Reviewed by Jamie 'Trotsky' Revell ©2002
Edited by Suzanne Campbell for The Guild Companion
GURPS Cliffhangers is both a general sourcebook for games set in the period 1925-1939, and a guide to games with a distinctively 'pulp' flavour. The new revised edition includes a significant amount of new information from the first edition, with added adventure hooks and more information on the real time period.
The first chapter is a general guide to the era. Much of this is straight historical information that could easily be obtained from many other sources, although the sections on international travel and communications, as well as on the base level of technology, are useful to have in one place.
Much more useful is the second section of the book, which includes six chapters, describing locations across the world, continent by continent. These are chosen for their suitability as settings for pulp scenarios, from urban settings such as Paris or San Francisco's Chinatown, to archaeological sites and wilderness regions such as Tibet and the Congo Basin. The locations are liberally interspersed with plot suggestions and with descriptions of organisations and historical incidents that are likely to prove useful in gaming; for example, the French Foreign Legion, the House Un-American Activities Commission and the Spanish Civil War. The entire world is covered, although the inevitable downside of this comprehensive coverage is that the individual descriptions are quite short. In many places, the reader is advised to buy GURPS Places of Mystery for more information – sensible advice, perhaps, but something the prospective buyer should bear in mind.
The character generation chapter uses the templates now common in many GURPS books. A total of ten templates are provided, most of which are best suited for larger-than-life pulp games; the Indiana Jones style archaeologist and the masked crusader being obvious examples. However, freelance reporters and private investigators are not forgotten, and would be of more use in a relatively down to earth scenario. The equipment list is better than that provided in most GURPS books, but the weapons list is simply bare bones stats, without any significant explanation of what the firearms might typically be used for. While the single page covering vehicles has a similar dearth on information on what exactly is being described, the reduction of the normally hefty block of GURPS vehicle stats to a single line is not only appropriate to cliff-hanger style games, but to any game with more of a focus on high speed drama than detailed maths. The replacement of all the usual complex figures for gAccel, gMR and so forth by a single modifier to the skill roll of the driver is especially welcome and is something I, for one, would hope to see in many more GURPS supplements in the future.
The next two chapters are competent advice for bringing a pulp, cliff-hanger style of adventure to gaming scenarios, as well as some material for more gritty games set in the same time period. There are yet more scenario seeds here, as well as advice on the design of cunning death traps that our heroes can nonetheless escape from in the nick of time. Three sample villain characters are provided in place of full templates, but anyone looking for the sample heroes promised on the back cover will be disappointed, as there aren't any.
Rounding the book off is a short chapter describing the adaptation of the pulp ethos to other genres, such as cyberpunk or alien conspiracy. This is one of GURPS strengths, of course, but this section feels as if it has been tacked on to the end mainly in an effort to sell other GURPS books – there really isn't much here that will be of use to GMs and what there is could have been included in a few small text boxes as it is in most other supplements.
If you want to run a game in the style of Indiana Jones or Doc Savage, this book will prove useful, if only for the huge number of atmospheric scenario suggestions and the adventure design chapter. For a more serious game set during the same era, it still has its advantages, although the emphasis is clearly in the other direction. Players of games other than GURPS should note that the great bulk of the book is rules free and that it should still prove helpful in setting the right atmosphere.
Editor's Note: GURPS Cliffhangers is published by Steve Jackson Games who can be reached at http://www.sjgames.com/