier. The vignettes (a big one for the Introduction and each chapter and small ones throughout the text) are very interesting reads too and feel a lot less forced than what you often see in RPG books. They do add a lot to the overall look and feel and help the reader explore the world in a more immediate way.

Editing and index are near perfect as we’ve come to expect from SJGames, but the layout is even better than usual. The upper margin with the colourful UFOs  is a really nice touch and using a radioactive symbol instead of a fat bullet point actually helps readability a lot, especially in the templates.

Sauce score: 9.5 (highest Sauce mark so far)

Generic Nutritional Substance

As a setting book, there are always limits to how much you can pilfer for other games. Streamlined TL and gadgeteering are obvious candidates as are range bands and most of the tech and character templates. The GM tips work for a lot of over-the-top campaigns too, but ultimately more than half of the book is explicitly about alien invasion and much is about this specific invasion.

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

Summary

Mars Attacks is is a very good, campy, over-the-top SF action-horror setting to buy that leaves very little to be desired. If you’re looking for a change of pace you could do much worse. Just don’t mistake the book for something it isn’t! It’s not GURPS Alien Invasions in the sense of X-Com, Xenonauts or Black Ops. It’s much more action-oriented and fast-paced and has – for most of the part – more similarity with a zombie apocalypse setting than anything else. And it will be bloody and silly and horrible in equal measure. Still, it’s a useful thing to have even if you don’t plan on running such a campaign any time soon. I certainly got more from the book than I would have ever thought. Add to that the fact that it’s the cheapest GURPS hardcover to date and you certainly have a winner!

Total score: 8.25 (2nd best so far)
Total score is composed of a weighted average of Meat (15%), Cheese (50%), Sauce (20%) and Generic Nutritional Substance (15%). This is a cheese-oriented book. A “meaty” tech- or rules-oriented book would turn the percentages for cheese and meat around.

Value score: 7.125 for the hardcover, 8.125 for the PDF
Your choice. The hardcover is certainly more fun to show around, but the PDF will probably be more useful in the long run and it’s a real bargain.
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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