Bite-sized Review: GURPS Encounters – The Harrowed Hearts Club

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

Cover page of GURPS Encounters: The Harrowed Hearts Club

Facts

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

Review

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

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

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

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

Meat

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

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

Meat score: 8.5

Cheese

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

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

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

Cheese score: 8

Sauce

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

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

Sauce score: 6

Generic Nutritional Substance

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

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

Generic Nutritional Substance score: 7

Summary

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

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

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

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


GURPS is a registered trademark of Steve Jackson Games, and the art here is copyrighted by Steve Jackson Games. All rights are reserved by SJ Games. This material is used here in accordance with the SJ Games online policy.

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Review: Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game – Powered by GURPS

Last updated on 25/08/17 with new information.

Oh boy, the Powers that Be really sent all us boys and girls who couldn’t go to GenCon a prime gift to make up for that. (Well, every backer at GenCon also got their gift, but I guess they won’t be able to read it electronic cover to cover until they get home. What am I talking about? The long-awaited Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game – Powered by GURPS, of course or DFRPG for short (don’t get confused by that other DFRPG – Dungeon Fantasy has been around for longer than that).

For everyone coming in from the cold, be it computer RPGs or some other games: This is basically GURPS D&D in a box. You get a lot more rules and options than GURPS Lite, but without the “all genres, all worlds” adaptability that some feel overwhelming on a first read of the Basic Set. It’s also made to be much more accessible to new players and contains everything you need to play a dungeon-centric fantasy campaign. Matt Riggsby calls it GURPS Medium and there’s some reason for that.

As this is of yet exclusive for backers of the Kickstarter, things – especially pricing, image and publication date are still subject to change. But that shall not deter me from trying to write one of the first possible reviews. As there’s currently only the DFRPG bundle available for pre-order I’ll stick to the DFRPG proper and the GM’s Screen for now. The other supplements will come later. So let’s go and have a look!

Product Image for the Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game

Facts

Author: Sean Punch (a.k.a. Dr. Kromm) with additional material by Peter V. Dell’Orto, Dan Howard, Matt Riggsby (a.k.a. Turhan’s Bey Company), William H. Stoddard, Jason Levine (a.k.a. PK), Phil Masters
Date of Publication: 17/08/2017 (Kickstarter-backer-exclusive)
Format: PDF-only (at the moment)
Page Count: 474 (11 cover pages, 7 title pages, 6 contents pages, 7.5 index pages, 4 ads pages, 10 pages character/record sheets etc.)
Price: $84.90 (price is for printed copy as for now), $0.18 per page of content; Score of 8/10 (+1 for being a full-colour product)
Preview: none so far

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. Clearly Dungeon Fantasy is all about stats, so this will be almost all meat.

Whew! Even counting pages on this monster took me a quarter of an hour (okay, maybe I got a little distracted now and then). At 418 pages the contents of the DFRPG box proper narrowly beat the already humongous Discworld Roleplaying Game. Hopefully, they will handle a little easier being spread out over eight different physical products. So, what exactly do we get? In the box, there are five booklets that shouldn’t feel completely out of place for anybody who ever played ‘that other game’. First, we get Adventurers, which is basically a player’s guide without all the spells, which makes a lot of sense at the table. One player or the GM can look up spells while somebody else is looking up skills and a third person is judging how difficult it will be to jump of that chasm. At 130 pages this is a bit chunkier than Exploits, which as the GM’s guide comes in at 108. Still a lot pages since we are probably not worrying about radiation, tech-levels and monsters in this cut-down version of Basic Set – Campaigns. Next we get to Spells, which is DF’s version of Magic and frankly the part where the prospective Dungeon Fantasy GM had, until now, do the most pruning, and – let’s be frank – bug-fixing. This one clocks in at a lean 82 pages, even though few colleges have been completely omitted (yeah, even Gate is in there, just don’t go looking for teleportation). Next we have Dungeon: I Smell a Rat and its maps. I assume the maps will be printed on both sides of two sheets in the actual product, but I might be mistaken. Anyway, there are four of them and they are of sufficient resolution to print out for direct play. The module itself is 26 pages.

But that’s not all! There’s also the GM screen. It’s the usual foldable thing that presents four pages to the players (this times all imagery) and four to the GM. And then there are the Character Cheat Sheet and the Delvers to Go booklets, which come in at 18 pages each.

All these come with gorgeous full-colour artwork that is miles above the usual GURPS fare (not counting outliers like Mars Attacks and the Discworld RPG). The same doesn’t hold true for the bonus PDFs, by the way. These are greyscale, even though the artwork is still great. I go into the details of how all the respective volumes are put together in the meat section, since the overwhelming amount presented here is crunch.

Meat

Adventurers

The first thing in the book is a page on skills instead of the usual blank end-paper. Given that RPG books are mainly about usability that is quite a useful innovation. The book proper starts out with the table of contents on a single page some short notes on role-playing and FRPGs in general, maths and dice (more about that in the cheese section). Within that section is a one-page mini-glossary that gives me the first surprise. There’s actually some world information, though it’s very basic like “Devil, The: Godlike boss of all Evil. Wants your soul.” The rules terms are more generally helpful, as is the section on gamer jargon. This section seems intentionally kept short and covers only the very basics. And then comes the first chapter appropriately called “Basics”. This is not very different from the info in the Basic Set’s “Creating a Character”, but condensed and streamlined. Also it gives clear limits on attribute levels and disadvantages. It also keeps the maths at a minimum, we get a table for move while encumbered for example in addition to the formulae. Also the two column-layout was infinitely more readable than the Basic Set‘s three columns – much to my surprise. And after six pages of this, the chapter’s already finished.

Next up is “Professions” and we revisit all the old templates from 2007. But not everything is as it used to be. For starters there are vastly more hints for building balanced groups, choosing off-template abilities, niche-protection and even backgrounds and quirks. And then the templates are very different to to look at. First-off all the longer lists of choices and skills are put into neat tables and separated from the rest of the text by orange font colour. This takes up a little more space, but it’s actually not much more. I didn’t do any cross-checking, but the templates in general do look very similar. What’s different is the customisation. For each profession, there are some traits that are specifically reserved for that character. For example, only the Barbarian can buy Discriminatory Smell, Lifting ST, Temperature Tolerance and Tough Skin. There’s a little overlap with the Power-Ups from DF11, but not much. These are things each profession can buy at the start of the game, not rewards offered later. Also all the special abilities like Bard Songs are right there next to the profession, not hidden in some other part of the book. And where DF1 had only roughly worked special abilities, here they are all in finished builds for the GM and players ready to use. There are some hints as to roles and archetypes for each profession, but the level of detail is far less than in the Dungeon Fantasy Denizens sub-line.

Looking through this huge chapter (29 pages) lets you find some interestingly reworked abilities, some repriced ones (Detect Good is cheaper than Detect Evil, because it’s less often useful) and some radical, new stuff like the Swashbuckler’s Every One’s a Critical, the Scout’s Multi-Aim or the Thief’s Expert Backstabbing.

Chapter 3 deals with the available fantasy races and it starts with a detailed explanation of how to correctly stack the templates. The races presented (cat-folk, dwarves, elves (one variety), half-elves, gnomes, half-ogres, half-orcs and halflings) are only a small selection from what we’re used from DF3: The Next Level and that’s frankly a little disappointing. I had hoped this would showcase the ability of GURPS to play an intelligent beetle, corpse-eating misanthrope, diminutive faerie, half-spirit or minotaur. As it is the selection is very D&D with added cat-folk – not much of an incentive. What’s also missing is a mention of choice and marginal professions, but with the limited it doesn’t matter as much. The races are changed a little to make sense with the reduced number of advantages, but otherwise close to their original versions.

Chapter 4 makes up this reduced list of advantages. It’s not very different from what we’re used to, even though it introduces maximum levels for advantages that are keyed to professions and other concepts. Some advantages were renamed, some were subtly changed like Very Rapid Healing and Signature Gear. Where it was very apropos extra info has been added that helps the player decide whether the advantage is worth it. One choice I don’t quite agree with is separating talents out into their own advantages. It makes things harder to remember if nothing else. All in all, the chapter is only nine pages long compared to Basic‘s 69 (not counting modifiers, which have also been dropped). Still, it gives more options than many other game systems and definitely way more things to take care of during character creation than that other game system.

Chapter 5 deals with disadvantages and is, at 14 pages, actually longer than the preceding one, which is good, since it showcases how GURPS makes characters different, even if they have the same profession, race and effective combat build. Also there are almost no profession-specific disadvantages explained in chapter 3, so there are still more advantages out there. New players are shown how disadvantages can be appropriate for a character and don’t have to be considered flaws or weaknesses. There are a couple of physical disads that are marked as Old War Wounds. Those are the usual suspects like Lame, One Arm, One Eye, One Hand and we get a warning about how much they can suck and a useful reference of how to get rid of them in Exploits. That’s something that comes up often, by the way. DFRPG is heavy on the referencing, which is needed, because the information generally follows the flow of character creation and you won’t necessarily know where you’ve seen that bit you needed if you’re not actively playing the character who has the trait you’re looking for.

Chapter 6 finally brings us to skills and this is likely the section where players coming from other game systems that are less skill-based will have the most problems. Thankfully, the templates in chapter 3 make sure everyone is at least somewhat competent, but figuring out how skills are bought and what the levels mean (and why they should be higher than the controlling attributes for the primary skills) is still somewhat complicated. Sean Punch does a good job of taking new players by the hand, though and things are considerably less daunting than in the Basic Set. There are numerous examples for using and increasing skills and sometimes then it feels a bit excessive sometimes keep in mind the target audience. What’s gone are the mandatory training costs and that’s a good thing in my opinion. There’s enough to get your head around without any extra shenanigans. Exploits has an optional rule to add them in again and that’s more than enough. Skills are basically unchanged with defaults and specialties, though everything has been pared down to the basics. Some skills have been changed somewhat to make them more useful (Connoiseur) or less specific (Current Affairs, Navigation), some got extra specialties (Fast-Draw, Hidden Lore) and all get dungeon-specific context and usage tips. Finally missile weapon and unarmed combat skills are grouped together like melee weapon skills, which makes for a lot less page-flipping. When everything’s said and done, there are a lot more skills in here than in the average RPG manual (27 pages), even exotics like Hazardous Materials and Poetry are covered. And there’s a section on removing and adding new skills without even needing the full GURPS rules for that. I don’t think most DFRPG players will miss anything.

Most of the rest of the book deals with “Cash and Gear” and again that’s a big chapter (24 pages) – dungeon-delvers love their toys. Sean Punch starts out by telling us general things about starting money, Signature Gear and Buying/Selling stuff. There’s also a wealth table and a money system that almost makes sense (20 copper to a silver and 20 silver to a gold coin). And then we get weapons and how to decide which ones to buy. The stats are explained with a short paragraph each and weapons are sorted as usual by skill. I am very glad to say that the good doctor has taken a leaf from Messieurs Stoddard, Dell’Orto, Howard and Riggsby and went with the Low-Tech stats that are much more sensible than the old ones. For missiles we get a nice table with a per pound number and cost and some options as to arrow points. And then we even more modifiers. Most of these are from older sources, but it’s nice to see them here together and with Cost Factor numbers – very nice and clear on one page. Shields get the same treatment but fit all one page with the modifiers. The stats are generic but in line with Low-Tech. The same can be said of armour, which is conveniently broken down into separate pieces for each type, though I am not completely sure how that extra 5% snuck in, though I seem to remember thinking that the groin area was missing in the Low-Tech treatment. Anyway, it may make for uneven numbers, but it’s more realism than you’ll get in RPGs most of the time. Next up is miscellaneous and there’s not much to say about that other than that it’s pretty dang complete – I’m only missing the awesome quick-release backpack from DF1. Also there are Concoctions (with instructions on how to use them), Power Items and various Magic Items including weapon and shield modifiers. A nice touch are the charged and universal scroll rules from DF4.

The book ends on two sample characters ready to play: a female half-orc knight and male human cleric with a vow of poverty, each with a portrait and some design notes. The layout here is much clearer than from previous sample characters thanks to the magic of the tabulator. Of course there’s also the index, which is only for this book though, unlike in the Basic Set. That could cause the odd problem in play when some actions are already explained in Adventurers, but it’s probably not too bad and keep the booklets more manageable (or so I would imagine). And there are character sheets at the very end. They’re four pages long, which makes them more interesting than the usual two-pagers, but they’re not fillable, meaning that they will see very limited use for most players nowadays. Maybe these could be included in a fillable format as an extra once the public version comes out?

Exploits

This booklet starts off with an end-paper on light and vision, throwing, falling damage and wounding modifiers – a bit eclectic perhaps, but certainly useful. A two-page table of contents shows us that the GM has much more on their plate than the ordinary player. A short introduction makes it clear that Exploits is a GM Guide in all but name. Sure, if your players are old hands at that-other-game, they will want to read up on combat some other things, and there’s nothing in here that is inappropriate to know for players, but in essence this book is for the GM. Though in this case GM Guide means a way to resolve actions and situations instead of counting every last gold piece and experience point and setting up encounters with exactly the right challenge level – that’s not really possible in GURPS and not actually the point either. The intro also tells players where to get more Dungeon Fantasy stuff without sounding like an ad.

Chapter 1 is appropriately called “Rolling the Dice” and is all about success rolls of different kinds. Dr. Kromm makes is abundantly clear who rolls when and how everything is calculated. It’s exactly how it should have been done 13 years ago, even though it does take up a bit of extra space. Complementary rolls are there on the second page as is a rule for mandatory all-party rolls like climbing together. I hadn’t seen that one before and it isn’t bad, but is a bit too forgiving for my taste. Narrative modifiers are mentioned too and they’re fun if a bit silly. Margins of success and failure, criticals, contests, resistance rolls. Fright and perception are also covered, but instead of a expansive fright check table, we get guidelines on mental stun and acquired disadvantages and how to keep everything fun and fair. Reaction rolls are more expansive with dungeon-typical modifiers. And the tips for Roll and Shout! are also solid. After eight pages the newbie GM should know most things about when to roll and what.

Chapter 2 – “Dungeon-Delving” – is larger and clocks in at 13 pages. It starts off with a section on town and how to make money, finding a quest and selling the spoils. Most of this can be found in earlier works, but the box on “Tavern Tales and Moldy Books” is an atmospheric addition designed to make the players gather intel before venturing off into the unknown. The expanded “Selling the Tale” is also a nice touch for cartographers like me. Getting to the dungeon and camping is dealt with in a short section – nothing like DF 16: Wilderness Adventures – but it has enough useful rules to cover the essentials. “In the Dungeon” is where it gets interesting for most players and GMs. Lighting, mapping, marching orders, scouting and signalling are dealt with in quick succession. “Dungeon Parkour” covers a lot of fiddly physical feats, while “Muscle” does the same for feats of strength. These parts come straight from DF2: Dungeons, but the rules on running away are new – unfortunately GURPS makes it pretty hard to run while wounded. The bits about traps are also from DF2 and more can be found in chapter 4. The rest of the chapter is about looting. Rest assured that most things you’re players will think about is covered here – including mutilating the bodies. Not much of this is new, though.

Chapter 3 continues with the gerund-based naming scheme and goes by the title of “Fighting” instead of combat. Unsurprisingly enough this takes up 33 pages, but surprisingly it does not start with combat, but with tips on setting the scene and making things interesting, which is a nice change and segues naturally into ambush and surprise situations. The rules given here are actually more involved than in the Basic Set and nicely descriptive at that. Next come combat maps (not optional this time), turn sequences and manoeuvres. Nothing of this is completely new, but everything is well explained and every manoeuvre has a lead-in sentence that makes clear what it tries to achieve. Even Wait doesn’t seem quite so complicated (but it does leave room for misunderstandings). The only thing missing are clear examples. Movement is much the same as in basic, but there’s a handy chart of the movement point costs. Attacking and defending are handled much the same as old GURPS hands are used to. You have to roll for each attack and defence and also for the damage you inflict. Thanks to the martial artist, unarmed fighting gets a bit clearer rules for getting parried and parrying weapons. Interesting is that the rules for explosions – one of the notorious culprits where players cry “Maths!” and munchkins sob about their explosive fireballs’ diminishing returns – are unchanged from regular GURPS. Special highlights in this chapter include close-combat rules on one page, attack options with cloaks and shields, hit locations almost on one page, but with a quite hideous version of the dummy from Basic, a much improved version of the box for damage to unliving, homogenous and diffuse targets a section called “Special Damage” that deals with delivery methods from Follow-Up to Blood Agent to Malediction. The whole thing is rounded off by “Non-Combat Skills in Battle”. These range from talking to acting to roguish tricks and acrobatics.

Chapter 4 breaks the mould and is called “Bad Things” in a certain shout-out to Munchkin. This is a bit of a mixed bag, but mostly deals with illnesses, injuries and fatigue and the things that cause them. First-off comes a box on temporary penalties that is a much needed summary of things mentioned elsewhere, then we delve right into injury. Especially nice is the expanded treatment of mortal wounds. It needs more than a Major Healing spell to get rid of one of those! Shock, major wounds, crippling (with a table that gives the thresholds by HP) and recovery are all covered including your insurance policy – I mean donations to temple in town. Fatigue, afflictions, irritating/incapacitating/mortal conditions are all there as are disease, falling and fire. The later is treated differently from what we’re used to and focuses more on what to do once you’re on fire than on whether this wooden chest is in that or yonder flammability category. Poison gets a full-page treatment and that doesn’t include the examples that are found in Adventurers. Environmental stuff is also covered and traps get some further love, though this section is still pretty basic, but I assume the volume on traps will more than make up for this – if I know my Levine and Rice.  All in all, most things that will make fantasy heroes cry are covered on the 13 pages of this chapter.

Chapter 5 is short (8 pages), but sweet as it deals with treasure. I think I see the hand of Mr. Riggsby in most of this, but I could be mistaken. Coins get some more mileage with interesting alloy variants, gems are there, of course, but new are the notes on luxuries and objects d’art that are popular in town. Proper identification is given some space as is disposing of the loot. Magic Items make up roughly half of the chapter. The whole section is quite well-organised and easier to parse than the respective section in GURPS Magic. Again this is somewhat basic, but we’re sure to get more in the respective booklet by Dell’Orto.

The final chapter (15 pages) deals with game-mastering proper and is the first chapter that’s very light on the meaty, crunchy stuff, so I’ll cover it in the cheese section. After that it’s tables of modifiers, manoeuvres, hit locations, speed/range, criticals, hit points etc. for eight pages. The text proper ends with a two-page example of play that’s also covered under cheese. The index and lots of forms – again unfillable – cap this off.

Spells

Next up is what I’d like to call GURPS Magic for the Dungeon. At 82 pages this volume is considerably lighter than the previous ones, but it still contains 376 spells to my best count. That might seem a lot to GURPS newbies, but this already represents a serious paring down from GURPS Magic‘s 839 and means players have fewer options than D&D 608 (source: SRD for 3.5). But let’s have a closer look at how the book is organised.

First, we get an end-paper filled with all the useful stuff you can imagine. Resistance, ritual, area, mana/sanctity/nature’s strength levels, critical spell failure and a handy look-up table for where to find the spell classes. There’s little to be left desired here. After the table of contents, the introduction makes it clear that this book is only about spells, that means “one ritual, one effect”.

Then the first chapter, “Principles of Magic”, delves right into the mechanical stuff. In GURPS spells are skills quite like all the others, only that they have some prerequisites need mana/sanctity/nature and immediately cost fatigue or similar energy. The tricky stuff here are the prerequisites, at least for wizards. Druids and clerics just need a certain level of Power Investiture. Wizards need a certain level of Magery (mostly 0) and further prerequisites. To put it simply you need to know how to light something on fire before you can shape fire or create fire from nothing and you need to know how to create and shape fire and have a certain level of Magery before you can learn how to cast a Fireball. This can get complicated fast and unfortunately, Spells does not provide a handy tree diagrams like the ones with have for Magic.

Next we learn about all the basics of spell-casting. We learn how clerical, druidic and wizardly spells are different, but can still interact and how dependent they are on their environment. The notes on mana/sanctity level and nature’s strength are easy to understand even for new players. The whole build-up on distraction, energy costs, rituals and energy reduction and so on are a bit long for somebody who just wants to cast a spell, but they’re well-written and unambiguous. In my opinion, it’s part of the GM’s job to parse that before they go through character creation with their players. Next up are the different classes of spells: regular, area, information and so on. It’s nice to see that jet spells get their own little sub-section, though I would have preferred them to be their own class and marked that way in the spell-book. All in all, the chapter provides a good enough introduction and overview to spell-casting in DF without standing out in any way. What it certainly doesn’t do is changing how standard GURPS magic works. There had been quite a few who had hoped that DFRPG would provide a huge overhaul, but that hasn’t happened. About the only change worth mentioning are that DF casters can learn any new spell within a week or instantly, when they are willing to sacrifice a scroll for the purpose.

Chapter 2 is the spell-book that contains the actual spells, sorted by colleges. Colleges are different schools of magic like the air, fire, body control or knowledge. To my great surprise, there were only two standard colleges from GURPS Magic missing: technology and enchantment. The first is a doozy, because it really doesn’t fit most fantasy. The second is a can of worms you don’t really want to open unless you want your wizard to take regular half-year vacations to make just the right magic item. The other big omissions are creation spells from the illusion and creation college and evil necromantic spells like making zombies. The mix of spells is what you’d expect from a fantasy RPG with maybe a bit more emphasis on things that are not immediately applicable to the dungeon. Even so, most of these spells have been removed. You won’t find Hair-cut or Dye and other such utility spells. All the border-line broken and exploitable spells like Enlarge are gone too along with everything that’s very complicated to explain and real death spells like Eviscerate. Still, there are more than enough spells in here to provide a real problems for selecting your basic ones. That is made worse by the fact that the wizard profession just has a few general hints instead of the suggested spell lists that were present in DF1. I don’t know why this was done when the cleric and the druid both get spell suggestions even if they don’t need an prerequisites beside Power Investiture.

As for the spell lists themselves, they’re quite a bit easier to parse thanks to the two-column layout. Spells are also sorted alphabetically within their colleges, which makes finding things considerably easier, even if you don’t find the very basic ones immediately and have to look where to start your chains. A note for the newbies here: if there’s not Time to Cast mentioned, it’s always 1 second. As all the colleges are compressed into one chapter and some pages have spells from two different colleges on them, the pages aren’t colour-coded by college, which makes quickly flipping through to find your college a bit harder, but that’s a minor point. As for new spells, there are none (unless you count Detect Evil, which is has been published before). Not even Land Mine, which had been presented as a preview during the kickstarter, made. While I didn’t expect oodles of new stuff I was looking forward to seeing a dozen or so new additions to increase the dungeonesque flair. Most of the other changes are down to balancing, wizards loose access to lightning to give druids some more chance to shine and similar changes. A few spells like Create Earth also get a bugfix to make them less exploitable, but generally the exploitable ones have just been cut. On the whole, that leaves the chapter mostly useful to newbies and those who actively want a reduced spell selection.

Next there’s a spell table (6.5 pages) of all the spells presented that keeps to the fundamentals: name, college, prerequisites and page reference. While that means it lacks a lot of information that’s present in the same table from GURPS Magic, I think this is a change for the better. Except for the prerequisites you normally go to this section just to find where the blasted thing is actually printed, because you rarely want to just check the casting time or such. The book ends with an index and an unfillable spell sheet that really would be no fun to fill out by hand as it lacks column boundaries.

All in all, Spells is the only volume that disappoints the old hand in some regards. I imagine these things don’t matter at all to the new player, but even those could have used a couple more pointers. For example, it’s nowhere said explicitly that GURPS doesn’t have high-level spells that quickly take care of your enemies. New players might quickly pick Earthquake and Geyser, because they sound flashy instead of settling for good old Stone Missile and Create Fire. In GURPS a powerful caster is one with lots of additional energy, not exceptional spells – although high skill level helps.

Monsters

Together with Dungeon, this is GM-only material and I try not to give too many spoilers, but you might still want to skip ahead if you don’t intend to GM. The book starts out with another quick look-up sheet with size of counters, size & speed/range table, facing, wandering monsters and quick page reference – all useful, nothing special. The introduction gives the GM and idea of why they need monsters and how to get the most out of the booklet.

Chapter 1, “Monsters in Action” (5 pages), deals with general stuff and starts off by presenting the delver’s point of view and what they can do to identify monsters, exploit their weaknesses and – if they really need to – negotiate with them. Then we monster’s point of view, which means tactics, manoeuvres and changes based on non-humanoid physiology (including swarm attacks).

The next chapter deals with “Monster Traits” (6 pages). It starts off with some comments on why you don’t build monsters with points and how their traits don’t have to obey normal restrictions. Most of the chapter is an abbreviated list of exotic advantages/disadvantages or those considered not useful enough for characters to appear in Adventurers. These mostly take up 3-5 lines and include only the most relevant information for making them interesting foes. New players should take note that these are all condensed versions of regular GURPS traits that are available to non-humanoid characters in non-Dungeon-Fantasy campaigns. The chapter ends with a list of monster classes, all well-described and with any special immunities/vulnerabilities explicitly called out – including whether they’re living or not.

Chapter 3 is “The Bestiary” and with 48 pages takes up the lion’s share of the book (pun intended and lions included). There are 77 headings that sometimes present a single monster, sometimes a small family of two to four related monsters and sometimes a veritable monster generator (Dragons, Slimes etc.). Each monster has a description, a condensed stat block (or a way to generate one) with attributes and secondaries, defences, attacks, traits skills and class. There are also notes on how to handle the monster in encounters and special tactics or qualities you might have missed. The length of the entries varies, but it’s a rare monster that gets more than half a pages. The various dragons almost get two, but the generator allows you to make up 16 different dragons.

The monsters are a mixed bag ranging from evil humanoids and animals to undead (from the common to the very exotic), magical beasts, demons, golems, elementals and things that could have sprung from Lovecraft’s imagination. On a quick read-through, most of the monsters from DF2 and first two Dungeon Fantasy Monsters volumes present with a couple of additions from Magic and the Basic Set (mostly undead and animals). We also get a – well-hidden section on making up your own monsters right before the zombie. Except for the placement that box is well worth the paper it’s printed on.

What’s notably missing are stats for human brigands, guards and so on. The DFRPG assumes that the opposition will be mostly non-human apparently, but these would have been useful fodder for inexperienced GMs. What’s also missing are the very useful monster prefixes from DF Monsters 1. Who wouldn’t want to rather fight a Berserker Elemental Orc Juggernaut than boring, plain, old Orc? The book ends with small sheets for your own monsters, traps and diseases. There will be some time before the beginner GM will need those, though. Monsters provides more than enough fodder for aspiring delvers to mow through, though it would have been nice to see some new material or present the old material in its original glory (especially the illustrations, which are notably inferior to those in DF Monsters 1) – I am still waiting for the Squirrel-pion and the Fae Reaver I was promised!

Dungeon – I smell a Rat

The 26-page adventure that comes with the box starts off with a plain rock hex grid in the end-paper – useful, but unexciting. It’s split in four parts: Setting the Scene, Dungeon, Rewards and The Adventure Continues. That’s about all you need to know, when you don’t intend to be the GM. Scroll on down!

The introduction gives some basic hints about dungeons, how to get the adventurers to accept the quest and how to scale encounters up and down – more of the latter can be found with each encounter . Chapter 1 (2 pages) gives you the basics of this town adventure. It can be set anywhere with a busy trade road. Funny thing, it seems to be about slaying giant rats in a road house cellar! Of course, there’s more to when the owner seems to have recently died and was wont to have funny rituals with his sorcerer friends in the cellar

Chapter 2 (15 pages) details everything that’s interesting about the dungeon. Players might be glad to hear there aren’t actually any giant rats to fight here until they notice the giant spiders. Enemy stats are generally not given in the text, but in a monster index at the end. Every little feature of the rooms is keyed to the maps, though, and many of them are destroyable! The first room has one way out that’s relatively easy to spot and one secret door. That’s important, because especially unimaginative players could think that the first room is the whole adventure if they don’t spot the easy clue. It might be good to make it more obvious if no high-PER character is in the party.

The adventure develops in seemingly typical old-school fashion. Each room reveals some more leads to even stronger opposition and the players are free to retreat to safety at most times. Still, the whole thing comes across as believable and each section is lovingly detailed. There’s also an immensely useful box on running combat encounters. On the whole, the layout is solid, but in some cases you might confuse the map excerpts on first sight – no biggie though. The story is pretty plain in the end, but the adventure is good for a couple of surprises. If anything, I would swap out one of the confined monsters in the cells for an untransformed, half-starved victim that is actually thankful (or even a helpful combatant if the party is down on their luck). Except for that, there’s little to improve this pretty straightforward adventure. Just remind the players that they can go back to town if they are too wounded to make it.

Chapter 3 presents a handy list of all monetary rewards possible. That’s a big improvement over having to flip through the module and re-read every little room description. I wonder why you rarely see that in D20 adventures. Everything including selling the furniture and sewer flotsam is taken care of. Character point rewards are also given with a detailed option, which gives +1 or +2 points for every encounter defeated. A maximum of 30 points is a bit much for my taste, though, even when it’s possible to spend three or four session on this with absolute newbies. There is instant karma for bad deeds like black-mailing the quest-giver, but that’s in-character for the genre.

Chapter 4 is just one page and deals with two things: players who love secret compartments with more monsters and more loots and alchemists who love reverse-engineering stuff. Both can be fun and useful with the right players. The adventure also contains high-quality maps with the worrying flaw that all secret doors and such are clearly marked. You basically have to cover part of the map to make things secret again. But more on the maps under the Sauce section.

Character Creation Cheat Sheet

At 18 pages this will be a very small booklet that can go from player to player while they finalise their characters. It starts with a useful end-paper on manoeuvres, movement costs, postures, size & speed/range table and the effects of accumulated injury and fatigue – useful to have during a game. It’s divided into Character Creation (9 pages),  Equipment (2.5 pages) and Completing Your Character Sheet (1.5 pages)

The first part reiterates the basics and gives a summary of the costs of attributes, secondaries, advantages, disadvantages, races and skills (complete with defaults and prerequisites). Spells get only a table on skill level benefits and then we’re already into money and expenses. “Equipment” lists all weapons, shields and armour with modifiers. There’s also a quick sample equipment loadout useful for everybody. Then it’s off to calculating damage, encumbrance, basic lift and all that. All in all, a nice little booklet to take you by the hand.

Delvers to Go

Another 18-page booklet, this one starts with an end-paper explaining all sorts of hex-based things movement, front and rear hexes, scatter rolls. Not quite the place I’d look for this, but good to have. The introduction here just points out what the booklet is all about explains all the sections of the character sheet.

Each of the 13 delvers is presented with a one-page write-up that gives all the stats and a short summary of their character as well as other important things that could be missed. Each gets a box with design notes and a character portrait too. The characters are presented in a similar manner to the professional templates with extra columns to make them long lists easier to read. The characters are nicely mixed and some go a bit against the stereotype: female half-ogre barbarian, dwarf druid, elf scout with no spells. There are no egregious errors, though one wonders why the orc-raised martial artist doesn’t know their language – must have been one of those modern cloisters! There’s not much more to say, except that these (along with the two sample characters from Adventurers) are the commentators who shared their wisdom all through the DFRPG books. Most players should find something they like. Each profession gets one character and thief and wizard get two to show off how they can be customised: silent backstabber vs. tinkerer and earth/illusions/knowledge/mind vs. body/earth/fire/meta/necromancy wizards.

GM Screen

The screen is all cover art from the booklets in the box on the player side (not sure it lines up correctly in one case) and the four GM side sheets provide information. What do you get? Attack and active defence modifiers, hit locations, size/speed/range table (up to 100 yards only), wandering monster rolls, fright checks, probabilities of 3d6 rolls, effects of injury and fatigue, critical hit, miss (armed/unarmed) and head-blow tables, scatter rolls, reaction rolls and a box on task modifiers. That’s quite a bit less than what’s on the standard GM’s Screen, but it’s all geared towards DF, where you won’t miss firearms malfunctions, fright checks work differently, a lot of modifiers are not relevant and reach is generally set. What could have been useful, but missing are posture, throwing, long-distance modifiers, basic damage tables and above all critical spell failures. I get the design idea that less is more and that art should dominate on the player side, but some compression might have been a good idea. Still, a very useful tool.

So, that leaves me to give you an overall meat score for all those deliciously crunchy bits that make a whole. Ordinarily I would be inclined to an even 9 for a very complete treatment, but there are some (minor) holes and a decided lack of anything really new that makes me want for just a little more.

Meat score: 8.5 (very good, but not perfect)

Cheese

Now this is where you would expect the DFRPG to loose points, but let’s see how it goes. There’s not very much in the way of fluff/cheese in Adventurers that’s true, less than in normal Dungeon Fantasy even. It’s basically page 3-4, little bits from the professions and races and sample characters. But Exploits is where GM-ing tips and storybuilding come into play and Chapter 6 does a really good job of introducing novice game-masters to their business. It starts off with the basics (and essential prep of the gaming materials updated for the 2010s – including cloud storage of character sheets) and then segues into different dungeon settings in the wider sense. Yes, this isn’t world-building in the traditional sense, it’s dungeon-building. There’s still some meat in the chapter, but the stats for doors and walls are there to further the story of and act as choke-points. Oh, and we finally learn the difference between concealed and secret doors. I never figured that out in that other game. While this section deals mostly with dungeons there is also a box that shows the GM how to go beyond that into wilderness, town and even other dimensions. Next come suggestions as how to build and balance encounters with monsters and the all time favourite of wandering monsters. We get the usual division between fodder, worthies and bosses and learn how to challenge all the characters without killing some of them outright.

After all that prep work we get to running the game and the simple instructions at beginning are worth to be repeated: don’t lean on rules, be fair, keep the action moving! Fun is the focus of role-playing, after all. The section on pacing holds advice that is just as useful, especially telling the players outright that they missed nothing. I wish I had learnt that one at the beginning of my career as a GM. We also learn what constitutes a successful session, adventure or campaign. Yes, there’s a lot of combat, but if you were into social-only adventures you should have enrolled at Worminghall! It’s exceptionally nice how this section effortlessly brings the GM around to the idea that world-building is maybe a good thing after all – not that the book explores this topic further. Game time vs. real time is also explored in detail, something a lot of newbie GMs have trouble with.

Next up is how to make everyone useful and that’s one of the things Dungeon Fantasy has always done better than most generic fantasy RPGs I’ve tried. Each profession is structured around things that are useful and fun and can’t quite be done as efficiently or in exactly that way by any other one. The next section is entitled “Keeping the Heroes Alive”, but it’s also about making dungeons more believable than early attempts of the genre and avoiding the “everything is evil and hostile”-trope. We also get tips on NPCs and hirelings. “Settling Rules Questions” and “Dealing with the Players” will be quite helpful for newbie GMs, who haven’t encountered these problems before.

The chapter ends with a couple of pages on character advancement offering the option to give out points in an old-school style (an example can be found in I Smell a Rat) or the usual 5 points a session. For spending points we get increased attribute levels and other specials for all the professions and also ways of getting rid of disadvantages. The chapter closes with traits gained in play whether through mundane slogging through bogs or divine grace. Much of this chapter is adapted from older sources, but it’s still good advice put plainly. The example of play is that comes at the end of the book is not particularly funny, but will prove enlightening to first-time role-players. Plus it uses the example characters from Delvers to Go.

There’s precious little that is not rules in Spells, but Monsters gives the odd bit of world information now and then, not enough to make up an ecology for the critters, but enough to keep up our interest. The Dungeon in itself offers a relatively straight-forwards story with only a couple of simple twists, but it is consistent and doesn’t feel far-fetched.

The Delvers to Go booklet presents interesting characters who don’t live in a vacuum, even though they aren’t tied into a strong background world. And you didn’t actually except world information from the screen and the cheat-sheet, did you?

Where does that leave us? The DFRPG is certainly not all about weaving complex stories and finding just the right motivation for your NPC, but it does give you the necessary tools to make up more than just brawls between murder machines. It does act as a valid if constrained replacement for the Basic Set where fantasy is concerned. And don’t get me wrong, you can use this to play other things than dungeon-delvers. It just takes more work to grab a copy of GURPS Fantasy and make up your own world. So, the cheese rating is pretty solid too.

Cheese score: 7 (not the main purpose, but way more than a passing grade)

Sauce

The thing that catches your eye is the full-colour, which is easily the best I have seen in a non-licensed product since Dungeon Fantasy Monsters 1. It is a pity that they didn’t use the art from that volume for the Monsters booklet though. The art in there is not in line with the rest of the product – I guess there was either a licensing issue or it was impossible to get those illustrations in colour versions. Still, some colour, some greyscale would have been better than what we got in Monsters. There are far too few illustrations and what we got is often very flat and cartoonish. They’re not bad per se, but they make you realise that corners were cut on this part of the set. The eight pages (4 sheets back and front) of miniatures from Cardboard Heroes are certainly useful, but only for more or less normal-sized foes. Some of the illustrations are from the Monsters booklet and again these are easily the weakest and look out of place.

The writing on the other hand, is of high quality through and through and I noticed only one thing that could be an errata (old lighting table on page 45 of Spells). On the whole, there are far fewer tongue-in-cheek jokes like in regular Dungeon Fantasy. It’s easy to see why. Steve Jackson Games didn’t want this to be written off as a game of no consequence or worse as something that pokes fun at role-players’ favourite genre, but as a serious, less abstract alternative to that-other-game. However, for me at least, it does take some of the enjoyment out of the DF line. As always with humour and role-playing your mileage may vary though. There are also no vignettes of any kind, unless you count the example of play. The only in-character bits we get are the “Speaking from Experience” boxes and while these do contain good advice from the example characters, they aren’t exactly gripping and sometimes even come across as a bit bland.

Of course, the tables of contents are hyper-linked with the sections and the whole thing is bookmarked. The indexes aren’t hyper-linked, but I haven’t found an RPG yet where they are.

What’s really outstanding is the layout though. Especially the templates are much clearer than anything I’ve seen so far and not only in GURPS. I might niggle and nit-pick about the GM Screen’s wasted space and some other tiny things, but overall it’s great! Editing is top-notch as usual. I found just one mistake in over 400 pages and I am not usually bad at spotting likely candidates.

Sauce score: 8.5

Generic Nutritional Substance

Well, this is a box about people raiding dungeons and while I know some role-players for whom that statement summarises all RPGs I wouldn’t go that far. But even for those who prefer some more expansive fantasy games, this is a good starting point, especially when you are new to GURPS. It can be used as an entry point into fantasy role-playing that allows you to eventually outstrip its contents. There’s nothing here that makes the characters created with DFRPG illegal in standard GURPS and there’s no stopping the GM from playing a couple of sessions with DFRPG only and then deciding that they want to go farther afield and leave the limitations of the DFRPG behind them. That’s not completely anti-universal if you ask me.

Generic Nutritional Substance score: 6.5 (goodish when it comes to being generic)

Digesting Everything

The DFRPG is streamlined a lot and for experienced players that is not strictly necessary, but even for them it’s great if they want to play a Dungeon Fantasy game right out of the box. For newbies this is a great way of tipping a toe into the GURPS ocean without immediately catching a cold (or a headache). I am not sure I like the removal of the “behind-the-curtain” stats block we had formerly seen in DF. It gave the more experienced players a guideline on how to build their own abilities. Granted, this box is marketed at new GURPS players and nothing in the box gives you the tools to do that much fiddling (no modifiers for once), but things being as they are I am quite sure it’ll be picked up at least as much by older hands. It would have been nice to give everybody some incentive to dive into the deeper GURPS waters.

As I said above, there’s not much that is really new, but in most cases the streamlining helped to make things go smoother like all delvers being Size Modifier 0 now – although that one might raise problems with armour-wearing barbarians. The clarifications, clearer restatements and the handful of new profession-specific abilities are nice, but they’re probably not going to be worth the price of admission on their own.

A couple of nice things I noticed were the very diverse cast of characters. The illustrations show us tough women muscling open portcullises, men and women of different ethnicities and generally doing stuff that isn’t necessarily coded male-only or female-only. The example bard is a guy for crying out loud! Players are told that it’s okay to play “other” genders and to play a female character when male (and vice versa). What wasn’t so nice, was one commentator talking about ‘the lesser races’, which had pretty ugly ring to it even in a world where fantasy racism is the norm. I would have wished, RPGs could avoid such language by now.

Summary

The Dungeon Fantasy RPG is a good buy for…
1) those who want to try out GURPS, but feel slightly intimidated by the amount of options
2) those who look for a somewhat realistic fantasy RPG experience and haven’t tried GURPS yet
3) old GURPS hands who want to recruit new players who don’t know GURPS yet
4) old GURPS hands who want to have everything half-way decent with the GURPS name on it

It might not be the best investment if…
1) you already own most of the DF supplements and want new material
2) you are an old hand at GURPS and just want to see what the fuss about Dungeon Fantasy is all about without spending a lot of money (DF 1-3 are $24 and are likely to serve you better – unless you want to bring in new players or absolutely need paper versions due to dyslexia or the like)
3) if you aren’t particularly thrilled about the genre per se and don’t want to convince people to try out GURPS
But even then you still get a lot of good content for the money you spend.

Total score: 7.9 (excellent)
Total score is composed of a weighted average of Meat (50%), Cheese (15%), Sauce (20%) and Generic Nutritional Substance (15%). This is a cheese-oriented book. A “cheesy” story- or world-building-oriented book would turn the percentages for cheese and meat around.

Value score: 7.95 (excellent value)
Value Score is composed of the average of Total and Price.

Accessibility: excellent – accessible to complete newbies


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 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.


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