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Joe Reviews: GURPS Social Engineering

I love reading GURPS books, they are always so full of ideas that I cannot help but be inspired. GURPS Social Engineering is no exception. It clocks in at 88 pages, but there is a lot of information packed in there. It’s a surprisingly weighty pdf, but the investiture of time in reading it is well worth it.

Primarily, GURPS Social Engineering is a rules book. It expands greatly on the fairly static rules for rank, social status, and NPC reaction found in the Baic Set. The book does more than simply tweaking these systems: it actually opens them up to a level to be the focus of a campaign. One can have a social campaign using these rules, and have the focus of said campaign be mechanically supported fairly well.

One interesting thing about the way the rules are written is the fact that using these rules to run a campaign would not fundamentally change the GURPS engine, but change the focus of those rules. What I mean is that running a social-only campaign using this book would not allow one to experience social “combat” in the spirit of Fate, but it would allow for social conflict on any scale from high school bickering to a coup d’etat in an inter-stellar empire. The social conflict possible using the rules in GURPS Social Engineering is mostly about influence and nuance…it is not a fundamental change to how GURPS works.

This is a feature, not a bug. As I’ve said before, GURPS is a modular game. You want to take the parts that work to help build the game you want. In many ways it’s a toolkit of sub-systems that allow one to build a campaign framework that works well enough to emulate the genre or style your campaign will take. GURPS Social Engineering makes this eminently more plausible, by adding the rules for a campaign that doesn’t focus on strictly physical conflict.

There are a few areas where GURPS Social Engineering really shines in the rules department. The expanded rules for Rank and Social Status are very in depth, and can build one hell of a catty society. In the first chapter, High School is mentioned as a setting, I can see class conscious “mean girls” being a great Enemy Organization. Similarly, the new reaction tables are awesome. There is a reaction table for a lot of different situations where a group of PCs would want something from NPCs: Hiring, Requesting Aid, Commercial Transactions, and Confrontation with Authority are some examples.

I really like this book, as it examines a lot of social situations in which PCs can interact. I think my favorite section is the one where the author discusses taunting and intimidation. The final chapter of GURPS Social Engineering is about the line where social conflict becomes physical conflict. It’s an extremely well done look at how to provoke violence in NPCs using the rules in GURPS. There is a section on inciting a riot as well as being intimidated and or attacked by one!

The book closes with a small nod to the debate about social rules existing in RPGs at all. There are many who feel that roleplaying should be more than sufficient for all social situations in a game. I happen to agree with this in a game where social interactions or political maneuvering is not part of the game. I like any game I’m playing to support what I’m doing in it mechanically. I don’t want to play a game that works in spite of the system I’m using, and with GURPS Social Engineering , I’m now equipped to run a political game using GURPS. I’m always happy when I can do more things with GURPS.


Joe Reviews The Genius Guide to the Death Knight

I have heard a lot about the Genius Guides over the last couple of years. Even as someone who does not normally play Pathfinder, I am always on the lookout for stuff I can use in Castles & Crusades. Having heard about the Guides, and having a predilection towards undead things, I picked up The Genius Guide to the Death Knight.

This is a pretty cool book! The PDF I have for it is apparently formatted for easy screen reading, and it looks great on my iPad. The illustrations are very evocative, especially the severed head on page 17!

The book itself is devoted to a new base class, or at least a class that can be used as one, called the Death Knight. It’s a death-aspected anti-Paladin, of which there are two minor variants. The variants are based on alignment, (only Evil or Neutral allowed), and are mostly flavor distinctions. There are all sorts of cool powers available to the Death Knight. My favorite is every few levels the living Death Knight gains immunities usually reserved for the undead! They also have access to spells, which I forgot was normal in Pathfinder.

Speaking of spells, I am totally going to steal some of these for evil necromancers in my D&D-like games. The Grave Summoning spells allow a Death Knight to summon undead creatures from a list. I can think of all sorts of horrible misdirection possibilities with Mask of Life, which hides an undead’s true nature. There’s also a cool spell that allows for the caster to hide in the Low Road, which is a sort of path to the underworld. The same spell allows them to travel the Low Road from corpse to corpse.

The Low Road is a really cool concept, basically a plane of existence in which only the recently dead can go. The soul of the intelligent dead from all over the multiverse funnel through it, and it is completely inaccessible by the living or the dead who inhabit their final reward or punishment.

The Genius Guide to the Death Knight is a really cool little sourcebook that has a ton of neat ideas in it. I really enjoyed reading it, and my players may see a Death Knight or two in my next game!


Joe Reviews: Background Noise

I have always loved random tables in my RPGs. I enjoy random games and random happenstance. Some of my favorite products are the random dungeon and character decks from Gamers Rule. I recommend you check them out if you also like random generators, but I’m mostly writing about a book I was recently directed to: Background Noise.

It is available as both a PDF and iPhone app, and although I have an iPad, I haven’t tried the app yet, although I imagine it’s awesome! The book itself is a series of random tables that determine a fairly detailed back story for a character. There are 40 tables in this thing, each cross referenced to one another. Some are used for every character, but many lead to other tables depending on result. If you’re born a slave, for instance, there’s a Slavery Event Table (Table X), but not everyone would roll on that one. All 40 tables are based on percentile, although some have as few as 6 entries. The ranges are not uniform though, so while you can use a d6 in the aforementioned table (Table B Family Wealth), you’d be much more likely to be born wealthy in that case.
I will give you an example of a character background generated using the tables, so you have an idea of what this book can give you. The author considers the work “…a springboard for your imagination,” and I think the following example illustrates that very well!

So, my unnamed character starts off rolling on the tables, and I come up with the following list of things:

  1. Family Satus: Middle Class
  2. Family Wealth: Want for Nothing
  3. From a sub-arctic cliffside city
  4. The Father was a candle-maker
  5. The character was basically raised in a Convent
  6. Born in his home
  7. Firstborn of two children (has a sister)
  8. Parents are respected and feared in the community for unknown reasons
  9. The Mother was a Cleric
  10. While cleaning out a back room of the church, as a lowly acolyte, the character discovered a previously unknown text that sheds light on some previously confusing passages. The find is heralded as the harbinger of great things to come for the character
  11. The father thinks the child belongs to someone else. His thoughts may or may not be correct.
  12. Character used to be infamous for some early mistake. He is forced to change his coat of arms (if any) and change his appearance to avoid recognition and ridicule
  13. Character is a hobbyist actor
  14. He’s a Liar

It took about 7 minutes to roll up that background, including typing it all onto the list. That’s pretty quick considering. Not everything will make sense when you roll, but that’s the nature of random tables. I really enjoy looking at some of the events, many of which can easily provide a nice character hook for GMs to use. Products like Background Noise are a springboard for creativity, something that can offer that little bit of needed inspiration for a player or GM. I plan on using this to create some Fantasy NPCs, and I would not be surprised if my players want to use it, too.


Joe Reviews The C&C Classic Monsters Manual

Castles & Crusades is a game that inspires nothing but warm feelings for me. Nicky and I have had many successful games of C&C, there has been much beer drunk and many inside jokes created with C&C as our basic reason for getting together with friends. So, when a new book comes out for C&C, I get it.

The newest book released came out just today: The Classic Monsters Manual. I am a sucker for monster books, especially OGL ones (mostly because if it’s OGL, I can convert it to Castles & Crusades pretty easily), and this one could not stay out of my hands.

In the beginning of the book is a very short article on running monsters with their own motivations and it succeeds rather well in a fairly short amount of space. In fact, I’d say that this primer is very much the heart and soul of the work. The monsters are meant to be a little different, and most certainly meant to be generally intelligent opposition. There’s a repeat of the “how to read the monster stat blocks” section in the Monsters and Treasure book, and then the monsters!

The Castles & Crusades Classic Monsters Manual has over 200 monsters, all of them with C&C statistics. About half of the monsters come from the Tome of Horrors by Necromancer Games, which in turn contains a bunch of monsters that had only shown up previously in modules (Vegepygmies, for example). I happen to own Tome of Horrors, and so I can tell you that this book is not a reprint of it. Not every monster in Tome of Horrors is in Classic Monsters, and many (at least half) of the monsters are original creations, or at least original to this book. Of course, the utility of this book is pretty much restricted to people who use Castles and Crusades.

However, if you are like me and enjoy seeing all sorts of monsters, and mining ideas of them for yourself, you’re in for a treat. Assuming you are not interested in the creatures that have appeared previously let me illuminate some of the cooler original monsters for you. The Bendith y Mamau is a fae type creature that resides in a house to protect it from evil. They are easily insulted and wreak havoc on people and places which do insult them, often require greater offerings to appease them. That is one hell of an adventure seed right there.

Another example is the Chawl Witch, a creature that is really entertaining to a polyglot like me. They are basically language masters, able to understand and comprehend languages after only a few hours with them. They are always female, but reproduce with a male of any humanoid species. They lay eggs, and the eggs and young are coveted by wizards who want a servant/slave. Once again, an adventure seed that is not to be sneered at.

There are some really cool werecreatures in the book: werefoxes, werespiders, and werehounds. Each is given a description which includes a solid adventure seed like in the previous examples. Having devoured this book, I can say with authority that every single creature listed has an adventure seed in the description in which an entire night’s play can be thought up by a competent GM. There are some really fantastic ideas in here for using unusual creatures in unusual adventuring circumstances, as well as just some cool stuff to fight.


Joe Reviews “Children of Pain”

Wicked Fantasy: Orks: Children of Pain, By John Wick

I have always been fascinated with taking “evil” creatures and making them more sympathetic. I think orks (to use the nomenclature of this book) should be more than faceless minions of evil sorcerers. They should have their own motivations for what they do. In many ways, I always thought of orks most like the Mongols of Genghis Khan: expansionist and obsessed with taking tribute. However, John Wick’s new book Children of Pain is a really cool take on orks and what role they can play in a Pathfinder (or retro-clone) campaign.

According to the prelude, this book comes out of a series of “Ecology of…” type columns from Kobold Quarterly. Mr. Wick wished to glimpse each major race through a mirror darkly, to change the basic assumptions of a race, to “give them a different feel. A different taste. A different style.” Children of Pain does a good job of that.

Fluff-wise, Children of Pain discusses how the orks rose up and slew their gods, eating them in the process and forming clans based on the powers gained by the deophages. From the book, it appears this happened in recent memory, which makes the world much more magical than I am used to running. I would ignore that part, and make the slaying of the gods as a kind of origin story.

Children of Pain devotes a lot of time to describing the tribal society of the orks. They are nomadic hunter gatherers who cross a tundra-like landscape. Their society is fairly well detailed, with sages, warlords and tribes. I think the concept of their religion is really cool. The orks believe pain is a sentient being that links them all together. They also have a system of storytelling tied to the scars on their bodies. Some scars are self-inflicted, but that only occurs for something significant that doesn’t necessarily cause physical pain. Mr. Wick certainly creates an evocative world, including some linguistic snippets to give the reader an idea of how the ork language works.

I am not the person to speak to mechanics, normally, especially as someone who doesn’t own Pathfinder. However, I will attempt that here, to give you an idea of what’s included. The first half of the book is all fluff, no mechanics are included. The end is almost all mechanics, and very little fluff hidden amongst it. However, there are some things revealed about ork culture in the powers, so they remain evocative without dominating the text.

First we have a list of ork racial traits. There are several things added to this list that bring standard orks in line with the fluff. First, they have the ability to feed animals their own blood to create hunting or riding companions. They also gain bonuses to attacks rolls when they are hurt (to represent their masochism), bonuses from their tribe (gods’ powers from their slaying), and psychological bonuses based on their own view of their reputation.

Class wise, there are three: a Blood Cleric, a Barbarian Archetype and a Bard Archetype. The Oracle of Blood is mentioned as a “new Oracle Mystery,” which I presume is a Pathfinder thing. There are all sorts of powers linked to using blood in lieu of other material components. From what I gather, the ork cuts him or herself and uses pints of blood to cast spells. They also have a series of other powers tied to level. The Barbarian Archetype (Gahthrak) replaces some of the Barbarian class features, as does the Bard Archetype (Fala).

Mr. Wick has been doing this for a while, and of course he produces top-notch work. The implied setting for the orks is evocative and interesting. Orks from this culture of pain are a really cool enemy in a misunderstood, “noble savage” kind of way. They can also be bloodthirsty monsters. What I really like about this treatment of orks is that they can still be frightening enemies while being a real culture with real motivations for their bloodthirsty ways. This book is sympathetic to the orks, but doesn’t hinder the GM from making them villains. I highly recommend Children of Pain!