Bite-Sized Review: Dungeon Fantasy Monsters 2 – Powered by GURPS

I am a bit late to the party, since the newest Dungeon Fantasy RPG offering has come out almost almost two months ago. But since that has only been the PDF and the print version is still to be shipped out, I think this still qualifies as hot off the press.

Cover Dungeon Fantasy Monsters 2

If you haven’t heard about it yet, Dungeon Fantasy Monsters 2 (Powered by GURPS) was the latest official GURPS kickstarter that ran through March and raised over $50,000 from over 1000 backers. The turnaround on the pdf was just a bit more than two months and now let’s see whether the final (electronic) product delivers.

Facts

Author: Sean M. Punch (a.k.a. Dr. Kromm)
Date of Publication: 04/06/19
Format: currently PDF-only (Warehouse 23-only)
Page Count: 55 (2 cover pages, 1 title page, 1 content page, 1 index page, 1 page ad)
Price: $15.00 (PDF), $ 0.30 per page of content; Score of 5/10 (+1 for full-colour)
Preview: http://www.warehouse23.com/products/dungeon-fantasy-monsters-2

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 biggest surprise is probably that I class this book as both meaty and cheesy as it contains a lot of story ideas, probably more than any non-adventure Dungeon Fantasy title so far. This is such a big change from the otherwise excellent GURPS Dungeon Fantasy Monsters 1 (DFM 1) that it bears repeating: You don’t only get 24 new monsters, but also 48 adventure seeds to use them in your games. That’s a huge help, especially for the newbie DFRPG game masters that this is geared towards.

But I am getting ahead of myself. The book is structured really simple. The short introduction tells you what you need to play (the DFRP, especially the Monsters book, but DF 1-2 and DFM 1 along with GURPS Basic work just as well) and a couple of important things about the stat blocks. Then you’re knee-deep in monsters. Each of those gets a two-page spread (unfortunately not aligned for pdf use) with a full-colour illustration, stats and explanations, an atmospheric lead-in (sometimes quite extensive and with lots of historical, social, occult or ecological information) and the mentioned adventure seeds. Extras vary between variants, companion monsters, using the monster as a PC, meta-game hints or looting the body parts. The whole thing is rounded off by a table of contents and an index.

Meat

That’s what folks are coming for when buying a Monster Manual and the book delivers a wide range of foes with detailed stats – although don’t expect character point notations in a monster book. The power level is mid-to-high. There are few pushovers, but most of the challenges don’t require a ST 20 Barbarian or a Magery 5 wizard to overcome – some however do. Quite a few rely on horde tactics, but some can hold their own against a whole party. The mix tends towards the weird of  the spectrum, but doesn’t really discriminate by type: undead, demons, animals, humanoids, constructs and what that-other-game-tm calls outsiders are all there. Angels, giants, nagas, succubi/incubi (guess which gender the illustration depicts) and Trétold (basically ents) are plugging holes in the DFRPG. Most others are strange new additions that will be new for even the most jaded players.

What’s new and extra-useful are the detailed notes at the end of the stat block that explain the weirder abilities or things that are not explained in standard DFRPG and cribbed from regular GURPS. There are quite a few new ideas among these, even if most replicate stuff that standard GURPS has been doing for some time.

Tactics are represented for all monsters, though more detailed for some and less for others. About the only thing that’s missing is some sort of danger scale. In some cases, there are explicit statements on how dangerous the monsters are for weaker or stronger delvers, but most often than that we are left with just an impression through the descriptions. Par for the course in GURPS and I am not sure other systems really do better with their difficulties and challenge ratings, but a simple five-skull system wouldn’t have been a bad idea.

Apart from that, the meat is pretty much perfect.

Meat score: 9.5

Cheese

As I said, there’s a surprising amount of story-relevant stuff in there. Instead of a single descriptive paragraph like in DFRPG: Monsters or DFM 1, we get at least four longish paragraphs and occasionally much more. The less complicated the monsters are and the less space the boxes with variants, loot, minions etc. take up, the more lore we get. This flexibility makes each entry unique and ensure we don’t have to read the same boring headings for each monster.

The backstories of the mosters are fun to read and at times extremely imaginative. Most of the situations the monsters will be encountered in are combat-oriented, but every other monster seems to have a purpose – or at least a way to pull dirty tricks – that means it is not purely sword-fodder.

The ecological, historical and otherwise relevant details make the monsters come truly alive and give them a place in the – deliberately generic – game world. We still get a sense of which factions are going to care about which monsters and why, but of course the details are malleable enough to be dropped into your own campaign.

There are no harsh incompatibilities between the monsters, but there is also no real unifying theme, even though the monsters presented tend towards the weird and horrifying from Tomb Bugs who entomb you to breed there young, over the crazed Ramex who reach inside you thinking they can regain their humanoid bodies that way, to undead Bleeders who collect the spray of your blood from the smallest wounds and Redthorn plants who are looking to turn you into fertiliser. This collection is certainly not PG-rated.

The book doesn’t lend itself to just rifling through it and plomping down a monster without reading through its entry thoroughly. For that the older DF titles are better. Most of the monsters here, especially the stronger ones are its own mini-story. While this is not so great for beer-and-pretzels games, it does make for a much better story.

Speaking of story, some of the adventure seeds are more like encounter seeds, while some might form the basis for a multi-session adventure. What especially caught my fancy is that often they don’t treat the monster in question in a vacuum, but also examine who might want to make it the delvers’ business to get rid (or capture or butcher or transport) the monster. While they are not always original, they all offer some hooks to place the monsters in a dungeon or a quest.

There is a certain Dungeons-and-Dragonesque zaniness inherent in some of the monsters like the Fly-Dragon or the Redthorn. The book is certainly surprising to the reader and the encounters with its inhabitants will likely be unexpected by your players too.

All in all, the fluffy cheese side gets served very well indeed. One might miss a larger framework tying some of the monsters together, but then this is a monster manual and not an adventure or campaign builder. The fact that the collection of monster illustrations was probably licensed together and half of the monsters written just to fit the artwork might have something to do with that too.

Cheese score: 8.5

Sauce

The biggest departure from regular GURPS books (and also DFRPG: Monsters and the DFM  series) is the full-colour artwork. And the monsters are almost all from the same artist too: Rick Hershey. While he is never going to be my absolute favourite, the monsters are mostly appropriately alien and scary looking and the unity of art gives the book a nice and coherent look. The more alien monsters generally look better than the old fantasy standbys like Angels, Succubi, Nagas and Chimeras.

You can get a good overview on the cover and the preview shows one of the, in my opinion, less stellar examples, the Chimera. The only really atrocious image is the Manaplasm. Yes, I get it’s a slime, but I can see the border pixels even at page-view size! Likewise, the text alignment following the artwork is sometimes a bit weird and out of whack. I wouldn’t have minded smaller images in some cases to get a better text flow. You can see a less annoying example of that on the preview of the Strix. Generally, I wouldn’t mind getting the art separate in the PDF version to do quick printouts for the players. The text alignment makes it a bit easier to copy and paste, but the readability suffers.

That cannot be said about the writing as such, though. Dr. Kromm was in super-charged mode when he was writing this. Not only is it an extremely enjoyable read, the information is presented in easily accessible format, there are also puns galore. True, I didn’t laugh out loud, but I did chuckle quite a few times. The adventure seed titles are a motherlode of jokes that will surely find their way to many tables.

Editing and indexing are top-notch as usual, though there isn’t that much to index anyway. The PDF is fully bookmarked and the table of contents is hyperlinked.

The following section was updated  with new information 06/08/19 (thanks to T-Bone of Games Diner fame for pushing me to find a solution instead of whining):

A tiny defect is, however, that the two-page monster spreads are misaligned if you go for a two-page view in the PDF in many readers, because the backcover is included before the title page. You can easily rectify this with a PDF editor – or by changing settings on your reader (for my Adobe Reader it was done by menu>View>Page Display>Show Cover Page in Two-Page View). I still don’t get why the back cover has to go before the title page, but this way it’s no big deal any more.

This is probably the most unified GURPS supplement in a whole while and it does set a high standard for all that follows. Let’s hope the same will be said of Magic Items 2.

Sauce score: 7,5

Generic Nutritional Substance

As a Dungeon Fantasy supplement, there is usually not a high bar to clear in terms of generic usefulness. Yes, all these monsters can be used in standard Tolkienesque fantasies. Some of them will probably look out of place in Narnia and some will be a bit too weird for some tastes. But a surprising number of them will also fit right into some modern-day horror, dark urban fantasy or even dark faerie tales.

It’s not an extremely generic supplement, but certainly caters to more than just hack & slash fans.

Generic Nutritional Substance score: 7,5

Summary

A more than solid effort that leaves very little to be desired, except maybe being four times as long and a nice hardcover with stitched binding. If Steve Jackson Games is going to run two kickstarters like this every year and maybe finds a way to the page count up to a hundred, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a GURPS revival in the future.

This book is pretty much a must-have for Dungeon Fantasy aficionados and a very good investment for anybody who likes their fantasy monsters a bit weirder than usual. Have a look at the preview yourself if you are unsure. You get two complete monsters for free that way. Even if you decide not to buy that’s pretty much worth taking the time to have a look.

Price is still high, which comes with the limited page-count, but without considering that we have a new high-score, edging out some recent very high-quality stuff like The Hall of Judgment by a not too tiny margin. The Hall gets its own back in the value score, though.

All in all, think twice before you’re passing on this tasty morsel!

Total score: 8.475
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: 6.7375
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.

Bite-Sized Review: GURPS Dungeon Fantasy Treasures 3 – Artifacts of Felltower

And it’s time for another bite-sized review for one of the new five-bucks GURPS morsels. The title is a bit of a mouthful and could have easily been shortened to DFT 3 – More Artifacts.

Cover of Dungeon Fantasy Treasures 3 - Artifacts of Felltower

Facts

Author: Peter V. Dell’Orto
Date of Publication: 20/06/2019
Format: PDF-only (Warehouse 23-only)
Page Count: 17 (1 title page, 1 content page, 1/2 index page, 1/2 page ad)
Price: $7.99 (PDF), $ 0.22 per page of content; Score of 5/10
Preview: http://www.warehouse23.com/media/SJG37-0351_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.

Instead of adding more detail to all sorts of treasures like the first volume or going for the extremely epic like the second one, this third volume in is just a list of unique or near unique artifacts that is most akin to GURPS Dungeon Fantasy 6 – 40 Artifacts, which is explicitly referenced as necessary for play. That is a bit of an overstatement though, as is needing GURPS Magic for the spell descriptions. Yes, there’s no handy guide to reading the entries as in DF 6, but most of it is self-explanatory enough. And the only two spells you need to know are Accuracy and Puissance, which are also present in GURPS Basic – hint: together they make a +1 weapon like in That Other Game ™.

It’s a bit of a shame that this information wasn’t included to make the book even more accessible to DFRPG players. The origins can be easily gleaned from DFRPG Exploits p. 77. Not that DFRPG 6 is a bad book to have for DFRPG players.

The book is split in three chapters, aptly titled Weapons (6 pages), Armor (2 pages) and Other Treasures (5 pages).

Meat

Like in DF 6 every item has an origin, a FP value as a power item, a description, a list of properties with game-relevant stats and often a number of possible variations listed. There are 31 items on the whole (just missing the mark for calling this For Another 40 Artifacts More), running the whole gamut from the powerful, but simple like axe  Shieldslayer to the intriguing like the Potion Ring to the plain weird like the Gorilla Gloves.

The items are diverse enough that you don’t get bored after the sixth weapon, but the variety can’t quite reach the sheer numbers of the old GURPS Magic Items series (which incidentally can found for just $7.99 on Warehouse 23). However, these are tried and true DF items and fully Fourth-Editon-compatible without any conversion wonkiness attached.

Also there are some specials that are generically useful. A box on Magical Set Items takes you back to your favourite MMORPG (even though there is only one set in this book), Bad Influences is more something for the old-school players that miss weapons with a corrupting influence. Expired potions also hearkens back to classic That Other Game ™ days. The book also includes a few gems like Hero’s Brew, Mana Gout and dehydrated elixirs that plug holes in the Dungeon Fantasy catalogue and add extra options for more traditional items.

All in all, this might not be the most focused treasure book yet, but it certainly delivers more than a couple of useful tools and rewards for the enterprising DF game-master.

Meat score: 8

Cheese

Yeah, it’s Dungeon Fantasy, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be anything setting-related. Indeed the book starts out with two paragraphs on Dell’Orto’s Felltower mega-dungeon that make one hope it’ll see the light of day in some form or other. More relevant are the back-stories of the items in question that are on the whole longer and more detailed than in 40 Artifacts without quite reaching the level of the Magic Item series. Most of the cheese fluff in this comes from Felltower itself, but there are also plenty of ancient items mostly unrelated to the mega-dungeon.

There are also hints on what to do with the items and how to use them as plot hooks or integrate them into the campaign. Especially the section on set items is useful for campaign building. More stuff than you’d expect from Dungeon Fantasy.

Cheese score: 7

Sauce

The good news is that this volume actually has unique art pieces, the bad is that there are only two of them (the third being generic rings) and one of them shows a sabre, when it’s supposed to be a short sword). Well, it’s baby steps for GURPS 4th Edition. The editing was generally good, except for annoying typo on the first page (‘treasure hordes [sic]’). Dell’Orto’s style is generally more no-nonsense than Kromm’s, but it is very readable and there are still a couple of tongue-in-cheek jokes in there.

All-in-all par of the course for GURPS – a bit sad compared to most other RPGs, but not unexpected.

Sauce score: 5.5

Generic Nutritional Substance

Most of the gear inside the book is meant for generic-fantasy if not necessarily Dungeon Fantasy. That still covers a wide enough base and some of the pieces can be repurposed for modern urban fantasy or horror games. Some seem a little out of place for polytheistic Dungeon Fantasy (like the Bishop’s Cross), but in these cases there are always variants to make them fit.

As artifacts without a price tag, the items are more generic than the lower-priced off-the-shelf items in other DF publications.

Generic Nutritional Substance score: 6.5

Summary

Artifacts of Felltower is a solid book for GM’s looking for a 4th-Edition-compliant collection of special magic items. It can be used with minimal adjustments for any GURPS Dungeon Fantasy or Dungeon Fantasy RPG campaign and also the more epic fantasy campaigns. As MacGuffins or special prizes the gear also fits a variety of other campaigns. For the price of a fancy cup of coffee you get some good stuff. However, the shortness of the offering means you pay more than usual per page, hence the low Value Score (below).

Total score: 7.125
Total score is composed of a weighted average of Meat (40%), Cheese (15%), Sauce (20%) and Generic Nutritional Substance (15%). This is a meat-oriented book. A “cheesy” setting- or drama-orientied book would turn the percentages for cheese and meat around.

Value score: 5,0625
Value Score is composed of the average of Total and Price.

After-Taste

One thing I am starting to get a bit annoyed at is the the weird naming of products and the haphazard placement in established series. Artifacts of Felltower is a nice enough name on its own, but with DF 6, DF 8 and the Treasure series, not to mention the relevant DFRPG books, it’s getting hard to keep all your treasure supplements straight. By now I would have appreciated a re-naming á la Backdrops: Tower of Octavius to Locations: Tower of Octavius.

Now that’s a bit harder to pull off with such a large series, but modelling the title a bit more on 40 Artifacts would have been nice. As it is, new players might look towards the Treasure series first, when they would be better advised to get the older volumes first.

Also, I was really hoping for more art, but for that we have to look at Gaming Ballistic, I guess.


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.

Bite-sized Review: GURPS Dungeon Fantasy 20 – Slayers

At long last, there’s a new Dungeon Fantasy supplement and this time it’s a main line item. We haven’t had any of those since… apparently September 2016 when Christopher R. Rice produced No. 19 – the excellent Incantation Magic volume. The current offering is a little smaller, but it’s also a Splatbook and it’s by the master himself: Let’s have a look at DF 20: Slayers!

Cover of GURPS Dungeon Fantasy 20 - Slayers

Facts

Author: Sean M. Punch (a.k.a. Dr. Kromm)
Date of Publication: 18/04/2019
Format: PDF-only (Warehouse 23-only)
Page Count: 24 (1 title page, 1 content page, 1 index pages, 1 page ad)
Price: $6.00 (PDF), $ 0.27 per page of content; Score of 4/10
Preview: http://www.warehouse23.com/media/SJG37-0350_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.

DF – Slayers is a close cousin to the previous splatbooks Sage, Summoners and Ninja, though it is more focused than the others. The lion’s share of the books 20 content pages is taken up by three new professions, one 5-page chapter for each the Demon-Slayer, the Mage-Slayer and the Undead-Slayer. A one-page intro and four pages on gear and assorted loot items rounds off the mix.

Meat

New abilities, perks, pseudo-magical skills and the templates themselves take centre stage in the as far as the crunchy meat is concerned. The templates are just what you’d expect from DF and though the abilities show some doubling (each slayer has a Detect and a Gizmo version) the abilities are different enough to give each of them a slightly different feel.

The slayers all share the lack of power modifiers and a special set of non-magical skills that duplicate appropriate spells and cost FPs as well. Especially interesting, even outside of DF and heroic fantasy are the many variations of Blessed and the appropriate perks, some of which have already appeared in other sources. Many of these could be ported whole-sale to a Buffy-esque Monster Hunters campaign as could the templates themselves. Each template comes with the usual customisation options, though lenses to add slayer-cross-training for other professions are not available. Slayers are born, not made.

For those of you who have access to Pyramid 109: Thaumatology V, the presented write-ups are very similar to the Mage-Hunter presented there (also by Kromm) – although there is no sample character. The Undead-Hunter from Pyramid 122: All Good Things is quite a different beast with a decidedly clerical bent and far less in the power-up department.

The equipment section is partly lists of useful gear, partly genuinely new stuff like Holy Weapons (not enchanted so Secret-Order-of-the-Mage-Slayers-approved), Heroic Power Items to give Slayers extra FP to use on Heroic Feats or their “spell” skills, blunt arrows and stake spears, couple of new (holy hand) grenade potions.

There are also rules for making up your own slayer variants, for varying monster flaws, having slayers research them and a box on Demon Talismans that is an interesting way to have demons that can be permanently destroyed – or safely spirited away before they’re defeated. All in all, there are a lot of useful titbits in there along with all the basics.

Meat score: 9

Cheese

Dungeon Fantasy is traditionally shy on flavour and setting, but slayers are not a generic profession. They come with some background already attached. The customisations and the choice of advantages can make a lot of difference in character. There are hints on how to make slayers useful in the campaign, behind-the-hood infos on why the the templates are built as they are. The last section – Secret Weapons – has ideas on how to mix things up and maybe take Dungeon Fantasy a bit more into a Buffy-esque direction with an obligatory research session before the dungeon. Demonic Talismans provide probably the most detailed description of how demons are summoned in DF.

The fact that slayers are explicitly self-powered, Buffy-style without blessings from supernatural entities does make quite a difference too. They’re in the same category as Barbarian, Knight and Swashbuckler and yet they are quite capable when dealing with their chosen supernatural foe. This will greatly appeal to a certain kind of player – and since a lot of us have grown up with Buffy, it won’t be such a small part of the player pool.

On the whole, there’s quite a bit of story built in this, at least for Dungeon Fantasy.

Cheese score: 6.5

Sauce

Dr. Kromm’s writing is precise and eminently readable. There are some tongue-in-cheek asides as usual, but the style is mostly concerned with clarity. As usual I had no complaints with the editing.

In GURPS the art is usually a problem, especially in short books. This one has a cover that actually looks kind of decent and the interior illustrations (that re-use the cover art) are mostly fitting too (yes, even Dan Smith has a good and fitting picture).  They are still black-and-white and aren’t quite the high quality we’ve seen in the DFRPG or DF Monsters 1.

Sauce score: 6

Generic Nutritional Substance

There are limits as to where Dungeon Fantasy templates can be applied, but as mentioned the templates can be used for a lower-powered Monster Hunters campaign or as a basis for a regular one. The abilities – especially the Blessed variants – can be useful in a variety of campaigns. So some overarching usefulness is certainly there.

Generic Nutritional Substance score: 6

Digesting Everything

Slayers is definitely a useful little volume that’ll scratch the itch of many a player and game master alike. If you don’t feel strongly about concept of self-powered (or universally-powered) slayers it isn’t a must-buy, but GMs should note that it is certainly possible to set the party against a Mage-Slayer (or more if players are making full use of Dungeon Fantasy 9 – Summoners). In short, a good, if somewhat specialised book.

Total score: 7.325 (still very good)
Total score is composed of a weighted average of Meat (50%), Cheese (15%), Sauce (20%) and Generic Nutritional Substance (15%). This is a meat-oriented book. A “cheesy” setting- or drama-orientied book would turn the percentages for cheese and meat around.

Value score: 5.6625 (short books are more expensive)
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.

Preview of The Citadel at Norðvörn powered by DFRPG

I had the uncommon luck to get a very advance copy of The Citadel at Norðvörn and Douglas Cole graciously allowed me to publish a short article to provide you with a first look at his newest Kickstarter offering. Though something tells me his reason for that might not have been to boost the page-views of my blog…

First things first: this is a spoiler-free preview. You can read on without having to fear that I reveal the big plot behind it all. Indeed, it may come as a surprise to you that there is a larger plot in a setting book. After all GURPS Dungeon Fantasy Setting – Caverntown – a clear inspiration for this volume – doesn’t have dangling plot hooks all over it. The Citadel does, however, and the overarching developments are quite interesting, involving multiple dangerous factions that plan to bring the Northland down.

It is left to the GM to arrange the discovery of each and every clue themselves, though. This is not a pre-scripted adventure and player characters might well go on a quest in the service of one of the more villainous characters without realising it until later. Not exactly something for utter novices in the art of game-mastering and a bit more on the roleplayey side of things tan dungeon-delving. On currently seventeen pages, the author gives us the main villain plot and who is directly or indirectly involved in it, as well as several related adventure seeds. The seeds are relatively short, but hey, that’s a stretch goal, right? You know what you have to do.

The plot is not the main purpose of a setting book, however, and the larger part (about 75 pages as of now) is made up of detailed descriptions of the citadel city of Norðvörn and the surrounding lands, including to some degree what lies beyond Audreyn’s Wall. All those dragon-gods of yore sure did leave a lot of treasure lying around.

The civilised lands are organised similarly to the description of Isfjall in Lost Hall of Judgment. Only instead of 18 pages you get 26 for Norðvörn, 8 for Áinferill and 6 for Löngbrú. The rest are for smaller sample villages and the destroyed outpost of Elskaðr. The author really manages to make each of these come alive and differentiate them enough to avoid blurring them in players’ minds.

Each of the bigger places has its history, geography and main features detailed. Law and Order, resources, magic, and important social groups as well as notable residents round that off. There are also sections on shopping and services – a bit less detailed than in Caverntown, but it’s still more than enough for most tastes. Most importantly, there are taverns and inns. What better place to make the party meet up? Unless you want to use one of the adventuring hooks provided to introduce your newly-minted DF heroes to the setting.

The really interesting bits are the interspersed parts about Norse-inspired laws, customs and preferences, though. Especially the festival section is fun and not quite the same as in Hall of Judgment. It’s in these cultural sections where Douglas Cole really gives Sean Punch a run for his money.

In addition to information on NPCs in the town sections, there’s also a whole chapter of more in-depth information that is still unfinished. Same goes from the bestiary, which includes some of the foes from Hall of Judgment and keeps the same one-page monster style.

Art is, of course, still a work in progress, but what I’ve seen looks good and certainly up to the standards of Hall of Judgment and the Dungeon Fantasy Boxed Set (reprint also on Kickstarter, at the moment). It’s not quite as good as the really big productions from Wizards of the Coast or Paizo, but it gets close enough. No maps yet, though – something that will hopefully change soon!

Writing is good with the asides typical for a Dungeon Fantasy product. I still like Sean Punch’s acerbic wit better than Douglas Cole’s more down-to-earth humour, but you mileage may vary.

On the whole, the book looks extremely promising and will tickle your fancy if you are at least somewhat interested in Norse-inspired fantasy. Hopefully we will get an overview of the whole realm of Torengar some time in the future, but on the savage northern frontier The Citadel at Norðvörn will soon serve as a fine entry point for any adventurer worth their salt.

Bite-sized Review Hall of Judgment – Powered by DFRPG

last updated 07/10/2018: forgot to say something about the sample characters

It’s been a while since the release of the first licensed DFRPG product and I know this review is late to the crowd, but I just couldn’t pass up the chance to give you a look at this. Full disclosure: I backed this on Kickstarter at the “A Thegn of Your Own!” level – which is why you have the Blind Mapmaker in there as a sample character. So, yes, I might be a little biased.

 

Cover of Hall of Judgment

 

Facts

Author: Douglas H. Cole
Date of Publication: 09/08/2018
Format: PDF and full-colour softcover (available on W32 and Gaming Ballistic)
Page Count: 120 (1 title page, 2 content pages, 1 backer list , 1 index pages)
Price:
$12.50 (PDF), $0.11 per page of content; Score of 10/10 (best score yet!)
$24.99 (Softcover), $0.22 per page of content; Score of 8/10 (adjusted by +1 for full-colour softcover)
$30.00 (PDF & Softcover Bundle, only at Gaming Ballistic), $0.26 per doubled page of content; Score of 7/10 (adjusted by +2)
Preview: http://www.warehouse23.com/media/GBL0005P_preview.pdf (17 pages, go check it out!)

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. This being a Dungeon Fantasy adventure, the meat and the cheese will be equally important.

The book is divided into three broad sections comprising of setting, adventure and rules stuff. Before the adventure proper we have a one-page glossary with (sometimes very tongue-in-cheek) definitions and a one-page foreword by Sean M. Punch (Dr. Kromm) that lets us hope for more licensed products. The two-page introduction by Doug H. Cole is itself already giving setting and adventure information, but 17 pages of setting information make the Norðland and the town on Isfjall come alive. Then it’s right into the adventure with 1 page still in town and the other 44 on the trail and in the Hall itself. This is followed by 4 pages on dungeon grappling (simplified Technical Grappling for DF), a 35-page bestiary and 22 pages covering 16 sample characters. The rest is index.

Spoilers start here!  Scroll to the bottom if you want to play the adventure as a player!


Meat

Appropriate for a Viking-flavoured book, there’s lot of meat here. The town section is not quite as detailed as in DF Setting – Caverntown, but more than enough to send your players on a shopping trip and make them not fall afoul of local customs. Especially useful is the pack animal table.

The journey section has encounter matrices that include include especially prominent weather and extremely detailed tables for temperature and precipitation that are useful in a number of northern environments. Would be neat to see this expanded into a comprehensive global weather table (pity it’s only in Fahrenheit, but even so it’s easy to use). The encounters are generally handled in one paragraph and use the monsters in the bestiary, when it comes to combat. The players are guided by an overland map.

The first big encounter site are the ruins of the temple complex and village at Logiheiml. In this locale overrun by undead each site is divided into a description of the obvious, the present challenge, concealed contents and alternatives/reward (if any). Again all the creatures are in the bestiary. Rewards are given with all the necessary stats. There are maps of the village and the funerary temple complex, including a cutaway of the fortification. Battle maps are not provided though. Make sure to mention the ruins beforehand, because they can be easily missed depending on which path the players choose.

Once the characters get to the valley of the Lost Hall itself, there’s another overview map supported by many encounter level maps. The general layout of each site is the same, but they are sometimes very detailed with many, often magical options explored in detail (e.g. the rope bridge, climb/sacrifice gate). Enemies in the valley are mostly fae of various kinds, but getting lost on the way to the hall is not very easy if the GM hands out the player map of the area (included in the PDF version). The entrance to the Dómstóllin (the Hall itself) is clearly visible there, so this might not be the best idea since it makes this section very linear, even more so than the rest of the adventure.

The Hall itself is also represented by battle maps, but again it is a very simple matter and was a little disappointing after all the build-up. So, unless you’re pressed for time I would make sure to let your players explore the valley extensively. The demon boss for the adventure is something of a rarity in GURPS as it is a singular creature, albeit one with an extra attack, extreme Regeneration, multiple free abilities and powerful grappling. Also this Krabbari (love the name!) sits in a no-mana zone (fortunately one that allows magic weapons to function). If your PCs are weak grapplers and rely on spells for everything, they’ll be in for a fight. You should make sure your group is ready for this encounter.

Almost more challenging than the boss fight are the two bonus areas in the form of Norðalf warrens that teem with enemies. Only overview maps are given for these two elaborate sites and the combination of many enemies and little time to rest and (possibly) no escape route can make these quite deadly.

After the adventure comes what is no doubt even more interesting to many players: a detailed Norse bestiary. There are lots of fae and animals (though why we’d need both mountain goats and mountain sheep is beyond me), some undead and human adversaries and a few others (the crushing worm and the awakened trees are especially nice). Each entry has at least one illustration. The stats come complete with control thresholds for Dungeon Grappling and are all that you need. Point totals are not given, though that might have been nice for the companion-able animals at least.

The sixteen sample characters are a varied lot, but as most of them were made by backers they are not all made for the adventure. The druid is the only one with Survival (Mountain) for example. Still, all the templates from the DFRPG are present. Although this is probably the only character gallery this size that has a two non-human wizards lacking an eye. Well, that’s an accepted symbol of wisdom, at least.

All in all, there’s lots to like and not much to miss here.

Meat score: 9

Cheese

As mentioned before the adventure is quite linear and GMs whose groups are less beer and pretzel might need to expend a little effort to make it palatable. Most of that can come in at the beginning. Maybe Logiheiml has to be located for a vital clue first and the whole twistakn (token of Tyr) thing might be explored some more. It’s a bit of a pity that the backstory that was in the OGL version has been left out. Even if the players won’t ever hear all of it, it certainly helps the GM to get into the right mindset.

What’s great is the large section about Isfjall. There’s more than enough material to make Isfjall the home base for a larger campaign. The overview map also helps with that. Not only do we get a general sense of the town, there are also some rivalries set up and long list of festivals that will help players to get into the mood for more Norðland adventures. I’m in two minds about cutting out the name Tyr and all that implies. Sure it makes things more generic, but it’s always easy to cut something as the GM and the tips in the OGL version were more than enough to make this a bit more accessible.

The encounters at Logiheiml are in a way the high-point of the adventure since the ruins show the players what could happen all over the Norðland and the whole area breathes atmosphere down to the last commuting undead.

The random encounters are all well thought out too, but take a little preparation to pull off. Some are a bit deadly, but it helps to have players who do not simply attack everything and everyone. It might be useful to predetermine some of the most atmospheric bits like (the starving Jarl’s ghost, circling ravens, drinking companion of Thor etc.)

Exploring the valley can be lots of fun, but except for the bridge and a couple of ambushes there’s not much that absolutely has to be done there. A bit more preparatory questing would have been nice, but it’s not exactly hard to include with a little prep work.

The fact that the real reward here is the knowledge recorded in the hall is nice, but it’s spoiled by the Lady of the Harvest appearing and handing out magic weapons and golden hairs that turn into artefacts. If you want to end this in a monty haul, at least make it Tyr appearing himself and use his golden beard hairs or something!

All in all,  a very good effort that fits in well with Dungeon Fantasy expectations

Cheese score: 8

Sauce

Art is where the book really shines. Most of the illustrations are at least on the level of the better DFRPG boxed set ones. Don’t judge the book by its cover art! That is, unfortunately, one of the weaker pieces. Additionally, there are two gorgeous overview maps, three very nice site maps and seven more workman-like, Campaign Cartographer style battle maps. The Kickstarter had all these available as high-resolution graphics files for use with virtual tabletop software and I assume they are included in the PDF version too.

The editing is pretty good without any glaring mistakes. The writing style is mostly okay, but the jokes are a bit blunt and not as subtle and hard-hitting as in the best of Kromm (a high bar, but that is what characterises DF for me). Still, it fits in with the beer and pretzel theme.

Layout is somewhere between regular GURPS and DFRPG. The bestiary stat blocks are nice and easy to read with colour helping a lot. Bold print indicates traits and capitalisation indicates book sections. The font size is generally a bit larger than regular GURPS (more akin to Pathfinder, especially with the columns), but goes down to something smaller than usual in the bestiary and sample characters section. That’s also where the nice layout breaks down in parts with stat blocks going up to the decorative frame and boxes spilling over it, but than stems from the author’s understandable desire to cram as much information in as possible.

Sauce score: 8.5

Generic Nutritional Substance

As an adventure based in a specific culture there’s only so far Hall of Judgment can go in terms of genericity. The Norðland is generic enough to be dropped in most DF settings, but some aspects like the powerful, evil fae might not fit in well with a specific world. Also not every Vikingesque culture might have a strongly law-aspected god. Thinking of my own campaign it wouldn’t be an easy fit, especially as there’s already a Norse culture. But well, it’s an adventure/setting and they’re not meant to be completely generic anyway.

Generic Nutritional Substance score: 5.5

Summary (No Spoilers!)

Douglas H. Cole delivers an outstanding product that is proud addition to the Dungeon Fantasy line and makes one hope for more from this licensee. The adventure is pretty linear, but atmospheric and puts the characters against foes supernatural and natural without neglecting the realities of mountain travel.

It is a satisfying read and a good way to introduce new players and GMs to GURPS without having them lament the quality or the lack of the illustrations. Thanks to both the author and SJGames for making this possible!

Total score: 8.05 (third place of all time)
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 meaty-cheesy book.

Value score: 9.025 (PDF, best value ever!), 8.025 (softcover), 7.525 (bundle); getting the bundle is advised if you want to run the game online and offline!
Value Score is composed of the average of Total and Price.


GURPS and DFRPG are registered trademarks of Steve Jackson Games. The art here is copyrighted by Gaming Ballistic. All rights are reserved by SJ Games and/or Gaming Ballistic. This material is used here in accordance with the SJ Games online policy.

Bite-sized Review: GURPS Dungeon Fantasy Adventure 2 – Tomb of the Dragon King

last changed 2018/08/28: Correctly attributed DFM3 to Peter Dell’Orto

Interestingly 2018 seems to be a better year for Dungeon Fantasy adventures than 2017. Not saying the ones released with the Dungeon Fantasy RPG were bad, but Matt Riggsby’s new offering Tomb of the Dragon King and Douglas Cole’s Hall of Judgment, which I hope to review soon, are on a different level content-wise.

Cover of GURPS Dungeon Fantasy Adventure 2: Tomb of the Dragon King

Facts

Author: Matt Riggsby
Date of Publication: 16/08/2018
Format: PDF-only (Warehouse 23-only)
Page Count: 37 (1 title page, 1 content page, 1 index page, 1 page ad)
Price: $8.00 (PDF), $0.24 per page of content; Score of 5/10
Preview: http://www.warehouse23.com/media/SJG37-0345_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. This being a Dungeon Fantasy adventure, the meat and the cheese will be equally important.

Before I start, let me confess that though I own Mr. Riggsby’s first DF adventure: Mirror of the Fire Demon, I haven’t read it yet. I still entertain notions that one day one of my players will step up and lead me through a GURPS adventure provided they don’t have to do any conversion work. So, please bear with me if I comment on stuff that’s well-known from that no doubt excellent product.

So, what do we need to go raiding the tomb of the Dragon King? As always you can look at the recommended reading in the preview – in short, you need everything monster-related that has been published in the DF line and a lot of other stuff is useful. Nothing is said about the DFRPG, but the only thing that is really needed is apart from the boxed set is Dungeon Fantasy Monsters 3: Born of Myth & Magic (by the lovely and talented Peter Dell’Orto). There are some undead Dinomen too, but you don’t need Dungeon Fantasy Monsters 1 for the Undead lense alone.

Indeed, the generous three-page introduction does give the GM hints how to adapt the adventure to groups with modern weapons teleportation, mind-reading abilities etc. In short, the adventure is quite adaptable as long as you own some DF books for further reading.

Spoilers start here!  Scroll to the bottom if you want to play the adventure as a player!

 


 

After the intro the book is divided into four chapters on town (3 pages), the dragon king’s court (11 pages), the dragon queen’s court (8 pages) and conflicts (also 8 pages). Town actually has a name in this adventure and it’s Broken Fang Point, a small trading town in the forested foothills of a mountain chain. The basics are there, but don’t expect 5% of the content of Caverntown. The two courts contain the layout of the respecting locales and the basis of the storyline, while the last chapter gives stats, character traits and background info on the antagonists. A slightly too elaborate index rounds things off.

Meat

The most important meaty bit in this volume is the concept of N (introduced in the previous volume as far as I know). N is the number of combat-capable characters of 250 points or less and the number of opponents is adjusted according to this number. N is also increased for higher point averages. As far as metrics for judging encounters go, this is a both a bit more flexible and a bit less granular than The-Other-Game(tm). It is, however, more than good enough given GURPS’ generic nature (heck, there are tips on how to play this module with high-TL heroes – let’s see the D&D clones deal with that).

Tables for wandering monsters and treasure are included in the two court sections. There are detailed rules for attracting attention and patrols and looking for treasure. The two courts pose very different challenges with the dragon cultists in the king’s court for the most part representing an organised, lived-in dungeon and the queen’s court containing “squatter” monsters that guard secrets still unearthed.

The monsters are varied and present interesting challenges that almost always offer a pay-off if the characters manage neutralise their opposition. The dragon-blooded magicians and priests come only with one set of spells each, a bit more variety wouldn’t have hurt, especially since they lack damage-dealing spells. The dragons themselves are made with a simple toolkit for choosing size/age, breath weapon and spells. The king and the queen get a special treatment and are unique characters, which are essentially unbeatable without expending a lot of resources. Defeating either one of them is a major undertaking, though I would have preferred a couple more varied spells for the king.

In the whole there are four types of cultists, three sizes of dragons (except for the spells and the hatchling size they are very similar to the ones from DFRPG), three lurking monsters and the two royals. A good selection that can be reused for other lizardfolk-centric adventures.

All in all, a really solid effort that does its best to help the GM to tailor the adventure to their specific group of adventurers.

Meat score: 8.5

Cheese

Each part of the tomb is described in the likely sequence the characters are going to encounter their adversaries and each is accompagnied by detailed hex maps of the locales.

For each of the chapters there are hooks and holes. While hooks are an old-standby to get characters into the action, holes are exactly the opposite: ways the characters can miss the adventure or vital parts of it. Here the GM is gently reminded of how things can go wrong and how to avoid or remedy this.

While the adventure is a classic, old-school dungeon crawl, it is not a stupid one. Indeed the PCs can interrogate the cultists and use their wits to free the dragon queen to decimate the opposition surrounding the MacGuffin and save themselves a world of hurt. On the whole, the adventure represents a very believable dungeon crawl, with patrols acting intelligently and challenging players who live by the “kill everything” doctrine.

And that’s the one of two caveats I have about this. You shouldn’t play it with groups that are used to kill without stopping to think. It is easy to be overwhelmed if the group insists on fighting without any recourse to stealth and there are at least three encounters where retreat is the most sensible option.

The other caveat is that this is an old-school dungeon crawl. While that shouldn’t be a problem for the typical DF group, the adventure is not really restricted to Dungeon Fantasy. For other modes of play it might be too combat focused. A GM could emphasize the tensions within the cult that are outlined in the third chapter, but as it is, this is no intrigue or puzzle adventure.

In short, a good dungeon-crawling adventure with epic adversaries and a couple of twists, but not a whole lot of interaction or a very involved story.

Cheese score: 7

Sauce

Compared to the general GURPS fare, the extras are pretty good. The style is workman-like with few frills and whistles, but you don’t generally want that for a crawl. The dragon pictures are mostly old retreads, but they aren’t bad. The maps are neat and have a real old-school vibe to them, but it would have been nice to have extra copies as image files – though the pdf resolution is generally good enough to print at a useful scale. The only thing that’s missing from the maps is a couple of debris piles or other cover.

Sauce score: 6.5

Generic Nutritional Substance

It’s a fantasy dungeon crawl, but Mr. Riggsby does his best to give the GM everything they need to customise the hell out of it. Want to set it somewhere else? Want high-tech weapons? Want special adversaries? Don’t like dragons? He’s got you covered. Doesn’t mean you’ll play this in every sort of setting, but it still covers a lot of fantasy.

Generic Nutritional Substance score: 6.5

Summary (no spoilers)

Matt Riggsby has delivered another fine supplement for the dungeon-delving crowd. Mileage may vary for less combat-oriented folks, but it certainly does what it says on the package. The old-school maps are a nice touch, but would be even better in png format.

All in all, a worthy addition to the Dungeon Fantasy line, hampered only by the relatively high per-page price – as usual for shorter GURPS offerings. Also be advised that due to the maps, there is considerably less text than usual.

Total score: 7.3125
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: 6.15625
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.