Why GURPS Dungeon Fantasy Is Awesome

With the Dungeon Fantasy Boxed Set Kickstarter active, this post will discuss why Dungeon Fantasy is an awesome game. GURPS Dungeon Fantasy is easily the bestselling gaming line for GURPS, and dungeon delving fantasy games in general make up the vast majority of the RPG market. It’s no accident that dungeon dives are so popular, so let’s discuss why!

This post will discuss why dungeon fantasy is awesome in two ways. First, I’ll discuss why the genre of fantasty-based dungeon adventures is so popular. Then, I’ll explore why the GURPS version of that genre, the Dungeon Fantasy line, stands out.

Fantasy Dungeons are Fun

There are a lot of varieties of dungeon-based fantasy, but most games revolve around some core similarities:

  • Larger-than-life heroes: The protagonists of dungeon fantasy games are Heroes with a capital H. They are capable of great feats and take on challenges that would kill lesser mortals. The power scale for dungeon games characters ranges from starting adventurers that already stand out as exceptional when compared to most people, all the way up to demigods that directly affect the forces of creation. As larger-than-life characters, players can imagine themselves as true champions in the world.
  • Life-and-death encounters: One of the key elements of the dungeon delving genre is combat against evildoers. Your adventurers can wipe out the orcs guarding the prized treasure, or they can go toe-to-toe with the supernatural beasts that have awakened in the deep. Players get a vicarious thrill from showing off their abilities in the face of deadly threats, and the dungeon fantasy genre provides endless encounters for characters to demonstrate feats of bravery, daring, and awesomeness.
  • Fantasy settings: Dungeon delving games generally take place in fantasy worlds inspired by great works like Beowulf, The Lord of the Rings, and The Wizard of Earthsea. In these worlds, humans are joined by other races like elves and dwarves, suggesting that the world is much larger and more mysterious than our own. Magic is real, and players are empowered to participate in a world that is affected by supernatural forces and creatures. The world is populated by mythic beasts like dragons and vampires, which pose challenges worthy of their larger-than-life protagonists. These environments carry rich tropes from world mythologies and primordial imagery that can embody the deepest human emotions. Put simply, fantasy brings to life millenia of human storytelling.
  • Dungeon delving adventures: The dungeons that the adventurers explore are themselves exciting because they build on the quest archetype. Dungeons can hide buried treasure, supernatural forces that must be defeated, and everything in between. Dungeons also bring danger. Explorers can be threatened by the physical environment, by the creatures that roam the depths, and by traps set to protect the prizes buried far beneath the surface.
  • Awe-inspiring missions: The goals of dungeon diving are exciting. Character can explore for lost treasures from legend or can search for   magical artifacts that can shift the world’s balance of power. They can also hunt villains that embody evil, or even attempt to prevent earth-shattering disasters and conflagrations.

GURPS Dungeon Fantasy Rocks

The Dungeon Fantasy line within GURPS is a phenomenal representation of the dungeon exploration genre. There are a lot of reasons to choose GURPS as your system for dungeon adventures.

New Player Friendly

Dungeon Fantasy box set preview
Dungeon Fantasy box set preview

If you are new to RPGs, GURPS Dungeon Fantasy is a great entry point to the RPG hobby:

  • Simple core mechanics: GURPS runs entirely on a simple 3d6 system. Roll 3 normal dice, add the result, and compare to your target number. Some of the game rules add details to this mechanic; for instance, the GM can modify your target number if the task is easier or harder than usual. But, the basic system is incredibly simple to understand.
  • Quick-start character templates: The character templates are straightforward. It’s easy for brand new players to be up and running quickly because they only need to make a couple of decisions in order to customize their character. Many RPGs require players to flip through multiple chapters of the characters book in order to create their adventurer; GURPS can lay out all your choices in short blocks of text.
  • “You describe it, you can try it”: GURPS is designed to enable players to describe what they want to do, and the GM can interpret that action into the game mechanics. For instance, characters don’t need to have a special ability in order to grapple or slam into their opponent; if the player wants to wrestle an opponent, he or she can attempt a skill roll. The character sheet becomes a reference tool instead of a crutch; the character’s options are as wide as the player’s imagination.
  • Player choices matter: every RPG needs to balance luck with player autonomy. GURPS errs on the side of making player choices matter. The 3d6 system creates a bell curve, so extreme results are rare. In practice, that means that players are less likely to be overcome by bad rolls of the dice, and it engages players by showing that they can directly influence the fate of their characters. Preparing for a challenge, making a smart tactical choice, or earning a bonus makes a bigger impact than raw luck.

For Experienced Players

Selected Dungeon Fantasy supplements
Selected Dungeon Fantasy supplements

Don’t be fooled into thinking that Dungeon Fantasy is just for new players! Because Dungeon Fantasy is built on the GURPS system, it has tons of options to meet every player’s needs.

  • Variety of character choices: The templates for GURPS Dungeon Fantasy permit the players to choose a wide range of character builds. The Kickstarter package includes nine racial backgrounds and eleven character professions; the full published Dungeon Fantasy line goes up to hundreds of worked character options.
  • Active defense: GURPS features active defenses; when a character is attacked, they get to choose how to defend themselves and attempt a skill roll. This adds a level of tactical thinking that is absent from RPGs that just roll against a passive defense (like an armor class level). In GURPS, players have meaningful decisions about how to stay safe in combat. Deciding to block an attack with a shield is mechanically different than trying to dodge an attack, and those differences make combat feel more interesting.
  • No second-class skills: Many dungeon diving RPGs place a premium on combat, and other adventuring activities get short shrift. Because GURPS is a skill-based system, combat skills like Brawling or Missile spells are governed by the same mechanics as non-combat skills like Diplomacy, Streetwise, and Hidden Lore. That means that your game is not limited to hack-and-slash playing—unless you want it to be!
  • Extensive supplements: The GURPS Dungeon Fantasy line is one of the best supported RPGs out there. SJ Games has published literally dozens of volumes that add options for characters, monsters, treasure, magic, allies and henchmen, adventures in town or in the wilderness, and more. In addition, the monthly Pyramid magazine publishes dungeon fantasy articles on a regular basis. Odds are good that GURPS has a dungeon fantasy supplement for whatever direction you want to take your game.
  • Full GURPS compatibility: Because Dungeon Fantasy is built on the GURPS ruleset, players can tap the full breadth of GURPS resources for their games. If you want to include gadgeteering or high technology into your dungeon game, the GURPS technology volumes stand at the ready. If you want to customize the magic system to use rituals, petitions to the spirit world, or rune-based invocations, you can incorporate rules from the Thaumatology line. GURPS Martial Arts unlocks tons of combat options; Social Engineering brings a similar depth to political intrigue, negotiating, and other interpersonal encounters. In short: if you want to take your game in a new direction, chances are good that GURPS has a way to do it.
  • Universal system: GURPS is a universal system, so it can run scenarios that are published for any game system. If you find an interesting adventure, it doesn’t matter if it’s designed for a different game. You can run it in GURPS.

Dungeon Fantasy Kickstarter Announced

Dungeon Fantasy box set preview
Dungeon Fantasy box set preview

The big news from Steve Jackson Games is the Dungeon Fantasy boxed set on Kickstarter. Dungeon Fantasy is the most popular genre line for GURPS, and sword-and-sorcery, hack-n-slash gaming is the single most popular form of roleplaying games in general. This boxed set should appeal to the vast majority of roleplayers, and this set in particular is designed as a standalone GURPS kit that is built for both new roleplayers and existing gamers.

This Kickstarter is incredibly exciting for Just Roll 3d6’s audience.

  • The box is designed as an entry product for Dungeon Fantasy games. You don’t need any other GURPS products to run the games, making it perfect for new players.
  • The five books in the box are comprehensive enough to run your game well past the beginner stages. You’ll get a wide variety of adventurers, combat and exploration rules, a huge manual of spells, a full book of monsters to throw at the heroes, and adventure hooks to keep even the most experienced gamers hooked.
  • The rules in this set are streamlined to make GURPS more accessible. Some of the detailed options have been pared back so that it’s easier to jump into a game. From improved character templates to a rewritten and refined magic volume to game mastering advice, the books are designed to make GURPS easy!
  • The boxed set includes a ready-to-run adventure, taking adventurers through a hack-n-slash quest that showcases why dungeon delving is such a roleplaying staple.

The set appears to be a great value. For just $50, you get five full-color rulebooks, combat maps and character figurines, and dice. Many RPGs charge that much for just the printed player’s manual! The Kickstarter has add-on options for a gamemaster screen ($20), PDF versions of the books ($35), and electronic versions of the entire existing Dungeon Fantasy line, as well as Pyramid magazine articles on Dungeon Fantasy available a la carte or in bundles.

Shipping costs can be high for international customers, but the PDF-only option for $35 is a great alternative. You’ll get all 400+ pages of content that can easily be referenced on your tablet or shared with your virtual gaming table.

If you are at all interested in GURPS or dungeon-dive roleplaying games, you should back this Kickstarter. The success of projects like this is important to show demand for more GURPS products, as well as to demonstrate the market for other RPGs content. In short, funding this project is a vote for the continued development of all RPG content. SJ Games has clearly taken the time to produce a well-designed product, and it deserves support from the RPG community.

Understanding Damage in GURPS Combat

GURPS has a reputation for lethal combat, which catches many new players by surprise. This reputation stems from a different conceptual model of damage. When you understand what damage means in GURPS, it becomes easier to know how to enjoy combat—or how to adopt optional rules in order to create the experience you do want.

Many RPGs treat hit points as a reserve that is intended to be used. Your character’s hit points gradually wear down in combat, like ablative armor, and that’s okay if you can wear your opponent down to zero first. As long as you stay above zero (or a specific “bloodied” threshold), there’s no difference between being fully healthy and just hanging on. As a result, characters can take a beating and keep on dishing it out, and in fact it is expected that your character will take lots of damage during combat.

By contrast, the default assumption in GURPS is that damage hurts. When your character gets injured, he or she is less able to function. As a result, even a single point of damage can influence future rounds of combat, and those effects can stack up over time.

The cumulative effect of taking any damage is sometimes referred to as the GURPS Death Spiral. A single injury causes a shock penalty, which makes it more likely that the character will be hit the next turn, which makes it more likely that the character will cross the 1/3 HP threshold and slow down, etc. Consequently, avoiding injury is more important in GURPS, and if you get hit you need to adjust your tactics rather than barreling through the pain. In short, it’s usually not a good strategy to just assume that you can dish it out faster than your opponent.

Implications of the “Damage Hurts” Model

Because GURPS assumes by default that damage hurts, combat plays out a little differently than in other systems.

  • Going first matters: Being able to strike the first blow gives your character a huge advantage. GURPS emphasizes the importance of speed by having characters act in combat in order of speed, rather than rolling for initiative. So, you can control how quickly you act more than in other systems—and you should use that to your advantage.
  • Avoiding damage is crucial: GURPS encourages players to avoid damage through the strategic use of cover, terrain, dodging, or blocking. If your opponent can’t hit you, they can’t hurt you. It’s rare for a GURPS battle to be a bashing contest; the players have a strong incentive to choose better tactical approaches.
  • Armor keeps you alive: When you do get hit, it’s important to limit how much damage your character takes. Without good armor, a single bullet can down a character.
  • Healing during combat is less relevant: It’s possible to heal characters during combat, but it’s not as common as in other games. Because the act of taking damage matters much more than how many hit points a character has left, healing is less valuable than avoiding damage in the first place. Characters that can buff their party members by improving their defenses, armor, or the like give their party a massive advantage.
  • Not fighting is a compelling option: Because a single lucky shot can down a character, players have an incentive to find alternatives to combat (or to push for surrender rather than waging battle to the final kill). To be clear: GURPS is fully capable of giving you a knock down and drag out fight. But, as a player, there are advantages to wrapping up the fight quickly.

Changing GURPS’ Assumptions

The “damage matters” model is the default in GURPS, but it’s very possible to run GURPS through the “hit points as reserve” model. By turning off a number of the combat rules and/or equipping your player characters with specific advantages, you can create the effect of other RPG systems.

  • Eliminate shock penalties: Shock penalties make damage matter from the very first blow; a character that is injured has a penalty to all their rolls in their subsequent turn. The GM can ignore the shock rules, or the PCs can take the High Pain Threshold advantage.
  • Turn off realistic combat rules: Major Wounds, Knockdown, Crippling Injury, and Mortal Wounds are all inconsistent with the “hit points as reserve” model. The same goes for the optional rules of Bleeding and Accumulated Wounds. Turn off all those rules, and damage starts to function closer to the reserve model.
  • Ignore hit locations: Hit locations can make combat extremely lethal because they allow characters to target around their opponent’s armor and to get substantial wounding modifiers. You can still play the hit points as reserve model with hit locations, but it requires an additional level of tactical awareness for your players.
  • Ignore wounding modifiers: Wounding modifiers also make combat far more lethal; cutting, impaling, and large piercing attacks in particular become much stronger when wounding modifiers are in play. Since those modifiers include common kinds of attacks like swinging a sword, stabbing with a lance, or shooting a gun, wounding modifiers can cause characters to run through hit points quickly. Again, it’s possible to play the hit points as reserve model with wounding modifiers, but your players need to be prepared.
  • Restrict HT checks: The default rules have characters making HT checks when they drop to zero HP, and then at each negative multiple of HP until the character dies at -5xHP. These rules make additional degrees of damage more severe, so the GM should limit these checks in order to approximate the hit points as reserve model. The advantages Hard to Kill and Hard to Subdue give PCs a bonus on those checks, mitigating the impact; alternatively, the GM can choose to simply ignore these checks.

 

Why Play GURPS?

Right now is a great time to be an RPG player. There are dozens of great games out there, and the roleplaying world is constantly growing with new systems, Kickstarter campaigns, livestreams, RPG shows, and online communities. In fact, there’s so much out there that even experienced gamers face a paradox of choice: with so many great games, how do you decide what to play?

This site aims to promote GURPS because GURPS has one of the strongest offerings on the market today. It’s not a perfect game—no game is. But there are a lot of reasons to take GURPS seriously. If you are a new gamer, learning GURPS is like getting the master key to playing almost any kind of RPG. If you are an experienced gamer, you can use GURPS for your games and tailor it to include the vast majority of elements from other systems. In either case, there are a lot of advantages to playing GURPS.

Learn Once, Play Anything

GURPS is designed to be infinitely flexible, which means that you can run or play any kind of game within GURPS. Lots of systems are tailored for specific kinds of games (such as hack-and-slash fantasy, esoteric horror, or cyberpunk). But, the problem is that running a game in any of those systems requires learning the system from scratch.

One of the biggest advantages of GURPS is that you can learn one ruleset and transfer that knowledge from game to game. Instead of learning a new set of rules for each game, you and your players can use the same rules and simply add in a few options to customize each game. By using the same core rules, you can spend more time playing and less time re-learning the fundamentals of each game system.

The more games you play, the more this advantage matters. If you have a single ongoing campaign, it doesn’t matter much what system you run because you’ll become fluent in that system with time. But, if you play a number of different games, running all those games in GURPS is like being able to concentrate all your experience points into a single skill—you’ll get to demigod levels of skill quickly instead of knowing a bunch of games at the novice level. This usually translates to a more rewarding game experience, because instead of wondering “can I do this?”, you’ll be able to act on your moments of creative inspiration because you’ll know how to use the rules to accomplish what you want.

Ease of Play

Fundamentally, GURPS is played with a simple mechanic: decide what you want to try, roll three dice, and compare the sum against your target number for the skill or ability in question. That’s it.

The game has a reputation for complexity because it has so many options to model a wide variety of game styles, but all of those are optional (hence the word, “options”). I’ll admit that the rulebooks would benefit from a more streamlined presentation so new GMs can determine what rules they need, but the core mechanic is simple, elegant, and straightforward.

Even character creation can be simple within GURPS. Again, the presentation obscures how straightforward characters are. Even a novice can build a functional character in minutes by just choosing attribute levels and skills. With a little help from an experienced player or a selection of setting-appropriate templates, even complex characters can be designed with ease.

Just like some people love GURPS because it has rules for every situation, some people love GURPS because there are options to model anything on their character sheets. That level of detail is possible, but it’s not required. Underlying all those details is a simple framework for building characters, and it can be as easy to build those characters as it is to play them.

Support Resources

GURPS Fourth Edition was published in 2004, and the sheer breadth of supplements published since then is stunning. Quite simply, it’s hard to think of a topic that hasn’t been written about for GURPS. If you want help in crafting the perfect magic system for your setting, setting a mood for your mystery-horror table, or modeling your PCs on the latest superhero blockbuster, there’s a resource for that.

Not only is there an extensive catalog of GURPS products, but those products are some of the most detailed RPG resources you’ve ever read. GURPS Martial Arts is more than rules for combat—it’s a crash course in fighting styles from around the world as well as film, books, and other media. Gear books like Low Tech and Bio Tech include a massive list of items as well as detailed descriptions of the worldbuilding assumptions that underlie the lists.

When you add in the fan community behind GURPS, which includes frequent answers from the line editors and authors to questions posed at the official Steve Jackson Games Forums, you have some of the best game support available.

The two things you won’t find in GURPS publications are pre-made adventure modules or extensive setting books. However, because GURPS is a universal system, it’s possible to convert other RPG campaigns or sourcebooks (as well as movies, comics, and books) into GURPS mechanics. The bottom line is that, if you need a resource, chances are that GURPS has it or can borrow it.

Some Drawbacks

Although GURPS has lots of strengths, there are kinds of games that it doesn’t do well. If you want to play one of these styles, GURPS may not be the best choice. While you probably can make these things happen in GURPS, it may be messy and you may be better suited with a ruleset designed around these needs.

  • GM-Less Play: GURPS is intrinsically a GM-based system, and it relies on GM judgment calls to use (or turn off) specific rules, to set limits on player characters, and to adjudicate in-game situations. If you want to play a game without a GM, GURPS will be challenging because you will need a way to fill those responsibilities from your playgroup. It can be done, but it requires some deliberate alterations.
  • Solo Play: For the same reasons, GURPS requires some heavy tweaking in order to accommodate solo play. It can be done, but the end result is a different experience from most RPGs that are built for solo play. Whether GURPS offers an acceptable solo play experience depends on what your expectations are, but it’s quite possible that you’ll have a better experience with a different system.
  • Player-vs-Player: In theory, GURPS can accommodate player-vs-player gaming as well as any system because PCs and NPCs are built on the exact same point scale. However, GURPS is written from the assumption that the players are a cooperative team rather than competitive individuals, and so there aren’t unique mechanisms for resolving player-vs-player interactions like what many player-vs-player RPGs provide. If you understand that and have a GM who is confident in handling inter-player conflict, GURPS will work—but it may not be as easy to run as other systems.