Phil Masters (ed.), Steve Jackson Games

Reviewed by Jamie 'Trotsky' Revell, 1999

This is the first of a two volume series describing great characters from real-world history in GURPS terms. The characters selected are not necessarily the most famous or influential people in history, rather the aim has been to try and find the most interesting. Conquerers and generals become rather similar after a while, and can be difficult to integrate into a game, so while such people are certainly included, a range of scientists, artists and others fill out the range. In all, fifty two two-page writeups are included, ranging from the thirteenth century BC to the 1930s. Those selected range from key figures in history (Alexander the Great, Leonardo da Vinci) through those more interesting than historically influential (John Dee, Harriet Tubman) to the downright obscure (Morris Cohen). The inclusion of characters of non-European descent, such as Tokugawa Ieyasu and Shaka Zulu, is welcome as are some significant women such as Catherine de Medici and Joan of Arc.

Besides the GURPS stats, each write-up contains not only useful biographical notes, but also adventure seeds. Many of these are clearly aimed at time travel campaigns, in which villains or even players might want to eliminate the character from history, or else change the course of their life, prevent their greatest mistakes and similarly play around with events. However, a significant minority deal with other situations, albeit with something of a bias towards tedious conspiracy theories. It's the level of detail provided on the characters that proves most useful, allowing the GM to make the people come to life through their mannerisms and to learn of hobby skills and the like, which he might not otherwise know that they had. Although the stats provided try to be as historically accurate as possible, in many cases suggestions are provided for making the character more fantastic or more in keeping with mythologised accounts of their deeds. The writers have to be congratulated for compressing such information into the relatively small space of two pages each.

An introduction provides some general guidelines for campaigns involving historical characters, while an appendix provides brief descriptions of four characters not quite interesting enough to have made it into the main part of the book. Interspersed throughout the book are ten more short writeups, this time of characters who definately didn't exist, but who provide springboards for whole alternate histories which might provide GMs of multiple-universe campaigns with inspiration.

This book was written by a wide number of authors, and compiled by the editor from the best submissions he received. Naturally, this means that if a particularly interesting character just wasn't submitted, he or she won't be in, but as the intention was never to simply list the most important people in history, that isn't a great drawback. Some major 'missing' characters, most notably Hitler, will be appearing in the second volume. The editing on the whole has been very good, so that although the differing writing styles of the contributors are apparent from time to time, this does not detract from the book. A few of the more ancient characters are a little similar, being monarchs of various kinds, possessing good leadership and strategy skills and little else, but that is perhaps inevitable given the paucity of biographical records from so long ago and at least Aristotle keeps them company.

In general, this material is of great use to anyone planning to run a time-travel campaign, even if they don't use GURPS. It saves on research and the little details of how to roleplay the characters really make them spring to life. GURPS stats also have the advantage of being relatively easy to translate into other systems and of presenting, wealth, status, quirks of personality etc., directly in the form of (mostly) easy to understand advantages and disadvantages, so that even they should not prove entirely useless to GMs of other systems. It is even possible, if you're so inclined, to introduce characters from this book into other settings, using dimensional rifts or Star Trek holodecks, and the great variety presented might be of benefit in that respect. For straight historical games, Who's Who is less useful, since by its nature it deals with few characters from any given period of history - the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries being the best represented in this volume.

In summary, this book is highly recommended, and I look forward to the second volume, which is due out later this year. Where else but Who's Who 1 would Julius Caesar rub shoulders with 'Emperor' Norton of the United States?

Editor's Note
GURPS Who's Who 1 is published by Steve Jackson Games. Their contact details are as follows:
Steve Jackson Games
PO Box 18957
Austin TX 78760
Phone 512-447-7866
Fax 512-447-1144

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