It’s GURPSDay once again and that means that wonderful day of the week we writers (If that’s what I can be called) coordinate to produce substance. A topic I rarely touch on but read quite a bit into is the Dungeon Fantasy line of products.
I was considering writing a review of one of the books, but I decided I should probably get something off my chest that has been settled there for some time. That is the comparison of Dungeon Fantasy to D20 products and why I believe Dungeon Fantasy is a good replacement. This is not a post on how to go about using the system to model D20. This is a high level view of my own standpoint.
Without further adieu let us get into the actual content of this post.
What is Dungeon Fantasy?
I think it’s important to begin this discussion by defining what Dungeon Fantasy is (or at least what it wants to be). You could simply read the Introduction chapter of Dungeon Fantasy 1 to get the gist of what the writers intended. For the sake of completeness I am going to paraphrase (also for copyright reasons) what the idea is.
Dungeon Fantasy is a simplification of a lot of rules. It presents these rules in a somewhat balanced methodology to allow one to pull off a Sword and Board fantasy adventure. The idea of a Sword and Board fantasy adventure is something needs killing and you’re probably the one who is going to be doing it. That something needing killing probably has a bunch of minions that will die for them. Also, for some odd reason, they stuff all their treasure in easily found locations for you to pillage. So to summarize, heroes go in, treasure and experience points come out.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Dungeon Fantasy seems like it was produced to be good, straight forward, fun. It takes away a lot of the burdens that often come with creating a GURPS campaign and managing it’s play. You got character concepts lined up with general expectation of how combat will ensue. You are given reward guidelines and systems that cater to the adventuring party. There is also methods outlining divinity and a bunch of sample encounters of creatures you’d expect in the world.
What about this whole design doesn’t scream “Use me to model your D20 game”?
What Dungeon Fantasy is Not (But Should Be)
If you read the books and browse the GURPS forum, you’ll find people who point out that Dungeon Fantasy is meant to be a no-nonsense gaming experience. There may not even be any role play in the game. Your only quest is bigger and brighter numbers by the design. There’s no need to explain much more. Reality is rarely even invited to the game.
That’s all well and good. Despite this use case for the system, one can easily take everything laid out there and apply it to something that isn’t meant to be shallow. I’m willing to bet quite a few people use Dungeon Fantasy to accomplish just that. I know I did.
Why Dungeon Fantasy?
A person looking to port their favorite D20 campaigns to GURPS could certainly run the marathon of books in the GURPS line. Using them they could model everything to the finest detail. They could therefore run that compelling campaign with the depth they are seeking. Quite a few people likely do. You can tear through Fantasy and Low-Tech. You can open various books such as Magic or Thaumatology. And with powers in your arsenal there’s little stopping you from making systems for monsters, sword and board fantasy, and other facets of adventures.
The question is, why go through the work when you have a book who already met you half way with the mechanics?
Dungeon Fantasy has classes laid out. You have races created and balanced to each other. You have encounter methods laid out. You have dungeons defined and you have loot expectations defined. And if you don’t like how Dungeon Fantasy classes work, they spell out how they were made and you can make your own. In fact, everything you need to model a D20 experience is right there in Dungeon Fantasy.
I run a Sword and Board fantasy set in a romanticized (And mythological) Three Kingdoms China. I lovingly call the campaign ‘Kingdom of the Dragon‘. Situations in the game cause me to peek into Dungeon Fantasy to handle them. This is because it already answers most the questions I have for a given situation. I didn’t force people to use classes, I just handed them the 250 points and said “Go crazy!”
My players consist of a talented spear user Dang Sun, a face and sword dancer Lien Cao, a street rat survivalist Zhu Xiaohua and a Tao sorcerer (Ritual Path Magic) Yue Shixiang. The journey has encountered spirits, demons, animated stone men, Moguai and Yaoguai, as well as gods. The journey they are embarking upon trying to correct the Heaven’s Mandate through finding a true emperor works great for Dungeon Fantasy. The genre saved me quite a bit of work figuring out how to go about doing the game mechanics.
So my question is, despite Dungeon Fantasy meaning to be this “video game” like dungeon adventure, why does it need to be used as that? If I have someone who wants to be a Tiefling Paladin in Golarion, what makes Dungeon Fantasy such a bad choice? Doesn’t it outline fiend blooded individuals and holy warriors? Is it because it cut some corners to streamline people right through character creation and into game play? Isn’t that that a staple of D20 game systems? Do players pause and ask GMs if they cut corners on the setting or do they just sit back and play?
One doesn’t need great depths of reality to model game worlds like Forgotten Realms, Golarion, Eberron and similar places. These locales are larger than life. So a system that can easily bring out the heroic larger than life feel needs to be in place. I think Dungeon Fantasy captures that wonderfully. And let’s be honest, what D20 party isn’t concerned about dungeon crawling and loot?
Why GURPS Needs More Streamlined
GURPS is certainly a great toolbox of utilities to build and lovingly craft everything you need to run any genre you can imagine. It has quite a bit of research to back up much of the game play mechanics you encounter. Personally, I would never use another system for building my own genre if I could help it.
My feeling is this led GURPS into the idea of a toolkit over a complete solution. The most creative individual can take their imagination to soaring heights while running wild with it’s freedom. For people who may be strapped for design time, or need great ideas to help, this is where I feel GURPS stumbles a bit.
I see a tendency for newer RPGs to metaphorically hold a hand through game mastering. The GM guide books in these systems almost always contain ready made plots. They tell the GM you do at every curve and what players need to roll. This isn’t a design that benefits the veteran. This benefits the person who got the game and wants to play with their friends for the first time. I remember GURPS 3E having a small adventure called “All in a Night’s Work” or some such. Why was this abandoned in 4E?
When you have to learn the rules and create a working campaign, this can be daunting for people. I myself have quite a few friends who want to GM. These new GMs start their design with GURPS. They are usually overwhelmed with too many options and just default to other systems. Sometimes they feel “It’s too much to take in”.
Systems like Monster Hunters, Dungeon Fantasy, and the new After the End are perfect for aiding these individuals. They get all the mechanics specific to the idea they want to run and if they want to get more detailed, the rest of the books fill in the blanks.
I feel the only thing these books really need is complete adventure modules. These help players who want to try the game but are afraid of their own story telling ability. This could easily attract more individuals to game mastering GURPS. If nothing else, it helps put the player into the frame of mind for running their own ideas. It’s nice to present an individual with a skill description as Basic Set does. However, when you have example adventures using the skill in front of the game master it clicks in the mind faster.
World books, such as Banestorm, are wonderfully well written. However, at times you sit in front of these books and scratch your head wondering “How can I make a good campaign out of this?”
I sometimes question whether Banestorm would have sold better if there was an adventure series coupled along side it. Players could just pick up and run through this adventure to get a better feel for the setting. It certainly would put the exposé describing the game world into more easily digestible form. Writing which kingdoms are at war is one thing. Being thrust into the actual war and feeling how it typically plays out can really help someone become immersed.
I could be wrong, but I believe this often leads to taking only parts of the world, or rewriting parts to suit your needs. It may not even have aspects laid out that you know how to work with. I feel the GM needs to not only understand the impact of the design, but they should also feel it. It’s necessary if a GM wishes to personally use them to the fullest. This could also be why many of the popular D20 world books have tiny worlds within their worlds. Forgotten Realms is quite diverse even kingdom to kingdom. There’s likely a location that can fit what you’re trying to do no matter what it is.
And if you never have an idea for an adventure, just grab a D20 module. Wouldn’t that be nice for GURPS?
This is all, of course, my own perspective and observations. I’m certain quite a few people may voice some concern for Dungeon Fantasy being used in such a manner. Quite a few GURPS players come from technical or constructive backgrounds. Such skill sets lend themselves well to world building. Whether you’re an engineer, historian, physicists or simply have been gaming for years, you probably have little problem being creative.
However, if you want the guy who just enjoys rolling dice and pizza with friends to play, he may not be up for writing a whole world. What’s wrong with grabbing something like Pathfinder campaign setting and thrusting everybody into Dungeon Fantasy? It may not be designed for that, but it certainly works for it.