Monday, January 13, 2014

Review: GURPS Vikings

This is another review of a piece of gaming material that I like a lot. It's for GURPS 3rd edition, which is no longer the current version of the game. SJG has been releasing their old back catalog on PDF.

Technically, I'm reviewing the softcover version of the book, which I received back in the day as a credited playtester. But it's available in PDF now, and it's been over 12 years since I read the material thoroughly, so I decided it was worth a close re-look at it.

GURPS Vikings, 2nd Edition (for GURPS 3rd Edition)
by Graeme Davis
Published 2002 by Steve Jackson Games
$7.99 PDF

As you might expect, this book covers Vikings. Like any GURPS historical book, it covers the period with an eye to a) accuracy and b) using said accuracy for gaming. It also specifically covers inaccuracy, with a list of 10 viking myths (horned helmets, big axes, dragon heads on all of their ships, lawless, etc.) and how wrong they are (and a suggestion for using all of them for a silly campaign).

The book ranges from the beginning of the Viking age all the way to the end. It discusses the whole range - social mores of the various societies and their differences, social rank, trade, raiding, law, duels, honor, and more. It deals with both locals and how foreigners are treated. It covers the original pagan religions and their temples and beliefs, and Christianity, and how they interacted. There are Norse sames and nicknames, too. It's brief to list but everything is gone over in sufficient detail for immediate use in a game.

There are also some really nice maps - one big one, and one smaller one centered on Scandinavia. There is one depicting a hex-mapped steading, too, which can be blown up and printed out if you need one for a fight.

Suggested campaigns range from thoughtful, historical all the way to high-action mythic and everything in between. Nicely, several campaigns are suggested, both in story-arc fashion as well as shorter adventure seeds and nicely sandboxy setups - mythic troll wars and one of exploration especially.

Rule-wise, it includes a few nice tidbits:

- a naval travel section, with sufficient rules to deal with storms and travel times and travel difficulties.
- a legal framework for resolving a case before the Thing. Great for when you want the dice to decide how the Thing decides the case.
- details on the magical items of the gods in GURPS terms.
- cost and details on ships, complete with speeds in real-world terms (mph not knots, though, since mph convert to GURPS's yard-based scale more easily)
- cost for livestock and home items, too - important in a low-tech gift-heavy economy.
- 3e Mass Combat details for the troops. These will need some adaptation for 4e's Mass Combat.

There are a fair number of critters in it, too - including multiple Norse undead. Not just draugr, but also a number of other tomb guardians and discussion of sendings (a summon spirit sent to kill and/or haunt someone). There are also trolls and troll-wives, various spirits, giants, and the various legendary critters (Fenris, Jormungand, Garm, etc.) Normal creatures, including new world animals the Vikings may have met in Newfoundland, are also covered.

Any complaints? - The focus is squarely on Vikings, although - to me oddly, it doesn't cover Beowulf. I know Beowulf is an Anglo-Saxon story, but it's a story about Vikings, with classic literary examples of Norse honor and expectations, and about a hero fighting monsters and a dragon. If Beowulf doesn't fit in here, where would he go? Even more oddly, a movie based on a book based on Beowulf (The 13th Warrior, one of my favorites) is listed in the bibliography.

There is a weird bit of rules-error on two of the magic items, too - a reference to Fortify on a weapon (Shatterproof is for weapons, Fortify is for armor). A weapon with potentially more than Puissance +3 is there too, although +3 is the rules limit and it doesn't mention that's deliberately so.. I should have caught that in playtest, since I was a playtester and rules detail is supposedly my strong point.

Couldn't I just buy a history book? Yes, of course, but GURPS Vikings is written by a gamer for gaming. So the details really concentrate on what will matter to a player or GM in a Viking game. The book answers questions on trade, combat, exploration, society, honor, and what-not with an eye to playing. There is some coverage of basic history, but again, with an eye to gaming. So it's organized topically, and details that adventurers would find noteworthy are highlighted.

Even if you don't play GURPS, only a passing familiarity with it is enough to tell you what the rules mean, and give you a framework to hang your own rules over. If you can't use the storm table for naval travel or the status list showing the relative level of folks in society to one another without converting them, they are nonetheless there and easy to use for inspiration.

How is it for 4th edition? It's a fine sourcebook. You can use most of the monsters with minimal conversion - you'll want to drop their HT a bit and scale their ST to weight or lifting capacity instead of using 3e's much higher numbers. Or not, for supernatural types.

Is it worth $7.99? Yes, I think so. It's worth more than that if you're going to run a Viking game of any kind, and it's probably pretty much worth the cost just for having realistic Vikings in your game world. If you're doing that and running 3rd edition GURPS, it's a steal at the price. Recommended.

Looking for more reviews? I've got your reviews right here.


  1. "Couldn't I just buy a history book?"

    My generic answer to this is "no." A gamer's history is a unique sort of book. The material necessary to run a roleplaying campaign is a peculiar mix of big picture history; political, geographic, military, and economic details; and obscure information on daily life which any one conventional history is unlikely to have. There are writer's guides to some places and periods (say, Georgian or Victorian England) which come close, but they typically don't have enough information on hitting people.

  2. Are there significant differences between the 2nd and 1st editions (assuming that the intent is to use it with 4E)?

    1. I don't know if I have 1st edition, anymore, so I can't check. Maybe someone else reading this knows?

    2. Better late than never, I suppose...

      There are significant differences. The second edition expanded the "character types" section into a "character templates" section. The weapon table and the sample character were dropped. Much of the chapters on characters and magic have been rearranged and merged. Rules for shapeshifters are dropped with a pointer to Compendium I. In the first edition, some non-humans in the Bestiary chapter refer the reader to Fantasy Folk; in the second edition these are given racial templates. Trolls have been greatly expanded from a simply monster entry to a racial template with subtypes and new spells. There are lots of new spirit-monsters. The section "Grendel and his Mother" has been cut. (There's your Beowulf.) There may be more I'm not remembering.

      To use in GURPS fourth edition, all the templates need to be converted using GURPS Update, and anything to do with money needs to be revised (prices, job earnings, starting wealth). Status goes down to -4 and needs to be condensed to no more than -2. Although you don't need to refer to the GURPS third edition weapon table that appears in GURPS Vikings first edition, having that table so you have a definitive list of what weapons to allow in the first place is helpful; the book describes in great detail what weapons Vikings used, but doesn't necessarily make clear exactly what weapons are available to a starting character.

  3. This was the book that made me want to put historical/real world myths into my dungeon fantasy games. I like the alfar more than the Tolkien style elves and the trolls are cooler too. Overall, the Norse culture was something I wanted to include along with their beliefs in the supernatural. I have combined the is with Ars Magica, Pendragon: Land of the Giants and a Cthulhu Dark Ages supplement to create a fun background for PCs when they venture into the Northlands of Thule. This is a great book.

  4. How do you figure mph converts to yards easier than knots? 2025.37 may be slightly more odd than 1760, but it rounds beautifully to 2000 and that's simple like metric.

    1. 2 mph = 1 yard per second. That's trivial to do, and makes it easy to handle boat speeds in combat. I could convert knots to yards per second, I suppose, but that's not as easy as mph. Mph lets you use a map scale straight-up (we average 10 mph, and the trip is 110 miles, we should get there in 11 hours) and the tactical map. Knots would be trickier so why bother?


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