Preview of The Citadel at Norðvörn powered by DFRPG

I had the uncommon luck to get a very advance copy of The Citadel at Norðvörn and Douglas Cole graciously allowed me to publish a short article to provide you with a first look at his newest Kickstarter offering. Though something tells me his reason for that might not have been to boost the page-views of my blog…

First things first: this is a spoiler-free preview. You can read on without having to fear that I reveal the big plot behind it all. Indeed, it may come as a surprise to you that there is a larger plot in a setting book. After all GURPS Dungeon Fantasy Setting – Caverntown – a clear inspiration for this volume – doesn’t have dangling plot hooks all over it. The Citadel does, however, and the overarching developments are quite interesting, involving multiple dangerous factions that plan to bring the Northland down.

It is left to the GM to arrange the discovery of each and every clue themselves, though. This is not a pre-scripted adventure and player characters might well go on a quest in the service of one of the more villainous characters without realising it until later. Not exactly something for utter novices in the art of game-mastering and a bit more on the roleplayey side of things tan dungeon-delving. On currently seventeen pages, the author gives us the main villain plot and who is directly or indirectly involved in it, as well as several related adventure seeds. The seeds are relatively short, but hey, that’s a stretch goal, right? You know what you have to do.

The plot is not the main purpose of a setting book, however, and the larger part (about 75 pages as of now) is made up of detailed descriptions of the citadel city of Norðvörn and the surrounding lands, including to some degree what lies beyond Audreyn’s Wall. All those dragon-gods of yore sure did leave a lot of treasure lying around.

The civilised lands are organised similarly to the description of Isfjall in Lost Hall of Judgment. Only instead of 18 pages you get 26 for Norðvörn, 8 for Áinferill and 6 for Löngbrú. The rest are for smaller sample villages and the destroyed outpost of Elskaðr. The author really manages to make each of these come alive and differentiate them enough to avoid blurring them in players’ minds.

Each of the bigger places has its history, geography and main features detailed. Law and Order, resources, magic, and important social groups as well as notable residents round that off. There are also sections on shopping and services – a bit less detailed than in Caverntown, but it’s still more than enough for most tastes. Most importantly, there are taverns and inns. What better place to make the party meet up? Unless you want to use one of the adventuring hooks provided to introduce your newly-minted DF heroes to the setting.

The really interesting bits are the interspersed parts about Norse-inspired laws, customs and preferences, though. Especially the festival section is fun and not quite the same as in Hall of Judgment. It’s in these cultural sections where Douglas Cole really gives Sean Punch a run for his money.

In addition to information on NPCs in the town sections, there’s also a whole chapter of more in-depth information that is still unfinished. Same goes from the bestiary, which includes some of the foes from Hall of Judgment and keeps the same one-page monster style.

Art is, of course, still a work in progress, but what I’ve seen looks good and certainly up to the standards of Hall of Judgment and the Dungeon Fantasy Boxed Set (reprint also on Kickstarter, at the moment). It’s not quite as good as the really big productions from Wizards of the Coast or Paizo, but it gets close enough. No maps yet, though – something that will hopefully change soon!

Writing is good with the asides typical for a Dungeon Fantasy product. I still like Sean Punch’s acerbic wit better than Douglas Cole’s more down-to-earth humour, but you mileage may vary.

On the whole, the book looks extremely promising and will tickle your fancy if you are at least somewhat interested in Norse-inspired fantasy. Hopefully we will get an overview of the whole realm of Torengar some time in the future, but on the savage northern frontier The Citadel at Norðvörn will soon serve as a fine entry point for any adventurer worth their salt.

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Dungeon Fantasy RPG Goodness at Kickstarter

There’s more DFRPG stuff going on at Kickstarter than I would have dreamt after the disappointing news about the discontinuation of the line last year.

First off, Steve Jackson game is not only raising money for reprinting the boxed set, but also for making a second Monsters volume. While this is still in the same weight class as the Monsters book from the boxed set (a bit underweight actually, but there are stretch goals) it has one big advantage: Actually good full-colour illustrations. As noted in my review of the matter the art in the first Monsters book was one of the big letdowns of an otherwise excellent effort at an all-in-one boxed set. The art samples on the kickstarter page show that SJGames is doing its best to remedy that. Be sure to back this book, which is not scheduled for regular distribution!

Another – not quite as surprising – kickstarter is Douglas H. Cole’s The Citadel at Norðvorn, which is going to remedy another short-coming of the DFRPG line, namely that there’s no canon setting. Taking place in the same world as Cole’s excellent Lost Hall of Judgment I’m having high hopes for this. Cole has shown he knows what you need to make a setting interesting. The only reason not to back this one is if you really don’t like Norse-inspired fantasy. And even then you might make an exception.

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.

Review: GURPS Hot Spots – The Silk Road

The long GURPS drought due to all the work on the Dungeon Fantasy RPG is finally easing and what does Matt Riggsby bring us? A desert! But this offering is most welcome as Mr. Riggsby takes us right into one of the most interesting areas, when it comes to cultural exchange: The Silk Road and especially the Tarim Basin. Yes, it’s a new GURPS Hot Spots volume and that means history nerd paradise with enough forbidden fruit to entice just about anybody.

Cover of GURPS Hot Spots - The Silk Road

Facts

Author: Matt Riggsby (a.k.a. Turhan’s Bey Company on the fora and twitter)
Date of Publication: 11/05/2017
Format: PDF-only (Warehouse 23-only)
Page Count: 54 (1 title page, 2 content pages, 2 index pages, 1 page ad)
Price: $10.00 (PDF), $0.20 per page of content; Score of 6/10
Preview: http://www.warehouse23.com/media/SJG37-0662_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. As a setting book cheese will be most important.

The Silk Road is a bit of an unusual topic for for a Hot Spots volume as even it’s central parts, which make up most of the book’s content, are more far-flung than a regular spot. The time frame (from the 2nd to the 10th century AD) doesn’t help to fix it any more to a specific point. What keeps the setting together is the flow of goods and ideas from East to West and vice versa and the fact that small groups (adventurers!) can make a difference in a region that lies at the margins when it comes to culture, civilisation and state oversight.

Ostensibly, the book deals with the reality on the ground in the Taklamakan, the Tarim Basin, the Hexi Corridor with some forays into further-off areas, but the setting’s feeling, the social interplay between the fringes of empires can be transferred to other settings. Riggsby manages to kindle the reader’s interest with the first few lines (artefacts!) and keeps it up until the bibliography.

There is no denying though that this is a historical supplement. I assume most people have at least some experience with those when it comes to GURPS. It’s not completely different from what has been offered before, but it is very accessible and well-done. Also it has some tantalising cross-over possibilities – indeed the crossover section takes up more than three pages, but let’s have a look at the overall structure.

After a one-page introduction to whet our appetites, we have the usual chapters on geography (twelve pages, with six pages of maps only) and history (five pages), then the book takes a detour from regular Hot Spots and omits notable people in favour of a gazetteer of the area (ten pages). This chapter includes towns and cities along with some other sites, interspersed with boxes on interesting myths, adventure seeds and notable artefacts, followed by an overview of the people, empires and religions of the area. This is similar to other such gazetteers you can find in many fantasy world supplements and serves much the same purpose. It paints a vivid picture of the setting and helps to distinguish places that would otherwise be just names on a map.

Chapter 4 (5 pages) is named War and Money and tells us a lot about the weapons and units favoured by the local powers as well as the trade goods that were shipped along the Silk Road. Stats are not the focus here and the next chapter: Life on the Silk Road (6 pages) shows us how people ate, what they wore and they entertained themselves. Buildings and the intellectual life are also covered.

Chapter 6 (8 pages) deals with the details of running a campaign in the area. The section on characters is relatively short. Campaign themes and cross-over ideas take up more space. A two page bibliography rounds off the whole thing.

Meat

Meaty and crunchy rules are not the focus of the book, but some rules slip in at different places. There is a concise, but nice passage of how to give the present religions the supernatural GURPS treatment. There are new rules for getting lost in the desert and for taking damage from sandstorms. We learn the terrain quality for travel and the environmental quality for hunting and foraging in the Tarim Basin. Tech levels are given in all relevant quarters. Matt Riggsby shows us what elements the armies of the region deployed. There is relatively little news on weapons  and armour, though. Most of these were influenced or even bought from outside and can be found in Martial Arts or Low-Tech. There is even a sourced price list for the most important trade goods and a listing of farther luxury trade goods.

Most meat is found at the beginning of chapter 6 with Cultural Familiarities, languages (including learning languages with more than one script), explanations of skills, jobs and one Craft Secret. Both the Guide and the Holy Mendicant are two interesting jobs that are a good fit for adventurers.

On the whole, there is little missing unless readers were looking for a full gear loadout or complete martial arts styles. The latter would have to be fabrication, because little is known from this area and time. For the fun factor we get a technique for throat-singing and a treatment of cannabis according to Low-Tech Companion 3.

Meat score: 6.5 (more than solid enough for a setting book)

Cheese

While The Silk Road does give a very good overview of its topic, it really shines at the small details where Matt Riggsby can show off his academic expertise. We learn that rope suspension bridges would have been useful, but were unknown in the old world. We hear some good old myths repeated and debunked in the same breath (Crassus’ legion in China). We marvel at wonderful artefacts like the Diamond Sutra (the world’s oldest dateable printed book) and wonder what else might lie hidden in the sands. In short, we find ourselves drawn into a world that was as rich in inter-cultural exchange as it was in danger.

Both the landscape and the history do get a very solid treatment in the book, but you won’t find singular rulers or a overriding passion for dates and battles. The history discussed here is that of the longue durée: slow processes that shape socio-economic development. The reasons that make exporting silk to the west a good strategy for China and much appreciated in the west are all present, while the recurring wars and changes in ownership are merely a background that doesn’t change the overall narrative.

Chapters 3 to 5 give the reader an intimate view of how life in the cities and on the roads of the Tarim Basin must have been. Where the archaeological record and written sources fail him, Matt Riggsby draws on contemporary custom to provide us with a picture (e.g. for food).  Chapter 6 discusses the most important ideas on how to make a campaign on the Silk Road. Apart from the merchants, missionaries and militants three-way split, we are also presented with a mapping on familiar settings. One of these is the Western – we are literally reading about China’s Wild West – the other one is Dungeon Fantasy of all things. After the first mental disconnect this even makes sense. The area features culturally less developed tribal people, fortified trading cities and ancient ruins and even dragon-bones. It’s not a far leap towards the Western as a genre and as we all know the Orcs are just more socially acceptable stand-ins for American Indians.

If there’s anything missing from the book, it may be a stronger link to the empires in the area. We are left with a general remarks on Chinese and Arab officials and customs, but it’s a bit thin for making up military and civil-servant characters. Of course, there is GURPS China to fill the gaps, but GURPS Persia and GURPS Tibet are still sorely missing and GURPS Arabian Nights is a bit far off in tone and content matter.

Cheese score: 9.5 (trying for perfection)

Sauce

After bells and whistles of GURPS Mars Attacks everything would be let-down, but for a historical book the illustrations are quite disappointing. I see that there’s vastly less in the way of royalty-free (or any other) artwork and photos about the subject than say Constantinople or Florence, but one or two authentically clothed and armed Sogdians, Tocharians or Göktürks would have really added to immersion, as would a view of one the mentioned cities or a typical house.

The maps, while useful and correct, could have been more impressive. I might have too high standards in this regard, but the mountain ranges look pretty artificial and the deserts are worse. The high-resolution, small-scale map of the Tarim Basin is the best-looking one and probably the most useful one too. The large-scale overview map of the whole area takes a bit to get used to, though. There’s also a map of a cave shrine complex that is a bit bare bones and would have been better without hexes.

Riggsby’s writing is engaging, interesting and colourful in the vein of the best Anglo-American popular histories. Jokes are far and few between, but this ain’t Dungeon Fantasy, after all. The style fits the subject matter perfectly.

Editing is good as always. I spotted only one minor pointer problem and the index looks fine too. Oh, and kudos for getting the German sharp s in Seidenstraße right!

Sauce score: 6 (give us some illustrations already!)

Generic Nutritional Substance

Generic usefulness is generally not the high point of historical supplements. The Silk Road remained the major route of exchange between China an the west for the better part of a century, though, so there’s a multitude of historical settings where it might crop up at least once. Matt Riggsby also goes to great lengths to present crossover opportunities and analogous settings. I feel Mr. Riggsby is now fully justified to present an expanded version with Zoroastrian Wizard templates as the default setting for the Dungeon Fantasy RPG.

Generic Nutritional Substance score: 7.5 (absurdly high for a very ungeneric setting book)

Summary

Hot Spots: The Silk Road is a really enjoyable read that will give its readers many ideas for campaigns and adventures. It is not a book that I can whole-heartedly recommend to people who really hate historical reading, but anybody else can rest assured that this is a good investment if you’re looking for something a little different for the usual RPG fare, while still giving your characters enough agency and interesting opportunities.

It is probably best used for a setting where characters are more or less mobile. While Mr. Riggsby does give a couple of sedentary campaign options, these are often a bit on the mundane even for people who like historical realism like me – although the caravanserai campaign does sound like it could be a lot of fun.

Total score: 8.05 (very, 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” tech- or rules-oriented book would turn the percentages for cheese and meat around.

Value score: 7.025 (hits the sweet spot of PDF 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 Mars Attacks

Updated 12/06/2017 after PDF release to fix price mistake

After far too much time off the radar I’ll tackle one of the two delicious GURPS hardcovers that came out late last year. It’s not exactly hot off the press any more, but it only got to Germany six weeks ago, so it’s not exactly cold review by that standard either. Anyway, just have a look at that gorgeous cover:

GURPS Mars Attacks Cover

Facts

Author: Jason “PK” Levine (a.k.a. Reverend Pee Kitty)
Date of Publication: 29/12/2016 (date of announcement of store availability)
Format: Hardcover and PDF (Warehouse-23)
Page Count: 96 (1 title page, 2 content pages, 2 index pages, 1 page ad)
Price: $24.95 (hardcover), $0.27 per page of content; Score of 6/10 for the hardcover (+2 for being a full-colour hardcover book),
$15.00 (PDF), $0.17 per page of content, Score of 8/10 (+1 for full-colour)
Preview: http://www.warehouse23.com/media/SJG31-2510_preview.pdf

Review

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

The first thing that grabs you about the book is the art. You don’t even have to like the B-movie alien horror style to see that this is heads and shoulders above the usual GURPS fare. Moreover, it fits the mood for the setting perfectly. Then there’s the fact that it’s the first full-colour hardcover GURPS book since Low-Tech, albeit the smallest one in existence. Yes, it’s smaller than GURPS Dragons and GURPS Alpha Centauri! It’s still a good size for bringing it to your gaming table, but it won’t give you full-text search.

With the technical stuff out of the way, let’s have a look at the content. This is most certainly a setting book with a useful amount of meaty stats, but not enough to make it a meat-cheese hybrid. Only a little bit over twenty pages deal directly with rules and most of these are character templates. The history of the invasion, different aspects of Martian society, command structure (basically the same) and technology get a lot room as do human responses, the breakdown of global society and game-mastery things like setting the mood, making things memorable and maintaining a good pacing. Indeed, the book does a very good job at streamlining play both on the meta-level and the rules themselves.

GURPS Mars Attacks is divided in five chapters, a short introduction to the franchise and the usual comprehensive index. First we get a timeline of the Martian menace going back to the beginning of the 20th century, then we get an in-depth look at both the Martians and humanity with its allies. Their respective technology is also discussed in story terms in these two chapters. Chapter four deals with character traits and templates – both racial and occupational. The final chapter deals mostly with plots, atmosphere and setting dials, but also includes some NPC write-ups (as you might imagine there aren’t very many).

Mars Attacks is supposed to be a stand-alone book, ready to play with nothing but the Basic Set, but even the introduction strongly suggests Ultra-Tech. I would add High-Tech to the list (the only normal vehicle not covered in here is a jet fighter) and both the Action series Power-Ups 5: Impulse Buys is a perfect fit for this style of gaming. More tech books can be added to taste, but they aren’t a necessity. 3rd Edition GURPS Atomic Horror is not a bad addition though. Even if a lot of its salient points have been covered in Mars Attacks it’s a good lead-in for the pre-invasion games and adds a ton of details for a 1950s campaign.

Meat

While stats and rules aren’t the focus, there is a lot of meaty stuff in Mars Attacks still. We get stats for the zany Martian weapons and vehicles and monster stat blocks for their experiments (including “upgraded” humans and giant insects). Giant robots get both the vehicle and monster treatment for use by and against PCs. There are streamlined tech level rules that reduce the penalties for high TLs and variant gadgeteering rules that allow for taking shortcuts in exchange for weird bugs.

We also get a comprehensive treatment of available character traits for both the Martian and human side, including Wildcard Skills and what to do if your players want to play less nasty Martians. Character templates and the accompanying lenses cover most of the common roles you’d expect to pop up, but the variety and niche protection is less than in dedicated series like GURPS Action, Monster Hunters or After the End. There are rules for adapting templates from the former two for a Mars Attacks game, but a small tie-in to the latter would have been even more àpropos, in my opinion.

There are some nice titbits I wouldn’t have expected like half a page of cybernetic limbs with point costs and Range Bands that replace regular range penalties with broader ranges for basic combat. Hilariously, you can also reconstruct the Martian weakness for awful country music, even though that’s not a standard assumption.

All in all, the only thing that seems to be missing is standard military loadout for the humans (the Martians are covered). I’m guessing that there were reasons for not making this an even 100-pages and setting-specific stuff is certainly more important than things you can look up in other books. Still it hurts playability for the target audience.

Meat score: 7.5 (weird tech win)

Cheese

For such a campy setting, there’s certainly a lot of non-campy backstory involved and that makes it possible to play a Mars Attacks campaign straight with the weirdness taking a backseat to the action and horror. That was probably a good decision. After all you can always turn the camp dial to eleven. The book actually uses the three dials of camp, darkness and gore to help the GM get a feeling for how to stage their scenes.The deeper themes of the story aren’t neglected, but they seldom take centre-stage.

Most of the GM advice is about making each session a rip-roaring tale of gruesome adventure and – above all – fun. The last chapter makes it easy to set up good campaign starters (and continuations) even for the less experienced GM. The seeds listed here and in the vignettes should keep players occupied for a long time. What’s missing is a sample adventure or at least a detailed look at an alien base through human eyes. While the book does a good job of inspiring GMs, it’s still bit more work than the popular GURPS series, including Dungeon Fantasy. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but Mars Attacks is more like regular GURPS in this way and not necessarily the first book to give to a newbie after Caravan to Ein Arris.

Having said that there is still a plethora of information in here that can be used to stage a multitude of scenarios: hapless civilians being caught in a surprise invasion, alien sadists rampaging through the countryside, secretive scientists preparing for the alien menace and special forces infiltrating the enemy’s bases. The fact that the aliens are always considered as a playable faction is a definite plus and lends itself to periodic changes of perspective. The alien mindset is very well represented and helps players portray sadistic, status-obsessed Martians without going completely off the deep end. The preferred option is still playing humane Martians, though, which is probably a good idea for any sort of extended campaign.

For those interested in such matters, the canonical story given here is different from both the trading card series and the movie, but makes more sense than either. I can’t speak for the comics – maybe those are closer. In any case, there are also a lot of divergence points offered, so that nothing is set in stone and can be changed by the GM – or the actions of the players!

Apart from the absence of an intro adventure there is very little that’s missing from a setting point of view.

Cheese score: 8.5 (Martians are very thorough)

Sauce

This is the first GURPS book in while that really makes you happy about how things look and it’s the first full-colour one since GURPS Dragons (remember that first 4th Edition book?). While the art style might not be everybody’s cup of tea, it’s a perfect fit for this style of game. Readers who get really turned off by the art will probably think the same thing about the content. Even the sexualised nature of some of the original artwork is addressed and in a mature manner too.

The writing is top-notch as you’d expect it from PK, but for most of this book he set his humour to extra-dry , which makes it all the funnier. The vignettes (a big one for the Introduction and each chapter and small ones throughout the text) are very interesting reads too and feel a lot less forced than what you often see in RPG books. They do add a lot to the overall look and feel and help the reader explore the world in a more immediate way.

Editing and index are near perfect as we’ve come to expect from SJGames, but the layout is even better than usual. The upper margin with the colourful UFOs  is a really nice touch and using a radioactive symbol instead of a fat bullet point actually helps readability a lot, especially in the templates.

Sauce score: 9.5 (highest Sauce mark so far)

Generic Nutritional Substance

As a setting book, there are always limits to how much you can pilfer for other games. Streamlined TL and gadgeteering are obvious candidates as are range bands and most of the tech and character templates. The GM tips work for a lot of over-the-top campaigns too, but ultimately more than half of the book is explicitly about alien invasion and much is about this specific invasion.

Generic Nutritional Substance score: 6.5 (still very good for a setting book)

Summary

Mars Attacks is is a very good, campy, over-the-top SF action-horror setting to buy that leaves very little to be desired. If you’re looking for a change of pace you could do much worse. Just don’t mistake the book for something it isn’t! It’s not GURPS Alien Invasions in the sense of X-Com, Xenonauts or Black Ops. It’s much more action-oriented and fast-paced and has – for most of the part – more similarity with a zombie apocalypse setting than anything else. And it will be bloody and silly and horrible in equal measure. Still, it’s a useful thing to have even if you don’t plan on running such a campaign any time soon. I certainly got more from the book than I would have ever thought. Add to that the fact that it’s the cheapest GURPS hardcover to date and you certainly have a winner!

Total score: 8.25 (2nd best so far)
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” tech- or rules-oriented book would turn the percentages for cheese and meat around.

Value score: 7.125 for the hardcover, 8.125 for the PDF
Your choice. The hardcover is certainly more fun to show around, but the PDF will probably be more useful in the long run and it’s a real bargain.
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 17: Guilds

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.

Matt Riggsby seems to be on a roll, when it comes to Dungeon Fantasy. A month after kicking off the Treasure subseries,  he brings us GURPS Dungeon Fantasy 17: Guilds just before Christmas (Is it just me or would that release have been better for Treasures? Well the vagaries of publishing, I guess).

Cover page for GURPS Dungeon Fantasy 17 - GuildsNow, I am on record for saying Riggsby’s last book was less DF than what we’re used to. This doesn’t quite apply to this title, even though it does have applications outside of Dungeon Fantasy. Before I elaborate further let me say that the book builds on the social rules for DF that Dr. Kromm introduced in “Traits for Town” (Pyramid 3.58: Urban Fantasy II). In fact, pretty much the whole of the article is reproduced – not counting the “Professional Discounts” box, but that one has been expanded for each discussed guild. So if you thought about buying Pyramid 58 just for this article, you can just buy Riggsby’s book instead. If you already bought it, don’t begrudge SJGames the slight recycling.

Facts

Author:  Matt Riggsby (a.k.a. Turhan’s Bey Company on the fora)
Date of Publication:  2015/12/10
Format: PDF-only (Warehouse 23-only)
Page Count: 31 (1 title page, 1 content page, 1 index page, 1 page ad)
Price: $7.99 (PDF), $ 0.26 per page of content; Score of 4/10
Preview: http://www.warehouse23.com/products/gurps-dungeon-fantasy-17-guilds

Review

As a DF product kind of dealing with setting details, Guilds is a square peg in a round hole, but much less so than Treasures. Yes, it deals with worldbuilding too, but it does so in a style that is decidedly dungeon-fantasyesque. Nevertheless, the book is pretty much balanced between rules and setting tips.

The book is split in two chapters and an appendix of rank titles. The first chapter reproduces Kromm’s rules, which is important as this reintroduces social traits into Dungeon Fantasy. Then Riggsby takes us by the hand and shows us easy-to-use ways of using organisations in DF. He makes heavy use of the Pulling Rank rules first introduced in the Action series and expanded by the good doctor and Riggsby himself.  There is also some historical background information, but that amounts only to two paragraphs.

The second chapter details fifteen types of organisation (along with a couple of variants) for use in your campaigns. Each of those takes up one and a quarter page or so and they tie into DF templates a lot. The three questions “Who are they?”, “What do they want?” and “What can they provide?” are answered in some detail for each. Be warned though that these are very much types, not ready-to-use sample organisations akin to the magical styles in Dungeon Magic. The appendix of rank titles is just that: titles for each of the organisation types.

Meat

So, why would you want to add in all these fiddly social bits into a beer-and-pretzel game like DF? Simple: to give the players more options for customising their characters. The cleric who holds high rank a congregation will play differently from the one who’s someone in a noble court and the one who rubs shoulders with university-types. Organisations also provide ample plot hooks, but that’s a setting (and therefore cheese) thing.

The basics here are Kromm’s rules, but everything concerning guilds comes from Riggsby. The assistance rules from Pulling Rank et. al are nicely streamlined to fit a DF setting and not bog down play. All the different types of assistance are detailed complete with samples. The guild entries show at a glance what each can easily provide and what not.

Ease of use is a big thing here. We get a complete listing of DF professions with sources, a a complete overview of social traits, a sorting of professions in each guild (who are the masters, rank & file, hired help?) and a rank range for each organisation. Especially nice is that guilds don’t always use Administration for the assistance rolls. Intimidation or Streetwise might work just as well. There’s a lot of simple stuff like adding rank to contest skill rolls or wealth level to sell loot that might also work well outside of DF, even if they are a bit gamist.

Add to that some odds and ends (rules for technical jargon, cants and slangs are neat) and you’ve described most of the book’s rules. There’s nothing in here that doesn’t work, although there are no complete revelations for those who already know the Pyramid article.

Meat score: 8.5 (extra half-point for streamlining)

Cheese

As this is a balanced kind of book, setting matters just as much and although we don’t get any cute worked examples, this book can be a great help, especially for the beginner GM who just starts exploring their world. Riggsby explains why leaving the dungeon from time to time is a good idea. He shows how each of the guild types can provide hooks for further adventures and how advancement in rank can serve as a means to achieve the game’s ultimate goal: get better bling and cooler powers.

We do learn a little bit about historical guilds and communication problems that made large organisations impossible in the middle ages, but that information is relatively sparse. Don’t buy the book for its real-world data. The rank names are, unfortunately, mostly boring. Apart from one or two odd men out most of the tables have nothing interesting to them. The Congregation table is at least an odd mixture of religions, but only the Hermetic Cabal titles are truly close to old D&D weirdness. Who wouldn’t love to be called “Hidden Instrument of the Verities”?

As it stands Guilds is a good stepping stone to a more nuanced style of play and might lead people who cut their teeth on that other game and DF to actual worldbuilding. It’s only a first step, though, and it is a bit constrained by its length. Personally I would have liked a Dungeon Magic approach better with detailed worked examples added to the generic types. Even a half-page sample for each type would have been nice. Maybe we can still get this as a follow-up? Pretty please?

Cheese score: 7 (good framework in need of filling)

Sauce

There’s a very limited amount of pictures in the book, but most are appropriate if unspectacular. I like the ornamental title pages, as I’ve said before, but it’s nothing special. There are some jokes in Kromm’s text that make you laugh out loud, Riggsby’s jokes are more wry and less frequent, but they are well-executed and his writing is fluent and easy to read. There’s one cut-and-paste error, but apart from that the editing is good. The only surprise concerning the sauce was a pull quote from Pope Francis. The pope in Dungeon Fantasy – now that’s an association you’ll have a hard time severing.

Sauce score: 7 (okay art, nice jokes, good writing and editing)

Generic Nutritional Substance

The information, while DF-centric, is useful for any kind of fantasy campaign and might be even used for some that take place in higher-tech settings. By their very nature most of the guilds are, however, tied to a setting where there’s some pretty rigorous diversion of labour. In campaigns where there’s none of that, the write-ups will be much less useful.

Generic Nutritional Substance score: 7 (generic enough)

Summary

Dungeon Fantasy: Guilds is no must-have title for those who strictly adhere to the genre’s core values, but for those who want to stray a bit farther afield it is more than useful. More than some DF titles it is a toolkit, though – albeit a toolkit that takes the novice GM’s hand and leads them into that fearsome land of social roleplaying.

Total score: 7.4875  (a really good book, especially for less experienced GMs)
Total score is composed of a weighted average of Meat (32.5%), Cheese (32.5%), Sauce (20%) and Generic Nutritional Substance (15%). This is a balanced book

Value score: 5.74375 (cost-to-length ratio is always hard to beat)
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 Aliens: Sparrials

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.

Elizabeth McCoy’s GURPS Aliens: Sparrials, is I think, her first independent offering for GURPS in a while. That is if I know how to use the search function on Warehouse 23 (Hint for all those who are confused: She’s listed as both Beth McCoy and Elizabeth McCoy). It’s not what I thought of when I saw the hints, but it isn’t all that unexpected. The Aliens entry has been on the e23 wishlist for quite some time. And Sparrials are shoe-in to kick-start the line. Title page of GURPS Aliens: Sparrials

 

You might ask what’s so special about the little squirrel-monkeys if you only skimmed the four pages in the original GURPS Aliens (which are pretty much reproduced completely in this volume by the way). Sparrials are pretty much as adaptable as humans in an SF setting (lacking only strength) and include iconic characters like Serron of Irregular Webcomic fame. Okay, maybe Serron is the only fictional Sparrial ever, but they are pretty cool anyway. (Edit: the author informs me that there is at least one more fictional Sparrial – although minor)

For those of you who haven’t encountered them in the German translation of the 3rd Edition version of Space, here the short version: Sparrials are limber aliens with interesting dominance mechanics, compulsive kleptomania and the ability to smell (among other things) lies.

Facts

Author:  Elizabeth McCoy (a.k.a. Archangel Beth)
Date of Publication:  2015/12/03
Format: PDF-only (Warehouse 23-only)
Page Count: 30 (1 title page, 1 content page, 1 index page, 1 page ad)
Price: $7.99 (PDF), $ 0.27 per page of content; Score of 4/10
Preview: http://www.warehouse23.com/media/SJG37-1684_preview.pdf

Review

The most surprising part about this book is that it’s a setting book that’s almost more meaty than cheesy. Yes, it describes an alien species, but it certainly doesn’t skimp on rule mechanics. We get the updated 4th Edition stats as expected, but we also get hints on what advantages, disadvantages and skills make sense for Sparrial PCs. We get variant races for dropping them into Fantasy, a species-specific martial arts style and preferred psionics and spells. Add to that a sub-chapter on template selection (with a fully-fleshed out pilot one) and a 7-page chapter on gear including pets and spaceships and you’re not going to end up with an all-fluff book.

What’s also surprising is the fact that the whole shebang is 30 pages instead of the 12 or 21 advertised on the wishlist – a wise decision that one can hope will continue to other books in this series and the – hopefully upcoming – Fantasy Folk one. Apart from the usual 4 spare pages we have a 9-page chapter that deals mostly with the game stats for the race, an 8-page chapter that contains much on Sparrial psychology, culture and society and the mentioned 7-page chapter on gear. On the whole, this looks like the sweet spot for any species book this side of elves, dwarves and orcs.

Meat

So, how does all that meat hold up? Very well for the most part. The basic stats make sense, even though both Short Lifespan and Increased Consumption are classic free points disads in many campaigns. The racial strength penalty is also a bonus in most non-military SF campaigns. With their high DX Sparrials are no longer point neutral in 4th Edition, which is probably a good thing. I’m only missing Brachiator for the originally tree-dwelling squirrel monkeys, but it can be bought by exceptional characters (and is largely irrelevant in SF if artificial gravity exists).

There are some neat titbits in there like the rules for albino eyesight riding gear for goat-headed, snake-necked sloths and scent-based attraction. But there’s also some (very) slightly wonky stuff like the ageing thresholds thresholds that don’t mesh with the rules for Short Lifespan and missing rules for Pacifism: Cannot Kill Except in Self-Defence. Overall there’s nothing substantial to complain about and almost anything you’d need to know about Sparrials is in there. There are no sample organisations, but even that makes sense: Sparrials are notoriously hard at coordinating above the family level. They have no large governments or even military forces.

For a minor race described on four pages in a decades-old book, this is an excellent treatment rules-wise. The Sparrial pets and the spaceship tie round things out nicely and the template makes you wish there was an SF equivalent to Dungeon Fantasy.

Meat score: 7 (would steal back from any Sparrial hacker)

Cheese

As shiny as the meaty bits are, such a book still stands and falls with its cheesy content and the McCoy doesn’t disappoint there either. Yes, the book uses most of the old GURPS Aliens content verbatim, but it also adds a lot of new stuff. Especially the kinship society and one-on-one dominance receive a lot of attention, as do child-rearing, culture and relations with aliens. Players shouldn’t have any problems making their Sparrial character fit into an existing group and GMs are given a lot of ideas to integrate  the squirrely aliens into their campaigns – that goes even for Banestorm and Dungeon Fantasy. As the Sparrials were quite low-tech before first contact, they don’t need many changes to exist between orcs and elves. With their low ST they might even be somewhat better balanced in a fantasy campaign.

There are no real disappointments for those who want extensive non-rules information about a species. Even the sample character and the adventure seeds are interesting – if reused from the original treatment.

Cheese score: 9 (Sparrials are very competent cooks)

Sauce

There aren’t many pictures in the book and both of those showing actual Sparrials are re-used from GURPS Aliens. There’s one that might show a Sparrial dwelling, but I’m not sure what it signifies. There is a generic spaceship picture in Christopher Shy’s gorgeous style, but it’s incongruous with the other art and appears twice on consecutive pages only clipped and skewed differently. All in all a quite disappointing showing.

Writing is good, but some of the direct speech in the prose text is a bit jarring. Those were taken verbatim from the original and the age shows. Some editorial decisions are a bit weird – size modifier considerations come before we know Sparrials actual height – but nothing major.

Sauce score: 5.5 (meh art, mostly good writing and editing)

Generic Nutritional Substance

As every species treatment is necessarily tied to setting, the Sparrials don’t do so well here, but they can reasonably be added to any setting that does contain multiple sapient species this side of grim dark treatments.

Generic Nutritional Substance score: 6.5 (still good for a species book)

Summary

Aliens: Sparrials honestly isn’t something I would have bought if I didn’t have fierce desire to support GURPS and a wallet that doesn’t cringe on these kinds of expenditures any more. I am, however, glad that I did buy it. Sparrials probably won’t show up in any of my campaigns any time soon, but Elizabeth McCoy shows us how to do a species splatbook GURPS-style. If you think your campaign needs more colourful thieves, this is the book for you.

Total score: 7.275  (a steal)
Total score is composed of a weighted average of Meat (32.5%), Cheese (32.5%), Sauce (20%) and Generic Nutritional Substance (15%). This is a balanced book

Value score: 5.6375 (not quite a steal due to 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.