It’s been a while since I sat down to review the After the End (AtE) series by +Pk Levine  (the Rev Pee Kitty, Jason “PK” Levine, the assistant Line Editor for GURPS). I did a detail review of the first book, Wastelanders, which covered the characters book.

These worked-example series are not new for GURPS. The first and most spectacularly successful, with at least 20 volumes either published or in the works, was GURPS Dungeon Fantasy. Followed shortly by the less successful but in many ways more awesome GURPS Action, the over-the-top 400-point Monster Hunters (and for those who want to dial it down to a “mere” 200 points, you can get the Sidekicks volume), and now After the End.

To brush up on what’s come before, first go read Sunday Review: GURPS After the End 1 – Wastelanders. I’ll wait.

OK. Let’s get to it.

The Highlights

The second volume in worked-example series is the campaign book, and AtE2 is no exception. It’s concise one-page Table of Contents gives you 54 pages of content (including the index, which is two pages long). The book is divided into four chapters:

  1. The End. This walks you through defining how civilization ended, long ago. (5 pages)
  2. Wasteland Hazards. Depending on your choices for The End, this leads you through challenges that will have to be overcome in day to day adventuring. (21 pages)
  3. Boldly Going Forth. Each of the topics covered (my notation for what SJG calls C-HEADS) is a particular challenge to be met. Survival, terrain and ruins, combat, tech . . . even making friends in a dog-eat-people world. (19 pages)
  4. Post-Apocalyptic Game Mastering. A short section on styles of campaigns and how the feel of your game will reflect in the challenges and their resolution. (4 pages)
Introduction

The core of the introduction is perhaps a quarter-page of text. It lays out the mission of the book, which contains a very important note, made implicitly. 
The hazards that are to be faced are going to be laid out in detail, and those hazards are meant to be very well known to the players. The largest chapter in the book, Chapter 2 on hazards, is not supposed to be a surprise. The things required to survive, if not prosper or thrive, in the post-apocalyptic wasteland are things the players’ characters have been living with and doing all their lives. When they stop doing these things, they die. 
So don’t hide that – it’s player-facing info. In fact, here’s a player facing list of things that each skill, advantage, and ability can do provided by No School Grognard.
Chapter One: The End

To play a game set after the apocalypse, you have to know how it went down. Chapter 1 talks about different possible (not to say equally plausible) endings, and asks the classic SciFi question: what then?
Cause and Effects

The end will have different shapes and sizes. If a mysterious radiation surge or teleportation event simply removes 99.99% of the world’s population, leaving but a million random folks on the globe, that’s going to be very different than World War 5.
The key bit is in the lead-in paragraph to the topic. A single cause of the end of the world is unlikely. Ten at once is unbelievable. Also, while I’m glad the book didn’t go into it, a look at the difference between Proximate Cause and Ultimate Cause is useful here for prospective GMs. The ultimate cause is often the basic “what the heck happened?” question. The proximate cause or causes is what occurred as a result of that. Sure, the bombs fell, but it was the damage to food production, power, and loss of the transport network that killed civilization.
Each subtopic – a cause and it’s effects – is given three blocks of information. How the disaster might have been the primary cause of the fall of civilization, how this might have arisen as a secondary effect of some other cause, and what hazards are to be encountered as a result.
Listed Hazards include nuclear war, cosmological events, giant impact of a space object like a comet or asteroid, lethal pathogens, nature gone awry, SkyNet, societal breakdown, zombies, and aliens.
The primary cause information is pretty sparse, because mostly the intro text covers what the disaster is, and you don’t need to think too much about how a global nuclear war might be a bad thing. The secondary causes information is more subtle, because it talks about which items might likely spring from others (nuclear holocaust on a local scale to try and sterilize a run-away pathogen? Terrifyingly plausible). The key bit of secondary effects is when an event is unlikely as a secondary. A world-killing asteroid is not an also-ran . . . it’s the main event.
The most utility for the GM is in the Appropriate Hazards section, which is of course exactly what it says: which of the hazards detailed in Chapter Two are associated with this disaster.
Tech Level

A very, very, very short discussion of the implications of what the Tech Level (TL) of a world was at the time of its end introduces some key points . . . and then leaves them on the table for you to figure out. The warning can be summarized as “high TL stuff can change your campaign a lot,” with the caveat that low starting funds will limit how much gear can be had (that’s “nearly none,” since a fully functional Glock will run you more than 10x your starting funds in most cases).
How Long Ago

The final subtopic in this chapter discusses some interesting bits on when the world actually ended. The book is definitively not about living through it – thought that might make a fun one-shot mini-campaign – so the book talks about the implications of the space between the fall and the game. I’m going to rephrase the sections in terms of generations of about 30 years.
50 years ago. Plenty of people are still alive to remember the fall. In terms of 2015 (for easy math), the apocalypse happened in 1965. One can easily imagine someone who was in college or early adulthood being an elderly sage about the way life used to be. Or, if the world ended in 2015, the gae is set in 2065.
150 years ago. Everyone living at that time, even infants, is dead. The fall happened in 1865 – the US Civil War or the Crimean War ended the world. It will be difficult to imagine or know how people lived then, and even harder to imagine how they think. Dueling had gone out of fashion in the early to mid 1800s, and the dress sword was no longer the mark of a free man. And of course, formal US Slavery ended in this time period. If the world ended in 2015, the game is in 2165.
250 years ago. The world ended in 1765, before the American Colonies of England broke away. If the world ended in 2015, the game in 2265. Note that the TV show Babylon 5 is set in this time frame in the future – so uninterrupted, the world can be expected to be entirely different.

Chapter Two: Wasteland Hazards
The chapter on hazards is, by a narrow margin, the longest in the book. It details the kind of threats the players will face. It also makes explicit what was implied in the introduction: share this with your friends.

After making these decisions, it’s important for the GM to share them with the players, so they know how to build their characters. He doesn’t have to reveal any secrets or be overly specific: “In this world, rogue bots will be a huge issue. They’re everywhere. Because they scorched the sky, everything is freezing as well, so be prepared for ice and snow. Radiation, toxins, munitions, and nanotech will pop up occasionally. Other hazards will be relatively rare.”

Each type of hazard is given some thoughtful detail. While not precisely written up like a trap in Dungeons and Dragons, the game mechanical effects of encountering the hazard are always listed. Also listed are the skills required to detect, avoid, diagnose, and cure (or at least treat) the effects of the hazard. The traits that come in handy pop off the page thanks to judicious use of bold text for such.
Some of the treated hazards, and notes about them.
Chemicals and Munitions. This details the nasty byproducts of a modern society, stripped of the protections that usually arise around such things. Spills, dumps, and weapons are all covered, as are mutagens and other nasties.
Climate. When you can’t just go inside and shut the doors, trusting your air conditioning to protect you, weather and climate is a real threat. Even if you’re not basing the campaign around climate gone wrong, extreme heat or extreme cold can be lethal by themselves lacking appropriate gear and preparation. If that storm happens to be acid rain, or the sandstorm is blowing around a radioactive particulate too? Well, sucks. Also give a paragraph is the all-important topic of safe drinking water.
Disease. The hits keep on coming. Even if disease was the actual cause of the downfall, it’s not likely to just go away the way a nuke does. Sickness and disease are constant companions in the world, doubly so if it actually was the root cause of all the pain. The rules talk about diagnosis, discovery, interacting with diseases and their victims, immunity, and provides some sample diseases, such as cholera and mega-flu, and deals with weaponized versions of each.
Gangs. When law and order breaks down, people organize for good or ill. As this subsection is effectively one of the “nasty NPC” subsections, it’s three pages by itself. Encampments and raiding parties are details (and more), plus good advice on general attitude of a gang, from desperate (we do this ’cause we have to) to depraved (we do it for fun). Gangers are given mini-templates and some lenses as well, with three ganger subtypes (raider, O.G. (?), and Boss) and two lenses.
Mutants. A bit on detecting mutants, a bit on curing them. And then three more pages of a mutant bestiary. Human(ish) mutants, animals (with endearing names like killigator), and plants. 
Nanotechnology. Swarms of robots designed to destroy. As a hazard, you get the limited disassembler nano, the self-propagating grey goo, and two types of nanovirus – the nanoburn (delivers toxic damage after paralyzing you) and the proteus virus (rewrites your DNA; could even be beneficial . . . but probably isn’t).
Paramilitaries. Like gangs but better. And worse. More heavily armed and organized than gangs, these ex-mililtary, ex-law enforcement, ex-mercenary, or simply just a bunch of guys. The key is the organization and leadership tend to be more structured, and the gear tends to be more, well, militaristic. The section covers motivation, leadership, and resources, and then gives three sample soldiers. These groups are a mixed blessing. On the one hand, they are very, very dangerous. On the other . . . so much loot.
Radiation. The rules for radiation and radiation points are in AtE1. The rest of this short section gives skills for dealing with radiation and the dosages emitted by different threats.
Rogue Bots. Combat robots for the win. Could be an omnipresent threat (Reign of Steel; Terminator), or a one-off. How to determine a ‘bots strengths and weaknesses, and how to reprogram it. Two sample combat robots to kill characters.
Zombies. If you really, really want to go this way, buy the book (GURPS Zombies). But for this book, you get a healthy three pages so you can play your own version of 28 Days Later or The Walking Dead. Discusses variations on how they were caused/created, how they spread their condition, and two sample zombies. Then a subsection on horde combat for when you’re beset by a vast quantity of shamblers. This includes a quick-and-dirty box on the effects of being grappled, and the zombie takedown. The rest is a flow diagram for quick, low-to-no detail fighting when the PCs are outnumbered 2:1 or more. 
Chapter Three: Boldly Going Forth

The game makes the important assumption that the campaign is not “After the End: Hiding in a Bunker.” The next 19 pages detail the kinds of things that living and traveling in the wasteland will make you deal with.
Survival. The basics – hunting, gathering, finding water, making camp/shelter, and travel. Each has concise rules that are light on mechanics and heavy on results. Gathering is low-yield but safe. Hunting (with rules for using animals included) is higher yield but risky in both result and danger. A nice rule of thumb for travel with and without scouting ahead is provided. A lot can be ported out of this section to other games, but use caution – the entire book is predicated on it being a hazardous, post-disaster wasteland, not a verdant but low-TL wilderness. Subtle difference, but worth checking out.
Ruins and Bunkers. Structures are one of the important trappings of a civilization gone bad, and the book gives about four full pages (about 10% of the book, for comparison) to the topic. How to get in is really a section on what’s keeping you out. Fences, walls, hungry dinosaurs, and anti-intrusion machineguns all fit the bill. Creaky floors, falling walls (and ceilings!), and bringing the house down accidentally and on purpose will keep the players on their toes (assuming they have toes Mutants, you know). A box provides a simple falling table for when the floor gives out. Finally, a brief section on purposeful traps – poisons, bombs, zappers.
Scavenging. Sorting out the good stuff from mountains of useless crap for fun and profit. And survival. A handy table gives modifiers to your Scrounging roll based on what kind of area it is, and how well it’s been picked-over before. Typical types of loot are listed, and the odds of a “stash,” an intentionally-hidden mound of awesome. The results will be stuff depending on the quality of the roll, and tables provide inspiration. 
Inventions, Upgrades, and Repair. This is the “how to be a Gadgeteer” section, which is important to the genre. How to take the various crap you pull out of the wasteland and turn it into all the things Roy Hinkley makes on Gilligan’s Island. This is another large section, with rules for inventions worth up to millions provided (that’s a lot of bullets and bottlecaps). Upgrading, repairing, and analyzing the function of gear is also covered. (I have glossed over the detailed rules for inventing and creating things; it can be a metagame in and of itself; I’d caution GMs to watch for that if the gadgeteer is being a fun vampire).
Computers. The need for clean power, good operating conditions, and actual software and hardware to run it on will make these limited. And therefore valuable. 
Combat. Likely to be rather a lot of this. The first section borrows and modifies the simplified gunplay section from Action 2. Range bands and simplified rapid fire. Some optional rules like shooting two guns (also known as wasting twice as much ammo, which is actually money in this world), predictive shooting (ranged deceptive attacks), and using guns as melee weapons. There are brief rules for determining enemy tactics, using mockery and taunts, and the element of surprise.
Persuasion. Finally, three pages are dedicated to winning the mutated hearts and minds of your fellow wastelanders in ways that don’t involve high-speed projectiles. Befriending folks, creating followers, bartering in town are all covered as a list of tasks that you can do (see No School Grognard’s skill summary, linked above, for a consolidated ability-centric list). All sorts of personal and crowd-based situations are covered with this method, from shopping to riling up a mob.
Chapter Four: Post-Apocalyptic Game Mastering
The book closes with advice to the prospective GM on running the game.
Campaign Styles and Morality. These two sections give a bit of a matrix for campaign feel. Cinematic campaigns are built around the characters doing awesome stuff; the world exists for them. Heroic Realism and Gritty campaigns has the characters existing in the world, which really couldn’t give a rip about them. Heroic Realism has more opportunity to shine and excel. The Morality axis varies from ‘heart of gold’ to ‘every man for himself,’ and flavors the kinds of characters that will be made, and available design choices. Cinematic/Heroic characters are rather less likely to have Sadism.
Downtime. This section provides a useful schmorgasbord of things to do when you’re not actively adventuring. Gathering, scavenging, attracting throngs of followers, or building gadgets all qualify.
Gear. Advice on how to deal with expensive but fragile gear, but also how to emphasize the transitory nature of such finds. Sure, you found a car. But then the gang blows it up. That sniper rifle you found? Got sand in the bolt and now the chamber doesn’t seal. The laser pistol you covet? It wasn’t in your holster in the morning, and that attractive townie wasn’t in your tent when you woke up. In fact, said townie isn’t in town anymore.
Making Everyone Useful. This section is almost, but not quite, misnamed. It does cover making characters useful, but is really about the kind of challenges that are particularly appealing to each character type from AtE1. It also talks about how to tailor rewards for each type, so that challege, participation, and reward all are aimed appropriately at the kind of party that has been created.
Boxed Text
As always, peripheral but useful information is isolated and highlighted using boxed text. It might be my imagination, but this book seems to have more boxes than usual, though they are almost always very short.
Supernatural Ends. Clarifies that while supernatural apocalypses are possible (“Suddenly I find myself needing to know the plural of apocalypse.” -Riley Finn, Buffy the Vampire Slayer S4), they’ve been kept out of the book to keep it focus. I smell sequel.

Seriously – After the End X – Wrath of God Type Stuff would be a fun addition.

The Prodigal Colony and Even Shorter.  A rare double-D Boxhead (yeah, yeah, boob jokes. I get it.) Each section talks about a variation of the theme. The Prodigal Colony talks about a fully-functioning high TL colony sending a mission back to the lost and fallen homeworld of earth. This likely indicated a genre switch for the game . . . unless of course that colony had their own fall. Even Shorter notes that “apocalypse now” is not the focus of the book.
Temperature Tolerance. A very brief simplification of the advantage in question.
Slavers. A quick note on the value of human merchandise, and the conditions in which slaves are kept and held.
Hostile Townies. Not all unwelcoming persons travel around in vehicle convoys with flaming guitars. Some towns are just unfriendly. This box lists useful skills for detecting such, when the obvious “they’re shooting at us as a sign of welcome, like Minbari!” fails.
One of Us. Uh oh. Hidden mutants.
Aliens. What to do when it’s time for the close encounters to come out of the background. Stats for a Grey alien are provided.
Paramilitary Rank. One of the only places with a Rank advantage that has actual value. Small value, but value nonetheless.
Smart Zombies. Oh, you’re in for it now.
So You’ve Been Grappled. Simplified grappling at the hands of a zombie horde.
Complimentary Skills. Explains the nature and use of related skills to help with tasks.
Pack it Up! Having gear and keeping gear and knowing where gear is is the job for Freight Handling! With notes, tasks, and details on dealing with stowed stuff.
Blowing Stuff Up. Simple rules of thumb for breaking or totally destroying stuff. 
Falls. Simplified human-centered table for falling damage, for when the floor gives way.
Ruins are Dangerous. Yeah, well, duh. You go right ahead and explore that building. That radioactive, pathogen-ridden building.
Tech-Level Modifier. A quick table for use with the invention, repair, and gadget rules.
Selling Inventions. A rule for pricing stuff the players (or NPCs) come up with. Spoiler: it’s not worth as much as you think it should be. Ever.
Patching up. This is a 1/3-page box on how to adjudicate the various healing rules in a genre that has no fixed Tech Level assumptions. This is presented as a task list, and in most cases replacing any other healing rules with the guidelines here in other games probably isn’t a bad call.
New Gear. Three items, mostly medically-oriented.
Keeping Heroes Alive. This short box gives fates other than death, but requires the players to cooperate, and the GM to be lenient when it comes to horrible fates. Or at least lethal ones.
Gruesome Color. A very brief note on how cultural diversions can make the game more viscerally real.
Ballistic’s Report

One thing that cannot be said about AtE2 is that it’s missing big chunks of things you need. It’s all in there.
The book will aid a GM in walking through how the world ended, some secondary effects, and then provide associated hazards that will be encountered, to be shared with the players. Combined with the campaign style and morality in play, the players can then make appropriate characters.
The mechanics-centric take on on game tasks (survival, combat, interpersonal interaction, gear) is  welcome approach to this sort of thing, with the stylistic “skills in bold” drawing needed attention to where such things are located in the text. 
The material is well written and presented in a concise fashion. Sometimes too concise, as there are a few things that could have been usefully given just a bit more play, such as the implications of higher TL items.
The campaign book presented here is a toolkit book, more so than Action 2 or even Monster Hunters 2. Those have the advantage of having the world be more or less as-is, but with spies/monsters respectively. That allows for more flavor to emerge in the writing, which was not always as evident in this manuscript as other works by the same author. I think that’s the nature of the beast – if this book assumed a particular, fixed apocalypse with particular, fixed secondary disasters, more flavor could be evident. The only real slight here is that it makes the book read a bit dry. Still evocative and effective in achieving the goal, however, which is to facilitate world-building.
I know of at least one campaign, if not two, being spun up as I write this that take advantage of this book. And for that, it’s highly usable, with clear answers to “how do I do X?” that all are pointed at a common set of genre assumptions. In short, it is very successful as a worked-example campaign book. The bits on hazards and ruins are particularly exportable, too.
It’s a good book, and along with its character-based sibling, will allow the creation of rich games in the genre. Walking Dead? Check. Terminator? Check. This Quiet Earth? Check. Waterworld? You betcha. Road Warrior? Of course.
Can’t really ask for much more.

This is the fourth and last book in the all-too-brief GURPS Action series. I reviewed Heroes, Exploits, and Furious Fists in separate posts.

Today I cover GURPS Action 4: Specialists. This 36-page book is something a bit different for GURPS, and that something is really cool. It’s not quite “Pointless GURPS,” which I covered when Sean wrote about it in Pyramid #3/72 (Alternate Dungeons). But it’s not not-that, either.

This is an approach I love, frankly. Chunks of easy to pick out building blocks that aren’t templates per se, but make character creation fast and accessible.

Now that I’ve revealed my bias and given the game away, let’s fill in the details.

Introduction


Much like Action 1, the introduction is short but critical. The mission statement bears repeating, and since it’s included in the preview, I can just quote it selectively.

There are many situations where the speedy approach is a little too
coarse-grained:

  • When a player desires a hero more individualized than Heroes and Furious Fists allow – often one that falls between two templates – but doesn’t want to wade through the entire Basic Set or risk omitting important abilities.
  • When a player is inspired by a favorite fictional character who breaks the mold (as so many action heroes do!).
  • When a player – particularly a late joiner – wants to carve out a niche by stopping specific gaps in a team’s abilities.
  • When the GM wants a power level different from 250 points, such as in an “origins” campaign about neophyte heroes, or in a one-on-one game that pits a high-budget action star against the world.
  • When action heroes need lower-powered NPC sidekicks . . . or enemies!

In short, this book will present modules that are partway between full-on templates and “here’s the book, make a character.” As someone that kvetches repeatedly about the “wall of text” format of GURPS’ templates, this may well be a great intermediate step that gives the readability I crave with the speed that is the template’s raison d’etre.

You Gotta Start Somewhere

The chapter lays out a 6-step program to getting your hero on. Pick a basic building block, add modules and skill sets, take quirks, nudge the character into legality, optimize and “trade up,” and finally spend your remaining slush fund points.
Basic Action Template

The first thing is to start with your default Action Hero, which covers all the genre assumptions and also ensures that you have the basic tools of the trade, so to speak. The template has, for example, Luck, which is clearly critical to an Action Hero. It also contains six (really, eight, but you must choose between two options, twice) skills that must be there to be a credible hero.
The presentation is wall-of-text for Advantages, but has some wonderful categories of Disadvantages to help you pick. This, right here, is worth the price of admission. Phrases include Timid, Honorable, Obsesses, and Violent, and usually contain options from -1 to -15 points or (rarely) more.
Frankly, the Advantages section deserves the same “descriptive” treatment that disads got here. It’s just the right blend of accessibility and readability.
The Needs of the Many

This broad section gives handy advice, and in many cases, a superior Basic Action Template option, for keeping the characters suitable to the game being played. We Have Standards addresses physical requirements that might be a cut above for special ops or law enforcment. No Section 8s talks about which disadvantages are, while in the book, somewhere between not recommended and ‘no freakin’ way’ for a action heroes. This is a section on saying ‘no’ gracefully, in a genre-appropriate way, and is very welcome. The Call of Duty talks about the care and feeding of Duty and Sense of Duty, and more extreme variants. Finally, Duly Empowered takes the perks of being part of a badass organization and suggests appropriate powers and privileges. This might be things like Military Rank, Legal Enforcement Powers, or Contact Groups.
A Very Particular Set of Skills
This section gives two types of awesome to buy: Skill Sets and Power-Ups. The latter are “implausibly cinematic” options for action heroes. The first are what it says on the tin: believable training and abilities in things that happen in the real world. Most modules cost 25 points.
Skill Sets

These brief packages are narrow applications of stuff you can do. Some overlap, and you can take one more than once. You get options like Academics (a boos to IQ – so it’s not just skills) plus basic competence in Research, Writing, and Teaching. It also covers the more expected sets, such as Airborne School, Close-Quarter Battle, and Infantry Training.
As noted in the lead-in to this chapter, but worth repeating: this is not the “generic soldier” grouping. Each one of these is focused, which means you pick several. A platoon leader in military operations in Iraq might have Command, Infantry Training, Close-Quarter Battle, and Urban Assault. This leaves off a ton of things that he might also have . . . but those four packages are 100 points, which makes this 200-point hero a credible man of action in his own right. Specialized, ’tis true . . . but the name of the book isn’t ‘Generalists.’
And note that these are fully exportable to any game. Take a BAT worth zero points and you get Joe Average with Training – who’s now 100 points and no longer Joe Average, but doesn’t have action hero levels of stats. This is a broad idea (skill sets) that I’d love to see expored and exploited further.
Power-Ups

The equivalent of Skill Sets, but with cinematic oomph. Some of these are more than 25 points. They include things like Trained by a Master or Catfall. Some must be paired with Skill Sets, so it may well make sense to either flip back and forth, or start with the desired cinematic power-ups, then add required skill sets, then add optional ones. 
A couple of them are interesting – Just That Good, for example, represent 25 points of almost anything goes. Extra stats, secondary abilities, and advantages that represent a generally superior human. I could easily see larger ones, GM-defined, like Just Damn Better than You, which might be ST +2, DX +1, IQ +1, HT +1, and +0.5 to Basic Speed, +1 to Will and Perception, for 100 points.
Spit and Polish

This section is about making rules-legal characters that are also properly fleshed out.
Loveably Eccentric suggests that it’s time to pick out your quirks, and makes suggestions that are thematic in nature. By the Book instructs you to go ahead and add up all the points allocated to your abilities, and then filter. Take duplicate traits and move points to the slush fund. Take traits whose point values aren’t rules legal (22 points on a skill, for example) and either drop or add (from the slush fund) to make appropriate costs. Skill and attribute and perk limits are addressed, etc.
Trading Up

Mathematically intensive but Just A Good Idea, the selection process thus far in the book produces very skill-heavy characters. Realistic and believable? Yes, certainly. But because GURPS puts so much emphasis on attributes (everything pretty much defaults to them), it’s wise to follow the stepwise advice given in this section and shifting points around. A decision tree is provided.
Spending the Slush Fund

The final section gives advice for spending the slush fund. If you’ve done a proper job of optimization or your other selections had lots of overlap, you likely have more than the 10-point allocation you started with. It’s also possible to have overspent, in which case there’s a box for that.
Mostly, you spend points on things already on your character sheet, or that aren’t but a prior selection has given dispensation for. Finally, it walks through customization by background and history, as well as encouraging or enabling swapping out basic BAT options based on an appropriate backstory. Care must be taken to not create knowing gaps – that will impact game play – in capabilility. Always avoid the Fun Vampire.
Boxed Text
As always, GURPS books isolate certain information into boxed text. These boxes usually fit broadly into the chapter in which they appear, but are either meta-game information or somehow a bit of icing on the rules cake.
This supplement is heavy on boxed text – there’s a lot of metagame and rules theory to discuss.

Power Levels (Chapter 1)
This bit of text, perhaps a half-page in total size, gives guidance on how to use the modular building blocks when creating heroes from 125 (Sidekicks level) to 400+ points (called An Army of One, but also called “basic starting level for Monster Hunters). Very, very useful.
The Slush Fund (Chapter 1)
Explains the purpose of the 10 points that are allocated in the Basic Action Template for “the slush fund,” which is to ensure that characters can be tweaked up or down to make them rules-legal Largely, I imagine, as a result of skill point cost ladders – the point cost increments go 1-1-2-4, and then four per level from there. So if you take “two levels” of a skill, your firs two levels cost a point each, then the third is 2 more points, and after that, you plateau. This nicely simulates a real-world thing that it’s easier to learn the basics of a skill than to refine details.
And when that’s done, it allows some healty customization of the final character. A bit more of this, and a bit less of that.

NPCs

This useful box gives advice on how to use the book to create fast – dare I say it? – specialized NPCs. In fact, there’s a real case that this is where the book shines. It would shine even more as a GCA plug-in. Need a quick SWAT team? Five minutes and you’re covered.

BATs? (Chapter 1)

This short box makes an obvious suggestion – not everyone needs to start from the same Basic Action Template. Using the rules in the book to tweak the rules in the book is delightfully recursively meta. But it works, and it’s good advice. Much like Furious Fists has options like The Big Guy and The Fast Guy, extending this to The Smart Guy and The Skilled Guy would make for an outstanding meta-template to start from.
Doubling Up (Chapter 2)

This box notes when it’s appropriate and when it’s not to take options more than once.
Advantage Bonuses (Chapter 2)

Advice on how to deal with the non-trivial number of advantages that actually boost skills. Examples are given, and important “if you got bonuses from X, the choices probably didn’t also put as many points in Skill Y” caveats.
Skill Sets as Suggestions (Chapter 2)

As one might imagine, the book is generically useful as a hit list for free-form character design as well. This box presents more- and less-open options for alternate ways of looking at point packages.
New Parks (Chapter 2)

A dozen perks, some that have been seen before, as-is, but all are simplified form Power-Ups 2: Perks. They are, however, new to the Action Series.
Packages as Level-Ups (Chapter 2)

This box gives advice for spending chunks of earned experience points or as a way of starting with a template from another worked-example game (such as Monster Hunters, After the End, or Action itself; these packages aren’t appropriate for Dungeon Fantasy).
Specialist Campaigns (Chapter 3)

This is a large, half-page box that gives advice on how to use Action 4 as the basis for character building when starting a campaign. It goes through most of the common options and questions and concisely gives advice. This can include special packages (“everyone must take this Spacer skill set, or else you will die in the first session sucking vacuum”) or even advice on vetoing character concepts, abilities, or implementations that clash with the group’s expectations.
In the Hole (Chapter 3)

What to do when you overspend and your slush fund is negative. It can happen, you spendy spender you.
Generalists (Chapter 3)
This roughly half-page box talks about being a generalist, and why, in a team-based adventure, that’s not a great idea. Nonetheless, GURPS being GURPS, you get options for how to do it well. Plugging gaps and creating broad-but-shallow areas of ability – “I haven’t hacked a computer since high school!” – that allow getting some use but not overshadowing main niche are both covered. So is a Jack of All Trades advantage that can be spendy, but useful.
Compatibility (Chapter 3)
This box focuses on the metagame of character creation. The use of this book either along side of, or in synergy with, other books in the Action series. There are so pros and cons here. On the one hand, you can miss stuff if you design your guy in a vacuum. On the other, it’s crock-able, so again, the GM and players are responsible for avoiding the “my suit is more advanced than yours in every way!” issue.

Yes, I realize that this is a total crock. I mean, just look at the Iron Monger suit compared to the Mark III). Still, fun quote.

Ballistic’s Report
When I interviewed Sean a few years ago, he noted that because of the half-point quantum of spending for a 150-point GURPS character in Third Edition, it was possible (stupid an unlikely, but possible) to be forced to make 300 individual choices during character generation.
Specialists goes the other way. By parsing out the choices into one large (what BAT do you use?), and relatively speaking, a few small (a 250-point character is the BAT plus six skill/power-ups) choices, you can very rapidly define a character who does what you need it to do, fits within the overall campaign, and can be accomplished in a few moments.
I won’t lie: if there’s a Fifth Edition, or if GURPS one day really embraces the worked-example model as has been advocated here and other places in the past, I think this is the right way to go. Pointless Slaying and Looting, mentioned earlier from the Alternate Dungeons issue of Pyramid, takes that to an extreme, but either that method or Pointless (which Christopher Rice embraced in Pointless Monster Hunting, Pyr #3/83) would be a great step up in approachability for GURPS.
I could make a WEG d6 Star Wars or a 1st level D&D character in a few moments. This method gives the equivalent – though with a bit of fiddle on the tail end – for GURPS, and I love it dearly for that reason.
That the book has portability to other modern-day campaigns and is engagingly written is somewhere between icing on a very tasty design cake and a second course. This is a fantastic book, and ranks as somewhere between #2 and #1 on my list of favorite Action supplements (likely order is still Exploits, Specialists, Heroes, Furious Fists, but Action 2 and 4 are very close to each other, and then Action 1, and then Action 3).
This book was clearly inspired by Sean’s experience in his modern-day secret agents campaign. He had similar “pick from a list” options there, and the utility of the concept as something born in play and adapted to design is clear – this book just works, and it works because it was designed and forged in the fires of the players’ hands, not in some abstract theory. Nothing wrong with theory, but this player-facing design shows its mettle.
A great book, with a lot of portability. On my Pyramid rating scale, I’d go +1 or even +2 for writing style, but take a point away and leave it at +1 due to wall-of-text in the template and lack of follow through with advantages on what was done with disadvantages. It gets maximum points for inspiration and eiphany, and drop-in content is 3 or 4 out of 4 as well. It’s a 4 for any new campaign, but it has explicit, we wrote it down for you utility in an existing campaign as well. Total is 8-9 on a scale of 1-10, and the overall feel of the book is 9/10 to me.

GURPS Action 3: Furious Fists brings Kung Fu fighting to the Action series, and it’s a little bit frightening, since it packs a lot of rules goodness into 23 content pages with expert timing.

Introduction


The Action books (Action 1 and Action 2 reviews from prior posts) have a tendency to pack important points into the introduction. Furious Fists follows Action 1 as having a vital mission statement easily accessible but too-easily missed. For emphasis, let me repeat it:

GURPS Action 3: Furious Fists cuts to the chase and offers rules for creating and playing martial-artist PCs with a straightforward role: Defeat bad guys in situations where guns are forbidden, too noisy, or flat-out uncool, and kick the butt of rival martial artists.

The emphasis has been added by me. These rules are not designed to make you bulletproof, and sprinting into a hail of gunfire will meet with the same level of success as it did in the Boxer Rebellion.

Ouch.


Lenses


The chapter starts with advice – use the template lenses to spread your points around non-combat skills, because your template is of the “beat people up with your feet and fists” variety. It probably begins the heavy trend of “customization notes” that mark the later worked-example books as so valuable.

Finally, a new lens, Wise Master, is available for those who want to focus on quiet strength and Will, Perception, Chi, and IQ-based goodness.

Boxed Text


The subsection on Lenses closes with a large box on Campaign Types. It gives some nudges on how to fit character types into each style of campaign, noting that police officers rarely behead people with swords, and that playing a martial artist commando still means you need to figure out how to deal with guns without getting dead. This advice – namely you can’t spin kick a bullet – is repeated frequently in the text because GURPS does not convey automatic script immunity to chop-socky fans.

Another large box gives an 8-step program to figure out the final melee damage of martial artists with complicated power-builds. This is a great example of usefully front-loading calculation once, and then simply using that number for the rest of time.

Next-to-last is a big section called “Some Bulletproof Advice,” which details how to keep martial artists alive when bullets are flying. Some alternate rules, lots of stealth (they can’t shoot you if they’re incapacitated with their triggers untouched), and the 4Ds of bullet survival in GURPS: Dodge, Drop, Duck, and . . . Dodge. Failing that: Luck.

Templates


The book offers five new templates, each with a niche that supports a certain type of play. 

The Big Guy likes to wade in and deal solid hits to his foes. With high ST and the highest HT of all the templates, he has the moxie to take it as well as dish it out. It offers five ways to customize the template that deal with how the big guy fights. From MMA to sumotori to a streeght fighter.

The Fast Guy is your archetypical martial artist, and the section starts out with a fantastic quote from the Brandon Lee/Dolph Lundgren movie Showdown in Little Tokyo. The template’s DX is sky-high, HT is adequate, and the ST is almost too low (I’d buy it up to 13 or 14 to give that 1d thrust rating).

The customization notes allow the float like a butterfly boxer, the standard technique master, and the aikido “use their strength against him” advice, plus a few more.

The Ninja is a little less dexterous, a little smarter, and slightly less hardy (lower HT) to pay for that choice. You can be an infiltration expert, a master of stealth and striking from out of combat, a modern-day electronics whiz, or the batman type that uses stealth to get close enough to engage in an unfair fight, but not an assassination.

 Finally, the template is rounded out by a very unusual “martial artist” type – the Traceur. These acrobatics and running experts are a first for most of the RPGs I’ve seen, but they are a very interesting character type. The focus here is on DX and HT, with ST an dIQ being fairly unexceptional.

The template is filled with jumping, acrobatics, climbing, and balance. Plus Running. Lots of running! The customization notes highlight variants. The Free Runner is a master of urban acrobatics, and YouTube is full of these guys. The Monkey is the vertical element to the Free Runner’s horizontal. The punk is a streetfighter with lots of acro to move around the battlefield, while the Urban Explorer seems to be able to navigate any structure, though isn’t in it for the flashy.

Finally, the weapon’s master, who at least is bringing a knife to a gunfight, if not a sword. A bit higher ST, suitably high DX (but not as high as the Fast Guy), and OK IQ and HT. Weapon Bond and Weapon Master are, of course, required.

Customization is basically by weapon type. Knives, swords (fencing and the traditional katana-wielding Bride), and sticks make up four of the five options, but there’s a fifth: the Sarge, for adding a bit of hand-to-hand beatdown to your military types.

Martial Arts Abilities


This chapter makes up about a third of the content of the book, but has, by far, the most Table-of-Contents entries, since it details all sorts of abilities that might be found in a martial artist.

In the Advantages section, each martial artsy advantage is detailed with a “how it applies to Action games” hat on. Some special mods, such as a variant of Zeroed for Ninja, provide worked-example tweaks for these modern cinematic games.

The Perks can be a lot of fun. Any book which includes “Deadly Pose” for extra-intimidating kills and dismemberment is worth a read. There are some real gems in there, too, such as a perk that exempts you from “nuisance” rolls to judge the success of “off-screen” parkour and climbing, allowing very rapid off-camera movement (the prerequisites for this are high).

The technique chapter re-introduces many of the techniques found in the Basic Set and GURPS Martial Arts, but just pre-prices allowed levels (so you won’t see Disarming (A), you just buy the level you want from a list. There are a lot of techniques listed, and some of them – notably the pakour/free-running ones – are new, I think, with this volume. Very handy for other game types.

As always, anyone can try a technique at the 0-point level (and that skill level is listed for each one). 

Martial Arts Weapons


Pretty much what it says on the tin.

Combat Rules


The last three pages of the book (well, almost the last, but p. 26 is the index) give some Action-oriented combat rules that are particular to martial artist types.

There are some tweaks here that make for good choices. An All-Out option for Acrobatic Stand. Bashing two foes’ heads together. Two more Extra Effort options. Ranged Rapid Strikes and Very Rapid Strikes.

Ballistic’s Report


As noted by the author himself, adding this much detail to an Action game can take it out of the ‘fast and light’ regime and into the ‘get pizza while Bruce Chan and Norris Van Damme figure out how many times they have to roll dice here.’ 

That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but there’s a reason +Peter V. Dell’Orto, one of the authors of GURPS Martial Arts, chops down the list of available options in his Felltower Dungeon Fantasy game. Too much detail is just too much detail, and there’s no getting out of that.

If you heard that in the voice of Adlai Niska, well, that’s OK.

The gems in this book are the simple and extra combat rules at the end of the book, plus the boxed texts that really provide great advice as to how to run these campaigns with hand-to-hand character types in a world of guns.

I haven’t written about it yet, but this advice works. In actual play, first-hand experience. You can be on a foe, take him out, and disappear into the shadows. You’re Batman, and it doesn’t even strain verisimilitude if it’s done right.

This isn’t my favorite book in the Action series. The best is Action 2, which I frequently refer to as “the gift that keeps on giving.” Next-best is the yet-to-be-reviewed Action 4. Action 1 is required, but not terribly gonzo, and this fits right in there with that one – good, solid, professional advice on how to build effective characters for an Action game, paired with good, solid, professional advice on how not to get lead poisoning while doing it

We have a new series in town, and an old one. After being held up in release limbo for an awfully long time, the post-apocalyptic GURPS After the End 1 – Wastelanders has clawed its way through broken terrain, starvation, radiation, and mutant dinosaurs to snap at our heels.

This will be a very comprehensive review of AtE 1. I’ve read through it once already, and I can tell that SJG is learning from prior successes.

The overall format, right down to structure, is the same as Action 1. You get templates, the cheat sheet, then new rules for mutations, and finally, gear.

Introduction

The introduction is not quite as important for AtE1 as it was for Action, which has some very critical assumption-setting departures in it. It still sets the tone for the book, though, concisely and well.

  1. The book is not about the process of the apocalypse. That was generations ago. The stories told here are in the world in its aftermath.
  2. The point value of typical characters is lower than some of the other worked-example series at 150 points, which is one of the first real instances in this type of book that returns to the original recommended point value for starting characters from the Basic Set.
  3. There are some new, simple rules for mutation, blended tech level, and fatigue. These can be mined for other quick-play campaign styles as well.

The introduction sets the tone for what follows. This book will be about grit, luck, determination, and survival. And radioactive mutant dinosaurs. No, they’re not really in the book. But you can see them waiting in the background . . . clever girl.

We’ll cover each chapter in turn. 


Chapter 1 – Wastelander Templates

This chapter is the guts of the book, and covers two types of character building blocks:

  1. Templates – big blocks of points that represent complete playable characters
  2. Lenses (things you add to make a character distinct and usually a bit more powerful
Templates
The meat of the book, covering perhaps half of the total page count. Less is explained in section-level headings, and it gets right to the included templates, which are

  • Doc – medical expert and frequently social face.
  • Hulk – big freakin’ guy (like 7′ big) that will usually hit stuff
  • Hunter – recon, scout, food supply, silent killer.
  • Nomad – Always moving, one step ahead of danger, vehicle/animal transport expert.
  • Scavenger – If it can be found in the wilderness or the wasteland, you can find it.
  • Tech – There may not be much left out there, but what it is, you can fix and use.
  • Trader – Probably the zeroth oldest profession, before that other one. There’s always a deal to be done, and you’re the one doing them. Really does have the Brooklyn Bridge for sale.
  • Trooper – Expert fighting, and a little bit frightening. If it can be shot, you will shoot it with discipline and verve. 
The thing that really sets AtE1 apart from (say) Dungeon Fantasy and Action 1 are the copious and profoundly useful Customization Notes provided for each template. Each runs to nearly a full-page column in length, and discusses how the template fits into the overall AtE world, variants of each type that will be useful to PC and GM alike, and makes recommendations for skills and abilities required to serve the customized role. 

The templates are big enough, flexible enough, to cover the bases. They are “only” 150 points, so stepping on each others’ niche won’t be a problem. It’s a solid basis set for adventuring in the Wasteland, and the customization notes and mini-lenses for each template provide a lot of variety.


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 hundreds of points worth of choices.
If you use GCA and someone makes a macro for you? Templates are the greatest thing since sliced bread. If not, I find them very hard to read, but they’re the SJG house style and aren’t going away.

Lenses

What lens is this?

A short section, giving 50-point blocks of power-ups and modifications that are designed to boost the capability and niche of the characters. They are Blessed (lucky), Fast, Hardy, Learned, and Mutated. Note that there’s another lens, Experienced, which is tucked into each template. It’s 50 points of “more better!” used to raise the overall point value of a campaign.

Each one can be added to any template. There’s no reason you can’t have a Fast Doc, or a Learned Trooper.

Again, combined with the existing templates and custom notes, there’s a lot of room to make unique characters here.

Boxed Text
There are three instances of boxed text throughout the chapter, weighted to the beginning.

  • How did it end? talks about different ways that the world ends, fire, ice, meteor, and disease. It will flavor the kind of threats and the literal lay of the land.
  • Inappropriate Skills is a terse discussion of where not to spend your points. Useful to prevent players from building in useless abilities by accident. On purpose is on you.
  • Hulking Equipment. Big guys require big stuff, and this very short box tells you how to get super-sized weapons, armor, and stuff without worrying about square-cube laws.

Chapter 2 – Wastelanders’ Cheat Sheet

Now on to Chapter 2, the Wastelanders’ 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.

Advantages

The Advantages were sorted into the realistic and heroic, but mostly not powered. This is basically what it says on the tin.

Specialization


If your gadgeteers are too powerful in you campaigns, this box text gives a great way to limit that by offering up seven specializations for this power. It’s very worth stealing.

Perks


A half-dozen Perks, all of which are chosen from the larger work on Perks, Power-Ups 2.

Disadvantages

The supplement, like Action before it, takes a lot of the crippling physical disads and tosses them out the window, since while it might be in genre, it’s probably not terribly fun, to play a crippled sessile PC – the game is about getting out into the wastes and . . . well, doing something. That something will wait until AtE 2, invariably the campaign book.

A box sets up the disad limit for the campaign at about a third of the starting character points. Neither generous nor stingy.

Skills

Obviously, skills get the same treatment. A cut-down list of skills is provided, stripping out the supernatural/powered set, and those that are more suited to passive study or setting up shop and selling lemonade for a living. Unless it’s nuclear lemonade.

It ends with a box noting that some forbidden skills are out because they’re not interesting to PCs. Not in the book: saying that if a PC needs one of those, a simple IQ roll would fix that right up. So would the Dabbler perk.

Secondary Characteristics


The book adds two new secondary attributes, Long-Term Fatigue Points (LFP) and Radiation Points (RP) to better track the particular hazards of the Waste. 

RP basically function as another form of hit points or fatigue points. LFP has an interesting mechanic behind it. It’s not as nuanced as what appeared in The Last Gasp (Pyr #3/44), but it more than makes up for it by being dirt simple and effective at what it sets out to do. Rules are provided for missing food and sleep and water.

Chapter 3 – Mutations

The third chapter is three pages long. It presents Powers-based rules for mutations, for attack, defense, bodily transformation, movement, and sensory improvements. Each mutation is a power, and comes with a cost in “freakishness,” that measure how . . . odd . . . you look. This comes along with physical and reputation issues. All in all, fairly tight balancing mechanism. 

Chapter 4 – Gear

It’s a different flavor than most other gear-centric games, where the cool thing is to have the most advanced, most awesome, niftiest batmobile, rifle, or computer.

Here in the Wasteland, you’re lucky to have food. The book spends its first portion talking about wealth, money, and how they don’t exist. Welcome to Bartertown. Another thing that doesn’t really exist is Tech Level, and the only real delineation between objects of different technology strata is price, with each level being double the level of the previous one. Since the world is basically a TL4 environment – the highest TL you can sustain without getting into large power source requirements – that means a Glock 9mm will probably run you about $8,000.

You start with $500 – the equivalent of a box of fifty rounds of ammunition in the Waste.

The equipment list would be boring repetition of items mostly already present in other books except for two things. Firstly, you don’t have to look in other books – what isn’t in the Basic Set, which is required to play the game, is repeated here as “new,” which means “new to the Basic Set information,” rather than “new to GURPS.” That’s true of prior entries in many places as well, though there is plenty of honest-to-goodness new stuff here too.

Food – durable, preserved food – gets some special mentions, as one would expect. Anti-radiation medicines that might be worse for you than the good they do are covered with brevity and no small amount of humor.

The armor section does a shorter job of ensuring that you check out the right armor by cost, by pointing out that in many cases “cheap” high-tech armor may well be better than TL4 equivalent normal stuff. There’s also a large, fun section of improvised weaponry.

Firearms and ammunition get a generic, quick treatment, but if there’s one place you might want to bring out detail, it’s here! A 9mm diameter bullet might come out of a .380, .38 special, 9mm Makarov, .357 Magnum, 9mm Parabellum, or even a .357 SIG  . . . and of those, only the .38 Special and .357 magnum can be fired from the same gun (and a .357M fired from a .38S gun might be a poor decision). Finding both a gun and ammunition of a common type? Gold . . . which is why not only are these things consumables, they’re literally money. 

The book also gives a brief overview of ammunition reloading, assuming you can find a press, dies, powder, and primers. Reloading ammo suddenly becomes an adventure in and of itself.

The final two pages are dedicated to vehicles, which mainly means they’re dedicated to the vehicles fuel, since that’s what’s going to run out the fastest.

Parting Shots

This is an interesting project and a welcome addition to the three existing worked-example series of Dungeon Fantasy (winner and still champion), Action, and +Rev. Pee Kitty‘s other series, the excellent Monster Hunters.

This is just the characters book, which follows what looks like a pre-set format that nonetheless delivers the goods: templates to make characters quickly, a chopped-down subset of the gigantic list of GURPS character traits for free-form character building without templates, special character-facing rules, and equipment.

It will be fascinating to see what the second volume, which will have to deal with actual adventures or campaigns, will offer up. The various ways the world ends all provide different background for what works, what doesn’t, what’s a threat and what isn’t. So how the author threads that needle will be fun to see.

As it is, this particular book (fair warning: I received a comp for . . . something I must have done a long time ago, ’cause I have no idea what it was) allows for a very, very wide variety of characters to be created by the virtue of having three levels of choices (template, customization, lens) each of which has few enough branches to manage to not drown the new player

That the intro characters are towards the established 150-point starting PC recommended in the Basic Set is icing on the cake, really, as it’s relatively easy to power up characters with lenses or just buckets of points, but harder to strip characteristics away without robbing the PCs of utility or differentiation.

The most interesting part of this series will be that everything is a challenge. It’s like the scene in the beginning of Cast Away where Tom Hanks’ character is shown cutting his foot or leg, badly, on coral. That used to be no big deal. Now? Potentially fatal, a wasting sickness waiting to happen. And that was before the zombie plague or mutant dinosaurs. When you can trade eight bullets for four meals worth of food for an MRE pack, or perhaps get 50 lbs of venison with two bullets . . . if you don’t miss, and if you can recover the game, and if no one hears the gunshot and comes to take it  from you.

It’s a good entry, and I hope the upcoming additional book (books? Who knows!) provides some fertile and juicy fields to plant stories.

This is a continuation of my comprehensive review of the Action series. The first volume, Action 1: Heroes, was 35 pages long, and revolved around creating characters, mostly via the vehicle of providing character templates and the means for fleshing them out. But it also fleshed out the concept of Wildcard skills, as well as how to leverage the usual patrons and organizations that are frequently at the centerpiece of action-oriented stories.

Exploits is different. It’s the campaign book, which provides advice on how to both run and play in these campaigns. A hallmark of action-adventure stories – especially movies – is that they’re not always quite so concerned about getting things exactly right as they are with striking the proper mood and keeping the audience at the edge of their seat. This volume helps the GM and players achieve a similar feel.

I’ll lead with the conclusion, and then hopefully back it up: this particular volume is one of the most under-appreciated works in the GURPS pantheon. 

Cover-to-cover, the book is 50 pages long, and unlike the first volume, instead of large blocks of text or page-count given to variations on (say) character templates, the table of contents is filled with page after page of advice and rules distillations, served up in small chunks.

It’s worth a brief rundown of what’s covered before the detailed dive.

Introduction


One page. Less importantly profound than the intro from Action 1, it does present that the book is a “collection of simple rules for resolving classic action situations.” The watchword here is if it’s doable on a movie screen, possibly a movie screen with a lot of wirework and bullet time, it’s covered in the book.


Challenges, Not Headaches


Two pages. This chapter presents three subsections, each of which is designed to set the tone for skill and ability usage. The concept of Basic Abstract Difficulty – a general penalty that replaces a lot of the potentially time-consuming fiddling to get precise penalties for skill use in GURPS – is covered here. But to keep the game moving as well as focus on team-based play (think Oceans Eleven rather than James Bond) simple rules for complimentary skills and teamwork are given.


The Basics


Five pages. Roughly half advice for having an adventure ready and the subcomponents of finding (or being given) a mission, assembling gear (a very important but potentially time-consuming part of the game), deciding what is the objective, and importantly, what is not, and getting there.

Also given equal weight are a series of common things than any well-oiled tactical squad will have worked out ahead of time . . . and these pages serve as a ridiculously useful checklist of common questions for nearly any game or genre. 


Tricks of the Trade



20 pages. The largest singe chapter in the book, it contains nine section-level (in GURPS author lingo, these are B-HEADs) items, covering how to gather intelligence on the objective, how to obtain information – willingly or unwillingly – from other people through direct and indirect manipulation, planning and training, infiltration and tactical movement, including (actually, mostly dealing with) barriers to free movement.

Other sections include grabbing and carrying your prize, blowing stuff up, deceptive measures and countermeasures from false IDs to spoofing a polygraph, and of course both exiting the objective location and ensuring that you are either undetected or protected while doing so. To turn the tables, the chapter ends with what happens when the mission comes to the PCs, if they’re in charge of protecting an objective instead of violating it.


Ultra-Violence


12 pages. This one’s only two sections – one on chases and another on combat. Almost all of the detail here is to keep things fast and light. Much of it is exportable to the right non-action game.


When Things Go Wrong


Three pages. A quick summary of what it means to be wounded, dealing with the typical chemical and biological threats those pesky terrorists keep bringing to the sandbox, as well as poisons and overdoses for that typical Tuesday night. More mechanically-oriented problems are dealt with in the section on repairs. Finally, it’s a genre trope that the heroes will be captured, have the Evil Plan explained to them in stupid detail, and then escape. Rules and trope-enablers are provided.


Directing the Action


Five pages. Five rapid-fire sections to help the GM, and a not-to-be-missed box on what GURPS options, if used, will throw a bucket of cold water on the Action Hero genre expectations.

The section on Campaign Types calls out which of the specialized rules and challenges are likely (or expected) to show up in a given milieu. Typical methods for using and abusing Assistance Rolls are described in list form in another section. How to properly inflict a character with a Duty in a way that it’s not just part of the background gets a whole section that is perhaps three paragraphs long. 

This chapter also details in monster write-up format the difference between Mooks and Henchmen, and the various versions of Bosses. Oh, plus dogs and killer robots. 

Finally, a few words on what happens as the firemen and EOD guys tamp down the last smoldering embers of the PCs passage and the clean-up crews are doing their thing . . . and the local legal profession starts up to properly defend the perps against the charges that will surely be brought. Hope you make your Law (Police) roll!


Detailed Action

There’s a lot to like about this book, and to pick out every individual piece would simply take too long and honestly might spoil the need to buy the book. Nonetheless, I’ll go through and pick out particularly juicy pieces as highlights . . . but some of this stuff is worth a dedicated post, and I’ll be doing that too.

Chapter One: Challenges Not Headaches



It’s a short chapter, but it’s dedicated to a few basic principles that are good things to keep in mind:

  • Never use a specific, detailed penalty if a broad one will do
    • Corollary: Sometimes a broad one will not do
  • Breadth on the character sheet should be rewarded
  • Your teammates matter and should be leveraged for fun, profit, and violence
The chapter’s short: basically two pages. But each section has an important rule, and it’s always something that will be deeply pertinent and add to the sense of fun. 
As will be common in the entire book, skills are called out in bold to emphasize them for examples. A Find Phrase executed on a skill name may well be the best way to look for particlars here, since you will often come up with a couple well-thought-out examples of how to use that skill to resolve a broad category of conflict.
Finally, the rules called out – especially for Complimentary Skill rolls – discourage rolling for rolling’s sake (“Oh! I have these ten skills . . . I will roll them all and see if they help!”) by making a null result impossible. A roll may help, or it may hurt, but it will be one or the other. So fishing for bonuses may well backfire – this is to the good and means that you bring out complimentary skills when it’s worth it, but not constantly.
Chapter Two: The Basics

While the guts of what the chapter contains were listed above, the real meat is contained in even more examples of how to use various important Action skills to execute different parts of a typical action movie. There’s how to find a job, using licit or illicit contacts – or maybe you’re just ordered to infiltrate the Rebel Base. 

Several different ways to obtain needed gear are provided in similar vein, giving what skills are tested, and the consequences of success or failure. These are often descriptive rather than prescriptive, and oft-times might be resolved by simply saying “you get some great gear, and the Basic Abstract Difficulty of the mission is a lower penalty now.” That, of course, can go the other direction as well.
A box text calls out advice on when it’s fun to track details down to the last AA battery (rarely), and when it should be handwaved (most of the time). This book is filled with examples-in-practice of this sort of advice: calculate never, play now. In many cases these are case studies in how to avoid both analysis paralysis as well as bogging down in the minutia that led me to write the post about simplifying Guns combat: getting a penalty more or less right is both faster, more satisfying, and creates more tension than flipping through the pages of rulebooks to arrive at an answer within a few ticks of the detailed version anyway.
One thing that could have been made more explicit – though this might just be my take-away and not what Sean intended – is that some of this stuff is best done either between sessions, or at the end of a prior mission. This allows the GM to take stock of all of the team’s rolls and foibles, and get downtime to craft the next session accordingly. Unless, of course, he’s blessed with scads of time, imagination, foresight, and can just pick from one or more pre-staged adventures to run. If so, booyah, and good for her . . . but that person isn’t me (it’s the time that’s usually lacking).
The second subsection of the book contains what is simply good advice for any campaign in any system. It goes through common needs in action-adventure movies, and encourages the group to tell the GM what their standard procedure for such things is ahead of time. Things like communication (we all have cell phones!), security (we all have encrypted cell phones), and preparedness (we all wear our armor and full battle rattle to the mall, to pick up our kids from daycare, and to work). And when it’s dark? (we strap chemlights to our full battle rattle, so we can read Goodnight Moon by the pale green light). This allows the GM to assess the skills and positions of who might meet trouble first.
This is worth expanding on – and I will definitely be doing that, perhaps even before this particular review goes online. But there’s good advice here, that applies as equally to a D&D game as to an Action one.
Chapter Three: Tricks of the Trade

This chapter is more-or-less a walkthrough of what to do in a typical action-adventure movie. It divides the types of activity into “The Four A’s” of Assess, Analyze, Act, and Avoid, and then breaks those down further into the chapter’s subsections. The introduction notes that these can happen out of order, fully mixing and matching and scrambling as appropriate.

The sections not only contain specific, GURPS-oriented examples, but can be mined for universals too. In Gathering Intelligence, one of the potential take-aways is that whenever you have a team going up against some other plot or activity, the GM should have a list of key tactical facts. If all of the intel is in hand, then the mission can and should be a one-sided romp to victory . . . or at least as tipped to the players as omniscience allows. The Greeks at Thermopylae were killed to the last man, after all. Well, except for Faramir.
The point is that you want a list of stuff that all the intel gathering can find out, and ideally you want it ahead of time. Not only does it allow the GM to pre-determine the pros and cons for each piece of information, it allows her to not-so-gently move from the Assess or Analyze phase into the Act phase and keep things moving along. Analysis paralysis can easily be paired with Obsessive Assessing and drag down the entire movie. 
Beyond that, the first six or seven pages of the chapter are basically an object lesson in “if you want to accomplish X, roll against Y, perhaps as a skill test, or a Quick Contest.” Each type of task is given a terse but illustrative example of how it is used and plays out. Again: using your PDF reader’s FIND feature is key here, and there are some real gems. Dancing? Use it to rile up a crowd to distract from illicit activities. Research to turn up blueprints for target buildings. How to use Stealth followed by Hearing to get close enough to unobtrusively eavesdrop, and when and how to use a shotgun mike to make your range penalties less of a problem for you than for your asymmetrically-equipped foe.
Check out the pull from the preview showing the sections covered – each one, from Physical Searches to Dumpster Diving to Making Them Talk gets skills, examples, and modifiers – though as often as not the guideline is to simply apply BAD to the roll and avoid details.
The text moves on to planning the operation, again focusing on the skill rolls used to extract the right next step or tactical fulcrum. Again, from above: this is one of the places where the list of such key bits of intel will prove very valuable, and this Tricks of the Trade Chapter helps the GM anticipate the kinds of things that will be useful . . . and which will not. From a player-facing perspective, the character sheets are the list of the things the player’s team will try . . . so the GM can just have the go-to top skills handy and plan ahead. Easy-peasy.
Infiltration gets a section – appropriately titled Getting In, and leads with this gem: “In all cases, a hero with Danger Sense gets a secret Perception roll before being eaten by guard dogs, fried by an electric fence, etc.”

This more or less describes the light-hearted but informative tone for the entire volume – and it’s worth reading closely to find the Easter Eggs.

The pattern of “here are some key adventuring tasks, and here’s how to resolve them” continues, of course. But some key sections are worth noting . . . and stealing for other games.

  • Climbing tasks get some generous amplification and explanation 
  • Parkour – using Acrobatics and Jumping to navigate complex terrain – gets nearly a full page of options . . . and a box on falling for when you biff it.
  • Locks, Doors, and Security Systems – these get the high-level treatment you’d expect. Enough variability to cover both ‘plywood and nails’ to ‘ultra-secure blast door.’
A final call-out here in this chapter for Providing Security, which is a fairly in-depth look at what happens when it’s the PCs that are in charge of trying to prevent a team just like them from doing unto them the things that PCs usually do unto others. That can be pretty cool – think about the Helicarrier scene from the first Avengers movie. It’s basically an extended security scene from the perspective of “what do we do when security’s already been breached?”
Part of me feels bad for skirting over keeping watch, or Bomb Disposal, or Sabotage, or Setting Traps. But each one contains a simple set of advice for what skill to roll against, the consequences of success or failure, and enough variation to keep it interesting. 
Important box-text that hasn’t yet been mentioned here: an action-movie treatment of High-Tech Challenges such as computer hacking and code cracking. Advice on how to fit in with various genre staples such as blending in with cops, soldiers, or criminals. Advice on how to keep fact-finding from being an exercise in boring bonus-fishing. Tables on hardware DR and HP, including doors and gates. A note on how visual style can trump common sense in this genre. A short box on opening safe and vault locks. WMDs as plot devices rather than real threats (you are all vaporized in a nuclear explosion is not how most action movies end). A quick rundown on gadgets used to provide and break security.
This entire chapter is a giant worked example of how to apply GURPS skills to the action-adventure genre, and the experiences of the writer and playtesters in running these campaigns is on full display. An incredibly useful how-to reference manual.
Chapter Four: Ultra-Violence

This chapter is divided into two sections, Chases and Combat. Each has the same goal, which is to take what potentially could devolve into a second-by-second modifier-driven crunchfest and abstract it into something more suitable to the sliver screen: the only thing that you see is the action, and maybe some scene-chewing, and clever tactical planning.

Of the two, the Chases subsystem accomplishes the goal better, in that it splits a chase into actions of “less than a minute.” This might be a few seconds or much longer (the two cars streak down the busy road dodging traffic for two or three miles), but it excludes certain tasks that in no way could fit into the allotted time. It’s a GM’s call whether characters with extreme skill can use the time rules to execute long tasks within those turns, but to keep the focus on the chase, my feeling would be no.

Chases are divided into abstract rounds, then, and into Pursuer and Quarry. Each round, the two parties select from some pre-determined maneuvers (14 of them) such as Move (the generic try-and-catch-up maneuver), Hide, or Attack. The victory conditions are assessed in a Chase roll that accounts for the starting (and again, abstract) distance between pursuer and quarry, with the goal being to close or extend the distance, and then force the chase to end (this happens automatically if the range band of the chase extends past extreme).

Range bands? Yes. The same concept I borrowed for Zoned Mapless Combat and Quick and Dirty Guns Combat was invented for chases, and is also used in the condensed combat rules.

GURPS has so many rules for combat that it’s easy to get bogged in the details, and loving attention to combat is part of the genre – but it’s supposed to be fast-paced action.

The first section offers a section on simplified shooting. It’s in the vein of my Q&D Guns above, but a bit less so. The highest utility comes from the use of the range band table to set the overall range penalties for the fight, which tends to be the fiddly-bit that, especially at close range, can slow the game down because the penalties tend to move around a lot within the reach of a Move or Step.

The bulk of the chapter offers some mild simplifications to combat, and also enables some cinematic rules as switches to allow a bit more in the way of Awesome. They borrow liberally from the wealth of mechanics available to the GURPS GM, but put the info in easy reach – for example, there are several variants of the Martial Arts rule “Shoving People Around” that are critical for Action movies. 

There are rules – similar to or borrowed from Thieves in Dungeon Fantasy – to let those with high sneakitude get the most of their abilties to disappear and reappear from combat by blending in with shadows or striking suddenly from within them.

Cinematic combat options and Extra Effort get blown out for more ways to be cool and exhaust yourself doing so on ways that provide more heroic opportunity. And a nifty set of rules for “pulling aggro” in order to taunt people into focusing their ire on you rather than the non-combat-oriented hacker.

Chapter Five: When Things Go Wrong


This chapter is essentially a list of skill tests, with appropriate description. How to use each skill to execute typical tasks for healing, diseases, and toxins. There’s a quick section on vehicular repairs that follows the same pattern.

The vehicular repair rules are a very simple way of tracking damage and function, and also restoring it with the proper rolls. Unlike characters, who can continue to be not-dead from -HP down to -5xHP, vehicles just die at -HP, which is a good way to keep things simple. A few special-case situations that commonly call for skill rolls (“Scotty, I need more power for the shields!”) are also treated.

There’s also a half-page box on how and when to use the various metagame Luck advantages – or buying successes with character points – in genre. This includes Daredevil and Serendipity.

Finally, there are a few notes about the skills to roll for restraints and escaping them.

Chapter Six: Directing the Action


The final chapter consists on five pages that are aimed straight at the GM, rather than both the players and the GM. It also has a statement that works well here, but would be equally a home (and perhaps usefully repeated) in the book’s introduction. 

“The ultimate outcome of an action story is predictable, after all: The heroes will win, like in the movies. This is a key difference between action gaming and genres such as fantasy and horror, where challenges are often confusing, weird, and unknowable.”

The first section on Campaign types lists challenges found in Exploits that are best-fits to the campaign types listed in Action 1: Heroes (which also lists the characters best suited to tackle that campaign). It tells you what tasks are good, and what types of help or equipment might be suitable or not-so-suitable for a game (mercenaries for a secret mission are likely to be disavowed, rather than being supported by a company of Rangers if things get tight).

In the same vein as “not appropriate for a campaign style,” a half-page box gives ten rules to avoid or eliminate from Action-Adventure games. Such as Regular Contests (boring!) detailed tracking of fatigue for uses other than Extra Effort (roll that into BAD), or Fright Checks (these are bad-asses, not mooks; they don’t got time to scream). And magic, because Action-Adventure, not sword-and-sorcery . . . though if magical spells replaces or supplements guns, you have The Dresden Files, which would be a fine Action-Adventure/Mystery crossover.

Much like many parts of the book talk about skill tasks and how they face the player, the chapter also hits some details on Assistance Rolls – possible requests, the rolls required to get that effect, and the resolution of such. 

And since the primary foes in action adventure movies are either other humans or the clock, three “classes” of enemies are provided: Mooks, Henchmen, and Bosses, with brief potential write-ups for each. Given the generalities involved, these are high level, with advice such as “one to three scenario-relevant skills at level 10-15” instead of a detailed blow-by-blow for each type of potential adversary.

The book ends with utility – what can happen after the action dies down and it’s time for the wrap-up, and a long 3/4-page box on how to ensure that, unlike the typical action movie (which is usually only one or two protagonists), that every character is kept relevant to the game without dominating a campaign or even a scene to the exclusion of all others. A character can be the brightest light in the room while still not losing the rest of the party in the glare.

Ballistic’s Report

I don’t mean to short-change any particular chapter, or indeed the huge swaths of the book that are “little more” than a set of tasks, the skills needed to accomplish them, and then any skills or modifiers that are used to resist or oppose that action. That is the lion’s share of improv and lookup a GM has to do during a game, and this book has taken nearly every Action trope and done the work for you, in advance.

Between Action  1 and Action 2, you have a compact (but not that compact – the two together run 85 pages) genre distillation that gives you fast-start character templates, another “template” for putting together adventures and looking for work, a “template” in Act, Assess, Analyze, etc. for the important components of an action-adventure story, and a giant list of prefabricated tasks and modifiers for executing these. 

The only thing I could wish for, because of the need to actually find the task at hand, would be to reduce all of those tasks to a tabular format. Perhaps a list that might include:

  • Skill: the key skill being used as a primary condition
  • Task: The particular job being accomplished here. Each skill might have several tasks that might have been described, and each would get a separate line. Page reference for details.
  • Type: Skill roll, Quick Contest, Regular Contest, Reaction Roll, Effect Roll.
  • Modifiers: Either the actual modifiers or types of modifiers (apply, range, target location, and lighting penalties to the Guns roll) would work.
  • Opposed By: If there’s active resistance possible, this gives the options.

I’d leave complimentary skills out, and special effects or conditions can be handled in depth by the page reference under Tasks, though things like “Take margin of success as damage” might be worth a reference. A similar table could be created for Assistance Rolls from Chapter Six.

All in all, I still maintain that this book in particular is one of the most under-appreciated books published for GURPS, because while it makes for dense reading, there are something like a half-dozen to a dozen key simplifications and concepts that take a lot of the “what modifiers do I look for now” slog out of the game. The rest of the book represents a distilled list of a bloody ton of adventuring tasks that the Line Editor must have run across in his own long-running Action/Adventure campaign, packaged up nice and neatly for consumption – but you’ll want to be facile with using FIND for skills here in your PDF, because that’s probably the best way to turn this excellent book into a highly usable quick-reference guide.


Dark Conspiracy (First Edition Cover)

Dark Conspiracy (published by the Games Designer’s Workshop, or GDW, in 1991, by Lester W. Smith) was a grim action/horror RPG set in a dystopian future where evils of all kinds plague the globe. This one came out when I was in college. The Gulf War had kicked off, if I recall correctly, and GDW had (or was about to) release the Gulf War Handbook, at the time one of the more comprehensive guidebooks to the technology deployed of the day.
I was looking to run a game, there at Rice University, and when I saw the Dark Conspiracy book on the shelves of the game store in Houston (there was one a short bike ride north of campus, just south of the highway, I think), I knew I had to have it.
The cover and a quick skim proved that it had everything I wanted to play in a game, and so running it shouldn’t be too bad. I’d collected a small quantity of GDW’s other books, including the next edition of Twilight: 2000 and later I’d go on to grab Merc: 2000 and other books. I ate ramen and Slimfast so I could buy them.
But the setting. Dystopian future. Guns and monsters. Psionics and aliens and otherworldly threats. Huge areas of wasteland . . . it spoke to me.

I decided to run a game, and started it with all the characters playing idealized versions of themselves, coming back to Rice for a reunion. All was well and normal with the world, which was as we knew it. Then the tear in the universe opened, and thing started to go awry. They fled to Galveston, where Tim owned a sailboat (the True Porpoise, because everyone should have a porpoise in life, as I recall). There was a still-memorable encounter with a were bear, a lesson for the GM in “don’t split the party especially before the game starts,” and a close encounter with a rogue submarine.
But most of that didn’t happen in the Dark Conspiracy system. It happened in GURPS.
There was something about the system, even then, that didn’t work for me. That was 25 years ago now, and I wanted to recall if I’d just seized upon an excuse to use nearly every damn GURPS book I owned, or if with no small amount of maturity and some real writing and design experience, it was as ill-suited to its own genre as I remembered at the time.

I remember I pulled out the 3ed/revised Basic Set, Companion(s), High Tech, Low Tech, Ultra-Tech, Magic, Psionics, Martial Arts, Martial Arts Adventures, and maybe Ultra-Tech 2 . . . and if you’re wondering how I didn’t spend the entire campaign looking up rules, well, you’re not wrong.

I’m not going to do a page by page review of a 336-page book. But I will hit the highlights and lowlights. Fair warning: I bailed on GMing this system after a few tries with this game, plus a few more with the sister system that was Twilight: 2000’s second edition.

Initial Impressions and Overall Construction

There’s no question – it’s a gorgeous book. The artwork is sprinkled throughout and is uniformly dark and foreboding in tone, save for a few purposefully incongruous drawings of spectacular wealth – which also usually have misery in the background. Nearly every plate features a grim and haggard looking hero squaring off against a monster of some sort. Usually they’re not doing well.
The layout is varied, with most of the book being two-column, but three- and even four-column layout see use as well, depending on the topic. This is a bit annoying, but not tragically so. The table of contents is two-pages long, the font is tiny, and it’s quite comprehensive. There’s a players’ section (130 pages), a referees’ section (120 pages), and about 80 pages of equipment and reference charts. The font of the print is fairly small, and you have to search carefully sometimes for rules – the Index is fairly well provided for, though. Between the Table of Contents and the Index you can, by and large, have a fighting chance to find what you need.
The book also has some full-color pages, which lovingly sculpt out some of the bad guys – monsters, aliens, rich folks climbing into a sports car as the decrepit sit by, menaced by a thorned tentacle.
The impression is a game that wants to be played.
One thing that always struck me about the art – and I’m no artist, yet everyone’s a critic – is that it almost appears at first glance that most everyone – monsters included – are naked. A closer look shows lines and color of clothes, but the artist(s?) use a distinctive style that shows every curve and muscle, and then puts in demarcations for clothes afterwards. None of the art rises to the level of the D&D succubus, but men and women alike are, how to put it – desperately ripped. The look has a starvation look to it; appropriate given the setting.
The book’s major chapters in the players’ section are Character Generation, Careers, Task Resolution and Skills, Dark Times (a description of the world), Combat & Damage, Wounds and Healing, Wheels of Fire (vehicle rules), Space Travel, and Robots.
The Referee’s section includes Refereeing Dark Conspiracy, Dark Earth, Running Adventures and Campaigns, Encounters, Human NPCs, Beasties, Dark Races, DarkTek, and Adventures.
Equipment and Reference Charts is pretty self-explanatory.

Character Creation

Character creation follows the old Traveller model, in a way, with Terms of Service that occur to build up your character. Everyone starts at 17 years old, having randomly generated statistics by rolling 2d6-2 (in order, which will please purists), except for Empathy, which for PCs is 1d6-1 (0-5), and for NPCs it’s 1d10-5 (50% chance of zero, and 1-5 otherwise). So for PCs, the average will get 30 in primary stats, and 2.5 for Empathy; 33 points. If the dice rolls give you less than that, you’re encouraged to plus-up (which won’t please purists). There’s also a point-buy method dividing 36 points among the seven attributes: Strength (STR), Constitution (CON), Agility (AGL), Intelligence (INT), Education (EDU), Charisma (CHA), plus Empathy (EMP).
Each character then starts the game, often with an end in mind: I’d like to be a fighter pilot, or a college professor, or in Federal law enforcement. Those careers may have prerequisites, and so if (for example) you don’t have the Strength or Constitution to become a special forces soldier, you can choose background activities to try to get there. Too low raw attributes, though, and you probably can’t.
You spend your career in four-year terms, and the more terms you have, the more points of skills you get – and you’ll need them. After a certain point, though, your Agility , Constitution, and Strength will decline after a few terms (four for Agility, six for Strength, eight for Constitution). You roll 1d10 at the end of each term, and if you roll equal or less than your current term number, your character creation process stops. Thus, 50% of starting characters will end by the third term, and only about 15% will go beyond term 5. Plan accordingly.
There are well over 50 career paths, from Astronaut to Special Forces operator to Nomenklatura (rich guy) to street thug.
During the character generation process, you amass skills (the most important part of character generation), contacts, and perhaps increase (or maybe decrease) your attributes. You’ll wind up rolling 1d10 vs your skill (perhaps doubled, halved, or even quartered) to do most anything, and if the GM allows unskilled tasks, you’ll roll d100 (!) against your attribute level. So even one point in a skill is as good as an attribute of 10 if you’re ‘defaulting’ to it.
There are two sample characters that are worked through in detail. One is a law enforcement type, who starts without enough Education to get the job – so that’s worked through. Dara Schwartz winds up with just shy of 20 skills, the highest of which is 4. The other character, Herbert Vahn, is an Empath that focuses strongly on being an empath. He winds up with only 9 skills. Only three of them are outside the set defined by the Empathy controlling attribute: Melee Combat (Unarmed) 2, Stealth 3, and Luck 1. The other six vary from 2 (Project Emotion) to 10 (Human Empathy).
In my limited experience, the second character – focused and niche-driven, was the way to go. More on that later.
There are some derived statistics, too. money is driven by your Education stat, on a per-term basis (so steadily increasing EDU also increased your starting cash). There’s a formula for how much your character weighs: 80kg for men, 65kg for women, plus four times STR-AGL, so if you’re strong but not agile, you’re assumed to be big, agile but not strong, and you’re light. All things considered, it’s not awful in concept or result.
Load capacity is also given in kg, equal to 3x(STR+CON). So Josephine Average with a 5 in each will mass 65 kg and have a load-bearing baseline of 30kg. You can carry up to twice this figure. As you can see, STR 10/CON 10 is twice the load capacity as the average bear.
Your ability to absorb damage is different for each body part: the head can absorb 2xCON, the chest 3x(STR+CON), and thus equal to load capacity, and all other body parts are twice STR+CON. So, again for someone with 5 in each of the physical stats, you wind up with 10 HP in your head, 30 in the chest, and 20 in each limb. A .223 does 3d6 damage per shot. So you can, at minimum, take two rounds to the chest and still be considered within the “slight” wound category. Scratch is half the numbers above (so 15 for the chest), serious is “up to double,” and critical wounds are more than double the hit capacity (21 hits to the head, 61 hits to the chest, etc.). Obviously this is fairly forgiving.

Skills and Tasks

As noted, most things in the game are resolved by skill tests. Roll 1d10 vs a target number, and if you roll equal or lower than that target, you succeed. That’s mostly true . . . but there are a number of “unless X, then use a different mechanic” exceptions.
All non-combat tasks are covered in the skill descriptions under Task Resolution and Skills, which is 11 pages long, 8 of them given to skill descriptions.
An average task is against your skill; an easy one is vs double your skill, and a hard one is half your skill, but for very long-range combat (as an example) rolls vs. quarter-skill can be called for. You drop fractions, so if your skill is 3, quartering it is 0.75, so you can’t roll (or rather, you can’t succeed). If you succeed by four or more, you get a referee-defined outstanding success. If you fail by four or more, you re-roll, and if you fail again, you suffer catastrophic failure.
So, let’s take a look at Dara Schwartz’s skill levels . . . 18 skills, with a median of 2. With a 2, she has a 20% chance on an average task, 10% for a difficult one, and 40% for an easy task. She has zero chance of an outstanding success even on an easy task, because no matter what she can’t succeed by 4 or more. For failure, on an average task she’ll have a chance of a catastrophic failure 50% of the time (roll 6-10 vs 2), and confirm that 80% of the time – that is, on an Average task, her success breakdown is:
  • Outstanding Success: 0%
  • Success: 20%
  • Failure: 30% + 10% = 40%
  • Catastrophic Failure: 40%
The whiff-factor here is huge. And this is one of the examples of character generation – an archetype, so to speak.
Even her best skills, Interrogation 4 and Computer Operation 4, only have a chance of outstanding success on Easy tasks. At average tasks, you get
  • Outstanding success: 0%
  • Success: 40%
  • Failure: 30% + 12% = 42%
  • Catastrophic Failure: 30% opportunity, 18% actual (60% of 30%)
Our Empath fares better, in that his limited number of skills are higher. But there are so few things he can actually do, he’s going to give a strong impression of Captain America talking about flying monkeys: “I understood that reference!” It’s funny, but it happens once in the movie. Same thing – the empath is either going to be the star of the show, or useless. The GM can tailor the game to suit, of course – and probably should, based on the principle of ‘everyone should have fun,’ but care must be taken.

Combat

Combat is more of the same, in its way, but with a lot more focus and detail. Rules are provided for direct fire, indirect fire, explosions, and automatic weapons. Autofire uses a different mechanic than direct fire – you roll a bunch of d6, and every 6 hits. You lose dice for each range band, or for difficult shots, etc. It can feel very Shadowrun.
There are four range bands: Short (Easy task) is the range increment printed on the weapon card (one of the cool things about this era of GDW books is each weapon has a stat block with both game details and a drawing of the weapon in question. Medium is twice short, and an Average task, Long is twice Medium (and 1/2 skill), and Extreme is up to twice Long – and rolls are made vs 1/4 skill.
Pistols will be in the 10-20m for short range, SMGs 25-30m, assault rifles tend to the 50m range, and hunting rifles about 75m. Range can be extended by 15m or so with a scope per band. Thus, a hunting rifle (or sniper rifle) with a scope will have a short range of 90m, medium of 180m, 360m for long, and 720m for extreme.
Shots at that difficulty level are assumed to be aimed, and are one difficulty level harder if they’re not. Aimed fire requires spending an action to do so.
My players at the time found this very frustrating – even with doubled skill levels, the miss factor was pretty high, and the relatively high hit capacity of even human targets meant that you needed to plug a foe quite a few times to make them go down.

Initiative

One of the core mechanics of the game was its initiative system. Combat rounds were divided into six partitions, characters had an initiative number from 1-6, and you got to act on every phase number equal to your initiative or lower. Non-combat careers roll 1d6/2 (round down) for initiative, combat careers get 1d6, and serving multiple terms in certain careers can boost the number. That means it’s entirely possible to have a character who acts once where another acts six times.
Yeah, that didn’t go over well in my games either, and in fact, was probably the breaking point. My groups in college were quite large, 10-15 players. A 6:1 action ratio was just cruel and unusual punishment.
The core of the mechanic is not crazy-town. As the book notes, effective action in the face of terror and the possibility of being shot or eaten (or both) is challenging, and if you’re not used to it or trained in it, you may freeze or be less effective than you could be.
But that’s real life. This is a game, and while many games have a surprise round (DnD) or the possibility of being stunned (GURPS) or having some other form of impairment (Aspect: Caught with Your Pants Down! for Fate), having it built right into the rules that you can, by dint of random die roll, act six times more frequently than your buddy? Bad call.

But . . . Champions! Granted, I haven’t kept up. But Champions pre-dates GURPS as a point-buy system, as I recall – Steve Jackson cited Champions as one of his inspirations for GURPS. And if you want to buy Speed 12, acting every segment in a Champions game, it’s going to cost you, and you’re giving up capability elsewhere. This sort of “you got lucky, so you go 6x more frequently than the other guy” doesn’t work for me as a basic mechanic.


Melee Combat – Armed and Unarmed

While it’s a terrible, terrible idea to engage in hand-to-hand combat with the lurking horror from beyond the grave, it can be done.
The short version is to make an Average difficulty attack using an appropriate skill. If you hit, your foe may give up one of his actions to block, which is a Hard task (mirroring GURPS’ defenses being half skill, though perhaps not deliberately). If you don’t have any more actions left this phase, you may not block. Unarmed combat damage in points (rather than dice) is STR x Unarmed Combat / 10. So with any combination of STR x Skill less than 19, you do one point of damage. Beyond that, you can do up to 10 points. Note that 10 is the average roll on 3d6, so with STR 10 and Unarmed Combat 10 you hit, on the average, as hard as an M16 shot, and in most cases will out-damage a pistol.
How hard is that to get? Well, your STR is random, but two terms as a “Martial Artist,” a career with no prerequisites, could net you STR +3 and Unarmed Combat +7 if you decided to focus on it. With an average STR roll and selecting Unarmed Combat as a background skill, that would give you STR 8, Unarmed Combat 9 for 7 points of damage per strike – equal to a shot from a 2d6 pistol.
Interestingly, grappling in Dark Conspiracy foreshadows the Control Points mechanic used by me for GURPS Martial Arts: Technical Grappling by 22 years. If you hit with a grapple, you get “controlling hits” equal to your unarmed damage, and if your controlling hits are greater than your foe’s STR, you pin him. Until that point, he’s free to act, and can either try to escape (removing his controlling hits from yours), or grapple you back.
Weapon combat is similar to unarmed combat – roll under your skill to attack, and if your foe has an action to spare, he may block. Damage is from 1d6 to 1d6+STR, depending on your weapon. Again, with STR 5, you can do 5-8 points per shot on the average with a blow from a melee weapon, about as damaging as a pistol (that doesn’t bother me much; getting stabbed, slashed, or bashed can suck). At high STR, you can do as much as 10+1d6, the upper bound of which is like 4d6+2 average damage (or the max on 2d6+4). Basically about like getting shot with a .308 in this game.
Special effects can be had with modifying the hit roll. Targeted hit locations make it one step more difficult. Snap shots (mentioned earlier) likewise.
There are plenty of other rules, and nearly all of them are ported over from Twilight 2000’s second edition. Explosions, cover, suppression fire (that’s a good mechanic actually), and heavy weapons fire are all covered. So is armor. Armor piercing tendencies are measured by how many dice are removed per level of armor, and a notation of “Nil” means any armor stops all damage.
Empathic skills invoke a slightly different set of mechanics, one that results in success levels instead of the usual four possibilities.
There’s a lot of rolling and tracking to be done, piled on top of a fairly low-resolution skill system.One extra point of guns Small Arms (Pistol) or Small Arms (Rifle) – both related to Strength, not Agility – gives you +10% chance to hit at medium range, +20% at short range, and may or may not add 10% at long range depending on where the rounding break point is.

Wounding and Injury

Wounding is extremely forgiving. Scratch wounds, at less than half your hit capacity, cost you a single action, but only once per 24 hours – it’s like getting the first hit in in American football. After that, you settle. Slight wounds cost you a point of initiative, slowing you by one action per initiative cycle of six phases. Serious wounds, at more than your hit capacity but less than twice the hit capacity, cause 2 points of initiative loss, halve STR, and you need to make a d100 roll vs. CON each turn or else you fall unconscious. And since stats are 1-10, that means – I think – that basically more than 9 times in 10 you go down. You make the same roll each turn to wake up. Critical wounds (more than 2x hit capacity) require medical attention within 10 minutes or the character dies from blood loss. Serious head wounds cause immediate KO, no roll; critical head wounds kill instantly.
Healing is again pretty fast. With no medical attention, you can go from critically wounded, but stable, to unwounded in two weeks. Wounds heal in levels, not hits. This is bad for realism but good for keeping characters in play.

Other Rules

The book likewise tackles vehicular movement and even space travel, but I won’t touch on those here. Even the one on Robots.

The Referee’s Section

The first 30 pages of the referee’s section is either a welcome introduction to the world, to gaming in general, and filled with good advice on how to keep the general feel of the dark and grim setting, or 30 pages of wasted space you already know. I’m inclined to give significant benefit of the doubt here, and the tone and setting advice – how Demonground differentiates from the chromed-but-rotting big city, from how an encounter with feral animals and reaver-like men will feel compared to a Close Encounter with the Grey or actual monsters is good advice, especially for new GMs. If you’ve gamed before, especially as an experienced GM, just read the setting stuff – it’s very good and guides the flavor of the campaign setting well.
One section that I still appreciate is that on Human NPCs. While the first two pages of the 13-page chapter are a long vignette, the rest detail many different stock characters, relative skill levels and damage, as well as a nice little bit on motivation, based on drawing two cards from a standard deck. The suit is the flavor of the motivation, and the card value gives the strength of it. So a 10 of Hearts has a very strong motivation based on love of people. The King of Spades is Deceitful and ambitious, while Diamonds (greed) has the Ace being generous, and the Queen lustful. From greed, ambition, sociability, and violence can come a fairly broad array of strength and characterization, all from the draw of a few playing cards. Both useful and portable.
From there on, it’s a bestiary, a discussion of dark minions and alien races, and a chapter on the evil, horrible, squicky biocomputers and nasty devices that is DarkTek.

Ballistic’s Report

You already know the end of this story. After only a few sessions, I ditched the game system and moved to GURPS, since if I was going to have that much resolution in combat results, I wanted higher resolution and more portability in my game engine as well – at least that’s what I told myself at the time. Some of the things that bothered me (like being able to take an M16 or M21 shot to the chest with no real ill effect) bothered the heck out of me from a verisimilitude perspective. Other things bothered the heck out of my players, which is ultimately more important.


The Problems – Mechanically Indifferent

Ultimately, and with 25 years of hindsight, I think that the problem I had with Dark Conspiracy is a bit the same problem I have with Savage Worlds. It’s walking a midline between grit and heroism, high and low resolution. Forgiving game mechanics laid on top of a near-noir setting. Honestly, though, I think Savage Worlds handles this mix better than the engine used in Dark Conspiracy, but beyond that, the DnD5e engine, classes, levels, and all, would be a good fit here as well. Getting shot in the chest with a rifle and having nothing happen to your fighting ability makes more sense in a “hit points represent luck, stress, and skill” rather than “you got shot, you’re bleeding out.”
The DnD mechanics speak to heroism and resource management, and a certain level of assumed narrative handwaving. The gritty nature of the setting could fairly easily be layered on top of this by keeping the challenge rating of any monsters encountered darn high, such that the best option is either hit from a distance, flee, or both. More mundane human adversaries could be played straight.
The other way to go – and the way I did go – was to embrace the grit and grime full-on, and GURPSify the setting. Get hit by one bullet from an M16 and you’re probably unconscious. Three to the chest with a pistol and you’re likely unconscious, dead, or dying. Fill a monster full of lead . . . and he just keeps coming thanks to nasty advantages like Injury Tolerance (that’s a Fourth Edition conceit, but there were other abilities that were similar in the days of 3rd Edition). There could be finer differentiation between characters of similar type, and the portability of GURPS mechanics and general increase in grit and lethality helped me tell the story I, as GM, wanted to tell. That game went on for a few more sessions, and some of them were the most memorable of any I’ve played.


The Awesome – Narrative Brilliance

This is a genre and setting that deserve spending time in, and paired with the right ruleset, fantastic stories would be told. Of course, great stories can also be told with poor – or no – rules at all. But I feel one should choose, and that the Dark Conspiracy (and Twilight: 2000 2nd Edition) system was a poor fit for my needs, and not a great fit for the grit and grim setting that is described within the pages of the book. Life should be cheaper, death more lurking, than I found.
I’d happily convert this game to my two usual games of choice: D&D Fifth Edition or GURPS. I’m not sure I’d need to do any conversion to play it in Night’s Black Agents! For GURPS I’d probably use the Monster Hunters rule set, probably starting at the Sidekick (200 pt) level.
The good about this RPG is that the setting and ambiance positively drip (drool? slaver?) with greatness. The blend of modern and monster, power and technology is one of my favorites – it’s why I like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Blade, and to a different extent, the Underworld movies (though most of that is, honestly, Kate Beckinsale, whom I’ll happily watch in anything).
The monsters are horrifying. The people scarcely less so. Some of the creatures are of our darkest nightmares, the personification of ancient horrors and sin that exist because we psychically make it so. Others are aliens – true aliens with motivations mostly beyond understanding – that are so much more than people in rubber suits
I have returned to this world with other game systems again and again, and I will likely do so again and again.

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.

Introduction

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.

  1. 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. 
  2. This book is around character design guidelines. They will be deep enough to allow fidelity to the genre
  3. 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.
  4. 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).
  5. 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.
  6. 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!”
The introduction sets the tone for what follows. This book will be about high action, high adventure, and low-fidelity realism. What is awesome is what matters – though a high-action, high-competence game can be toned down to achieve the feel of Ronin. 
The rest of the book will provide templates, and how they fit various games and campaigns (Chapter 1), and actually providing the cut-down list of advantages, disadvantages, and skills that is appropriate to the genre. This is good advice, if lengthy to execute, for any campaign (to cut it down, that is), and Sean executes it for you. In Chapter 3, the background comes to life with advice on how to leverage the agencies and organizations to aid the mission. Finally, we hook up with Q for Chapter 4: Gear, which all sorts of toys.
We’ll cover each chapter in turn. 

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:

  1. Lenses
  2. Campaign Types
  3. Templates
There are also some boxes spread throughout the text. These call out important concepts (or optional rules) that don’t always fit precisely within the chapter structure.

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:

Campaign Types

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.

Lenses

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).

Each lens provides suggestions as to the minimum set of skills and abilities that one would possess to not overly strain credibility to lay claim to a certain background. As an example, Martin Riggs, the ex-SF sniper from the Lethal Weapon movies (Mel Gibson), is likely an Assassin (rather than a Shooter) with the Law Enforcement lens. Just enough 2-point skills to allow him to roll at IQ level (a not-awful 12) for most of the things he’s supposed to be able to do as a cop. Detective Lorna Cole (Renee Russo), to contrast, is likely an Investigator with the Law Enforcement lens, with enough points funneled into Karate to give Riggs something to sincerely admire in fighting ability. But the lens is between useful and required to make their “cop” persona viable. Things like “Duty” because they report for work each day, or Legal Enforcement Powers, because, well, cops.

The skills section thus recommends where to spend the 20 points in Background skills from each template, and the abilities section guides your choices from those listed in the template. Some of those are Disadvantages (often Duty), so may wind up being a net point gain (the Extremely Hazardous Duty that will come up very frequently for SFOD-D guys, as an example, is a heavyweight disad).
The basic choices given explicitly are Criminal, Intelligence, Law Enforcement, Military, and Security (which means counter-spy, the mirror of Intelligence). Interestingly, Law Enforcement also has its mirror in Criminal, and of course Military is its own mirror.

The lenses are a nice touch, guiding background in a useful way that adds to character without distracting from role. The guidance for non-explicit lenses, such as Academic (the scientists from Jurassic Park, or Dr Jekyll from League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), Martial Arts Master, or Rich Adveturer, is brief but on-point. If you want to be a rich adventurer, you’d best be rich and/or famous.
Templates
The meat of the chapter for obvious reasons, this is where you spend your points. Quite a few of them (250), but not the heavyweight for worked examples: that honor belongs to Monster Hunters.
There are 11 templates, each very competent, that define traditional roles in action movies. Each has some niche protection and some overlap: The Assassin, Demolition Man, and Shooter all do violence as their reason for existence . . . but each has their own, um, idiom.
Some are in-your-face roles that beg for screen time, while others (Wheel Man, Cleaner, Wire Rat, Hacker) can either be front-and-center (the car chase from Ronin) or in the background (the brief scene with Harve Keitel from Point of No Return). 
One thing about them: they’re very, very attribute-heavy, designed to make broadly competent characters. Consider the point investment in attributes alone: Assassin (180 pts); Cleaner (180 pts); Demolition Man (170 pts); Face Man (180 pts); Hacker (150 pts); Infiltrator (170 pts); Investigator (170 pts); Medic (160 pts); Shooter (160 pts); Wheel Man (160 pts), and Wire Rat (150 pts). Every template has at least one stat that’s 14-16, with more in the offing with optional points. 

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 [25] and Luck [15]. • A further 30
points chosen from among lens advantages (pp. 4-5), ST +1
to +3 [10/level], DX +1 [20], IQ +1 [20], HT +1 to +3
[10/level], Per +1 to +6 [5/level], Basic Speed +1 [20], Basic
Move +1 to +3 [5/level], Acute Vision [2/level], . .. 

you might instead get

Advantages:

  • Gunslinger [25] and Luck [15]
  • A further 30 points chosen from among lens advantages (pp. 4-5):
o   ST +1 to +3 [10/level]
o   DX +1 [20], IQ +1 [20]
o   HT +1 to +3 [10/level]
o   Per +1 to +6 [5/level]
o   Basic Speed +1 [20]
o   Basic Move +1 to +3 [5/level]
o   Acute Vision [2/level]
But without the boxes. Basically, something that uses a two- or three-column format within the main two-column format of the document to allow the eye to assimilate the vast amount of good information from the tempaltes in a more friendly way. This will increase page count (which I’m assured isn’t quite as “free” as one would think, even in electronic documents, due to the association of page count with pricing, even in electronic documents), but would, to me, represent a huge leap forward in the paper/electronic-page utility of what can be very dense blocks of text.
If you use GCA and someone makes a macro for you? Forget everything I just said because templates are the greatest thing since sliced bread in this case.
Boxed Text
There are three instances of boxed text throughout the chapter, giving some help or additional information to help make genre-appropriate heroes and their foes.
  • 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.

Advantages

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.

Gun Perks

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.

Disadvantages

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.

Skills

Obviously, skills get the same treatment. A cut-down list of skills, and where some are cut hard, such as Melee Weapon, key bits are preserved, as Axe/Mace and Broadsword, as examples.

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.

Modifiers


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. 

Sample Assistance



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. 

Parting Shots

Each part of this book has its strengths and take-aways. The introduction sets it up, but there are critical bits from each chapter that bear special calling out.


Chapter 1

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.”

The templates do a lot of heavy lifting for you – that’s their job. There are slightly fewer than a dozen, and much like in Dungeon Fantasy, as a GM you can enforce these or you can let them slide. If the GM wants stronger differentiation and less stat-heavy characters . . . well, you might not be playing Action anymore! 
These templates and lenses provide the core of competence and expertise and a veneer of background. The important part is that you’re the firepower, driver, or hacker of the team, and oh-by-the-way you’re all part of an Elite Fighting Force or SWAT detachment or association of criminals out to revenge yourselves on someone that double-crossed you that one time. From there, what separates this movie from Black Hawk Down is how it plays.
Chapter 2


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.

Chapter 3


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.


Chapter 4


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.

Overall

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.