• GURPS Illuminati University

    I originally wrote this as a comment on It Came From the Bookshelf, but it looks like Blogger’s comment system simply ate it. So I’m expanding it as a response post instead.

    As I mentioned earlier, It Came from the Bookshelf is a blog by John Frazer, who is using it to review every single book in his extensive RPG collection. This includes a few GURPS books, and not too long ago he finished making very insightful comments about pretty much the entire Transhuman Space line.

    And a few days ago he made a post about GURPS Illuminati University! His review is quite negative and I’d even say scathing. While I can see where he’s coming from, I don’t think I’d go quite that far.

    You know those times when a player tries to tell a story to their friends about this absolutely hilarious thing that happened in the player’s campaign? And that hilarious story ends up getting some polite chuckles at most, because it was only funny if you were there when it happened.

    I’m sure lots of us have been on both ends of this situation multiple times, and know how it feels. And well, GURPS IOU is that hilarious story in book form.

    If I remember its introduction correctly, there was this private BBS maintained by some people at SJG and their friends, and they used to run a silly campaign full of in-jokes and silly references to the Illuminati books and to lots of other media they liked. And then they turned that campaign into a book and published it. And that’s GURPS IOU: the story that’s only funny if you were there, in book form.

    I can totally see how someone would loathe this silly, in-jokey setting if they were going into it right after reviewing every Transhuman Space book. I can totally see how someone can read it and simply not find it funny, too.

    It’s probably not something Steve Jackson Games would have published today, but the mid-90’s were the golden age of cheaply-bound GURPS Third Edition books on exceedingly specific settings and topics. There were hundreds of the things! What’s one more? And their home game gets to be immortalized with an ISBN and everything! Plus it has illustrations by their artist player! Who happens to be Phil Foglio…

    That “reference barrage” school of nerdy humor also seems to have been in vogue back then, which helps. Teenagers from Outer Space was out around the same time, for example, and was widely regarded as the state of the art in anime RPGs. It was basically a bundle of very specific anime references wrapped around a tiny handful of rules.

    I read GURPS IOU very early in my “nerd career”, when I was really into that sort of humor. I was just learning about this whole world of stuff and it felt really awesome to get all the references (“Dr. What! I know what that is!”). And when I finally moved to another city for college and actually met enough people who also knew about those things, it felt awesome to tell these jokes to them and have them understand the references too. I didn’t get all of the jokes, but I got enough to spark those feelings above, and to add some of my own equally horrible ones to the lot when I GMed.

    Call it weirdness, call it bad taste, but I got at least a couple of sessions of hilarious enjoyment out of this book. It holds a special nostalgic place in my heart for that. Even though it’s only funny if you were there.

  • Let's Read the 4e Monster Manual/Vault: Spined Devil

    Illustration Copyright 2008 Wizards of the Coast.

    This is part of a series! Go here to see the other entries.

    The book says spined devils serve as “scouts and sentries” in the Hells, and sometimes as “spies and messengers” to powerful figures. Everything else about them suggests they are terrible at these jobs, because what they really love is flying around in bands and tormenting anything that crosses their path with a rain of flaming, poisonous spines.

    Also known as spinagons, they’re frequently summoned both because their relative weakness makes the process easy, and because they’ll do what the summoner says as long as they’re given ample opportunity to fling spines at people.

    The Numbers

    Spinagons exist only in the Monster Manual. They’re Medium Immortal Humanoids (devils), and Level 6 Skirmishers with 70 HP. Like most other devils, they have darkvision and 20 fire resistance. Their ground speed is 5, and they’re nimble fliers with speed 7 and the ability to hover.

    Their basic attack is a claw, and their favorite attack is the Rain of Spines I keep mentioning. A spinagon can fling the spines covering its body at victims by flexing real hard. These have Range 10 and target Reflex. They do a mix of physical and fire damage on a hit, and trigger a secondary attack against Fortitude that slows and does ongoing poison damage (save ends).

    The spines actually do the right amount of damage on average, though it’s expressed a bit differently than you’d expect (1d10 physical + 1d6 fire + 5 ongoing poison). The fix here would be to remove the secondary attack against Fortitude and have the ongoing damage and slow happen on any hit from the spines. That would make these kinda scary for a level-appropriate party, since getting hit with the spines makes it harder for someone to get away from future shots.

    The claws do need a handful more damage, but like all artillery monsters you’ll only be using their melee basic attack if you mess up.

    The sample encounter in the book is level 6: two spinagons and a trio of lizardfolk composed of a mystic and two bruisers. A pretty effective formation, and a clue to a diabolist cult growing in the depths of the swamp.

    Final Impressions

    Spinagons feel a bit underwhelming as a follow-up to pit fiends. Not only are their stats really simple, their looks, disposition and attack forms would all fit a demon better than a devil. They fight with natural weapons, have animalistic traits, and like to kill people for the lulz.

    Still, if you pair them with appropriate enemies that can capitalize on the slow effect of their spines, they can make for memorable fights. The sample encounter is a good example of this… and to make my point about these guys looking more like demons, they also pair really well with evistros.

  • Let's Read the 4e Monster Manual/Vault: Pit Fiend

    Illustration Copyright 2008 Wizards of the Coast.

    This is part of a series! Go here to see the other entries.

    Pit fiends are the lords, barons, viziers and generals of the Nine Hells. In other words, its upper management, just below the VPs (the archdevils) and the CEO (Asmodeus). As such, they’re both on the Monster Manual and on the Vault.

    The Lore

    Each of the archdevils commands no more than a dozen or so pit fiends, each of whom fulfills an important role in the workings of that layer, commanding a whole army of lesser devils. The impression I get is that the Lords of the Nine are much more concerned with internecine political struggles than with actually running the business, so most of those diabolical schemes the PCs find themselves fighting are actually hatched by pit fiends and carried out by those lesser devils under them.

    Pit fiends don’t usually get involved in the schemes they manage. They only show up in person when a big scheme is about to succeed… or when a band of plucky adventurers is about to seriously mess it up. When they do show up, they bring not only their own considerable power to bear, but also a number of backup plans and dirty tricks. Your typical pit fiend has Int 22, making it much smarter than its demonic counterpart, the Balor.

    We’ll take a look at each version of the pit fiend separately, as there are some significant differences between them. In both cases they’re Large Immortal Humanoids (devils), and Level 26 Elite Soldiers (Leaders) with 486 HP.

    Pit Fiend (Monster Manual)

    The Monster Manual pit fiend has darkvision, Fire Resistance 30, and Poison Resistance 15. It fast as, well, a bat out of hell, running and flying at speed 12 (the latter with clumsy maneuverability). It can also teleport 10 squares at will.

    The fiend projects auras of fear and fire out to 5 squares. Both affect only enemies caught inside, with the first inflicting a -2 penalty to all attacks and the other doing 15 fire damage per turn.

    Its basic attack is a Reach 2 Flametouched Mace, which does both instant and ongoing fire damage. If you add both up, then you get a figure that’s actually appropriate for a monster of this level! The fiend can also attack with its Reach 2 tail sting, which does a bit less physical damage and allows a secondary attack against Fortitude for a bit more ongoing poison damage plus weakness (save ends both). As an elite monster, the pit fiend can use a standard action to attack both with the mace and with the tail sting at once.

    Its “leaderly” ability is Tactical Teleport, which takes a standard action and recharges on 4-6. This teleports two allies up to 10 squares away from the fiend to any other square in that same radius. Instant flanking!

    It has two minor actions. The first is the ability to create a Point of Terror in someone’s mind, a Ranged 5 attack that targets Will and inflicts a -5 penalty to all defenses for a turn. The second is the Irrestistible Command, which targets a lower level devil within 10 squares, slides it 5 squares, and causes it to explode and automatically deal some fire damage to everyone in a close burst 2.

    Oh, and remember how fiends of all kinds in previous editions had the ability to summon others of their kind somewhat randomly? The MM pit fiend can still do that with a 100% chance success, once per encounter. The fiend can call up either 8 legion devil legionnaires, 2 war devils, or 4 legionnaires and 1 war devil. These are always explicitly an add-on to whatever encounter group the pit fiend is originally part of, and they’re not worth extra XP. While none of these are as individually powerful as the fiend itself, War Devils are strong enough to be concerning and the legionnaires make wonderful fodder for Irresistible Command.

    Pit fiends start any fight they engage in by summoning reinforcements, because why wouldn’t they? They then use Tactical Teleport to set up some flanking situations, soften targets up with Point of Terror, and then charge into the fray to bash and sting fools to death.

    The sample encounter is level 25: 1 Pit Fiend, 2 war devils, 2 astral stalkers, and 1 marut concordant. This doesn’t include the pit fiend’s summoned reinforcements! A harrowing boss battle for level a level 22 party, and the GM gets to come up with a fun reason for the marut and abominations to be working with devils. It’s not implausible, it just demands some backstory.

    Pit Fiend (Monster Vault)

    The Monster Vault pit fiend has exactly the same resistances, senses, and movement modes as the Monster Manual version. Its Aura of Fear is a bit different, marking all targets caught within it instead of giving them a general -2 penalty to attacks. The fire aura is the same.

    The Flaming Mace attack is the first attack I see on a MV monster that has the exact same damage as it did on the MM! Clearly ongoing damage is supposed to be always be included in the average damage for the monster’s level. Makes sense, as it will almost always get applied at least once.

    The tail sting has been simplified into a single attack that targets Fortitude, deals 25 ongoing poison damage and weakens (save ends both). The original only dealt 15, which was typical for epic monsters. 25 ongoing poison denotes a “blood of the Lernean Hydra” level of toxicity. The pit fiend remains able to make both a mace and a stinger attack as a single standard action.

    The damage from the Irresistible Command explosion has increased a bit, and remains automatic. It also retains the use of Tactical Teleport, which remains identical.

    The other big change here is that the summoning ability is gone. This is understandable, as it wreaks all sorts of havoc with 4e’s carefully tuned encounter design rules. In its place is Nightmarish Punishment, which triggers every time an enemy within 2 squares tries to shift or make an attack that doesn’t target the pit fiend. The fiend gets to make what amounts to a free mace attack against the target, only it slides them adjacent to the fiend instead of dealing ongoing fire damage. No escape!

    Final Impressions

    I find it inevitable to compare pit fiends to balors, since both are technically the strongest creatures in their respective factions that don’t get individual names and backstories in the books.

    If you look only at their individual stats, I think Balors feel scarier in personal combat. They have more HP, variable resistance, and their direct attacks do more damage. Still, pit fiends put up a respectable show in that department, and are much more capable of acting as a force multiplier for whatever other monsters are fighting with them. As with all devils, team composition is vital to make a combat encounter seem dangerous and scary. Even without the summoning ability, I’d encourage GMs to make pit fiend fights include a very large number of opponents, and have some of those appear by being summoned mid-fight.

  • Let's Read the 4e Monster Manual/Vault: Legion Devil

    Illustration Copyright 2008 Wizards of the Coast.

    This is part of a series! Go here to see the other entries.

    The devil entries in both books make frequent mention of the “Legions of Hell”, and now we finally get to see who it is they’re talking about. They exist in both the Monster Manual and the Vault.

    The Lore

    The creatively named legion devils make up the bulk of those legions. They’re kinda like the perfect ideal of the totalitarian soldier, as they don’t have much in the way of personal initiative or even personality. They live to obey their commanders, and will gladly give their lives if for the glory of Hell ordered to do so.

    If you keep following the corporate analogy I’ve been using you’d be tempted to equate legion devils to the many salaried employees who fill cubicles and mail rooms in any giant corporation, but the truth is they’re not very like those people at all. They’re a lot closer to the dystopian notion of a “resource”: numbers on a balance sheet, undiferentiated and replacable. Managers spend them to achieve their quarterly goals and can always get more where those come from. And they’ll never complain about any of this, because they’re happy to serve the goals of President Asmodeus.

    In fact, all this grim thinking reminds me of several discussions I’ve been seeing on lately where some people say humanoids like orcs and kobolds aren’t acceptable “kill on sight” monsters, while others do a bit of contortion to figure out a scenario where they would be because it’s traditional. Me, I say that if you need an army of faceless minions who are never up to any good and whom you should always fight with all your might, you should drop humanoids entirely and look to these guys. Well, to all devils and demons, really, but fighting devils-as-symbols-of-totalirarianism specifically feels a little more satisfying to me these days.

    The Numbers

    Legion Devils are Medium Immortal Humanoids (devils), and are always minions. More specifically, they’re minion Soldiers even though the first Monster Manual didn’t assign subtypes to minions.

    The Monster Manual gives us Legion Devil Grunts, Hellguards, Veterans, and Legionnaires, which are level 6, 11, 16 and 21 respectively. The Vault has updated versions of the Hellguard and Veteran. All versions in the same book are pretty much identical aside from level, and it’s pretty easy to level any one of them up or down to the exact level you need if none of the ready-made ones is appropriate.

    Legion devils are armed with longswords and heavy shields, and wear plate. They have darkvision and a fire resistance of 5 per tier (i.e, 5 at level 1-10, 10 at 11-20 and 15 at 21-30). They run with speed 6 (level 15-) or 7 (16+), and teleport with speed 3 at all levels. They gain a +2 bonus to all their defenses if adjacent to another legion devil.

    Their longsword attacks suffer from the damage bug in the Monster Manual versions. The Vault versions fix this, and also do aditional damage to targets that willingly move in their next action. When building your own legion devils, you should use this version of their basic attack.

    This indicates to me that despite being expendable minions, legion devils fight in a very coordinated fashion, teleporting short distances to gain combat advantage and using their attacks to keep enemies locked in place and allow their bosses to focus fire on the biggest threats.

    The sample encounters in the MM are:

    • Level 6: 4 legion devil grunts, 2 tiefling heretics, 2 tiefling darkblades. Your basic diabolist cult and its summoned muscle.

    • Level 21: 8 legion devil legionnaires, 2 ice devils, and 1 war devil. An infernal princeling and his personal security detail.

    Final Impression

    There isn’t much actual flavor in the book entry for legion devils, but for some reason they ended up sparking my imagination and giving rise to the rant you see up there in the Lore section. In a game focused on fighting devils, I’d definitely make regular versions of them for use as low-to-mid Heroic tier opponents, and the minion versions would be a constant presence in the rest of the campaign.

  • Let's Read the 4e Monster Manual/Vault: Imp

    Illustration Copyright 2008 Wizards of the Coast.

    This is part of a series! Go here to see the other entries.

    If bone and ice devils are management, then imps are door-to-door salesmen. Evil and evil-curious spellcasters love the little jerks. They’re always willing to bargain for infernal secrets of power, and look too weak to pull a fast one. Of course, that’s just how the imps and their bosses want it.

    Left to their own devices, imps love tricking mortals into hurting one another, which is made easier by the fact that they’re pixie-sized, can fly and turn invisible at will. They’ll remain on any given fight only as long as they have the upper hand, and will run away as soon as the tables turn.

    Imps exist both on the Monster Vault and on the Monster Manual, but the two versions are more or less equivalent. They’re Tiny Immortal Humanoids (devils), which means they’re around 6-12 inches tall - pixie-sized, as I said.

    Both imp versions are Level 3 Lurkers with 40 HP. They have darkvision, Resist 15 fire, run at speed 4, and fly at speed 6 with hover capability. They’re trained in Perception, Arcana, Bluff and Stealth. The main differences are on the imp’s attacks, which we’ll discuss below.

    Imp (Monster Manual)

    The MM Imp’s basic attack is a bite that does so little damage it’s noticeable even on a level 3 monster. It also has a tail stinger that’s slightly more accurate, does a bit more damage, and has a secondary attack against Fortitude that on a hit does ongoing 5 poison damage and imposes a -2 penalty to Will (save ends). Both are Reach 0, which means the imp has to be occupying the same square as its target to use them. It can do that because it’s Tiny.

    As mentioned above, the imp can also Vanish as a standard action, which turns it invisible for a turn or until it attacks. Using this also recharges the tail stinger, which firmly establishes the imp’s Lurker routine: vanish, sting, repeat.

    The sample encounter is level 3: an imp and a whole lotta goblins, including a gobling hexer. The hexer is exactly the sort of caster who’d summon himself an imp familiar.

    Imp (Monster Vault)

    The MV imp has the same attacks as the original, but they’ve all been significantly improved.

    Both the bite and the stinger have Reach 1 now, and do damage appropriate for a level 3 monster. The venom no longer requires a secondary attack, and does 10 ongoing poison damage while keeping its Will penalty. That’s a lot for a level 3 regular!

    Vanish still works like it did before, but its text has been made more “technical”, saying that the invisibility is dispelled when the imp “hits or misses” with an attack. This is actually important, because it means the monster can make that attack while invisible and will only appear after it resolves the whole thing. You can’t see it coming beforehand, or hope to interrupt its attack by readying an action for when it becomes visible.

    Final Impressions

    Imps are kind of living Team Evil membership cards. If you want a character to come off as an obvious villain, give them an imp familiar or servant. They’re also quite a bit smaller than I thought at first.

    Mechanically, you should definitely go with the Monster Vault version. It retains the same flavor but is much better executed. While imp combat stats lack the pile of spell-like abilities they had in previous editions, it makes perfect sense for imps to have access to a variety of infernally-flavored rituals, and possibly for them to be able to cast them at a higher level than 3.

    If you miss fireball-chucking imps, you could make artillery and/or elite versions that have similar combat powers.

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