Friday, April 1, 2016

GURPS Review: Powers: The Weird

Weird: These abilities may be granted by weird science, or
might reflect origins in specific weird realms with different
natural laws
-Powers: the Weird, by Bill Stoddard

Tl;dr: Thumbs up

I started this blog, among other reasons, because the GURPS community asked GURPS fans to blog.  "Raise awareness of the game," they said, "The reason people seem to think the game is dead is that the community is closed rather than open.  Let them see that GURPS is alive and well."  In particular, quite a few people have made calls for reviews: The more people see that SJGames continues to churn out books, the more likely that they'll buy them.

I believe some people have already reviewed this, but I prefer to take my time, dig down into a book, and get a feel for what I like and what I don't.  I honestly don't feel like I know a book until it's played a role in a campaign, and I haven't done that here yet, but it's kindled my interest enough that I thought I could talk about why I like it, why I don't, and what you can expect.

The Book

GURPS Powers: the Weird is part of the same powers series that gave us Psionic Powers, Divine Favors and Enhanced Senses, and is written by Bill Stoddard, who gave us (not an exhaustive list) GURPS Fantasy, Social Engineering, Supers, Enhanced Senses, and Thaumatology: Chinese Elemental Powers.  The intent of the series, and the book, is to expand on GURPS Powers by creating additional modifiers, power frameworks and ideas  In this case, the intent of the book is to expand on powers that push the boundaries of the reality: Cosmic powers over space, time, dimension or reality itself.  These are the powers that fit more into the works of Lovecraft, or into Fringe or the Lost Room or the Doom Patrol, rather than into the X-men or Daredevil.

Bill Stoddard has a specific style.  His prose is as terse and clinical as Lovecraft's, who almost certainly inspired this book.  You won't find florid prose in this book describing what these powers might look like, or gripping tales that bring the dramatic and metaphysical weight of these powers to bear, as you might in a White Wolf (Onyx Path?) book.  Instead, Bill cleanly explains the mechanics within the book the way a mathematician might, expecting the mechanics to speak for themselves.  I imagine some people might find it off-putting, but I honestly didn't notice until I started hunting for a cool quote to put at the top of this review and realized there were absolutely none that spoke to me.

I tend to read "for the mechanics" and I supply "the fluff" myself.  If you can look at a set of rules and see story and description spinning themselves before you the way I can, then you may well enjoy this book as much as I did.  Here's a sample of what I mean:

Bladebane
Though you appear solid, your true being is only a surface
with nothing inside! Weapons that penetrate that nothingness – by cutting, impaling, or piercing – are tainted with it, suffering 1d/level of corrosion damage; their intrinsic DR is
of no benefit against this, but they lose DR equal to the damage roll. Damage from the incoming attack is also reduced by 1d/level; subtract this after all other DR but before applying wounding modifiers.
Bill grudgingly offers us an exclamation point and a couple of cool words like "nothingness" and "taint" and then he's off to discuss the mechanics.... but can't you see it?  This person who roils with a devouring void within.  His assailants stab and cut at him, but he only opens his mouth to let out the haunting roar of a vacuum draining the air from around them as his inherent nothingness infects their blades making them slowly evaporate into a hissing, metallic vapor (or even making them fade from existence).  Inside his wounds there's only a star-speckled void within his paper-thin flesh.  Can you see it?  I can.  It's not in his words, but it's in his mechanics.

That theme, that sense, runs through his entire work: rich inspiration lurking beneath clinical mechanics.

The book has three chapters (and an introduction, a bibliography and an index).  The first chapter is Weird Science, the second chapter is Weird Phenomenon, and only in the last chapter do we get into Weird Powers.  Thus, the book is actually a grab-bag of weird ideas rather than a cohesive system.

Chapter 1: Weird Science

The principle behind the Weird Science chapter seems to be to provide "Science styles" for gadgeteers, which is to them what martial arts styles are to warriors, or magical styles are to magicians.  You could be an Ontogeneticist, shaping flesh, both dead and living, into strange monstrosities, or you could be a Para-Energeticist, exploring the crazy physics of super-science, or you could be a clock-working Automatist, making clockwork companions and pets.  While I find the idea somewhat charming, that's not really what I liked about the chapter.  Instead, I like the fact that he explored alternate scientific concepts.  I think that's actually the intent of the chapter, and the "science style" idea is just a frame for it.

Ultra-Tech, High-Tech and Low-Tech provide a rich variety of gear that you can use to populate your world, but they don't really have much in the way of ideas or knowledge.  The Low-Tech series has a book on Philosophy, which is the closest I think I've come to that sort of thing, but it doesn't help you if you want to have a super-spy uncover crazy experiments, or you want to explain why TL 10^ Biology is so much better than TL 8 Biology.

Weird Science provides the tools necessary to do that.  It's rich with ideas that mad scientists could use, or philosophies or knowledge that could serve as the basis for an unusual or exotic setting.  What if TL7^ Communists really did find a way to rewrite people's brains?  Then you could use Mind Modification rules.  Perhaps elite mathematicians and philosophers have uncovered some deeply powerful secrets in your Alternate Roman campaign and you're racing around trying to piece together the lost secrets of Tesseraxis.

Of the three chapters, this was probably my favorite, but you'll see a trend that runs through the whole book: the mechanics themselves are so-so.  For example, he offers some techniques, but they're typically the same techniques: Just different ways to invent stuff.  Thus, a lot of effort and white-space is spent making these styles seem more different than the really are.  The result is that I expect most people would set aside the styles as styles (does it really matter that your mad scientist has studied para-energetics or are you just going to invent whatever you need at the time?), but instead, I would recommend pillaging this section for its many ideas and rich world-building possibilities.

Chapter 2: Realms and Phenomenon

Here, Stoddard's style really bites him.  The chapter clearly intends to offer you inspiration about where your crazy powers or sciences might come from: Reality fragments! Lost dimensions!  Cosmic Rays from Outer Space! But the prose has all the enthusiasm of a wet blanket.  Instead, he simply lists the typical sources of these sorts of powers or stories, often noting references to other works (such as Infinite Earths or Cabal or Transhuman Space).  Some seem out of place (Transhuman Space? Really?), and few of them really made me sit up and think.  Weird powers from outer space?  You don't say.  What does he have to tell us about strange powers from outer space?  That you might find them out there or that they might come here!  Like I said, nothing you've never read before a million times.

I said "few" of them made me sit up, and I'll note one that did: His discussion of hyperspace is certainly worth a read.  It's tied directly to quite a few of the powers later in the book, and he lays out some implications and, in so doing, creates a unique and fascinating vision of a world worth exploring, or at last a state worth experiencing.

His brevity helps keep this chapter from being tedious.  You might look through it to get an idea, it'll give you one, and then you can research it in more detail elsewhere, Meanwhile, the book has moved onto more exciting things:

Chapter 3: Powers

Finally!  The meat of the book!  How is it?

I'm not sure how to explain it other than "It's very Stoddard."  When PK writes a Powers Book, he's creating a framework for your players.  He explains how, for example, Psionics work, how you can use them to create an interesting game, full of cut and thrust psionic gameplay and affordable powers.  Stoddard's works concern themselves less with making a power-set playable and more with how it would actually work.  If you'll forgive some GNS heresy, Powers: the Weird definitely falls more on the Simulationist side of the spectrum than the Gamist side.

Stoddard discusses Power Modifiers and Talents and such, but it feels like boilerplate: "-10% blah blah countermeasures.  Talents add to such and such, etc."  There's no discussion of a cohesive system of how these powers would work or interact.  Nor should there be.  Powers: the Weird is an ecclectic collections of oddities rather than a description of how your cthulhu-powered super-hero should work.

As a consequence of this, a lot of his powers aren't particularly playable out of the box.  Extradimensionality, your ticket to sweet, sweet hyperspace gameplay, will cost you between 279 and 389 points, putting it squarely in the hands of supers and unpriced NPC monsters... or you could modify it, make it cost fatigue or corruption points and/or limit how often you can use it!  But that's typical of most of these powers: They're really bits of ideas, concepts you could use to create something bigger.  He even does this himself by suggesting certain powers as natural consequences for certain weird science paths/styles.

Here's an example of what I mean: Controlled Atavism gives you access to "Epigenetics 1 (10)", or one slot worth 10 points.  Epigenetics is explained elsewhere as a sort of modular ability.  He explains how it would work, more or less... but what advantages can you gain with it?  He's vague.  You could just wing it (he gives a suggestion of Brachiation or Gills, representing vestigal ancestral DNA).  But you might also define quite a few more, even allowing the character to introspect and learn more about his DNA and its potential.  You could even give him a new ability, likely a perk, where he can devour the DNA of others to gain new potential Epigentic abilities!  Stoddard doesn't discuss how you might wrap gameplay around these powers so much as open the door to the idea and give you a few pointers and then leaves you on your own. 

You might walk into this book expecting extra-dimensional this and creepy mutation that, and you won't be disappointed, but Stoddard doesn't stop there.  He touches on supreme mastery of language, or deeper insights into reality and so on.

The Hyperdimensional Combat sidebar definitely merits mention.  It touches on how multi-dimensional combatants would actually work, but I cannot speak to how balanced it actually is, as I have not yet used it.  A careful read through exposes no particular problems.

The same cannot be said of all mechanics in here, though.  Some of Stoddard's choices are odd, odd enough to fill an entire thread with questions.  Two problematic mechanics leap out to me, just as examples.  First, he has a sidebar on "Unusual Background."  He suggests that being "the only of your kind" in the whole universe (for example) is worth 80 points.  Thus, being the Last Son of Krypton is 80 points.  But why?  Does that offer some particular advantage that being the only Kryptonian on the planet doesn't offer (which is only worth 50 points, and thus a difference greater than +1 IQ or Combat Reflexes)?  Is being the Last Timelord in the Entire Multiverse really worth even more than being the Last Kryptonian in this universe?  He gives no particular reason for those costs, other than noting the Area Knowledge rules (?).  The second if the aforementioned Bladebane: Mechanically, it provides "1d" of DR against cutting, piercing or impaling attacks... but why not homogenous?  If you're made of void, you don't have any organs or blood, do you?  You have nothing inside.  And why "1d of DR"?  Why roll?  Sometimes you'll be really hurt, sometimes not at all?

The book is rife with ideas, and quite a lot of his mechanics are defensible... but expect to be reworking quite a few, either because you disagree with them, or because you need to rework them to fit them into your campaign.

Verdict

Would I recommend it?  Yes.

If you're a player, this book isn't going to be interesting to you (unless you're playing a super).  If you're the sort of GM who wants to grab a book have it help his campaign out of the box (such as the DF series), this book won't be interesting to you.  If you like to tinker with exotic worlds and you're looking for new ideas, this book might interest you.  If you're looking for cool powers for your cosmic super, this book might interest you.  If you're looking for crazy powers to drop on your Lovecraftian monstrosities, or a discussion of how to handle multidimensional combat, or some crazy end-powers for your creepier or more profound magics, this book is definitely for you.

I think the book is an excellent book, flaws and all, but I tend to be a world-builder with a love of the exotic who is looking for crazy ingredients to add to his settings.  I prefer books that don't hold my hand, but instead show me something new, give me a few tips and point me in the right direction to make something very nice for myself.  Powers: the Weird does that, so I love it.  I've been reading it over and over again, extracting idea after idea from it.  But not everyone works like that, and for people who do not, you may only find a desolate wasteland of iffy mechanics and dry prose.
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