The GURPS Encounters series is still young and its second instalment is very different from its first (Matt Riggsby’s Pagoda of Worlds), so it’s time for a little review. It’s bite-sized, because I try to cut down from my usual endless word-wastes. So without further ado, here’s Jon Black’s The Harrowed Hearts Club.
Author: Jon Black
Date of Publication: 02/11/2017
Format: PDF-only (Warehouse 23-only)
Page Count: 21 (1 title page, 1 content page, 1/2 index page, 1/2 page ad)
Price: $6.00 (PDF), $ 0.33 per page of content; Score of 3/10
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.
Encounters is a new format for GURPS and this supplement combines two very different things: The first chapter (7 pages) is basically GURPS Clubs (or Haunted Clubs if you want to be pedantic) and explains how the basic building blocks can be used to make up very different establishments. From the different parts of the club, to its dimensions, to supernatural abilities of the club itself (complete with appropriate manifestations) and the templates for regular patrons and employees (including musicians). A small bibliography can be found on page 10 under “Additional Inspiration”.
The second chapter (11 pages) contains a short history of the titular club and four actual encounters. Each encounter is two or three pages long and consists of a number of events, some of which are optional. A small box on the last page contains five more three-sentence scenario ideas.
Please take note that the following contains some spoilers for the encounters! Scroll down to the summary if you want to completely avoid those.
The crunchy bits are not the main thing here, but there are quite a few stats here all the same. Templates for patrons and employees are short, but to the point, and the encounters make use of them too. Abilities and disadvantages for the Spirit of the Club and its manifestations take up almost a page – performance addiction is a nice idea how the club may affect musicians.
There’s also a box that lets you find out how likely it is to have someone with a specific skill in a middling-sized club (the stereotypical “Is there a doctor here?”). That will surely come handy in a variety of campaigns. Nothing obvious is missing, indeed even magical and psionic abilities are called out explicitly where they might matter and each encounter has a quick overview box with campaign and character suggestions.
Meat score: 8.5
The first chapter is certainly useful, but GMs will likely come for the stories and not so much for the generic pub-building. The history of the Harrowed Hearts Club is violent from the very beginning and ties in nicely with the different iconic periods of American history. It’s quite clear that Jon Black knows his stuff and much of this is quite fascinating. So fascinating indeed that it is a bit of a shame that some entries have been cut short. Sure, you can read up on Jake Leg on wikipedia and need the game stats for the stuff more than the exact details, but I would have liked to see a bit more in some cases.
As for the encounters, they are clearly structured in different events and are nicely varied with more or or less mundane things, to creepily ambiguous horror to straight-up supernatural stuff. Three of them can be set in more or less recent history with a strong urban fantasy slant (low-powered Monster Hunters are mentioned as a definite possibility). The first one is a completely mundane Prohibition-era gangster story and – in my opinion – the weakest piece in the ensemble. The second one takes the characters literally to the past and allows them to change history by rescuing people during a famous fire. The third one is a creepy piece set during a high-stakes illegal poker game and the last one is the big confrontation with the spirit of the club and its unwilling minions – Monster Hunter style.
The last three encounters can be easily interspersed into an ongoing urban fantasy / secret magic campaign that build up to an unexpected crescendo. Pity that the pub will no longer be haunted if the characters succeed. The supplement certainly lives up to the Encounters title, even though a little bit more wouldn’t have hurt either.
Cheese score: 8
As often the case, this is where GURPS lets us down. The illustrations are actually quite good, but it’s still two black-and-white images that are relatively generic. Also there’s no map. And though you could argue that this makes it more generic, it does hurt the plug-and-play functionality. At least two of the encounters could definitely make use of a detailed map.
What’s good is Mr. Black’s fluent writing style, good editing and even an index.
Sauce score: 6
Generic Nutritional Substance
This category might seem a bit pointless for an Encounter book, but it still is important to know how easy it is to to drop the club into an ongoing campaign. There are quite a few hints to adapt things to different backdrops as far as the supernatural is concerned, but basically the encounters presuppose a modern American secret magic setting. You can certainly shift things a couple of decades back or forward in time, but that’s basically. I’m not saying it can’t be reworked more completely, but that kind of defeats the purpose of a worked out scenario.
The first chapter, on the other hand, is quite generic and can be used for many a different campaign. There’s a little overlap with Dungeon Fantasy 10: Taverns, but it’s surprisingly negligible.
Generic Nutritional Substance score: 7
Encounters: The Harrowed Hearts Club is short and sweet – a good example of what the line can look like outside Dungeon Fantasy. The question whether it couldn’t be all the sweeter with a few more pages does arise, though. That would also help with the relatively bad price/page ratio.
I like the fact that the encounters really feel like more than just scenario ideas without being turned into fully-fledged adventures that likely would be too specific for most campaigns. What is a bit confusing about this is that all the Encounters so far are pretty strongly tied to locations. I’d like to see a volume that is less place-specific next.
Total score: 7.525 (almost very good)
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” gear-or rules-oriented book would turn the percentages for cheese and meat around.
Value score: 5.2625 (hurt by the high per-page price)
Value Score is composed of the average of Total and Price.
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