What Is Dungeon Fantasy – Powered by GURPS?
Steve Jackson Games has published four editions of its Generic Universal RolePlaying System (GURPS) since 1986, and its suitability for running pretty much any genre imaginable has led to an insane amount of resources over the years. If you don’t know where to start, it can be really overwhelming. That’s exactly why I was drawn to the Dungeon Fantasy – Powered by GURPS set when it launched last year on Kickstarter: Everything you need to get started with the system, focused on one genre, in a single box.
In short, this is Steve Jackson Games’ take on a classic fantasy RPG, packaged in a set that’s more comprehensive than a lot of roleplaying game introductory kits or rulebooks. The set comes with five softcover books—”Adventurers,” “Exploits,” “Spells,” “Monsters,” and “I Smell a Rat.” That’s four rule sets/resources, and one fully fleshed-out playable adventure, adding up to 408 pages of content. (Not counting the back covers of the four reference books, which serve as handy informational charts.) There are also 116 cardboard figure tokens, 12 plastic token stands, 3 six-sided dice, and 2 double-sided hex-based maps measuring 30×30 inches and 20×30 inches, which go with “I Smell a Rat” and the available sequel, “Against the Rat Men” (which was delivered as a PDF to Kickstarter backers).
It’s a gorgeous set, and it’s all nicely packaged in a really sharp box. The retail price is $59.95, which strikes me as pretty much in line with acquisition costs for the basics of any detailed RPG.
What’s in the Books?
“Adventurers” dives into character creation—and as a GURPS rookie, I admit to being somewhat unprepared for the level of number-crunchiness available within.
The customization possibilities are practically endless, and the character creation process seems like a wonderful kind of adventure all its own. Playable character races include Cat-Folk, Dwarf, Elf, Half-Elf, Gnome, Half-Ogre, Half-Orc, and Halfling. Professions (think “classes”) are Barbarian, Bard, Cleric, Druid, Holy Warrior, Knight, Martial Artist, Scout, Swashbuckler, Thief, and Wizard. The basic gist of character creation is that you choose a profession, and select traits from “shopping lists” noted on the professional template. Then you spend character points to define yourself with attributes—the basics are Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, and Health—characteristics, skills, advantages, and disadvantages. (You “buy” disadvantages with negative points—they’re flaws designed to make characters more interesting, like jealousy or impulsiveness.) If you want to play one of the non-human races, those cost points as well, and come with templates of their own. An interesting aspect to all of this is that there’s no random element (die rolling) to creating your character: Everything about your character is based on a choice you’ve made.
“Exploits” is the How-to-Play book, covering adventuring, combat, and game mastering. Interesting to me is the core dice-rolling mechanic, which is based on those three six-sided dice included with the game, and a little different from most RPGs I’ve played. For a character to perform an action, you’d roll all three dice, succeeding if the total rolled is less than or equal to whatever the number governing that action is. To use the example in the book, if you attempt to pick a lock, and your Lockpicking skill is 9, you’d need to roll a 9 or less on those three dice. Modifiers to a situation affect the number you’re rolling against—not your rolled total. So if you have a -5 penalty for some reason, you subtract that from the 9, and now you’re trying to roll 4 or less on those dice, which is obviously rather more difficult. All that said, a roll of 3 or 4 is always a success, and a roll of 17 or 18 is always a failure, regardless of the target numbers. The same mechanic governs all sorts of rolls, from Fright Checks to Reactions to Influence and more. (You may wind up rolling more than 3 dice for things like combat damage, but you’re always using those six-siders.)
On combat: As mentioned earlier, GURPS uses hex grid maps, which, if you’ve never used one, can have a bit of a learning curve when it comes to rules regarding things like movement and directional facing. Again, it’s all down to achieving a precise level of detail and that imagined realism when you’re describing actions and situations. Another significant difference from many other RPGs is that resolving an attack—melee or ranged—takes up to three dice rolls: There’s the attack roll, in which the attacker rolls against their effective combat skill, basically determining whether they’ve achieved all they can to hit their foe. But in GURPS, opponents also normally get a defense roll to determine whether they avoid or intercept the attack—and if they succeed, they’ve avoided damage. Failure to defend leads to a damage roll by the attacker.
The “Spells” and “Monsters” books are just what it says on the tins: One’s an extensive guide for wielders of magic, and the other is a guide to beasts from Acid Spider to Zombie. I love Brandon Moore’s cover artwork on all the books, along with his interior pieces. Other artists contributing to the game include Dennis Loubet, Alex Fernandez, Dan Willems, Felipe Gaona, and Ben Mund—although I should point out that these books are pretty text-heavy. They’re not the tiny, densely-packed pages of, say, the original AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide, and they’re well-organized with tables and call-out boxes, but there is a lot of information in here. (There are weapons rules for lariats and harpoons. Just saying.)
“I Smell a Rat” is a 24-page introductory adventure designed for first-time GURPS players and gamemasters alike.
Shall We Delve?
So here’s the thing: GURPS is a long-established system, around long enough that I’m not near qualified to offer a detailed take on its ups and downs and ins and outs. Coming to this from the perspective of a relatively experienced roleplayer, I can see the validity of the ages-13-and-up recommendation based on the game’s potential complexity alone. That said, my own RPG experience has tended to gravitate toward the value of a good time and fun, flowing storytelling over a strict adherence to every rule at every moment, so as with any system, the gameplay of GURPS’ Dungeon Fantasy will be different at every table. I do think the detail and the almost unfathomable possibilities the system presents can satisfy both the number-crunchers and the storytelling fans, so long as the party agrees beforehand where the middle ground lies. We’re not talking about a new revision to the core GURPS, but a one-shot way to explore the system and see if it’s for you. And I think the Dungeon Fantasy box is ideal for that.
I’ll confess that I backed this not knowing when I’ll get to play it—but I love reading and learning new systems and RPG materials. I keep them on my shelves for inspiration and reference the way some people have coffee table photography books or poster collections or art. And as one of those people who has always been intimidated by the sheer volume of GURPS material out there, the idea of a complete introduction to the system—especially one themed to my fantasy RPG tastes—was too appealing to pass up. (For comparison, this kit’s introductory text notes that the two basic volumes of the wider GURPS system encompass more words than the entirety of the Dungeon Fantasy box. Yeah.)
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Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of this game for review purposes.