GURPS OGRE Capsule Review by David Rhode on 05/07/01
Style: 3 (Average)
Substance: 3 (Average)
A war-torn future ruled by giant sentient war machines. Ought to be fun, but like it's namesake, technically competent but soulless.
Product: GURPS OGRE
Author: Jonathan Woodward
Company/Publisher: Steve Jackson Games
Page count: 128
Year published: 2000
SKU: SJG01995 6097
Comp copy?: yes
Capsule Review by David Rhode on 05/07/01
Genre tags: Science Fiction Post-apocalyse
I’ve always been a big fan of SJG’s GURPS line, and that’s why it’s a little painful to report that GURPS OGRE is an average product. Now, being average is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a little disturbing when you consider that OGRE is, in my opinion at least, one of Steve Jackson Games’ signature lines. There maybe an inflated expectation factor here. As I’ve already indicated, I was expecting something special for GURPS OGRE. I may have had unrealistic expectations. A reviewer with no expectations may find GURPS OGRE to stand up quite well. I hope to present a thorough review, so as to allow you to judge for yourselves.
A little bit of background: Ogres are giant cybernetic battle tanks, with enough armor to withstand nuclear warheads and enough firepower to successfully fight armies of conventional vehicles, all controlled by an onboard AI… an autonomous, sentient AI. They dominate the battlefields of a future Earth, where war rages between the forces of Paneurope and the Combine. OGRE first hit the gaming world over 20 years ago, as one of many pocket wargames which were popular at the time. OGRE was inspired by Keith Laumer’s Bolos, as well as Colin Kapp’s Gotlos, sentient super-tanks.
Let’s start with visual appeal.
The first thing that strikes the eye is the cover art, by John Zeleznik. It depicts a power-armor-clad soldier, standing in an ‘action’ pose on a rock ridge, with an OGRE in the background. Now, I think putting the human figure in the foreground was a smart call… it emphasizes the human element of the setting. However, I think the general quality of the cover art isn’t very good. The human figure is wearing American-Anime-rip-off-style power armor… which is to say that the armor is sleek and dynamic in the way that many anime mecha suits are, but without the attention to technical detail or the sense of style that most anime conceptions have. Also, the styling of the suit clashes with the styling of the Ogre behind it… they don’t look like they come from the same world. In addition, it's pretty easy to tell that this art was done in Photoshop. Point of evidence: on the back cover, we have a small version of the Ogre from the front cover art, sans human figure. Even to my unpracticed eye, you can clearly see that the shading and visual effects were done with Color Dodge, Color Burn, and Blur filters applied to separate layers. I’m not saying that this is inherently bad, but this particular picture just looks amateurish, especially with the blah backdrop behind the Ogre, and a rather skewed perspective line between the Ogre and the human figure. Final nitpick: although I’d keep a human in the foreground, I would have placed the Ogre in a position where it looked more menacing, perhaps looming over the human, rather than just trundling along behind and below.
Continuing the art criticism, internal art is fairly sparse and consists entirely of black and white images, some of which are decent, most of which are mediocre, only a few of which are bad. I especially like the cutaway drawings of the Ogre. Thrown in with the line art are some computer renderings of vehicles from the Ogre universe, which have the virtue of being crisp and technical. Most of the art is useful, in that it depicts elements of the setting. If someone asks, “Hey, what does a Heavy Tank look like?” you can point one out. Some of it is rather generic, and only serves as filler. The worst criticism I can level against the artwork, and again, only a small part of the artwork, is that it is inconsistent within the book. Power armor is the problem here… two pieces of interior artwork look like the armor depicted on the cover. Two other pieces don’t resemble the cover design, and in other pictures, you can’t even be sure whether you’re looking at power armor or just some sort of normal body armor. I would have liked to have seen more technical illustrations showing armor, weapons, and vehicles, and fewer ‘action’ or ‘soldiers in the field’ pieces.
The information layout is standard GURPS, which is to say markedly superior to most RPG sourcebooks. It’s got a table of contents, an index, and the font is perfectly legible. Page references actually refer to the right pages, not ‘page XX’. Most of the text is laid out in the form of a main body with an accompanying, informative sidebar. However, there are many pages of character and vehicle descriptions with two equal columns. Nothing to complain about here.
Well, now that we’ve got presentation out of the way, what about content?
As with most future histories, we get an outline of future events. What I found most interesting about this section was the way in which the OGRE future had been retroactively updated for current events and technology, something also apparent in the equipment section. All in all, it holds together well. The parts I found hardest to swallow were a rather cold-blooded European occupation of the Balkans in 2005 (frankly, I don’t think that the West European nations will have nearly that degree of unity or aggression in only 4 years), and a failure to convincingly explain how the U.S. changed from a moderately corrupt and over-bureaucratized, but still generally useful democracy, to the oppressive, totalitarian Combine in 22 years. It appears to happen because it is necessary to established OGRE universe background that it does happen. Still, there are some neat bits here… I like the development of the Vatican as a world power, and the decree that sentient Ogres may have souls. This opens up some fun, if metaphysically abstract, RP opportunities. We also get another potential RP hook having to do with the fate of the space colonies once the land war gets started. Finally, there is a threat to describe the Factory State era (when humanity has collapsed and the Ogres take over) of the OGRE universe in GURPS OGRE: The Factory States.
Following the history, we get a brief section on life in OGRE world. Breaking down the major governments, it discusses their government, general levels of technology, social outlook, etc. This is one section which is really lacking in depth, as it describes the governments in very broad terms. Somewhat useful is the advice on portraying the major sides as being ‘Light’ or ‘Dark’, that is to say, as being more positive or more evil than their standard description.
Moving right along, we get into character creation. As is typical for a GURPS worldbook, character point totals are discussed, along with specific skills, tech levels, and suggested advantages and disadvantages from previous sourcebooks. Standard for GURPS players, of limited value to those seeking to adapt the setting to other rules. A small, but nice addition, is the Irradiated disadvantage. My first thought was that this would be useful for gamers looking to roleplay in the universe of the Vor: The Maelstrom miniature wargame setting. How many Rad Soldiers does it take to screw in a lightbulb? None! They don’t need lightbulbs, they glow in the dark! Additionally, there are a number of character templates. Again, standard fare, with the notable, universe-specific caveat that in a world of mass-produced battlesuits, unusually large, strong soldiers wind up as desk jockeys or vehicle pilots, not front-line soldiers. That’s followed up with a brief discussion of rank on both sides of the major conflict.
Although that technically ends the section on characters, playing Ogre or non-sentient drone characters is discussed as an option later in the book. Now, there is certainly some potential in the thought of playing an Ogre, but it requires careful handling. Several options are provided. One route is to play an Ogre brain, but without the giant tank chassis attached. This at least puts an Ogre on an even footing, points-wise, with human characters, but rather defies credibility. How many believable stories can you create about an expensive electronic brain in a box interacting with a bunch of human soldiers? Perhaps a truly creative genius GM could manage it, but I suspect most of us wouldn’t be able to keep all the players satisfied. Another option described is to discard point limitations entirely, save as a means of designing the Ogre personality. Again, though, you have the problem of coming up with compelling reasons for the Ogre to stick with a bunch of humans. Then you have the options of the entire play group being Ogres, or there being only one player vs. the GM. Mostly, these seem like they would be interesting for one-shot adventures, but lousy in a prolonged campaign.
Finally, we come to the thickest part of the book: the equipment. Guns, battlesuits, vehicles, and stuff. Ogres get their own chapter. What I consider to be a fairly serious flaw here is that, apart from the Ogres, all vehicles described are from the Paneuropean side. This is hand-waved away with the explanation that all the vehicles used by both sides are fairly similar in construction, and captured vehicles were employed whenever possible. I found this explanation unsatisfying. At the very least, it would have been nice if they had switched off between Paneuropean and Combine vehicles, to give us a feel for whatever differences there may be. In addition, they threaten us with the possibility of other books in the series, promising more attention paid to the vehicle inventory.
Goodies for GURPS GM’s include some new rules for vehicles, apparently modifications that had to be made to describe Ogres properly. Of the remainder, the ‘stuff’ is probably the most broadly useful part. I especially liked the ‘Suit Cracker’, a device for forcibly opening battlesuits, and the selection of combat drugs. I think any GM planning a sci-fi military campaign could get a lot of mileage out of the vehicles and battlesuits presented here, although apart from the Ogres, they are pretty generic. That is both good, in the sense that they could fit into many campaigns without tweaking, and bad, in that an industrious GM could have arrived at similar vehicle designs without buying a whole new book.
The next chapter is the section on combat. This section is both terrifying and intriguing. It starts off with a discussion of futuristic combat technology in GURPS terms, describing how it is used, and the various modifiers for distance, weather, and other conditions. This is mana for the military buffs and tech heads. To GMs used to dragons and elves… they’ll run away screaming as if Cthulhu himself had arisen. No, probably faster and louder. This does raise a serious question, however, and the book gets kudos for addressing it. In GURPS, a single second of combat can take a long time to play out, especially if you are using vehicle rules. When you start throwing in rough terrain considerations and extra phases for acquiring target locks, it rapidly gets nightmarish.
Several solutions are provided. A good deal of sidebar space is devoted to using the Ogre wargame and miniatures rules for handling combat in the Ogre universe. PCs involved in the conflict can make skill rolls, which either add or subtract to the roles required for the wargame. In this way, they can have some impact on the outcome. A second, and much more intensive solution provided is the AUCS, or Armor Unit Combat System. This is a modification of the Space Combat System (originally, the Space Opera Combat System described in GURPS Lensman), rewritten for land battles. This is an abstract combat system which makes more use of GURPS skills, while eliminating the need for terrain maps and counters.
Of the two, I think that simply adapting the Ogre wargame is the cleaner and simpler solution. It does, however, eliminate a lot of the RP element. The AUCS is better as a roleplaying system… I think it would be easier to project your character into a fight when you have more control over the details. However, I suspect that it could become bewilderingly complex if not handled correctly, and the abstract nature of the system could turn off many players. The biggest problem is that, any way you go, combat is going to devolve into a wargame. Now, I personally enjoy wargaming. I am probably more of a miniatures wargamer than I am a roleplayer at the moment. Many roleplayers simply don’t enjoy wargames, though. This poses a problem. Either the GM of an OGRE campaign needs to find ways of avoiding the high-tech battlefield combat which is the real hallmark of the setting, or needs to find players who enjoy crossing over into wargame territory, or needs to find some way of keeping his roleplayers amused while waging battles with his wargamer players.
The last chapter deals with running OGRE campaigns. Hmm… well, perhaps that’s being overly generous. Let’s say that there is some good advice on the first page or so of this chapter dealing with running military campaigns. The problem I see here is that a lot of this material could be run perfectly well in other settings. Apart from two suggestions, Ogre Support and Ogre-Busters, none of these campaign ideas make any real use of the uniqueness of the setting. Following this, we get a section on OGRE crossovers. I found the Steampunk Ogre to be the most amusing. Then there’s a very brief section on running games in different times of the OGRE setting (which spans over a hundred years of future history), as well as some jargon to liven things up.
In summary, GURPS OGRE left me wanting more, and not in a good way. I have a hard time putting my finger on just what the lack is. Like any GURPS book, OGRE is brimming with information. Possibly because so much of the book reads like a military hardward catalog, the setting didn’t get enough attention to bring it to life. Maybe because there are no NPCs described, I felt no human connection to the world. But what I think the deepest problem is, is the lack of appeal of the setting for roleplaying. It’s undeniable that the OGRE universe was created as a wargaming setting. It’s a world that one is meant to visit only through the intermediate of a set of tactical battle rules that don’t encourage feeling the angst of a single soldier. What this sourcebook says to me is that it is grafted onto this very inhuman (or is that inhumane?) world, and that this transplant just isn’t gonna take. Now, roleplayers regularly visit some very scary places… a world of constant warfare, ruled by giant sentient battle-machines, seems like an attractive stop on the itinerary. But when you get there, you find that the only hotel was thrown up slap-dash… the beds haven’t been made, the toilets aren’t working. In short, I think the decision to make the OGRE universe a roleplaying setting was made only recently, and insufficient thought has been put into making it a good gaming universe.