Steve Jackson Games is conservatively being bold. They are trying a purpose-built RPG, powered by the GURPS engine, that takes the self-contained model to its logical conclusion. They are supporting a high production value release that they funded in a successful Kickstarter.
This release follows what I consider a pretty successful pattern for generic games. You see it for Savage Worlds, you see it for GUMSHOE, and you see it for Fate. (The various DnD games can be considered an inverted degenerate case – they were written specifically in this mold, and it takes work – like was done for d20 Modern – to break out of that mold.)
In any case, it distills all of the material from the many Dungeon Fantasy subsystem releases and many potential candidates from Pyramid issues and says “this is what you need to play Dungeon Fantasy.” The game will be released with five books, each somewhat thin, but enabling simultaneous at-the-table consultation. That’s the same pathway I’m taking with Dragon Heresy, and for the same reason (though with three hardcover books rather than five softcovers). Here’s the text from the Kickstarter page:
Adventurers (128 pages). GURPS is famous for letting you play any character you can imagine. Dungeon Fantasy keeps this flexibility while trimming away unnecessary details, concentrating on just what matters to monster-slaying, treasure-hunting action: Pick from 11 classic professions and nine playable races, customize your alter-ego using quick-start templates and a powerful point-build system, and gear up with an equipment list that offers dozens of weapons and lets you assemble exactly the suit of armor that fits your image.
Exploits (112 pages). Learn how the heroes actually use their abilities and gear. That means combat, of course – and dozens of other activities, whether your thing is sneaking around, swinging from the scenery, exorcizing evil, or getting rich through cunning deals in town. This book also describes countless bad things that can befall adventurers (poison, traps, dismemberment, lava pits . . .), as well as good things, namely loot. And it’s full of practical advice to the Game Master who leads this three-ring circus: challenging the players, keeping the action moving, settling arguments, and much more.
Spells (80 pages). What would fantasy be without magic? Adventurers features four spellcasting professions (bard, cleric, druid, and wizard), and this volume describes over 400 spells to help you customize them. It also includes complete rules for how spells work – whether their power comes from the gods, Nature, or creepy tomes of forbidden wizardly knowledge.
Monsters (64 pages). Once the adventurers are ready, and armed with weapons and magic, it’s time to test their mettle! This catalog starts you out with more than 80 things that want to bite, claw, grab, sting, and curse the heroes – not just the predictable orcs and zombies, but also several Dungeon Fantasy originals. Each offers notes on tactics and variants, and the whole collection comes with advice and rules for adventurers dealing with monsters . . . and monsters dealing with adventurers.
Dungeon (24 pages). I Smell a Rat is a simple (but not simplistic!) quest designed to show new gamers the ropes. Like any classic hack ‘n’ slash adventure, it starts at the inn. From there, the heroes will find themselves facing traps, enemies, and unexpected twists – and finding treasure, although not necessarily gold and silver. Advice and “adventure hooks” let the Game Master challenge advanced players or spin the tale into a series of adventures.
The Kickstarter raised over $175,000 within Kickstarter itself, and then hit more stretch goals based on external orders. The stretch goals funded delivery of several more PDF-based support releases in the coming years. I also have to wonder now that SJG has embraced CreateSpace if they’ll make the new titles available via POD as well. Once you have the InDesign files, and once you say from the get-go “I will design to the annoying CreateSpace margin requirements” then providing POD is pretty easy, and would satisfy those that want physical copies of GURPS releases without forcing SJG to do offset runs that tie up inventory and funds. Win/win.
In any case, this is a long preamble to say that this post covers the first of the promised releases – the Welcome to Dungeon Fantasy issue of Pyramid Magazine, which features articles by some fairly big hitters in the Dungeon Fantasy space. Matt and David both provide adventure support, and Peter reflects on his multi-year Dungeon Fantasy campaign and distills wisdom. Christopher offers up some creatures to kill and eat the PCs.
As always, I’ll rate each article based on giving points in the following categories:
- Style, Writing, Execution [-2 to 2 points]: How easy is it to read and understand? Is it a slog, or a page-turner.
- Background, Inspiration, Epiphany [0 to 4 points]: Are the basic tenets of the article portable and do they present instances of just making your games better?
- Drop-in Gaming Utility [0 to 4 points]: If you take the article, can you simply drop it into an existing game, and for the better? Or does it require starting a new game with new characters?
- Would I use it? and Biases Aside present a final verdict on whether this is something I’d actually use or do with my own games. Biases aside asks what if you’re not me, and don’t like the things I like, how might that change your score?
So, with that unusually long-winded introduction, let’s get to it.
The issue is a 36-page PDF including the cover. It starts with a Table of Contents and an In This Issue pre-amble, and then gets into Steven (the editor) setting the stage for the book, four content articles of substantial length (well, Peter’s is short), and bookends it with Steven’s Random Thought Table, a feature of every issue.
From The Editor (Steven Marsh)
This short piece sets up the issue. The volume was conceived as a concept during the Kickstarter, and since hopefully the product will or has introduced many to GURPS and the Dungeon Fantasy sub-genre within GURPS, it would make sense to tailor this as directed straight at new folks, with monsters and adventures and content aimed at 250-point starting PCs.
No rating on this; it serves as an introduction, though it does so ably.
You All Meet at an Inn (Matt Riggsby)
The classic trope of adventure gaming from roughly 30 years ago, if not more, seems to be that most adventures start at an inn. This introductory scenario takes that trope and runs with it.
It consists of six pages – three pages of adventure text, and three maps.
The adventure itself presents a fairly straight-forward answer to the age-old problem of how to turn the group of special snowflakes that the players bring to the table into something like an adventuring group. Most such stories of disparate groups posit a back-story of old friends, or – as with The Fellowship of the Ring – force the PCs together, and then wacky fun can ensue. This particular scenario drops the PCs into the middle of Wacky Fun and forces the instance of bonding. The answer is expected to be “Hey, you were handy in a fight, didn’t die, and we made some money. Let us continue this trend!”
As far as starts go, it’s not bad.
The future delvers will find themselves at an inn in a mountain pass. Something will happen and suddenly the entire inn will be attacked by zombies, both within the inn’s courtyard and from outside. One can expect some severe carnage from non-delvers. After that threat is contained, there’s a fulcrum point where the PCs must discover a pathway down into the inevitable Secret Temple.
Without getting too deeply into the specifics, this short scenario provides some really nice hooks and exposure to Dungeon Fantasy as presented by GURPS, as well as answering its own question.
- It shows that the PCs are going to be much, much tougher than average folks, and provides suitable carnage and death to prove the point
- The first challenge is a bunch of very basic zombies. They will engage in mundane hand-to-hand attacks at low skill, and the real danger (and it is real) is being swarmed and pinned. This provides a good “how can I kill you” discovery moment for new GURPS gamers, and the relatively mindless and slow fodder allow some good investigation of potential threat types. That they are Unliving means that the attackers will soon discover that piercing and impaling weapons are of less use. It will also provide some opportunity for GMs to use the basic All-Out Attack and Attack variants. A worthy first fight.
- It starts in media res, and if the PCs survive, gives them a good reason to keep adventuring together.
- It has a good variety of creature types outside of the immediate area. Swarms of crows and bats show the danger of diffuse foes, and will drive home the need to always have an area attack available. Various kinds of threats in the second half of the scenario show off the different kinds of challenges that are faced. Magical threats are also present, as is at least one trap. Maybe more. Better check. Why is the GM grinning like that?
- There’s a good variety of loot to be had if the players try and fix the problem at the root cause.
All in all, the scenario is compelling.
One issue that I do have is that the maps are, especially by today’s standards, crude and unattractive. They were also not well thought out when it comes to printing – spitting them out on my HP P1102w translates into a fairly undifferentiated mass of grey. Finding commercially licenced work is more difficult than “a map for my buds,” and there are budgetary restrictions for Pyramid as well (though some of that could have – and perhaps should have – been eased for a “Welcome to DF” issue as a marketing stance. But there’s great cartography being done these days and this would have been the right time to find it and use it. They are admittedly better in full color, but make excessive use of texturing that is on the same scale as the hex grid, which makes for obvious artifacts.
Style, Writing, Execution [-2 to 2 points]: The writing is clear and engaging and presents the information in a way that is light and approachable without being dismissive or condescending (“oh, this is for lowly beginners”). The maps, though, are a real detractor. Printing is a waste of time for all concerned, and even in digital color the maps give an impression of “I could easily do this myself.” I’m going to average it out. 0 points.
Background, Inspiration, Epiphany [0 to 4 points]: In terms of a starter adventure for both GMs and players, you can’t do better. It gives a built-in reason for playing and building a party. It showcases a wide variety of challenges. It shows how you can make scenarios in bite-sized phases, and while there’s only one way to solve the adventure, there are multiple ways to get out alive. 4 points.
Drop-in Gaming Utility [0 to 4 points]: The premise of the issue is Welcome to Dungeon Fantasy, so any complaints about this article only being useful for beginning parties and stories is moot – that’s the purpose. This is a great way to start a game, and is portable to the beginning of nearly any DF setting with inns (check) and a convenient mountain pass. The presentation of the “N” method for scaling encounters makes it useful for any size party, as well. 4 points.
Overall Score: 8/10.
Would I use it? Absolutely. I think this one shows off a great many positives about GURPS and also finesses the usual “you meet in an inn” and makes it literal. Having the first adventure being fairly linear and bounded is also a good idea.
Maps? I got my maps right here. If you are intending to extract the map files into a VTT and are facile with it, the color maps won’t be that bad. If you’re really good and want to re-make the maps your own way, with blocking layers and light sources, you have even more options. If you have access in the future to Hernan’s MapForge project, the maps get better because you can do them yourself, with layers and pro textures. That would boost the score to probably a 9-10.
Trust me. I know what I’m doing. If as a GM you’ve already mastered DF and its tropes, then this isn’t for you. But then, why are you playing a starter adventure. Even with that. the mix of challenges, terrains, and monster types is instructive. Lowest ranking here would be 2/4.
All of this has happened before. If you’ve got an already-established game going on, this is less suitable but not unsuitable. It makes a fine scenario for an established group of delvers as well, and because N scales with power as well as number, still has substantial drop-in utility. No lower than 3/4.
So overall, this article could be as low as 5/10, and as high as 10/10, depending on target audience. The average there of 7.5/10 seems right to me. This is a good starter adventure and worth using.
The Monstrous Monstorum
This article by Christopher Rice presents fifteen monsters or so, plus some actual diseases, with which to threaten your delvers. They’re designed to show off GURPS’ flexibility, and present novel challenges to both the GM and the players, who might be old hands at RPGing but new to GURPS.
- The Bandit-Snatcher wants your stuff, and its ability to teleport in a very munchkinlike way means it can probably get it. Don’t threaten the PCs . . . threaten their stuff.
- The Bouda are a potentially playable group of half-humanoid, half-hyena. Fairly strong, fairly savage, but intelligent. An unusual hybrid humanoid.
- The Corrosion Crawler is a 200-lb six-legged badgerish creature, and it literally is what it eats. And it eats metal. Including the PCs weapons and armor. Ruh-roh.
- What’s worse than a mammoth? A Dire Mammoth. Giant bags of hit points with DR as good as heavy plate. If you get hit by one with any of its attacks, you’re looking at 13-48 points of damage, enough to pretty much murderize any starting character in one hit.
- Oh, crap. No, literally: the Excremental is making a cameo from Kevin Smith’s Dogma, and its role stinks. It’s got some nasty attacks, and some real humor appears in the description. Bathroom humor, but humor nonetheless.
- It is pitch black, and you are likely to be eaten by a Grü. An ambush predator with which to torture folks that forgot to bring torches. Poison, stealth, not terribly high damage.
- I’m not a fan of stinging insects in real life, and the Hellwasp makes even those giant Japanese hornets look like widdle biddy fwuffy kittehs.
- A bad case of the crabs gets even worse facing the Khodoque Crab. A good grappler, a potentially good amount of cutting damage, and rockin’ on to electric avenue makes for a varied threat with a very amusing vulnerability.
- Every game needs a Mimic, and now GURPS has one too.
- Three different pathogens you can suffer from in a dungeon. Bandage Rot, Festering Fever, and the Gold Cold.
- The mummy is a fairly mundane but powerful threat that also can inflict a disease on you.
- The Nankilstlaini is a giant raven or crow that serves a god called He-Whose-Words-Must-Be-Heard. I’m thinking the proper name of that deity is Gee-Emm.
- Must get Moose and squirrel? The sky glider is a foot-long, two-pound electro-squirrel that is very dangerous in large numbers.
- Christoper just had to go write up the land shark from SNL. These stone sharks are very dangerous elementals that can swim through stone and are dangerous predators. You don’t need to open the door for them. They just eat it.
- Sartorial splendor goes out the window with a tatterdemalion, a barely sentient magical pile of enchanted clothing. If they can get a hold of you, they show that clothes really do make the man.
- Birnham wood comes to Dunsinane in the form of a Windroot, a very large mobile tree with smacking branches and a pollen allergy attack.
So you can see that there’s nothing normal here, which should put the proper fear of terrain, objects, birds, insects, and animals in a delving party, at which point they’ll decide to just stay home at the in. Where they’ll be attacked by zombies.
Style, Writing, Execution [-2 to 2 points]: The monster descriptions are clear and fresh, and give a good feel for what the critters look like, where they are found, and how they behave. Even the inevitable giant block of Traits isn’t as off-putting as the usual Dungeon Fantasy presentation of templates by virtue of being shorter. Even so, the Tatterdemalion lists over 20 traits, each with a potentially important game mechanical effect, and having 10-20 of these is fairly typical. Most effects are built in to the stats themselves, included in attacks or skills. But some aren’t, and the GM will need to study the list to see which apply. 1 points.
Background, Inspiration, Epiphany [0 to 4 points]: These are mostly clever, some are variations on mundane threats, but all are unusual and not really found in other games or genres, with the notable exception of the mimic. The variety of threat types is very good. 3 points.
Drop-in Gaming Utility [0 to 4 points]: These are ready-to-go threats that can be dropped in to any suitable adventure. Bestiary-type entries always have pretty high drop-in utility, and this is no exception. The potential for a PC race and a short list of diseases – good threats in their own right – is icing here. 4 points.
Overall Score: 8/10.
Would I use it? Yes. As I note, it’s hard to not use a good monster, and if populating a new dungeon location or on the way overland to visit one, this is a good eclectic mix of potential total party kill.
Giant Wall of Traits. If you have zero issue with a giant block of traits and enjoy the conciseness and variability such a list provides, this article is pure gold and will get maximum points for execution. If stat blocks are inherently an issue for you, you might be in the wrong hobby. The quality of the descriptive text means that it can’t really be a -2, so I’ll go as low a 0 points for this if you really don’t like stats. This is the only real variation I can think of, and means that the score will range from 7-9, making it a solid article no matter what.
Grave of the Pirate Queen (David Pulver)
This is David’s entry for his Eidetic Memory column, which appears in every issue. It presents another short adventure that has the benefit of being for introductory PCs and involves pirates, which means that you’ve got a bit of a Reeses’ Peanut Butter Cup thing going on (you got your pirates in my dungeon fantasy!).
Without going into detail, this is a nice piece of work. It presents a fairly standard cavern crawl, with maritime themes. There are several classes of threat present, and why each type is there is well explained, as is the reason (a particularly violent set of earthquakes) that the caverns remained unexplored and undetected until recently.
The only thing I might change is that the cavern is only a quarter-mile from the village – 440 yards, which basically means “I can easily see everything that happens from my porch.” A bit more distance – a few miles – would give more inertia to why the villagers don’t all tromp over (at a walk of 2-3mph, it’s only about five or six minutes away).
The article has a classic dungeon crawl feel to it, and the style of the presentation invokes old DnD modules of the old-school type. You could almost imagine this being another cave in the Caves of Chaos from The Keep on the Borderlands.
Some interesting features of this is that there are at least two encounters that represent what has to be one of the more common threats in wilderness and dungeon crawling: other adventurers. There is a small group of octopoid looters just doing what PCs do, and another group of fish-men that finally seem to have access to their god’s temple. I’m fairly sure Ariel makes cameo, but I could be mistaken.
The maps print better than the maps of the Inn from the previous article. One is a hand-drawn sketch meant to be a handout, and the other is a crude but readable map that looks to have been created in a fairly simple graphics program.
One thing that would have been more interesting would be more water hazards, so that the mermaid can follow along better, as well as some barriers to those weighted down by equipment or who can’t swim.
Looking at the potential haul here, there’s a lot of good loot to be had. A few cool magic items, coins, and even character advancement if they want to be evil and complete a sacrifice.
Style, Writing, Execution [-2 to 2 points]: The dungeon/cavern is presented in basically a standard style. There are few rhetorical flourishes or sections of lurid prose, but you get what you need to run the adventure. The maps are relatively poor quality, but sufficient to run the scenario. They print better, using white instead of a textured pattern for the cavern floors. 1 points.
Background, Inspiration, Epiphany [0 to 4 points]: A solid adventure that delivers what it promises. It’s a good concept. 2 points.
Drop-in Gaming Utility [0 to 4 points]: This adventure is suitable for nearly any game, and can be dropped in close to any coastline. With a bit of tweaking, it might be able to also stand in on a large lake – I could easily see Lake Superior hosting such a complex. 4 points.
Overall Score: 7/10.
Would I use it? Yes. This is a classic OSR-flavor adventure that is more interesting because of its location and maritime theme. A good selection of threats, from crabs to octopoid humanoids to fish-men, plus some spooky encounters with some undead.
No School Like the Old School. If you really dig the kind of “just the facts” presentation that features strongly in older adventures by TSR from DnD, this will absolutely ring in your ears with musical clarity. If it feels like “just another dungeon crawl,” well it is exactly that. -1 to +2 for Style.
Utility is Epiphany. GURPS doesn’t have many ready-to-go adventures, which is a deserved knock for it. Dungeon Fantasy just got two in one issue of Pyramid, and for that reason alone this short scenario fit for a standard party of 4 or 5 players is real utility. Maybe an extra point for the Background category.
Different Strokes Issues. If you have more or fewer characters or a different power level, the encounters have no guidelines for adjustment as per “N” from Matt’s article. So if your group isn’t the target audience, the drop-in utility may fall off fast, either being a cake-walk or a TPK waiting to happen. Could lower the score down to perhaps 2.
If you really don’t like this sort of thing, and have the wrong group composition, this could score as low as 3. If you’re the target market here, it’s a 9. That makes an average of 6, but you’ll want to read this and do your homework before sicking it on your group. It seems like a nice, satisfying mini-crawl, though, and playable in one session.
Building a Long-Term Dungeon Fantasy Game (Peter Dell’Orto)
This issue was written around new players, and new players to GURPS, and new players to GURPS Dungeon Fantasy in particular. Even with all that, I suspect that this article will draw two kinds of reactions. One is that nothing new or interesting or novel is presented, all of the things pointed out are banal or obvious especially in retrospect, and Peter’s head is best used as a flail with which to defeat ogres. (Peter himself knows how effective this can be.)
And then there’s the rest, who will see an entertainingly written essay by someone with freakin’ years of running and chronicling a Dungeon Fantasy game called Felltower, built around the precepts in the article, that has to rank among the most fun, widely challenging, and well-run campaigns you can track. The words in this article come from hard-won experience with both GURPS and dungeon-style play, and while some things might seem obvious, examples of failing to follow the advice can be seen in nearly every “and then my campaign died” post-mortem.
The advice in the article can basically be condensed into two points, though it does it in several more sections.
Too Much Choice is NOT an Unalloyed Blessing
Let’s take a popular game. Call it . . . Mazes and Wyverns. No, not that one. Um, Prisons and Ormur! No. Just call it Dungeons and Dragons, because that’s what’s going on. Make a great setting, called Golarion. Pump out variations on class, race, setting, and feel, all gorgeously rendered with spectacular production value. Enable increases in power, scope, and ability to tackle different situations with rules expansions.
Players and GMs all love it, right? Grateful?
No. They call it Mathfinder, and mock and disparage it.
Another example, closer to home. I’m running a martial arts class at work. I have over two dozen students. They show up three times a week, at 6:30am each morning on Monday and Wednesday, and at 3:30pm on Friday, in the cafeteria at work.
Oh, but it’s so early, we whinge. It would be nice if the times moved around. So we do. Monday alternates between 6:30am and 4pm, while Wednesday bounces between 4pm and 6:30am alternately, so that maximum flexibility is obtained.
Class size drops to fewer than a half-dozen, as folks will choose to sleep in, knowing they can, and at the end of the day they’re tired and just want to go home. The club folds.
GURPS is like both examples. After four editions, the possibilities abound, and even Dungeon Fantasy, with 19 or 20 PDF expansions, not including all the material you can pull in from GURPS “proper,” can drown in detail if you let it.
Peter’s simple advice, and it’s good for any campaign: don’t let it. GURPS is a toolkit; Dungeon Fantasy, which removes some of the tools from the box deliberately, is still a toolkit, and to keep the game under control over the long haul, remove everything that isn’t part of your sculpture.
Peter gives concrete and actionable advice for Templates, Equipment, and the players themselves. It’s good advice, and if it rings true and seems obvious after you read it, that doesn’t make it less true.
Stay on Target
The second piece of advice is simply to keep the game bounded, and only drift from the core agreement if the players and GM all agree. Keep the goal and the geography and the scope focused on what the group enjoys.
Taste of what’s fun changing? Sure, change with it. But do it deliberately, with malice aforethought. And make sure that in each and every game, the players are given challenges suitable for their characters. The melee types need something to hit, clerics to dispel, wizards to flambe, buckles to swash, traps to disarm, etc. Keep the game focused on the core fun of the players, and the core theme of the game. Release your grip on that goal only reluctantly.
Style, Writing, Execution [-2 to 2 points]: This article is easy to read and makes its points well. Good, tight writing by Peter, and I liked it a lot. 2 points.
Background, Inspiration, Epiphany [0 to 4 points]: Seemingly simple advice, it hits the epiphany button really hard. Presents a series of questions you should ask yourself when crafting each campaign and each adventure within the campaign. 4 points.
Drop-in Gaming Utility [0 to 4 points]: It’s advice on how to run a game, and has some repeat value. It can also be used to re-steer an existing campaign, but that will be harder if you’re already doing the kitchen-sink thing. 2 points.
Overall Score: 8/10.
Would I use it? Yes, but “use it” is really “heed its advice.” There are some fundamentals of tight RPG design expressed here, although not perhaps that way. But when all is said and done, the toolkit nature of GURPS even when bounded by a Dungeon Fantasy framework makes making a GURPS campaign effectively an exercise in game design – you’re designing your game, in addition to your campaign and your adventure. This is true for any large-toolkit game, and that includes games like Pathfinder that have grown by accretion. You can also see it expressed in games with a tight focus such as Night’s Black Agents and Trail of Cthulhu, where you get a lot of combat rules in the first, and very few in the second, because ToC is “fight, and you die,” where as NBA is “fight smart, or you will die, but you must fight.”
Thanks, Captain Obvious. If you find the advice here so in your face blatantly obvious that you think it shouldn’t have even been written down, you’ll give this a 0. I’m sure that you can point to countless years-long successful campaigns, then, that always heed this advice. Right? Right?
It’s too late! If you can’t drop this advice into the game because the kitchen sink and all its contents have already arrived, then drop-in utility will be minimized. You still might get some utility out of the “stay on target” parts of the advice.
Overall, folks that just don’t find Peter’s thrust for how to run long-term DF games to be their cup of tea will rate this as low as a 2 or 3. Those that can find real wisdom here or are pondering exactly how to run a long-term game that stays fresh but also stays true to theme will hit this as high as a 10. I suspect feeling here will be strongly bimodal – either ‘best ever’ or ‘electrons were murdered to write this article, and I’m pressing charges.” I fall in the first category – I think such reminders that GURPS is a toolkit, and you need to bring the right tools for the job are super-critical, especially for an issue dedicated to the beginning player, GM, and DF/GURPS group.
Random Thought Table
Steven closes the issue by noting that, yes, there are ways to make things more easily accessible, and standard GURPS “kitchen sink” presentation might not be it. Some pointers:
Go ahead and rewrite your skills, attacks, abilities, and disadvantages from a character-facing perspective. Note explicitly in shorthand what you can do.
Use better formatting than the GURPS Wall-of-Text used in templates to make your stuff more accessible still
When possible, use physical tokens and other tangible things to bring more than “where did I read this” to the table
It’s good advice. It’s well written , has some good insights as to key things that aren’t “right there in the box, or on the sheet as presented,”  and can be dropped into existing games even if they’re well underway . If you do all these things already, well, it’s a 4, and if you’ve never done this, it’s a 9. For me, It ranked about 8/10.
 Get it? Killed electrons? Pressing charges? “I crack myself up.” -Top Gun