GURPS Reign of Steel
Author: David Pulver
Company/Publisher: Steve Jackson Games
Page count: 128
Capsule Review by X on 03/08/98. Genre tags: none
Warning: This review contains my opinions, and they are humble less often than not. If you can be offended at all, please hit the "Back" button on your browser now.
Reign of Steel, like most GURPS "setting" books, paradoxically manages to be interesting and refreshing and yet fail anyway, though for reasons that cannot be considered entirely the fault of the author or the setting itself.
The idea here has been a cliche of science fiction long before it was popularized in the Terminator movies: machines showing their human masters what the bottom of a food chain is. Despite this, it has never been given much attention by the RPG industry, which is probably amazing, considering the volume and type of other ideas and settings that have been produced since the days of AD&D. I mean, how many "giant robot anime" games do we have now? At least four or five, and that is at least four or five more than we really need. And that is not even the beginning of the imaginative-but-_bad_ ideas we have seen up to this point in history.
The point is, any attempt at the concept of robots overthrowing humanity would probably impress any interested party, even it's just a hasty and disposable adaptation of the Terminator. Of course, there is some overlap--the computer becomes spontaneously sentient and, among many other things, tricks humanity into decimating itself before we get to the part about ruins, death camps, automated factories, and hunter-killers, almost to the point where people who didn't like the Terminator (and are for some reason even interested in this book) will feel like substituting "Skynet" everywhere it reads "Overmind," and "Cyberdyne" everywhere it says "Manila."
But, thankfully, the author is far more creative here in portraying the fall of man: in addition to nuclear weapons, we also have artificial plagues and other computers "awakened" by Overmind, as well as all sorts of social trickery, including the assimilation, abuse, and undermining of governments, corporations, and relief efforts. Humanity gets screwed in just about every way possible, and the reading really isn't for the faint-hearted.
And so, also, has the author given more thought to the new world of humanity. Yes, we have killing machines pursuing ragged, outmatched humans through skeletal ruins, and wretched-looking hideouts that could be discovered by infiltration units at any moment (with depressing consequences), but where the Terminator oddly hinted that the human resistance (and probably the whole struggle) is localized entirely within the ruins of Los Angeles, Reign of Steel shows a worldwide picture. Here, sections of the world have been divided into zones, delegated to one or another of Overmind's awakened siblings. In many zones, humans can indeed expect to be murdered on contact or taken to concentration camp-like places. But there are other zones where humans (some humans, anyway) are servants rather than insects, and even a couple of zones where they are even allowed to exist relatively unmolested, so long as they do as they are told and don't screw with their masters--the machines, of course. Each of the zones is different, and each of the zoneminds has its own way of thinking and its own agenda...and its own groups of human resistance.
So where the author could have done (and probably gotten away with) a Terminator rip-off, he actually went ahead and put effort into it, and it shows. The sourcebook is high on detail and interesting ideas, with every zone being given enough description to set games in. Of course, at 128 pages, each zone is not given _enough_ description, but we'll get to that in a minute. What other shortcomings that are present are rather minor, and mostly a matter of opinion. For example, I did not care for how the machine zoneminds plotted and argued among themselves as much as human nations do in the real world, nor did it seem to me like Overmind would delegate so much to zoneminds that would later (or already) take attitudes that it does not approve of.
One problem that is not a matter of taste is the author's tendency to refer to things described in GURPS Robots (which, probably not coincidentally, was also written by David Pulver). Since this setting obviously deals a lot with robots, this sourcebook is "recommended." What they don't bother to mention is that several things, like certain robot abilities and type descriptions, are "referred to." I'm not talking about the book's use of the templates in GURPS Robots--these are easy to understand even without it, and only detail freaks care about them, anyway. I'm talking about things important to the setting. For example, if you want to know anything about Vultures (which are present in and used frequently by every zone), or what the Terminator, Explorer, and other "packages" are for the micro-robot swarms in Zone Berlin (important if you're in that zone, and it covers most of former Europe), then you need to look on page X of the Robots sourcebook. If you don't have it, too bad, guess you'll just have to be reminded of your AD&D days, where you also always needed more than just the book you're holding.
But even this is managable--after all, there is probably only so much space and, as SJG very eventually learned, it is much better to print something in only one book, leaving more room for new stuff in future sourcebooks. Anyone who is interested in this setting probably already owns the GURPS Robots sourcebook, anyway, or would have few qualms about buying it. The end result is a quality setting, the sort of work that has kept the GURPS name alive in the hearts of many gamers.
And therein lies Reign of Steel's true failings--yes, it's a GURPS book. Which means that not only will it be a stand-alone release, but it will also go out of print within months at best, just like War Against The Chtorr, Lensmen, Illuminati University, Conan, and many others. Not only that, but it is confined to 128 pages. All of the aforementioned settings easily merited more than this, and so does Reign of Steel. Yes, hard detail is given to most of the important things in this book, but (save for maybe sample robot factory and camp layouts) it is never exhaustive, and never enough. There are enough ideas here to warrant a series of follow-up books, but, however delightful this may be to those of us who really like this setting, it will never happen, even if we could fully expect it from any other company.
So not only do you have to pay two more dollars for this book, compared to a similar book by another company, but if you buy it, you will be on your own. Once it goes out of print--and it will--you will probably be the only person you know among your gamer friends and contacts who supports or cares about it, because you will not have even Steve Jackson Games' support in keeping the game alive. Okay, those of us who make the mistake of buying AD&D or World of Darkness sourcebooks might not feel like stand-alone, direct-to-out-of-print games are so bad, but some of us less easily forget that there are actually companies who do not always make bad sourcebooks for their settings--Chaosium and Holistic Design come to mind. Perhaps you think I am being overly cruel, but words fail me when I try to imagine what role-playing would be today if this approach had been taken with the games that have shaped the industry. Tell me: would any of you still be talking about (and playing) Call of Cthulhu or the World of Darkness games today if their entire existence had simply been a 128-page sourcebook that is now out of print?
Bottom line: GURPS Reign of Steel is impressive for what it is, and very aggravating for what it could have been in the hands of any other company. If you are interested in the premise and have no hard feelings about the price hike, then this would not be a bad purchase, especially if you can live with this sourcebook being yet another disposable GURPS release. If you are already running (or planning to run) campaigns like this, then there are plenty of ideas here to recycle, and--even at twenty dollars--Reign of Steel would be an excellent addition to your library.
Style: 3 (Average)