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


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


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.


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)


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)


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)


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

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


Author: Jason “PK” Levine (a.k.a. Reverend Pee Kitty)
Date of Publication: 29/12/2016 (date of announcement of store availability)
Format: Hardcover-only
Page Count: 96 (1 title page, 2 content pages, 2 index pages, 1 page ad)
Price: $24.95 (PDF), $0.27 per page of content; Score of 6/10 (+2 for being a full-colour hardcover book)
Preview: none (likely because of licensing agreement, but it’s still sad)


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.


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)


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)


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)


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 (hardcover at this length raises the price per page)
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.


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


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.


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)


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)


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)


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.


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


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.


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)


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)


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)


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.

Step-by-Step: DSA GURPS Conversion II – Races & Cultures

Be advised that this and all of the following conversion articles use my house-rules for variant attribute costs, fine-tuned languages and revised technique pricing – most of which make use of the half-point. Also the price of age-related traits is reduced. This isn’t GURPS rules-as-written and I’d argue, that it’s extremely hard to make GURPS DSA work without advised attribute costs, at least (or at the very minimum RPK’s splitting of IQ, WILL and PER).

Last time in step-by-step conversion I stressed how important it is to go for the immediately useful, while still having a general idea of how the big picture should look like. That’s why races and cultures are usually the first thing you decide on in a fantasy campaign (that or the magic system, but more of that next instalment).

So, what to do with the races? The fourth edition of DSA made the controversial choice of introducing traits for human races to the traditional mix of elves, dwarves and half-elves. Not only does that raise some uncomfortable parallels to some other Germans who used to books about “menschliche Rassen”, but it exaggerates differences that most RPGs thankfully sweep under the carpet. Worse, it made min-maxing savage fringe races that got attribute bonuses, cultures and professions quite desirable for munchkins. Human races are best completely disregarded (barring appearance) and the same goes . There are more than enough races to make playing DSA interesting without adding complications.

In this first post I will confine myself to the races Dwarves, Elves, Half-Elves and Humans. If there’s enough interest, I might write up some of the other “playable” races and maybe some of the ones designated “non-playable”. There are also a couple of example cultures, but I’m not aiming for completeness yet. I’ll just showcase what I’ve needed so far. The focus is on Northern Aventuria. I might expand this section later.


Dwarves [+62 pts.]

Attributes and Secondary Characteristics [+21]: ST +1 [10], HT +1 [15]; Basic Move: Land −1 [−5], Basic Speed −0,25 [−5], FP +2 [6]; SM −1 [0]

Advantages [+51]:
Detect: Secret compartments, doors and other clandestine sone constructions (Takes Extra Time +3 (8 s), −30%) [4]
High Manual Dexterity +1 [5]
Extended Lifespan +2 (Aging Thresholds: 200/280/360 years) [2]
Legal Immunity: Lex Zwergia (Accessibility: Only in Middle Empire, −20%, Fickle (11), −20%) [3]
Lifting ST +1 [3]
Magic Resistance +2 [4]
Night Vision +5 [5]
Perk: Alcohol Tolerance [1]
Perk: Dwarven Gear [1]
Resistant: anorganic poisons (HT +8) [4]
Resistant: disease (HT +8) [4]
Feature: Immunities and Susceptibilities [0]
Feature: Swimming counts as a hard skill (Default: HT −6).

Legal Immunity: Lex Zwergia: For anything more than a misdemeanor dwarves are supposed to be brought before their mountain king for judgement. This applies only in the Middle Empire and not all that consistently at that.
Immunities and Susceptibilities: Dwarves are especially susceptible to seasickness (no bonus from Resistant: Disease). Dumbskull gets the better of the nicest dwarves − during the illness dwarves have Bad Temper (12). If they already have Bad Temper their self-control roll is lower by two levels. Dwarves are immune to lycanthropy and also to the poison Tulmadron.

Dwarves have a long list of modified attributes and smallish advantages. They are a bit toned down compared to most RPG treatments, but that’s just fine for the feeling of the setting. The Legal Immunity is a bit on the weird side and I haven’t seen many groups playing with that, but it is background canon in DSA and so I chose to include it.
Note that dwarves have no disadvantages tied to race. Racial Greed is in the official DSA treatment, but I see this more as socially-conditioned. They might warrant a quirk-level Social Stigma, but I didn’t want to complicate things with too many non-canon traits. They are generally seen as about as trustworthy as the average human.
Feature: Immunities and Susceptibilities is a catch-all term for background stuff that will rarely crop up and mostly evens out. I’m using that for the Elves too.

Elves [+91 pts.]

Attributes and Secondary Characteristics [+33]: ST −1 [−10], DX +1 [25], HP −1 [−2]; Basic Speed +0,5 [10], PER +2 [10]

Advantages [+66]:

Acute Senses: Vision OR Hearing ODER Taste and Smell +3 [6]
Appearance: Attractive (Androgynous, +0%; Racial, +0%) [4]
Less Sleep +2 [4]
Magery +2 [25]
Night Vision +5 [5]
Perk: Distributed Sleep [1]
Perk: Two-voiced Singing [1]
Resistant: Disease (HT +8) [4]
Unaging [6]
Voice [10]
Feature: Immunities and Susceptibilities [0]

Distributed Sleep: While Elves only need 6 hours of sleep a day, they can also re-arrange their sleeping patterns to need only 2 hours a day for 3 days in a row. If they do so, they must catch up missed sleep by sleeping double the missed hours at the end of the three-day period. This is not quite what DSA canon says, but it’s close enough for my taste.
Two-Voiced Singing: Elves can sing with two voices at the same time, which is a requirement for elfsong magic.
Immunities and Susceptibilities: Elves are immune to lycanthropy and rabies. They are especially susceptible to Battleground Fever and Sleeping Disease (no bonus from Resistant: Disease and especially serious). Plants from the garlic family and Stinking Mirble trigger Quirk: Sensitive Sense of Smell (the latter with a −3 penalty). Elves are immune against the poison of Silky Bast, but take extra damage from narcissus poison.

Disadvantages [−8]:
Quirk: Alcohol Intolerance [−1]
Quirk: Horrible Hangovers [−1]
Quirk: Sensitive Sense of Smell [−1]
Social Stigma: Second-class Citizen [−5]

Sensitive Sense of Smell: Elves are extremely susceptible to stench. They resist all attacks based on malodorous smells with a −2 penalty and keep away from bad smells generally. This is mostly negated by putting a clothes-pin on one’s nose.

Elves as a race weren’t very difficult to stat. The attributes and secondary characteristics aren’t terribly different from D&D elves. Because GURPS IQ does include considerably more than just book learning I dropped the penalty from DSA. Magery is on par with a standard DSA mage, but how that works out in the end is extremely dependent on whether the elf grows up in an elven culture or not.
Distributed Sleep is a custom perk and Two-voiced Singing likewise. No need to make things more complicated than that. Alcohol Intolerance and Horrible Hangovers are canon quirks while Sensitive Sense of Smell is a custom one. I was always mystified why DSA 4.1 made this a full-fledged disadvantage. You can pretty much negate it with a clothes-pin.
Social Stigma is tied to the race and not the culture, because the average elf won’t immediately be treated as equal, because he or she grew up among humans. Feel free to delete this if you play a mage or priest who constantly walks around in the readily recognizable dress of his profession.
Everything else is pretty much standard. Note that the template offers a choice which sense to pick for Acute Senses. That’s not a standard GURPS feature for racial templates, but the DSA treatment made sense here.

Half-Elves [+33 pts.]

Attributes and Secondary Characteristics [+23]: ST −1 [−10], DX +1 [25]; HP −1 [−2], Basic Speed +0,25 [5], PER +1 [5]

Advantages [+10]:
Apearance: Attractive (Racial, +0%) [4]
Longevity [1]
Magery +0 [5]

Half-Elves are basically Elves Light. They don’t share most of latter’s bigger advantages and none of their disdavantages, but they are close attribute-wise and also possess Magery. A Social Stigma would have been possible, but it’s already kind of dubious for the Elves as such, so I left it out.

Humans [+0 pts.]

No Modifiers by race.

Humans are nothing special. They are the default and have no traits that differentiate them rules-wise.


These were considerably more complicated to stat up than the races. The basic problem anyone doing cultural templates faces is whether to write them up as mandatory or just giving hints to the players. I decided on a middle-of-the-way approach and gave a detailed write-up, but not a mandatory one. Instead there are lists of emblematic traits and skills – things that could reasonably show up on the character sheet of any member of the culture, but wouldn’t be universal. All cultures also list expected language proficiency levels, tech level, status range and a couple of automatic traits. The latter appear mostly for the smaller and more exotic cultures (elves, dwarves, uncivilized peoples).
In each case there are two point costs. One for just the Automatic Languages and Automatic traits and a higher one that also includes all automatic skills – a good basis to start building on.


Anvil Dwarfs [+3/+15 pts.]:

Cultural Familiarity: Dwarves
Automatic Languages [+2]: Rogolan (Native/Fluent) [−1], Garethi (Fluent/Broken) [3]
Common Languages: rarely Angram
Status: −1 to +5
Tech Level: 4
Automatic Traits [+1]: ST +1 [10]; Talent: Pickaxe Penchant +1 [6]; Odious Racial Habit −1: Use of coal dust ointment [−5], Greed (12) (Dwarven, +0%) [−15]
Emblematic Advantages: 3D Spatial Sense, Fit, Talent: Born Soldier/Dwarven Craftmanship/Mr. Smash/Pickaxe Penchant
Emblematic Disadvantages: Bad Temper, Hidebound, Intolerance: Reptile-Folk, Miserliness, Motion Sickness, Phobia: Open Spaces/Oceans, Stubbornness, Sense of Duty: Clan
Inappropriate Traits: Anti-Talent: Couch Potato/Non-combatant, Faerie Empathy, Fashion Sense, Plant Empathy, Phobia: Enclosed Spaces, Unfit, Xenophilia
Emblematic Skills: Area Knowledge: clan’s tunnels (IQ/E) [2], Axe/Mace (DX/A) [2], Forced Entry (DX/E) [2], Prospecting (IQ/A) [2], Smith: Iron (IQ/A) [2], Wrestling (DX/A) [2]

Pickaxe Penchant can be found in Dungeon Fantasy 3 and Power-Ups 3.
Greed with the Dwarven modifier treats any offer of interesting precious metals or stones (and objects made with them) as giving a -2 penalty on the self-control roll. Any offer that doesn’t involve these gets a +2 bonus on the self-control. Payment in regular coin is at no penalty or bonus.

Anvil Dwarves are one of the few cultures that get a straight-up attribute modifier. All of them are trained for war from childhood and they value strength highly.


Lea Elf Clan [−11/+4 pts.]

Cultural Familiarity: Elves
Automatic Languages [−1]: Isdira (Native/None) [−2], Garethi (Fluent/None) [2]
Common Languages: Nivesian, Norbardic, rarely: Rogolan, Thorwalian, Tulamidya
Status: −1 to +2
Tech Level: 3
Automatic Traits [−10]: Arcane Knowledge: Salasandra [1], Code of Honor: Elves [−10], Quirk: Areligious [−1]
Emblematic Advantages: Acute Senses, Animal Empathy, Breath-Holding, Plant Empathy, Perfect Balance, Talent: Animal Friend/Born Sailor/Forest Guardian/Green Thumb/Outdoorsman
Emblematic Disadvantages: Curious, Sense of Duty: Clan, Phobia: Crowds
Inappropriate Traits: Alcoholism, Anti-Talent: Couch Potato, Bad Smell, Berserker, Night Blindness, Social Chameleon, Unfit
Emblematic Skills: Area Knowledge: clan’s hunting grounds (IQ/E) [2], Bow (DX/A) [2], Camouflage (IQ/E) [1], Fishing (PER/E) [2], Musical Instrument: {iama} (IQ/H) [2], Naturalist (IQ/H) [1], Stealth (DX/A) [2], Survival: Plains OR Swampland (PER/A) [2], Swimming (HT/E) [2]

Arcane Knowledge: Salasandra allows members of one clan to open their souls to one another. Treat this as Empathy (Only one Person). Together with Two-voiced Singing it also enables the use of elfsong in the community of the clan.
Code of Honor: Elf is the basis of what it means to be an elf. Elves wouldn’t see it as a code, but just the way they are. Game-wise it’s sufficiently described with: Do not exploit nature, but return something of your own for every gift your receive. Revere your soul animal and do not hunt it. Keep a balance between creation and destruction in your own actions. Heed your dreams. Do not pursue wealth or dominance over others. Truly important things can only be learned in your clan’s salasandra.

Lea Elves are DSA’s “beginner’s elves”. They are easier to roleplay than the more remote Wood or Firn Elves and the fact that they can learn more languages reflects off-the-bat reflects this. Their code of honor can still be a challenge for veteran players, though.

Firn Elf Clan [-10/+9 pts.]

Cultural Familiarity: Elves
Automatic Languages [−2]: Isdira (Native/None) [−3], Garethi (Broken/None) [1]
Common Languages: Nujuka; rarely: Yeti
Status: −1 to +2
Tech Level: 2
Automatic Traits [−10]: Arcane Knowledge: Salasandra [1], Temperature Tolerance +2 (−15 to +25° C); Code of Honor: Elves [−10], Quirk: Areligious [−1]
Emblematic Advantages: Absolute Direction, Acute Senses, Animal Empathy, Danger Sense, Fearlessness, Perfect Balance, Talent: Animal Friend/Born Athlete/Born Sailor/Forest Guardian/Outdoorsman/Stalker/Survivor
Emblematic Disadvantages: Curious, Sense of Duty: Clan, Phobia: Crowds, Shyness
Inappropriate Traits: Alcoholism, Anti-Talent: Couch Potato, Bad Smell, Berserker, Fat, Laziness, Night Blindness, Overweight, Social Chameleon, Unfit
Emblematic Skills: Area Knowledge: clan’s hunting grounds (IQ/E) [2], Boating (DX/A) [2], Bow (DX/A) [2] OR Thrown Weapon: Spear (DX/E) [2], Fishing (PER/E) [2], Musical Instrument: {iama} (IQ/H) [2], Naturalist (IQ/H) [2], Stealth (DX/A) [2], Survival: Arctic (PER/A) [4], Swimming (HT/E) [1]

Not the nicest and most accessible guys in the book, Firn Elves are mainly tough as nails.


Garetian (Middlelandic townsfolk) [−2/+1 pts.]

Cultural Familiarity: Middlelander
Automatic Languages [−2]: Garethi: {possibly a variant dialect} (Native/Broken) [−2]
Common Languages: Tulamidya, Rogolan, Thorwalian
Status: −2 to +7
Tech Level: 4
Automatic Traits: none
Emblematic Advantages: Contact, Social Chameleon, Talent: Craftiness/Street Smarts/Smooth Operator
Emblematic Disadvantages: Anti-Talent: Couch Potato, Curious, Selfish
Inappropriate Traits: Faerie Empathy, Spirit Empathy; Phobia: Crowds
Emblematic Skills: Area Knowledge: home town (IQ/E) [1]

Basic townsfolk in the Middle Empire and elsewhere. They are a pretty varied lot and have few emblematic skills as such.

Middle Empire (Middlelandic country folks) [−3/−1 pts.]

Cultural Familiarity: Middlelander
Automatic Languages [−3]: Garethi: {possibly a variant dialect} (Native/None) [−3]
Common Languages: Tulamidya, Rogolan, Thorwalian
Status: −2 to +7
Tech Level: 3-4
Automatic Traits: none
Emblematic Advantages: Common Sense, Danger Sense, Fit, Talent: Survivor
Emblematic Disadvantages: Delusion: Superstition, Loner, Intolerance: esp. strangers, city-folk, Social Stigma: Serf (Second-class citizen)
Inappropriate Traits: Social Chameleon; Phobia: open spaces
Emblematic Skills: Area Knowledge: home village (IQ/E) [1], Farming (IQ/A) [1] OR Animal Handling: {Farm Animal} (IQ/A) OR Fishing (PER/E) [1]

Country folks need at least one skill to make a living – yes, even if they are merely herding the serfs who do the actual work.

Fountland (Foundlandic countryside and small towns) [−3/−1 pts.]:

Cultural Familiarity: Middlelander
Automatic Languages [−3]: Garethi: Fountlandian (Native/None) [−3]
Common Languages: Alaani, Nujuka
Status: −2 to +6
Tech Level: 3-4
Automatic Traits: none
Emblematic Advantages: Absolute Direction, Common Sense, Fit, Talent: Business Acumen/Outdoorsman/Survivor, Temperature Tolerance (only towards cold)
Emblematic Disadvantages: Inappropriate Traits: Delusions: Superstition, Chummy, Social Chameleon; Phobia: open spaces, Social Stigma: Serf (Second-class citizen)
Emblematic Skills: Area Knowledge: home village (IQ/E) [1], Farming (IQ/A) [1] OR Animal Handling: {Farm Animal} (IQ/A) OR Fishing (PER/E) [1]

Pretty similar to the previous culture Fountlandians also represent the archetype of the clever merchant. That doesn’t mean every second serf has the skill.

Amazon Stronghold (Prerequisite: human woman) [−7/+4 pts.]:

Cultural Familiarity: Amazonian
Automatic Languages [−2]: Garethi: Amazonian OR Tuladmidya: Amazonian (Native/Broken) [−2]
Common Languages: Garethi, Tulamidya
Status: +0 to +4
Tech Level: 3
Automatic Traits [−5]: Fit [5], Social Regard: Respected +1 [5]; Code of Honor: Amazon [−15]
Emblematic Advantages: Combat Reflexes, Danger Sense, Fearlessness, Fit, High Pain Threshold, Rapid Healing, Single-Minded, Talent: Born Athlete/Born War Leader/Devotion
Emblematic Disadvantages: Anti-Talent: Unsubtle, Intolerance: Men, No Sense of Humor, Selfish
Inappropriate Traits: Anti-Talent: Animal Foe/Couch Potato/Non-Combattant, Cowardice, Cultural Adaptability, Faerie Empathy, Fat, Greed, Kobold Empathy, Magery, Pacifism for more than 10 pts., Social Chameleon, Spirit Empathy, Unfit
Emblematic Skills: Area Knowledge: Stronghold and environs (IQ/E) [1], Bow (DX/A) OR Thrown Weapon: Spear (DX/E) [2], Broadsword (DX/A) [2], Climbing (DX/A) [1], Riding (DX/A) [2], Running (HT/A) [1], Soldier (IQ/A) [1], Theology: Rondra (IQ/H) [1]

Code of Honor: Amazon resembles a Knight’s or Rondra Priest’s Code, but with a different focus. Ruleswise it’s the follwing: “Punish each insult to Rondra. Meet each challenge appropriately. Fight honorably, meaning no assassin’s tactics and poison use, ranged weapons and ambushes are permitted. Rebuke weak women and haughty men. Do not evade combat, except when honor demands it. Refrain from relationships with men. Temper your spirit and body and be hard towards yourself and others. Give a monthly blood tithe to Rondra – through combat, your own blood or animal sacrifice. Obey the orders of higher-ranking Amazons.”
“Active” Amazons who are still part of the command structure supplement this with a Duty, but few such PCs will be able to stay with any group of adventurers for long. Playing outcast or lost Amazons will be the norm.

Amazons didn’t have it easy in recent years in canon. They are also notoriously hard to integrate into a group of adventurers, but they do present a nice roleplaying challenge.

Parting Shots

In general, it is not necessary to stat every culture in the book. It is enough for the GM to know which cultural familiarity and languages exist in an area, what kind of status levels are available, what other social traits and skills are very important and what’s the general attitude of the populace. If you know Aventuria well and are familiar with GURPS you can do that on the fly during character creation. That raises an important point: The GM should always be present for the main part of character creation. Even if your players are veterans of both GURPS and DSA, don’t leave them to fend on their own. It’s generally okay for players to submit a draft, but then you should talk it through together. That goes doubly for setting conversions. A new ability or combination of traits that looked perfectly fine toa player can turn out extremely unbalancing when somebody else gives it a once-over. GURPS character creation is not Solitaire.

The material presented here is my original creation, intended for use with the GURPS system from Steve Jackson Games. This material is not official and is not endorsed by Steve Jackson Games.

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

Step-by-Step: DSA GURPS Conversion I – The Basics

Even the most dedicated GURPS fan has to admit that their favourite system is kind of lacking in rich, detailed settings that you can just lose yourself in. However, it offers all the tools needed to make every setting a GURPS setting. This guide shows you one way of doing such a conversion. It uses the German RPG Das Schwarze Auge (DSA) as an example.

1) Take a deep breath and think on why you want to convert this specific setting.

Whether the setting is another RPG system, a novel, a film, a computer game or a TV series you first need to be sure what you’re going for. A novel might be very good on its own, but not lend itself to an RPG experience. A film might not be so much fun if your players can’t think of cool one-liners and you have to imagine all the special effects. The intrigues and relationships that make up a TV series might not be so much fun if your characters never get to see what motivates them, because that happens in NPC-only scenes.

RPG settings are easier in this regard – they already work well for groups of PCs – but they pose an additional question: Why aren’t you just playing the setting using its original rules? Valid answers are lack of realism (D&D, DSA), plain shoddy rules (everything from Palladium), new editions every couple of years (D&D, Shadowrun, DSA), overly complicated rules (DSA), rules that don’t allow certain character concepts (D&D) or unwillingness of your players to try new things. The last point needs to be emphasised. If your players are happy to try the other rule system, at least give it a try. There’s no point in converting a whole setting if you are only doing it for yourself, even if you love converting settings.

I’ve already outlined the reasons why I think converting DSA to GURPS is a good idea here.

2) Start with what you need.

Converting a setting means you’re going to be in for the long haul, but that doesn’t mean you should disregard short-term needs. It’s best to start off with asking your players what they would want to play. Making those starting characters possible should be one of your first goals. But you also need to know what should happen with the rest of the setting.

In the case of our DSA campaign, we actually converted an existing group of characters:

1) Borlox, the dwarven mercenary. Racial stats for dwarves were an obvious start, but also rules for appropriate gear and such.
2) Kalman, the half-elven hunter. Besides racial stats for half-elves, I also needed to decide how to handle ranged weapons. I decided as a more realistic style than in my Forgotten Realms campaign and didn’t hand out Heroic Archer to a starting character. That meant none of the others got Weapon Master either.
3) Stiblet, the human priest of Hesinde. The main thing here was to figure out how to handle divine miracles and fortunately Powers – Divine Favor is a good fit. Apart from a number of custom-made learned miracles and a couple of tiny tweaks to dice rolls the system works fine.
4) Vitus, the human transformation mage. Apart from the two or three new spells there was also the issue of how to arrange the magic system. Nothing Thaumatology and Magical Styles couldn’t solve.
5) Woltan, the warrior. Nothing more than a fighting style for his academy and a decision on how to trade points of equipment was needed.

With the starting characters I knew I needed to flesh out two races, divine influences and standard magic as taught at mages’ academy.

Now all the characters also had an ethnic origin that was somewhat reflected in their disadvantages, language selection and even skills. Should this be converted into hard and fast rules? I am kind of averse to giving different cultures different stats and in the end I decided to use emblematic traits to give some flavour without mandating that every Thorwalian knows how to row a boat.

Some characters also had Special Abilities – DSA’s answer to D&D feats. These are almost exclusively used for combat, magic and supernatural tricks. They can be learned and most of the combat ones make more sense as techniques, manoeuvres and perks. I mean it’s hard to imagine why you have to buy a special ability just to learn how to feint. It’s not hard to just make ad hoc judgements about whether a given combat ability falls into the purview of a perk, technique or manoeuvre.

Magical abilities are harder to pin down and more likely to cause problems. There aren’t very many that are ubiquitous, but every mage starts out with a couple of those, including staff enchantment rituals and arcane meditation, which is a way to gain more magical energy. These were likely to be complicated so I decided to just use DSA rules without setting a cost for the first few sessions. This brings us to step three.

3) Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Not worrying about some aspects of the setting is absolutely fine. Things can work by fiat until you work out more detailed rules. Just don’t skimp on the points necessary to buy the rules-compliant abilities later.

That’s especially the case for minor things that are there mainly for flavour: minor social traits, the exact way some ritual or piece of equipment works, exact spell costs and the final contents of the magical colleges. If it’s not of vital importance for your starting characters, ignore it!

4) Paint with broad strokes.

Related to the previous step, but even more important: While it’s fine to ignore details, you should know where you want to go with the setting as a whole. Even if you don’t plan on using some aspects of the setting any time soon, you should know the general rules you want to work. This is always important for supernatural and exotic powers and abilities, but cinematic conventions and the influence of ultra-tech or superscience bear thinking about.

For a fantasy setting like DSA supernatural stuff far outnumbers all other considerations. The setting’s main kind of magic consists of skill-like spells. Mages, elves, druids, witches, geodes they all use some variant of this. Other ways to work magic exist, but they are far less prominent in the setting. Making this spell magic work well is the bulk of the conversion work. It’s also important to differentiate the different magical traditions from each other without making them completely incompatible. For this reason they will all use a core of GURPS Magic with switches and variants taken from GURPS Thaumatology. They depend on mana level, but those aren’t extremely varied with most of the world being normal mana. Of course, in DSA it is possible to construct low and no mana zones by using certain stones as building material, so this evens out.

Other magical traditions and the less common rituals of the traditions mentioned above will use other magic systems taken from other sources. One thing that is clear though is that the “Magic as Powers” approach will be used only sparingly. All magic uses up energy sources and powers don’t mix very well with a “spells as skills” approach in this case.

Divine powers on the other hand will be common, but fickle. Those don’t use energy pools and depend on sanctity instead of mana. Basically the system presented in GURPS Powers: Divine Favor is used.

There are some kinds of powers that seem to stand in between those two groups like shamans, the Gjalskerlander Beast-Warrior or the Ferkina Possessed. These special cases are set aside for a consideration at a later time. There might be a space for spirit-based or chi-based powers in DSA, even if the setting calls everything magic or divine agency.

Apart from the supernatural, there isn’t all that much out of the ordinary. Combat-oriented characters can be distinguished by skills, weapons, armour and martial styles. Social structures can be easily described with GURPS terminology, especially if you’re using GURPS Social Engineering. Races are rather straightforward to convert, even though their special legal statuses are often hidden in other publications (DSA doesn’t care for assigning points even to pretty hefty cases of Legal Immunity). Technology is an eclectic mix of TL 0-4 as is typical for fantasy settings, but nothing a base TL can’t handle.

The next part of this series will deal with how to handle the conversion of a setting’s races and give examples for the most important ones in DSA.

The material presented here is my original creation, intended for use with the GURPS system from Steve Jackson Games. This material is not official and is not endorsed by Steve Jackson Games.

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

GURPS DSA – Wirklich eine gute Idee?

This is a German variant of the English article. There isn’t much here that isn’t in the English version.

In der irrigen Annahme, dass jemand aus Deutschland daran interessiert sein könnte, hier noch eine Version des letzten Artikels in der Originalsprache des Schwarzen Auges.

Als langjähriger Freund und Playtester von GURPS habe ich schon manche Konversion unternommen, aber von DSA hatte ich mich immer ferngehalten bis alter Freund mal wieder spielen wollte und wir nach zwei Abenteuern feststellen mussten, dass niemand die Regeln mochte.

Für den geneigten deutschen Leser – d.h. jemanden, dem Pen & Paper Rollenspiele bekannt sind – brauche ich nicht viele Worte um DSA zu machen, aber ein paar Stichpunkte zu den Eigenschaften des Settings sind natürlich nützlich.


1) DSA ist ein dichtes Setting. Nicht jeder Spielleiter – auch nicht jeder GURPS-SL – ist gut im Worlbuilding und DSA hat genug Material, dass so ein Makel nie auffallen wird. Die Welt ist – für eine Fantasywelt – auch nicht zu unlogisch (jaja, die Klimazonen, ich weiß).

2) Der Support mit neuem Material ist sichergestellt. Alte Abenteuer sind auch gut als PDF zu erhalten. Insgesamt ist der Support vergleichbar mit GURPS, wenn auch mit anderer Stoßrichtung (Setting, Abenteuer) und etwas schwankender Qualität.

3) Durch die Abenteuer und das sehr ausgestaltete Setting nimmt DSA dem Spielleiter viel ab. Wer keine vorgefertigten Abenteuer mag, ist natürlich falsch beraten DSA oder eine GURPS-Variante zu seinem System zu erküren.

4) Es gibt jede Menge originelle Charakterkonzepte. Nicht nur vermeidet man den Standard-Krieger und -Magier, Charaktere wie Schelm, Zibilja, Kristallomant oder Geweihter laden zum etwas anderen Rollenspiel ein. Abstimmung mit Gruppe und SL ist dabei natürlich immer wichtig.

5) Die große Fangemeinde macht das Finden von Spielern recht einfach. Ob das auch für die GURPS-Variante zutrifft kann ich nicht sagen, aber eine bestehende DSA-Gruppe zu überzeugen, die GURPS-Regeln auszuprobieren war bei mir machbar.


1) Das Setting kann überwältigend sein. Der prospektive SL sollte sich klar machen, wie nahe er am “offiziellen” Aventurien bleiben will und wie fanatisch seine Spieler auf dem Kanon beharren. Abenteuer sind besonders schlimm in dieser Hinsicht mit ihren Orts- und Zeitbeschränkungen. Jedoch ist es häufig möglich letztere zu umgehen, wenn man den Kleinkram überliest. Ortsbeschränkungen sind dagegen oft nicht zu ändern, auch wenn die Abenteuer es manchmal übertreiben. Hier könnte eine gute Liste Abhilfe schaffen, aber bislang konnte ich noch nichts finden.

2) Über die Regeln kann man einiges sagen, aber viel Gutes ist nicht dabei. Ohne Automatisierung ist die Charaktererstellung ein einziger Horror, die Talent-Probe ist ein schlechter Witz, der aber für 50% des Spiels verantwortlich ist, Sonderfertigkeiten machen aus realistischer Perspektive selten Sinn und Beschränkungen wie Elfische Weltsicht sind einfach blöd. Vieles was an der vierten Edition gut ist (echte Vor- und Nachteile, mehr Kampfoptionen, Variation von Zaubern) wurde von anderen Systeme (v.a. GURPS) mehr schlecht als recht übernommen. Schwer wiegt auch die Tatsache, dass vieles einfach nicht so zum Hintergrund passt wie man ihn aus Romanen und Zitaten kennt.

3) DSA-Fans sind oft recht fanatisch. Einerseits ist das gut, da die Spieler dann nicht schnell die Lust verlieren, andererseits muss man sich als SL oft mal auf die Finger klopfen lassen. Und es ist auch nicht witzig sich von realweltlichen Praioten runterputzen zu lassen, nur weil man eine Hexe in der Gruppe hat.

4) Die Kosten für die Materialien sind hoch. Auch wenn man sich als GURPS-SL auf die Basics beschränken kann wird man doch an Schwerter & Helden, Zauberei & Hexenwerk, Götter & Dämonen und einigen Hintergrundwerken nicht vorbei kommen. Selbst als PDF laufen diese drei veralteten “Grund”regelwerke auf 60€ heraus. Das (gerade noch) aktuelle Wege-Paket schlägt sohar mit 90€ zu Buche. Und damit sind noch nicht die Hintergrüne und Abenteuer abgedeckt. Okay, GURPS ist auch nicht gerade billig, aber die Vielzahl von DSA-Regionalbänden kann den Erwerb recht teuer machen (zumal nicht alle als PDF vorhanden sind).

5) Der Sprach-Mix macht’s schwer. Die vierte Edition von GURPS gibt es nur auf Englisch und DSA gibt es praktisch nur auf Deutsch. Ich muss tatsächlich mal nachfragen, ob es legal ist Übersetzungen zu posten. DSA mit englischen Skills und Disadvantages zu spielen macht jedenfalls nicht soviel Spaß.


Warum sollte man sich überhaupt an einer Konversion versuchen? Da gibt es durchaus Gründe dafür:

1) Etwas, das GURPS immer wieder Probleme bereitet, ist das Fehlen detaillierter Settings. Ja, es gibt die Infinite Worlds, in die man jedes Setting einbetten kann. Sowohl für Infinite Worlds als auch für Banestorm gibt es sogar eine kleine Quellenbücher, aber das war’s dann auch schon, wenn man sich nicht auf Transhuman Space und dessen Übergang von 3. auf 4. Edition einlassen will. GURPS ist nichts für SLs, die ein komplettes Setting mit allen wichtigen NSCs, detaillierten Stadtbeschreibungen und einer fortlaufenden Timeline erwarten. Das heisst aber nicht, dass jeder GURPS-SL ständig nur eigene Sachen erfinden will. Manchmal ist es auch einfach schön sich einfach auf eine existierende Welt einzulassen.

2) DSA ist, im Gegensatz zu Spaßvögeln wie D&D und Rifts, einfach zu konvertieren. Ja, es gibt viel Material, aber vieles davon braucht keine Spielwerte. Es gibt nicht in jedem dritten Buch zwanzig neue Rassen und Monster. Das Regelsystem versucht realistisch zu sein (Attacken und Paraden, Rüstungen, die tatsächlich Schaden aufhalten, keine arbiträren “3 x pro Tag”-Kräfte, energiebasierte Zauber und so weiter und so fort. Wenn man sich von der inneraventurischen Wirklichkeit leiten lässt, so muss man nicht alle Heldentypen konvertieren, sondern kann sich auf den gesunden Menschenverstand der Spieler verlassen. Natürlich sind Magie und Götterwirken eine Ausnahme. Natürlich müssen Rassen und Kreaturen Stats haben, aber das ist kein unüberwindliches Problem.

3) GURPS macht DSA tatsächlich besser. Techlevel, Vertrautheiten, Martial-Arts-Stile, Göttliche Gnade, detaillierte Rüstungen, Regeln für Höhlenforschung, ausgewogene Vor- und Nachteile, realistische Fertigkeiten, Start mit erfahrenen Charakteren und vieles mehr.

Nicht so schönes

Einige Sachen komplizieren die Konversion:

1) GURPS Magic braucht nach all den Jahren immer noch ein Patch. Eines der wenigen Büchern, bei denen die Qualität auf der Strecke blieb.

2) Es gibt immer noch kein aktuelles GURPS Bestiarium. Man kann aber auf andere Publikationen und die alte Version zurückgreifen.

3) Gibt es überhaupt ein Interesse daran. Klar mache ich das sowieso für meine Gruppe, aber es wäre schon schön zu wissen, dass andere auch daran Interesse hätten. Warum sollte man’s sonst posten? Kommentare sind also sehr willkommen.

Für’s Erste wird das der letzte GURPS DSA Artikel in deutscher Sprache sein. Vielleicht schreibe ich ja noch Übersetzungen für die folgenden Artikel, wenn ich ein paar Hits aus Deutschland kriege. Bei Kommentaren schreib ich definitiv was.

The material presented here is my original creation, intended for use with the GURPS system from Steve Jackson Games. This material is not official and is not endorsed by Steve Jackson Games.

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