Evaluating DFRPG

This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series Dungeon Fantasy RPG Review

This review has covered the five books in the Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game boxed set, as well as the maps for the included dungeon adventure. The boxed set also includes a set of dice and cardboard printouts of adventurers and monsters to use on the hex grid; I haven’t reviewed these because I only have received the PDFs as of this writing.

Ultimately, the goal of the Dungeon Fantasy set is to get new players into GURPS with a ready-to-run game. How well does DFRPG accomplish that goal?

First, DFPRG is clearly one of the best best entry points to GURPS that SJ Games has produced yet. The challenges of character creation have been dramatically reduced through the use of professional templates in Adventurers, and the overwhelming rules options in Basic Set have been successfully reduced down to a manageable set. This is a game that new players can jump into and new GMs can feel comfortable running.

The included adventure is an important part of the starter set roleplaying box, and “I Smell a Rat” is a good introduction. There are some details that need polish, but the adventure makes sense for the genre, has a reasonable hook and plot line, shows off the diversity of skills and character options in GURPS, and walks the players through a difficulty learning curve that starts in an appropriate place before ramping up the challenge.

Dungeon Fantasy exceeds other box sets in providing a full gamut of character options and monsters so the excitement doesn’t end after the first adventure. Gaming groups have enough material to support full campaign arcs that can run for months or even years before they need to purchase additional materials (whether that be the Basic Set, DF supplements, or other GURPS books).

However, the boxed set also has some flaws. While GURPS is a great roleplaying system, and DFRPG is a much-improved entry point, it is still not a great RPG book. There are serious issues with organization and layout that impede the usability of the books, especially from the GM’s perspective. Graphically, the covers are wonderful, but the interior imagery feels cheap and perfunctory. Monster formatting is still a challenge, and for a genre that is so combat-centric, the lack of a combat rating system or concrete advice on constructing encounters is a gaping hole.

There’s two ways to compare the strengths and weaknesses of Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game, and both are fair. For people who are entirely unfamiliar with roleplaying games, this set is acceptable but not great. It’s a leap beyond the Basic Set, but compared to other giants of the industry it’s not as polished or immersive. On the other hand, it combines the benefits of a starter set (easy to build characters and an introduction adventure) with a full gaming product that can continue for campaigns to come, and the content of that gaming product lends itself to more flexible and richer gameplay experience than competing games. That’s a lot of value in a single box.

The suggested retail price for DFPRG is $59.95. With a retail price of $100-150 for the core rulebooks of the hack-and-slash genre, that’s a big cost savings—especially since this set also includes an adventure, which would cost another $20 in competing systems.

Bottom line: if you’ve been curious about GURPS or wanted to try but were afraid that it was too complex, Dungeon Fantasy RPG is the introduction point you needed to get over the hump. If you are an experienced roleplayer and love the hack-and-slash genre, DFRPG will excite you with a level of character detail and creativity that is hard to replicate in other systems. If you are brand new to roleplaying, it’s harder to make a recommendation. If you like the GURPS approach, this set will be a great value. Unfortunately, if it turns out that GURPS is not your cup of tea, then you’ll have spent more than you would on a test drive with a starter set from other games.

Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game demonstrates that GURPS is still a great choice for tabletop gamers. While there are still low-hanging fruit for improvement, this approach is a huge improvement in making GURPS accessible and relevant to a new generation of players.

DFRPG Review: Dungeon

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Dungeon Fantasy RPG Review

We’re finally at the last volume of the Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game boxed set. This post reviews the Dungeon book, which contains the “I Smell a Rat” adventure. It is a 26 page PDF written by Sean Punch.

The boxed set also includes two double-sided maps for this adventure. In the PDF version, one of the map pages is 30″ x 30″, while the other is 20″ x 30″.

For those who are worried about spoilers, this review will be mostly spoiler-free. I will mention some mechanics that show up in the game, but when they show up or how to use them will be left a secret.

Covers and Front Matter

DFRPG: Dungeon cover
DFRPG: Dungeon cover

The front cover depicts a party of adventurers underground, surrounded  by a pack of rats. The art again contributes to the world-building; throughout this boxed set, the covers have communicated a consistent tone of excitement, danger, and uncertainty.

The back cover is a blank 9 by 10 hex grid. The grid is a nice GM aid, but on its own the grid has too few squares for combat that involves much movement. It will suffice for quick sketches or close quarters fights, but most GMs will outgrow this space quickly. In future games, it may be worth considering putting adventure quick references on this cover: plot hooks, key stats for NPCs, or a brief flowchart of the adventure. The obvious disadvantage to this suggestion is that the back cover is exposed, so having spoilers in that material may not work. But, the advantages of a quick GM reference may outweigh the consequences for players with wandering eyeballs.

The Introduction notes that this book is for GMs only—players who read this book risk spoiling the adventure! There is a sidebar with two chunks of helpful advice: suggestions on how to encourage players to take the narrative hook for the adventure, and some guidelines for scaling encounters in the adventure.

Setting the Scene

The first chapter takes two pages to get the adventure started. It provides some background information on the nameless town where the adventure occurs, explains how the adventurers can learn of the quest, and provides an initial hook for the adventure. The hook works for drawing in characters that are looking to make money through adventuring (i.e., Dungeon Fantasy PCs), and there are some good suggestions for the skills to use in order to kick off the quest.

The biggest criticism I have for the Dungeons volume is that it reads like a novel, rather than a GM guide. Instead of starting with a high-level overview of the adventure so the GM has a framework in which to interpret the details they read, the presentation starts from the premise of the adventure (hunt rats for money) and then walks through each room of the dungeon in order. This chapter would have been the perfect place to step back and share the big picture with the GM. For a relatively linear dungeon like this, a flowchart would have been a great way to provide a visual structure to organize the GM’s thinking, but a written overview would also work well.

The Dungeon

The meat of this volume is the 15 page chapter on the dungeon itself. The last page of the chapter is a full-page map of the dungeon. This map reproduces most of the content in the standalone maps; there are a couple of areas in the standalone maps that are designed for the stretch goal adventure, and so do not appear in this book.

The adventure itself is well written. There’s plenty of detail for GMs to describe what’s happening and respond to the players’ actions. The adventure plays to a variety of PC skills throughout the scenario, showcasing GURPS’ skill system as well as the unique characteristics of the party members. The challenges are combat-heavy, but not exclusively combat-related, and the diversity in the combat opponents makes the game feel dynamic. There’s also an interesting twist that the PCs discover during the adventure, which gives an in-game justification for the more unusual opponents that the heroes face and creates potential plot hooks for follow-on adventures.

There are a couple of ways that this chapter could have been organized more effectively. In keeping with the goal of giving the GM a high-level overview before diving into the details, the map should have been at the front of the chapter instead of the back. There are a lot of details in the paragraphs describing each area; it would be easier to scan for the details by putting mechanical notes in bullet form.

The standalone maps are a great addition to the set, but unfortunately they are not designed for player use. There are letters that mark areas of interest on the maps, cueing the players to investigate those spots, and the maps give away a few secret doors because those doors are marked on the map. It would have been better to leave those indications off the full-size maps and only put that information in the Dungeons book.

I haven’t run the adventure yet, so I can’t speak from playtested experience. It looks like the adventure will follow the plot easily and there certainly is an escalating difficulty curve to the adventure. I worry that the final confrontation may be too unforgiving of a challenge, but again I haven’t playtested it and may be worried over nothing.

Rewards

After surviving the dungeon, the adventures deserve a nice profit, and this three page chapter describes what they can salvage from underground and how much they can get for it. It also includes guidelines for character progression, with suggested values for earned character points based on what the PCs accomplished in the dungeon.

There’s not a lot to say about this chapter. There’s plenty of loot to be found if the PCs are thorough, so exploring the dungeon is definitely worth the risk!

The Adventure Continues

The last page of Dungeon lists a handful of suggestions for expanding the adventure by adding secret rooms, encounters, or a side quest. Although the idea of extending the adventure is nice, the actual suggestions feel tacked-on. The side quest is the most novel idea, but it boils down to a single skill roll; there should have been more heft to the suggestion.

Overall Thoughts

Dungeon is a solid starting adventure for new or new-to-GURPS players, as well as roleplaying veterans. There is a solid hook with a straightforward plot, and the adventure showcases the depth of GURPS characters and rules.

The presentation could be improved in a couple of areas: providing a high-level overview for the GM to get their bearings and having player-facing maps are the two biggest opportunities. There also could be greater depth in the side quests, extra hooks, or follow-on adventure suggestions. Overall, though, this volume accomplishes its goal of getting players playing as soon as possible.

DFRPG Review: Monsters

This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series Dungeon Fantasy RPG Review

The fourth volume of the Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game is the bestiary of enemies standing between the characters and their loot. Monsters is a 66 page PDF written by Sean Punch.

Covers and Front Matter

Cover of DFPRG: Monsters
Cover of DFPRG: Monsters

Once again, the front cover of this volume sets the scene for adventure. A ghastly army of undead, accompanied by a flaming skull and a lich, prepare to take on the trespassing adventurers.

The back cover is primarily a reference for the hex grid. There is a table showing how many hexes creatures of various size occupy and diagrams for facing. The size and speed/range table is also included, as are rules for randomly rolling wandering monsters. The information here is helpful, but it won’t be referred to as frequently as the rules on the other covers.

The one page Introduction has a few tips for determining what monsters to throw at the PCs. Much of the advice boils down to “read the stat blocks and think”; more guidance for new GMs would have been useful.

Monsters in Action

The first chapter is five pages long and gives general GM advice for running monsters. The chapter is divided into two main sections: one from the delvers’ point of view and one from the monsters’ point of view.

The delvers’ POV explains how the PCs can interact with monsters prior to fighting. There are rules for recognizing what kinds of creatures they are facing, identifying weaknesses, and avoiding fights through stealth, negotiation, or trickery. This information is useful, particularly for new players, but putting it in the Monsters volume instead of Exploits means that players may not read it and may instead depend on the GM to let them know what options they have.

The monsters’ POV highlights combat rules that will be important for antagonists, which are referenced back to Exploits. This section includes several pages on how monsters think in combat, suggesting ideas for tactics, using terrain, and other helpful advice for the GM.

Monster Traits

The second chapter is a six-page list of various traits that monsters have. These traits show up as keywords in the monster descriptions, so GMs will need to refer to this chapter frequently while they are learning the game.

This chapter is dense: with the exception of a pair of sidebars and two small illustrations, there is nothing but traits and their definitions. Fortunately, the traits themselves are written clearly.

The Bestiary

The remainder of the main text—48 pages—is devoted to monster descriptions. There are about 80 monster groupings, with many of the groupings including variations or various species.

There’s a lot of positives in this section. There is a great selection of monsters; the list includes everything from giant spiders and direwolfs to dragons and liches. There are a variety of Elder Things that are grotesque to the human mind, zombies that want to eat minds, and slimes that have no mind. Each creature has at least a couple paragraphs of description for how it functions in combat, and there are enough mechanical differences between creatures that combats will feel unique. GMs can find creatures to fit almost any scene in this volume.

Unfortunately, finding the right creatures is not easy. There are a lot of organization and layout issues that make this chapter less functional than it should be. The monsters are listed alphabetically, but in a haphazard way. Orcs are under G (for “Goblin-Kin,” along with goblins and hobgoblins), but acid spider and giant spider are under A and G, respectively, while erupting slime, slime, and undead Slime are distributed through E, S, and U. Horde zombies are under H, while normal zombies are under Z. Elementals are grouped together under E, but ice weasels and ice wyrms are listed under I (while cold dragons are included with the dragon listing under D).

There is a long list of “Giant X” entries instead of putting entries under Ape, Giant; Rat, Giant; etc. Giant apes are listed with the other giant creatures, while flesh-eating apes and gladiator apes reside in their own area of the alphabet.

The bottom line is that the alphabetical listing is inconsistent. There are no other ways to look up creatures. Despite the suggestion in the Introduction for GMs to find monsters that fit the environment, there is no index to find creatures by environment. There’s also no way to look up creatures by how challenging they are to adventures, a point that I will come back to shortly.

The layout of this chapter is also subpar. Monster stat blocks frequently break across pages, making it difficult to look at a monster on a tablet at the table. There are a handful of sidebars in this chapter, but their placement seems random. The sidebar on Creating Monsters is buried in the second-to-last page of the chapter, when it should be featured front and center in this book; the poor placement ensures that GMs will miss this important information unless they read the book cover to cover. Some sidebars include information that is important for creatures that are many pages away, with no info in the monsters’ block that tells the GM to look at that sidebar. Several sidebars are even put in the middle of stat blocks, instead of between monster entries, making it even harder to reference the monsters’ information at the table. In the PDF, the sidebars also disrupt the digital outline; in the other volumes the interruptions are not bad, but in the alphabetical listing of monsters the entries for the sidebars add unhelpful noise.

The other layout problem is that monster stat blocks still feel like dense lists of traits, especially for more complex creatures. Adventurers made huge progress in simplifying character templates; it’s a shame that a key component of the monster stats remains a run-on paragraph listing of keywords & trait levels.

Although most of the Dungeon Fantasy books have been thin on interior art, the bestiary is one place where the lack of art feels like a genuinely inferior product, and not merely a missed opportunity. The industry norm for high-end games is a fully illustrated bestiary, and the mere 11 illustrations in this chapter fall well short of that standard. Worse, several of the images are dedicated to relatively obvious creatures like the giant rat, giant spider, and zombie; unique creatures like the as-Sharak, karkadann, and Watcher at the Edge of Time are confined to the text. The cartoon style of illustrations also feels cheap, and it’s inconsistent with the imagery featured in the gorgeous front covers.

As mentioned earlier, there is no way for GMs to quickly determine how lethal creatures are. GURPS combat has so many options and so many diverse character types that a fully worked out challenge system is probably an unrealistic goal. But, GURPS needs to provide more to GMs than the meager advice in Monsters and Exploits. At the very minimum, breaking creatures into tiers of difficulty could help GMs build encounters. A simple three tier system would be 1) monsters that PCs should be able to handle in packs, 2) monsters strong enough to challenge a party on their own or in pairs, and 3) monsters that PCs need exceptional luck, planning, or resources to tackle successfully.

Back Matter

The last two pages of the book are an index, with separate sub-indices for advantages, disadvantages, and monsters, and a page for GMs to take notes on creature, trap, and disease stats. The monster index alleviates some of the organizational issues in the bestiary; there is a standalone entry for orcs, and the various types of golems, slimes, etc. scattered through the alphabet are grouped together under the appropriate headword. However, the separate main index, advantage index, and disadvantage index seem unnecessary. The GM notes page is fine, although the diseases and traps pages seem like a more natural fit for Exploits than Monsters.

Overall Thoughts

This book exemplifies the highs and lows of the Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game. The content of the bestiary is great; there is a wide variety of creatures, and the various abilities show off the versatility of GURPS. While combats in other hack-and-slash games can feel mechanically repetitive, the richness of GURPS combat (and GURPS characters in general) comes through in how different it feels fighting zombies and flaming skulls.

On the other hand, the production value of this volume is low. The layout makes it hard to use the text in game, and the organization challenges the GM’s ability to find what they need when preparing. There is too much admonition without concrete guidance to help new GMs build their combat encounters, and the meager art is well below expectations for a major RPG publisher in 2017.

DFRPG Review: Spells

This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series Dungeon Fantasy RPG Review

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

Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game: Spells cover
Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game: Spells

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 Spellbook

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.

Back Matter

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.

Overall Thoughts

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.

DFRPG Review: Exploits

This entry is part 2 of 6 in the series Dungeon Fantasy RPG Review

This post dives into the second book included with the Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game (DFRPG), produced by Steve Jackson Games through a Kickstarter campaign. If you missed the review of Adventurers, the first volume, you can find a link in the sidebar.

As a brief reminder: DFRPG is a standalone GURPS product for roleplaying hack-and-slash dungeon delving. It is fully compatible with other GURPS publications but does not require anything beyond the boxed set. The goal of this product is to give new-to-GURPS players an accessible starting point for one of the most popular genres of tabletop roleplaying games.

The focus of Adventurers was player characters, and especially character creation. Exploits covers what those characters do and how to run the game they are in. It is also written by Sean Punch.

The Covers & Front Matter

Cover of Exploits book
Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game: Exploits

Like with the Adventurers volume, the front cover of Exploits features a beautiful, thematic image of the kinds of scenes players can expect to confront while dungeon delving. The back cover has likewise been converted into a reference page with an assortment of GM rules: light and vision penalties, wounding modifiers, falling damage, and throwing distance/damage.

Using the back cover as a reference is a good idea, but the selected rules definitely suggest a crunchy version of the game. In particular, the wounding modifiers take up half the page because they are broken down by type of damage, hit location, and living/unliving/homogenous status. Whether that’s too much detail for gaming groups or a helpful reference for a frequently used mechanic will depend on how quickly the GM can become comfortable with the rules options chosen for Dungeon Fantasy.

The introduction for this volume is a single page that summarizes what is in the book. Exploits is explicitly not pitched as a gamemaster guide: it is intended for use by both GMs and players so they each can discover what they can do during the game.

Rolling the Dice

The first chapter uses only eight pages to explain everything dice-related except for damage rolls. There are a lot of improvements in this chapter compared to the Basic Set.

The chapter opens with success rolls. Generic task difficulty modifiers are featured more prominently than in Basic Set, although there isn’t explicit permission for GMs to use task difficulty modifiers to ballpark whenever they don’t want to reach for the full rules. Team-based skill use is highlighted in a prominent sidebar.

One of the bigger changes from the Basic Set is how fright checks are handled. Failed fright checks used to require rolling on a lengthy table to determine the consequence. Now, the GM instead gets to pick a disadvantage for the PC, with the point cost of the disadvantage determined by how badly he or she failed the fright check. This approach greatly simplifies fright checks.

Influence skills are also simplified, although the result is mixed. Sex appeal no longer has better or worse results than other influence skills, which is a nice decision to eliminate a rules exception. But, there is no discussion about how influence skills are about the approach taken rather than the content, which may make influence skills seem more limited. There’s also a weird organizational choice here: the rules on fright checks are sandwiched between influence skills and reaction rolls, and the reaction roll section still has a paragraph on influence skills that feels repetitive. It seems like the influence skill rules should have just been put inside the reaction roll section.

With the exception of that odd organization detail, this chapter reads well. The explanations are concise and omit details that aren’t relevant to the hack-and-slash genre.

Dungeon Delving

The second chapter, which is 13 pages long, sets up the basic dynamic of a dungeon adventure: beginning in town, traveling to the dungeon, exploring and surviving, returning, and recovering for the next round.

This chapter is rich in ideas for what PCs can do during the game, and both players and the GM should read it for inspiration. The suggestions also showcase how GURPS’ lengthier skill lists can be used to make the game interesting. The one negative to this approach is that there aren’t explicit statements that the players or GM shouldn’t be limited by these suggestions, and newer participants may feel like the ideas are prescriptive rather than suggestions.

The rules for physical feats seem more relevant than in Basic Set; the volume does a good job of using the dungeon dive context to motivate the feats discussed. However, the level of detail is inconsistent. For instance, the Basic Set rules for how quickly PCs can climb have been eliminated, but there is still a table to look up how far an object can be thrown based on its weight and the PC strength. There are some oddly specific feats discussed in detail, such as how two PCs can lift each other up a ledge or how to jump and kick off one obstacle to get to a higher one. This section may have benefited from a change of voice—by working through how to estimate a task difficulty modifier using these feats as examples, a new GM would be more able to choose relevant penalties during a game for all kinds of unusual situations.

While the ideas in this chapter are thought-provoking, there is very little flavor beyond the text. There is only one half-page image and a couple of pull quotes to build atmosphere. Compared to other major RPGs, the text-heavy approach feels unpolished.

Fighting

At 33 pages, the combat chapter is more than twice as long as any of the other chapters in this book. It’s clear that combat is expected to be a major part of dungeon fantasy games, and there is a lot of crunch packed into this chapter.

In some ways, dungeon fantasy combat is required to be crunchier than the standard combat system in the Basic Set. Movement points are used instead throughout the chapter, hex maps are assumed, and there’s no discussion of turning off options like knockback, hit locations, or damage to objects. There’s a lot to absorb here, and new-to-GURPS players will probably need to read through a couple of times to get it all.

There are some nice touches in this chapter. There is a short discussion of how the GM can set the scene for the combat. The evaluate maneuver has been eliminated as underpowered. The last two pages are dedicated to ideas for using noncombat skills in battle, such as giving an inspiring speech to your allies or taunting animals to take their attention off weaker party members.

This chapter straddles the line between providing a combat system that is rich enough to keep dungeon fantasy interesting and describing a combat system that is simple enough for players to jump in. It doesn’t strike a bad balance, but it could have been improved by using examples for some of the more complicated rules or flagging some rules as optional or advanced variants.

Bad Things

The fourth chapter covers all the rules for injury, fatigue loss, and other afflictions and ailments. The presentation is well-written and there is nothing here than is foreign to the Basic Set.

Like the combat chapter, many of the rules that are optional in the Basic Set are assumed to be on for Dungeon Fantasy. For instance, major wounds and crippling injuries are required rules for injury, and the starvation rules for fatigue loss are also mandatory. It’s clear that this decision was guided by the genre considerations, but it does impose an additional burden on new GMs.

The biggest complaint about this chapter is that the Other Pain and Suffering section is weirdly organized. Traps are included in a list with other damage sources like acid, flame, and poison instead of being their own section of things that can cause various types of injury, and the rules for detecting and disarming traps feel out of place in this listing. The afflictions category is also a catchall for a wide variety of conditions. While that’s consistent with how afflictions function in GURPS, it’s not obvious to a new player what that list contains or where within the affliction subcategories they should look to find a specific kind of suffering.

Treasure

The entire point of dungeon exploration in the Dungeon Fantasy game is loot, so chapter 5 is dedicated to treasure. This is a short and functional chapter; it’s only eight pages long and the focus is on the basics of what can be in a dungeon. There are the standard coins, precious metals and jewels, but also unique items like art, maps, and spellbooks.

Towards the start of the chapter, there is some helpful GM advice to err on the side of more treasure rather than less, with some suggestions on how to handle when the players accidentally get too much.

This chapter also includes magic items, but the treatment is fairly abbreviated. There are no examples except for magic items with a specific mechanical function, like an enhanced shield that gives a +1 bonus. The most exotic item is the loyal weapon, which flies back to the owner if it is dropped or thrown.

While this chapter is functional, there’s not a lot of depth to inspire GMs. It’s a good thing that one of the supplement books produced during the Kickstarter focused on magic items.

Game Mastering

The final chapter is a 15-page smorgasbord of topics for GMs to consider as they plan and run the game. The topic selection is good, especially for new GMs, but beginners may need more depth than this chapter provides. There are also some organizational challenges in this chapter; it reads as a list of thoughts rather than a logical sequence.

The chapter begins with a brief description of the GM’s duties. This section helpfully clarifies that, although the GM is running the opposition to the players, the GM’s role is to provide challenges rather than be an adversary, and that the goal is for everyone to have fun.

The next section of the chapter covers dungeon design and preparation. This section has some good worldbuilding questions to guide the GM’s thinking. There are very detailed statistics for game world stuff (e.g., the DR for various door materials); the depth of mechanics feels out of place in this chapter, but the information can certainly be useful during a campaign.

The risk of the way information is presented is that it creates the impression that gamemastering must be a prep-heavy activity. New GMs won’t find much advice for how to estimate or make decisions on-the-fly. The implication is that gamemasters have to know all the answers to what their dungeon looks like and how it functions in order for the players to have fun.

This section also contains a page or so of advice for balancing encounters. Some of the advice is concrete and actionable, e.g., make sure at least one enemy can hurt your best protected PC, but can’t outright kill the weakest one. Other advice tells what to consider but doesn’t follow through with what to do about it. For instance, the text suggests incorporating monsters that have a high Dodge ability, but doesn’t tell what changes to make in order to compensate (such as having those creatures deal less damage). This section is a step in the right direction for GURPS, but there’s still room for improvement in the thoroughness of the advice.

There is a helpful sidebar for extending the game beyond the dungeon into the wilderness or parallel planes. As I noted in the Adventurers review, Dungeon Fantasy is explicitly positioning itself as a “quest for loot” game, which is a narrower focus than other fantasy RPGs on the market today, and this sidebar sticks to that focus. There are good reasons for the narrower scope, as well as reasonable objections; it will be interesting to see how the market reacts to that choice.

The second section of the chapter segues from preparing the dungeon to GM advice for running the game. There’s a variety of topics in this section, ranging from how to structure a session, adventure, and campaign to dealing with players.

There’s a couple of highlights in this section. For new GMs in particular, the advice about how to structure sessions and adventures is welcome. The suggestions for how to make each profession useful are good ideas to keep each PC relevant. Because GURPS games can result in PC death or dismemberment, there are a couple of pages of advice for keeping the PCs alive and adapting when things go wrong (although some of the suggestions could use more detail on how to implement them).

However, there is a particularly heavy-handed way for dealing with table talk: impose the “if you say it, your character says it” rule. This approach can be used successfully, but it can also be antagonistic—especially if the GM isn’t reflecting on why the players are engaged in table talk.

The final section of the chapter discusses character advancement. It’s a very mechanical process of counting worthy monsters, found bonus areas, and the like; it would have been nice to see a bigger-picture framework for character advancement before getting the laundry list of calculations. There’s a list of rules for what players can spend character points on; one of the nice touches is a list of how each profession can exceed the general limit on trait levels in specific areas.

Back Matter

The back matter begins with eight pages of reference tables: attack and defense modifiers, maneuvers and postures, critical hit and miss effects, etc. The format is similar to the Basic Set. For some reason, the explanation of the size and speed/range table is separated by a page break from the table itself.

There’s a two page example of play. This imagined dialogue among the GM and players is a great addition. It illustrates lots of the game mechanics and concretely demonstrates what a GURPS session sounds like. Any future book that has beginners in its intended audience should have a segment like this (and ideally towards the front of the book!).

The example of play is followed by an index, a one page ad, and four pages of GM sheets for recording character and adventure info.

Overall Thoughts

Exploits is a solid volume. It covers the mechanics of the game well and gives enough advice for gamemasters to start running sessions. There’s a clear awareness of the issues that new players and GMs struggle with and a conscious effort to address those concerns. The execution on those efforts is not perfect, but it’s moving in the right direction.

It’s not a great volume, though: it still implies that GURPS is a rules-heavy game that is prescriptive and requires lots of session prep. Tighter organization, more high-level summaries before diving into rules minutiae, and better indications of what is optional would make this a stronger book. It’s a definite improvement over the Basic Set, but it’s not outstanding work like Adventurers.

Exploits also feels at times like a perfunctory, mechanical work. The lack of thematically rich items or other sources of flavor is apparent. The sparse artwork and text-heavy layout contributes to this feeling. Exploring for gold may be a rational economic choice for adventurers, but this book doesn’t showcase the excitement, mystery, and wonder that such explorations can provide.

DFRPG Review: Adventurers

This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series Dungeon Fantasy RPG Review

The Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game is here! This series of reviews will cover the Dungeon Fantasy game materials created by Steve Jackson Games in their recent Kickstarter campaign.

In case you hadn’t heard of this Kickstarter, the Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game (DFRPG) is a standalone GURPS product designed to bring new players into GURPS through the hack-and-slash fantasy genre. DFRPG is fully compatible with other GURPS resources, from the Basic Set on. It is based on the Dungeon Fantasy line of PDFs for GURPS, which is a worked example of how to use GURPS for the adventuring genre. Unlike the previous Dungeon Fantasy materials, the DFRPG is designed so it can be played without the GURPS core books: it is a fully self-contained game.

In order to make the game more appealing to new players, DFRPG does most of the heavy lifting to bring the game to the table. The rules presentation is streamlined, there are fully developed templates to speed up character creation, and there is even an included adventure to get started. DFRPG sits somewhere between a starter set and a core RPG rulebook: it has more material than a starter set, so GMs can run a full campaign based on the material here, but it strips away many options that are presented in the full GURPS Basic Set to focus on what makes dungeon-based adventuring exciting.

The Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game includes five books. This review looks at the Adventurers volume, which is written by Sean Punch, the GURPS line editor. At this point, the physical versions haven’t been shipped, so I’m reviewing the PDF version. This volume is 130 pages.

The Covers

Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game: Adventurers cover
Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game: Adventurers

Just by looking at the cover, the reader knows that this is not just another GURPS product. The art is a full-color, full-cover spread that immediately evokes a mood of danger. The cover art also depicts a diverse cast of dungeoneers, which is a welcome addition to the visual world.

The back cover has also been changed. Instead of a standard blurb about the book, the back cover has been filled with charts and tables for players to reference during the game. The idea of using the back covers as reference aids is new to DFRPG, and it immediately makes the game feel more accessible. The back cover of Adventurers includes a list of skills by attribute, rules for success rolls, and a table of task difficulty modifiers. The tables are well-chosen: players will often want to refer to these lists during character creation and play.

Some Introductions

After the table of contents, DFRPG begins with a four page introduction to roleplaying in general and the dungeon fantasy genre in particular. These pages feature a glossary of many RPG terms, an explanation of how dice work in GURPS, and most importantly: a clear statement about what dungeon fantasy is.

The framing of this genre is simple: go exploring dungeons for treasure. This is not setting up adventurers who seek glory, to right wrongs in the world, or are summoned by desperate need. The focus is on finding loot, killing the bad things that stand in the way, and making it back to safety.

The chosen framing is a mixed blessing. On the positive side, there is a strong vision of what dungeon fantasy looks like, and that vision makes it possible to create good character templates, straightforward presentations of the relevant rules, and a coherent subset of GURPS’ possibilities. On the other hand, this is a narrower focus than many other games in this genre. There’s little room in this vision for political intrigue, adventuring to save the world, or non-loot based activities. GURPS definitely supports those kinds of games, and the DFRPG ruleset is fully compatible with the rules from Basic Set that enable those campaigns, but there is only minimal support for those options within the DFRPG itself.

There’s a tradeoff between making the game easily accessible and supporting a variety of campaign styles. DFRPG unapologetically errs on the side of accessibility. It’s a defensible choice, but it will be interesting to see if the market agrees with the balance that the GURPS staff chose.

Basics

Chapter 1 is a six page introduction to GURPS characters. In short, GURPS is a point-buy system, and dungeon fantasy characters are built on a 250 point budget. This chapter covers the most essential elements of characters: the four basic attributes and the secondary characteristics.

This section is concise; in particular, the presentation of secondary characteristics is more straightforward than in Basic Set. It is clear that the rules have been rewritten with a focus on how these traits function within the dungeon fantasy context. Traits like character age, status, and languages are either dramatically simplified, eliminated, or simply treated as 0-point features. As a result, this chapter is a dramatic improvement in accessibility compared to the equivalent section of Basic Set.

Professions

The first chapter introduced the basics of GURPS characters; chapter two covers the heavy lifting for character creation. In 30 pages, this chapter presents full templates for 11 common dungeon adventurers.

It’s clear that templates are the preferred way to create characters in DFRPG; there’s a short section explaining that players can build characters on their own, but the templates are intended to eliminate the difficulties new players and GMs face in getting games started.

There are a lot of improvements in the template format compared to previous GURPS products. The templates are written in two columns, use white space effectively to group elements, begin traits on a new line to improve readability, and eliminate the cumbersome notation for built advantage packages and skills from Basic Set. Each template also has useful customization notes and explanations of profession-specific elements, making it easier for new players to grasp what the template does. The biggest drawback to the new template format is that relative skill levels aren’t listed, so it’s harder for new players to realize what needs to change if they choose an advantage or disadvantage option that modifies an attribute.

The 11 included professions span a range of typical adventuring heroes: barbarians, clerics, druids, knights, thieves, wizards, and more. There aren’t any of the obscurer professions like tinkerers or alchemists, and the range of magic-users is somewhat limited, but the choices for what classes to include seem right.

This chapter is one of the best sections not only of this book but of the GURPS line in general. Yet, there were some missed opportunities to create atmosphere and help players connect with the characters. There is very little art in this chapter: only one half-page illustration and two quarter-page images. There are some pull quotes in the voices of fictional adventurers that compensate somewhat, but compared to other big name RPG products this chapter is text-heavy and light on inspiring visuals.

Races

The third chapter is a brief (four page) discussion of character races. In GURPS, a race is a template package that is purchased as a single block, and is paid for in lieu of some of the advantages on a professional template.

This chapter has eight racial templates. Most are humanoid; the most exotic is the cat-folk. The templates themselves are clearly presented, and the text is much improved over the Basic Set (and even the previous Dungeon Fantasy publications) in how to mix a racial template with a professional template.

Like chapter 2, there’s nothing wrong with the choices here, but they may feel thin to some players. Some more exotic racial templates would be welcome, as would more art to evoke the world in which these races live (there is only one quarter-page image in this chapter).

Advantages and Disadvantages

Compared to the Basic Set, the mere nine pages on advantages and 14 pages of disadvantages in DFRPG is dramatically streamlined. Most of the complicated options for changing these traits have been eliminated, and the focus on genre-specific elements comes through clearly.

There’s not much to say about the traits themselves. The GURPS fan can work backwards to determine how the advantages were built from the Basic Set if they want, but there’s no need. Because DFRPG does the work for the players, the list here is a set of ready-to-play options instead of an instruction manual for how to build a particular effect. This is another chapter where the new-to-GURPS experience has been improved.

Likewise, the disadvantages are chosen strategically to fit the genre, and the presentation is improved. Because some disadvantages have self-control rolls, there’s a little more work to explain the disadvantage rules. But, the chapter remains accessible and beginner-friendly.

Skills

The meat of GURPS gameplay is the skill system, so the chapter on skills is important. This chapter is another improvement over GURPS Basic Set. First, the list of skills is much more accessible because it’s shorter and more focused on the genre needs. In addition, the explanation of skill details such as defaults, how to calculate skill levels with advantages, and the advice for how to use skills in game is explained better than in Basic Set.

Because DFRPG is fully compatible with GURPS, the skill system retains the skill difficulty rules. These rules can be a stumbling block for new players, but the choice to preserve backwards compatibility makes sense.

There are a couple of places in which the skill list presentation is modified from previous volumes. In particular, the melee weapon skills are all grouped together. There’s a little inconsistency here because ranged skills are still listed separately and thrown weapon skills are handled with required specializations, but the idea of grouping the skills has been used in other GURPS publications (such as the Discworld Roleplaying Game) and it’s a move in the right direction.

Cash and Gear

The final chapter, on money and equipment, uses 23 pages to discuss everything from currency to magical items. There are some notable successes in this chapter. The advice for choosing weapons is a welcome addition for new players. There is some worldbuilding flavor in the modifiers for equipment (e.g., magic-immune tools are meteoric, and non-breakable weapons are made for orichalcum).

The tables of equipment are virtually identical to what is presented in the Basic Set. There’s plenty of options to keep players happy, and there are enough options on how to add enhancements for GMs to have loot to dangle in front of the PCs.

The section on magic items is short, and the focus is on functional items (like a +2 weapon) rather than creative artifacts. Fortunately, there is a supplement on magic items that was also funded in the Kickstarter, but this book would have benefited from a larger section here.

Because the magic items are function-driven, there’s not a lot of need for art to create character in this chapter. On the other hand, it’s another place where other RPGs use more art to evoke a specific mood or visualize unusual weapons. The lack of art in this chapter is another missed opportunity to create atmosphere and engagement.

Back Matter

The volume ends with ten pages of back matter. There’s an appendix with two sample characters, fully built out with character portraits and design notes. The design notes are a great addition, and the headshots help the characters feel alive.

The index is broken into several parts: a main index and then separate sub-indices for advantages, disadvantages, and skills. This list doesn’t quite fill the same niche as the trait list in Basic Set or the cheat sheet of dungeon delver traits in Dungeon Fantasy 1 – Adventurers (the original dungeon fantasy line PDF)—the trait lists are better for getting a big picture of what is available to dungeon fantasy characters—but it’s functional.

After a one-page ad for OGRE (another SJ Games product), the PDF ends with a blank four page character sheet. The sheet has minor organizational improvements compared to the Basic Set character sheet, but there is no fillable PDF form and four pages is a lengthy character sheet.

Overall Thoughts

Because Adventurers is only one part of the Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game package, I’m going to review the package as a whole instead of giving a score to each part. Overall, this book does an excellent job at introducing GURPS characters, simplifying character creation, and making it easy for players to jump into a dungeon fantasy game. The biggest drawback is the lack of art to bring the world to life.

For new players, this book is a huge improvement on the character creation experience from the Basic Set. Adventurers should be the model for future worked genre or setting-specific versions of GURPS.

 

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.

 

Balancing GURPS Combat: Odds to Hit

One of the keys to being a confident GURPS GM is to understand how to create combat encounters that are balanced to the party’s abilities. This post will look at a critical element of combat balance: how likely each side is to land blows. GMs should consider the defensive abilities of the combatants when evaluating how challenging an encounter will be.

Start With Defense

It doesn’t matter how much damage an attack can deal if the blow never lands. Unless the attacker rolls a critical success, the defender gets to attempt a defense roll. As a result, defensive skill is extraordinarily important.

The table below shows the chances of landing a hit based on the effective skills of the attacker and defender. The first thing you should notice is that the attacker’s skill makes a big difference when the defender’s skill is low. However, once the defender’s effective skill gets above 10, most attackers will eek out a hit only one out of three attempts, at best.

Odds to Hit for Effective Attack vs Defense Skills
Odds to Hit for Effective Attack vs Defense Skills

So, when judging how difficult a combat encounter is, the first question should be: how well can each side defend? If the player characters are facing an opponent that has a base active defense skill above 10, they need to have ways to lower the effective defense skill in order to expect to land blows with any regularity. Conversely, if the players have a high active defense skill, the opponents should have ways to lower the effective skill in order to put the characters into jeopardy.

When Defense Isn’t Enough

Defense skills are important for balancing combat, but there are some situations in which even the best defensive skills aren’t enough:

  • Lethal damage: if an attack can do lethal damage with a single blow, then a high defense skill doesn’t eliminate the risk—it just makes the outcome a high-stakes gamble. A single good (or bad) dice roll can radically change the result, so the GM needs to be prepared to handle the worst.
  • Area effects: when an attack targets a large area, there may be no active defense possible. Area effects may give PCs a way to take down NPCs with extremely high active defense skills, but opponents can also use these effects to circumvent player defenses.
  • Mental attacks: Physical defenses are useless against mental assaults. If a character can terrify an opponent, manipulate their senses, or otherwise get inside their antagonist’s head, the GM should think about how that will play out in combat.
  • Surprise attacks: Finally, active defenses are useless if the target never sees the attack coming. The players (or NPCs) can make tactical decisions to give themselves the element of surprise during the combat, but the GM should also think about whether one side can set up an ambush before the battle is joined.

Estimating GURPS Skill Levels

GURPS is a skill-based roleplaying game. If you understand how skill levels work mechanically, you can run or play a game. It’s easy to lose sight of the skill system because GURPS has elaborate options for character customization. But, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, you can always strip the system back to skills in order to create a manageable gaming experience.

The GURPS Skill Triangle

In play, GURPS skills are driven by three factors: the base skill level, the effective skill level, and the task difficulty modifiers. These three elements make up what I call the GURPS Skill Triangle. If you understand how the Triangle is put together, you can easily improvise challenges in GURPS.

Base Skill Level

The base skill level is what level the character has listed for a skill on their character sheet. The Basic Set gives the following descriptions for what base skill levels represent (paraphrasing from p. B172):

  • Ordinary folks have base skill levels ranging from 8 to 13. Skills important to the character’s profession tend to be at level 12 or 13; rarely used skills are often at level 8 or 9.
  • Experts have skill levels that go higher. In general, even a master in the field will usually max out a specific skill at 20 or 25, preferring to study complimentary skills instead of pushing an elite skill above level 25.

Base skill levels below 10 are poorly known skills; the character can succeed at the task on occasion or with aid, but frequently struggles with the ability. At skill levels 10 or 11, the character is more often successful but their abilities are still inconsistent. At level 12, skills are solid enough to cover most occupational demands (whether that be swinging a sword, negotiating a settlement, or navigating a bureaucracy). And, at levels 14 and above, the person demonstrates mastery of their ability.

Task Difficulty Modifiers

Of course, some tasks are more difficult than others. The second leg of the Triangle, task difficulty modifiers, is a catch-all for the situational modifiers that apply to a given success roll. This can include bonuses for using complimentary skills or easier-than-average conditions, penalties for poor equipment or working at a different tech level—anything that changes the odds of success. GURPS has rules that codify the modifiers for a variety of situations, but GMs can also use generic task difficulty modifiers to indicate that a task is more or less challenging.

The default task difficulty, +0, represents using the skill under normal adventuring conditions. Ordinary, everyday situations are less stressful and therefore get bonuses to reflect the less challenging circumstances. By contrast, tasks that would give pause to even brave adventurers receive task difficulty penalties in order to reflect the challenge of the situation.

Basic Set pp. B345–B346 describes the range of typical task difficulties, from +10 (automatic success except for flukes of chance) all the way to -10 (impossible tasks that no sane person would attempt).

Effective Skill Level

The third side of the Triangle, effective skill level, is the result of combining the other two sides. The base skill level + the sum of all the relevant task difficulty modifiers results in the effective skill level.

Players make success rolls against the effective skill level of their character, so effective skill levels correspond directly to the chances of success (the full table is listed on p. B171):

  • Below effective skill 8, the odds of success are 16.2% or less (depending on the specific skill level).
  • Effective skill 8 will succeed 25.9% of the time.
  • Effective skill 9 will succeed 37.5% of the time.
  • Effective skill 10 will succeed 50% of the time.
  • Effective skill 11 will succeed 62.5% of the time.
  • Effective skill 12 will succeed 74.1% of the time.
  • The odds of success continue increasing for each additional skill level, albeit at a smaller rate as the levels increase.
  • Once a character hits an effective skill of 16, their success is capped at 98.1% (because of the fixed chance of rolling a failure or critical failure).

Using the Triangle

Because all three sides of the Triangle are connected, GMs can manipulate the Triangle in order to produce the results that a game situation demands.

Let’s say that a PC wants investigate a crime scene. The base skill level is set: just read the character sheet to see what the PC has for Investigation. The GM can set the task difficulty modifier based on how complex the scene is, which will produce the effective skill level for that situation.

But, the GM can also work backwards. Let’s say that, for narrative reasons, the GM wants the PC to have just slightly better-than-even odds of finding a specific clue. Perhaps the GM wants to reward the PCs for finding some leads earlier (which narrow down the search) but still wants to emphasize that the PCs don’t have the whole story. In that case, the GM can use the Triangle to figure out how to create the desired effective skill level of 11. If the PC has a base skill of Investigation-15, the GM needs to describe the situation in order to justify a task difficulty modifier of -4. The GM could therefore describe the apparent disorder of the scene, the lack of immediately obvious signs, or the short amount of time the PCs have until the cops arrive and kick them out of the scene.

The GM can keep working backwards through the Triangle in order to flesh out the relevant NPCs. Suppose the player characters are trying to track a bandit through the forest. The players know the task difficulty modifier for that situation: -4 because of poor weather and unfamiliar terrain. If they fail, but they encounter a ranger who can hunt down the bandit easily, it’s clear that the ranger has a much higher base skill because he can absorb the tracking penalties and still have a high effective skill level.  The PCs may want to befriend this ranger in order to take advantage of his superior talents!

On the other hand, the Triangle can be used to show that the NPCs aren’t as skilled as the players might expect. If the PCs observe a mage working a ritual, and the mage surrounds herself with lots of props in order to power the ritual but still barely eeks out a successful casting, that tells the players that the mage had a relatively low effective skill despite a high bonus for the task difficulty, which implies that she has a low base skill for ritual magic. If the players are normally cautious, this kind of information about the mage can help them assess how dangerous she would be when cornered.

Quick-and-Dirty Skill Levels

Finally, the GM can take advantage of the Triangle to simplify non-player character building. Instead of figuring out what skill levels NPCs should have before the game, the GM can use the Triangle to come up with plausible character stats on the fly.

Because the three sides of the Triangle are linked, the GM can use any two of the three elements to estimate the third side. An NPC should probably succeed on a task? Assume the NPC has an effective skill of 14, determine how difficult the task is, and then derive the base skill level from those two factors. Or, if the NPC has a base skill already established but he or she should likely fail at a task in this situation, work out the task difficulty modifiers so that his or her effective skill is 8 or less.

Applying the Skill Triangle

GURPS often requires GM judgment. By understanding the Skill Triangle, GMs can check their ballpark estimates to make sure that their judgment calls fit the game. Is a task penalty too harsh? Check what effect it has on the odds of success for the new effective skill. Is a base skill level too low for the campaign? Ask what kind of difficulty penalties the character will have to deal with on a regular basis, and see whether the resulting effective skill level is high enough to challenge the players without overwhelming them. Are the characters being challenged enough? Look at what their effective skill is, and adjust the task difficulty modifiers until the players feel a genuine sense of risk.

The Triangle enables GMs to check their work by comparing the game mechanics to the narrative descriptions those mechanics represent. If one side of the Triangle is out of whack, the GM can refine the mechanics until all the elements make sense together.

 

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.