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.