Bite-sized Review: GURPS Dungeon Fantasy Setting – Cold Shard Mountains

Thanks to an unfortunate lull in our real-life roleplaying I actually got to read another GURPS book and now I actually have the time to write up the review since our next session is cancelled due to the Corona Virus. Without further ado I present Matt Riggsby’s latest GURPS offering.

Cover GURPS Dungeon Fantasy Setting - Cold Shard Mountains

In the tradition of Kromm’s pretty dang  good GURPS Dungeon Fantasy Setting – Caverntown Riggsby gives us another DF setting: Cold Shard Mountains. Both detail locales with a rich history that can serve as a home base (“Town” in DF-speak), but the similarities pretty much end there.

Facts

Author: Sean Matt Riggsby
Date of Publication: 20/03/20
Format: currently PDF-only (Warehouse 23-only)
Page Count: 59 (1 cover page, 1 content page, 2 index pages, 1 page ad, 8 map pages)
Price: $10.00 (PDF), $ 0.22 per page of content; Score of 7/10
Preview: http://www.warehouse23.com/media/SJG37-0353_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.

As a Dungeon Fantasy book that is mainly setting, this will be classed as both cheesy and meaty. And indeed there are even more meaty bits than in the Caverntown book. The present volume is structured a little more traditionally starting off with a chapter on geography and some geology (6 pages), then delves into history a lot more expansive than what Kromm does for C-Town (4 pages). After that there’s a gazetteer that goes into considerable detail as to factions, religion, settlements, some NPCs and sites of interest (20 pages), Treasures & Monsters (10 pages) and finally campaigns (5 pages). The rest are mainly differently zoomed and labelled versions of the campaign map.

Meat

There’s relatively little in the way of meat in the first three chapters. Three NPCs are statted out in detail, but they’re not quite so extensive as in Cavertown, though two have been given (relatively banal) gear lists. Do we really need to know a dwarven general carries a blanket and a – yawn – fine dwarven axe? Not that it would have saved much space, but still.

“Treasures & Monsters” on the other hand is mostly – but not all – meat. We get clear stats for a couple of Yangite sacred relics. Yangite is the local flavour you can apply to your campaign religions and the way their relics work is simply a great way of giving a temporary boon to your group without having to forcibly take it away later. They just tend vanish on their own – The-One-Ring-style.

Then there are some other legendary artefacts tied to the region’s history and a couple of cheaper knock-offs as well as some new concoctions and the ever-popular set items you know from MMORPGs – here called additive sets.

A bestiary with 13 entries makes up the rest of this chapter. Most of the entries have complete stat blocks and one is a racial template for a Wise Raptor – if you ever lacked a bird-man for dungeon-crawling (hint: that’s not their strength, but they’re great for wilderness adventures.

The monsters range from mundane Mountain Wolves, over exotics like Ice Scorpions and Hive Lizards to clearly supernatural demons – who have played a big part in the history of the setting. There’s also a box on which monsters from other books are common in the Cold Shard Mountains.

The last chapter also has a couple of meaty bits in it with very basic rules for “living dungeons” and “Hex Crawls”. These are not your usual encounter tables as you know them from Caverntown and other places, since there’s only one entry for all sorts of monster together. The living dungeon bits are useful for making sure the cleared sections of the underground don’t just stay the same forever – especially after being cleared by the delvers. The rules for hex crawls aren’t really what they say they are. There are combined tables for interesting places, people and events one might encounter. They’re not bad for a story-telling purpose, but they are not anywhere near to what people think when they hear the words hex crawl. The accompanying maps are, however, split into hexes.

What’s missing compared to Cavertown? There’s less in the way of NPC stats and much less about economy – though it’s noted which settlements count as Town and some places have special services. There are also no urban dangers and fines or punishments, random encounters or more elaborate random events (the ones on the hex crawl table are mostly one-word descriptions). So, the focus is quite different. It is, however – with  the exception of the Hex Crawl bit – an extremely satisfying mix that meshes extraordinarily well with the cheesier parts of the setting.

Meat score: 9.5

Cheese

The story bits are where it all comes together like a charm. While the intro is a bit weak, the geography chapter takes us right into the middle of a locale perfect for dungeon-delving. This section and the history chapter explain perfectly how the dungeon-friendly features came about and how they interact with underground and surface societies. One can certainly tell that Matt Riggsby has a classical education from how he gives tips on making the tunnels, artefacts and dwellings of the different races (dwarves, coleopterans, demons and humans) that shaped the mountains distinctive from each other.

Also the local flavour of religion is a stroke of genius for a generic setting like this one. The battle between a polytheist strain and one that sees all gods as faces of one god, is at the same time very interesting and very easily adapted to whatever pantheons the GM has in their campaign.

The history is multi-layered with some interesting characters and some more typical fantasy tropes. The author manages to strike just the right balance between too much and too little detail. There’s not too much focus on when exactly and who exactly, but broad strokes that convert well to most campaigns.

The gazetteer makes it all come alive in the present moment. Again the level of detail is pretty much on point, maybe a tiny little more about the bigger towns could have been included, but it’s very hard to argue with the level of interest and zaniness that is already in there. For example the town of Dry Triangle is ultimately ruled by a talking stone, there are ancient alchemical waste-dumps that can be tapped for potentially useful if unstable potions, a mountain range made that is really a dead dragon and an underground “river” whose banks rotate around it.

The campaigns chapter spells out some very solid hooks that have been developed earlier on. With the factions given factions, it’s easy to find employment for different kinds of missions. And even the “Hex Crawl” rules mentioned above are not a complete loss story-wise.

There are interesting titbits everywhere from crops to historical NPCs (who might still be around sleeping) to quirky details on governance or geography. The only thing that’s a bit weird are the naming conventions, which seem a bit all over the place. And is Ardo Yang a joke on kitchen appliances? Didn’t quite get that.

Apart for the zanier elements this feels a lot like Douglas H. Cole’s Powered by DFRPG offerings, except that it is just a little tighter and more concise and easier to use in an unspecific fantasy setting.

It’s hard to convey how exactly ‘right’ this feels when reading. It just is. Basically an old-school approach if old-school had had more people who knew what they were doing instead of slinging random encounter tables.

Cheese score: 9.5

Sauce

Aye, there’s the rub. It’s almost traditional for me to bemoan GURPS products under this heading and this is not much different. Apart from the map bits, there are seven illustrations in the book (and I’m being very generous by counting Demon Hornets). Apart from the hornets they are among the better black-and-white art pieces I’ve seen in GURPS. And then there’s the map…

While I appreciate that Campaign Cartographer has quite a steep learning curve. This is an ugly jumble of the same half-dozen cut-outs repeated ad nauseam and the overview map makes me faintly dizzy just by looking at it. The best you can say of them is that they do manage to give you a rough overview and that you hand-drawn hex crawl maps will look neat in comparison. If you have Hot-Spots: The Silk Road you get the general idea, though the larger scale makes it a good bit uglier.

But while Riggsby might apply to join the club of visually-challenged cartographers, his writing is of a high standard – clean, concise, funny – sometimes to the laughing-out-loud level. I still prefer Kromm at his best, but it’s a close-run fight between the So I’m glad he doesn’t get to review my writing. Editing’s a little choppy in this one with me personally stumbling over four typos & mistakes, but the good two-page index makes up for it. Now if it just weren’t for the map…

Sauce score: 5.5

Generic Nutritional Substance

A setting is by nature not very generic, but Cold Shard Mountains is pretty dang easy to drop into any old corner of a vaguely Tolkienesque fantasy world. Yeah, without Coleopterans and Dwarves it’s a bit hard to make it work, but the former could be unique to the area nowadays while the latter are ubiquitous in fantasy campaigns. The way the Yangite religion has been designed, it’s easy to supplant the few mentioned godheads with whatever a GM has in their main pantheons.

The only things that might be tricky to fit into your own personal world are the two full-scale demon incursion, but then those are a staple for most worlds too. The monsters, gear and even some of the sites can be easily dropped someplace else.

It’s not exactly easy to use it in a non-supernatural setting, but some things could be readjusted for SF. That would necessitate rejiggering most of the stats so. Generic Nutritional Substance is still high for DF.

Generic Nutritional Substance score: 7.5

Aftertaste (Summary)

If you want a setting to go adventuring in, then the Cold Shard Mountains are probably a better choice than Caverntown. If you want a unique and weird home base with its own economy and politics to start adventuring from, then it’s probably the other way around. Both are excellent, but Matt Riggsby’s latest offering did strike a special chord with me. It just felt like coming home…

Total score: 8.4
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. A “cheesy” setting- or a meaty rulebook would change the percentages for cheese and meat.

Value score: 7.7
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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