Publisher: Steve Jackson Games
Series: Hellboy: GURPS
Review Dated: 31st, August 2002
Reviewer’s Rating: 8/10 [ Really good ]
Total Score: 26
Average Score: 6.50
Steve Jackson Games were so pleased when they secured the rights to produce the Hellboy RPG that they told the world in a carefully marketed special announcement. By all accounts, this special announcement left many people wondering what the fuss was about. People were expecting news of the fourth edition of GURPS. What’s so special about Hellboy? Have you even heard of Hellboy?
Hellboy’s a popular set of graphic novels by the respected comic book author and artist Mike Mignola. It manages to be popular and removed from the mainstream at the same time.
That’s why it is perfectly respectable never have heard of Hellboy and why people who know all about Hellboy are perfectly right to wonder why all these people haven’t found out about the comic yet. There’s even going to be a movie. The free webcomics are a good way to quickly get a feel for the heavy lined artwork and the style of the storyline.
The Hellboy story style and setting really do lend itself well to roleplaying.
Characters belong to a bureau where they’re likely to get handed assignments. Work for the bureau typically involves some level of investigation and then much blood, guts and gore.
The plot can safely be black and white or introduce shades of grey and ethical dilemmas if the GM and players prefer that.
For example, it is safe to say that the Nazis are the bad guys but the GM might also introduce a perfectly friendly creature who just happens to need to consume other people’s psychic powers in order to survive.
In the graphic novels, the plots tend to be character-driven; although there are missions and investigations and face-offs against enemies the key focus tends to be about what happens to the heroes along the way.
I don’t feel as if the presence of Hellboy himself or the other characters from the comics runs too much of a risk overshadowing the player characters either.
The bureau setting really does make it easy for the GM to avoid any contact with Mignola’s characters if he wants or to make use of them should that appeal. The setting is strong enough to stand up on its own. You could run a British spy game without having to include James Bond, you could run scenarios in Mega-City One without having to encounter Judge Dredd and the same applies for adventures in the supernaturally infested take of our world that Hellboy inhabits.
It’s a GURPS game and from the outset, the point-based mechanics of GURPS serve well. There’s little risk of messing up the important power balance between PCs in a group.
You can mix supernatural agents from the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defence with human ones and be sure there’s a level playing ground by giving everyone concerned the same amount of points from which to create their character with.
The game comes with the core GURPS mechanics in it too; there’s no need to go out and buy anything else. This does me just fine, I can safely purchase other GURPS supplements now and use the rules in Hellboy and thus avoid the risk of buying one of the core products only to watch it be superseded if and when the 4th edition of the mechanics comes out.
I’d been paralysed between my desire to pick up some tempting GURPS titles and the fact that SJ games held a questionnaire on what people would hope to see in a 4th edition and that every other news announcement from the company comes with the caveat that the announcement is nothing to do with a possible 4th edition. Hellboy has been the perfect tonic for that particular ailment.
The presence of the game mechanics (a little less than the full GURPS range and a little more than the free GURPSlite) along with a whole whack of Hellboy stuff, character stats, mini-comic strips, monsters and beasts from the Hellboy mythology and even an adventure at the back of the book is quite a mix.
This is probably why the product isn’t simply sold as the Hellboy RPG but as the Hellboy Sourcebook and Roleplaying Game. Actually, there’s an added twist in that there’s a special limited edition hardback copy. If you’re willing to hack off an arm and a leg and trade them into your local store then the hardback copy really is there to tempt collectors, Hellboy fans and reviewers won over by the sleek black leather cover.
Whether you break the bank (~$50) or settle for the softback (~$25) you’re in for a visual treat. Just as well. An RPG with the license for such an impressively coloured collection of graphic novels really would have fallen short if it failed to please the eye.
You’ll get plenty of Hellboy art, pictures of characters, critters and infamous villains but you also get a great deal in the way of crisp and clear layout. The book presents itself in the tried and tested two-column format and with boxes of associated information scattered throughout. It reads well, moving between mechanics, flavour and world details sensibly.
The detailed index is a godsend even if the text used for it is smaller than legal fine print. It’s a strange shape of book, smaller than the all to common A4 page size and yet big enough as to ward of the cries of gimmickry or the illusion that it’s a cheap supplement. In fact, you’d be right in guessing that it’s the same sort of size as typical graphic novels and comics.
The book begins with a story; the brief encounter between Hellboy and the weird blend of naked human female and lioness that are the Dakini. It’s something of a combat romp but it also manages to show how the bureau might work with established agencies like the FBI. This is an important point, I imagine it’ll come up in many games and I was pleased to read elsewhere in the book and the relationship between the B.P.R.D. and various law enforcement agencies are succinctly explained.
The introduction introduces both the GURPS system and the Hellboy timeline. I found it valuable since my previous knowledge of Hellboy was next to nothing, limited only to the free snippets of online story that the Hellboy website and the publishers Dark Horse put up.
After these first two short chapters, we find ourselves at chapter one. It’s a game mechanics chapter, presenting the character generation system. In it’s entirely the character generation process uses 38 pages of the 208 pages of the book (hardback). The following chapter, the game mechanics themselves, is less than twenty pages but it does the job.
Immediately after this, we find the bureau and its agents have a chapter to themselves. It’s something of a mixed offering; presenting a brief history of the bureau (from its roots as the British Paranormal Society), stats for the comic’s bureau characters and templates for generic agents.
Whereas Hellboy fans may enjoy seeing whether Hellboy is stronger than the homunculus Roger, I found the game generic information far more useful. The agent templates are a great and really easy way to not only quickly provide these common NPCs but also to gauge the typical strengths of the bureau. Also of interest in this chapter was the sidebar on magic, that there are no real magic users in the agency and the trend to date is to view magic as dangerous and mages as probable enemies.
The bad guys are split into two different chapters and the first of these are the Nazis and Other Human Foes. There actually seems to be more background and flavour text for the book’s favourite villains than the heroes.
Strangely, this works. A solid understanding of what motivates the villains of any given campaign world is a necessity and you’ll find it here. I also suspect more GMs will happy to include villains from the Hellboy stories, or at least their plans than they will Mignola’s heroes.
Having said this I once again for the more generic comments of greater help; perhaps not so much the short set of stats for the typical Nazi stooge but the nearly as short commentary on what the Nazis are currently up to.
One of the key attractions for the Hellboy RPG must be the setting that allows you to play a supernatural creature or supernaturally talented person investigating (and probably dealing with) other supernatural creatures and supernaturally talented people.
Chapter five presents a healthy collection of paranormal abilities that characters might have or which enemies might throw at them. There’s also plenty on magic rituals here and that’s a blessing. It might have been tempting to cut out these details since the agents of the bureau don’t really do magic but scary and dangerous magic rituals are fundamental to back plots and storylines in the Hellboy world.
There are enough of each of these different forms of powers for this reviewer but those roleplayers who really do like a healthy chunk of such things then it might find the chapter a little slim.
To be fair, I think you could double the number of powers and rituals available and still find people wanting more.
It’s not all for the superpower brigade though; there’s a wonderful boxed comment where we’re told the arch-villain of the world, Rasputin, has suggested that psychic powers are alive. The suggestion is left as a metaphor made by the character and rules continue without it but, of course, its there for GMs to use and I find to be a classic example of the way you can throw typically Hellboy spooky stuff at players just when they’re getting too used to taking on flying cannibal heads.
The flying cannibal heads take the review swiftly on and into the bestiary section. It’s another chance to let the artwork shine. The monsters are a mix of specific (creatures encountered in the books like Jenny Greenteeth) and generic (like goblins). Hellboy creatures tend to be demonic (if the big, red Hellboy wasn’t clue enough!) or mythological in nature; there are fairies, were-creatures, vampires and those sorts of beasts that you might expect from a supernatural earth.
Once more, I found something in the boxed comments that grabbed my attention and this time it was a double set of comments on what causes ghosts. It’s nice to see cause and effect discussed in what’s essentially an investigation style game.
In addition to these Hellboy flavoured creatures, there is a short collection of suitably weird technology. This, again, really does suit GURPS since the system has technology levels built-in as a core mechanic.
The chapter “Weird Science and Advanced Technology” helps GMs deal with the “fast and loose” take on the technology that the comic book storyline invariably introduces. The essence of this seems to be along the lines of ‘If a mad scientist is working on a device to tear open the gates to hell – then let the players stop him, not the tech levels”. However, if you want the stats for the Nazi Von Klempt’s robotic body then they’re here.
The last chapter and its advice on how to run the game impressed me. This is a token effort. These aren’t the usual patently obvious comments left to take up the awkward page at the end of the book. There’s some good stuff here. The essence of the Hellboy storylines (something bad happens, investigate it, combat it) is covered and the pros and cons of repeating this as an adventure-style debated.
There is a discussion on the combination of mythology and horror that forms much of the Hellboy mythos. There’s even a boxed section on the sarcastic humour that lurks around the Hellboy storylines. Really, if your worried about playing a game that’s taking place in a still-developing world (the graphic novels are still coming) and with other people’s characters then I think many of your concerns will be set at ease here.
If you’re an experienced GM then it’s always good to compare your style and the advice you might imagine yourself giving to the advice given by someone else.
Finally, to finish it all off there’s a sample adventure and a set of small appendixes to point you in the direction of the graphic novels, other GURPS books which make a good match for this one and a peek under the hood of the game mechanics presented in the book.
I was really quite pleased with Hellboy. The game isn’t a quickie conversion that’s been churned out to raise some funds or cash in on the movie. You can see that as much effort has been spent on encapsulating and presenting the flavour of the world and setting as would be on any original flagship campaign world.
This Hellboy RPG review was written in 2002. Since then, Hellboy has become far more famous!