Monday, October 6, 2014

Review: GURPS Magic: Death Spells

I finally get around to doing a formal review of the book I've been talking about for a couple days now. Full disclosure, as always - the author is my line editor, my frequent co-author, and my friend. I don't pretend to be unbiased, but I also want to be fair. This one is an easy review, because it took one read-through and I was already folding elements of it into my current game.

by Sean Punch
23 pages
$5.99 in PDF

This book is the a support book for the line of GURPS Magic. Like it says in the title, it's death magic. Not spells that can kill, or inflict damage in the hopes of killing, or can be misused to kill. They aren't mere fight-enders like Flesh to Stone or Total Paralysis. These are spells that have as their core purpose killing the target outright. Stuff like the bone-softening spell from Glen Cook's Black Company series:

"Bomanz used the word of power. Again a man's bones turned to jelly. Then again and again as [the officer's] troopers tried to avenge him."
- Glen Cook, The White Rose

That kind of stuff.

The book contains 48 death spells, covering every college in the GURPS Magic canon, even healing. Yes, healing - there is a death spell counter called Resuscitate which is really nasty if cast on someone who doesn't need their heart restarted.

It also has a death spell design system - the raw bits of the spells within, so you can make your own and properly cost them out. Since the main brakes on magical power in GURPS are effective skill vs. resistance, time to cast, and cost to cast, that's where the main elements of the system concentrate. Death spells are all Very Hard (which is admittedly only a -1 to skill relative to other spells), not too quick to cast (or too slow, either, so they have some utility vs. direct damage or fight-ender spells), and expensive. 10+ points per casting, with more cost for difficulty to halt, lack of counters, time to kill, and so on. This plus a solid, conversational-but-clear section of advice on death magic effects (in game terms and practical meaning of those game terms) means you really could add whatever nefarious spells you want.

This kind of thing can be tricky to balance - spells that make you roll or die, especially if its roll-or-die-irrevocably - can be a hard thing to have in a game. This book does a good job of that without undermining the idea of having spells that do that in the first place. The spell effects vary, including:

- ones that do damage, which, if it exceeds your HP or a multiple of your HP, you just die.
- ones that force a resistance roll, and if you fail, you die (or kill yourself, or fade out of reality, etc.)
- ones that do the above, plus make it hard to rejuvenate/resurrect you.
- ones that do the above, but which have a simple counter.
- ones that do the above stuff, but which have nasty effects beyond the above (like Destabilization, which can take some of your neighbors with you as you go!)
- ones which, if the caster fails, does really horrible stuff to the caster (sometimes with the vindictive connivance of the universe or the gods, other types with the vindictive connivance of the victim.)

All of them have evocative but accurate names (Annihilation, Doomtouch, Telepathic Overload) and effects that match the general approach of the college and the aim of killing the target quickly. Oddly, there are some that effectively wipe you out entirely, but at least one comes with an escape clause (Underworld Imprisonment) rather than killing you, which seems odd for death magic. Still fits in the "go get a new character" effect of most of the spells. There is even a spell to kill yourself, for those suicidal cultist types.

Many of the spells in this book remind me - very positively - of the nasty cursed runes from Rolemaster's Creatures & Treasures and the ultra-high level spells in the Rolemaster Companion. Things like the "Rune of Stone Lungs" ("Reader's lungs turn to stone, he dies instantly") or spells like Fatal Inversion ("The target's body is turned entirely inside out"). Some of those spells, and the cursed items in that game, had very thematically similar effects to the ones in GURPS Magic: Death Spells. Utterly horrid ways to die, sometimes more complex than merely killing you, and all seemed like almost too much to do the job . . . which in a way is why death magic is especially scary. It's beyond "make this roll or die" and all the way to "make this roll or make a new character after this one dies horribly."

How is it for a GURPS game?

It really depends - do you want people to wave a hand, spend 15 FP, and wipe out a target forever (barring resistance rolls, etc.)? If so, this is the book for you. Cringe at that kind of power? Avoid this one.

As for me, I'm sticking some of this directly into my Dungeon Fantasy game, because it sure fits. Other types of campaigns might do very well with it. A horror game, say, or a gritty dark fantasy game. Coupled with the Black Magic rules to get some "free" power from the nether pits of hell, you can easily get the kind of dark temptation to power that results in a stack of corpses and damned but dangerous wizard that needs putting down . . . if you can survive the death magic he's sure to use against you.

How is it for non-GURPS games?

It can be inspirational, for sure, for death magic effects. But it's very solidly a crunchy, rules-centered supplement rather than a more setting or genre based book. If you use a lot of horrid black magic in your games, it might be worth the $6 to get some more inspiration.


This is a very good book. If you need death magic, it's instantly useful. It's game-changing, potentially, but it's not hard to add it into an existing game. This is because there are so many options and a system for adding it in, plus Sean Punch's usual thoroughness in examining and organzing the options for you. The book is well written, inexpensive, well-organized, thorough, and entertaining to read. If you use GURPS Magic, this is an excellent addition to the list of spells in the game.

1 comment:

  1. I like the death spells because they seem to be more like magic that superpowers. Plus a wizard can be truly deadly like they are in AD&D at high levels. All that is needed now are dome mass death spells...


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