Saturday, September 3, 2016

Review: GURPS Fantasy

Shiny bow girl is a fantasy
So, this is a first for the blog: I am reviewing a genre book. Genre books are super huge, and a lot of it is not necessarily relevant to any given campaign, and certainly not all of it at once, unless you are trying really really hard or doing some kitchen sink parallel world game. So really, this book is something of a toolkit for fantasy and similar genres where you can take bits and pieces anduse as you see fit, and then look at some more for inspiration. I preface this review such because, and it probably applies to other reviews, because although some sections are solid gold and captivating, there are some sections that have either been totally irrelevant and uninteresting to me, and that's just the nature of the beast, isn't it? That said, let's take a closer look.


Page 1 of contents
I have the 244 page pdf version of the book. Chapter 1 starts on page 8 (or semantic page 5) and the last chapter ends on page 235 (or semantic page 232,) and that gives us a total of 228 pages of stuff. The book is split into 9 chapters. The first, 12 pages, is about super high level details of campaign planning. The second chapter, 22 pages, is guidance on using magic and related supernatural elements in a campaign. The third, 36 pages, is a hodgepodge of details that feels a bit like a sequel to chapter 1 for further defining the campaign in finer strokes. The fourth, 19 pages long, deals with placing the campaign in a timeline, and what tropes might coincide with the specific period in time which the story occurs, and what that might imply for time traveling or archeology. The fifth, 12 pages long dis about the typical fixtures you might find in a particular city or village, and what accommodations they might provide. The sixth, 42 pages long, is about building characters and how to manage the options available for character building. The seventh, 27 pages, is about magic and the mechanical and fluff implications. The eighth, 22 pages, is about building adventures and campaigns that fit the setting. The final chapter, 38 pages, is a proof of concept setting, characters, and world details set in a fantastic version of the Roman Empire.
Page 2.
The book is more guidance than anything, with some fluff, or meta-fluff really; discussing interesting background details that are typical in fantasy, but also heavily featured in the example setting. New rules, and interesting data are not especially abundant, though there are a *few* monsters, racial templates, and professions. Illustrations are fine, and might be purpose made for the book; some have signatures with dates close to the release of the book. Pull quotes are a bit rare though. Chapters start with anecdote stories, but thy don't have any specific continuity this time.
The book is overall what I expect, but one big flaw I feel is that, even though it pays lip service to the idea that tech level is divorced of the fantasy genre, a lot of the book seems to presuppose a TL1-3 setting, which to be honest, covers the majority of fantasy, but GURPS to me is about helping someone do the things that aren't easy or common. The equipment tables, for example, stop at about TL4. This precludes several modern supernatural adventure campaigns the likes of which you might see in Once Upon a Time, Harry Potter, or Magical Index (though, you might say the last one is more an esper thing) and all have really good potential for fantasy GURPS campaigns that other systems would fall short capturing.
Let's take a closer look at the chapters now.

Planning the Campaign

This chapter covers the broad strokes of campaign planning, before even getting into setting or characters. It starts with a list of subgenres and detailed explanations of each, and how they might overlap with others. The next section similarly discusses setting at the mile high view, like whether the game occurs in the future, or the past, or on other planets, etc. Each of these settings are also given a sizable summary, and it goes on for pages. The final section speaks to scope and how "deep and wide" the campaign can get, do you stay around one city, could a plot last for dozens of sessions? Do stories have neat bookends that represent the beginning and end?
I like some of the asides in this chapter, especially the one on p.16 about Aspects of Realism and Motifs, part 1 and 2 on pages 11 and 14. The chapter is a good glance through when trying to set up a new campaign, and might be a good supplement in that regard when combined with How to be a GURPS GM.

The Supernatural

This chapter speaks to the fantastic elements that separate "fantasy" from "fiction," and most especially it speaks to the element of magic. The chapter begins with a pretty fluffy discussion of magic and its semantic and subjective value in different settings and how different assumptions about it might have a mechanical impact on a game, but for the most part focuses on information over mechanics until the end where it makes a few small suggestions based on choices that might be made about the prior given information.
The next session covers magical objects and the introduction is a little lackluster for me. It can be summarized as "sometimes settings have magic items, and here are a few but no advice on how one might set to creating their own?" It picks up a bit though when we start adding some more mechanically rigorous details involving enchantment and alchemy, which includes helpful summary tables of information from GURPS Magic, but isn't exactly usable without it. After runic enchantment comes some interesting but seemingly unimportant and unrelated data about some relics and magic items again, similar to the start of the chapter. The section does end with some interesting advice for GMs about applying the information in a campaign.
The next section speaks to Magical Beings. It has a lot of background information, but not a lot of mechanical substance behind it. Some categories of supernatural beings include some suggestions of common traits, but others don't.There is a pseudo-lens for a minor god though that weighs in at 662 points though, if you want that.
Magical Realms discusses alternate realities and talks about stories that happen when jumping between them or focused on one particular realm. I found the section more interesting than the previous, but just about as helpful.
The final section, The Dead speaks to not necessarily the undead (though mentioned in an aside,) but the idea of spirits and ghosts, and resurrection and similar. Like the previous two sections, this is more soft guidance than anything hard or mechanical, but I also found this section interesting.


This is about the physical setting of your campaign... cities, towns, the wilderness, planets, and so forth. The first section, Frames speaks to the overall shape of the world, is it a different planet, is it flat, are there alternate dimensions? Lots of system agnostic thoughts as such.
Playing With Maps is a very short section on how to deal with maps. That's it, half a page.
Magical Landscapes is about considering the fact that maybe since magic isn't 100% realistic, maybe landscapes can be weird? Like, floating islands and stuff? What might magic do to existing mundane biomes? Especially dangerous deserts and especially abundant farmlands? The conversation leads to talks of mana levels and ley lines, with a bit of mechanical rigor.
The next section, Plants and Animals speaks to the wildlife in a fantasy world. One thing I find especially helpful here is the section on Animal Languages because the advantage Speak with Animals was kinda ambiguous to me in the basic set. The section ends with a ten page bestiary broken into a few categories.
The next section speaks to Races and Cultures. This has advice on creating societies with different customs and different races with different beliefs and biology that might be represented by racial templates, which come in a later chapter. It includes several example cultures to compare, contrast, and steal from as well. The section ends with considerations on how humans should interact in a world with several potentially dominant species.
After that, we have Magic and Technology which mostly focuses on technology, despite the name, but with respects to the effects that magic might have on its development. This might take the form of steampunk magitech theorycrafting or the like. Some mechanical rigor is interlaced here and there giving some depth to what would otherwise just be concepts. The section does end though with a bit of a discussion about what might happen if the circuit is completed and magic helps technology, which in turn helps magic.
The final section, Civilizations, talks about... civilizations and how they might be influenced by magic.What kind of governments spring up, what kinda customs form, if magic is everywhere, how does it change day to day life if people can buy quality health care off the shelf at a drug store?


This is the temporal complement to the previous spatial chapter, and deals with defining historical contexts for what adventurers might deal with. The first section, repeating a pattern, is Frames, where we discuss whether time is shaped by a historical or mythological bent.
The next section speaks to creating timelines. Whether real, alternate history, or totally fictional. Short... like the map section previously.
Historical Eras is a bit interesting because it talks about the different typical ages in a fantasy universe from the creation to perhaps "contemporary" times. A very interesting section, but also mechanically light.
A kinda interesting, but somewhat out of place section, Disturbances comes next, which speaks to natural (and supernatural) disasters, and what might be the immediate impact of such an event, and what might be the shockwaves felt in the aftermath. I appreciate that this section has some slightly more gameable content. 
The final section, Shadows of the Past talks about making history matter in a game context. What do genealogies and ruins mean? Who made a particular treasure and why? That is what this chapter is about.


This chapter deals with the different points of interests in a setting. The first section Settlements summarizes various types of towns and villages, trade and infrastructure between them,  and then ends with talks about the big things like capital cities.
Services, the next section deals with the types of things you might want to pay for in those aforementioned settlements. Armor, medial care, inns, information, and others. It goes into the types of jobs that might be available in a setting where magicians might help with pedestrian duties.
Overall, this is a really short chapter, but it is really interesting to me. It probably says a lot about the kind of scope I think about in games and what matters to me in books. This chapter sublimates in the perfect melange of mechanical, background, and advisory information for me.


Oh boy, another very long, but self explanatory chapter. This is about putting together characters for a fantasy setting. Remember my complaint earlier about supported tech levels? This chapter is almost all typical TL3 window dressing type stuff. Great if that's what you need, marginally helpful if it isn't. The chapter starts with guidance on appropriate point values. It goes into several example racial templates of wildly variable point values, and then some undead lenses.  Next we have Occupational Templates, which of course, mostly seems to assume TL3ish settings, but it weighs in at 14 pages so at least it is hefty.
After the huge amount of racial and occupational templates, we have a section on recommended Advantages, Disadvantages, and Skills which includes advice on how to model them closer to popular fantasy tropes. The added talents and perks are pretty good, and the new talents are pretty good, but the rest I kinda glossed over.
Wealth and Status is a guide to... wealth and status. Nothing feels especially novel here, but there is an interesting section on some mundane professions with wages and job rolls.
The Equipment section is pretty short, but the vehicles and weapons specifically for vehicles are nice here. No especially unique or interesting weapons or armor, just advice that says, "magic means things can be unusual! Go nuts, make things that are weird!"

Magical Arts

This chapter might be thought of as a Thaumatology-Lite II if the supporting chapters in GURPS Magic are Thaumatology - Lite I.
The first section is Uses of Magic is mostly soft background information on popular themes and forms of magic with a sprinkling of mechanics and rules here and there. These are split into Low Magic (subtle effects,) Formulaic Magic (slow methodical and obvious spells,) and High Magic (completely unsubtle but much faster than Formulaic Magic.)
The Structure of Magic talks about the mechanics of the default GURPS magic system and gives some thoughts on modifying a few rules here or there depending on the theme. For example, spells are tuned for an adventurer mage fighting baddies close up, but might need to change for a battalion of fire mages in a post gunpowder military conflict.
Systems of Magic speaks to the complexities of designing a new magic system whole-cloth. GURPS Fantasy is a pretty old book among the 4e books, so this chapter has a lot of redundant stuff, but it does speak to some of the mechanics that could be used as the foundations of magic concepts illuminated by ideas in later Thaumatology books. Lots of the content in fact does overlap heavily with the early chapters. So if you like this section, you might want to look at that book as well. The book then offers a mini-expansion of the spells in Basic Set and hints that one day there will be a GURPS Magic that will include even more spells... so this whole section is meh to me.
At the very end of the chapter is a section on application and thoughts on using multiple magic systems at once and what implications and complications that might bring.
Overall, this chapter is pretty redundant with the later content in books like GURPS Magic and GURPS Thaumatology, but it can be an inadequate bandaid if you can't decide between the three and can't afford all three.


This chapter is inspiration from typical fantasy plot lines. Each section under Adventures includes a 1-3 paragraph summary, a list of important elements, some variations for mixing them up, and ideas for making a campaign from the plot idea, and the section includes 12 of these ideas, all interesting but a bit brief. 
After that the chapter has advice about maintaining interest through subplots, and an entire section on war. It reads like a small softer version of Mass Combat, and though interesting, I mostly glanced over it, because it felt completely OBE.

Roma Arcana

This is a case study in setting creation, and an early-ish one at that, but still a good example of building a setting, not to mention, an interesting setting by itself. As a matter of fact, I kinda completely forgot about it, but looking at it, I'd kinda like to run a game here.
Roma Arcana is a TL2 alternate history Roman Empire where magic exists and dinosaurs didn't go extinct.Mythical creatures from mythology are real, and so are the gods. Fantastic versions of other countries are also explained. The chapter includes detailed discussions of cultures, religion, and military. It has its own unique professional templates and some techniques, and it ends with an interesting cast of characters and a smaller list of adventure seeds. The chapter is a fun thing all by itself.

Other Thoughts and Conclusion

Wow... I've been writing this all day. My head isn't working well right now, just a bit tired. It's kinda funny how there are so many cool things in this book they don't do anymore, and on the flipside, how there is a bunch of cool things that have come out since this book was released. It makes me think that if the book came out 10 years later, it would be a completely different animal. Redundant chapters removed, and replaced with ???, but on the other hand, the example setting might not exist at all, which would be a small shame.
Overall, I think this particular book has a lot of weaknesses that were probably tightened up as times moved along. I, for example, don't especially even like Horror, but that book is a big improvement I think, but only because it can stand on the shoulders of giants maybe? Though this book has some interesting background information and fluff, I'm hesitant to recommend this to anyone looking for mechanically tight information. Perhaps, better resources might be Thaumatology, Thaumatology - Urban Magics, and maybe Fantasy-Tech 1.


  1. It is a good book, but one I can't say I referenced much, really. Typically I run very low magic sword and sorcery type of fantasy, so I get more mileage out of Low Tech than this. The notable exception being my game set in the Warhammer verse, I suppose.

    1. I have the same experience. Low-Tech + Thaumatology does me better than Fantasy usually.

  2. I liked it for he almost fairytale aspected racial templates

    1. True, the templates are pretty inspirational, and probably one of the elements of the book that are still relevant.


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