Bite-sized Review: GURPS Dungeon Fantasy Setting – Caverntown

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

Cover of GURPS Dungeon Fantasy Setting - Caverntown

Facts

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

Review

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

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

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

Meat

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

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

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

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

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

Meat score: 9

Cheese

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

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

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

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

Cheese score: 8

Sauce

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

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

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

Sauce score: 5.5

Generic Nutritional Substance

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

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

Generic Nutritional Substance score: 6

Summary

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

Total score: 7.525 (almost very good)
Total score is composed of a weighted average of Meat (32.5%), Cheese (32.5%), Sauce (20%) and Generic Nutritional Substance (15%). This is a balanced (meaty-cheesy) book where both story and rules matter.

Value score: 6.7625 (well worth its price)
Value Score is composed of the average of Total and Price.


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

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