Monday, April 27, 2009

The 10 Strangest GURPS Books

...and why I seem to only want to play with those.

GURPS (the Generic Universal Role-Playing System) has had a ton of sourcebooks over the years - perhaps in order to prove that it truly was universal. GURPS picked up some surprising licensed properties (Riverworld, The Prisoner, War Against the Chtorr), done intriguing original settings (Technomancher, Transhuman Space), explored some of the less traveled eras of human history (Ice Age, Aztecs), and covered genres we don't usually see (Atomic Horror, Cops). But none of these are quite as books on the following list...

10. WWII - Iron Cross
Nazi Germany and its Forces
Given that GURPS had a WWII line, it's quite normal for it to have a sourcebook on WWII's principal adversaries (while Italy got a thin book, Japan never got its due). But the way Iron Cross does it is pretty controversial. See, it's not just a book detailing NPC villains, it's built like any other stand-alone GURPS sourcebook. That means it has a section on player character creation and campaigning AS a Nazi. Well, to be fair, I should say: As a GERMAN. And while films like Cross of Iron and Stalag 17 do show that there's the potential for honorable characters in the premise, especially if the idea of a campaign fated to end of disaster appeals to you, there's also a way to play "proper", anti-Semitic Nazis. Gestapo and Hitler Youth are among the character templates, and "Aryan Elite" is a proposed campaign. Of COURSE, the book doesn't promote Nazi ideology, but it's still off-putting. For a group interested in a heavy and dark role-playing experience, this could be very interesting though.

9. Robin Hood
Adventures in Sherwood Forest... and Beyond
Sounds a little narrow, but nothing wrong with Robin Hood role-play, is there? Certainly not, and just as GURPS Scarlet Pimpernel covered all of Revolutionary France, this book gives us a fair Lion-Hearted setting. Then, on page 47, it throws the setting out in favor of "The Ghost of the Moors", an 18th-century Scottish Robin Hood. And then four more "Robin Hoods" in other eras and genres. There are Old West, Supers, Cyberpunk and Space versions of Robin included. Yes, this is the book you need to play Rocket Robin Hood. I wouldn't kid you about something like that.

8. All-Star Jam 2004
Ten Authors. One Book.
Just an odd idea for a product. All-Star Jam is a Best of Pyramid with unpublished articles, basically. Some of the articles are on general topics - airships, precursor races, ghost breaking, underground adventures - but there are also some odd little campaign settings you could reasonably flesh out with other GURPS books. The Chariot Age of Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, et al.; Alchemical Baroque, a fairy tale world approaching our 18th century; Meridian, a space opera in which planets are linked by railroad tracks(!); and a historical campaign in which the last band of Spartans roams a decaying Europe. There's also a chapter on babysitting Cthulhu spawn, so...

7. Vehicles
From Chariots to Cybertanks... and Beyond!
A crunch book, one of GURPS' strangest? Definitely. A useful version of Vehicles would include stats for every possible vehicle in every possible setting. Instead, David Pulver has written an engineering manual that is so crunchy, it will break your jaw. Vehicles are built from the ground up. You need to take into account every component, calculating volume, weight and performance so that it all makes "sense". As an example, the formula for Aerodynamic Drag is [(Sa-R)/Sl] + D, so [(total surface area of vehicle - surface of anything retractable) / streamlining)] + the sum of various modifiers that include seating and loaded hard points. That Batmobile better be worth it!! Kudos to McCubbin and Sheeley who created the Sprockets campaign setting (Best of Pyramid vol.1) in which pokemon balls with crazy vehicles in them fall from the sky just so you could muster the courage to use this book.

6. IOU
Welcome to Illuminati University!
Get yourself a blender. Throw in GURPS Illuminati, Call of Cthulhu's Miskatonic University and Teenagers from Outer Space. Blend and have the results illustrated by Phil Foglio. Now, you're getting it! Or it's Veronica Mars meets Lovecraft meets Weird Science. If you're in college - and if you're an active role-player, there's a good chance you are - here's your chance to recreate your undergraduate experience with temporal physics lab experiments gone wrong, and the University President as an Elder God. The more I think about it, the only really strange part of this book is the section on playing it straight.

5. Callahan's Crosstime Saloon
Welcome to the Most Amazing Bar in the Universe!
Sometimes you wonder why someone thought a property would make a good role-playing game. I have nothing but respect for Spider Robinson's amusing short stories, but Callahan's? Really? Sure, the setting can be used as a meeting place for characters of, well, ANY campaign, and could provide characters access to any GURPS-supported setting. However, and the sourcebook bears this out, Callahan stories are mostly about talking. Telling tale tales, finishing jokes with terrible puns, and participating in riddle contests. Given that Neil Gaiman's Sandman and the recent House of Mystery comic have both featured a similar "Saloon", maybe the world is finally ready for Callahan's. Oh, yeah, and read the section on how more and more people are playing by "modem" and how CCS is perfect for it!

4. Casey and Andy
An e23 Sourcebook for GURPS from Steve Jackson Games
Outdoing Callahan's in the "they got the license for WHAT?" category, this pdf-only 34-page sourcebook is based on a now dead web comic. The hook is that it's about two mad scientist roommates who tend to blow themselves up a lot. As a guide for fans of the strip, it's pretty sweet, but to everyone else, it'll read like a spoof of a setting (I do like the silly time travel paradox flow chart) with not much incentive to create your own characters. A resource strictly for those difficult years after your characters have left Illuminati University.

3. Goblins
Be Warned, Gentle Reader...
I love low-powered gaming, but I realize I'm in the minority. GURPS characters are already on the low end of the scale at 100 points (most of my campaigns have at gone for the more heroic 125-point model, oooh), but Goblins are 15-point characters with as many as -150 points in disadvantage on top of that. Ouch. The ugly, often diseased, deformed Goblins are a metaphor for the underclass in what is essentially Georgian London. Their lot in life is to be used and abused, and of course, to get into trouble. Designers Malcolm Dale and Klaude Thomas have written the book in its own peculiar style (marking both era and the point of view of base outsiders) and have truly adapted the system to match the atmosphere they want to create. Initiative here goes to anyone who declares he's "whacking" first; Guns roll against Theology, which explains why mafiosos are all Catholic and the Pope and King can't be killed; there's a luck mechanic; and a selection of mistreatments provide the characters with a pile of both mental and physical disadvantages. For a marginal idea like this to get a full-color treatment at Steve Jackson Games (home of the black and white stock art) is nothing short of bizarre. Friggin' gorgeous in every way though.

2. Bunnies & Burrows
Roleplaying in a World of Intelligent Animals
Starting out as an early RPG based on Watership Down in 1976, B&B found its way into publication again in '79 and then '82, but GURPS finally snagged it in 1992. Why Steve Jackson went so aggressively after it is probably mired in nostalgia. In B&B, you get to play rabbits. They're smart enough to talk to each other and collaborate, but they still don't have opposable thumbs (that is why humans are the only true monsters). Combat usually means running away. It's even more low tech than GURPS Ice Age (though you gotta smile at the little straw backpacks they're sporting on the book cover). And not a ninja in sight. (Actually, the book does include some tools to power game your bunnies, like psionics, herbalism and yes, Bun Fu.)

1. Fantasy II
Adventures in the Mad Lands
They've called it experimental. They've said it was nigh unplayable. It's the Mad Lands, where technology doesn't really exist, and magic isn't easily accessible to players (in fact, they should fear it). Here are some of the elements: A pantheon of gods based on Winnie the Poo which are to feared, not worshiped. All monsters are distorted, corrupted human beings (feet with faces and headless men, for example). Gem injection sorcery, which may become addictive. The Soulless, bored immortal beings who toy with humanity. And to cope, a rather resilient people with a sense of humor and a pre-technological tribal culture that reminds me of Canadian Natives (including the Inuit). It's like playing GURPS Ice Age with Grant Morrison as your GameMaster.

But perhaps I underevaluated the strangeness of YOUR favorite GURPS book? Let me know!

44 comments:

Hackbarth said...

Impressionante, tenho todos menos o All-StarJam e o Fantasy 2 (sendo que este último eu pelo menos já li). Adoro um livro de GURPS estranho o difícil é arrumas um grupo disposto a jogar Bunnies & Burrows!

Hackbarth said...

Sorry for the comment in Portuguese, sometimes I don't even perceive that I'm reading in english.

Translating:

Impressive, I have them all except for All-StarJam and Fantasy 2 (tahta at least I read). I love strange GURPS books, the hard part is finding a group willing to play Bunnies & Burrows!

Siskoid said...

C'est ben correct, des fois j'ai envie de poster en français.

;-)

Or keeping such a groupe once you've found it. I had one, and then people started moving away. I had definite plans to do scenarios for B&B and some others in there.

Damn you, life, for getting in the way!!!

greywulf said...

Shockingly, I've owned a fair chunk of those in my time - apart from Fantasy II, which I REALLY want now! Pooh gods? Yipe.

You're so right about GURPS Goblins too. Bizarre yes, but a true thing of beauty. Surprised Castle Falkenstein didn't quite make the list :D

Siskoid said...

Fantasy/[insert genre here] mash-ups are pretty common nowadays (Falkenstein is essentially no weirder than Shadowrun), so while I respect CF's strangeness, it didn't quite get there.

rcarbol@home.com said...

What ever happened to McCubbin, anyway?

Siskoid said...

A quick Google search has him writing strategy guides for video games.

Doctor Mi said...

That would be "opposable thumbs" not "imposable". On the subject of "imposable", only 3 days to turn in your income tax report...
/wink

Siskoid said...

Fixed the Freudian slip.

And you KNOW I haven't done mine yet. I was once a year late... tsk tsk.

Bill D. said...

Huh. Thought sure I'd see the book for The Prisoner on this list!

Jeremy Patrick said...

I've been directing a Star Wars campaign for a couple of years now, but some of these would be awesome for a breather in between story arcs. The only thing is that I hate having hefty gamebooks I rarely get to use taking up space on my shelves, which I then have to haul around with me everytime I move :) (I still have the Wheel of Time RPG from several years back which I think would be an awesome setting, but I've only managed a session or two out of it . . .). By the way, your previous posts have talked me into getting Paranoia for a future game.

Siskoid said...

Bill: ALMOST! Think of it as an honorable mention.

Jeremy: Yeah, I'm seriously considering a few Paranoia games to ease us into the summer, but I want to check out Paranoia XP first. Should I convert, and all that.

Hammer said...

I'm pretty sure I read about a new stand alone edition of B&B coming out this year.

Certainly one of the most bizarre RPGs ever created.

Siskoid said...

Sadly perhaps, the internet refuses to corroborate that rumor.

Philip Reed said...

I like GURPS Goblins. Different, weird, and fun.

H said...

Bunnies and Burrows! We played that once or twice I'm either proud or ashamed to say. I'm not sure which.

The rulebook is sitting in a crate in the attic with rules to Star Frontiers, Traveler, Gamma World and a few others.

Siskoid said...

Wow H! Be proud! Nice little old school stash there.

Glucap said...

I'd play B&B... stealing carrots from Elmur Fudd has to be fun

Jay Dugger said...

For my money, the strangest GURPS book was Reign of Steel: Post-apocalyptic role-playing, with the twist captured by the tagline "The war is over. The robots won."

Not so much a serious setting as a showcase for Pulver's GURPS Robots construction rules. When the planet's human population equals 150 million and dropping, and the whole biosphere is collapsing, and the ruling AI-states have nuclear and nanotechnological weapons ready to use, and where people at best live in a police state...

I really wonder why SJG ignored the playtesters' advice to give humans a chance.

But, you can tell it's a David Pulver book. It has catgirls.

Siskoid said...

Well, seeing as it's basically Terminator Salvation the RPG, I didn't think it THAT strange (though the details you point out do hold water).

In the GURPS Torg campaign I'm setting up right this minute, Reign of Steel is included as a Cosm.

luke poa said...

jay dugger mentioned Reign of Steel. I find it a great setting, even though it is barely playable (given that humans have NO chance).

And, while reading the list, I was wondering where Fantasy II was going to be placed... Top prize for that book is really fitting.

Pat said...

"Meridian, a space opera in which planets are linked by railroad tracks(!)"I guess you haven't read Peter F. Hamilton's Pandora's Star and its sequels. His whole Confederation is connected by wormhole railroads; nobody has built a spaceship in centuries. Until the Dyson Pair are discovered . . .

NickPheas said...

Goblins is one of the most brilliant books I've ever read.

There's Weird War II of course, a little surprised you didn't mention that anywhere.

Gurps: Terminator, sorry, Reign of Steel, seems entirely normal.

Anonymous said...

"GURPS Goblins" is also convertible to "GURPS Muppets" with very little in the way of change, we've found.

Anonymous said...

Vehicles? Weighty, sure... boggling, maybe... but strange? A couple other electronic only products that might fit in:
1. The Secret of the Gneisenau - I thought it was strange after I got it, not realizing what WEIRD WarII was. Finding shamanistic magic as the explanation for the Channel run was a bit disconcerting.
2. Banestorm: Abydos - A city where it's OK to be a ghoul, right next to a very religious and less-than-tolerant Megalos. That's like giving the Bronx cheer to your sense of what seems likely :)

Siskoid said...

Weird War II almost made it, but on the whole, I thought Iron Cross came off as odder, and it bumped the other WWII product off.

goeticgeek said...

GURPS Vehicles was the first GURPS book that I ever truly hated. GURPS was a crunchy game but they divided their rules into basic and advanced so that the player could choose what level of crunch they wanted. There was no such consideration in GURPS Vehicles. It was a nightmare of crunch that would make any Rolemaster or Champions player blanch. Then the system started to creep into other books, Mecha and Robots as the prime examples. It was a sign to me that the GURPS line started heading in the wrong direction. To add insult to injury, GURPS Vehicles Second Edition followed hotly on the heals of the first leaving everyone who had purchased the first edition feeling decidedly ripped off.

Johnny Mnemonic said...

You missed GURPs Prisoner.

Almost totally unplayable, unless you are a genius DM that can construct metaphysical challenges to identity and persona on a weekly basis.

But it's a nice complement to the TV series!

damonm said...

nice list! A bit surprised that there's no mention of Technomancer, though!

And I'm trying to decide if Atomic Horror should qualify.. it might just be really fun, rather than strange.

Gotta say, I've always loved Goblins. I think it's a marvellous idea.

Siskoid said...

Everything you've mentioned was a runner-up, believe me.

Could have been a Top 15 or even 20!

SeanMike said...

Fantasy 2 was one of the first GURPS supplements I ever bought.

I've treasured it ever since :) But man, was it an interesting read for someone first getting into roleplaying games.

Sort of like Reign of Steel, over time it became one of those books that I could see being an "alternate universe" that PCs entered, or something to take ideas from, but the idea of playing a game set in it seemed beyond my skills as a gamemaster.

Anonymous said...

These are some of my favorite GURPS books. With the exception of Vehicles they all make good reading in and of themselves.

Andrew said...

I just bought Fantasy II off eBay! It's brilliant but I didn't realise the pantheon was Pooh-inspired. Now for a re-read!

Siskoid said...

Robin accepts his nomination for Strangest on his LiveJournal page.

criticalfailure said...

I've always been confused by "Casey and Andy". Of all the webcomics out there, they choose that one?

Strangely, I see Road Waffles being the far better comic for a GURPS conversion... But thats only due to the inane number of alternate worlds in the comic.

Critical Failure - The GURPS Podcast
http://criticalfailuregame.wordpress.com/

Siskoid said...

Nice idea!

Nikolas said...

what no GURPS Ice age?

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Jeff said...

I use Callahan's Crosstime Saloon for two reasons: The rules on alcohol and the layout. The saloon is perfectly adaptable to any tavern the characters meet in, be it Mos Eisley Cantina, the Prancing Pony or the Slaughtered Lamb.

Concerning Vehicles, I've always wished they had a book of vehicles set up more like the Bestiary.

Siskoid said...

I suppose each setting sourcebook has typical vehicles stats, but I agree with you.

Charles said...

I agree with the critique on Fantasy II. The module in question was definitely written under the influence of Ketomine, Ecstasy, LSD, and a few more hard narcotics. However, if heavily modified by the user, it still has uses as a reference in other games, but not by itself. It would be better to marginalize or kill off the gods. The Klingons knew how to deal with this kind of problem. I would focus on the Togeth, vice their autistic sociopathic neighbors. The language needs to be pronounceable. The geography filled out a lot more. What does the continent at large look like? What's the name of that HUGE body of water? Also the terms need to be a little less generic. More imagination, fewer drugs.
And Jeff, I agree with your idea about Vehicles. That would be awesome.

Charles said...

One issue I have chronically with "Aliens" is that each race has sub-profiles (Psychology, Ecology, Culture, politics) but ignored the title when filling them out. Examples, the Treefolk have political entries under Culture and Cultural entries under politics. Other profiles are way worse.

Mark O. said...

Alas, I know most people blanch at the VEHICLES 2. I thought it was brilliant. (P.S. - It does make a very interesting read....if you're in the least bit interested in the approximate TL arrival of certain technologies or the divergence of technologies such as the Steam Turbine diverting the then existing trend for steam engines.

I created a SteamPunk OLD WEST with a Megalomaniac constructing monstrous steam-powered land Ironclads with his army of reanimated mind-controlled men.

The ability to create ROBOT VEHICLES because of the ability to use both books together was brilliant as well.

Note that Chapter 9 of VEHICLES 2 also allowed you to create ANY Weapon of your imagining, standalone, hand-held, or designed for a vehicle.
That chapter alone was worth the price of admission!
I have, though, thought that I should write an application that would make it easier.

I didn't realize how much Folks really didn't like the crunchiness...until 4th Edition came....and the vehicle model changed to the 'modular approach' used in GURPS WW2.

I completely understand people not liking the book, BUT....I don't consider actually that 'strange' as it is, as noted, part of a policy/strategy of the time, with VEHICLES 2/ROBOTS/MECHA, to deliver the flexibility into the hands of the Players/GMs. It was a noble idea to give wings (heh-heh, so to speak) to the wildest imaginings of the players/GMs, but the strategy was flawed.

People these days have been drifting away from 'detail' and actual modeling/rules for some time. It was brilliant, but its time had already been passing as it was being written.

C'est la Vie!!

Siskoid said...

I don't dislike the book. I'd like to use it one day if I can get my head around it. It's strange for being so technical in an age that, as you say yourself, goes for templates, modularity and/or glossed-over New School solutions. It's almost from another era entirely.