GURPS Fantasy
by William H. Stoddard

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Fourth Edition
edited by Andrew Hackard and Jeff Rose

Steve Jackson Games
Austin, Texas, 2004; 240 pages

August 2008


Nature and Supernature

If magic works, does that mean science is wrong? How do the natural and supernatural worlds fit together in a fantasy setting? There are several ways of answering these questions:

Science excludes magic. Natural law controls everything that happens. Magic is based on natural laws that aren't understood yet. One day the progress of knowledge will make those laws understandable and replace spells with reliable procedures, the same way that pharmacology replaced herb lore. Often this view goes with belief in psychic powers that magical rituals help to focus.

Science leaves room for magic. Natural laws are true, but there is some randomness or uncertainty in nature. Magic works within this state of uncertainty. Where the laws of nature allow two or more outcomes, the mage's will can decide between them. Jack Williamson's Darker than You Think relies on this premise.

Science is dependent on magic. The laws of nature are real, and science can discover them. But supernatural and magical forces created nature ...

Magic excludes science. ... Many magical beliefs reflect scientific ideas that are no longer accepted, such as the Greek theory of the four elements, or 19th-century ideas about the life force. In fantasy versions of historical settings, the scientific theories of the past may be true. ...

Magic conflicts with science. In many recent fantasies, magic and science aren't just different beliefs about the world, but different forces within the world. Technology may actually interfere with the operation of magic. ...

As the above matrix of possibilities indicates, GURPS Fantasy by William H. Stoddard is an imaginative compendium of the magical and supernatural, a practical guidebook for how to live a magic-tinged life in societies and worlds which are built with fantastic elements thoughtfully integrated. The approach here — as suggested in the Nature and Supernature analysis above, and the flavor as well, are rather like that of John W. Campbell's famous pulp magazine, Unknown (later Unknown Worlds; 1939-1943). While stories in Unknown might be wondrous, humorous, or terrifying, what Campbell strove for additionally is a sense of realism: the characters are real, however strange or magical their goings-on; the setting is reasonable with the fantastic elements added thoughtfully; and thus the characters can think and act practically within a fantastic story that makes sense.

The Generalized Universal RolePlaying System (GURPS), developed by Steve Jackson Games, consists of "One set of rules that works for all genres." GURPS Fantasy is especially rich and strong on the characters, scenarios, and backgrounds that make up the role-playing games. Big charts of magic as technology such as the List of Enchantments and the table of Vehicular Weapons are good examples of where the feel of Campbell's Unknown magazine meets GURPS. There are plenty of annotated character details for effective role-playing. Gaming aside, this book may be enjoyed independently of others in the GURPS catalog.

Stoddard's erudition is, as usual, quite impressive. He writes clearly, with a depth of understanding in literature and mythology as well as of the grander movements in history and science, making his work so easily informative. I especially appreciate his discussion of Historical Eras, which applies some insights from Nietzsche's genealogies and Spengler's life-cycles of cultures. Stoddard makes this fun, too, as for instance in his examples of Zeitgeists: Spirits of Time:

A cyclic zeitgeist has some level of the Sleepy disadvantage. For example, a spirit of winter would be inactive 3/4 of the time, a dawn spirit 7/8 of the time. ....

Another example is his discussion of War in Fantasy Settings, ranging from Player Characters in Battle, to considerations of Magic in the Field, to the layout of a Vauban fortress, to Mythical Beasts in Battle.

Treating mages as man-portable artillery may show a disregard for mystical philosophy, but it's also extremely useful! Any commander offered the services of a battle wizard with Explosive Fireball would be seriously tempted.

GURPS Fantasy is a thoughtful look at fantasy: why it works, and how to live in a practically fantastic world. Very useful for game-players; thought-provoking and entertaining for all who sometimes are in a playful mood about the natural or supernatural ways of the world.


© 2008 Robert Wilfred Franson

W. H. Stoddard's essay
Participatory Fiction

see also reviews of his
GURPS Steampunk
GURPS Steam-Tech
A Compendium of Marvelous Devices
for the Age of Steam

W. H. Stoddard discusses
fantasy and RPGs at the
Steve Jackson Games Forum

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