This is the third part of the review for Steve Jackson Games’ Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game (DFRPG). The Spells volume is an 82 page PDF written by Sean Punch.
Covers and Front Matter
Spells continues the DFRPG approach of full-page, full-color illustrations for the front cover. This scene captures the excitement of magic in dungeon adventuring, as the party casts spells against a fireball-wielding devil creature.
The back cover is a reference page for spellcasting rules. It covers how skill level affects magic rituals, modifiers for mana levels, druidic spell modifiers, and long-distance modifiers, and the critical spell failure table. It also includes page references for rules handling specific spell classes, like blocking spells or jet spells. The page is well designed; the selected rules are likely to be referenced frequently during play.
After the table of contents, there is a one page introduction. Spells is designed to be a reference for players as well as GMs. Surprisingly, players are not warned to avoid looking up spells used by monsters; the assumption seems to be that this information would be known by magic-wielding characters. The introduction also flags that PCs do not, by default, have access to potentially unbalancing effects such as summoning beasts, changing shape, but these effects can be added by expanding to GURPS Basic Set as well as GURPS Magic.
Principles of Magic
This first chapter is an 11-page explanation of how magic works in Dungeon Fantasy. The skill-based system treats spells just like the Basic Set, but there are explicit rules for how the system works in three magical realms. Wizardly spells use the spell system as-is, while clerical and druidic magic have limited spell lists grouped by levels of Power Investiture, as well as different modifiers for their equivalent of mana levels (sanctity and nature’s strength).
The rules for magic are relatively clear. There are a few brief examples in the text, although beginners might benefit from more examples. One improvement from the Basic Set is that the options for learning new spells are enumerated in the Dungeon Fantasy context; heroes can study at temples or learn from spellbooks, but players can’t simply use character points on new spells without a narrative justification.
Adventurers and Exploits both tweak GURPS’ rules so that some of the rough spots of the Basic Set are polished smooth. Unfortunately, Spells does not do as much to improve on the Basic Set experience. The cumbersome modifications to spell cost and casting time based on base skill level are still present, which is a detail that can be very confusing for new players. Clerics and druids benefit from simplified prerequisites, but wizardly casters still have to contend with difficult-to-determine prerequisite chains.
The majority of the book—58 pages—describes over 300 spells. The spells are organized by college; there are 22 magical colleges that represent different bodies of magical specialization, such as air, food, movement, and protection and warning.
After the spellbook chapter, there is a six and a half page spell table that lists all the spells in alphabetical order, along with their respective college, prerequisites, and page references.
The organization for this spellbook chapter and spell table collectively could be greatly improved. There are two situations in which players will need to look at the spell rules. First, as they are doing character creation, they need to be able to look at spell options for their characters. Second, during play they may need to look up the rules for a specific spell that they are casting. Neither need is easily served by the way the book is organized.
Since the full spell rules are grouped by college, it’s hard to look up a specific spell during the game. The player first needs to consult the spell table for a page number, then look up the spell’s details in the college. Looking up the rules directly is difficult because the player may not know the college that a spell belongs to, and spells that appear in multiple colleges are cross-referenced in the text so the player may need to turn to another college to find the rules if they attempt to skip the spell table and go directly to the college’s listing.
During character creation, on the other hand, there’s no easy way to quickly see the spells available in a specific college. There’s also no comprehensive prerequisite information; the spell table and spell descriptions both list the prerequisite for a specific spell, but don’t list the required spell’s prerequisites. As a result, players have to chase down the prerequisite chains manually.
It would have been better if the full rules for spells were listed alphabetically, instead of by college; that way, the players could look up a specific spell during the game without worrying about which college it is in (or which college it is listed under, for spells that belong to multiple colleges). The spell table, meanwhile, could have been organized by college with a one sentence summary of each spell, making it easier for players to determine what spells they want their characters to know.
The prerequisite problem could have been solved in a number of ways. The simplest way would have been to list all the prerequisites for a given spell, so there’s no confusion about what is required. Alternatively, spell prerequisite charts for each college could have been included.
An even better solution could have used DFRPG as an opportunity to revise the often-criticized GURPS prerequisite system. Clerical and druidic magic are arranged into tiers based on Power Investiture levels; wizard spells could also have been arranged into tiers, with higher tiers requiring either higher levels of Magery or a set number of learned spells from lower tiers. Another option would have been to create a wizard trait that functioned as an Unusual Background (no prerequisites required to learn spells beyond Magery levels). Power-Ups 2: Perks has a 1-point Charm option that allows a character to use a single spell without knowing the spell’s prerequisites; a 10-point Unusual Background enabling players to ignore prerequisite chains is probably a reasonable extension of that idea.
After the aforementioned spell table, there is a half page index and a one page sheet for players to make notes about their PC’s spellcasting skills.
The spell table is a nice idea, but it’s not clear exactly when the players are supposed to use it. It doesn’t have the information you would need for a quick lookup during the game (such as casting cost, like the Basic Set spell trait list includes). It isn’t a great reference during character creation because the spells are arranged alphabetically rather than by college. It has some use as a spell index, but the colleges and prerequisites columns don’t add value in that context.
Both Adventurers and Exploits improve on the Basic Set experience, especially for new players and GMs. Spells treads water: it’s not a worse experience, but it doesn’t markedly improve play either. The biggest value is that the spell list is curated for dungeon delving, which is a big improvement over trying to sort through the entirety of GURPS Magic. The spell lists based on Power Investiture levels for clerics and druids are good additions, and the back cover reference page will see play frequently. However, the organization of the spell lists is not functional, and the pain points of the basic GURPS magic system are not addressed in this volume.
There’s very little that adds atmosphere to this volume. Beyond the cover, there’s almost no art in this book, and even the text sidebars are infrequent (appearing much less than once every other page). The content of this book is good, but between the organization problems and the lack of artistic elements, the production value is low compared to RPG products on the market today.