I’ve been playing a lot of Skyrim lately, and it occurred to me that adapting that to GURPS could be a fun project. So I’m going to do that in this post.
And when I say “in this post”, I mean that literally! I do not intend to spend the next three years writing about this like I did with my Dragon’s Dogma project. This means I’m going to cheat like a cheating cheater and take shortcuts. Whenever I can get away with giving page references to published books or links to other articles, I will do so. The result should still resemble the thing I’m trying to adapt, and those who disagree with that can still use the post as “Iteration One” in their own more elaborate efforts.
Themes and Gameplay
Before we can start messing about with rules we have to take a look at our source material, which in this case is the Skyrim computer game (written in bold from now on to differentiate it from the Skyrim region). Skyrim is just one part of the extensive Elder Scrolls franchise, but I’m going to restrict myself to just the one game as source material. Consider it my first cheat.
If I were to describe Skyrim in one sentence, I’d call it the video-game version of a sandbox campaign with a heavy power fantasy element.
How Skyrim a sandbox campaign? It has pretty much the exact same core gameplay loop. You create a character to your liking and wander around a large region peppered with dungeons and other interesting places to visit. You add to your to-do list by talking to NPCs and receiving quests from them, or by overhearing and reading rumors which point you to particular dungeons. While wandering around the map you also periodically run into random encounters. There’s technically a “main quest”, but the game doesn’t pressure you into completing it any more than it does any other quest, and completing it doesn’t end the game.
How does Skyrim give you a power fantasy? Through the rules, by using a skill-based system that gives every player character access to every skill in the game. And through the story, by allowing PCs to play through multiple quest-lines that would usually each take up a whole character’s career. Not only can you become a legendary fighter, mage and thief, you can also become the head honcho of the Fighters’, Mages’, and Thieves’ Guilds. It also doesn’t make you wait until you’re “powerful enough” to give you access to its more “epic” storylines: you kill your first dragon quite early in the main quest, interact with several deities starting not long after, take on (or join) a cabal of millenia-old vampires who want to blot out the sun, and so on.
Choice of System
So how are we going to adapt this for the tabletop? We want something whose “feel” approaches the one I described above for the original game. I’m going to use GURPS Dungeon Fantasy because of course I will, but there are good reasons for choosing it aside from my fanboyism.
I believe GURPS is particularly well-suited here because it allows for considerable flexibility in character creation. Dungeon Fantasy with its insistence in sticking to templates is a little less flexible, but that restriction is easy to relax and we’ll be doing so here.
Other advantages of Dungeon Fantasy: its 250-point starting heroes allow players to feel powerful and take on “epic” challenges right away, and it has ready-made mechanics for most of the situations routinely encountered by Skyrim players.
Also of note are the things that will be different from the computer game: it will be aimed at a whole party of PCs instead of a lone hero and it will use the standard pace of DF character advancement.
The place we’re concerned about is Skyrim! This is the “frozen north” of the continent of Tamriel, a roughly rectangular region bounded by mountain chains to the south, east and west and by the Sea of Ghosts to the north.
In-game Skyrim is around 40 square kilometers in size, but that’s obviously because it’s highly “truncated” as is usual for this type of game. There’s no published official size, though it appears someone has managed to extract a halfway plausible measurement over on Reddit that indicates Skyrim would be about the size of Poland. That means its linear measurements would need to be in the order of 100 times larger than their in-game size: about 500km tall and 600km wide1. That’s quite large! It would take weeks to hike from one end of Skyrim to the other, and that’s ignoring things like monster or bandit attacks.
The climate near the southern border is on the cold end of temperate. As you go north, both elevation and average temperature drop. Grasslands and temperate forests give way to conifers and frozen marshes, then tundra and fjords on the northern coast. The topography is quite “wrinkly”, with several minor mountain ranges dotting the interior of the province. There are two river systems, one to the southeast and another to the northwest, both flowing north to the sea.
Politically, the region is divided into nine holds, which you can see in the above map. Skyrim is officially a province of the Cyrodillic Empire, having joined it in the distant past through alliance rather than conquest. The Imperials are basically off-brand Romans, and you could explain any significant departures from the Viking cultural baseline through this centuries-long association.
Settlement distribution follows the same model as the one I described for Gransys, and since the in-game map isn’t as aggressively minimalist as that of Dragon’s Dogma you can have a better idea of where they would be. Hold capitals are usually major cities, and the other settlements that appear in the game would mostly count as “towns”. Villages, as usual, are everywhere, though I guess Whiterun with its fertile plains has a lot more of them than The Pale. Towns and cities are linked by a fairly good, though winding, road network.
Though Skyrim is the home of the Nords, all of Tamriel’s peoples find themselves represented here one way or the other. Players should be able to create characters belonging to any of them. Since all of them will live in Skyrim and be part of its society, that’s where we will focus our attention.
Nords are basically off-brand Vikings. Hall of Judgment and Dragon Heresy contain great descriptions of a fantasy Viking culture that would be an excellent starting base for Skyrim’s Nords. The main differences are that there are no thralls in Skyrim, and the Nords follow the setting-specific Nine Divines instead of the Aesir. Jarls and Karls work as in HoJ/DH, but Thane is a formal position granted by a Jarl to people who have done a great service to the kingdom, roughly equivalent to a knighthood in importance. Thanes are expected to continue performing the services that gained them the title in the first place, but don’t much else in the way of formal obligations.
Law and order is a bit more formal in Skyrim than in the other settings I mentioned, possibly because of Imperial influence. Each hold keeps a permanent contingent of guards responsible both for repelling external attacks and for keeping the peace internally. Criminals must still pay a bounty commensurate with their crimes, but that bounty is paid to the hold, which presumably then sees that the wronged party is properly compensated. Those who can’t pay their own bounty usually end up rotting in jail for a commensurate amount of time. A Thane who gets caught committing a crime might be able to use their station to escape punishment, but this too has its limits. Commit enough crimes and the Jarl declare you an outlaw and start offering a bounty on your head: that’s how bandit gangs are born.
Starting characters are built on 250 points, and are assumed to be somewhat experienced adventurers already. Players may use any DF professional template they wish, but are explicitly not restricted to only the traits in their chosen template during character creation or advancement. Completely freeform character creation is also allowed. I’m aware this might open up some unexpectedly powerful combinations - adjudicating those is left as an exercise to the GM.
Racial templates are easy:
Nords, Bretons, Imperials and Redguards are all human.
Skyrim also has a whole lot of elves, but so does DF, and they map almost directly to one another! Altmer are High Elves, Bosmer are Wood Elves, Dunmer are Shadow Elves. Orcs are technically elves in Tamriel, and are best represented by the Half-Orc template. Even Dwarves are a kind of elf in this setting, but there are none left alive.
Khajit are obviously Catfolk, and Dragon-blooded make passable Argonians if you replace the fiery breath and Reputation with Doesn’t Breathe (Gills, -50%).
Further tweaking of all of these is not only possible but advisable, and is left as an exercise for the reader.
Magic works differently than standard Dungeon Fantasy. Skyrim is effectively an agnostic Dungeon Fantasy setting that takes the Simple Option for spells and the Cool Option for non-spell powers. Even characters who start off without any Magery may buy it with earned character points. Any enemy group with more than a handful of members is likely to contain one or more spellcasters, and many people know a useful spell or two even if they don’t call themselves wizards.
The Voice should be modeled as a form of Sorcery, should a GM with to include it. Each Shout is a separate power that comes in three levels, corresponding to the number of words known or utilized. Students of the Voice rarely learn more than one or two Shouts, buying them directly and paying the full cost. Knowing even one makes you quite a bit more dangerous than you would be in the computer game, since there are no cooldowns in the default Sorcery rules!
And since I know you’re going to ask: no amount of Unusual Background can make someone Dragonborn. This is a trait best assigned by a GM who wishes to make it the focus of the campaign. The in-game effect is that you get a chunk of points to spend on the Voice every time you kill a dragon, and can use them to buy Talent or Sorcerous Empowerment for Voice powers.
Creating specific Shouts is left as an exercise for the GM, but here’s an example:
Unrelenting Force (Fus-Ro-Dah)
- Keywords: Obvious
- Full Cost: 15/30/45
- Casting Roll: None. Use Innate Attack (Breath) to hit.
- Range: 20m
- Duration Instantaneous.
Projects a cone of force in front of the user that pushes everything in its path away. The force doesn’t damage its targets directly, but can throw them great distances and will definitely hurt if it knocks someone into a wall or over a ledge.
Does 2d, 4d or 6d crushing damage with the No Wounding and Double Knockback modifiers, out to a range of 20 meters. The cone is 3m wide at maximum range. Diffuse targets take full damage!
Traits: Crushing Attack 2, 4 or 6 with (Cone, 3m, +80%; Double Knockback +20%; Variable + 5%; Blockable -5%; Reduced Max 1/5, -10%; No Wounding except versus Diffuse targets -25%; Sorcery -15%;)
For the most part, you should be fine using the default equipment list for either version of Dungeon Fantasy. Applying the modifiers described in Hall of Judgment on top of that will get you something that’s a lot more Nord-flavored.
The computer game made a big deal of organizing weapons and armor in tiers that used different materials, but those can be replaced with the special DF materials and modifiers without losing much of anything - particularly if you have DF 8: Treasure Tables or DF Treasures 1: Glittering Prizes, which have a list of “impossible materials” that work as supernatural embelishments to weapons and include several familiar names (glass, ebony…).
Skyrim is lousy with ancient Nord burial mounds and tomb-complexes, each filled with traps, treasure, and lots of draugr who will be very angry when they see you taking their stuff. If grave-robbing is not your thing, you can hunt down bandits or murderous fauna for bounties, enter the service of an organization such as the Companions or the College of Winterhold2, or try to talk a Daedric lord or twelve into revealing where their pet artifacts are located.
Skyrim’s story takes place during a time when the Empire is in decline due to a prolonged conflict with the Aldmeri Dominion and the fascist Thalmor that govern it. Most of its other provinces have either been conquered by the Dominion or seceded when the Empire signed a peace treaty with the Thalmor that made several heavy concessions. There’s an ugly civil war going on in Skyrim between the Imperial legions and a rebel faction who call themselves the Stormcloaks and seek to secede from the Empire as well. The Thalmor play one against the other from the shadows. Taking part in the civil war could make for an interesting campaign, but it’s also perfectly possible to play during a more peaceful time either before or after the game’s story.
No matter where you wish to go, simply getting there is an adventure in itself. Using the wilderness survival rules from DF 16 or Hall of Judgment is strongly encouraged. If you’re playing in the same time frame as the computer game, make sure to include dragons in your wandering monster tables3.
So this is a Skyrim adaptation in one post. If you would like me to revisit one of the topics here in more depth, feel free to drop me a comment!