Saturday, May 25, 2019

Review: GURPS Powers: Totems and Nature Spirits

When I first heard about GURPS Powers: Totems and Nature Spirits, it naturally piqued my interest and when I saw it available for $5, I picked it up.  It's a slim volume, clocking in at a grand total of 17 pages and ~8,000 words, and it seems to represent yet another step GURPS is taking away from magic-as-skills and towards magic-as-abilities, which is a direction I can approve of.

Let's take a look, shall we?

The Contents

We start with the intro, which comments that the book was made for people who wanted totems and such for their druids, or for an alternate take on magic.  It's written by "Rory Fansler;" as far as I can tell, this is his first work.  Some research suggests that he's Refplace on the forums.

Next, we get "What is a totem?" which contains a brief, vague description, and then piles of traits, including Totem-Bearer, which is what we're actually after, and a mess of other traits, whose purpose will be clear in a moment.

Finally, we get "Totems in Play," which discusses the rules for invoking a totem, and then gives us a list of roles and a list of totems and their partial manifestations and their full manifestations. This is where all those specific traits from "What is a Totem?" comes into play as each totem and role amounts to a list of "appropriate traits" and specific templates that use those traits.

We get a little more than 25 totems, and that's it, we're at the index.

What's going on?

At its core, Totems is a semi-worked example of Spirit Vessels from GURPS Thaumatology, and a slightly more generic version of the Cheval from Kenneth Hite's Madness Dossier.  Let's walk through it.

The Bear Totem, and I feel safe discussing it because it's in the PDF Preview, looks like this:

Roles: Healer, Protector, or Warrior.

(There's some flavor text here, good stuff, he really dives into the old myths of the bear.  Check it out in the preview).

Emblematic Traits
Advantages: Higher Purpose (Protect children);  Injury  Tolerance  (Damage  Reduction  2);  Metabolism Control; Regeneration (Only while sleeping, -20%).
Disadvantages: Bad Temper; Berserk.Quirks: Bad Temper when awakened; Distinctive Features (Deep Voice or Hairy); Loves honey; Uncongenial.

Skills: Fishing; Leadership; Power Blow; Public Speaking.Manifestation

Partial  Manifestation:  ST+7  [70];  DX+1  [20];  HT+2  [20]; DR 2 [10]; Fearlessness 5 [10]; Ridden [15]; Bad Temper (12) [-10]. 135 points

When you buy the Totem Bearer trait, you are, I believe, buying one alternate form and the points for the alternate form.  The Bear's partial manifestation would be 12 points for the ability to transform, and then 122 points for the manifestation itself, for a total of 134 points.  You need to roll Ritual Magic to manifest this partial manifestation, which takes 10 seconds, and if you succeed, you get all of these traits (until you "let go" I suppose, or it's force off of you), but still looks like you (except that you've got a bad temper, etc; some manifestations include distinctive features, so your appearance might change slightly).  It's more of a spiritual change.

For physical changes, you can also buy full animal forms as "Full Manifestations," and take on the full traits of, for example, a bear.  This would be a separate purchase though. In this case, the full bear template is 61-67 points, which is less than the 135 points of the partial manifestation, so another 12 points would be enough.

Note the "Ridden" trait.  This represents an "Odious Personal Habit," (though the book never states which one) and a +4 to a specific talent, chosen from those in the role you chose.  So if we take the Bear-As-Warrior, you might take the "Mr. Smash" talent at +4 (Yes, there's a lot of talents in the books scattered from across several other books, so you will need Power-Ups 3 to make full use of this book).

You can build your own manifestations.  The book offers some guidelines in the forms of the emblematic traits.  We could add the Higher Purpose (Protecting Children), delete DR and Fearlessness, delete Bad Temper, add Distinctive Features (Hair) and Loves Honey, and so on.  We don't do this "on the fly," you build and buy your manifestation and then it's set, and I build and buy my manifestation and its set, and they can be different.

But say you want to adjust them on the fly.  Say, you're protecting children you want that HIhger Purpose for the next minute.  Well, the book suggests allowing Abilities and Default and some other Powers options, so you could spend 3 fatigue and roll Ritual Magic and gain additional traits temporarily.

If you're thinking "So basically it's just alternate forms; sometimes they're spiritual, sometimes they're full on," then you're basically right.  There's some additional tricks, but you have to sort of sift through the book a bit.  First, there are multiple power modifiers (Which would change the cost of your totem forms), the most interesting of which is Shamanic, Mediated, which makes the spirits more real. You might offend Bear, and then be unable to call upon his power until you fix it, and an enemy shaman trained in the Exorcism skill might banish the totem from you, ripping the power from you.  

It can also act as something of a magic system, letting you conjure up powers appropriate to your totem at will.  For example, the Bear is reasonably a Healer, and the Healer role can access the Healing ability (no surprise there). So, with some ritual magic and three fatigue, you could summon up your totems connection to healing and heal the wounded.  Some characters have multiple totems and might "wear" the one that best suits the situation (for example, if I need to know the future, I might set aside my Bear Totem and manifest my Owl totem instead).

Is it any Good?

I must admit, I was hoping for more.  There's no real discussion of spirits.  The book treats them as ephemeral things that might show up in your dreams, or the reasons your powers stop working, but you'll never see Bear go stalking the battlefield except as embodied by Its warriors.  That's fine, but it might surprise people, especially given that the book is titled "GURPS Powers: Totems and Nature Spirits", it's really more "GURPS Powers: Totems and Shapeshifting."

It also feels more like an overgrown pyramid article than a true supplement.  A lot of the stuff I described above, such as treating it like a magic system and conjuring up new powers, comes from a single line in the book, a cast off reference to GURPS Powers, which I find odd for something that feels rather central to the concept of the book.  I needed to piece together for myself what the book was talking about, and I suspect I'm still interpreting some things wrongly, because the book is very short on examples and even splits up the rules on how to manifest a totem between two different sections of the book (the rules for rolling Ritual Magic and its modifiers are in chapter 2, while the actual rules for manifesting the totem are in chapter 1, and it talks about Spirit Points, but I had to suss out for myself that this referenced the template costs for templates that cost more than your racial template).  It makes a lot of assumptions about the readers' experience with GURPS, and I would have preferred more worked examples and more careful, precise explanations, more like what you find in GURPS Psionic Powers.

You also need a lot of GURPS books to make this work.  You will need GURPS Powers and GURPS Power-Ups 3: Talents to get the most out of this book. I recommend GURPS Thaumatology to better understand where the author is coming from and to flesh out the rest of the magic system, because it does need to be fleshed out.

The "system" is less of a system and more of an outline of a system.  You need to choose your modifier (he suggests 4 different options which vary between -5% and -20%, and the default value seems to be -10%).  You'll need to pick which totems are available and perhaps flesh out their emblematic traits.  You'll need to understand how the whole thing works and how you want it to work.  This work is more like GURPS Sorcery than GURPS Psionic Powers, and even there, it's less cohesive, making it perhaps the least meaty of the GURPS Powers series.

It's also only $5, and you can definitely use it "out of the box."  In such a mode, it seems best for games like Dungeon Fantasy or perhaps a more shamanistic take on GURPS Monster Hunters, though both would need some work to fit it in

So I say it's worth buying, but manage your expectations.  Despite its blurb, it's not really a book on spirits in the broader sense, and it's not really a complete, cohesive alternate magic system that you could just use, but it is definitely the seed of one, and it has an excellent feel for a certain genre of fantasy gaming.  You'll also need to work with it a bit, and I recommend it for GURPS Veterans rather than GURPS noobs, who will be lost in many of the assumptions made by the author.


  1. If you want a different take on Totem Spirits that is based on Spirit Vessels from GURPS Thaumatology and ties in Divine Favor, GURPS Powers, and meshes with Spirits under Control from Pyramid #3/83 - Alternate GURPS IV, I wrote this article for Pyramid back in 2015, but never had it published:

    It also includes a variety of totems, including Badger, Bear, Wolf, the Flame Lord from DF Monsters 1, Mammon, and a god-like digital intelligence.

  2. Thanks for the review. Yes, this is my first (hopefully not only) GURPS book,though I have a few Pyramid articles under my belt.
    As you say, this was not intended to be a new full magic as powers system though it could be used that way. Its focus was on a specific application of a magic as powers system and with enough examples it could be used out of the box or give GMs and players the framework to build new ones (or modify whats included).
    Shapechange is one of the more complicated and poorly understood powers and building a new form can take alot of time. I hope this book clears a few things up and saves people time by including so many examples. There is at least one totem useful for every profession in DF. Originally each totem had 4 versions at differing point costs but that was cut during peer review/playtesting.

    One thing to note, the different power modifiers dont affect the form cost. That is spelled out in GURPS Basic and reinforced in this book.


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