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.

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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.

Bite-sized Review: GURPS Magic – Artillery Spells

It’s been only a six weeks since the last GURPS offering from Sean Punch and while I would still like to see a more tightly packed release schedule, I am more than content to wait if everything we get is the same quality as GURPS Dungeon Fantasy Setting – Caverntown and GURPS Magic – Artillery Spells, both of which plug some big holes in heroic fantasy line-up of GURPS.

GURPS Magic - Artillery Spells

Facts

Author: Sean Punch (a.k.a. Dr. Kromm)
Date of Publication: 17/05/2018
Format: PDF-only (Warehouse 23-only)
Page Count: 31 (1 title page, 1 content page, 1 index page, 1 page ad)
Price: $8.00 (PDF), $ 0.30 per page of content; Score of 4/10
Preview: http://www.warehouse23.com/media/SJG37-0154_preview.pdf

Review

As all my other reviews this one will be rated according to meat (rules, stats, game mechanics), cheese (setting, characters, story), sauce (form, writing, style, art) and generic nutritional substance (universal nature, adaptability). At the end you find a weighted average of those components and a value score that also takes into account price per page.

 

The GURPS Magic – XYZ Spells series are mini-grimoires. They always contain a large list of spells (50 in this case) and an introduction that helps the reader to put them into perspective. Unlike Plant Spells (a favourite of mine since I helped playtest it), Artillery Spells  doesn’t focus on a single college, but on a type of spell – namely those that allow a mage to damage and kill multiple low- to mid-threat foes. It is the counterpart to Death Spells which have a good chance of killing one worthy opponent in one fell swoop.

The spells cover most of the colleges with only Food and Knowledge being left-out, which is probably a good thing. Every college having a death spell was a bit weird already and I don’t think we needed more of that. GMs do get a lot of information about building their own artillery spells, so readers don’t need to worry that they’ll never see their favourite food fight spells.

The chapter on spell-building is five pages long and discusses both the types of spells that can be used as artillery and how to balance their stats. It’s deliberately not

The spells themselves form the majority of the volume (21 pages) and are unevenly distributed over the colleges with the elemental colleges usually getting more and the ones less commonly associated with damage-dealing less. A couple of helpful boxes on larger topics are distributed throughout this chapter.

Meat

There’s a lot of meaty rules goodness in this book, beginning with dramatically expanded ways for dealing damage to multiple opponents. Cones, emanations, bombardment, ricocheting shots, swarms, contagious damage, portals, damage that moves the targets around – it’s all in there. Indeed, the book goes a long way towards making damage-dealing spells less generic. There are some common themes like cones and repeating area damage, but many spells have unique and mostly entertaining mechanics.

The spells range from merely efficient, workmanlike spells like Improved Explosive Fireballs and Cloud of Doom to fast but unpredictable damage-dealers like Twisting Terror and Mana Storm to atmospheric spells like Vengeful Staff (think Gandalf on the bridge of Khazad-dûm), Doom Wish and Spirit Incursion.

There are mass mind-control spells that induce everybody to stab each other, psychic screams, magically-animated weapons that attack everybody in an area, huge fists that pummel targets from the sky, sun-light lasers, mine-fields, the whole shebang. A couple of spells are slightly edited versions of older spells that had been introduced after GURPS Magic, but most are completely new. As there are far more ways to deal damage over an area,  the spells feel much more unique than the ones in Death Spells. The spread also feels appropriate and there are a no obvious gaps.

A few of the spells are a little complicated (Collision, Sun’s Arc, Ironweed), but most of them are not much more complicated than what we’re used from former publications. Magery requirements are handled flexibly as is availability. The spells are almost all very hard (except for Self-Destruct) and Legality Class 1 or 0.

Especially interesting are the spell-building guidelines (the good doctor deliberately didn’t call them a system), which give the GM good ideas for balancing their own spells and making sure the spells in the grimoire don’t upset their campaign. GMs also get hint on fitting damage effects by college. There are also boxes on defence and the ever-popular topic of spell maintenance. Kromm takes especial care to show the reader how to differentiate artillery spells from boss killers. You don’t want your goblin horde eradicator to take out the dark lord or the archmage by accident.

All in all, there’s not much missing here. Even the page-count is half a dozen pages higher than the previous volumes in the series, despite Death Spells having a similar number of spells.

 

Meat score: 8.5

Cheese

As this is a spell catalogue there’s not that much in the way of world-building information present. There are, however, boxes on how to introduce artillery spells to existing campaigns and how to fit them into a fantasy legal framework, how to frame a heroic self-sacrifice by dangerous spells and how to fit the new spells into divinely-granted spell-casting tied to Power Investiture. There are hints as to which spells fit which genres best, but the vast majorities are slanted towards generic fantasy with a good dash of dungeon-delving.

For a generic spell collection there is not much more you could ask for.

Cheese score: 6.5

Sauce

The writing here is less tongue-in-cheek than most of Kromm’s Dungeon Fantasy titles, but there are the odd joke or two. It’s mostly enjoyable, though it does get a bit technical in some of the spell descriptions.

The art is, while not great, at least appropriate to the spells mentioned, sometimes more than I would have thought possible with reused generic art from Dan Smith & Co. We get a whopping five black and white illustrations and the cover isn’t actually doing them justice. Still, it’s a far cry from what other companies or even enterprising freelancers like Douglas Cole and his Lost Hall of Tyr.

Still, it’s a good effort for our favourite system.

Sauce score: 6

Generic Nutritional Substance

There are probably few campaigns outside of traditional fantasy and Technomancer that will use all the spells presented here. There are, however, a fair number of spells that work in secret magic, illuminati and horror games. Whether a dozen spells are worth the price of admission, everybody must decide for themselves.

Generic Nutritional Substance score: 6

Summary

GURPS Magic – Artillery Spells plugs a hole in the GURPS Magic system by presenting interesting damage-dealing spells that don’t all work in the same way and merely exchange damage types. Together with Death Spells it goes a long way of remedying one of the criticisms that are frequently levelled against the system, namely that its spells are boring and generic. It’s a good buy for everyone who likes the versatility of the system, but wants a little more flavour.

Total score: 7.7 (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 cheese-oriented book. A “cheesy” story- or world-building-oriented book would turn the percentages for cheese and meat around.

Value score: 5.85 (above average)
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 Setting – Caverntown

And here is it the first traditional GURPS release of the year (not counting Pyramid and Dungeon Fantasy Role-Playing Game releases. And it’s part of a new series – sort of. I’ll explain what that means in a second.

Cover of GURPS Dungeon Fantasy Setting - Caverntown

Facts

Author: Sean Punch (a.k.a. Dr. Kromm)
Date of Publication: 05/04/2018
Format: PDF-only (Warehouse 23-only)
Page Count: 49 (1 title page, 1 content page, 2 index pages, 1 page ad)
Price: $10.00 (PDF), $ 0.23 per page of content; Score of 6/10
Preview: http://www.warehouse23.com/products/gurps-dungeon-fantasy-setting-caverntown

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.

Caverntown is a town located underground next to tons of dungeons – something most players will find interesting. But what sets the Setting series apart from similar GURPS products like Encounters and Locations? Encounters are places to explore or visit – simply put adventures happen there. Locations are a bit more ambivalent, but most often they are imposing structures where adventures could happen, most often with a map, sometimes even a hex map attached. Worminghall is the odd one out and would have frankly been better as a Setting – had the series been there at the time. The main difference to Hot Spots (apart from being fictitious) is that DF Setting – Caverntown contains a whole lot of meaty rules in addition to all the story hooks and characters.

After a one-page intro that discusses the meaning of ‘Town’  in a dungeon-delving campaign the book is divided into four chapters: A Most Unusual City State (9 pages) tells us about Caverntown’s history, layout and inhabitants, Those Who Pull Strings (11 pages) is all about NPCs, guilds and other influential groups, Welcome to Caverntown! (13 pages) is all about things to do, dangers to encounter and mysteries to explore, Taking Care of Business (11 pages) is all about buying, selling and contracting. As usual there’s and index, which comes in a bit heavier since there are many lemmas to take care off.

Meat

The meaty bits are feature most in the fourth chapter (Taking Care of Business), but bits and pieces are distributed through the whole book. It’s definitely meatier than most specific settings we’ve seen so far in fourth edition. Some of it reads a bit dry, but the point here is that the GM does not need to improvise anything. Chapter 4 lists everything about buying, selling, contracting, custom-fitting, hiring any Dungeon Fantasy players could possibly want – often with die rolls and certainly with price modifiers.

Caverntown’s defences, tolls and law-enforcement are described in equal detail, so that the GM can quickly set up a chase with the town watch or a break-in in  the mages guild without much trouble. Five important NPCs (mayor, grand mistress of the holy warrior order, great druid, head of the chamber of commerce and the androgynous master bard with the enigmatic name Sivel). Sometimes this is quite reminiscent of That-Other-Game™, but be advised that you often need other DF supplements to make use of this information. Especially DF 15 Henchmen is important, but DF 1-3, DF 8 Treasure Tables, DF 14 Psi and DF 17 Guilds are almost required reading. The more likely your players are to cause mischief in town or want special orders, the more likely you are to need those.

Which raises an important point: This is a Dungeon Fantasy product, not a Dungeon Fantasy RPG product. It’s meant to work in the regular GURPS framework and if you only own the DFRPG you’ll be mystified by some things mentioned here. I suggest you just ignore anything that a quick full-text search in DFRPG doesn’t turn up. 90% of the supplement will still be useable and it’s good practice not to obsess about rules minutiae in GURPS anyway.

What else is new? We get an encounter table for town, which ranges from monster incursions (Caverntown is an outpost next to monster-infested territory after all) to petty crime to major capers and supernatural events. An actual wandering monster table is provided for the tunnels leading to the dungeons. There are rules for buying a building and hiring permanent servants (both of which are be a bit on the cheap side), training considerations, notes of credit, crime and punishment (mostly swift and capital), social traits, finding quests and the supernatural properties of the environment.

In short this is pretty dang complete setting from a rules-point of view.

Meat score: 9

Cheese

Caverntown’s history is interesting with multiple gods, a devil-worshipper and an elder thing featuring prominently, but it’s a bit on the cheesy side (in the original sense of the word). The characters though are wonderfully quirky and not easily sorted into good and evil, making complicated city plots possible if the GM wishes for a change of pace.

As a constructed town with a grid layout Caverntown is a bit bland when it comes to geographic diversity, but the individual features from the Shaft (an elevator tower that connects it to the surface), the Eight Titans (statues that keep the cavern stable), the druidic gardens, gates to the tunnels and the many establishments in town make up for it. The detail level is greater than say an average 3rd Edition Forgotten Realms city, but doesn’t quite reach GURPS Tredroy levels. The town does come alive for the reader though and interesting hooks are dangling everywhere, though these are for the GM to work out.

Chapter 3 is most interesting from an actual campaign point of view and outlines how to make everybody useful in a longer-term (or permanent) Caverntown campaign, notably what to do with those more outdoorsy professions and how to deal with the more uncommon races. It also contains a few locations outside of Caverntown proper, though these are more like teasers, not even real scenario ideas.

In short, the supplement contains an unusual amount of social stuff for Dungeon Fantasy and makes for an interesting if not absolutely breath-taking setting.

Cheese score: 8

Sauce

Again the lack of actually fitting illustrations is a big downer. One or two illustrations of buildings or persons that actually feature in the book would have made a big difference. There are more illustrations than usual, but they are often cropped to the point where you think it would have been better to have a blank space or another pull-quote. I could also think of quite a few DFRPG illustrations that would have been more apt. Not even the smith is a dwarf.

The lack of a map is easier to justify given the unique location and shape of the town and the fact why there is none is actually addressed in the book.

Sean Punch is at his more Dungeon-Fantasy-esque writing here and most of the time the tongue-in-cheek tone works nicely. There are a few lead-in sentences that are bit annoyingly retro, but these are rare. Pull quotes are from characters mentioned like in DFRPG and the index is sorely needed in this case. We also get a summary table of guild-masters and -mistresses, which is also nice, but the art still hurts.

Sauce score: 5.5

Generic Nutritional Substance

You won’t drop Caverntown into a modern-day horror campaign and setting it in a Science Fiction, Steampunk or Cliffhangers universe will make most of the information useless, but the cheesy bits are generic enough that you can use them this way if you don’t mind changing races and supernatural stuff. The meaty bits are generic enough to use in normal fantasy campaigns if you own the DF books mentioned and don’t mind a little professional lenses in your game.

Still, this is not GURPS at its most generic and it doesn’t mesh perfectly with the Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game, which does lower the score.

Generic Nutritional Substance score: 6

Summary

GURPS Dungeon Fantasy Setting – Caverntown goes a long way towards the plug-and-play GURPS campaign that people are always clamouring for. The GM still needs to supply the adventures, but with the full power of the Dungeon Fantasy line behind it the GM does have to think much about all the bits between the dungeons.

Total score: 7.525 (almost very good)
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 where both story and rules matter.

Value score: 6.7625 (well worth its price)
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 Encounters – The Harrowed Hearts Club

The GURPS Encounters series is still young and its second instalment is very different from its first (Matt Riggsby’s Pagoda of Worlds), so it’s time for a little review. It’s bite-sized, because I try to cut down from my usual endless word-wastes. So without further ado, here’s Jon Black’s The Harrowed Hearts Club.

Cover page of GURPS Encounters: The Harrowed Hearts Club

Facts

Author: Jon Black
Date of Publication: 02/11/2017
Format: PDF-only (Warehouse 23-only)
Page Count: 21 (1 title page, 1 content page, 1/2 index page, 1/2 page ad)
Price: $6.00 (PDF), $ 0.33 per page of content; Score of 3/10
Preview: http://www.warehouse23.com/products/gurps-encounters-the-harrowed-hearts-club

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.

Encounters is a new format for GURPS and this supplement combines two very different things: The first chapter (7 pages) is basically GURPS Clubs (or Haunted Clubs if you want to be pedantic) and explains how the basic building blocks can be used to make up very different establishments. From the different parts of the club, to its dimensions, to supernatural abilities of the club itself (complete with appropriate manifestations) and the templates for regular patrons and employees (including musicians). A small bibliography can be found on page 10 under “Additional Inspiration”.

The second chapter (11 pages) contains a short history of the titular club and four actual encounters. Each encounter is two or three pages long and consists of a number of events, some of which are optional. A small box on the last page contains five more three-sentence scenario ideas.

Please take note that the following contains some spoilers for the encounters! Scroll down to the summary if you want to completely avoid those.

Meat

The crunchy bits are not the main thing here, but there are quite a few stats here all the same. Templates for patrons and employees are short, but to the point, and the encounters make use of them too. Abilities and disadvantages for the Spirit of the Club and its manifestations take up almost a page – performance addiction is a nice idea how the club may affect musicians.

There’s also a box that lets you find out how likely it is to have someone with a specific skill in a middling-sized club (the stereotypical “Is there a doctor here?”). That will surely come handy in a variety of campaigns. Nothing obvious is missing, indeed even magical and psionic abilities are called out explicitly where they might matter and each encounter has a quick overview box with campaign and character suggestions.

Meat score: 8.5

Cheese

The first chapter is certainly useful, but GMs will likely come for the stories and not so much for the generic pub-building. The history of the Harrowed Hearts Club is violent from the very beginning and ties in nicely with the different iconic periods of American history. It’s quite clear that Jon Black knows his stuff and much of this is quite fascinating. So fascinating indeed that it is a bit of a shame that some entries have been cut short. Sure, you can read up on Jake Leg on wikipedia and need the game stats for the stuff more than the exact details, but I would have liked to see a bit more in some cases.

As for the encounters, they are clearly structured in different events and are nicely varied with more or or less mundane things, to creepily ambiguous horror to straight-up supernatural stuff. Three of them can be set in more or less recent history with a strong urban fantasy slant (low-powered Monster Hunters are mentioned as a definite possibility). The first one is a completely mundane Prohibition-era gangster story and – in my opinion – the weakest piece in the ensemble. The second one takes the characters literally to the past and allows them to change history by rescuing people during a famous fire. The third one is a creepy piece set during a high-stakes illegal poker game and the last one is the big confrontation with the spirit of the club and its unwilling minions – Monster Hunter style.

The last three encounters can be easily interspersed into an ongoing urban fantasy / secret magic campaign that build up to an unexpected crescendo. Pity that the pub will no longer be haunted if the characters succeed. The supplement certainly lives up to the Encounters title, even though a little bit more wouldn’t have hurt either.

Cheese score: 8

Sauce

As often the case, this is where GURPS lets us down. The illustrations are actually quite good, but it’s still two black-and-white images that are relatively generic. Also there’s no map. And though you could argue that this makes it more generic, it does hurt the plug-and-play functionality. At least two of the encounters could definitely make use of a detailed map.

What’s good is Mr. Black’s fluent writing style, good editing and even an index.

Sauce score: 6

Generic Nutritional Substance

This category might seem a bit pointless for an Encounter book, but it still is important to know how easy it is to to drop the club into an ongoing campaign. There are quite a few hints to adapt things to different backdrops as far as the supernatural is concerned, but basically the encounters presuppose a modern American secret magic setting. You can certainly shift things a couple of decades back or forward in time, but that’s basically. I’m not saying it can’t be reworked more completely, but that kind of defeats the purpose of a worked out scenario.

The first chapter, on the other hand, is quite generic and can be used for many a different campaign. There’s a little overlap with Dungeon Fantasy 10: Taverns, but it’s surprisingly negligible.

Generic Nutritional Substance score: 7

Summary

Encounters: The Harrowed Hearts Club is short and sweet – a good example of what the line can look like outside Dungeon Fantasy. The question whether it couldn’t be all the sweeter with a few more pages does arise, though. That would also help with the relatively bad price/page ratio.

I like the fact that the encounters really feel like more than just scenario ideas without being turned into fully-fledged adventures that likely would be too specific for most campaigns. What is a bit confusing about this is that all the Encounters so far are pretty strongly tied to locations. I’d like to see a volume that is less place-specific next.

Total score: 7.525 (almost very good)
Total score is composed of a weighted average of Meat (15%), Cheese (50%), Sauce (20%) and Generic Nutritional Substance (15%). This is a cheese-oriented book. A “meaty” gear-or rules-oriented book would turn the percentages for cheese and meat around.

Value score: 5.2625 (hurt by the high per-page price)
Value Score is composed of the average of Total and Price.


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.

Review: Dungeon Fantasy Traps – Powered by GURPS

Changed 02/02/2018 with new information, when the PDF was released to the general public.

Together with the contents of the DFRPG Boxed Set, Kickstarter backers who backed at the “I want it all”-level (or added the pdf as an extra) got the pdfs of Dungeon Fantasy Traps and Dungeon Fantasy Magic Items. This weekend I am reviewing the former and next one the latter. Traps was written by  Jason Levine and Christopher R. Rice – who might be called the leadership of Ritual Path Magic Cabal. The two adepts certainly think alike on many subjects, so it’s interesting to see what they came up with on the subject of traps. Rice already already gave us a random trap generator in Pyramid 3/60 (appropriately called “It’s a Trap!”). Some of the example traps contained within that article can be found in the volume at hand.

Facts

Author: Jason Levine (a.k.a. PK, @rev_pee_kitty ), Christopher R. Rice (a.k.a. Ghostdancer, @Ravenpenny)
Date of Publication: 17/08/2017 (Kickstarter-backer-exclusive), 01/02/2018 (general public)
Format: PDF-only / part of the Dungeon Fantasy Companion
Page Count: 26 (1 title page, 1 contents page, 2 pages of ads, no index!)
Price: $6.00 (PDF), $ 0.23 per page of content; Score of 5/10
Preview: http://www.warehouse23.com/media/SJG37-8101_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. A book about traps will naturally come down more heavily on the mechanical side, making it meat-focused.

The book looks a lot more like a standard GURPS book than the contents of the DFRPG box. After the short introduction (complete with recommended books, publication history and a few words about the authors), the book is split in two chapters: Traps (13 pages) and Tricks (8 pages). The former deals with bona fide traps or at least immediately dangerous stuff camouflage to avoid detection. The latter has more unconventional surprises in store, only some of which are physically dangerous and none of them are immediate death traps. These are more designed to confuse, mislead or serve as obstacles or puzzles. Note that this differs considerably from the definition given in DF 2 – Dungeons and DFRPG Exploits, which is not ideal, but the new definition makes more sense so I let this one slide. Dangerous stuff and curses are now classed under traps.

Both traps an tricks use the standard Dungeon Fantasy traps notation, but that notation  has changed a bit: instead of “circumvent” we now have “avoid” and instead of “evade” we have “save” (doubtless to help players of that-other-game adapt). Both traps and tricks have several more subheadings from “Alchemy and Gunk” to “Monster Mash” to “Insane Architecture”. Each trap/trick gets a descriptive paragraph and the stat block of. The descriptions are of varying length with the tricks usually being much more elaborate to set up. What’s not in the book is a trap generator à la “It’s a Trap!”, but that is actually not such a bad thing since that strays into advanced game-mastering territory and quite a few traps have hints on how to modify them, anyway.

Meat

Now, the meat of the matter is what dungeon-delvers want to know more about, of course. Here the meat is mainly (but not exclusively) in the stat blocks. Each gives stats to detect, disarm, avoid and save against the trap’s effects, how many shots it has and whether it can be rearmed and stolen (yes, even the 10,000-pound stone sphere has a careful “no” under “steal” lest an intrepid adventurer make off with it). The traps range from the commonplace – deadfalls, pit traps of all sorts, shrinking rooms – to the ingeniously devious – Dehydrating Basin, Imprisment (James Bond-style Laser web with prisms), Projectile-Capturing Field and the insidious Dragon’s Maw Hallway.

I am not giving away the secret design features, but a GM who mixes one or two of the more insidious gems with the more ordinary traps will get a very satisfying result. On the whole there are 44 traps and 20 tricks, but many of these have variants (12 variants of Evil Runes for example and 10 different weapons at different strengths for Weapons Traps – though why the list is missing two weapons only to see them added to the respective traps is a bit strange). The damage range is pretty high, going from as little as 1d-1 to 5d6x4, which is pretty much lethal. Some traps require very quick thinking to avoid losing a party member – Lava Pit and Crush Room I am looking at you! Thankfully, insta-kills are relatively rare and always pointed out within the text.

There are only a few traps that I’d find difficult to set up successfully – Elven Clothesline is only for riders, for example – but the vast majority are generic enough to be used everywhere in a dungeon (or in most wilderness for the few wilderness-oriented traps). Most of the traps make sense even without saying “A Wizard Did It!” it but some strain the suspension of disbelief a bit – if you can’t imagine a bola-throwing mechanism, you’re not alone. There are few of these over-the-top traps though and let’s be frank – traps based on carnival rides aren’t really out-of-place in Dungeon Fantasy. It’s also nice to see how the authors slipped some physics from standard GURPS in here without making thing cumbersome – e.g. gravity and acceleration. Christopher Rice had to point that out to me. I hadn’t really noticed there was a theme.

About a dozen traps are re-used from DF 16: Wilderness Adventures and “It’s a Trap”, but among these are classics like Deadfall and Poisoned Needle, which couldn’t have been left out in any case. The vast majority of the traps are intended for a regular dungeon, though some are multi-purpose and can be used outdoors and indoors. Specific outdoor traps are rare.

There’s only one rule one overall rule that’s completely new: mandatory complementary rolls – used for timing. That works nicely for time-triggered dungeons (sharp pendulums for example) and makes complementary rolls even more useful – a beautiful mechanic I am sure to steal for other things.

There’s not much that’s missing, but I wouldn’t have minded a box on how regular dungeon denizens interact with traps and how they (or multiple traps or traps and architecture) can be combined to make challenging encounters. We get a few hints, but as a DFRPG supplement a big splashy box wouldn’t have been amiss, in my honest opinion. Also, I want Hell Gnome stats, dammit!

Meat score: 8.5 (very good)

Cheese

Good dungeon encounters tell a little story and about half of the traps and most of the tricks presented here do that. Don’t expect some lengthy lead-in with a backstory, but the mechanics themselves usually suggest some mini-plot. Some traps like Gladiator Pit also set up mini encounters that the GM can tailor to specific party members. Of course, these little stories mean that not every trick and trap makes perfect atmospheric sense in every run-off-the-mill dungeon, but there are enough of them that this isn’t usually a problem.

Apart from the lead-ins to each trap/trick, there are a couple of paragraphs or boxes that offer further storytelling aids. Especially helpful is “Puzzling through riddles” that helps you give hints to characters to make a skill roll (most helpful is the most-often useless Poetry skill). There are hints for how to deal with spell-slingers circumventing your trapped room (“Transmute Trap to Joke”) and how to power you dungeon in a semi-realistic way (“Motive Force”). All of these are useful and help the GM build the atmosphere and deal with players taking short-cuts, but, of course, the book can’t be said to be heavy on the fluff side. As mentioned above, a general page on how to integrate monsters and traps wouldn’t have hurt either.

Cheese score: 7 (good)

Sauce

When I said this book looks more like a regular GURPS book, I wasn’t just talking about the contents. As mentioned, it is grey-scale and even though the illustrations (some duplicated from the DFRPG boxed set) are still good, they are far and few between. Nothing wrong with that, but it would certainly have been more interesting to illustrate some of the unique, complex or beautiful traps instead of the deadfall and the net. Yes, I know, it’s a relatively small book that was a kickstarter stretch goal, but looks are quite important for RPG books to sell.

Moving on to positive things, the layout is clear and legible with the trap stat block making it easy to find the relevant stats and the bold-print traits being easy to spot too. I wouldn’t have minded a nice easy indicator for lethality like a number of skulls in the trap titles, though. Right now you have to read the lead-in paragraph or be very good at deciphering effects. Apparently the authors thought about a challenge rating, but decided against it. I would still have liked some quick indicator, no matter how simple.

There’s also more tongue-in-cheek writing again and the “Speaking from Experience” boxes add more character to our two thief commentators than most of those in the DFRPG boxed set. Also, there are the trap names, some of which are straight-forward, but many are extremely punny or alliterative.

Editing is top-notch, meaning I didn’t spot any mistakes or wonky-looking stuff, but there’s no index, even though the book contains two pages of ads. That’s a bit disappointing, even if it’s not a huge problem in a book this length (especially not in a full-text searchable pdf). All the headings in the context page and all the web-links are hyper-linked and the whole pdf is bookmarked – as is standard for digital GURPS books. All in all, still above the industry average, even if it doesn’t look quite as sexy as those Pathfinder supplements.

Sauce score: 6.5 (clearly above average)

Generic Nutritional Substance

Given that this book is about traps for Dungeon Fantasy, it does actually have a lot of use beyond that. Even if some of the traps might be a bit above the top for standard fantasy (e.g. Rotating Room, Imprisment) most of them can be used for anything vaguely Sword and Sorcery. Even the damage level isn’t much of a problem unless you are playing the dregs of society in the Discworld RPG. What’s more, a lot of these rooms can be repurposed with little effort for Cliffhangers campaigns, some Monster Hunter campaigns, and even Space campaigns that deal with ancient precursor civilisations. Basically, everything that isn’t entirely social role-playing or rigidly realistic can profit. Even for ultra-tech Cyberpunk infiltration you might take the stats and just change the flavour text with fast acting poisons becoming nano-goo.

Speaking of generic use, there’s nothing keeping you from using these traps in D&D or some other games, as long as you can improvise rolls for detection, avoidance and saves, which does raise the usefulness a good bit.

Generic Nutritional Substance score: 7.5 (passes universal test)

Digesting Everything

DF Traps is a step up in complexity from the DFRPG boxed set. GMs who want to full use of it had better have a couple of sessions under their belt. It’s not a huge step, though. Just taking some of the simpler traps as is and putting them in a dungeon isn’t complicated at all. Christopher Rice told me – during a nice chat after I had already written most of the review (thank you Christopher!) – that the guideline for this book had been “don’t make it too complex – if you make it complex, make it easy to pull apart!” I think the authors managed to do that quite well.

The book is intended to complement DFRPG Exploits and it does that well, but even those two together don’t make a complete How to Build GURPS Dungeons – any takers to write that one?

Summary

This book is useful for those who want to drop some traps and weird tricks into their dungeons. It’s also good for templates to modify your traps. It’s definitely useful for newbies, but old hands won’t be bored either. It doesn’t supplant “It’s a Trap”, which offers some more variety and randomness, but it has considerably more ready to use stuff. If you play Dungeon Fantasy (or Fantasy with the occasional dungeon), there are few reasons not to buy this book (except that you can’t get it yet), but I’ve known GMs (and players) who really don’t like traps. In that case, move along!

If, on the other hand, you like what you see here and want to add some extra-nastiness Christopher R. Rice’s “Deathtraps” in the latest Pyramid has got you covered – incidentally David L. Pulver’s “Demihuman Dungeons” in the same issue is a good guide on how to build dungeons made by non-humans. That one is already available at least.

Total score: 7.725 (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 cheese-oriented book. A “cheesy” story- or world-building-oriented book would turn the percentages for cheese and meat around.

Value score: 6.3625 (good)
Value Score is composed of the average of Total and Price.

Accessibility: still excellent – start with the boxed set, play a couple of games and you’ll be ready to tackle this, old GURPS hands can dive right in


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.