A mini review: GURPS Dungeon Fantasy Denizens: Thieves

Dungeon Fantasy Denizens: Thieves is a new entry in the Denizens sub-series of the Dungeon Fantasy series for GURPS. It joins the earlier Dungeon Fantasy Denizens: Barbarians and Dungeon Fantasy Denizens: Swashbucklers as the third work to explore and expand a Dungeon Fantasy profession. (Or the fourth if you count Dungeon Fantasy 7 Clerics, but that’s a different sort of entry.)

What’s in there

Like its sub-series predecessors, Thieves aims for completeness in detailing its profession. The main text compiles lots of new and old information:

  • A repeat of the thief template from Dungeon Fantasy 1: Adventurers
  • Templates for variants (bandit, burglar, etc.)
  • A repeat of the cross-training templates for thieves from Dungeon Fantasy 3: The Next level
  • New lenses for thief templates
  • Thief power-ups, including basics power-ups, perks, and combat power-ups
  • A template and traits for a new sort of magical rogue, the spell-thief
  • New thief-oriented gear, equipment modifiers, armaments, concoctions, and magic items

In short, it’s a catalog of traits and gear for thievish characters. Which on its own would feel incomplete, but call-out boxes add thoughts on character design planning and optimization; further detailing of skills like Intelligence Analysis and Tactics; exploits like backstabbing, trapping, and sentry removal; a Thief! Wildcard skill; advice on power-up selection; under-the-hood builds for select power-ups; and more.

All that makes for a lot – in fact, a few pages more than either Barbarians or Swashbucklers. (Like other entries in the Denizens sub-series, it all includes material collected from earlier works, so some of it’s old stuff. But there’s still plenty of new stuff.) I won’t belabor this page with detailed commentary on the full content of Thieves. If you’re familiar with the Denizens sub-series, you know what to expect. And if you play or plan to play a thief character, you know that you’ll more than get your money’s worth from this work. So go buy it.

Personal highlights

A few things that gain a particular positive reaction from me:

  • Lots of intriguing new gear!
  • Henchman versions of the templates. I always like 125-point builds; they’re great for hirelings, foes, and junior delvers.
  • “Thief Tricks”, a handy consolidation of exploits from around the GURPS system.
  • The many worked-out power-ups. These are great for people like me who aren’t excited about spending a lot of time with the GURPS powers-building system. (Nothing personal against this esteemed area of GURPS; I’ve just always been happy to let eager devotees of power-up construction do the work for me.) There are around fifty such power-ups in Thieves – several of them simple things like Talents, but many of them complex constructs wrought from multiple base advantages, enhancements, and limitations. If even a handful of these fit your character design needs, the time you’ll save on building them yourself will make the book well worth it.

Personal not-as-high lights

Because, come on, who’d trust a review that didn’t include something less than laudatory? Here are a few features that I’m cooler toward – with each description followed by commentary that attacks my own reservations:

  • Now that I’ve praised the book’s numerous power-ups, let me note that not a lot of specific ones excite me (so far). For thieves in particular, I rather like power-ups in mundane form: high skill levels, maxed-out techniques, and unadorned advantages (as in this article that’s all about beefing up the profession using nothing more than humble Talents). The high-concept, high-cost, superpower-like power-ups that Thieves smuggles in are less my bag.

    But that’s purely a “me” thing! Many players will see Thieves’ high-power goods as the sort of fancy feats that other game systems offer in bulk, and exactly what GURPS needs more of. I happily applaud Thieves for going out of its way to meet those players’ wishes. (And while we’re looking closely at those power-ups: Is Sneak Attack a knowing recreation of the classic backstab damage multiplier from D&D? Does Flanking Mastery summon forth another facet of D&D combat? I think those just might be the cases, and I expect they’ll please many gamers.)

  • Some of Thieves‘ power-ups run 30, 40, or even 50 points and more. Which isn’t itself a bad thing, of course! But I wonder how many Dungeon Fantasy PCs will spring for power-ups that carry true superpower price tags.

    Well, that’s not mine to worry about; if some player (or more likely, some GM outfitting NPCs with whatever the characters need, point costs be darned) wants to spring for those high-priced offerings, then more power to ‘em! (Other professions get to enjoy their super-costly traits; it’s only fair that thieves nab some too.)

  • For me, it’s not clear what a few new offerings seek to bring to life. As an example, I’m not sure whether the spell-thief is emulating a type of character from fiction or games, and if so, what the original model is. (The character’s short writeup doesn’t answer much. Is the spell-thief’s power a form of Magery, or just akin to it? Is the character born with that power, or is it taught?) And the Ambusher power-up – I really don’t get what it’s shooting for. (An example illustrating its use might help a lot.)

    Again, though, this isn’t necessarily a shortcoming of the work. The Dungeon Fantasy series doesn’t spend lots of ink on rationales, backgrounds, and examples; it takes a brusque tone of “Here’s the thing. Go kill monsters with it.” (I consider this part of the series’ appeal.) Spell-thief may not be a thing I was looking for, but I expect someone will see it as a fun new PC option, or the perfect tool to bring a literary precedent to the game. And for uncertain bits like Ambusher, just trying things out at the table, or talking to other GMs who’ve given the items a whirl, will no doubt yield insights into the intended uses.

  • On a personal soapbox, I always grumble over mechanics that don’t account for relative task difficulty. Specifically, the Hamstring power-up’s ability to reduce a target’s Move, Kayo’s ability to knock out a target, and Dolorous Blow’s special potential to stun or quick-kill a target appear unrelated to said target’s toughness – that is, the same outcomes result whether the target has HP 20 or HP 20,000. Ack.

    But, yeah, most targets will probably fall within a toughness range that makes the outcomes reasonable. I expect few players will ever care about the potential for odd results, and that’s fine. File this objection under “things that weird gamers pick apart as being [cue Comic Book Guy voice] ‘technically not the correct way to do this'”.

Miscellaneous thoughts

Lightning-speed power-ups

The word “Masterful” heads up several disparate new power-ups, including some that allow the thief to perform a given task at amazing speed (Master Locksmith, Master Trapper). Superior Evaluate and Quick Appraiser are also “you can do a thing super-fast” power-ups.

All that quickness should make for cinematic fun, but I think it’d be nice to set a uniquely distinguishing label that ties together these speed-ups: say, “Lightning Locksmith”, “Lightning Trapper”, “Lighting Evaluate”, and “Lightning Appraiser”.

Backhacks

The business of backstabbing gets attention here and there in the book, as it should. A small observation I’d add is this: While a stab from the shadows is a popular image in fantasy RPGs, in GURPS a backstab is more likely to be a swing. A backhack, really.

It’s an artifact of the system favoring swings over thrusts in the damage department. Overall, that is. Depending on the weapon, thrust attacks can deal more damage than swung attacks, especially at the lower levels of ST where template-built thieves dwell. But the backstabbing power that DF gives thieves pushes in the other direction, with Striking ST that strongly favors swung attacks.

What’s the point? Well, none, really; it’s just an interesting quirk of backstabs in GURPS, perhaps worth pointing out for new DF GMs (and munchkin thief players who want to optimize damage).

While the effect isn’t a problem for any reason I’m aware of, GMs who simply don’t like it could perhaps give backstab Striking ST an additional “thrusts only” limitation. (Or do away with the big built-in bonus to swing damage, though that’s a heftier system hack.)

Anything missing?

Are there things not in Thieves that I’d have liked to see? Why, yes! Specifically:

I don’t do much product reviewing on this site, but as Thieves made its slow passage from playtest to release, I had a particular interest in reading and reviewing the finished volume. That’s because I was one of the playtesters reviewing and commenting on the in-progress work.

Don’t look for my name on the cover! This was my first time volunteering, and I wasn’t aware that there’s an (informal?) process for determining which playtesters are credited, based on some number-of-comments cutoff. The resulting non-recognition was a disappointing surprise – but it’s of course natural that a process involving people of varying level of contribution has to draw a line on whom to credit. So, lesson learned there. If you’re also thinking of dipping a toe into a SJG playtest, do so with that piece of knowledge in mind.

And that’s all I can say about SJG playtests for now; with precisely one experience under my belt, I hardly feel qualified to review the process.

If nothing else, I can point out what contributions of mine you’ll find in the pages of Thieves…. which is, hmm, maybe nothing! (Again, it’s an understandable thing; books have page limits and production schedules and all that, and right from the start of the playtest, this book wasn’t in need of more content.)

That absence has a positive side. Instead of my telling you “if you want to see my kewl power-up ideas, go buy the book”, I can gather up my left-by-the-wayside contributions and place them on this page for your consideration and amusement.

Final word

If you play a thief in Dungeon Fantasy or want inspirations for the archetype in any game, go buy Thieves. As with so much in the GURPS line, it’s a lot of stuff for a modest cost.

2 Comments

  • Maximilian D Wilson

    I’m very much looking forward to your contributions on the topic, T Bone!

    Personally I was hoping for more about gear and equipment, and time/cost/procedure info on disarming or constructing various types of traps, and not so much for expensive powers. Gameplay stuff as opposed to chargen stuff.

  • tbone

    Thanks! The work is in progress, so stick around. There won’t be much in the way of new gear, but it will have some low-cost power-ups, built from techniques. Good stuff for building specialists, IMO, even at low power levels.

    And I agree that gameplay stuff is good, though I don’t know how far Denizens books can go with that; I think chargen is what they’re really all about. My article will have some unfinished gameplay-related ideas, but I can’t blame the Thieves book for not picking those up as new content.

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