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.

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