This is a very comprehensive review of Action 1. I had started to write one post per chapter, but even I find that annoying after a bit. So I’m combining my two prior posts with this one, which finishes up with chapters 3 and 4. The review is almost 4,500 words long . . . so buckle up.
I’m going to drop the page break here, because otherwise it’s the same as the prior post – but it does more than just repeat them, it finishes out the review and adds the summary.
Great, so you went out and purchased GURPS Action 1: Heroes. Excellent choice. Your discernment makes you a paragon among men.
So open it up. Read the introduction. Good. Read it again.
Now read it again.
Got it? Good, because it’s that important.
No surprise for +Sean Punch, but I’m not kidding when I say that the introduction is very key to this entire series. In six tightly written paragraphs, our fearless author sets out some very important caveats for the book. They’re important enough that I’m going to deal with just this one page in a post by itself.
|Ninja Nazis. We hate these guys.|
- The book covers the style and feel of roughly a century of storytelling. The feel, plots, and archetypes derive from the pulps of the 1920s and 1930s. The visual style is pure cinema, from the 1930s through the 1950s, where good was good, bad was bad, and we hate Nazis. Finally, the high-caliber full-auto violence derives from the hard-edged 80s and 90s, when even comic books bled. Oh, and we’re borrowing the loving care for gear lavished on decades of appearances by Q. This one, not that one.
- This book is around character design guidelines. They will be deep enough to allow fidelity to the genre
- The games will involve nonstop thrills and tension. If you have a down moment, it better because there’s a ticking bomb, or two ninjas/Nazis (or better yet, ninja Nazis!) getting ready to kick in the door. If it’s not high octane, you are expected to brush by it. The only real room for realistic but unexciting skills is to provide a moment of levity or to be used to obtain clues. But if you can make obtaining them exciting . . . do that instead.
- Most action/adventure movies feature a lone hero or perhaps a pair. Indiana Jones. Murtaugh and Riggs. Rambo. Riddick. Bond. However, most RPG groups are more than that – somewhere between the six in the GI Joe films, or the assault team from the first Predator movie or the Colonial Marines from Aliens. Well, before they all get killed. Fewer cast members than The Expendables. A superhero team like the Avengers would come close, but it’s not quite the right genre feel. The team from Ronin is about perfect (which it’s why it’s mentioned in the text, along with Ocean’s Eleven and Sneakers).
- Characters are defined by what they do, and the book will define them by niche. There will be a flavor-lens for exactly that – and those lenses will be useful – but in the words of Kuato, you are what you do. And much like a party in D&D, the game will benefit from multiple archetypes, while still supporting unique characters from the same archetype, and games where all can play the same one.
- The last paragraph is the most important. It states what it is not. It is not about realism. Where there’s grit, grime, and dirt, it serves as something to allow the hero(es) to rise above. PCs can get away with a lot that will get normal folks thrown in jail . . . but that’s because they’re always proved right in the end, and the opposition is truly despicable. To quote the final line in full, because it matters: “Use Action in serious games at your own risk!”
Chapter 1 – Action Templates
OK. This chapter is the guts of the book, really. How to make Heroes by making relatively easy selections.
The contents of the chapter – what SJG Style refers to as B-HEADs, which are important subsections – shall be three, and they are as follows:
- Campaign Types
I’m going to quibble a tetch with the order here, because I think the Campaign Types should have come first. The very first thing the GM needs to tell you is what kind of campaign you’re going to play. You may yet be able to play a Criminal lens in a Law Enforcement campaign (“OK, OK, OK . . . “), but it’ll save time if you know what’s important and what’s not.
So I’m going to skip around:
A scant page-and-a-quarter, nonetheless it hits nine common campaign archetypes: cops (Lethal Weapon), crooks (Oceans Number or The Italian Job), soldiers for hire (Expendables, A-Team, Ronin), spy and counterspy (Bond, maybe Bourne), Task Force (Sword of Gideon, perhaps; GI Joe almost by definition), spies for hire (Burn Notice), vigilante justice (Taken), and War on Terror (The Unit TV show).
The real names in the book are slightly different for some of those. Point is, there are nine, they’re somewhere between very and subtly different, and the flavor will influence your selection of characters and lenses.
Which is why each campaign type lists common and uncommon roles. And perhaps more importantly, you get statements like this:
“The driver of the SWAT van or chopper might be a wheel man, and an EMT could be a medic, but NPCs often fill these roles. Few forces have full-time assassins, cleaners, or infiltrators aboard.”
So yeah, you can play character type X, but high risk of being bored. If you play character type Y, you may strain willing suspension of disbelief as you figure out how a full-time assassin works for the EPA.
Not putting this first confuses me a bit, but it’s a quibble. The lenses section (detailed next) is roughly the same size (maybe a page or page and a half) so it’s not as if either is a slog.
Another short chapter, this one gives five detailed and six cursory “lenses” to add flavor to your character. They represent 20 points – less than 10% of a given templates value, and do not add to the point total (they’re subsumed into the template cost).
That being said, characters still have 70-100 points of more-or-less discretionary choices as to where their particular brand of awesome lies. Optimization guidance is provided as well, selling back Basic Speed, for example. to prevent involuntary selection of levels of Speed/Move that don’t help with Dodge or add a full yard of movement. That can still happen, of course – but it will be the players’ choice.
For each template, advice is given on which of the many options presented in the typical GURPS template wall-of-text to choose to reflect a certain flavor. A criminal shooter might have brawling and intimidation and favor cheap and easily discarded weaponry, while a security-lensed shooter might be a bodyguard, with ridiculous levels of Pistol and SMG skill. Your classic military shooter has broad experience with full-auto, crew-served, artillery, and rocket launchers that civilian specialties might lack.
That guidance – lean towards X and Y rather than P and Q – can be quite helpful and will speed the process a bit.
Obligatory Panning of Blocks of Text
I’ve noted this before – I like templates but do not like how they’re presented on the paper. The format is basically the aforementioned wall of text. This is space-efficient but hides the utility of the template, which is the rapid presentation and assimilation of 250 points worth of choices.
This is a bit tough, because the book is already in two-column format, and my personal druthers would have the choices being bulleted out even further, with more white space.
So instead of:
Advantages: Gunslinger  and Luck . • A further 30
points chosen from among lens advantages (pp. 4-5), ST +1
to +3 [10/level], DX +1 , IQ +1 , HT +1 to +3
[10/level], Per +1 to +6 [5/level], Basic Speed +1 , Basic
Move +1 to +3 [5/level], Acute Vision [2/level], . ..
you might instead get
- Gunslinger  and Luck 
- A further 30 points chosen from among lens advantages (pp. 4-5):
o ST +1 to +3 [10/level]
o DX +1 , IQ +1 
o HT +1 to +3 [10/level]
o Per +1 to +6 [5/level]
o Basic Speed +1 
o Basic Move +1 to +3 [5/level]
o Acute Vision [2/level]
- Action Who’s Who is a glossary of terms used for heroes and foes in the series.
- Check Out the Big Brain deals with the fact that nearly all the templates feature the top ranks of IQ, anywhere from 11 (for the Shooter, who also has Per 12 and the option to buy more) to 15, not everyone is supposed to be Bruce Wayne, super detective. Suggesions are provided on how to play different types of “smart” that doesn’t imply multiple university degrees even for the IQ 14-16 set.
- Quirky Good Luck talks about Luck as a mandatory advantage, swapping out Luck-like advantages for the one on the template, as well as drawing attention to two key rules from the Basic Set that will help heroes stay alive.
Chapter 2 – Action Hero Cheat Sheet
This continues my deep-dive into the GURPS Action Series. I hit the Introduction and the Templates in prior posts, and now I move on to Chapter 2, the Action Heroes’ Cheat Sheet.
This is a worked example of something that’s recommended for most campaigns. Recommended enough that SJG hosts a web application – the Trait Sorter – to allow GMs to create such custom lists.
What’s the list? Or lists, rather? The appropriate Advantages, Disadvantages, Skills and other abilities or notes for the particular campaign. Or in this case, genre.
Mostly, in this case Sean was weeding out magic, psionics, powers, and other supernatural or paranormal abilities that are not commonly found in pure action movies.
Of course, one of the reasons you play GURPS is so that if you suddenly want your action flick to take a turn for the bizarre, you can do it without breaking stride. But still, the bare bones of a genre treatment is what’s provided for here, and the chapter starts with a straightforward list of allowable Advanatages.
It’s not totally normal, though. It’s action movie normal. So Catfall and 3D Spatial Sense and Very Rapid Healing are all in there, because by Yoda the hero is going to be on her feet by the movie’s climax.
The book also tweaks or adjusts a few of the advantages. Two new variants of Enhanced Dodge are given (Dive for Cover and Vehicular Dodge). Extra benefits are provided for Gunslinger – and it needs them, because as presented in the Basic Set, it’s a poor choice relative to just taking +6 to skill at slightly lower cost (if there are questions on this, I can show my work upon request – it’s not hard to fathom).
You also get to variants of Higher Purpose, two more of Quick Gadgeteer, and four five-point talents specific to action-movie goodness.
|Clearly laden with physical disads. Yup.|
A boxtext also provides four Gun Perks. As it came before both Gun Fu and Tactical Shooting, this might have been the first time these were presented, but perhaps not. They provide a nice entry into John Woo style gunplay.
The supplement makes no bones about supernatural and magical disads. Paranormal is Right Out.
But it also takes a lot of the crippling physical disads and tosses them out the window, with prejudice. Most action heroes are on the “dear god I want to be that man” end of the physical fitness spectrum.
The supplement goes further than this, suggesting not just a limit of -50 points for both Disads and buying down sub-attributes, but suggests ways to play this for fun rather than pain in some cases – it uses Lecherousness as an example, but it’s easy to find others. While playing Alcoholism for kicks is no joke to some, it was used effectively in both Independence Day (Russel Casse) and the reimagined Battlestar Galactica (Col. Tigh).
This would have been good advice in the past, as I remember a game I ran where I had to fend off more than one one-legged, one-armed midget commando types. For a Black Ops game.
Important specialties are pointed out for specificity, especially where “you need to have this specialty to use this typical action-movie plot staple” are concerned.
A full page-worth is spent on Wildcard skills, which are appropriate for broadly capable characters. A template-specific Wildcard skill is given for each template in the series.
There’s also good advice on when to not use Wildcard skills. Diversity in skills for both expertise and characterization can be vital.
Chapter 3 – Pulling Rank
The third chapter is two pages long. That’s it. But it packs a lot into those two pages, and for modern games the advice is priceless.
Most – not all, but most – Action games that resolve around groups of PCs will involve organizations, which means that other than window dressing, the players may well – in fact, they should – want to leverage the capabilities of those organizations in order to achieve their goals. The higher the Rank within an organization – set by the background Lens you selected – the easier it is to get what you want.
The first subsection contains a generically useful set of of modifiers for rolling against the svelte Assistance Table found at the bottom of p. 24. Who’s asking, for what you’re asking, and whether it’s a valid request or certifiably insane are the basics. Positive modifiers are generally small, because it’s Rank that dominates. Negative modifiers are larger.
The section breaks out roughly 20 types of assistance that can be requested, and notes that different lenses are more likely to be successful at asking for different things, assuming you can ask for them at all. Various types of help can include gear, information, extra personnel, cash, more gear, and legal sanction to perform certain activities. It’s a great list, and if not necessarily explicitly comprehensive and exhaustive, it’s close enough to either get what you need or provide guidance for other requests.
Results of Success
So, the request goes through, and you get what you want, right?
Not necessarily. Success means “they’ll do the best they can,” but that’s not a guarantee that the GM’s plot has just been circumscribed. There are all sorts of ways this can go wrong. The book points to relevant sections of the Basic Set for guidance . . . and of course, the answer may be “yes,” but also “help will be there in five hours.”
But the bomb goes off in two . . .
Chapter 4 – Gear
The gear chapter is almost as long as the templates one. Chapter 4 serves as the “stuff” version of Chapter 2, pulling as much useful rules and supplies as possible into one quick-reference chapter spanning eight pages instead of the entire book.
There are a few places where I might quibble with the rules used, and I’ll note them. But by and large, this chapter delivers in being a summary of typical gear found in action-style stories and movies.
Tools and Gadgets
The first bit is a simplified and consolidated take on modifying gear, taking into account the advancements in game design since the Basic Set came out (basically: cost factor, but also something akin to complimentary skill rolls). These rules simplify and replace those found elsewhere. Action is meant as a condensation/genre treatment, so things here overwrite other rules in many places.
You get things that make you go boom, burglar/entry tools both cinematic and realistic, and rules for each. A good consolidation of Combat Accessories from Load-Bearing Vests to flashlights, with night-vision scopes and holsters included.
One nitpick: I’d have done something differently for silencers (suppressors!). The game charges -1 to Bulk per -1 to Hearing. That might be a bit much. I’d probably hit Bulk with -2 for pistols (flat rate; the gun plus supressor is usually twice as big as the gun itself), but only -1 for rifles. The suppressor even for a .50-caliber rifle, is not as long as the gun! Still, “you get what you want, but have to pay for it” works fine.
The chapter goes on to list out, in one place, items from rope to lighting to surveillance gear. Basically, the authors have gone through all of the prior existing GURPS books and brought the stuff that you want up to date and put it in one place.
Armor and Clothing and Weapons (Guns)
This includes the protection and offensive categories. A standard, brief table of modern TL8 armor, with appropriate footnotes and weights and up-to-date costs is included, which should simplify the shopping trip. It does include rarely-worn items like ballistic sleeves and leggings.
The Firearms Table updates using generic weapons and common calibers the same content from the Basic Set, but hits the right tone in what’s selected. The Auto Backup Pistol, .40 is basically the Kahr Mk40 (or something like it, like the Springfield XD-S or Smith and Wesson M&P Shield). It hits the fighting calibers and movie props (that’d be the Desert Eagle, because you have to have your Agents sporting them, but come on . . . ), as well as less-than-lethal pepper spray and taser. And one grenade launcher.
No rocket launchers so you can do Commando. Sorry. Make up for it with better tactics and more than one attacker. Heat and Ronin, remember.
Four simple types of alternate ammunition, and a listing of melee weapons rounded out for TL8 materials and costs.
The strongest part of this chapter is also the shortest: the Lenses and Campaign Types advice succinctly collapse sub-genre and background information into a few choices boiling down to “at the very least, do this to make your buddy cop movie look like something actually featuring buddies who are cops.”
This chapter is incredibly factual and to the point. Most of the page-count is taken with great tables of advantages, disadvantages, and skills. GMs running their own specific campaigns should take this as a how-to, and use the trait sorter to custom-create their own.
For what this is, it is worthy. A short version of the skill and trait list for a campaign will take a lot of the extended back-and-forth out of the character generation process.
The bits-and-pieces advice on specialties, wildcard and not-wildcard skills, and also tips to preserve the flavor of action-adventure movies via trait selection are likewise well taken.
This chapter is a workhorse, but no worse for it. The brilliance of the Action series does not lie here in this chapter, but it does serve as a reminder of how the trait-sorting process should be carried out.
As noted, this two-page chapter is pure gold. It is one of the great examples in the Action series of priceless GM advice boiled down and presented in a fashion that is so sublimely awesome that you don’t even realize how valuable it is. I’ve owned Action 1 since it came out, and I just discovered this seven years later.
The main text makes clear that chapter 4 is basically the shopping-trip version of Chapter 2, and valuable for it. While it is remotely possible that the players or GM will want to rifle through ten different books for gear and rules for gear, the chapter does a great job of making that unnecessary for most common action-movie staples.
The thing about this book is that it is the twin volume to Dungeon Fantasy 1, in a genre that should be just as accessible (it’s right now, after all), with almost uncountable inspiration available in modern popular entertainment. This could not be said, until somewhat recently, of the Fantasy genre (which of course has D&D/Pathfinder as more than sufficient inspiration, and even theft-worthy material) from the perspective of movies and TV.
This 35-page genre condensation provides all of what you need to build and equip a team of heroes to run a modern action-adventure movie.
Action 2: Exploits will tell you how to run one.