GURPS Dungeon Fantasy is a series of playing aids for GURPS 4th Edition focused on dungeon crawls and hack and slash Fantasy. As such, the series bares GURPS down to the essentials skills a dungeon crawler needs, and dismisses all the traits any well-rounded character would typically have. The first four sourcebooks are all written by Sean "Dr. Kromm" Punch – the recognized authority on all things GURPS (and, as it happens, the GURPS line editor). This actually influenced my purchase, as any book written by Kromm is guaranteed to be consistent with the rest of the GURPS cyclopedia. The books published so far include:
To take full advantage of these game aids, GURPS Basic Set is essential. Players could probably get around with GURPS Lite, but would have to borrow the Basic Set from their GM at least during PC creation. GURPS Magic is also a must to play spell casters.
After the first few volumes came out, I looked for a review on the series. The only one I found was written here on rpg.net by Kevin Koch in January 2008. Unfortunately, it only discussed the Dungeon Fantasy 1, and many of the issues in Kevin’s review now appear to be addressed in subsequent volumes. After buying the series, I decided a review of the entire set would do better justice to a great series of playing aids. So buckle up! This is a bit of a long “write”!
The GURPS Dungeon Fantasy series should be of interest to at least three groups of gamers: those interested in playing hack and slash with a set of modern, flexible and expandable rules; GURPS players and GMs interested in playing something light for a few games; and GMs wanting to introduce GURPS to players unfamiliar with the system.
The latter is why I bought the four volumes. Up to this point, GURPS has lacked an easy way for GMs to introduce the game to new players. The flexibility and universality of GURPS often requires GMs to put a lot of work into defining what goes in their campaign, and the sheer number of options can be overwhelming for new players. Sure, GURPS Lite introduces the rules, but I wanted something my old D&D gang could quickly get the hang of. GURPS Dungeon Fantasy, which focuses on setting-specific rules and uses concepts similar to classic D&D, was a perfect fit. I wouldn’t necessarily run a 2 year campaign on those rules, but I will definitely use them as a springboard to introduce GURPS to my players, and then launch a multi-genre campaign using full-fledged GURPS – although I suspect my players might just want to squeeze in a Dungeon Fantasy game every few months, just for fun.
If you and your players are already familiar with GURPS, this series is still worth checking out. Many of us have fond memories of treasure hunts and monster bashing adventures. Dungeon crawls are a nice break from complex and involved plots, and a good way to fill an evening when some of the regular players are missing, preventing you for running a session of the ongoing campaign. Some gamers even prefer to play this genre, and might want to play a mini-campaign using these rules. GURPS Dungeon Fantasy is great for that too. In some ways, it is better than other hack and slash systems because, once the templates and options offered in the playing aids is no longer enough, the resourceful GM can fall back to the entire line of GURPS products to add more skills, powers, equipment and strange beasts. Finally, from a world-designer perspective, I found this set was a great example of how to build setting-specific GURPS templates, lenses, Wildcard skills and powers.
Appearance and Layout
The look and feel of each e-book is consistent with 4th Edition GURPS books. The two-column setting looks clean, and the use of sidebars and boxes is done in a way to emphasize what is covered in the main text, rather than detract from it. The gray-tone images are sharp, and while I don’t mind that most of the art is recycled from other GURPS books, I wish a few more had been used in the short encounters section of Dungeon Fantasy 2 and the nonhuman races chapter in Dungeon Fantasy 3. Most of the art is very good, with a few truly enjoyable pieces. I also like the fact that borders, chapter boxes and sidebars are colored, with a different hue for each volume. Since I hold all four volumes in one binder, it allows me to quickly flip through from one volume to the next, and know which one I am looking at.
On the other hand, the standard GURPS layout for templates and lenses is very condensed, with row after row of character traits crammed in together with their cost between brackets. While this is fine fare for the average GURPS player, I think the use of tables (with one trait per line, including a few descriptive notes and a page reference) for racial and profession templates would have made the material more approachable to gamers new to GURPS. This is a minor quibble, as the series isn’t intended as an intro to GURPS, and a table layout wouldn’t be consistent with templates used in other GURPS books. Plus, tables would have consumed much more spaces – and hence potentially increased the cost of the PDFs. Finally, the list of traits appropriate for a dungeon adventure is presented in Dungeon Fantasy 1 Chapter 2 – a suitable compromise.
Overall, I would rate these books a 4 out of 5 for appearance – deducting 1 point for the recycled graphics. The entire set is professional looking and fit well with the rest of my GURPS collection.
I will take a brief look at the content of each book. Before we start, you should note that Volumes 1, 3 and 4 focus on player character creation for a dungeon crawl adventure (although the GM could use these templates to create some arch villains and major NPCs in a campaign). Volume 2 focuses on the game mastering aspect of hack and slash adventures.
Note: If you are unfamiliar a GURPS term I fail to explain, I highly encourage you to review GURPS Lite (available for free at e23.sjgames.com).
GURPS Dungeon Fantasy 1: Adventurers
GURPS Dungeon Fantasy 1: Adventurers is divided in five short chapters, not including the fairly generic one-page introduction. Rather than being all-encompassing, it focuses on creating basic archetypes of dungeon adventures, offering enough diversity with 11 profession templates, but without overwhelming new players with numerous race templates and lenses. Since the booklet dives right into character creation, GMs might first want to go through GURPS Lite with new players to briefly explain the GURPS terms they will encounter in the book and the significance of each attribute.
Chapter 1 presents eleven profession templates to reflect traditional roles found in popular Fantasy roleplaying games. GURPS does not use a Class system. However, it can easily mimic one by using profession templates to streamline the character creation process and simplify players’ choices. The templates offered include the Barbarian, the Bard, the Cleric, the Druid, the Holy Warrior, the Knight, the Martial Artist, the Scout, the Swashbuckler, the Thief and the Wizard. Each template explains the main role of each profession, lists the attributes, secondary characteristics, advantages, disadvantages, primary/secondary/background skills, and customization notes.
The obvious advantage of using these templates is that players can quickly pick something that interest them while avoiding selecting character traits that will be useless in a dungeon crawl. Furthermore, there is enough role differentiation to ensure that each PC can fill a niche, and get some spotlight during a dungeon crawl with varied challenges. As Kevin Koch pointed out in his review, racial templates are omitted. While I agree that it would have been nice to include them in the first book, that material is now covered in the third playing aid.
Veteran GURPS gamers who find the templates too limiting can jump to Chapter 2, which offers a cheat sheet summing up the list of suitable traits for a dungeon crawl. This is great for customizing templates or starting from scratch, while ensuring one avoids traits that are useless for this genre. Be warned, though: the advantage of the templates is the creation of balanced, complementary PCs. Another interesting approach is that Dr. Kromm proposes the use of a single Wildcard skill for each class for GMs wanting to simplify character creation even more (essentially, Wildcard skills group a large number of somewhat related skills together, reducing realism in favor of simpler tracking and roll-making - see GURPS Basic Set p. B175 for more details). Personally, I like a bit more “crunch” to my stats, and think that the trimmed-down list of traits does the job just fine without using Wildcard skills.
Chapter 3 deals with spells powers suitable for hack and slash Fantasy. While short (2 pages), it nails down the essentials nicely. I like the approach for clerical and druidic spells. Proposed spells are broken down by the required power investiture level, which could be used for character progression (increase Power Investiture to reflect a class level increase). I was surprised that this was not discussed in more details. For wizardly spells, Kromm covers which spell types are not true to the genre, and why they should be avoided. A more in-depth discussion of character advancement for spellcasters would have been nice. The GURPS Magic prerequisites system can quickly become convoluted, especially if one tries to focus only on “dungeoneering” spells. This chapter could have expanded on the Wizard template in Chapter 1, to show how a Wizard can progress.
Chapter 4 describes four custom powers used in the profession templates Bard-Song, Chi Mastery, Druidic Arts and Holy Might. Creative GMs will likely come up with other suitable powers should they start a mini-campaign, but these four examples provide a great start for some stereotypical Fantasy powers.
Finally, Chapter 5 provides the ubiquitous dungeoneer equipment list, including the quintessential potions and magic weapons.
I give this book a 5 out of 5 for style and content, as a great intro to the series!
GURPS Dungeon Fantasy 2: Dungeons
The second volume in the series is your GM Guide to running dungeon adventures. Slightly shorter, it is divided in two chapters: Dungeon-Crawling and Mastering Dungeons. I simply love this playing aid, as it sums up neatly how to run an adventure true to the genre.
The first chapter covers how to run the game: equipping the PCs, finding a quest, traveling, camp watches, dungeon exploration, traps and hazards, monsters, combat and – most importantly for this genre – the aftermath: prisoners and loot!!! (oh, and the whole post-combat healing too) It neatly summarizes the GURPS rules relevant to these issues and customizes them when appropriate, rarely forcing you to dig through your Basic Set to figure out how to tackle a specific situation. Since GURPS offers so many optional rules, I found this to be an essential part of the series.
The second chapter explains how to design a dungeon crawl adventure: overall dungeon design, traps design and setting encounters, including a small bestiary with 19 sample dungeon dwellers, how to design monsters for this genre (hint: focus on combat traits), balancing encounters, and treasures. As I mentioned in my overview, I wish the bestiary had included a few more pictures, as it helps GMs describing the beastly encounters. A sidebar at the end of this chapter also provides great tips for new (or not so new) GMs, explaining how to make every PC in a party useful by not only dividing roles using professions, but also by designing encounters that uniquely challenge each PC and puts each and everyone of them in the spotlight at some point in time in the game. Obvious? Yes, but in my experience, many GMs don’t do it. For GMs who have never run this type of game, the advice included will help them understand the whole concept behind hack and slash, and how to make it fun for everyone.
My only true disappointment for this book is that Kromm doesn’t discuss the lethality of GURPS combat, and how to tweak the rules to avoid killing the whole party. The first volume does address the in-combat first aid and rapid healing of dungeon adventures (unrealistic but definitely genre appropriate). However, there are ways to toughen up PCs and avoid blundering into the all too possible scenario of: “you are 1,000 feet below the surface… all your friends are dead. You can barely stand on your feet, and have 1 HP left. What do you do?” After all, the hallmark of a good dungeon crawl is surviving it to tell the tale! I would have expected the 2nd volume to delve into this issue and give tips to the GM on various approaches to keep the element of fear and uncertainty, while minimizing the chances of unwittingly killing the PCs outright. Also, while there is a small sidebar on combat rules and how to avoid lengthy fights, I would have liked an actual section to be devoted to this topic. Yes, many articles in Pyramid and SJ Games Forums have broached the issue, but this would have been the right book for it. A few additional pages of content would have done the trick for me. Since this is the only volume of the four that deals with the GMing side of dungeon adventures, a bit more depth would have been nice.
I give this book a 4 out of 5 for style because of the recycled graphics and too few images in the bestiary, and a 4 out of 5 for content because of the missed opportunity of providing a bit more depth and breadth of material.
GURPS Dungeon Fantasy 3: The Next Level
Fantasy races are a core element of Fantasy. In addition, I have fond memories of the multi-classes in my old AD&D games – especially when Unearthed Arcana introduced them for humans. GURPS Dungeon Fantasy 3 addresses those two issues. This book builds upon GURPS Dungeon Fantasy 1 by offering nonhuman races templates, multi-classes (in GURPS terms, lenses for profession templates), “high-level”options, and additional character traits. It concludes with a two-page discussion on character advancement suitable for GMs and players alike. The book is divided in five chapters based on the five topics listed above. At 44 pages, it is the largest of the four supplements.
Chapter 1 deals with nonhuman races templates. Gamers who already own GURPS Fantasy may think they do not need this. I would agree – with reservations. After all, these playing aids are about saving time. Dr. Kromm took the racial templates for Cat-Folk, Coleopteran , Corpse-Eater, Dark One, Dwarf , Elves, Faerie Folk, Gargoyle, Gnome, Goblin-Kin, Half-Spirits, Halfling, Minotaur, Ogre, Reptilians, Troll and Wildman (6 of which appear in GURPS Fantasy) and stripped them of any character trait not relevant to dungeon crawls. The descriptions for each race are shot, crisp, and focused on the dungeon fantasy setting. Doing this ensures that your PC will pack his punch in a fight, and not lose points to skills that won’t be used while exploring dark tunnels in search of monsters and treasures. A good GM could do this using his own racial templates or those found in other GURPS supplements – but the ones included here offer lots of variety and are a time saver. The racial templates are also linked to professions, listing choice and marginal professions (from Dungeon Fantasy 1) for each race.
Chapter 2 offers numerous lenses to mix and match professions. As is explained in the book, small adventurer parties often lack critical skills (such as healing, magic, brute force, negotiation skills or covert operations, depending on the mix). Adding lenses help character blend two professions together, while ensuring that some diversity remains. Afraid everyone will try to be a wizard-knight-thief-cleric? Not to worry. As Kromm points out in a sidebar, generalists will never outdo specialists (unless the players are supernaturally lucky with their dice rolls). Ten lenses are offered for each profession, making for 110 lenses, although some are obviously repetitive: there is not much difference between the Barbarian-Scout and the Scout-Barbarian. This repetition is necessary to ensure players can select any of the professions as a second career, no matter which template they started with. A nice touch is that recommendations are made regarding which lenses are most suitable for each template (typically four or five), and which ones are marginal (typically 1 or two, although the Barbarian has five). A short discussion (in sidebars) on evil clerics and unholy warriors adds a nice twist for those wanting to play an evil party of adventurers, and for GMs seeking to design master villains who are worthy opponents.
Chapter 3 covers power-ups (high level options) for a character’s starting profession. The concept is interesting, and proposes new advantages and the lifting of certain limits to highlight how hack and slash heroes can become very powerful. A short paragraph is dedicated to each profession, and a sidebar introduces a new advantage, Energy Reserve. While I like the concepts in the paragraph, I do not understand why this was not covered under Chapter 5 (Advancement), with the new advantage being covered in Chapter 4, New Capabilities.
Chapter 4 covers five new fantasy-type abilities: Mortal Foe, an advantage similar to the Ranger ability in D&D, Psionics, a power replacing the description in the Basic Set to align it more closely with the hack and slash tradition, Spell-Archery, a spell to energize projectiles, Two-Weapon Fighting, an advantage replacing the technique covered in GURPS Martial Arts, and Unholy Might, the evil version of Holy Might.
Finally, Chapter 5 devotes two pages discussion on advancement. Topics include approaches to granting “experience points”, changing professions, adding new abilities, and training expenses.
Overall, this book does a good job of adding more variety to the basic concept, and offering a way to turn a one-of gaming session into a mini-campaign. I give this book a 4 out of 5 for style (only because of recylced, gray-scale images), and a 5 out of 5 for content.
GURPS Dungeon Fantasy 4: Sages
The latest book in the series, Sages, comes in at a skimpy 17 pages. Fortunately, SJ Games dropped the price to $4.95 for this supplement. Nevertheless, I almost didn’t buy it. 17 pages? I couldn’t see much benefit to such a small book. Was I ever wrong. In fact, I wished every group of professions (such as warriors, spellcasters, and scoundrels) had been given a similar treatment, with more details on advancement tips for each profession.
Divided in four chapters, this playing aid examines the role of the learned man who decides to go on adventures, the MacGyver and Indiana Jones of Dungeon Fantasy: the artificer and the scholar.
Chapter 1 looks at the artificer, master of fantastical gadgets and gizmos. Topics covered includes the Artifice profession template, two key advantages from the Basic Set (Gizmos and Quick Gadgeteer), a new talent and a new perk, twelve character lenses for the Artificer, and an Artificer lens for other professions. After reading this chapter, I am strongly considering using this model for a quirky NPC in one of my games, or would definitely pick this type of PC should a friend of mine run a Dungeon Fantasy game.
Chapter 2 looks at the scholar, master of knowledge. Topics covered includes the Scholar profession template, two key advantages from the Basic Set to reflect the scholar’s vast knowledge (Modular Abilities – for book-learned wisdom - and Wild Talent), twelve character lenses for the Scholar, and a Scholar lens for other professions.
Chapter 3 (only 1 page) deals with adventurer gear for these two trades, whereas Chapter 4 (4 pages) explores “writings”: the various types and quality of manuals, maps and scrolls essential to the scholar. The material is interesting, and useful not only if you plan on playing (or including) scholars and artificer, but for any use of written material – which priests, wizards and almost every profession except maybe the barbarian is apt to rely upon.
Once again, I give this book a 5 out of 5 for style, and a 5 out of 5 for content. My only issue is that this material should have been included within a larger book – an issue I will address separately below.
Overall, I give this series a 4 out of 5 for appearance and style, and a 5 out of 5 for content. Despite minor oversights, this is a very solid series that provides a unique twist to both the dungeon crawl genre and to GURPS. The series would have received a perfect score if not for the fact that, despite charging the price for a full book (for the entire series), SJ Games chose to use all grayscale images, most of them recycled. (Other GURPS 4th Edition books use color images, most of them being either new or retouched from previous editions).
I highly recommend the first two volumes to anyone who enjoys hack and slash, would like a quick relief from their usual fare, or who is an avid GURPS fan. These two books stand well on their own, allow for quick play, and if anything else, serve as a great example of designing setting or genre-specific rules for a GURPS campaign.
Dungeon Fantasy 3 and 4 should be seriously considered by anyone thinking of running any sort of multi-part adventure or mini-campaign using the Dungeon Fantasy rules. The material is well integrated with the previous volumes, and adds more diversity.
While I wish more material had been included, Dr. Kromm has managed to condense a lot of information in 124 pages. The material could probably have been covered in two volumes, with races being included in the first volume, and “advanced rules” from volume 3 and 4 (multi-classing, character advancement, and the sages specialists professions) included with volume 2. Still, the approached used by SJ Games likely ensured the material was published sooner while maintaining a high standard.
My only gripe with this series is the total cost. The four e-books cost me nearly $29.00, for a total of 124 pages, including 4 cover pages, 4 pages of repetitive introductions, and 2.5 pages of advertising for e23. In comparison, GURPS Basic Set: Characters (338-page PDF) sells for $29.95, GURPS Fantasy (243-page PDF) sells for $24.95, and GURPS Supers (153-page PDF) sells for $14.95. I understand that SJ Games is still trying to figure out the perfect formula for pricing PDFs (and that, based on Kromm’s comments following Kevin’s review, most of the costs in publishing is not linked to printing costs). However, there seems to be a huge disparity in cost-per-page between this series and other GURPS e-books. Notwithstanding this, because of all the pluses mentioned in prior paragraphs, I highly recommend buying the entire series.