Step-by-Step: DSA GURPS Conversion I – The Basics

Even the most dedicated GURPS fan has to admit that their favourite system is kind of lacking in rich, detailed settings that you can just lose yourself in. However, it offers all the tools needed to make every setting a GURPS setting. This guide shows you one way of doing such a conversion. It uses the German RPG Das Schwarze Auge (DSA) as an example.

1) Take a deep breath and think on why you want to convert this specific setting.

Whether the setting is another RPG system, a novel, a film, a computer game or a TV series you first need to be sure what you’re going for. A novel might be very good on its own, but not lend itself to an RPG experience. A film might not be so much fun if your players can’t think of cool one-liners and you have to imagine all the special effects. The intrigues and relationships that make up a TV series might not be so much fun if your characters never get to see what motivates them, because that happens in NPC-only scenes.

RPG settings are easier in this regard – they already work well for groups of PCs – but they pose an additional question: Why aren’t you just playing the setting using its original rules? Valid answers are lack of realism (D&D, DSA), plain shoddy rules (everything from Palladium), new editions every couple of years (D&D, Shadowrun, DSA), overly complicated rules (DSA), rules that don’t allow certain character concepts (D&D) or unwillingness of your players to try new things. The last point needs to be emphasised. If your players are happy to try the other rule system, at least give it a try. There’s no point in converting a whole setting if you are only doing it for yourself, even if you love converting settings.

I’ve already outlined the reasons why I think converting DSA to GURPS is a good idea here.

2) Start with what you need.

Converting a setting means you’re going to be in for the long haul, but that doesn’t mean you should disregard short-term needs. It’s best to start off with asking your players what they would want to play. Making those starting characters possible should be one of your first goals. But you also need to know what should happen with the rest of the setting.

In the case of our DSA campaign, we actually converted an existing group of characters:

1) Borlox, the dwarven mercenary. Racial stats for dwarves were an obvious start, but also rules for appropriate gear and such.
2) Kalman, the half-elven hunter. Besides racial stats for half-elves, I also needed to decide how to handle ranged weapons. I decided as a more realistic style than in my Forgotten Realms campaign and didn’t hand out Heroic Archer to a starting character. That meant none of the others got Weapon Master either.
3) Stiblet, the human priest of Hesinde. The main thing here was to figure out how to handle divine miracles and fortunately Powers – Divine Favor is a good fit. Apart from a number of custom-made learned miracles and a couple of tiny tweaks to dice rolls the system works fine.
4) Vitus, the human transformation mage. Apart from the two or three new spells there was also the issue of how to arrange the magic system. Nothing Thaumatology and Magical Styles couldn’t solve.
5) Woltan, the warrior. Nothing more than a fighting style for his academy and a decision on how to trade points of equipment was needed.

With the starting characters I knew I needed to flesh out two races, divine influences and standard magic as taught at mages’ academy.

Now all the characters also had an ethnic origin that was somewhat reflected in their disadvantages, language selection and even skills. Should this be converted into hard and fast rules? I am kind of averse to giving different cultures different stats and in the end I decided to use emblematic traits to give some flavour without mandating that every Thorwalian knows how to row a boat.

Some characters also had Special Abilities – DSA’s answer to D&D feats. These are almost exclusively used for combat, magic and supernatural tricks. They can be learned and most of the combat ones make more sense as techniques, manoeuvres and perks. I mean it’s hard to imagine why you have to buy a special ability just to learn how to feint. It’s not hard to just make ad hoc judgements about whether a given combat ability falls into the purview of a perk, technique or manoeuvre.

Magical abilities are harder to pin down and more likely to cause problems. There aren’t very many that are ubiquitous, but every mage starts out with a couple of those, including staff enchantment rituals and arcane meditation, which is a way to gain more magical energy. These were likely to be complicated so I decided to just use DSA rules without setting a cost for the first few sessions. This brings us to step three.

3) Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Not worrying about some aspects of the setting is absolutely fine. Things can work by fiat until you work out more detailed rules. Just don’t skimp on the points necessary to buy the rules-compliant abilities later.

That’s especially the case for minor things that are there mainly for flavour: minor social traits, the exact way some ritual or piece of equipment works, exact spell costs and the final contents of the magical colleges. If it’s not of vital importance for your starting characters, ignore it!

4) Paint with broad strokes.

Related to the previous step, but even more important: While it’s fine to ignore details, you should know where you want to go with the setting as a whole. Even if you don’t plan on using some aspects of the setting any time soon, you should know the general rules you want to work. This is always important for supernatural and exotic powers and abilities, but cinematic conventions and the influence of ultra-tech or superscience bear thinking about.

For a fantasy setting like DSA supernatural stuff far outnumbers all other considerations. The setting’s main kind of magic consists of skill-like spells. Mages, elves, druids, witches, geodes they all use some variant of this. Other ways to work magic exist, but they are far less prominent in the setting. Making this spell magic work well is the bulk of the conversion work. It’s also important to differentiate the different magical traditions from each other without making them completely incompatible. For this reason they will all use a core of GURPS Magic with switches and variants taken from GURPS Thaumatology. They depend on mana level, but those aren’t extremely varied with most of the world being normal mana. Of course, in DSA it is possible to construct low and no mana zones by using certain stones as building material, so this evens out.

Other magical traditions and the less common rituals of the traditions mentioned above will use other magic systems taken from other sources. One thing that is clear though is that the “Magic as Powers” approach will be used only sparingly. All magic uses up energy sources and powers don’t mix very well with a “spells as skills” approach in this case.

Divine powers on the other hand will be common, but fickle. Those don’t use energy pools and depend on sanctity instead of mana. Basically the system presented in GURPS Powers: Divine Favor is used.

There are some kinds of powers that seem to stand in between those two groups like shamans, the Gjalskerlander Beast-Warrior or the Ferkina Possessed. These special cases are set aside for a consideration at a later time. There might be a space for spirit-based or chi-based powers in DSA, even if the setting calls everything magic or divine agency.

Apart from the supernatural, there isn’t all that much out of the ordinary. Combat-oriented characters can be distinguished by skills, weapons, armour and martial styles. Social structures can be easily described with GURPS terminology, especially if you’re using GURPS Social Engineering. Races are rather straightforward to convert, even though their special legal statuses are often hidden in other publications (DSA doesn’t care for assigning points even to pretty hefty cases of Legal Immunity). Technology is an eclectic mix of TL 0-4 as is typical for fantasy settings, but nothing a base TL can’t handle.

The next part of this series will deal with how to handle the conversion of a setting’s races and give examples for the most important ones in DSA.


The material presented here is my original creation, intended for use with the GURPS system from Steve Jackson Games. This material is not official and is not endorsed by Steve Jackson Games.

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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GURPS DSA – Wirklich eine gute Idee?

This is a German variant of the English article. There isn’t much here that isn’t in the English version.

In der irrigen Annahme, dass jemand aus Deutschland daran interessiert sein könnte, hier noch eine Version des letzten Artikels in der Originalsprache des Schwarzen Auges.

Als langjähriger Freund und Playtester von GURPS habe ich schon manche Konversion unternommen, aber von DSA hatte ich mich immer ferngehalten bis alter Freund mal wieder spielen wollte und wir nach zwei Abenteuern feststellen mussten, dass niemand die Regeln mochte.

Für den geneigten deutschen Leser – d.h. jemanden, dem Pen & Paper Rollenspiele bekannt sind – brauche ich nicht viele Worte um DSA zu machen, aber ein paar Stichpunkte zu den Eigenschaften des Settings sind natürlich nützlich.

Gutes

1) DSA ist ein dichtes Setting. Nicht jeder Spielleiter – auch nicht jeder GURPS-SL – ist gut im Worlbuilding und DSA hat genug Material, dass so ein Makel nie auffallen wird. Die Welt ist – für eine Fantasywelt – auch nicht zu unlogisch (jaja, die Klimazonen, ich weiß).

2) Der Support mit neuem Material ist sichergestellt. Alte Abenteuer sind auch gut als PDF zu erhalten. Insgesamt ist der Support vergleichbar mit GURPS, wenn auch mit anderer Stoßrichtung (Setting, Abenteuer) und etwas schwankender Qualität.

3) Durch die Abenteuer und das sehr ausgestaltete Setting nimmt DSA dem Spielleiter viel ab. Wer keine vorgefertigten Abenteuer mag, ist natürlich falsch beraten DSA oder eine GURPS-Variante zu seinem System zu erküren.

4) Es gibt jede Menge originelle Charakterkonzepte. Nicht nur vermeidet man den Standard-Krieger und -Magier, Charaktere wie Schelm, Zibilja, Kristallomant oder Geweihter laden zum etwas anderen Rollenspiel ein. Abstimmung mit Gruppe und SL ist dabei natürlich immer wichtig.

5) Die große Fangemeinde macht das Finden von Spielern recht einfach. Ob das auch für die GURPS-Variante zutrifft kann ich nicht sagen, aber eine bestehende DSA-Gruppe zu überzeugen, die GURPS-Regeln auszuprobieren war bei mir machbar.

Schlechtes

1) Das Setting kann überwältigend sein. Der prospektive SL sollte sich klar machen, wie nahe er am “offiziellen” Aventurien bleiben will und wie fanatisch seine Spieler auf dem Kanon beharren. Abenteuer sind besonders schlimm in dieser Hinsicht mit ihren Orts- und Zeitbeschränkungen. Jedoch ist es häufig möglich letztere zu umgehen, wenn man den Kleinkram überliest. Ortsbeschränkungen sind dagegen oft nicht zu ändern, auch wenn die Abenteuer es manchmal übertreiben. Hier könnte eine gute Liste Abhilfe schaffen, aber bislang konnte ich noch nichts finden.

2) Über die Regeln kann man einiges sagen, aber viel Gutes ist nicht dabei. Ohne Automatisierung ist die Charaktererstellung ein einziger Horror, die Talent-Probe ist ein schlechter Witz, der aber für 50% des Spiels verantwortlich ist, Sonderfertigkeiten machen aus realistischer Perspektive selten Sinn und Beschränkungen wie Elfische Weltsicht sind einfach blöd. Vieles was an der vierten Edition gut ist (echte Vor- und Nachteile, mehr Kampfoptionen, Variation von Zaubern) wurde von anderen Systeme (v.a. GURPS) mehr schlecht als recht übernommen. Schwer wiegt auch die Tatsache, dass vieles einfach nicht so zum Hintergrund passt wie man ihn aus Romanen und Zitaten kennt.

3) DSA-Fans sind oft recht fanatisch. Einerseits ist das gut, da die Spieler dann nicht schnell die Lust verlieren, andererseits muss man sich als SL oft mal auf die Finger klopfen lassen. Und es ist auch nicht witzig sich von realweltlichen Praioten runterputzen zu lassen, nur weil man eine Hexe in der Gruppe hat.

4) Die Kosten für die Materialien sind hoch. Auch wenn man sich als GURPS-SL auf die Basics beschränken kann wird man doch an Schwerter & Helden, Zauberei & Hexenwerk, Götter & Dämonen und einigen Hintergrundwerken nicht vorbei kommen. Selbst als PDF laufen diese drei veralteten “Grund”regelwerke auf 60€ heraus. Das (gerade noch) aktuelle Wege-Paket schlägt sohar mit 90€ zu Buche. Und damit sind noch nicht die Hintergrüne und Abenteuer abgedeckt. Okay, GURPS ist auch nicht gerade billig, aber die Vielzahl von DSA-Regionalbänden kann den Erwerb recht teuer machen (zumal nicht alle als PDF vorhanden sind).

5) Der Sprach-Mix macht’s schwer. Die vierte Edition von GURPS gibt es nur auf Englisch und DSA gibt es praktisch nur auf Deutsch. Ich muss tatsächlich mal nachfragen, ob es legal ist Übersetzungen zu posten. DSA mit englischen Skills und Disadvantages zu spielen macht jedenfalls nicht soviel Spaß.

Schönes

Warum sollte man sich überhaupt an einer Konversion versuchen? Da gibt es durchaus Gründe dafür:

1) Etwas, das GURPS immer wieder Probleme bereitet, ist das Fehlen detaillierter Settings. Ja, es gibt die Infinite Worlds, in die man jedes Setting einbetten kann. Sowohl für Infinite Worlds als auch für Banestorm gibt es sogar eine kleine Quellenbücher, aber das war’s dann auch schon, wenn man sich nicht auf Transhuman Space und dessen Übergang von 3. auf 4. Edition einlassen will. GURPS ist nichts für SLs, die ein komplettes Setting mit allen wichtigen NSCs, detaillierten Stadtbeschreibungen und einer fortlaufenden Timeline erwarten. Das heisst aber nicht, dass jeder GURPS-SL ständig nur eigene Sachen erfinden will. Manchmal ist es auch einfach schön sich einfach auf eine existierende Welt einzulassen.

2) DSA ist, im Gegensatz zu Spaßvögeln wie D&D und Rifts, einfach zu konvertieren. Ja, es gibt viel Material, aber vieles davon braucht keine Spielwerte. Es gibt nicht in jedem dritten Buch zwanzig neue Rassen und Monster. Das Regelsystem versucht realistisch zu sein (Attacken und Paraden, Rüstungen, die tatsächlich Schaden aufhalten, keine arbiträren “3 x pro Tag”-Kräfte, energiebasierte Zauber und so weiter und so fort. Wenn man sich von der inneraventurischen Wirklichkeit leiten lässt, so muss man nicht alle Heldentypen konvertieren, sondern kann sich auf den gesunden Menschenverstand der Spieler verlassen. Natürlich sind Magie und Götterwirken eine Ausnahme. Natürlich müssen Rassen und Kreaturen Stats haben, aber das ist kein unüberwindliches Problem.

3) GURPS macht DSA tatsächlich besser. Techlevel, Vertrautheiten, Martial-Arts-Stile, Göttliche Gnade, detaillierte Rüstungen, Regeln für Höhlenforschung, ausgewogene Vor- und Nachteile, realistische Fertigkeiten, Start mit erfahrenen Charakteren und vieles mehr.

Nicht so schönes

Einige Sachen komplizieren die Konversion:

1) GURPS Magic braucht nach all den Jahren immer noch ein Patch. Eines der wenigen Büchern, bei denen die Qualität auf der Strecke blieb.

2) Es gibt immer noch kein aktuelles GURPS Bestiarium. Man kann aber auf andere Publikationen und die alte Version zurückgreifen.

3) Gibt es überhaupt ein Interesse daran. Klar mache ich das sowieso für meine Gruppe, aber es wäre schon schön zu wissen, dass andere auch daran Interesse hätten. Warum sollte man’s sonst posten? Kommentare sind also sehr willkommen.

Für’s Erste wird das der letzte GURPS DSA Artikel in deutscher Sprache sein. Vielleicht schreibe ich ja noch Übersetzungen für die folgenden Artikel, wenn ich ein paar Hits aus Deutschland kriege. Bei Kommentaren schreib ich definitiv was.


The material presented here is my original creation, intended for use with the GURPS system from Steve Jackson Games. This material is not official and is not endorsed by Steve Jackson Games.

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

GURPS DSA – A Good Idea?

You can find a German variant of this article here.

Das Schwarze Auge / The Dark Eye, commonly known as DSA among fans and detractors alike, ranks among the top three RPGs in Germany, but has never quite managed to gain a foothold anywhere else. Americans are most likely to recognize it as the engine that ran the three PC games released under the name “Realms of Arkania” in the nineties.

Now, there’s a couple of reasons why DSA has a very loyal following in Germany and also why it never made much headway anywhere else. And some of these make you really wish for a comprehensive GURPS conversion of the setting.

The Good

1) The setting is extremely dense. There are hidden secrets in every other town. History stretches back to reptilian precursor races. Named NPCs interact in a complex political web. Current events are very detailed and reported from multiple points of view. There’s a host of academies, holy orders, army units and fighting instructors for your characters to learn from and interact with. There are complete libraries of books to look for, ancient evils to defeat and countless causes to fight for.
If your players want to get involved in their campaign world, they’ll find hooks aplenty. Even if they don’t want to do a lot of work themselves, you can easily provide them with connections that have the right flavour.

2) The system is extremely well-supported. You want to game in a certain part of the world? There’s a regional module for you. You want to know more about secret societies or mage academies? Three modules each. Need to know more about elves or dwarves? Of course, there’s a supplement! Want to play in another time period? There’s limited support even for that. Need more info on magical artefacts? Of course, there’s a book on that. Want to read in-universe tracts about your chosen deity? The last ones will be out within the year. Maps? There are detailed posters of every spot on the continent; major cities are also mapped. Adventure modules? 250 and counting. You need an official in-universe newspaper? That was revamped a bit and now includes more scenarios than news, but there’s 150 back issues you can peruse if you prefer the straight dope.
Imagine the Forgotten Realms and cram all that detail into its western coast from Icewind Dale to Calimshan. Then multiply the number of relevant supplements by five and the number of adventure modules by fifteen. Then you come close the level of support DSA offers to the GM with deeper pockets. Note that there are PDF versions and second-hand copies that offer much cheaper alternatives.

3) The system takes a lot of work off the GM’s shoulders. I know not everybody likes adventure modules, but for the GM with a full-time job they often spell the difference between running a game or not. For everyone else they are at least a nice diversion or useful for mining for ideas. In contrast to the usual D20 dungeon the last two and a half decades of DSA has seen a varied mix ranging from intrigue and detective stories, to war, exploration and mystic themes, to more traditional dungeons, but ones that actually make sense. The same goes for much of the support supplements. DSA is pretty much the anti-GURPS in this regard. There’s very little world-building and system-tuning required by the GM.

4) The system helps players who have trouble coming up with original character concepts. The use of archetypes and the extremely dense background material are helpful for  players and GMs alike. You won’t end playing a level one fighter that is only distinguished through his random attributes, race selection and starting feat. You will have disadvantages that define you, a place ore unit where you learned your trade, ready-made connections and antipathies and even a reason to go adventuring.

5) There’s a huge fan following in Germany, which makes it very easy to get new players. Everybody plays in the same world and there aren’t all that many ways to tweak the system and world, so you can even introduce characters from other GMs’ campaigns. Of course, that also means there’s quite a lot of unofficial material readily available. A lot of it is quite good and actually on par with D20 titles.

The Bad

1) The setting can be overwhelming. There’s a myriad of details to take into account. For example, you need a very clear idea of when and where to start your campaign, because there are metaplots that will radically change your world. If you decide to leave them out, a large amount of the support elements will become unusable or take a considerable amount of work to adapt. Worst of all are the adventure modules – a significant number of which thrust the characters into the limelight of politics and unfolding supernatural events. Many players are aware of those and will want to take part in them. They might object if you change the world too much.
In the end player and GM freedom are often restricted by the burgeoning realms of the writers’ imagination. Take into account that the early generation of writers were German literature and anthropology students and you get deliberate restrictions that railroad you into a direction the writers thought proper for your game.

2) The rules show a a truly Teutonic obsession with details: For example every skill roll sees three twenty-sided dice rolled to beat three different attributes with skill points used to make up the difference. Where GURPS has four skill difficulties with everyday names (cost progression 1-2-4-8-12…), DSA sports nine difficulties from A* to H (cost progression a convenient 1-1-2-3-4-6-7-8-10-11-13-14-16-17-19-21-22-24-26-27-29 – for type A that is). The system did not use to be so complicated, but in the current edition it is virtually impossible to make a character without using a spreadsheet. Granted, spreadsheets are a good idea for every point-build system, but DSA takes complications to unhealthy heights. It used to be a half-way beginner-friendly system, but it shed that with its 4th Edition.
At the same time the system makes it very hard for beginning characters to succeed at anything. An average character who has spent years training in a skill has less than half a chance to beat an unmodified skill roll – and few skill rolls in adventures and examples are unmodified, most carry a penalty. A trained warrior who has spent six years or more doing weapons training has less than half a chance to hit an opponent before they get a chance to defend. Combat takes forever, especially since characters can often take three or four sword hits without much of an effect.Part of these problems stem from marrying what was originally a D&D-esque random roll system with a point-based system (that incidentally steals a lot of small details from GURPS). The effect isn’t very pretty in play and encourages players to invest heavily in attributes and take the maximum disadvantages before start of play. Attributes are even more important than in GURPS, but at the same time there are so many and all are important for spells that the average player is easily lured into munchkinny builds.

3) The fan base has a large number of fanatics. Even in the good old times before the internet you could post a notice in the game shop and have people ring you up only to tell you about how the Praiotian inquisition was the best thing ever and that you were a disgusting heretic for having a witch in your group. The internet hasn’t made things easier. It’s probably a good idea to never invite more than one unknown player into your group. DSA players are often defensive, because their system is often to maligned by others. DSA has a bit of a reputation as simplistic, illogical, goody-two-shoes system and if you like it very much that can hurt.

4) The system is huge and can be costly. It also tends to reinvent itself every eight years on average. Thankfully these reinventions don’t really introduce huge world-sweeping changes on their own (like in the Forgotten Realms), but you still need to shell out for new basic rules and all the extras you need to make your characters work. This is all the more infuriating, because the changes are often very subtle (4th Edition to 4.1 to 5 for example didn’t change the basic mechanics at all). On the whole this a system to sink a lot money in if you want to cover all eventualities.

5) All the nice things can only be had in German. Sure, there’s an English version consisting of like three books and there used to be versions in French and Dutch, but basically you need to either be a German native speaker or somebody with a degree in German and a huge interest in translating this stuff.

The Beautiful

Now, most of what I said serves only to whet the appetite of the average GURPS GM. Why?

1) The one huge drawback of GURPS is the lack of detailed settings. The only exception is Transhuman Space and that has to deal with an awkward 3rd/4th Edition split. Sure, GURPS attracts GMs who want to stat their own settings or run real-world campaigns, but when you’re short on players you tend to run back to vaguely Tolkieneque fantasy. DSA nicely fills that gap in GURPS.

2) There’s nothing in the setting that makes it very hard to convert. DSA tries to be realistic even if falls far short of this goal. The system is already skill-based, combat is more or less realistic with parries, dodging and armour that stops damage. Most non-supernatural stuff works on a somewhat logical basis and spell magic is skill-based, differentiated by spell traits and uses energy points.
There are a limited number of creatures, cultures, races and magics and most of the latter can be given more flavour by representing them as different GURPS variants. The same goes for DSA adventures. Instead of a different monster with three dozen modifiers per room, you’ll mainly face humanoids, animals and maybe a monster or two with at most a couple of special abilities each.
Compared to other RPG settings like D&D, Rifts or Star Trek (any incarnation) converting the DSA setting isn’t much of a chore.

3) GURPS actually makes DSA better. Tech levels, familiarities, martial arts and magical styles, divine favour, detailed armour, spelunking rules, supernatural abilities, a balanced disadvantage system, the possibility to start with experienced characters…
The possibilities are staggering.

The Not So Beautiful

There are still some things that complicate a GURPS DSA conversion:

1) The GURPS Magic spell system is still in bad need of a fix.
2) There’s no bestiary yet and that slows down creature conversion.
3) Is there even any interest in this? American GURPS players might be interested in the setting, but can’t take advantage of the German material, while German DSA players might be interested in better rules, but don’t want to buy a minimum of six English rulebooks (Characters, Campaigns, Powers, Low-Tech, Magic, Thaumatology and Martial Arts). I mean obviously I’m doing this for my own group anyway, but is there any interest online? Feedback is very welcome, especially on whether this should be German-only or English-only content or something both could appreciate.

The first part of my step-by-step conversion guide for DSA is available here.


The material presented here is my original creation, intended for use with the GURPS system from Steve Jackson Games. This material is not official and is not endorsed by Steve Jackson Games.

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