Discworld Roleplaying Game Review

In 2015, the world mourned the passing of British author Sir Terry Pratchett. He wrote the Discworld series, which spans over 40 books and combines imaginative fantasy, brilliant satire, and hilarious characters that have enthralled readers for decades.

Discworld Roleplaying Game cover
Discworld Roleplaying Game

Now readers can return to Pratchett’s world and continue the adventures of their beloved characters through the Discworld Roleplaying Game. Written by Terry Pratchett and Phil Masters, Discworld Roleplaying Game is a standalone RPG based on the fourth edition of GURPS, the Generic Universal Roleplaying System published by Steve Jackson Games. It was released in November 2016.

As of this writing, the Discworld Roleplaying Game is available as a hardcover book but not as a PDF. The interior is black & white, with line illustrations on most pages. It retails for $39.95.

Discworld Roleplaying Game is a long book—408 pages—and this review is likewise lengthy. If you are just interested in the verdict, scroll down to the bottom of this post.

Introduction

The book opens with a two page introduction that briefly summarizes what roleplaying games are, followed by the GURPS-standard Publication History and About the Authors. There’s not much to say about this section. The explanation of roleplaying games is clear and treads familiar ground.

On the Back of Four Elephants…

The first chapter title refers to Discworld, Pratchett’s fictional world that is supported by elephants floating through space on the back of a great turtle. In 14 pages, this chapter introduces the importance of story (including the element narrativium), Discworld history and geography, and world elements like different races, technology, and magic.

There’s no substitute for actually reading Pratchett, but this chapter does a good job of sketching out the fundamentals of the Disc’s reality. Just like every Discworld novel introduces new elements, every campaign will need to go beyond this cursory overview. But, as long as the gamemaster has read Discworld novels, this summary will help remind them of the tone and worldbuilding fundamentals.

The discussion of how story functions in Discworld is particularly valuable. It can be challenging to figure out how to play within the sandbox of an author’s world; this section does a good job of welcoming players to participate in Pratchett’s playground.

Making Characters

Chapter two is dedicated to GURPS character creation, and it’s big—a solid 63 pages. This chapter covers character points, attributes, social background, wealth and influence, advantages, disadvantages, and skills.

The book presents three ranges for possible Discworld adventurers, from pawns that run 25-75 points to large heroes and wizards at 250+ points. The power level of Discworld characters feels true to the books.

The discussion of basic attributes and secondary characteristics is brief and matches the Basic Set. The sections on reputation, social stigma, and status have more detail than the Basic Set, reflecting how frequently these themes are invoked in Discworld stories.

There’s also a brief discussion of tech levels from 0 (Stone Age) to 5 (Steam Age), including where those tech levels are represented on the Disc. Although the character creation section on tech levels is well-written, there is no corresponding section that explains the impact of different tech levels on success rolls like Basic Set p. B168. That seems like an oversight; the “crunch” aspect of specified tech levels is included without the mechanical support to implement that crunch.

The lists of advantages, disadvantages, and skills are substantially pared down from the full list in the Basic Set, and the selected traits strike a good balance between being comprehensive and being manageable. The skills section is organized differently than the Basic Set. Many skills are grouped into categories (e.g., academic skills, which encompass things like astronomy, history, and mathematics; melee weapon skills; and movement skills such as acrobatics and running). These categories are helpful for making the skill list appear less lengthy.

However, the book does not have a full trait list as in Basic Set pp. 297-306 or the character cheat sheets that appear in the worked genre books (Dungeon Fantasy, Action, Monster Hunters, and After the End). That list would be very helpful for reference during character creation, especially for new GURPS players, so readers wouldn’t have to skim the entirety of this lengthy chapter to find out what their character options are.

Nonhuman and Occupational Templates

One of the most common ways to simplify character creation in GURPS is by using templates. Templates define many of the character traits for a particular race or professional niche, reducing the number of decisions that players need to make in order to produce a playable character. The third chapter gives an exhaustive list of templates: 17 racial templates ranging from domestic cats to zombies, and 38 occupational templates spanning the entire power level spectrum from a tourist to small gods.

The template list is comprehensive; players should be able to find a starting point for any character type that would fit into the Discworld universe. This chapter also contains suggestions for adapting templates to related character types (for instance, turning a Merchant into a small-time professional in a different field). The one drawback is that there is no single list of the template options, so readers will have to flip through the whole chapter to see what templates are available.

The templates comprise the bulk of this chapter, but there is also a lengthy section on traits that are appropriate for nonhumans, such as brachiator for apes swinging on vines. While it’s helpful to have these traits separated out for reading purposes, it can be confusing to know which section contains a specific trait when you are looking up trait-specific rules.

This chapter is 62 pages of mostly crunch, but it’s the kind of crunch that is helpful to new GURPS players. The writing also makes the crunch accessible; the template descriptions (especially for the racial templates) do a good job of capturing the diversity of the Discworld cast as well as the quirks that permeate the character types.

Going Shopping

The equipment chapter is relatively straightforward. The weapons lists cover the standard options represented in Discworld: there are swords and clubs, but only a primitive (TL4) spring gun and no laser swords or heavy artillery. For armour, this chapter takes a much more abstract approach than Basic Set. Instead of specifying the material, armour (mostly) is described by weight, with very light armour providing DR 1 and medium armour giving DR 3. The heaviest armour is jousting plate, at DR 7.

Non-fighting equipment is covered briefly in a list of “normal” equipment. Separately, there are descriptions of Disc-specific technology like broomsticks and thaumometers. The Disc-specific tech is mostly fluff, but it echoes some of the iconic “stuff” of Discworld novels.

Doing Stuff

Chapter 5 gets into the mechanics of GURPS play: success rolls, reaction rolls, combat, injury and fatigue, and magic. There’s a lot covered in these 56 pages.

The description of success rolls is concise. But, there’s a major hole: there’s no list of task difficulty modifiers like Basic Set pp. B345-346. Without a framework for what modifiers mean, the GM has no guidance on how to set penalties and bonuses when there aren’t specific rules. The chapter instead includes a lot of specific rules from Basic Set to handle running, swimming, and other physical/mental feats, which might strike new players as a rules-overload.

The combat section effectively condenses down a lot of material into a streamlined format. These rules jettison a lot of detail for special combat situations, simplify map-based combat into rough sketches, and simplify the attack and defense modifiers to roughly a half page each. The shortened version feels a lot more accessible than the Basic Set‘s version of combat.

The magic rules are well constructed. The basic premise is that there is a master Magic skill along with eight Magical Forms skills that cover types of magic, such as Divination for getting information magically and Physiomancy for manipulating living things. Casters work magic at a skill penalty depending on how complex the magical effect is, and spend magic points (MP) to make their castings more powerful. So, the end result is something close to realm magic and effect shaping magic, rather than the spell-list-driven version of magic in the Basic Set and Magic. This is perfect for the Discworld, where magic is tied to storytelling rather than formulaic principles, and the eight magical forms capture the varieties of magic seen in Discworld novels well. There’s even a distinction between wizard and witch magic that feels at home in Pratchett’s world. Finally, the rules for blocking spells fill a gap in GURPS’ approach to magic: now a blocking spell can be cast as an active defense option instead of requiring prepared charms or other anticipatory magic.

The chapter ends with two pages on running the game. It includes a basic description of what the GM does during a session, how to create NPCs with short stat blocks, and how players are expected to share the spotlight and help tell the story together.

Life and Lands

Chapter 6 marks a significant change in tone. The previous chapters were filled with GURPS rules; the following chapters provide the narrative background to immerse yourself in the Discworld universe. These chapters contain minor spoilers for many Discworld novels, but don’t let that frighten you away. The emphasis is on themes, episodes from history, and the world at large.

Readers will quickly feel at home as they digest the development of the clacks, the attitudes between dwarfs and trolls, and the traditions of the Uberwaldian aristocracy. There have been hints of Pratchett’s satire and humor throughout the book, but in this chapter that style of language takes center stage, and it’s done quite well. The sentence structure, ironic appositives, and descriptions capture the essence of Pratchett’s writing without feeling forced or overdone.

There’s some overlap between the content of this chapter, chapter 1 (introducing the Disc and its narrative style) and chapter 4 (on nonhuman races), but since the focus is on fluff rather than crunch it’s not a problem.

“Welcome to Ankh-Morpork”

Continuing the focus on narrative background, chapter 7 surveys the city of Ankh-Morpork. The reader is introduced to the Patrician, the Watch, many of the city guilds, and more. Like chapter 6, this chapter treads familiar ground for Discworld readers.

The only criticism of the Discworld story-focused chapters is that the writing is more descriptive than hook-based. In other words, these chapters recount what is in the Discworld universe, but they don’t pose explicit adventure hooks to inspire GMs in their campaign creation. This emphasis on description rather than hooks is common to GURPS worldbooks, but compared to other RPG products it’s a slight negative.

The Supernatural Side

This chapter continues the narrative background of Discworld, exploring the general function of magic, the Unseen University, creatures like Death and the Auditors that exist outside the normal life of the Disc, and the various pantheons that Discworlders worship.

It’s difficult to fully separate the mechanics of magic from the story-based flavor, and there are some descriptions of magic in chapter 5 that lean heavily on cross-references to this chapter. Aside from that quibble, this chapter effectively summarizes what the supernatural looks like in the Discworld universe.

“Suicidally Gloomy When Sober, Homicidally Insane When Drunk”

Of course, Discworld wouldn’t be the amazing series of novels it is without the characters. From the Patrician to Commander Samuel Vines, Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler to Archchancellor Ridcully, this chapter describes many of the central (and less central but no less interesting) characters that make up Discworld society.

The character profiles contain some helpful suggestions for GMs. For instance, the Patrician’s description gives hints for how to handle his competence at almost everything, and GMs are encouraged to use Susan Sto Helit as a stabilizing force in the plot (which should ring a bell to readers of Thief of Time).

Beware the Ambiguous Puzuma

Chapter 10 covers the creatures of the Disc. Cats, elephants, dragons, and dryads are just some of the fauna in this brief chapter. This chapter has a combination of narrative descriptions as well as creatures with stat blocks. There’s enough variety to cover the animal needs for most Discworld campaigns.

Bad Food, No Sleep, and Strange People

The final chapter of the book discusses how to run campaigns in the Discworld universe. The chapter begins with advice about how to set the tone of the campaign, including the kinds of comedy that don’t play well with Pratchett’s world. There is also a discussion of campaign types and themes, as well as some specific adventure hooks.

A large portion of the chapter is devoted to a sample campaign setting: the Brown Islands, a harbor for the increasing number of merchants and seafarers traveling to and from the Counterweight Contingent. In addition to worldbuilding advice, there are eight scenario seeds to begin an adventure.

The Brown Islands is a rich campaign setting, but the chapter also includes a half dozen or so additional settings and scenario ideas. These settings are presented as brief vignettes with some ideas to get a campaign started.

The 34 pages of this chapter are gold for GMs that want to run a Discworld game but need some direction to get started.

End Matter

Discworld Roleplaying Game concludes with a glossary, bibliography, and index. The index is thorough and has a couple of humorous notes (look up Monkeys). Unlike other GURPS books, the index is broken into two parts: a main index and a traits index. The traits index is less useful than the traits list in Basic Set or the worked genre series: it is not comprehensive and many entries point back to the main index. It would have been better to integrate the two indices entirely or to have a separate comprehensive traits list (my preference).

Interior Layout and Artwork

While most GURPS hardcovers are full-color books, the staff at SJ Games decided to use black & white interior art for the Discworld Roleplaying Game in order to keep down the cost for such a large book. I’m a big fan of quality RPG art, so I was prepared to be disappointed by this choice. However, the line style of art looks great in black & white. The illustrations take fantasy images and give them a subtle humorous twist, which perfectly matches the tone of Pratchett’s world.

The text is laid out in two columns, which works well in printed formats. (It’s less convenient to read as a PDF, but Discworld Roleplaying Game is so far only available in print). The text is easily readable. The biggest shortcoming in the layout is that GURPS template blocks are difficult to parse because of run-on lines and dense paragraphs of trait options. Experienced GURPS players will be used to the format, but it is intimidating for new players. I also find it hard to tell when I’m looking at a chapter subheading versus a sub-subheading—I can see the difference but don’t know which is supposed to be the higher level—which is a weakness across the GURPS line.

Overall Review

The Discworld Roleplaying Game has several audiences. The first audience is experienced GURPS players that are Discworld fans. For this group, Discworld Roleplaying Game is an excellent product. The Discworld elements are done well: from echoing Pratchett’s writing style and sense of humor to including the world background to play within the Discworld universe, the book is nearly flawless. The GURPS-based elements are also solid for this audience: as long as the players are familiar with GURPS conventions, this book has everything they need to start playing, and they can fill in any gaps with a quick reference to the Basic Set.

For GURPS players that are not—yet—Discworld fans, this book still has much to offer. The advice about using humor and tone in campaigns will be helpful to many GMs, and the magic system is a compelling alternative to the standard system in the Basic Set. The comprehensive collection of templates can also be used to jump-start character creation in a variety of settings. This book isn’t a must-buy for gamers that don’t plan to adventure on the Disc, but it’s a good addition to the libraries of gamemasters and tinkerers.

One of the goals of having a standalone roleplaying product is to introduce new players to GURPS. For Discworld fans that have played in other systems but are new to GURPS, this book is a good starting point. The streamlined rules, especially for combat and magic, make GURPS far less intimidating, and the broad variety of templates dramatically simplify the character creation process. There are a few things that could have been done to make Discworld Roleplaying Game even more attractive to this audience: the lack of comprehensive lists for traits or templates, as well as the omission of task difficulty modifiers, will impact this group more than people already familiar with GURPS. But, the overall tone will quickly immerse fans in the Discworld storyline, making it worthwhile to learn the GURPS-specific rules. Gamers that want to play in Pratchett’s world should definitely take advantage of this RPG realization of the Disc.

For Discworld fans that are new roleplayers, this book is good but not great. This audience will find the same shortcomings as the experienced roleplayers, but they may also need more guidance on what exactly a roleplaying game is. The introductory material is very brief, and a scene or two of actual play would make a big difference for this audience. In addition, this group may need more support for building a campaign than is provided in chapter 11. Having said that, roleplaying games are often difficult to learn just from books, and now the rulebooks can be supplemented with blogs, actual play podcasts and streams, and online or in-person communities. In addition, the Discworld focus on narrative—and the way Discworld Roleplaying Game brings narrativium into the gaming experience—makes the Discworld a great place for new players to cut their teeth on roleplaying.

Overall, the Discworld Roleplaying Game is a solid contribution to Sir Pratchett’s legacy. This book promises adventurers inspired by one of the great storytellers of the last century, and I can’t wait to hear the History Monks recount the tales of my campaign as our game builds on the Disc’s rich and hilarious tales.

 

The Rules-Light GURPS Shopping Guide

GURPS has a wide variety of published rulebooks, and the list of PDF supplements is one of the largest in the industry. As a result, it can be overwhelming for new players to determine what books to get. Many of the books offer specialized rules for specific genres, abilities, or settings, but some resources are useful across a wide variety of games. This post will highlight GURPS books that are useful to the rules light crowd.

If you are curious about GURPS but fear that the rules are intimidating, this list will point you towards rulebooks that support streamlined, simple mechanics.

As a bonus: until 15 December 2016, Steve Jackson Games is running a GURPS PDF special. All GURPS PDFs are 40% off! If you’ve been thinking about getting started with GURPS, or adding some books to your collection, now is the time!

GURPS Basic Set: Characters and Campaigns

GURPS Basic Set
GURPS Basic Set

If you want to play GURPS, the two volume Basic Set is all you truly need. You can create your characters, build settings, run campaigns, engage in combat, and do all the core elements of roleplaying from these two books. Volume 1, Characters, covers the rules for building and equipping player characters; Volume 2, Campaigns, focuses on running the game, resolving actions, and interacting with the world at large.

When reading the Basic Set, remember that the core rules of the game are simple: there are success rolls, reaction rolls, and damage rolls. Everything else is optional detail, and it can be changed or ignored as appropriate for your game.

GURPS Action 2: Exploits

GURPS Action 2: Exploits
GURPS Action 2: Exploits

Action 2: Exploits is officially the GM book for faced-paced action hero games. Unofficially, this is one of the most useful GM supplements—period. Exploits contains advice on stock adventuring skills, tips for quick-and-dirty difficulty estimates, and guidelines for different phases of adventures, from setting the narrative hook through cleaning up afterwards.

For rules light games, Exploits has particularly valuable suggestions on using difficulty modifiers to set the difficulty for adventure scenes, using complimentary skills to overcome larger challenges, and what rules options to turn off in order to keep up the pace.

GURPS Thaumatology: Ritual Path Magic

GURPS Thaumatology: Ritual Path Magic cover
GURPS Thaumatology: Ritual Path Magic

Ritual path magic, or RPM, is a great rules light alternative to the default GURPS magic system. Magic in the Basic Set (and in the GURPS Magic supplement) is a skill-based system that has lots of pre-built spells. The drawback is that each spell is its own effect, and there are a number of rules for different types of spells that need to be learned as well.

By contrast, RPM is based on a simple casting system. Players create their intended spells by describing the spell effects. The spell description determines how much energy the spell requires, and then the character gathers the energy using the appropriate magic skill.

How to Be a GURPS GM

How to Be a GURPS GM cover
How to Be a GURPS GM

How to Be a GURPS GM is a crash course in running roleplaying games in GURPS. It walks a new (or new-to-GURPS) game master through how to set up a campaign, direct character creation, build encounters, and run the adventure.

For gamers that want to run a rules-light version of GURPS, there’s a lot of advice about which game options to use (and what to turn off). The advice is particularly detailed for adjusting combat complexity, which is valuable because combat can be one of the more overwhelming parts of GURPS games.

Other Resources

Of course, one of the benefits of all the GURPS publications is that there are worked examples of almost any situation you can imagine. If you want inspiration for running a social encounter-heavy game, GURPS Social Engineering awaits. If you want to play a game with psionic abilities, just turn to GURPS Psionic Powers. There are books for genres (including fantasy, horror, superheroes, steampunk), books for technology and equipment (if you want to play a stone-age survival campaign or a futuristic space war), and just about anything else you can imagine.

If you’ve wanted to see how GURPS can handle any particular type of game, the GURPS PDF sale is a great opportunity to expand your collection. Again, all GURPS PDFs are 40% off at Warehouse 23, the online store for Steve Jackson Games.

And, if you have other GURPS books to recommend—especially for rules light gaming!—please share them in the comments.

GURPS Thaumatology: Ritual Path Magic Review

There are a lot of ways for magic to function in game worlds. If you like the idea of wizards and witches that are not limited to specific spell lists, then ritual path magic may be the system for you. GURPS Thaumatology: Ritual Path Magic, by Jason “PK” Levine, is a 54 page supplement that outlines rules for casting magic by gathering energy from the environment and shaping that energy into spell effects.

Learning Magic

Harry Dresden, a prototypical example of a ritual path magic caster
Harry Dresden, the protagonist of The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher, is a prototypical example of a ritual path magic caster

The first section, on the character traits that go into ritual path magic (RPM) casters, totals 10 pages. There are four major traits that make up RPM characters: the core skill of Thaumatology, the specific path skills that the caster specializes in, the Magery advantage, and the Ritual Adept advantage.

In the standard GURPS magic system, magic users learn each spell as a separate skill. By contrast, RPM casters can learn just a single skill: Thaumatology. This skill allows the caster to attempt any spell, although there are severe penalties for attempts at default.

Most casters will choose to specialize in one or more paths of study. Ritual path magic uses nine path skills—domains of expertise, such as Path of Body for interacting with living creatures, Path of Energy for manipulating light, heat, and kinetics, and Path of Magic for interacting with mystical forces. Between the nine paths, almost any effect can be created, and the GM is welcome to choose alternate paths to reflect the ontology of his or her world.

To be more effective, RPM casters will usually take the Ritual Adept advantage. Ritual Adept speeds up the casting process significantly, and it also eliminates a variety of casting restrictions such as having to use a consecrated space or needing a connection with the spell’s subject. In practice, a RPM caster without Ritual Adept will be extremely limited or will need to absorb large casting penalties.

Finally, Magery (Ritual Path) works differently than in standard magic. Instead of increasing the effective skill for spells (like a Talent), RPM Magery increases the skill cap on path skills, provides a larger mana reserve for casting, and allows casters to have more conditional spells (which are spells that have been prepared ahead of time and can be triggered at will).

The character traits that make up RPM are clean and elegant. Compared to the long and cumbersome spell list for regular magic, ritual path magic is accessible, logical, and simple.

Performing Magic

The second chapter, on performing ritual path magic, is 9 pages long. There is a lot packed into this chapter, but the basic casting process is straightforward. First, the caster determines what effect he or she will create, and therefore calculates the total energy cost of the spell. Second, the caster determines the relevant skill for the spell. Third, the caster gathers energy, from a combination of path skill rolls, mana reserves, sacrificing HP or FP, and specialized artifacts. Finally, once the energy has been gathered, the caster makes a success roll in order to actually cast the spell.

The first part—defining the ritual—is unique to RPM. Because the spell effects are not determined in advance, the caster’s player and the GM need to define what the spell is. To do so, they will build the casting out of the categories of spell effects.

There are seven kinds of spell effects, ranging from the simple sense effects to powerful manipulation effects like create or transform. Each effect has an energy cost. For instance, creating an itch would require a Control effect from the Path of Body, for a base cost of 5 energy.

The base cost can be modified in a number of ways: by adding bonuses or penalties to the subject, by changing the range or damage, etc. For particularly unnatural effects (like creating lightning from a clear sky), the GM can multiply the spell’s cost by requiring a Greater effect.

Once the spell’s energy cost is determined, the player needs to determine what path skill to use for the casting, which will be the lowest path skill involved in the ritual. The player also determines penalties if the caster does not have Ritual Adept or Magery (Ritual Path).

Step 3, acquiring the energy, is usually the most time-consuming part of RPM casting (in game time, and sometimes in real time). The caster rolls against his or her effective path skill; the margin of success determines how many energy points he or she gathers. Many spells will require multiple gatherings, and each attempt to gather energy takes five seconds (or five minutes for non-adept casters!). The caster can also gather energy by tapping a mana reserve or sacrificing HP/FP.

Once the final point of energy is gathered, the caster makes a final success roll against his or her effective path skill in order to cast the spell.

There’s a lot packed into this chapter, and unfortunately the system requires some page-flipping to find the relevant modifiers. Casting the spell uses the modifiers under Choose the Skill; Acquire the Energy uses both the Choose the Skill and Acquire the Energy modifiers. However, the system itself is very straightforward, and after a few castings the process flows much more smoothly.

Advanced Magic

Advanced Magic, the third chapter, is also the longest at 14 pages. It covers a range of rules for using RPM effectively. Since RPM castings require multiple seconds of game time, there are specialized rules for “blocking” spells and prepared rituals called “conditional rituals” that can be unleashed in a moment. There are also rules for charms and elixers, castings in places of power and with the support of magical grimores, and suggestions for alternative sets of paths.

This chapter isn’t mandatory, but it’s hard to imagine a RPM game that wouldn’t want to use at least some of these rules.

The Grimore

The fourth chapter is a 13-page list of example castings. The samples give a good idea of how flexible ritual path magic is. GMs in particular should read through this list to get an intuitive feel for how to use spell effects to create casting rituals, as well as when to use greater effects in rituals.

Appendix: Botches and Quirks

The last two pages of content list example botches and quirks that the GM can impose on spellcasters. When the caster fails his or her rolls to gather energy for the spell, the result is a complication in the spell. These can be minor quirks, such as nominal damage or visible indications of your casting, or they can be serious bursts of uncontrolled magical energy. The GM is free to create their own botches and quirks; the appendix provides some ideas that the GM can use in their campaigns.

Summary

GURPS Thaumatology: Ritual Path Magic cover
GURPS Thaumatology: Ritual Path Magic

Ritual Path Magic has quickly become one of the most popular alternate magic systems for GURPS, and it’s easy to see why. For a generic, universal system, the basic GURPS magic rules feel cumbersome and fiddly. By contrast, ritual path magic is truly universal—the casters can create any effect, and the rules don’t require elaborate prerequisite chains or idiosyncratic spell descriptions.

The Thaumatology: Ritual Path Magic supplement is a great foundation for this approach to magic. The system is well designed and the rules cover most of the common situations that GMs will need to handle. There are some sections that are very dense with modifiers and occasional sections that are edited down so concisely that they require too much page turning to find the relevant information. But, presentation and layout issues aside, the volume as a whole is a good value.

As with any ruleset, there are advantages and drawbacks. The biggest negative to RPM is that it requires GM oversight to make sure that players don’t create world-shattering effects. It’s not a difficult task, but for new GMs or GMs that have to corral min-maxing players, RPM may be too demanding. However, it is a lot easier to learn the RPM system than the basic magic system, so it may be simpler for a GM to become comfortable with RPM than to master the more convoluted aspects of basic GURPS magic.

GURPS Thaumatology: Ritual Path Magic is available as a PDF download from Warehouse 23 for $9.99.

Power-Ups 7: Wildcard Skills Review

GURPS is a skill-based system, but sometimes it is helpful to simplify the skill system. Whether you are playing with newer players who might be intimidated by a long skill list, creating NPCs on the fly that need appropriate skill levels, or simply want to make sure that you didn’t overlook something on your character sheet, wildcard skills are a way to do that.

GURPS Power-Ups 7: Wildcard Skills, by Sean Punch, greatly expands on the Basic Set‘s rules about wildcard skills. In the Basic Set, wildcard skills are introduced in a brief sidebar as skills that cover “extremely broad categories of abilities” (p. B175). In this volume, Punch elaborates on what wildcard skills are, how to incorporate them into the campaign, and what kinds of wildcard skills are possible.

Power-Ups 7: Wildcard Skills is 39 pages and is available from Warehouse 23 (SJ Games’ online store) for $7.99.

Defining Wildcards

The first chapter, Defining Wildcards, makes up about half of the supplement’s size. It reiterates the basic information about wildcard skills, including their point cost and scope, in the first few pages. In short, wildcard skills are skills denoted with an exclamation mark (like Pilot! or Science!). A character that has a wildcard skill is assumed to have any relevant abilities that would be included within the wildcard ability—so a super-science genius could take Science! instead of Biology, Chemistry, Physics, etc. This shortcut allows for dramatically simpler character sheets.

Then, the chapter gets into new information: advice for GMs about what wildcard skills to permit, how many wildcard skills to allow, and how to manage the scope of wildcard skills. The suggestions are clear, and seeing them all grouped together provides a variety of ideas for GMs who are uncertain how to use wildcards appropriately.

For GMs who are especially concerned about balance, Power-Ups 7 goes into the logic behind the target scope for wildcard skills and gives some optional suggestions for more nuanced scope, based on whether the wildcard skill is replacing Easy skills, Hard skills, or Very Hard skills (or a combination thereof). This section is probably too pedantic to be workable in an actual game—if you’re tabulating the skill replacements that closely, you might as well just use the actual skills—but it’s good food for thought when GMs need to think about how broad wildcard skills should be in a given campaign.

The following section, Additional Benefits, introduces new rules for giving mechanical bonuses to characters with wildcard skills. The motivation for this section is that wildcard skills cost a lot to compensate for their breadth, and so characters that invest in wildcard skills should be rewarded for that choice. The bonuses include eliminating familiarity penalties of all kinds and including relevant perks for free.

The most interesting of the new rules is the Wildcard Points (WP) mechanic. Players whose characters have wildcard skills receive WP based on how many points they put into wildcard skills; these WP can in turn be spent on meta-game bonuses such as buying successes or letting players determine the narrative outcome of a successful roll (e.g., by determining there is a clue present if the player rolled against an Investigation! skill). The mechanics are similar to the rules in GURPS Monster Hunters and GURPS Power-Ups 5: Impulse Buys for letting the players spend points to influence the narrative in-game; if that mechanic appeals to you, Wildcard Points are a great way to incorporate it into your game.

Using Wildcards

Chapter 2, Using Wildcards, is quite short at only 5 pages. It includes some more GM advice about how to decide what wildcards to allow in the campaign, how to use wildcards during success rolls (including restrictions, difficulty levels, and other mechanical questions), and some ideas for how to run a campaign that uses only wildcard skills—no normal skills at all!

All of the rules in this chapter are optional; they show the variety of ways that wildcard skills can be incorporated into a game. The bottom line is that GM judgment matters for wildcards, but this chapter gives some good suggestions to help GMs develop that judgment.

This chapter feels a little unbalanced compared to the rest of the volume. It is much shorter than chapter 1, and some of the GM advice feels repetitive. There may have been a better division of those two chapters between character creation/pre-game advice and in-game rules. However, the content in the chapter is still well thought out.

Examples

The final chapter is titled “Examples,” and as the name suggests, it is a list of example wildcard skills. For each wildcard skill, it describes the skills that the wildcard replaces, suggests benefits that make sense for that wildcard, and identifies where else the wildcard skill has appeared in previous GURPS publications.

The list of examples is long, at 18 pages, and it covers a wide variety of niches, genres, and skill sets. Having all the wildcard skills in one place is useful both for tracking down wildcards, as well as browsing for inspiration.

Summary

GURPS Power-Ups 7: Wildcard Skills cover
GURPS Power-Ups 7: Wildcard Skills

GURPS Power-Ups 7: Wildcard Skills is a great resource for expanding the use of wildcard skills. GMs will find excellent advice for structuring how wildcard skills function in their campaigns. Players can use this volume for ideas of how wildcard skills can be used and what they can cover.

This volume is not intended to be a single worked example or ruleset: the reader is expected to make decisions about what elements to incorporate into their games. Some of the options are designed to streamline the game, while other options add new mechanics, crunch, and character creation decisions. As a result, there is probably something for everyone in this volume. The material is most relevant for GMs because of the volume of advice for how to think about wildcard skills before the game begins.

For GMs interested in rules-light games, Power-Ups 7 is helpful in thinking through how wildcard skills can streamline character creation and skill lists. Players interested in rules-lite games can benefit from the lengthy list of examples, but the optional rules may be too much to filter through unless they are experienced GURPS players.

Overall, Power-Ups 7 is a valuable addition to the GURPS library. It is not a mandatory supplement, but it takes a good idea from the Basic Set and works through a number of options for how to apply it. If you are interested in building characters with wildcard skills, finding interesting ways to reward players for using wildcard skills, or making the wildcard skills in templated characters more fun to play, this book will be useful.

Template Toolkit 1: Characters Review

Just because you can build your characters from scratch doesn’t mean you have to! One of the ways that GURPS allows players to simplify character creation is through the use of templates. This post will review the most detailed treatment of templates to date: Template Toolkit 1: Characters.

GURPS Template Toolkit 1: Characters
GURPS Template Toolkit 1: Characters

Template Toolkit 1: Characters dramatically expands on the treatment of templates from Chapter 7 of the Basic Set. As the title implies, it focuses on templates for individual characters (as opposed to racial templates). Because of how characters are constructed in GURPS, there are lots of similarities between GURPS character templates and the way other RPGs use character classes. However, this volume doesn’t require the GM to run GURPS as a class-based RPG; it aims for a more modest goal of simplifying character creation by consolidating the choices necessary to make specific character types.

This 48-page PDF supplement is available from Steve Jackson Games for $9.99. The book is written by Sean Punch, the GURPS line editor. It contains four chapters, starting with what templates are and working into more sophisticated ways to think about using templates in games.

What Are Character Templates

The first chapter is a four page crash course on character templates. It identifies several different ways that templates can function: for occupational roles, dramatic niches, or cultural backgrounds. It asks several question to help GMs decide whether templates should be mandatory or optional for their campaigns, and gives tips for how to adjust the scope of the templates in light of that decision. Finally, there is a full page of reasons to use character templates.

Designing Character Templates

Chapter 2, which runs for 14 pages, gets into the theory of template design. This chapter is structured as a series of considerations that GMs should use to guide their thinking, ranging from character concept to campaign demands to player needs to point optimization.

This chapter is a lesson on the mechanics of RPG character creation. GMs who want to improve their ability to facilitate character creation, as well as players who want to create more effective and cohesive characters, will benefit from this chapter regardless of whether or not they end up using templates in their games. While the ideas in this chapter are not particularly innovative, they are explained clearly. For more experienced GMs, this chapter can easily be skimmed as a checklist for character creation.

For GMs who want to run GURPS as a class-based RPG, the advice on mandatory templates is helpful. Using fully mandatory templates (and only letting the players select their character quirks) allows the GM to create the experience of a purely class-based RPG. For more flexibility, the GM can make the class choices a mandatory part of the template but reserve additional points for the player to customize the character.

Unfortunately, there are no worked examples in this chapter, which would have been helpful in seeing ideas translated into template content. It would have been nice to see a worked example as a case study spanning the chapter, much like Basic Set uses Dai Blackthorn as a running example of character creation.

Tricks of the Trade

The 13 pages of the third chapter get into the options that can be put into character templates, as well as the assumptions that can be hidden behind a template.

Two of the options—choices and lenses—will be familiar to anyone who has read a GURPS worked genre line, such as Dungeon Fantasy or Action. Choices allow the players to choose among pre-selected options for how to allocate points in their character build. Lenses are packages that add color to the template by showing a set of traits that work well together in order to model a specific niche, background, or other element of a character.

Hidden traits are a new idea. In short, hidden traits are zero-cost traits or unusual backgrounds that give depth to a character, along the lines of zero point features. While the idea is interesting, the explanation seems overly convoluted in the book.

The section on template optimal abilities includes a variety of suggestions to help align the traits on templates with specific dramatic or occupational roles. Using higher purpose, talents, or perks, templates can give bonuses to a variety of abilities that fall within the purview of the template even if there’s no single trait that captures the precise boundaries of the template. Wildcard skills, template-defining powers, and accessibility limits to advantages can also allow the GM to more closely align the template’s game purpose with the abilities, as defined by the rules, of the template in question.

For example: instead of trying to figure out the perfect skill package for a field detective, the template can simply include the wildcard skill Field Detective! A pyromancer template can include a Higher Purpose (Destructive Use of Fire) to characterize the “let it burn” attitude behind the template. These kinds of dramatically-driven, rather than trait-driven, elements make it easier to define the boundaries of the template in mechanical terms.

The penultimate section is on template-guided improvement, which simply means using templates to show how a character can progress. The GM can offer template options for players to purchase in order to develop their character by adding a lens, learning from a pre-defined spell progression, etc.

The chapter ends with a full write-up of an example template for a Soldier. This template showcases many of the features described so far, including choices within advantages, disadvantages, and skills, background skill options, optional lenses that double as template-guided improvements, and a full column of customization notes to guide players in using the template.

The lengthy template example, unfortunately, reinforces how intimidating GURPS stat blocks can be to read. While it’s understandable that the editors want to consolidate the stat blocks for space reasons, the resulting wall of text is hard to parse—especially when there are multiple choices embedded in each paragraph.

Niches

The last chapter, on character niches, is 12 pages long. This chapter provides practical advice on what kinds of traits to include in templates in order to fit various dramatic or narrative needs.

The first section, Matching Traits to Challenges, is a list of types of challenges that PCs can face in a campaign and an associated collection of advantages, disadvantages, and skills that would be appropriate to characters wrestling with those challenges. This section is useful for both GMs and players: GMs can think through the types of challenges they want to create in their campaigns, while players can get ideas for traits to bring to their character (even if the character is not built on a template).

The next section looks at how to distribute the challenges of the campaign among character niches in order to make sure that each character has something to contribute. This section is less useful for players, but GMs can use it to make sure that each template has something to offer to the game. The last section completes the process of template development by giving the GM guidelines for how to finish translating the traits and niches into final templates.

Summary

GURPS Template Toolkit 1: Characters provides a lot of helpful suggestions for character creation and template use. It’s not a mandatory supplement, but GMs who want to understand how to help their players create effective and appropriate characters will find many valuable tips and questions. Many of the concepts in this volume will also be useful for players, even if those players do not end up using templates in their games.

This supplement is full of theory and has some template examples, but it is not a book of worked sample templates. If you are looking for templates that you can plug into your games, you will be much better served by looking at the worked genre lines: Action, Dungeon Fantasy, Monster Hunters, and the newly released After the End. However, if you are interested in learning how to construct character templates that are suited to your own games, this book will help guide you through that process.

There are a couple of ideas in this book that are particularly interesting for people who are looking to streamline GURPS, especially the suggestions for using template-optimal abilities to define the character’s traits in dramatic rather than mechanical terms. (I’ll be exploring those ideas in more detail in a future post!).

Overall, this is a well-constructed volume. The writing is clear; the suggestions and questions to guide the GM are well thought out; the lists of traits and niches are broad enough to be relevant to most game genres. GMs who are looking for strategies to help their players develop better characters, as well as players who want to understand how to think about the character creation process, should consider adding Template Toolkit 1: Characters to their libraries.

GURPS Lite Review

GURPS Lite is a free PDF offered by Steve Jackson Games as an introduction to GURPS for new players.

Lite presents the boiled-down essence of GURPS in just 32 pages. To condense the material down, Lite strips many of the options available in the Basic Set and pares the lists of advantages, disadvantages, and skills. Nonetheless, Lite is 100% compatible with Basic Set—it is not an alternate system.

Because Lite is such an abbreviated presentation of GURPS, there are a lot of difficult choices to make about what content to include and what material is reserved for the full presentation in Basic Set. This review will evaluate Lite over three main questions:

  • How easy is it for a new player to begin playing GURPS with Lite?
  • How easy is it for a new gamemaster to begin running a GURPS game with Lite?
  • How well do the rules included in Lite fulfill the GURPS goal of “Anything you want”?

The Basics

The first section runs just over two pages and introduces the three main mechanics in GURPS: success rolls, reaction rolls, and damage rolls. The presentation of all these mechanics is clear and straightforward.

Lite introduces the idea of task modifiers and gives a couple of examples, but does not explain how to choose the modifiers. Players may not need this information in order to play, but it is important context to help understand what the numbers mean. GMs, on the other hand, really need the longer discussion of modifiers in Basic Set in order to be able to run the game. It would have been nice for Lite to include the Task Difficult Modifiers from Basic Set so players and GMs could have a frame of reference for these numbers.

Characters

The Characters section is almost half of the length of Lite, which reflects how GURPS front-loads calculations into the character creation process. The presentation of the four basic attributes is clear. The secondary attributes are described, but options for modifying them are left to Basic Set. This is a reasonable compromise given the space constraints.

Advantages and disadvantages are presented through an abbreviated list of 20 advantages and 22 disadvantages. The list doesn’t include options for magic, psionics, or other supernatural powers, but for mundane and cinematic characters the lists are reasonable.

Likewise, Skills features a shortened list from Basic Set. The chosen skills are reasonably representative of mundane characters. Weapon skills are presented as a collection of Melee Weapon or Missile Weapon skills; the individual skills still exist, but they are presented underneath the collection’s heading. The same is done for Influence skills.

This section also includes several subsections dealing with aspects of the character’s social background: appearance, tech level, language skills, wealth, and reputation. While the presentation is clear, it’s not obvious that the gaming value of this material is worth the amount of space it gets. For purposes of this document, it might be better to have a shorter presentation of social/background dimensions (maybe appearance and status/reputation) and leave the other elements for Basic Set. In particular, the inclusion of Tech Level details for characters presupposes a cross-TL campaign style, which is probably unnecessary.

Equipment

The equipment list contains a basic selection of weapons and a very short list of armor options. There is enough here to play a game, but equipment won’t be the focus of the campaign. The lower tech levels are reasonably represented, but it would have been nice to have a couple of additional lines for TL7+ weapons.

Playing the Game

This section includes details for physical tasks, mental tasks, combat, and injury. These sections feel unbalanced. There is a lot of detail about specific physical feats like climbing, hiking, or jumping; the level of detail stands in stark contrast to the paucity of detail for how to assign task difficulty with other skills. A player or GM who wants to have the characters run a race has very detailed rules; he or she is on their on for picking locks. Again, a better treatment of generic task difficulty would be a better fit for this kind of book.

The combat rules in Lite are fairly comprehensive. Given how frequently combat is a focal point for RPGs, this section feels reasonable. There are abbreviated lists of melee, ranged, and defense modifiers, as well as wounding modifiers; the included list is a good starting point for most games. There are lots of combat options in Basic Set that are not mentioned in here, including tactical combat, close combat, and mounted/vehicle combat, but again the choices feel justifiable on the basis of the page length restrictions.

The final subsection on Injury, Illness, and Fatigue includes condensed versions of Basic Set rules. These rules include HP and FP loss charts, shock, mortal wounds, dying, recovery, first aid, and a number of hazards like cold, fire, disease, and collisions. As a quick reference for most common situations, this section feels well balanced. However, the inclusion of rules for knockback, mortal wounds, and shock might be too much detail for new players.

Overall Review

GURPS Lite is a great reference for new players, but it probably isn’t sufficient to run a game on its own. Its strongest sections are the streamlined treatment of character creation and combat, which is very useful for starting adventures with mundane characters.

The treatment of basic mechanics is clear for new players, but new GMs would need Basic Set to set reasonable modifiers for tasks.

Unfortunately, Lite is not suited for a true “anything you can imagine” campaign. High point level campaigns, supernatural forces of any sort, future tech levels, and cinematic powers simply aren’t possible without the rules in Basic Set.

New players can effectively use Lite to understand attributes, skills, the basic GURPS mechanics, and combat. As long as the GM knows Basic and can fill in the gaps, Lite is a solid handout to guide players into their first GURPS game.

Action 2: Exploits Review

Action 2: Exploits is written for action-oriented campaigns of larger-than-life heroes that must rescue the hostages, disarm the bomb, infiltrate the cabal, or pull off the heist of the century. When the clock is ticking, the adventurers are under fire, or the evil villain has an unexpected trick up her sleeve, the game needs to keep up with the pace of the action.

The first volume in the Action series (Heroes) covered PCs that are suited to high-action games; this book focuses on the situations those PCs face and how the GM can run the game to create the high-intensity, edge-of-your-seat experience that characterizes the action genre.

This supplement weighs in at 50 pages and is available from Steve Jackson Games for $9.99. It is divided into six chapters, each of which addresses a different aspect of the action genre.

Challenges, Not Headaches

Although this chapter is only two pages long, it introduces several useful rules. Basic Abstract Difficulty is a twist on task difficulty modifiers that allows the GM to modify the difficulty of different phases of an adventure in order to speed up play and create a crescendo of challenges. Complimentary skills are ways for characters to use their skills to assist in more complicated tasks. Finally, the teamwork rules explain how to handle situations when the team as a whole needs to perform a task (like sneaking around) if only some of the PCs have the relevant skill.

The Basics

This chapter explains how to find an adventure, acquire gear, move to the destination, and interact as a squad. There are enough details to jump-start a GM’s creative juices, and the scenarios translate well to other genres of games.

There’s a really helpful sidebar on page 10 with a list of go-to skills that can be catch-all skills in action games. Players and GMs would do well to include these skills on character sheets and templates.

Tricks of the Trade

In this chapter, action plots are deconstructed into four main phases: Assessing the situation, Analyzing the information, Acting on a plan, and Avoiding, escaping, or cleaning up afterwards. For each phase, this chapter gives lots of examples of challenges and relevant skills.

Whether your characters are going undercover, bashing down a door, falsifying records, or shopping for security technology, this chapter will be useful for plot ideas. There are some stats and equipment lists, but the focus is on genre tropes rather than crunch.

Ultra-Violence

Action stories are full of fights and chases, and this chapter provides a ton of rules for gaming these situations. The rules for combat are focused on fast-and-furious play, cinematic heroics, and tough guy talk. On the other hand, the chase rules are extremely detailed—a GM could run a chase scene as a form of tactical combat with all the options this chapter introduces.

Although both sets of rules are written from the perspective of action stories, the mechanics translate well to other genres. If you want to game out a star cruiser chasing a smuggler’s ship, a Western standoff, or an army unit holding the line against a horde of zombies, there’s something in these rules that can be useful.

When Things Go Wrong

Sometimes it’s fun to play through what happens when the heroes don’t make it through unscathed. This chapter gives cinematic rules for post-combat medical care and repair jobs, once the heroes have made it out alive. If they didn’t make it, then the rules for capture can be helpful for keeping the adventure going.

Directing the Action

The final chapter is a GM’s guide to action style campaigns. There are ten examples of genre tropes with references to the rules the GM can use in order to tell that kind of story. There’s a sidebar with a list of rules to not use in order to maintain a fast-paced feel to the campaign. Finally, there are suggestions for how characters can assist each other and how to make sure specialist PCs have something to do.

Summary

GURPS Action 2: Exploits
GURPS Action 2: Exploits

Action 2: Exploits is one of my most-used supplements. Some of the rules, like complimentary skills, are so useful that they should be considered for inclusion in a future version of the Basic Set. The techniques for running a fast-paced game are helpful in almost any genre—especially for gamers looking to run a simpler version of GURPS.

In addition, this volume is a great reference for action genre tropes, and the encounters suggested in Exploits can be used by GMs of all genres for inspiration. Even GMs who want to run a rules-heavy game can use the example situations—they will just want to bring more rules into the campaign.

Exploits does not have many stat blocks or crunch, but this is an intentional decision in line with the kinds of games this supplement is written to facilitate. The most crunch-heavy part of the book is the chase rules, and these capture the feel of an action chase so well that they don’t feel out of place despite the obvious differences in degree of simulation.

Overall, Exploits is a great value. The cross-genre appeal of the rules, as well as the detailed examples of action genre tropes, makes this supplement handy for anyone who wants to game out high-adrenaline situations.

This volume is particularly useful for making GURPS an easier game to run and play. The mechanics for complimentary skills, abstracting difficulty, and teamwork are helpful for speeding up play, and the advice on what skills to include and what optional rules to ignore is useful for getting the game going in the first place.