My 10 Favorite GURPS Original Settings

Continuing my tour of my favorite GURPS (Generic Universal Role-Playing System) sourcebooks with original game settings. (Previous installments included licensed properties, historical settings and genre books.) I initially wanted to include only settings generated by Steve Jackson Games, but to get to 10, I filled out the list with settings 'ported from other games for which GURPS published rules conversions. Transhuman Space fans may be disappointed not to find THIS in here, but I'll admit up front that it's one of very few holes in my collection. With those caveats in place, let's begin.
Alternate Earths 1 & 2
Infinite Worlds!
I'm almost cheating here, because you could say the two Alternate Earths volumes are really supplements for GURPS Time Travel's "Infinite Worlds" campaign (indeed, that campaign's antagonist timeline, Centrum, is in vol.2). However, GURPS treats each of these 12 alternate histories as mini-settings that don't require a dimension-hopping conceit at all. For some, you'd probably supplement your campaign with a historical sourcebook that details the proper culture - GURPS Vikings for the timeline in which the Norsemen control the world (Midgard), or GURPS China and Japan for the one where Asia colonized the American west coast (Ming-3) - but others offer unique opportunities, whether it's the divided not-so-united states of Dixie, or the retro-SF Tesla-powered world of Gernsback. My favorite bit is that each timeline has a cool evocative map of Earth that shows the changes geographically. Character-building is always given a section, just as in fully expanded sourcebooks, and there are plenty of adventure seeds as well. To name those I haven't yet mentioned: The obligatory "Nazis won" parallel is Reich-5; ditto for the Roman Empire, that's Roma Aeterna; on Shikaku-Mon, Japan is the dominant cyber-power; on Ezcalli, the Aztecs are; Cornwallis imagines a timeline in which the 18th century's various revolutions all failed; Caliph puts the Ottaman Empire on top; and on Aeolus, the colonial era never ended. I believe some of this material can be found in the 4th edition Infinite Worlds book, but they've chopped each parallel down to a couple pages. Nowhere near as cool even if they've detailed more Earths.

Autoduel
Roleplaying in the World of Car Wars
I'll admit that a lot of books on this list are games I WANT to play but never have. Autoduel is, however, one of those settings I DID use in the past. And I loved it. I'm not a car guy, but if you're going to game in a postapocalyptic world, you could do a lot worse than have Road Warrior vehicular action in it. Now obviously, Autoduel is based on Steve Jackson Games' own Car Wars war game, collecting and expanding on information created for the Car Wars magazine and AADA Road Atlases, and that's to the setting's benefit. There's a lot of color thanks to the Road Atlas and Survival Guide sections, and I'm stoked that the book isn't filled to the brim with crunchy GURPS Vehicles crap (as was done for parts of GURPS WWII, for example, and why I didn't give Reign of Steel a spot on this list - the GURPS Robots crunch). It really is about the world, with a tidy section on vehicles and optional autoduelling mechanics. In any case, whenever we went duelling, I always grabbed my Car Wars box from the shelf and handled it that way. As a game within a game.

Goblins
Be Warned, Gentle Reader
I like the idea of calling this a historical sourcebook, but by transforming the poor of Georgian England into malformed "Goblins", it becomes its own world, though one metaphorically linked to our own. The setting offers a unique gaming experience because your Goblin character will be built on a quarter of the points you'd use for a regular GURPS character (and those aren't particularly powerful in the first place!), living cruel lives of poverty, illness and mistreatment. Regardless of whether you can convince your players to take up the challenge, the book is a valuable addition to your collection. First and foremost, it's an oddity and will make you think about role-playing games in a new way. But it's also GORGEOUS, moving away from the habitual black and white GURPS product with lavish illustrations in painted color or sepia tones. It's a harsh life, but it's a great book.

Fantasy II
Adventures in the Mad Lands
At the risk of repeating my old list of "strangest GURPS books" from years ago, I must also put the Fantasy II into this one. See, I have very little use for GURPS' main fantasy setting, Yrth. I like how it's a place where characters from other times/worlds end up (a common fantasy trope in books you don't see a lot of in gaming), but it's otherwise a pretty standard sword & sorcery world, the kind I don't have any interest in anymore. Not so with the Mad Lands, which is a weird and wooly take on the genre. Among the things you'll find in the sourcebook: A pantheon of gods based on Winnie the Poo, monsters almost exclusively corrupted humans turned into walking horrors, immortal sorcerers who "shoot up" on magic, and a culture that's akin to those of Inuit and proto-Viking peoples'. Fantasy II is that rare take on fantasy that doesn't rely on European or Asian myths. Embrace the challenge and the originality of that. Plus: Full-color fold-out map!

IOU
Welcome to Illuminati University!
Can GURPS do comedy? Well of course, because that's more a matter of setting and tone than it is of mechanics. And yet, IOU (you don't have clearance to know what the O stands for, Fnord) still finds a way to introduce some humor there too, mostly through the creation of new advantages and disadvantages that fit the weird university setting, like Jock, Mundanity and Clueless. But mostly, this is a book about setting and ideas. The premise: A university where you can study mad science, the supernatural, the Necronomicon, English lit, whatever. It's a place where frats summon demons and one of the teachers is Doctor Who, and the sourcebook pleasantly riffs on both geek lore and the college experience to create a setting where literally anything can happen, so long as it's entertaining. Face it, this has to be more fun than Buffy's college year, though it's definitely got some of the same DNA. Other strands include Big Hero 6 (the animated film), Community, Weird Science and Revenge of the Nerds. I work at a university, so it's a damn shame I haven't yet attempted an IOU campaign.

Black Ops
Find the Truth - and Kill It
X-Files meets Torchwood meets Warehouse 13 meets Men in Black meets John Woo, Black Ops is high-powered gaming that offers cinematic rules to alleviate GURPS' natural grit and melds together all manner of strange phenomena in order for your MiBs to kick some serious ass. Your agents work for the Company, the shadowy organization that spends its time collecting Biblical artifacts, tracking Big Foot and conducting assassinations of aliens who have replaced world leaders, all the while managing the biggest cover-up in history. It's GURPS Illuminati taken to the high-octane extremes, which may make things easy for your PCs, but only until they realize the real danger is on the inside. But I've said too much already. Who's that knocking at my door? I've run a super-fun campaign using this setting (and more than a dash of GURPS Warehouse 23) and I'd recommend if only for the cinematic rules it includes, which could be used to spruce up all manner of GURPS experiences.

Technomancer
High Magic, High Tech, High Adventure.
Imagine that the first time they exploded an atomic bomb (at a test site in the Southern U.S.), it broke the world and magic started seeping in. Today, there's a whole economy based on magic, of course. Think Shadowrun without the cyberpunk, something a little closer to our own world (and without the ridiculous dice pools). As with the Alternate Earths sourcebooks, the author has done his homework and given Technomancer its own distinct and well thought-out history, deviating from our in 1945. Monsters, characters and places are all detailed, but more importantly, how magic has transformed society, especially in North America where the magic fallout rained down, is explained. And that's where Technomancer becomes more than just a mash-up. You really do get a sense of this being another world. I do admit it may have turned up on this list on the strength of one image alone: There's a picture of a penguin with a gun in here. And you don't see that every day.

Unnight
Adventuring in the Lost Colony
I have some affection and respect for the smaller scale settings crafted to support GURPS Fantasy and GURPS Space, and while I'll give honorable mentions to Tredroy and Harkwood, my favorite of these is Space's Unnight. It presents, in its 64 pages, a lost colony that's had 500 years to develop, so it's inhabited by a culturally unique human offshoot. Add to that the mystery of the planet's manufacture, because yes, there is something unnatural about it, and whether you play visitors or locals, that's something that could blow the characters' world view wide open, always an exciting moment in campaigns that want to focus on such things. The planet is pretty medieval, and there's a sense that fantasy has been put through a science-fiction blender. Some of the more interesting character types found on Unnight include flying Hawk Lords and technomages like the ones in Babylon 5. Covering a whole planet, no land is as detailed as, say, Tredroy's fantasy city, but it has much more scope.

Bonus settings converted to GURPS from other games

Bunnies & Burrows
Roleplaying in a World of Intelligent Animals
Is it a setting or a genre? It's so unusual to be asked to play rabbits - and not cartoon rabbits, genuine rabbits who have, yes, a little more intelligence than the real-life rodents, but essentially have the same capabilities and points of view as the real thing - that I think it does become a proper setting. One where warrens are consistently under threat from foxes and hunting dogs. Optionally, you can throw in herbalism, psionics or the mysterious martial art of Bun Fu, but as I've said often enough in these articles, I'm much more interested in "primitive" role-playing, where you have little more than your wits in your arsenal. This is Watership Down, and it could very easily be used to run something more like Homeward Bound, Garth Ennis' Rover Red Charlie, or Wes Anderson's The Fantastic Mr. Fox. The book knows it's all a bit of a challenge and includes a couple of full adventures and plenty of seeds besides, so the GM won't be lost. Originally published by Fantasy Games Unlimited in 1976. 

In Nomine
Earth Is the Battleground for Heaven and Hell
Steve Jackson Games also publishes an In Nomine game that's mechanically closer to the French original, with a full complement of sourcebooks, but there's still a GURPS conversion, which is all I could afford. The mechanics look pretty well adapted, even if GURPS isn't known for high-powered gaming. Still, it's the setting that counts here, and I love the idea of a war between Heaven and Hell being played out on the mortal plane, with players taking the roles of angels, other immortals and/or human agents, in a style perhaps best typified on film by something like Constantine. Certainly, there's the same irreverent humor, though I hear the French game is much more satirical/wicked. But then, that's the lapsed Catholic in French (and I dare say, French Canadian) people making such things more acceptable than they are in Protestant America. If you've ever wanted to shoot righteous God bullets, now's the time. Originally published by In Nomine Satanis/Magna Veritas (depending on which Player's Handbook you got, you Satanist you) by Croc in 1989 (4th edition was in 2003).

So have I inexcusably left your favorite off the list? Are you a Cthulhupunk fan, perhaps? Or like to hang around on Terradyne? Maybe you're in the middle of Voodoo's Shadow War. Let us know through the usual means.


4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I love the Alternate Earths/Infinite Worlds stuff; they really seemed to extrapolate all the differences logically. Great "what if?" scenarios.

Mike W.

Jeff R. said...

Transhuman Space would be at the top of my list. Followed closely by Cabal. Also worth listing would be Reign of Steel and Voodoo.

Also maybe Madness Dossier, one of the few 4th-edition based new settings.

Jeff R. said...

And for the bonus category, I'd round out to five with Castle Falkenstein, Traveller, and the World of Darkness. (While that line lasted, SJG put a lot more thought into how the different sublines interacted than White Wolf ever did...)

Siskoid said...

Jeff: That was GURPS' thing after all. Interaction between books.

 

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