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GURPS Tabletop RPGs

The GURPSening continues: S. John Ross’ recommended GURPS book list

I mentioned S. John Rosslist of personal GURPS book ratings in an aside to my love letter to Warehouse 23 and Illuminati, but after using it to track down a bevy of awesome-looking books the other day, I realized it needed its own call-out post. This list is a fantastic tool (and trouble for my wallet).

My latest $5 GURPS acquisition, which I snagged based on its placement on S. John’s list, was Planet Krishna (paid link), by James Cambias.

Tell me this doesn’t sound fantastic:

The natives are all too human — except for the green skin, the feathery antennae, the eggs . . . ‘Protected’ from technology by interstellar law, armored knights clash in a wilderness of blue woods while square-rigged war galleys patrol the Inland seas.

This is a book I’d ignored when browsing in-stock GURPS books in various places, and I would have continued to overlook it had it not appeared in S. John’s list — and that’s what I love about the list!

The best of the best of the best

He’s also done a version of the list sorted by rating, with only books he rates 75% or higher appearing thereon, and this version is the one that’s cost me some money.

One of the only books to score a 90% on the list is GURPS Time Travel (paid link), which I can’t stop writing about because it’s so damned good. Warehouse 23 (paid link), another personal favorite, clocks in at 85%. In fact, every GURPS book I’ve ever liked appears somewhere on the best-of version of the list.

On the cheap

Based on loving S. John’s work, and after my first couple forays into his recommended books bore fruit, I see a lot of overlap in what we look for in a GURPS book.

Which is why I’ve been trawling the list and then visiting my favorite haunts to track down the ones that catch my interest, generally for under $10 a book — and sometimes for as little as $4.[1]

So yes, S. John’s list is trouble . . . but it’s the best sort of trouble.

[1] It’s mystifying to me why old GURPS books are so cheap, but I’m not complaining. They’re fantastic resources for any game, and they often include bibliographies which, in turn, inspire more great reading.

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GURPS Tabletop RPGs

GURPS Time Travel’s four mini-settings

The more of GURPS Time Travel (paid link) I read, the more I love this book. Pound for pound, it’s one of the best gaming books I’ve read, GURPS or otherwise.

Leaving aside the “idea nuggets” scattered throughout, Time Travel offers up six settings. Time Corps is brilliant, and does more in 13 pages than most setting books do in hundreds. Infinite Worlds is the other setting which gets a longer treatment (and which later got blown out into its own book, GURPS Infinite Worlds (paid link), which I haven’t read yet).

But there are also four mini-settings, which collectively take up just 16 pages. These sounded neat, but I figured the real money was in the two more complete settings. Not so! These mini-settings are fantastic in their own right.

In the Cube

The first mini-setting is a short one, just 3 pages, and casts the PCs as lost time-travelers jumping randomly throughout history. They’ve got a support team back home, in the present; their time machine, the Hypercube, is also in the present.

The PCs can contact the scientists at home[1], although it’s not a quick or automatic process because the Hypercube isn’t a stable, smoothly-operating machine — it’s kind of a mess. The home-timers can also send the PCs stuff.

This tight little setup is a big, shiny hook for a rollicking time-romp. The PCs are yanked into another time — whatever sounds fun, perhaps a historical tipping point or the middle of a raging battle — and have to make their own way until the scientists can establish contact and give them support.

It’s very Quantum Leap, but there’s also some Star Trek: Voyager in the mix — because of course the PCs would eventually like to return home.

Eternity’s Rangers

The opposite is true of Eternity’s Rangers: The PCs can’t return home, because in their home time, they’re all dead. This mini-setting gets a whopping 8 pages, and it’s my favorite of the bunch.

Eternity’s Rangers, as the name suggests, is a military campaign. The Recruiters, a mysterious group with access to time travel, controls the Rangers, a military unit composed of soldiers from all along Earth’s timeline. Each ranger was snatched from the moment of their death and offered a choice:

I died in the Ardennes, during what you call the Battle of the Bulge. Ran into an enemy patrol in the middle of the night. There was fire; too much fire. Then a voice said, “If you want to come out of this alive, friend, take three steps to the left.”

The Recruiters send the Rangers on missions throughout time, always with specific objectives: “Turn the tide of this battle in favor of the Visigoths; everyone gets an assault rifle and 10 magazines,” or “Rescue this prisoner, but don’t reveal that you’re time travelers.” And if someone does cotton to your unnatural origins? They’re probably going to have to die, because the Recruiters are ruthless about obedience to their orders.

I could go on and on about this setting (it’s so damned good!), but instead I’ll share just one more favorite element: the pickup. Every mission comes with a pickup time and location, and if you’re not there, you’re stuck forever . . . unless you’re important enough to merit a follow-up rescue mission, of course!

The Order of the Hourglass

This mini-setting is Roaring Twenties pulp adventure + psychic time travel + time-hopping adventurers opposed by shadowy secret societies. Think League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (paid link), but with time travel.

By default, the PCs use time travel to study or explore the past — but their enemies use it for evil. Unscrupulous time travelers set up bases in the past, altering history for their own ends. Some have figured out that committing murder in the past leaves no loose ends, and have no compunctions about killing those who oppose them — like the PCs.

It’s a simple concept, but a rich one. There’s no vast temporal conspiracy, just ragtag time-explorers getting into trouble, often at the hands of a diverse bunch of enemies. There’s a ton of room to maneuver, which is one of the things I like about this setting.

The Horatio Club

Imagine if the Diogenes Club were actually a pan-dimensional cross-time nexus frequented by all manner of strange people, and you have the Horatio Club.

No one arrives there by accident, and the club’s many doors lead to myriad universes which, generally, feature entertaining problems that need to be solved. It’s a bit heavy-handed for my tastes, but the bones are intriguing — and like In the Cube, it’s a marvelous excuse to romp through time and space without worrying overmuch about the consequences.

This book just keeps on delivering

I’m on to the Infinite Worlds portion of GURPS Time Travel (paid link) next, and a bit further on down the line I’ll be checking out the much longer standalone IW book. Based on the strength of the five Time Travel settings I’ve read, I’m excited to see what that one’s like, as well!

[1] The book also suggests another option: Everyone plays two characters, a time-wanderer and a scientist in the present.

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GURPS Tabletop RPGs

GURPS Creatures of the Night offers up some creepy gems

I snagged a copy of GURPS Creatures of the Night (paid link), by Scott Paul Maykrantz, because I love monster books and it sounded like this one might be full of weird and wonderful oddballs. Not all of its monsters grab me, but there are some delightfully disturbing creatures in here.

My copy was a whopping $4, and I kind of like that the cover features neither creatures nor night.[1]

Two short of a good sixty-nine joke

CotN presents 67 monsters, each of which gets at least a page; most run two pages, and a few run longer than that. The layout is utilitarian, but gets the job done:

(Artists are credited, but not by image; I don’t know whose work this is)

They’re all but stat-free, which is perfect since I don’t play GURPS — for me, this is a sourcebook for other games.

Coming off a stint designing Labyrinth Lord creatures, which need a paragraph or two of text at most (plus the stat block), the length of each CotN critter’s entry is a blessing and a curse.

When they’re good, it rocks. My favorite CotN creatures are the ones you could build an adventure, sandbox, or campaign around, and knowing how they tick is fantastic. But when they don’t blow my skirt up, the entries feel overlong.

Onwards!

A side order of campaign concepts

CotN opens with some introductory material, the best of which is a rundown of four monster-heavy campaign concepts:

  • Darwin by Night features scientist PCs investigating the supernatural, with a focus on gathering information. What I like is the spin, which is sort of “Scully meets Indiana Jones.”
  • In Demon Hunters, the PCs are the marines in Aliens fighting monsters from Call of Cthulhu, more or less. It’s got a darker edge than Ghostbusters or Buffy.
  • Seeking the Source postulates that every monster is related to every other monster, all serving the same master — or masters. That’s a neat hook!
  • The Impostor Wars is basically an Illuminati campaign, but the secret masters are puppeteer-type monsters.

This section is only two pages long, but it packs a nice punch — and I love that it provides excuses to use two of my favorite GURPS books, Warehouse 23 (paid link) and Illuminati (paid link), the latter of which would go great with The Impostor Wars.

After that, it’s on to the monsters. Here are five of my favorite entities from Creatures of the Night:

Betweeners

The name doesn’t convey how cool betweeners are:

Betweeners are giant creatures that float in orbit, between the Earth’s atmosphere and outer space. They are made of a delicate, crystal-like substance. […] Betweeners absorb genetic information from any creature they can capture. […] Betweeners snare the captured specimen in glass tentacles and slice it to pieces. The genetic information is absorbed by the crystal and stored in the betweener’s consciousness.

Once creatures are absorbed, Betweeners send them to Earth as scions, many of whom don’t know they’re working for a betweener. Betweeners accomplish this through a variety of supernatural means, and can themselves be the source of just about any monster-centric or conspiracy-related myth you choose.

And if you want to figure out what a betweener is, you may have to go inside it, which feels like a very “2001: A Space Odyssey plus Call of Cthulhu” moment waiting to happen.

Corpse-Kissers

Apart from a great name, corpse-kissers are both gross and creepy:

These are black centipede-like insects that invade corpses, reproducing rapidly as they eat the organs and bones inside. Leaving only the husk of outer flesh, they continue to multiply until they form a tightly packed mass.

Ewwww.[2] In the best way! But it gets better:

Static stimulates corpse-bugs to secrete their precious fluid. They thrive on the sound of radios tuned between stations and televisions showing “snow.”

I love these dudes. I also love the adventure seed “Fingered,” which accompanies them: All Secret Service agents, and many other spooks, are actually corpse-kissers. But why? And to what end? I’d play that campaign.

Darklings

Beings connected to the “darksome” — living darkness — the darklings harvest human organs. Not that weird, right?

The darksome becomes stronger when it can focus its power through human viscera. As it breathes through stolen lungs, pumps blood through stolen hearts, and twitches stolen muscles, it gains power in the world, which it transfers to the darklings.

Darklings replace their victims’ organs with “shadow” versions, fully functional — and nicely baffling for, say, a PC doctor who encounters a patient with one of these shadow-organs.

Lodgers

Another innocuous name, another killer concept:

A lodger is a sentient, insubstantial being that takes control of an inhabited structure to survive — a “haunted house.” The inhabited structure (a house, hotel, castle, RV, etc.) becomes the lodger’s body.

I love this explanation for haunted places — and how great it is that you can have a haunted RV? And like the best monsters in CotN, the lodger has another layer: As it consumes the emotions of those inside it (the more intense, the better), you track that in percentile terms.

Every time it hits 100%, it gets a new psychic ability and the counter resets. The older the haunted house, the worse the hauntings become.

Mooring trees

Mooring trees like to strike deals with murderers. What sort of deals?

The name comes from their ability to act as a supernatural anchor for anyone who strikes the deal — if the person commits murder, he can be instantly transported back to the tree.

That’d make a great hook for a string of “disappearing murderers,” an unsolved chain of serial killings, or a one-off monster of the week session. It’s a versatile concept, and I like it a lot.

(Artists are credited in the book, but not by image)

I can’t recommend GURPS Creatures of the Night (paid link) without reservation — many of the monsters don’t really grab me, and it’s overlong in places. But some of the creatures in this book are just sublime.

The best ones (and there are more than five I’d put in this category) have a strong, unique concept underpinned by just the right amount of depth and complexity, and the length of the write-ups gives them room to breathe.

Just writing up the five I like best has filled my head with ideas I’d love to use in a horror game.

[1] Twilight, at most.

[2] The Husk of Outer Flesh would make a great band name.

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GURPS Tabletop RPGs

Time Corps: A brilliant time travel setting in 13 pages

I’m plowing through the most excellent GURPS Time Travel (paid link) at a good clip, and its Time Corps setting is just too good not to share here. (I wrote about the overall book in yesterday’s post.)

 

 

Six settings

GURPS Time Travel includes six settings:

  • Time Corps, the default time travel setting, which is about Timepiece agents vs. Stopwatch agents
  • In the Cube, which has the PCs lost in the past as part of an early time travel experiment
  • Eternity’s Rangers, a military campaign
  • The Order of the Hourglass, about time-traveling mentalists in the 1920s
  • The Horatio Club, a dimension-hopping campaign featuring free-agent PCs
  • Infinite Worlds, a full-blown dimension-hopping setting with two opposing organizations (like Time Corps)

Time Corps gets 13 pages (one is essentially the “cover,” so it’s really 12 pages), while the short ones get 2-8 pages apiece. Infinite Worlds gets a whole chapter, like Time Corps, and runs over 30 pages. It also got expanded into its own book, GURPS Infinite Worlds (paid link), which should be landing in my mailbox today.

Timepiece needs you!

Time Corps packs a mind-boggling amount of goodness into its handful of pages — more than enough to get a campaign off the ground.

 

 

Here are my five favorite things about Time Corps:

  • The hook. The Time Corps, and its Timepiece agents, are opposed by Stopwatch, agents of The Hive (an uber-bureaucracy that spans the globe) — classic “time war” setup, right? Right, except that the two agencies exist in different versions of the present. There can only be one present, so both Stopwatch and Timepiece are trying to make sure it’s their version that survives.
  • 49/49/2. The ground state at the start of the campaign is a 49% chance the good timeline (Timepiece, us) wins, a 49% chance the bad timeline (Stopwatch, The Hive) wins, and a 2% that one of a myriad of incredibly unlikely alternatives wins. Every mission either agency sends into the past — each from its own version of the present — has a chance to move the needle, changing those probabilities. After every mission, you roll dice for each side and change their respective probabilities. If either falls below 8%, they lose and their timeline is wiped out — it simply never comes into being. If both of them added together fall below 70%, one of the previously-unlikely alternate timelines takes over, wiping out both realities, Timepiece and Stopwatch. Talk about player agency and meaningful consequences!
  • Clever temporal physics. Time travel can only occur through “windows” into the past, and the windows are always about 8 months apart. Want to foil a Stopwatch plot? You might have to go back to some time long before the plot and wait for the appointed hour. This also gives real weight to using local agents — folks “embedded” in a local time — for support.
  • Snap-back. Agents can trigger implants to snap themselves forward to the present, but anything they brought with them automatically snaps forward if it gets more than a few feet away from them.[1] Need to send a message to HQ? Drop a “notecard” and it’ll pop into the present; HQ can then send help, assuming a window is available and useful to you. Don’t want your ray gun to fall into the hands of a medieval peasant? It won’t, because as soon as it leaves an area a few feet around you, it’s zapped forward to HQ.[1]
  • Observation equals reality. A quirk of this setting’s temporal physics is its approach to the Observer Effect: If someone from either present, Timepiece or Stopwatch, observes an event in the past and returns to tell their tale, it becomes unalterably true — that is how How It Happened. This creates marvelous incentives to do things like sacrifice yourself if things have gone badly, so that your screw-up doesn’t shape history — or, much more often, to be extremely careful about what you don’t see, so that you have a shot at changing it down the line. Information is a double-edged sword.

I could go on, but at some point I’d just be reproducing this delightfully brief chapter, so I’ll stop there.

I look at those features of Time Corps and see fodder for a sandbox campaign — or at least a sandbox-adjacent one, with lots of options for the players and real fallout based on what they do. You might look at those features and see the seeds of a mission-based, GM-driven campaign — something that looks a lot like an episodic TV show, for example. One of the strengths of Time Corps as a premise is that it’s a strong foundation for a variety of play and campaign styles.

The Time Corps setting on its own is a good enough reason to buy GURPS Time Travel (paid link). Doing a lot with a little is one of my favorite design goals, and this setting is bursting with possibilities.

[1] And yes, if an agent eats a meal before they leave, and then takes a dump in the past, guess what snaps forward to HQ?

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GURPS Tabletop RPGs

GURPS Time Travel is neat

I’ve got time travel gaming on the brain, and haven’t yet found a time travel RPG that hits exactly the vibe I’m after.

Epidiah Ravachol‘s Time & Temp is at the top of my shortlist to play, with the excellent Timeworks setting from Fate Worlds: Worlds in Shadow running a close second. But those both do specific things (nothing wrong with that!), and I’m after something more open-ended. It may become more specific as I think about it more, but for now loosey-goosey is good.

I want to pack my brain with interesting, RPG-oriented time travel stuff, and whenever I’m that mood the answer is usually GURPS. In this case, GURPS Time Travel (paid link), by Steve Jackson and John M. Ford.

Like GURPS Warehouse 23 (paid link) and GURPS Illuminati (paid link), which I’ve written about on Yore, Time Travel is a toolkit.[1] It takes one huge enchilada of a topic and comes at it from several angles, teases out the best bits from each angle, and gives you the stuff you need to put it back together how you like.

The book provides a default campaign setting, and it’s a good one: Timepiece agents vs. Stopwatch agents, each group trying to ensure the survival of their own timeline, with lots of clever details. For example: Time travel “windows” are always about 8 months apart, so sometimes you need to go back too far and wait for your moment; and whether history can be changed depends on whether an agent observes it, so there are delightfully perverse incentives to walk away from problems so you can take another run at them later on.

In a (parallel) world . . .

One of those angles, dimensional travel/parallel worlds as an alternative to time travel, wasn’t even on my radar until I started looking into (and then bought) this book. It features many of the best bits of time travel — alternate worlds, ahistorical elements, fish out of water — without all the brain-burning paradoxes and temporal physics.

There’s a whole setting in Time Travel, Infinite Worlds, which delves into dimensional travel, and the topic gets quite a bit of attention in the book. It also got blown out into a much bigger book (which apparently also reprints some of what’s in this one), GURPS Infinite Worlds (paid link). That one’s on the way, and I’m excited to read it.

TPS reports

One of the tools Time Travel offers is a form: one for time travel games, one for dimension-hopping games. Here’s the time travel version:

That’s just handy! It covers a host of common questions — the stuff everyone at the table will ask — while also rounding out some corners, establishing a solid baseline, and piquing the group’s interest.

It also makes me want to know more. What’s the Recency Effect? What’s a Temporal Snarl? Those both sound awesome! (And yes, they’re both covered in the book.)

I’m not sure what I’ll do with it yet, although that Fate bookmark peeking out the top isn’t an accident. I think Fate (paid link) would be a great fit for a time/dimension travel game, particularly since I can lean on what’s already in Timeworks.

Whatever I do with it, Time Travel (paid link) is a great starting point. It’s my favorite kind of GURPS book: the kind that fires my imagination, gives me new ideas to chew on, and provides the tools to implement them — all in a tidy package of reasonable length.[2]

It’s also dirt cheap, at least at the moment — I paid $6 for my copy, and it’s in fine shape.

[1] All of my favorite GURPS books are toolkits.

[2] Nope, leaving that one alone. Noooothing to see here.

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GURPS Tabletop RPGs

A blast from the GURPS: Warehouse 23 and Illuminati

We moved to Seattle last year, and about 75% of my RPG collection went into storage when we got here. Shelf space went way down in the new place, so only about 250 gaming books made the cut to stay out and accessible.

Two of those were GURPS books, and I don’t even play GURPS — they made the cut because they’re two of the best gaming books I’ve ever read, full stop: GURPS Warehouse 23 (paid link), by S. John Ross[1], and GURPS Illuminati (paid link), by Nigel D. Findley.

I rate both of these books a 10/10. I’ve read the shit out of them (just look at that cover wear![2]), and hauled them around the country on multiple moves, and they’ve been a well of gaming inspiration for years.

GURPS Warehouse 23

You know the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark? This is that warehouse.

Warehouse 23 postulates that magic, conspiracies, secret societies, space aliens, weird science, and cryptids are real, and that the government keeps as much of the related stuff as possible locked away in the titular warehouse. So one thing this book is, is that: a marvelous sourcebook of all that great stuff, each thing with its own write-up. And as that, it’s excellent.

But you could build an entire campaign around the warehouse. Where there’s a conspiracy (or conspiracies), there are secret masters; you can fight them. Or join them! Someone’s got to acquire all of those Secrets Humankind Was Not Meant to Know, after all.

Warehouse 23 also walks you through lots of possibilities for who owns the joint, how Illuminated your setting could be (and how that impacts the warehouse), and what all that means to a potential campaign. Those lenses make the warehouse malleable, and Ross excels at making all of its possible incarnations eminently gameable.

Back to the stuff, though — this isn’t just a fancy equipment book. That would be dull. It’s a book of stuff which makes that stuff matter.

Take the Ark of the Covenant, for example. It gets a half-page of history and legends, a half-page on the Grail Order, a half-page on its rumored powers, and a half-page on questing for it and how to use it in different ways — combine it with other artifacts in the book, twist it sideways and make it not a physical artifact at all, etc. The two-page entry for the grail could be teased into a campaign seed in its own right, and that’s just one of the dozens of artifacts in the book.

Context is king, and the context around all of the weird and wonderful goodies in the warehouse is what makes this such a treasure trove of ideas. A world where all of this stuff — much of which is insanely dangerous and/or world-altering — would be an amazing gaming setting.

Which brings us to GURPS Illuminati.

GURPS Illuminati

GURPS Illuminati takes the core idea that there exists a world-spanning conspiracy — the Illuminati — and bends the whole modern world around it. It’s the default setting for Warehouse 23, but each book works just fine without the other.

Like Warehouse, and in the best GURPS fashion, Illuminati is bursting with ideas — all clearly and engagingly presented — which can fuel conspiracy-driven games in any system. It’s laced wth dark humor — like the list of 50 Awful Things About the Illuminati, which opens with this gem:

Everything here is true, even the false things

From there, you get an element-by-element guide to running this sort of campaign: character types that work well, ways to build the power structure of your conspiracy of choice, mapping the web of lies, adjusting for other genres, and on and on. The amount of good stuff packed in here belies the book’s relatively modest size.

Need secret societies? They’re in here. Need potential allies for foes of the Illuminati (likely the PCs)? Yep, they’re in here too. Oddball sidebars about conspiracies within conspiracies? Yeppers. A whole section on how to introduce the Illuminati, and the true extent of their world-dominating evil, to as-yet-not-paranoid-enough PCs? You bet.

And like Warehouse 23, it’s wonderfully weird. I get ideas from every page, and I’ve returned to Illuminati many times over the years — often just to read for pleasure, but also to stir up my imagination for various games.

I consider GURPS Illuminati an essential toolkit for running any game that even dabbles in conspiracies, and doubly so for one set in the modern world. Use it whole cloth, mine it for parts, blend it with other stuff — it’ll support you no matter how you want to employ it.

Like peanut butter and tinfoil hats

It’s fun to write about gaming stuff that I love, and GURPS Warehouse 23 (paid link) and GURPS Illuminati (paid link) are flat-out amazing books. They earn my highest recommendation.

[1] As an aside, S. John Ross has a fantastic list of personal GURPS book ratings (one number for reading enjoyment, one for play); you can also see just the best ones. Plus the big list of RPG plots. And Risus (which I’ve gushed about on Yore). His entire site is basically a rabbit hole full of joyful exuberance — which, in a lot of ways, is what I want Yore to be.

[2] I’d forgotten that Teenage Martin decided, for reasons long forgotten, to use the front cover of GURPS Illuminati for target practice. I’m not sure if those are BB holes or stab wounds from testing out homemade Wolverine claws, but both options are about equally likely.