Dungeon Fantasy

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GURPS is a system I’ve had a love/hate relationship with for about 30 years. In one respect, I like the level of detail and options it has for character generation. The source books are also generally of very high quality, even when I have no intent to use them with GURPS. On the other hand, the core mechanic is something I have trouble with, especially because it’s so obviously easy to min-max with a high DX or IQ character. Also, it insists on using the Imperial system, which has made it really difficult to use for SciFi. The GURPS Traveller line was good in terms of background detail, but I’d never consider running Traveller using GURPS simply because it doesn’t use metric[1]I was taught metric at school in the UK, but a mix of metric and Imperial gets used day to day, so I have some knowledge of Imperial. But for anything science based, it’s metric all the way. My … Continue reading.

However, I can sort of cope with measurements in feet in a fantasy setting[2]Just don’t use Fahrenheit, which I even struggle to spell, so my thoughts on what to use as a system for replacing Pathfinder have included GURPS Dungeon Fantasy.

For those who don’t know, Dungeon Fantasy is a sort of cut down and simplified version of GURPS heavily optimised to run dungeon crawl type games. It uses the GURPS core mechanics, but rather than being Generic and Universal, it’s specifically tailored to that style of fantasy setting. It’s not just a setting book for GURPS, it’s a complete system built on top of the GURPS engine. This means that when selecting skills and advantages, you’re not wading through a list that includes skills such as “Electronics” and “Computer Hacking”, or advantages such as “Zero-G tolerance”. Every option is viable for a fantasy game.

It keeps the point buy character generation of GURPS, but narrows the choices down to a set of profession templates. As a player, you select a profession such as “Barbarian”, “Bard” or “Cleric”, just as you’d select a character class in D&D. What these do is give you a base package of skills and abilities. So a Barbarian gets ST 17, DX 13, IQ 10 and HT 13. A Cleric gets ST 12, DX 12, IQ 14, HT 12. Along with the attributes, each profession provides a list of skills, advantages and disadvantages.

You then get the option to customise the character. A Cleric could choose a +1 or +2 to IQ, a Barbarian could take up to +4 to ST. All of this sits on top of the point buy system – so the Barbarian gets to select 40 points of options, the Cleric 45 points of options. By the end of it, everyone has a 250 point GURPS character.

I like the way that this focuses the choices for a player. They only need to look at what their options are, they don’t need to go through the whole list of options available to all characters. It guarantees that you don’t miss out the skills or abilities that you actually need to play that role, and it also helps ensure player characters aren’t stepping on each other’s toes. If someone agrees to play the Scout, they won’t discover that the player who said they were building a Knight is actually better at sneaking and thieving than the Scout is. Everyone gets to stick to their role.

After character generation, there is room for growth. Just as in standard GURPS, you gain character points and can improve your skills and buy new abilities. Characters are limited to improving those skills and buying advantages listed as part of their profession. They still have flexibility, but again it ensures characters are focused on their role.

All of the above does help alleviate one of the problems I’ve always had with GURPS – the basic skill mechanic and how easy it is to abuse. Since most skills are IQ or DX based, depending on your character your buy at least one of them up to 16 (or more), and then just point 1 point into all the skills you want. This gives you the skills at around 16, which is really easy to roll under on 3d6. So this is what all players do. 4th Edition doubled the cost of DX and IQ, which helped a bit, but it’s still hugely advantageous to get one of these attributes up as high as you can.

Profession templates limit what players can do, making it harder to min-max in the same way as standard GURPS.

In terms of feel, Dungeon Fantasy is very much a standard fantasy type of setting – with dragons, zombies, orcs and similar monsters available. It’s not designed to be Pathfinder, so there are going to be some differences, but probably nothing that would cause major difficulties in porting a Pathfinder adventure over.

Magic is similar as well, with some notable differences. There is no Teleport spell – simply because it breaks a lot of dungeon based adventures. I happen to like the idea of making travel in a fantasy game difficult – getting there is often half the plot in many fantasy stories. Even flight spells are expensive in terms of energy costs, so characters will have to walk or ride to their destinations.

Ironically, this might make Pathfinder adventures play out more like it seems they’re meant to – most of the ones I’ve read seem to assume that characters will be walking everywhere. In practice, characters use flight and teleportation as soon as they can get it, and end up bypassing a lot of expected complications.

Other spells such as fireball exist, though large area of effect magic seems harder to do. There isn’t the selection of complicated spells that you always get in D&D/Pathfinder – they spells seem to be simpler and more basic. But then, a lot of time has been wasted in games trying to understand just how some spells work in Pathfinder, since their descriptions are often not entirely clear.

One aspect of Dungeon Fantasy that could be a complication is the 250 point starting characters – PCs are already heroes by the time they start. This goes against the D&D/Pathfinder idea of characters starting at 1st level and gradually working their way up. Fortunately, there is a supplement called Delvers to Grow, which starts characters at a much lower power level. This might be a better place to start if trying to put people through a Pathfinder adventure.

So, GURPS Dungeon Fantasy seems to have at least the basics of what is needed for high fantasy role playing, the question comes down to how much I want to dive into the complexities of GURPS again (it has been about 15 years since I last ran it, when I ran some Conan adventures), and how much I can convince my players to give it a try.

I’d definitely need to try it out with a small adventure first – but then this is something I’ve been wanting to do since I backed the Kickstarter for Dungeon Fantasy several years ago.

It doesn’t provide the 1-1 replacement that Savage Pathfinder does, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Neither Roll20 nor Foundry (yes, I’ve started looking beyond Roll20) have direct support for Dungeon Fantasy, but they both support GURPS, so it remains an option for virtual games as well.

Maybe next year I’ll actually get a chance to try this out on my group, and we’ll see how it goes. Until then, it’s one of the options I’m going to keep in mind as a system to use for running high fantasy Pathfinder adventures with.


1 I was taught metric at school in the UK, but a mix of metric and Imperial gets used day to day, so I have some knowledge of Imperial. But for anything science based, it’s metric all the way. My knowledge of ‘common values’ for science and space are all in metric, and trying to do engineering where conversion between units is needed, such as for spacecraft design, without using metric just does my head in.
2 Just don’t use Fahrenheit, which I even struggle to spell

Samuel Penn