GURPS Atomic Horror 2nd Edition
GURPS Atomic Horror 2nd Edition Capsule Review by Michael Daumen on 09/10/01
Style: 5 (Excellent!)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)
Great for both horror campaigns or historical ones.
Product: GURPS Atomic Horror 2nd Edition
Author: Paul Elliott & Chris McCubbin
Company/Publisher: Steve Jackson Games
Page count: 128
Year published: 2001
Comp copy?: no
Capsule Review by Michael Daumen on 09/10/01
Genre tags: Science Fiction Historical Horror Conspiracy Generic
I've never seen the first edition of this book, but if it contains half the information the second has it would be a great buy as well. The updated version is one of the best GURPS sourcebooks on the market, bursting with material that just about any roleplayer could use. Atomic Horror's stated goal is to recreate the era of the B-movies - the campy horror/sci-fi of the 50's and its mutant progeny, including modern films like _Mars Attacks_. But along with a spectacular treatment of these movies, Atomic Horror contains a wealth of information useable in "real life" campaigns set anywhere from after WW2 to the mid-Sixties.
You can still see a lot of what the original had to offer, like the Job Table and crossover ideas for use with other sourcebooks, that can be found in older GURPS supplements. To get in step with recent offerings, a section of character templates has been added, along with stats for period weapons. On a negative note, the vehicle list is short and contains no stats beyond price for a few cars. There's even less about for military vehicles - so there's no way to match a F-86 against a flying saucer, or Godzilla against some tanks.
The layout of Atomic Horror is true to the movies it honors, with pictures and fonts straight the movie posters. A good mix of artwork is present, appealing to a wide range of preferences. Of course, the radiation sign is ubiquitous, appearing as bullet points and bigger pieces of art.
The book starts with musings on the B-movie atmosphere, discussing film history, the themes of the genre, and how they reflected the America of the times. A lot of text goes into how these themes can be carried over into a RPG. The detail in this section makes it obvious that the authors are fans as well as commentators, and their writing is entertaining and informing as a result. A great amount of exposition is presented in Chapter 5, including biographical, geographic and historical overviews, and a summary of the technology and culture of the era. The data about the Nazis' demise and Soviets' rise from this chapter could form a fantastic alternate history campaign by itself. The last section has even more inspiration for the GM - the conventions to use, and plenty of story ideas, including two ready-to-run adventures, and many more plot seeds.
The only thing I didn't enjoy in Atomic Horror was the prefab background - the patron organization for PCs, the alien races haunting our planet, and the "Real History of the Earth" spawned by the interation between them. I suspect that much of this comes from the original edition, and true to the movies, it survives for the sequel. Like many sequels, however, there's not much that we haven't seen before or need to see again.
The Theoretical Science Foundation could be the big brother of the Company from GURPS Black Ops. But given the flashiness of the the Black Ops setting, the TSF comes across as trite and uninspiring (although Atomic Horror was technically first, maybe I should be pointing my finger at the newcomer). Earth's enemies, the alien races, are generic and forgettable as well. It would have made more sense to use races from other GURPS titles rather than make up new ones (and keeping the name of a race from Illuminati only confuses things more). Likewise, these books and others (like Steampunk) have their own versions of "secret history;" Atomic Horror's doesn't stand out from these alternatives. Perhaps a bit more synchronization with other books (something GURPS has never shied from) would have reduced the feeling of blandness - evolving the Alphans along with GURPS, for example, much the same way that the Cabal has grown from oblique references into its own campaign hook. I wouldn't miss this material if it were left out, or edited and included with the rest of the campaign and adventure seeds.
Beyond the aliens, the bestiary has more familiar faces: giant insects, normal and "super" dinosaurs, robots, etc. Other friends from the movies include disembodied brains, lagoon creatures, giant humans, blobs, zombies, and carnivorous plants. Again, the similarity between Atomic Horror and Black Ops shows here, but in a good way; the monsters of the movies are great foes for the Company (Black Ops is nothing if not cinematic). The last few pages of the book has an extensive list of films to mine for even more ideas.
A campaign set in the 1950's would make a wonderful setting in any game - a world familiar to ours yet deceptively & profoundly different (a prevalent convention of the horror genre to begin with). While most people think of those years as a Golden Age of America, fears of Red infiltration and nuclear war were deeply ingrained in the national subconscious. If the neighbors might be Communists, they might just as easily be Pod People! These fears are fertile ground for horror gamers, begging to be exploited in a campaign as easily as they were incorporated into the movies this book honors. Not only is Atomic Horror a faithful homage to those films, it's a historical sourcebook as detailed as the best GURPS has to offer.