Review: GURPS Dungeon Fantasy 19 – Incantation Magic

With the GURPS Dungeon Fantasy boxed set kickstarter going strong, it’s  only natural that I finally get my behind in gear and do another DF review during the product’s release week. And Dungeon Fantasy 19 – Incantation magic is certainly a strong contender for every Dungeon Fantasy fan’s wallet. The author dream team of Christopher R. Rice and Antoni Ten Monrós took up the task of bringing Jason “PK” Levine’s Ritual Path Magic (RPM) to Dungeon Fantasy. And I don’t spoil much by saying that their margin of success is rather large.

A word of advice for those readers just tuning in from the kickstarter: This book has been added to the Expert level of the kickstarter for a reason. Like regular RPM, it puts a lot more decisions and work into the hands of the GM – probably more than any other DF task except for making up adventures and campaigns. There is a grimoire of sample spells, but restricting players to those would go radically against the intention of the supplement. So get your rules boots on if you want to feature incanters in your DF game.

Cover of GURPS Dungeon Fantasy 19 - Incantation Magic

Facts

Authors: Christopher R. Rice (Ghostdancer on the forum and his blog) and Antoni Ten Monrós (Kuroshima on the forum)
Date of Publication: 08/09/2016
Format: PDF-only (Warehouse 23-only)
Page Count: 32 (1 title page, 1 content page, 1.5 index pages, 0.5 page ad)
Price: $7.99 (PDF), $0.29 per page of content; Price Score of 4/10
Preview: http://www.warehouse23.com/media/SJG37-0340_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 will find a weighted average of those components and a value score that also takes into account price per page.

Before I dive into the review proper, I have a confession to make: I’ve never used RPM in a game before. My Dresden Files campaign took place way back in 2008 before RPM was more than a sparkle in RPK’s eye and we used Path/Book Magic and Magic as Powers for that. I’ve also never run a straight DF campaign, even though I thoroughly mine all the books for bits and pieces. So, keep in mind that there might be more knowledgeable people around to write about this!

The book is standard medium-size digital GURPS supplement divided into three chapters. After a short introduction (1 page), Chapter 1: Ritual Casters (6 pages) tells us about the necessary traits for incanters and gives us the DF templates and power-ups we’re used to by now. Chapter 2: Incantation Magic (13 pages) represents the bulk of the book and that’s where the magic happens. We get very detailed rules for working incantation magic into your DF game. Chapter 3: Grimoire (8 pages) is a list of fully-worked spells that are a good fit for a 250-points incanter.

All the rules are quite a bit streamlined from regular RPM. I deliberately don’t say simplified, because they do not represent a dumbing-down, just a different flavour that doesn’t need so many dice rolls and sympathetic connections as in a secret magic campaign. In a pinch you could use them for just such a campaign, but the original RPM rules will be a better fit.

Meat

Incantation Magic is not different from most DF titles in that it comes down heavily on the “meaty” side of things (what others call the “crunch”). The score will therefore mainly depend on this aspect. So, what’s there?

Incantation Magic makes use of Ritual Magic and paths just like RPM and Path/Book Magic. There are 8 paths: Arcanum, Augury, Demonology, Elementalism, Mentalism, Necromancy, Protection and Transfigurations. Those are more or less congruent with what a DF wizard can do. An incanter is not bound to specific spells, they can make up anything within those limits that the GM allows. Every part of a spell (effect, modifier etc.) adds spell points to its total. The more spell points, the harder it is to cast the spell; the more effects, the longer it takes.

We get a basic incanter template that follows standard DF conventions. There’s less customization going on than in other professions since incanters mainly specialise by path, not by spell. Maybe there’s going to be a DF Denizens book for incanters one day that adds a bit more variety, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

We do get the lenses to make up “multi-class” characters, though. These only include the 11 professions from DF 1 – Adventurers, even though the artificer, mentalist and scholar are called out as good combinations for incanters. At least the evil versions of the cleric and holy warrior are included as variations. That’s a bit disappointing, but can’t be helped. With more and more professions being added in supplements you can’t have all the combinations all the time, though the lack of the scholar – also being an improvisational character – smarts. My favourite is the Incanter-Wizard though – clearly the best of both worlds.

What is incantation magic like? For the rules-maniacs: it’s a streamlined Ritual Path Magic variant that uses effect-shaping instead of energy accumulation, does away with greater and lesser effects and instead sets a sliding scale of effects and hard limits on what can be achieved. For normal readers: incantation magic does away with a lot of the fiddly bits of RPM and gives you a better idea how difficult a certain effect should be. Incanters are more likely to do their casting in town and call upon those resources later. They can cast in the dungeon, but they aren’t very efficient at that.

So what are Incanters good at? Two things: First, they can prepare custom-made spells in advance (in town) and bind them to a spell slot – similar to the Vancian system used in ‘that other game’. These incantations can be activated with a single concentrate manoeuvre and a casting roll. Second, they can cast these very same spells inside the dungeon if they have enough time to prepare. This is basically a non-combat task. Even with the Adept power-up only the simplest spells can be improvised within a second and there are far and few combat situations where a 5-second casting time is worth the effort. Scripts are written on scrolls and are more resilient than incantations, but work more-or-less the same. Infusions are basically special potions that don’t take up spell slots, but have a limited shelf life.

This description already shows that incanters come heavily front-loaded. Even a starting character can have 23 incantations (or scripts), 2 scripts and 4 stabilised infusions. Regular infusions have their power go awry after a month or so, depending on your stats. That means incanters benefit heavily from good intelligence about the the next dungeon, since they can’t replenish their bag of tricks easily when in the dungeon. It also means a lot of book-keeping: The GM has to secretly note (critical) success or failure for each incantations and the sequence of their casting also matters, because you can lose them. The margin of success needs to be noted for each script and the shelf-life for each regular, non-stabilised infusion. That’s a bit of a turn-off for less strategical-minded players and GMs alike and easily the biggest drawback of the system I could find. If you have players who like a bit more Shadowrun-like scouting and planning this can turn into a bonus, though.

There are a couple of minor bonuses: It’s nice that interactions with standard magic are explicitly addressed, whether it’s dispelling each other or using energy from another reserve. That has been missing from RPM so far. There are also good guidelines as to what constitutes a spell and what is a different spell. Rules on girding your spells to make them harder to dispel, making spells harder to resist and hard limits on buffing are also quite useful.

The grimoire features a variety of 39 different spells from the expected direct damage and invisibility to betwitchment, summoning, fate manipulation and berserking spells. They are all well-done, but nothing stands out as absolutely ingenious, but Mule’s Strength, Safeguard and Twist of Fate are pretty dang nice. I would have liked to have a two or three copies from the RPM grimoire just to see how they turn out differently, but for the average reader all new spells are certainly the better deal.

Some things are a little iffy: You can make your own personal very-high-mana zone to give you a massive bonus to casting rolls – despite the book saying you can’t use magic to get better at magic. The Field Caster and Adept power-ups are so useful that they will be picked up by most characters ASAP. Some effects seem a bit strong, like directly giving a penalty to survival rolls. In general there’s nothing too wonky going on, though. All in all this is one of the most solid and self-contained rulebooks I’ve seen in some time.

Meat score: 9.5 (It’s a kind of magic)

Cheese

There’s very little in here that helps you build a campaign world or create characters. We get a little on the disdain incanters have for wizards and how incantations can’t do anything about elder things, setting up a bit of a psychic rivalry. Most spirits are also beyond their domain.

The paths themselves are well thought out and fit in with what we know about the DF world. I personally would have liked to know how incanters stand vis-a-vis the gods since they have two very dark paths indeed. Their relationship to nature is probably akin to the wizards. As you can combine every profession with every other one, these seem a bit like a moot point, but there was certainly room for improvement.

Cheese score: 4 (mundane magic)

Sauce

The worst part of the pretty stuff is easily the art again. Four illustrations and you can see the quality on the cover collage. Not very enticing, though at least at appropriate places in the book. The cover itself is typical DF style, but not one of the better ones. The technical writing is very good and makes things easy to understand almost all of the time. What’s a bit disappointing is the quality of the vignettes. They have a  clear “this happened in my last campaign” vibe. While this serves to illustrate the subject matter, it still feels a bit awkward. There are also a couple of typos and minor errors that will go directly to Steven Marsh, who will certainly take care of things as fast as usual. Still, they are there.

Sauce score: 5 (That Old Black Magic)

Generic Nutritional Substance

While this is still Dungeon Fantasy, it can be used for a lot of other genres, even if it won’t be a perfect fit for most. Yes, we do get three pages of DF templates, but at least the generic incanter can be dropped in a range of settings with only minor alterations. The magic system itself fits many campaigns, from secret magic to high fantasy to non-four-colour superheroics. It’s working together with standard magic and clerical magic out of the box too. All in all, more than generic enough.

Generic Nutritional Substance score: 8.5 (magic is everywhere)

Summary

Dungeon Fantasy 19 is the highest-scoring book I reviewed this year and my new personal favourite among the double-digit DF supplements – barely edging out the more generally applicable Wilderness Adventures and Power-ups. It’s an excellent stand-alone book debut for Messrs. Rice and Monrós.

It’s also a solid investment if you want to try something new magic-wise or have players who don’t like the rigid one spell, one skill approach that the other casters use. If you don’t feel like getting it on its own right now, order it through the kickstarter!

Total score: 7.625 (elven high magic)
Total score is composed of a weighted average of Meat (40%), Cheese (25%), 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: 5.8125 (you can’t put a price on magic)
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 Dungeon Fantasy Monsters 3 – Born of Myth & Magic

Not one of the new series Kromm and PK have been hinting strongly about, Peter V. Dell’Orto’s newest oeuvre will be very much welcomed by Dungeon Fantasy players and other GURPS fans alike. It’s close in style and content to Dungeon Fantasy Monsters 1, but whereas the former volume had a lot of unique, original and lesser-known monsters, the current one deals to a large degree with classic ones. The title is right on the money and if a monster is not connected to myths, it’s sure to have some magical slant to it (actually the mythic monsters are also magical).

Cover Page of GURPS Dungeon Fantasy Monsters 3 - Born of Myth & Magic

Facts

Author: Peter V. Dell’Orto
Date of Publication: 02/06/2016
Format: PDF-only (Warehouse 23-only)
Page Count: 24 (1 title page, 1 content page, 1 index/ad page)
Price: $5.99 (PDF), $ 0.29 per page of content; Score of 4/10
Preview: http://www.warehouse23.com/media/SJG37-0338_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.

Dungeon Fantasy Monsters 3 follows the format established in DFM1: Each of the 16 monsters presented gets a page with game stats, description, GM advice and (in most cases) possible variants. Only the notoriously hard to run Doppelgangers get two pages. Apart from the introduction, there’s a short section explaining how to read the monster stats, two pages on meta-traits not in GURPS Basic (two of them brand-new) and new prefixes. There’s nothing especially surprising about all that.

The same can be said of the mythical monsters. Basilisk, Cockatrice, Doppelganger, Dryad, Harpy, Manticore, Medusa and Phoenix are old standbys in fantasy games, but it’s good to see full game stats for all of these. It would have been nice to see non-western myths represented, but you really can’t argue about the sheer iconic value of this selection. Some less expected monsters like Giant Ant, Lava Lizard, Phase Serpent, Rock Troll and Shadow Warrior to provide variety. But my favourites are the weirdos, of course: Living Pit, Octopus Blossom and Rot Worm are surely going to provide hours of fun for your players – or painful seconds of death more precisely. A special mention goes out for the myrmecoleon – an ant with a lion’s head from medieval mythology.

Meat

As would be expected from a Dungeon Fantasy supplement, the diet is leaning towards the meat side of things, though not as much as the recent Power Items. We get the expanded stat block that has become the standard DF notation and notes how everything works in play (read: combat). There are some boxes on special combat rules, where warranted – note the large number of gaze or sight attacks. Variant round this off. We get four different Basilisks (not combinable), two different Cockatrices (not combinable), three types of ants (workers, soldiers, queens) combinable with six variants (some of which can be combined for even more fun), Sirens as variant Harpies, scalable Living Pits, five variants of Manticores (free to mix and match), six Medusa variants (stackable), six Octopus Blossoms (some of them combinable), rules for making variant Phase Critters, five different kinds of phoenix (only one burns), guidelines on using prefixes on Rot Worms and rules for making different Shadow Beings (Shadow Warriors already can be modified by race).

The two new meta-traits (Amorphous Stone and Plant) are very useful, the prefixes (Flying, Furious, Holy and Phase) a bit less so with Phase being the most interesting one. Rules for fighting monsters without looking at them, for attacks out of phase, falling into monsters and a decapitation Achilles Heel for Unkillable 1  round off the rules-side of things. All in all, the book comes through for all those who cherish stats and rules.

Meat score: 8.5 (deliciously roasted monster meat)

Cheese

Despite the rules-heavy outlook of the book, there are also roleplaying hints for all creatures, though those are often on the short side of things and sometimes solely confided to tactics and whether they are able and willing to negotiate. The exception is a very good treatment of what to replace with your Doppelganger adversary.

Cheese score: 4 (none of these monsters are giving up any milk)

Sauce

Except for a rather boring composite of interior art on the title page, the inside art is quite good. While it’s certainly not up to DFM1 level, it’s a clear step up from most GURPS offerings nowadays and gives off a cool medieval bestiary vibe too. Peter V. Dell’Orto also manages to capture the tongue-in-cheekiness of Kromm’s Dungeon Fantasy.  While he doesn’t quite reach the master in all cases, I laughed out aloud at least once and chuckled many times. Whispering tree gossips, pit-fighting, death by weasel, chibitrice and the dreaded leaping ethereal dungeon shark are among the funnier concepts I read in RPG supplements lately.

I did manage to find three spelling mistakes, which is abysmal for a GURPS supplement, but still stellar for regular RPG products. I’m not marking the book down for that.

Sauce score: 7 (pity there wasn’t a chuckling variant for the Cockatrice)

Generic Nutritional Substance

The monsters presented are optimised for fairly high-powered fantasy, but many wouldn’t look too shabby in a Monster Hunters campaign or any urban fantasy with a couple of tweaks. Indeed, there is a nice range of power levels present in this volume. Prefixes and especially the new meta traits are pretty dang universal. I can’t believe we didn’t have the Plant one before now. The extra rules are also useful for fighting any weird foes and will come handy in many unrealistic campaign settings.

Generic Nutritional Substance score: 8 (a true bestiary)

Summary

On the whole, there is only one true criticism I have for this book: It’s too short. Even another four pages with non-western monsters would have been nice, but with this topic I could have seen a full eighty-page treatment – though that would have necessarily overlapped with 3rd Edition’s Monsters. A pity most titles on the GURPS wishlist are for 30 pages or less.

Total score: 7.45 (my favourite title for the year so far, barely edging out After the End 1)
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: 5.725 (just at the right length to get a positive price rating)
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 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 Dungeon Fantasy 18 – Power Items

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 Dungeon Fantasy series is growing at a rapid pace at the moment. Hard on the heels of Matt Riggsby’s extremely useful Guilds and very cool Glittering Prizes comes Sean Punch’s Power Items. Makes one really nostalgic for those sales figures good old e23.sjgames.com used to show us.

Cover of GURPS Dungeon Fantasy 18 - Power Items

Now, any title by the good doctor raises great expectations, but in this case the subject matter is rather specific. Power items were introduced in a small box in DF 1 and to me they always were just a way to provide simplified powerstones without all the hassle that comes with the GURPS Magic version.

Facts

Author: Sean Punch (a.k.a. Dr. Kromm)
Date of Publication: 2015/01/07
Format: PDF-only (Warehouse 23-only)
Page Count: 14 (1 title page, 1 contents page, 1 index / ad page)
Price: $4.99 (PDF), $ 0.36 per page of content; Score of 3/10
Preview: http://www.warehouse23.com/products/gurps-dungeon-fantasy-18-power-items

Review

Now, the book is one of the smallest GURPS releases in recent times, coming in at 14 pages (7 less than Kromm’s Icky Goo). That certainly hurts the price-per-page, but then I don’t think double the size would have been better here. The book is one of those that are kind of too long for a Pyramid, but kind of short for a standalone book.

Of those 14 pages only 11 are true content. After a one-page introduction that is actually a pretty good summary of the concept, we get a good 3 pages for determining the value of power items complete with ready-to-use tables and detailed price formulae. The next three pages describe the different types: caster, psionic, heroic, scholary and endurance items. The next two pages deal with actually using (and recharging, replacing etc.) the items in question. One page page for power item-related character power-ups and one page on controlling all that power round off the book.

Meat

Apart from some minor setting-related toggles, this book is pretty much all rules – most of them new. Heroic and scholarly items are, as far as I can tell, new and the rules for all the other items have been expanded considerably.

If you want to play DF by the book, the part on determining value is extremely useful. Even if not, it does add a neat “item-modding” system in an almost full-page box that really screams Diablo. Who didn’t want to fiddle around with gems in sword hilts since the late nineties?

The chapter on the different types of Power Items serves two purposes: Clearing up ambiguities that existed in the previous rules (strung out over several books and mostly contained in small boxes) and giving non-caster, non-psi characters more access to power items. The first will be of certain use for defending against rules-lawyering munchkins (not unheard of in DF), while the diminishes the uniqueness of caster/psi items. All in all, good and useful.

“Using Power Items” involves a lot of clarifications too, but these serve to make power items a bit more involved than just “cash fatigue points”, so that’s good.

The character power-ups are new and seem reasonably expensive. We get a way to get more power items, a perk for better power items (reworked from the Dark One perk), one to make an item recharge like a powerstone and Recharger advantage that only NPCs will be attracted to.

Basically the only thing that isn’t treated in detail is the relationship between powerstones and power items, but that’s probably a conscious design decision. We’re talking DF here. The material is well-thought out, balanced to offer more niche protection and extensive, but you probably won’t find huge surprise in there.

Meat score: 7 (good, sturdy workmanship)

Cheese

There’s next to no worldbuilding information in this volume, not even in the form of dwarven limericks. Very limited information about what kind of folks come after you if you start running a recharging business, doesn’t make a world book. But then, this isn’t about worldbuilding.

Cheese score: 2 (some Emmentaler shavings)

Sauce

Except for the cover (seriously guys, use ornamentation!) there are only two pictures in the book, but those aren’t so bad. Vampire dude’s sun-protection ring sure is shiny and who doesn’t like gemstones. The cover art is atrociously cobbled together though. Kromm’s writing is very good, but isn’t quite as funny as in Icky Goo and other places and all the clarifications on how the items work drag on a bit. Editing is top-notch as usual.

Sauce score: 4.5 (still a passing grade)

Generic Nutritional Substance

Ay, there’s the rub. While you can certainly transfer the concept of power items to other settings (or other fantasy campaigns), it is very much written with DF in mind. And that’s the full Monty DF with prescriptive templates and guild training costs. While I don’t doubt that there are quite a few groups out there, playing it like that, many more use the DF line as a quarry for ideas. And power items are not necessarily the most-pilfered bits.

Generic Nutritional Substance score: 2 (Almost painfully specific)

Summary

I admit that I’m not the target audience for this – having never used power items myself. The book has helped me visualise a place for them in a DF campaign. I might even include them in the occasional fantasy campaign, but the whole “power bling” vibe is still a bit too DF for me. I did enjoy reading the book, but it’ll probably be a long time before I dust this one off.

It’s not a bad book, but I find myself thinking: “Is the main use of this resolving arguments with combative munchkins?”

Total score: 5 (average)
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: 4 (hampered by the short length)
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 Thaumatology – Sorcery

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 week’s release was hinted at beforehand, but GURPS Thaumatology – Sorcery wasn’t exactly what I expected. Nevertheless, it’s a welcome addition to the ever-growing list of alternatives to the standard magic system from GURPS Magic.

Cover of GURPS Thaumatology - SorceryAs with last couple of titles in the Thaumatology series, prospective readers don’t actually need GURPS Thaumatology to use this book. Surprising is the fact that they don’t strictly need Powers or Magic either. Don’t let that fool you into thinking that you have an easy alternative magic system for new players here. Sorcery is almost on the level of Ritual Path Magic when it comes to the required rules-savvyness. If a GM is up to snuff, he can use the material to make it easier for inexperienced players to create magic-users, but like Ritual Path Magic the book on its own doesn’t quite provide a ready-to-use system replete with all the spells you could ever need.

Before I dive into the contents, a hint for prospective buyers: The material here is an expansion of the article “The Power of Sorcery” in Pyramid 3.63: Infinite Worlds II. As this wasn’t a magic issue of Pyramid you might have missed it, even if you have a subscription. The material has been greatly expanded from 7 pages to 32, but it’s still based on the same assumptions. If you like the Pyramid article, you will like the stand-alone treatment. The same goes for the opposite.

Facts

Author:  Jason Levine (“Reverend Pee Kitty / PK”)
Date of Publication:  2015/08/06
Format: PDF-only (Warehouse 23-only)
Page Count: 36 (1 title page, 1 content page, 1 index page, 1 page ad)
Price: $7.99 (PDF), $ 0.25 per page of content; Score of 4/10
Preview: http://www.warehouse23.com/products/gurps-thaumatology-sorcery

Review

The book is almost exclusively concerned with rules, but it does have a few nods to world-building mechanics (like the economics of enchantment) and atmosphere (rules for magical weapons etc.). It’s the first generic treatment of Magic as Powers as a stand-alone volume. Chinese Elemental Powers, while also using this approach, was a lot more setting specific and less comprehensive. Not that the volume at hand tries to present a ready-to-play magic kit, but its scope is much more inclusive.

The book is divided into three chapters. The first one comes in at 8 pages and explains how Sorcery works. This part is pretty exhaustive answering almost every question about the system that could come up. It offers some rules switches that give players more tactical options and explains in detail how the mechanics were arrived at. These “Under the Hood” boxes were always a strength in RPK’s work and they don’t disappoint here. In addition to that there is a discussion of spell types that gives us keywords like “Jet”, “Obvious”, “Buff” and “Weapon Buff” – in short things that really should have been in the fourth-edition treatment of GURPS Magic. This section doesn’t merely describe what the keywords mean, but also how to build spells of these types.

And this brings us to chapter two, which is basically a list of two GURPS Magic spells per college that have been given the Spells as Powers treatment and found a second life as abilities. This section is 15 pages long and takes up the lion’s share of the book. Now, that’s a bit more than three spells a page with ability write-ups, effects, point costs and spell statistics and that makes things a bit cramped. There are definitely a couple of very interesting ways of statting the abilities – my favourite is using Contact! as a base for Awaken Computer – but I can’t help but feel that this is neither very close to the original spells nor all that helpful for beginners. The grimoire in RPK’s Ritual Path Magic was much more  comprehensive and offered enough rituals for novice GMs to tide them over for a while. Maybe it would have been better to not directly mirror Magic in this regard. Readers who also own Pyramid 3.63 can, however, add a hefty dose of fire spells to the mix.

Chapter three brings us enchantment rules for sorcerers and that’s where the book really shines. In 7 pages RPK gives us comprehensive rules from spending character points to spending time (and risking failure) to the intrinsic value needed for enchanted items to the economics of enchantment. We learn why jewellery is so much easier to enchant than swords, why there are no magic clothes in this system (except for cloaks) and even how to make potions.

The book is rounded of with a sample character that shows us how compressed a sorcerer’s character sheet can be.

Meat

As I’ve said above, this book is almost all meat and will be rated accordingly. The heart of the content lies in the new advantage Sorcerous Empowerment. SoEmp works similar to Divine Favor from the eponymous volume in Powers series. Basically you have SoEmp as an enabling advantage that allows you to

a) improvise relatively weak spells (Improvisation)
b) improvise relatively powerful spells, but at a greater cost and risk (Hardcore Improvisation)
c) learn spells that cost less than the points you spent on SoEmp (Learned Spells)

Spells in this are always built as abilities and make use Sorcery Talent. They normally cost 1 FP and take 2 seconds to cast, but don’t usually mandate a skill roll or any ritual – except for hardcore improvisation. These changes make Sorcery feel quite different from Standard Magic, which is good. If you don’t like the psi-like lack of ritual, there’s an optional rule to add it back in. Sorcerers are as a rule less flexible than a fully-trained mage, but given enough power that gap closes. In any case, they have a lot of flexibility when it comes to very low-level effects, which is something that Standard Magic is not so good with.

There are however, two problems with this system. The first is that the more specialised you become the higher your level of SoEmp has to be to use hardcore improvisation and learned spells. While specialisation indeed benefits regular improvisation there aren’t that many spells you can use that way even with a very high SoEmp level. This is unfortunate, since most fictional examples present specialisation as a way to gain power more quickly. This is pretty much impossible under these rules. The other problem is more endemic to the Magic as Powers approach: It shares all the shortcomings of the standard ability system, namely that Innate Attack is very cheap and Affliction and some marginal abilities are very expensive.

For example, the relatively impotent effect of No-Smell costs 63 points, while a Sunbolt inflicting 15 dice of damage costs 60 points. Granted, not giving off any scent can occasionally be a life-saver, but I know which of those my players would choose. With most spells costing only a single fatigue point, the biggest balancing mechanism of Standard Magic is gone and the GM runs into the typical problems of a Supers game. Sure, you can set arbitrary limits on damage or pre-construct a list of of approved spells, but examples like that Sunbolt make things difficult for the GM.

Which brings us to the spell list in chapter two. The spells are not exactly conversions of the versions given in Magic, but more like re-imaginings, which makes them rather hard to compare to what various members of the GURPS community have produced over the years. The good thing about that is that they are often a lot less complicated than the spells in Magic. The bad thing is that they are sometimes really free-form and not quite rules-conforming (e.g. Grease giving only the bad effects of Control: Friction).

Having said that, some of RPK’s solutions to difficult conversion problems are sometimes nothing short of ingenious. I’ve already mentioned Awaken Computer, but any of the following are at least interesting to look at: Repel Animals, Haircut, Tanglefoot, Create Object, Disintegrate, Inspired Creation, Dispel Magic, Remove Curse, Lesser Geas and Reverse Missiles. Of course, they often do change some rather significant parts of the spells they re-build, but if nothing else they are very good studies in how to build abilities.

Chapter three contains a complete enchantment system that is the piece-de-resistance of the book. In contrast to everything that has gone on before, this part is plug-and-play. Instead of arbitrary energy costs for any given spell, it uses its character point cost as the basis then modifies it by the type of object it is cast on. This is similar to gadget limitations, but the implementation shows little of the origins. It is relatively simple and very elegant. Instead of Magic’s quick-and-dirty (less than a day, but low energy) and slow-and-sure (no limits, but taking years), the time used for enchantment is always somewhere in the middle (from days to months). That depends on how many character points the enchanter is willing to spend. The character-point intensive method is called Personal Sacrifice, the time-intensive is called Spectral Forging and is more dangerous. All powerful items need at least some personal sacrifice, though. No matter what kind of method you use, you will make frequent rolls and even if your critically fail there’s always a chance to start over without losing everything.

This excellent core system can be used with any magic system as long as you have the spells statted as abilities. In addition to this core RPK adds extra rules for the inherent value of items, economic considerations and optional rules for attuning items to the wearer if the GM is worried about Sorcery proliferation.

The sample character is nothing special, but rounds off the book nicely.

Meat score: 7.5 (empowered)

Cheese

As I’ve said, there’s little that relates to world-building or matters of atmosphere. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in a rules-focused book. Enchantment takes into consideration some world-building issues and the sample character could be easily be used for a Banestorm session or two.

Cheese score: 3

Sauce

The interior is sparsely illustrated and all the illustrations are relatively simple ones from third-edition sources, but they don’t distract much from the material. The cover, however is extremely uninspired merely combining the interior images into a ribbon. One of the illustrations is cropped in a way that you have no idea what’s going on. I much prefer some abstract styling like in Magical Styles – Dungeon Magic, Powers – Enhanced Senses or Power-Ups 8. That’s more recognisable and prettier at the same time.

The style is very readable and the editing is top-notch – I found one typo, but wouldn’t we happy if that was all we could find in our RPG books? It’s also the first RPG product I know of that has pull quotes from both My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and Homestuck. Isn’t that magical enough…

Sauce score: 5.5 (okay art, good writing and editing, lousy cover)

Generic Nutritional Substance

Of course any book about matters magical is not going to be appropriate for settings without supernatural elements. Apart from that, Sorcery is certainly generic enough to be dropped into many settings. You need only add Low-Tech to make up standard S&S, urban fantasy is generally fine with powers you find within your self and even for Science Fantasy it’s a good match.

Generic Nutritional Substance score: 7.5 (pretty generic supernatural upgrade for your campaign)

Summary

Sorcery brings many good things and some that are slightly disappointing. If you’re looking for something that makes your magic-users quick, somewhat flexible and not totally imbalanced, it is the book for you. If you only want a catalogue of GURPS Magic spells as powers, this isn’t it yet. If you’re looking for a good enchantment system and don’t mind the price tag, buy it!

Total score: 6,425  (good, but hampered by some hiccups)
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: 5.2125 (still average, though among the pricier GURPS PDFs due to its short length)
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 Social Engineering – Back to School

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.

While not completely unexpected Social Engineering – Back to School is certainly a welcome addition to William H. Stoddard’s oeuvre. Even more welcome is the fact that it weighs in at the same size as Locations – Worminghall, which it complements nicely without being a bona fide companion volume. It is, however, a bona fide Social Engineering supplement down to the tile (sorry, Boardroom and Curia, but it’s the name that tells).

Cover of GURPS Social Engineering - Back to School

So what does it offer? Back to School is the go-to book for GMs who want to set a campaign at a school, dojo or bootcamp and not just tally the hours spent there. It expands considerably on the rules for learning presented in Characters. Readers of Worminghall will find some familiar titbits like the study roll, but the rules here are far more comprehensive and the tweaks suggest some serious playtesting. Also some of the contents are really unexpected – though always in a good way.

Facts

Author: William H. Stoddard (WHS)
Date of Publication: 2015/07/09
Format: PDF-only (Warehouse 23-only)
Page Count:  41 (1 title page, 1 content page, 2 index pages, 1 page ad)
Price: $7.99 (PDF), $ 0.22 per page of content; Score of 5/10
Preview: http://www.warehouse23.com/products/gurps-social-engineering-back-to-school

Review

Unsurprisingly, the book is very rules-focused. At the same time it does offer considerable insight in common social situations and ways in which teaching and learning might crop up in a game. Like with Social Engineering itself that makes the distinction on whether the book deals mainly with rules or plot ideas a bit fuzzy, but in the end the rules are certainly have the lion’s share.

Readers who liked the mother volume of the series will also like this one, unless they really don’t like learning in their games. As the title suggests rules and ideas for school settings make up a big part of the book, but even if you aren’t running Harry Potter with the serial numbers filed off, you will get quite a bit out of this book. Apart from one-shots there’s hardly a campaign that won’t benefit from at least some of its contents. Okay, there aren’t any gold-for-skill rules like those you find in Dungeon Fantasy, but that’s about it.

The book is divided into four chapters: The first deals with teaching from a student’s perspective and comes in at eleven pages. The second does the same from a teacher’s perspective and is ten pages long. Relevant traits, skills, techniques and methods are split between both these sections. The split is useful for when you have a certain focus in mind for your campaign, but makes it a bit more difficult to find what you were looking for if you want to represent both the students’ and the teachers’ point of view in your campaign. The third chapter deals with schools as organisations and takes up nine pages. This makes use of mechanics taken from Social Engineering itself as well as Boardroom and Curia and Social Engineering – Pulling Rank, though its main focus is on relationships, situations and structures. The final chapter deals with campaign ideas and is only three pages long without any rules.

This is rounded off by a handy two page appendix that lists all the standard learning times and all the traits that affect it, two pages of bibliography and a two-page index, both of which are nice and thorough.

Meat

Practically everything that could concern learning is touched upon. Finding teachers or schools, using unusual teaching situations or materials, the effects of various traits on teaching and learning, but also spells, special abilities, futuristic and realistic drugs, legendary teaching and how to price a school as a patron (and what that means for its facilities, staff etc.). The most useful rule by far is the study which replaces automatic gain of valuable study hours by something that is influenced by each student’s character sheet.

Now that comprehensive treatment is just what you’d expect when Mr. Stoddard tackles a subject, but there’s more. We learn new things about skills in general and how their transmission is affected by tech level, language comprehension and available facilities. The author also manages to plug a couple of annoying holes in the basic set. No longer is it possible to just drop 16 points in a spell “because I used it in game”. Skill use under pressure is certainly one of the nicest rules fix for this very reason. I also appreciate that learning is now affected by Laziness (which used to be free points for mages).

Surprisingly enough you’ll also find comprehensive rules for brainwashing (and -hacking) in the section on “Coercive Teaching” that’s sure to please all the Snape fans. That together with spells and powers for teaching and studying round the subject off in satisfyingly universal way.

Meat score: 9 (A++)

Cheese

For a meaty book there’s certainly a lot of soft cheesy material here. While the first two chapters are certainly rule-focussed they also provide lots of bits to build your own setting. The rules take a back seat in chapter 3, although the rules-conscious social engineer won’t be disappointed there either. The chapter basically covers all the bases when it comes to designing your own base for teaching including the owners and their motivations. True, it’s not exactly the cheese lovers paradise, but it’ll get you far.

Chapter four may be a bit short with only three pages, but more unusual ideas in there (like the invaded house trope) will certainly prove inspiring to GMs. Personally, I will start cribbing for my own magic school campaign as soon as I finish this review.

The bibliography also provides some pointers for inspiration and it is a welcome change of pace that even smaller books like this one get a bibliography now. The only jarring thing is that the only mention of Terry Pratchett is in a pull-quote.

On the whole the book has a lot to offer on the dramatic side of things too. Just what you’d expect from it being part of the Social Engineering series.

Cheese score: 7 (pretty much the perfect cordon bleu if you ask me)

Sauce

Compared to some of the recent GURPS releases (Zombies – Day One I’m looking at you), the art of Back to School is actually pretty good. Not perfect, but fitting and refreshingly non-ugly. While I have the feeling that at least some of the images have been reused I cannot trace them back to specific locations. Most of them are very focused on books and sometimes it’s hard to tell how they’re relevant to the section they’re in, but they’re certainly inspirational. The image on page 36 makes me want to run an illegal education of the masses campaign for a steampunk setting. It’s a bit of a pity that the title page is really uninspiring, but the mass of text in the title excuses that shortcome.

The editing, while still above industry standard is not quite up to GURPS standards. There are a couple of minor errors in grammar and sentence structure that cropped up even on my first reading. They’re most likely due to rearranging text blocks, but they do distract a bit.

Also distracting is that some of student/teacher traits show up in the wrong chapter, for example there are a couple of spells that are clearly geared towards students, but show up under teachers because there is no section for spells in student chapter. Minor, but not perfect.

Sauce score: 7 (good art, good writing, imperfect editing)

Generic Nutritional Substance

Now, I know I talked a lot about schools in this review, but this book isn’t just about that. It also deals with dojos, monasteries, universities, on-the-job and vocational training, military boot camps, apprenticeships, tutoring and ‘schools for gifted youngsters’. It’s not only for the Harry Potter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer crowds.

Back to School has rules for teaching by gesture (“Anybody wants to play pre-verbal stone-age tribesmen?”), by lecturing, by telepresence and by immersion into virtual realities. It gives you a version of Blessed that’s the mythical equivalent of Weapon Master for teachers. It shows you how to rehearse in your dreams, use illusions during teaching, help your students by reading their minds and how to make your own teaching materials. Within the subject matter you cannot be more generic.

Generic Nutritional Substance score: 10 (Gold star!)

Summary

If Back to School were a print-only book, it would get an easily accessible spot on my GURPS book-shelve. You might not need it all the time if you’re running a regular high fantasy, cop drama or space opera, but it will be useful time and again. For campaigns where learning is the actual focus, be they set in some anime universe or in Hogwarts, the book is absolutely invaluable.

Total score: 8.45  (top percentile)
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: 6.725 (only hampered by its length)
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 Dungeon Fantasy Monsters 2 – Icky Goo

This thing went right into the category “How-did-they-come-up-with-this?”, of course. It’s a classic weird GURPS book, although one with a lower-case w. It doesn’t have the quite same weirdness level as GURPS I.O.U. or Weird War or even Bunnies and Burrows, but its right there with classics like the Creatures of the Night series and Hotspots – Renaissance Florence.

Featured image

At first glance you might wonder why Steve Jackson Games publish things like these, but if you think about it for a while, you realise it’s actually pretty logical. And no, that’s not because the line editor can damn well publish anything he likes. It’s because nobody else is publishing these. They might not find more than 500 buyers, but those 1800 bucks are apparently enough to pay author, editor, layout team and publishing costs while building up brand reputation for GURPS.

GM: I need a system that has a realistic representation of all kinds of fantastic slimes I can let loose in a detailed representation of 9th century Byzantium only all the player characters are adolescents bonded to alien bio-suits that they think are manifestations of the Holy Spirit.
Game shop clerk: Er, you know what? I’m going to give you 20% off the GURPS Basic Set and Powers if you promise never to talk to me again.

As this is my first review on this site, I’ll explain some of the terms I use a while I go along. These paragraphs are in italics.

Facts

Author: Sean Punch (Dr. Kromm)
Date of Publication: 2015/06/04
Format: PDF-only (Warehouse 23-only)
Page Count: 22 (1 title page, 1 content page, 1 index page (+special goo index), 1 ad page)
Price: $5.99 (PDF), $ 0.33 per page of content; Score of 4/10
Preview: http://www.warehouse23.com/products/gurps-dungeon-fantasy-monsters-2-icky-goo

Review

This book is part of the Dungeon Fantasy line (more specifically it made Dungeon Fantasy Monsters 1 finally worthy of the numeral), so it’s mostly addressed to the folks who play DF or – as many do – use the line as a quarry for useful rules, monsters and gear. It’s, however, quite a bit more focused than a normal DF supplement, DF 12 – Ninja comes closest in terms of unity of content and also in page count, though DF 14 – Psi is actually more linked thematically. I think I won’t spoil anything if I mention that some of those slimes might be elder spawn.

For those of the readers who have read and enjoyed DF Monsters 1, the book on hand might come as something of a shock as the structure is very different: Instead of handy 1-page write-ups for each monster (including an atmospheric picture), we get a section each of for fungi, jellies, moulds, oozes, puddings, slimes and spore clouds. Each of the seven is two pages long and starts with monster stats for a generic specimen, but that’s where the similarity stops. Some sections list differently coloured specimens, some give different modes of attack and others describe at length what makes the gooey enemy in question different from all other gooey enemies described.

These sections are framed by a page of general gooey characteristics and two pages of how to GM for goo. Of especial importance is the caveat of when not to use – few players enjoy fighting disgustingly tough foes that don’t have any treasure. And that’s where I stumbled: Why start of your cool series on monster types with a book on oozes? Sure, it’s original, but that’s about it. A GM, possibly still at school, who spent six bucks on this book will want to use it, but it’s really easy to over-use gooey foes in any context. Even in a swamp or river dungeon the players are going to groan after the third encounter with weird slime. It’s a bit of a head-scratcher, but that doesn’t detract from the books usefulness. And that’s the meat of the matter.

Meat

The meat is the heart of most RPG splatbooks, what’s generally referred to as crunch. Basically rules that can be used by players and GMs. For a GURPS book – barring historical and fictional setting books – that is usually the meat of the matter. So I’ll call it that. Some books are less interested in rules and that will be reflected in the scoring.

DFM 2 contains a host of useful crunch. If you count all the variants there are 36 different fungi, 2 kinds of jellies, one of them deliciously adaptable depending on its latest meals, 27 variants of moulds (admittedly a pretty passive hazard), 1 type of ooze that scales heavily with total mass, 6 types of puddings, 15 types of slimes and 36 types of spore clouds.

Now most of these are just minor modifications, but it’s still an impressive array and enough to confuse even those players who quickly buy up supplements and try to memorise them. I’m not sure these exist, but I grew up with Knights of the Dinner Table and try to be on the paranoid side where it’s fun.

All the monsters are ready-to-use for Dungeon Fantasy and the ones with double-digit numbers of subtypes even feature tables to roll on for extra randomness. The GM tips are more extensive than in DFM 1 – simply because there’s more space for each type and general information is on the introduction page. There are good hints on how to make things more interesting for the players.

On the whole the information is dense, while easy to use, but it doesn’t quite reach the nice at-a-glance nature of DFM 1.

Meat score: 9/10 (very hearty – solid GURPS rules crunch, albeit very specific)

Cheese

Now everybody likes meat (I’m joking of course), but what we really appreciate is the cheese (not joking any more – cheese is great). Folks generally call setting details that don’t impact rules very much fluff. I find the term (along with its sibling crunch) a bit annoying, so I’ll go with cheese instead as a synonym for all the good things that make life worth living.

DFM 2 doesn’t offer a whole lot. This lack of fluff is typical and intended for the Dungeon Fantasy line. It’s supposed to plug into any vaguely Tolkienesque fantasy setting.

Here we get just some hints about what scholars think of the whole gooey business and some ideas of how the everything relates to certain elder things. And of course, there’s habitat information, but that almost veers over into crunchy meat territory. That’s basically it. Oh and barbarian culture uses umlauts while dwarves g0 heavy 0n the apostrophes and limericks. Not a ringing endorsement, I know, but fluff is really not the focus here.

Cheese score: 3/10 (nothing to see here folks)

Sauce

You could see the sauce as superfluous, but don’t be fooled, nice art, good pull quotes, complete and correct indices and above all well-written prose are what makes reading books fun. And if they’re not fun to read, they’re often just skimmed. And that often leads to annoying mistakes.

The writing style is a no-brainer in this case as the good doctor’s skill level in writing is well above professional level. Even the description of game mechanics are pleasure to read and everywhere you can find the tongue-in-cheek humour that makes DF the Munchkin among GURPS products. Especially of note are the cringeworthy box headings (from “Goo Things Come to those who Wait” to “Breaking the Mould”). There’s even bonus poetry content: a dwarven limerick on the content page and a bona fide sonnet in the glossary. If you want nothing else to do with this book you still owe it to yourself to check these out. They are part of the free preview.

Unfortunately, the art is a step back from DFM 1, no make that three steps – DFM 1 was the first 4th Edition book with really great art. Now, it doesn’t matter too much when we’re talking of slimes and stuff, but the spore cloud art is basically a sphere of dots and the others are not much better. The picture of the pudding in the preview is actually one of the better ones. While it doesn’t quite reach the depths of GURPS Magic‘s poser art the art is really weak.

Pull quotes are fun, proof-reading is top-notch and the index is useful with an extra goo index that covers goo from other books. The only mistake I could notice is that the Slime bookmark redirects to the last page on Puddings. Not that you really need bookmarks for a book of this length.

Sauce score: 6/10 (great writing, uninspired art)

Generic Nutritional Substance

Given the generic nature of GURPS it’s quite important how adaptable the material is for other settings. That depends mostly on things like subject matter and relative power levels.

DFM 2 is pretty good in this regard. Actually, the material presented here almost seems more appropriate for a weird SF or supers campaign. Most goo is definitely a tough challenge for DF groups, because of its Injury Tolerance. For supers with area or explosive powers that don’t cost FP the GM might want to add Injury Tolerance: Damage Reduction, but for most space operas explosive weapons are dependant on an ever short supply of ammunition. All in all it’s easy to port the material to other settings that are at least border-line weird. Moulds and even fungi might make an appearance in campaigns that are only mildly cinematic. None of the critters in here are suitable for a thoroughly realistic setting, though.

Generic Nutritional Substance score: 7/10 (pretty generic if specific)

Summary

A really nice GURPS supplement that is fun and useful, but suffers a bit from the specificity of the topic matter, the lack of interesting in-world fluff and good art. Still a good buy for Dungeon Fantasy GMs and everybody interested in things gooey.

Total score: 7.2  (really decent stuff for those who like it, but not necessarily everybody’s thing)
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 book would turn the percentages for cheese and meat around.

Value score: 5.6 (slightly average for the price)
Value Score is composed of the average of Total and Price.


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