Review: GURPS Disasters – Meltdown and Fallout

A pity this one didn’t get published last week to coincide with Chernobyl’s 30 years after. But it’s still a topical first release in a long-awaited (at least by me) new series. Didn’t expect  this one specifically – the title wasn’t in the examples section – but it’s a nice companion for the recently released first helpings of After the End. At the same time, it’s nice to see GURPS going back to its roots by providing gameable abstractions of real-world situations.

On the first page, there’s the sentence “All the real-world information in this
supplement was obtained from public sources and off-the-record discussions with experts.” If such a line comes from a GURPS author, I’m  inclined to believe such a promise.

Cover Page for GURPS Disasters: Meltdown and Fallout

Facts

Author: Roger Burton West (“RogerBW” on the forums)
Date of Publication: 2016/05/05
Format: PDF-only (Warehouse 23-only)
Page Count: 31 (1 title page, 1 contents page, 1 bibliography page,  1.5 index pages, 0.5 page ad)
Price: $7.99 (PDF), $ 0.30 per page of content (counting the bibliography); Score of 3/10
Preview: http://www.warehouse23.com/media/SJG37-1710_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.

Author Roger Burton West has a good track record when it comes to articles and books about robots or nuclear stuff, including the 4th Edition incarnation of Reign of Steel: Will to Live.

As the first title in the new line, it’s interesting to take a look at the book’s composition. First off, we get the introduction that briefly brings us up to speed why the topic is interesting in an RPG and how it can be used in different campaign frameworks. There’s also a glossary of the terms provided Then we get seven pages of real-world background information, including possible accident scenarios. Next are nine pages about gaming the meltdown, followed by two pages of radiation gear – real and (mildly) speculative. Rounding it off are eight pages about possible campaigns and adventures, a bibliography and the index. Nothing surprising here, but surprise is not actually what you’d be looking for in a book about real-world topics.

This is, of course, a book addressed mainly to GMs. I’m not sure you’d need anything besides the Basic Set to play around with it, but it’s certainly not bad to have High-Tech at hand. Do note that some High-Tech equipment stats are updated here. There are some ties to After the End, Action and Zombies, but those are strictly optional.

Meat

The meat of the matter is contained mostly in the first three chapters – but it’s mixed heavily with the cheese. The first chapter starts off gently by explaining fission and sustainable chain reactions in layman’s terms. We learn about the different reactor models and radiation types, fuel, waste and how to protect against radiation (including updated Protection Factor numbers). There are also sections on economic and social impact, but they are fairly short. There’s also a box on ultra-tech meltdowns, dealing with fusion and antimatter reactors.

The second chapter “Gaming a Meltdown” first has a Characters-like section that presents us with a list of the very much expected exotic traits to resist radiation. Then it veers off into versions of common perks, disadvantages and quirks. The latter two – Always Jokes / No Sense of Humour About Radiation – are a bit weird. More interesting are the skills. More useful are the skill notes that explain what specialisation covers what. There’s also a small section on superhero mutations. And then there’s the meltdown itself. If you ever wanted to know how much damage a reactor’s steam explosion could do, you need not look further. Also there are detailed rules for nuclear weapons – which frankly surprised me a bit – but that was the one area where 4th Edition’s High-Tech  was lacking compared to its predecessor.

Also in this chapter are both After the End‘s simplified Radiation Threshold Points and a more detailed, realistic method for simulating radiation exposure. There are also some rules for affecting truly exotic characters. Fallout dispersion gets a detailed treatment too.

The gear chapter has very specialised realistic anti-radiation remedies. Fun fact: Some of the really advanced stuff is so hideously expensive it makes regular cancer drugs look like chump change.

Some meat is also found in the boxes and tables of Chapter 4, like fright check modifiers for radiation exposure and likely damage from fires, steam, toxic chemicals and electricity.

Personally, I would have liked a little bit more on radiation effects on wildlife, vegetation and machinery – as well as even more detailed rules for radiation sickness on characters. That’s mostly nitpicking, though. The book answers most of my questions on how to treat a nuclear disaster rules-wise and even some I didn’t know I should ask.

Meat score: 8 (reactor is critical)

Cheese

Some of the campaign-building and flavour parts are distributed through the first two chapters. That includes real-world effects that aren’t quantified into crunchy rules and also descriptions of historical disasters. Most of the cheese is contained in chapter four, though. That one deals explicitly with campaigns and adventures.

Obviously the focus here is on modern-day earth and the seven decades before today, but there are alternatives that include nuclear steam engines (not as unrealistic as you might have thought), spaceship reactors and magical reactors. Technomancer‘s NEMA is briefly discussed, as is general magical “radiation” as well as magical smybolism. We learn about different countries’ nuclear safety nets, security forces and the global organisational oversight.

The chapter presents different kinds of hazards from a story point of view – whether as the main focus or a just a complication. Meltdown-focussed adventures are split in two flavours: prevention and disaster management with many different sub-grouping and specific (if generalised) adventure seeds thrown in between. Infinite Worlds gets a seed, but there could be more ties to other settings, especially After the End and Reign of Steel.

Necessarily some things have been left a big vague as there are many different types of reactors and safety and security arrangements, but I would have liked a bit more on specific hazards that occur during clean-up or rescue, maybe in the form of ‘hazard seeds’ boxes just like there are adventure seed ones. It’s not a big problem, but sometimes things feel a little bit removed from the action on the ground.

One thing I’m feeling a bit ambiguous about: The book tries hard to be neutral about atomic vs. renewable energy, but there is a certain undercurrent in favour of the atom that doesn’t taste very good to me. Your mileage may vary, of course. As a member of the Chernobyl generation I might just be a bit touchy.

Cheese score: 7 (politicians clearly back nuclear energy)

Sauce

Burton West’s prose is clear and elegant, but quite technical at times – don’t expect many Kromm-like jokes (there is one though, have fun finding it). The book doesn’t require excessive physics knowledge, but readers should be generally aware how atoms work, at least to tell apart electrons, neutrons and protons.It gets more technical in some spaces, but rarely to the point where the interested reader becomes less so. Science-shy readers might want to avoid looking too closely at the “Measuring Radiation” box, though.

It’s still weird to me to read science with degrees Fahrenheit, but the average American reader won’t have that problem. Another thing that’s annoying are that the giga-/peta-/eta-becquerel numbers that are really hard to visualise, but there’s not much Mr. Burton West could do about that.

There are a couple of intersting titbits here like Lake Karachay, the most polluted place on earth, or the 2012 Oak Ridge Incident, in which an 82 old nun and two companions broke into a top secret nuclear facility, but unfortunately they not very detailed – come on, at least mention that she was a nun!

There are some some slight compositional problems: e.g. the output of a normal reactor in MW is found in a sub-heading in Chapter 4 and as contrasting number under Turnkey Reactors. That isn’t ideal, but we’ve had worse.

Illustrations, as usual, are extremely sparse – three out of four can be seen on the title page and the third one is a warning sign. They’re not that pretty either. I do like the brushed steel for ‘Disasters’ on the title page though.

The bibliography is pretty exhaustive for such a small book, but I find myself incapable to comment on the non-fiction. It seems a pretty good mix overall, though.

Sauce score: 4 (think about lowering those graphite rods!)

Generic Nutritional Substance

That’s better than you might think, actually. Sure, you can only get bona-fide nuclear disasters in relatively modern or future settings, but the book also considers the problem of magical equivalents / ramifications. It’s still rather limited, but it does raise some interesting questions. Much of the information is about the real, of course, but that also covers a heck of a lot of campaigns.

As a special bonus, much of the material will be applicable to other game systems too. Most of the equipment can be used as is and the real-world data doesn’t change with the system.

Generic Nutritional Substance score: 6 (dodged that lethal dose)

Summary

A very promising start for a new series. I’m looking forward to more from both the author and the series. I won’t exactly start putting nuclear stuff into my campaigns, but I feel confident I could manage that better than before, should the need arise.

As always I wouldn’t have minded another half a dozen pages, though. Up your standard length to 38 pages already, Steve Jackson Games!

Total score: 6.575 (expected half-life of 20 years on my digital shelf)
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 book balanced between Meat and Cheese.

Value score: 4,7875 (cost more tax dollars than expected)
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: GURPS Zombies – Day One

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.

I’m going backwards through my collection for these reviews, although I skip all the Pyramids and some of the supplements with which I am unfamiliar. In this case Monster Hunters 5 – Applied Xenology, which I mainly bought to show my support. That brings us to GURPS Zombies Day One – a rather cheesy item (or fluffy if you go by the standard nomenclature).

Title Page from GURPS Zombies - Day One

Now zombies are not my usual fare when it comes to monsters – I like a bit more motivation for my antagonists – but I have to admit that the GURPS treatment of the matter has been excellent so far. Now the question is what does this volume provide that sets it apart from the standard survival scenario – in short: a lot.

Facts

Author: Sean Punch (Dr. Kromm)
Date of Publication: 2015/04/02
Format: PDF-only (Warehouse 23-only)
Page Count: 56 (1 title page, 2 content pages, 1 index page)
Price: $9.99 (PDF), $ 0.19 per page of content; Score of 6/10
Preview: http://www.warehouse23.com/products/gurps-zombies-day-one

Review

Please take note that this book is a companion volume to GURPS Zombies, which incidentally was the last hardcover GURPS release back in… 2013 – time really flies. All the meaty rules bits (crunch) are in that volume, while this one presents all the cheesy (fluffy) campaign infos for making use of all the zombie types and biting rules so nicely provided by GURPS Zombies.

As such Day One is structured very differently from Zombies proper. Each of the eight chapters is basically its own campaign setting, although the second the “Fields of Fear” is basically an extended adventure set in the antebellum American South. While those are only 6-7 pages long, the information given is very dense and covers everything the GM needs to know to write their own campaign.

Write? Sure, this is still GURPS and even the densest treatment can’t give you everything you need to know on half a dozen pages. Even if you are completely in love with one of the treatments you still need to fill in the blanks (locations, NPCs, etc.), but the supplement does a very good job at holding your hands, explicitly calling out the parts (pun intended) of Zombies you need for this type of campaign and what other supplements are useful. Power level of player characters, suggested character types and (in)appropriate traits are given for each of the eight campaigns. Of special interest is a section appropriately titled “Tough Calls” that answers questions like “Can I play a zombie?”. The eponymous “Day One” section covers the situation, in which the characters find themselves at the start of the campaign and the “Homework” section covers the most intensive prep work the GM has to do.

Meat

The settings are mainly background information, but there are enough hooks to get the more rules-oriented GM busy looking things up. The setup, rules and character creation sections are rather meaty, but they don’t introduce new rules, just explain how things work in terms of existing ones. The meat isn’t he focus, but – depending on the campaign in question – you end up with 1 to 3 pages that are mostly rules and rules explanation.

It’s the explanations that make this book especially useful to the novice GM. It’s completely possible to run some of the campaigns using  just the Basic Set and Zombies – a definite plus for convention games too. That’s not saying, things can’t be improved by owning every GURPS book, but don’t get carried away; some of the campaigns are better if you don’t get side-tracked.

Meat score: 6 (enough meat to satisfy tinkering GMs, but not a meat-focused book)

Cheese

Each of the campaigns has enough information to set up an atmospheric campaign, but some of the are more focused on the basics and the rules supporting them, while others are more “cheesy”. The campaigns are in order:

Empire of the Necromancer-King: A single bastion of light is resisting the armies of evil, mindless zombies in a setting that’s basically Dungeon Fantasy with some things removed – evil player characters and dubious spells are the first to go, but even the dungeon itself is purely optional. There’s not that much cheesy goodness in this one, but that’s intentional. It is heroic fantasy writ large, after all. The main mystery here is why the evil empire is ruled by a king, of course.

Fields of Fear: The complete opposite on the meat/cheese scale from the Necromancer King, this adventure/campaign is set in the old South where slavery is still alive and well. It is a gentle reminder of the origin of the zombie myth and explores concepts of race, class and gender in an unusually thoughtful way. It can be used as a good starting point for historical campaigns with a little extra.

Savage Streets: This is a more gruesome campaign that still fits a cinematic treatment: A new drug has hit the streets and its users are running amok. Cynical politicians want the problem to “burn itself out” and its up to the PCs – police officers, first responders, vigilantes – to protect ordinary citizens. It’s a bit peculiar in that is still has a safe zone for much of the campaign. If you want to, you can easily run it in a realistic style – and raise a whole lot of moral questions.

Zeta Force: PCs are members of a secret UN force that deals with only one threat. Guess what Zeta stands for! The cinch is that humans are naturally predisposed to become zombies. This is basically a government-founded Monster Hunter group that veers a bit into Black Ops territory, although without aliens and at much reduced proficiency. Anything that could conceivably made to rise from the dead using weird science or psychic powers is fair game here.

Ultimate Zombie Fighters: This is your basic zombie apocalypse with the twist that all PCs are immune to the zombie plague; that doesn’t mean they can easily deal with zombies or the apocalypse though. The goal here is to find the truth about the zombie plague and whether it can be cured. It’s very action-oriented and too combat-heavy for my taste, but your mileage may vary.

Alpha and Omega: Supersoldier research created a zombie plague, but also immune metahumans that look just like the zombies. These are the PCs and their job is to prevent the worst of the apocalypse while looking like its four horsemen. It’s an interesting premise that forces the group to deal with understandable prejudice. It gives borderline nods to realism, so that any powers that are physically impossible are off limits (including snazzy Innate Attacks). You don’t absolutely need GURPS Powers to run it, but having it certainly doesn’t hurt.

Time of the Zombies: Pretty much the A Canticle for Leibowitz among the zombie campaigns, this starts off long after the apocalypse that produced living, raging madmen. There are some of these “zombies” left and the pathogen that created them is also there, but there are no raving masses and constant fear of infection. If you liked the Fallout games, that’s the right campaign for you. It might have benefited from some more expansive rules for gear, but that’s the only disadvantage I see. Be advised that taking place so long after the apocalypse it’s even more free-form than the other ones.

Depravity Well: This obligatory SF version takes the zombie apocalypse and places it in a first contact situation. The first species humanity makes contact with (after singular and painstaking effort) turns out to have its own industrialised zombie plague – what an unfortunate step for mankind! The campaign raises the issue of pollution – the aliens were even less concerned about the environment than humans – and reckless use of new technology.

Each of the campaigns has sections on the zombie metaphor used, important turning points, the meaning of sacrifice, replacement characters, mood and pacing. It’s enough to satisfy the majority of GMs, even those for whom the rules are just an afterthought. However, none are as expansive as those for normal campaign settings – even the smaller ones like Infinite Worlds – Brittanica-6.

On the other hand the variety is really nice. You get four campaigns where being zombified is a real danger and four where it isn’t. There’s something for Dungeon Fantasy, SF, history, Monster Hunter, survivalism, tactical shooting and action (the latter twice even). What I’m missing a bit is the supernatural angle. Except for “Empire of the Necromancer-King” there’s nothing that encourages PCs with supernatural abilities and all but two zombie types are of the more or less weird science and psionics variety. I’d have preferred a bit more options for the supernaturally-minded zombie slayer. Still, that might have been difficult to pull off while keeping the genres separated as they are now.

Cheese Score: 9 (satisfying campaign collection)

Sauce

The writing is the usual top-notch style of Dr. Kromm’s, although it doesn’t quite reach the heights of his Dungeon Fantasy volumes and there’s a lot of technical information to convey for each campaign framework. Sometimes that makes you skip paragraphs you don’t yet need. But that’s still complaining on a high level. The writing is good and so’s the editing. Of course, there’s complete bookmarking for each of the headings and sub-headings and hyperlinks to each item on the content page.

The pull-quotes are fitting and there are some interesting titbits hidden within the text that make you shudder or grin should you research them on wikipedia. So far so good.

Unfortunately the art is pretty bad. You may remember Dan Smith, the guy who illustrated a lot of 3rd Edition books in black and white. While those were mostly okay if a bit sub-par, his illustrations here are a collection of his worst attempts for 3rd Edition. At least the ones for fantasy campaign are pretty evocative. The rest are just ugly. The better illustrations are all pilfered from Horror and Zombies. I’m not sure whether the book wouldn’t have been better without any pictures.

Sauce score: 5 (good writing, mostly annoying art)

Generic Nutritional Substance

Day One pretty much pushes the envelope when it comes to presenting campaigns only united by their theme. You could get more universal than that, but not in the space provided. Still, it might not have hurt to include one more fantasy or supernatural scenario. Most campaigns, even in GURPS, take place in a world where those things matter. That’s nitpicking, however. The book is almost as generic as Zombies itself.

Generic Nutritional Substance score: 9 (almost among the most universal)

Summary

If you like zombies or want to explore the themes they’ve come to embody, this book is for you. The same goes for any GM that read Zombies and thought “Now if I only could fit all that into a coherent framework.” It’s not meant for GMs that want their brains served ready-to-eat, but they’ll be hard-pressed to run GURPS anyway. Some of the campaigns can even be started off with just a few hours of work beyond character creation.

Total score: 7.75  (good for your grey matter)
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” rules-orientied book would turn the percentages for cheese and meat around.

Value score: 6.875 (for its length it’s hard to find better value)
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.