Designer's Notes: Hellboy Sourcebook and Roleplaying Game

Tending Towards Hero

by Phil Masters & Jonathan Woodward

The BPRD: We're like the Meddling Kids, if Scooby was a 500-year-old homunculus named "Roger."

In many ways, Hellboy was a natural and easy subject for an RPG -- and it didn't have to be a terribly arcane or complicated RPG, either. Mike Mignola's comic is straightforward and action-oriented at heart. It's about a bunch of characters (especially but not exclusively the Big Red Guy himself) who plunge into action against supernatural evil, and beat it up. (Or get beaten up by it, depending.) It's inherently fast and direct. There's some investigation, to be sure, and a fair amount of double-crossing and plot twists, but it doesn't get absurdly indirect or angst-ridden.

It's also very easy to present and understand. Hellboy's opponents aren't drawn from an exotic private mythology which has to be explained from the ground up; they're werewolves and vampires and ghosts and black magicians. Anyone who knows the plots of a few horror films can grasp things very easily. On top of this, we have the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (the BPRD), which is a PC's dream patron -- an organization which employs all types of academic experts, human warriors, weird creatures, and paranormal talents, sends them out to fight evil, and provides backup afterwards, while not encumbering them with too much in the way of bureaucracy or time-consuming mandatory training. All we, the authors, had to do was collate the information from the comics (adjusting it for Mike Mignola's rulings as to what was fully canonical), and fit some rules around it.

The BPRD: Where "combat monster" is a job description.

We were able, when putting the book together, to lean hard on earlier GURPS. material. In particular, we could look to the excellent GURPS Spirits for both mechanics to handle immaterial supernatural beings, and for the ritual magic rules (which it in turn derived from the classic GURPS Voodoo). These latter looked like the most appropriate system for the sorcery of Hellboy's world. After all, he himself was brought to Earth by a summoning ritual, and other magicians in the stories use a similar array of invocations and talismans. However, a quick look at the source material suggested that we actually needed three sets of rules for paranormal powers.

Aside from ritual magic, there was of course psychic power. This covered both Liz Sherman's spectacular pyrokinetic abilities and the subtler "mediums" and "psychics" who mostly appear in the background of the comics. The fit there was obvious; GURPS psionic powers were almost exactly right. That said, we had to apply a few tweaks to the system (as is permitted by the "Powered by GURPS" concept under which this game was being created). Apart from anything else, while Hellboy isn't a superhero comic (one of the mantras we held in the front of our minds), the effects Liz Sherman creates are a bit more spectacular than "standard" GURPS pyrokinesis. Still, the basic mechanisms didn't need much adjustment. Spell-based magic was another matter.

The reason we wanted to use GURPS spells, at least as an NPC mechanism, was that it gave us a neat, unified system for handling all the paranormal stuff that doesn't easily fit under the other two headings. When Rasputin breathes fire, or the demon Ualac transforms a victim into a monkey, it looks a lot like spells, and referring to it as such is simpler and tidier than inventing arbitrary powers as required. However, the standard spell-based magic rules take up a fair-sized chapter in the GURPS Basic Set, and a couple of 128-page supplements to detail in full. We tried trimming it down to GURPS Lite-like proportions, but the necessary chains of prerequisites still occupied too much space. We had to find another way to make them fit.

The final approach was the result of a fair bit of back- and-forth discussion in the playtest phase, but we think that the results are worth it. (Of course, the rules we present are still short. Hellboy players and GMs who really want to run amok with spells as weird magical effects are still encouraged to pick up GURPS Magic.) Several other approaches were considered and rejected along the way, some of which might be useful in variant Hellboy campaigns, or other GURPS games. One in particular, derived from existing optional rules, definitely has its own quirky charm. So, as a bonus (and in slightly-altered and improved form), here it is . . .

GURPS Spells as Knacks

The BPRD: We bring good things to life . . . then we hire them.

This magic system is a simplified alternative to the system presented in the GURPS Basic Set and GURPS Magic. It allows wizards to pick spells off a menu, without regard for skill level or prerequisites. Wizards built with GURPS Magic can be much more flexible, but they'll have to learn simple spells before they can learn complex ones like those presented here.

These "spells" are are all knacks (GURPS Magic, p. 96), with the following modifiers:

These modifiers total -60%. In game terms, wizards must first buy the Magery advantage. They are then eligible to buy knack-style spells (including those listed below), each of which is treated as an advantage. They do not need to buy prerequisite spells! Spells are balanced directly by cost.

Mages can buy new knacks at any time, so long as there's an in-game rationalization. If the spell has prerequisites other than spells (such as IQ or Magery requirements), the mage must meet them in order to buy the spell.

Casting Knack-Type Spells

A spell's duration, cost, and time to cast are unchanged. All spells are known at effectively the same "skill level": IQ + Magery. The rituals required are those listed under the Alternate Magic Ritual Rule, on p. 7 of GURPS Magic; gestures with both hands, ritual foot motions, and incantations in a firm clear voice. The other options of that rule apply: the rituals can be simplified, at the cost of a penalty to the roll, or enhanced, for a small bonus.

Sample Spell Costs

Here's a short list of the cost of knack-type spells under this system. (Since the descriptions of the spells are unchanged, we won't repeat material here that can be found in GURPS Magic or the Hellboy Sourcebook and Roleplaying Game.)

Implications of Using Knack-Type Spells

First off, mages will become a lot more specialized. With no need to purchase prerequisites, and with each individual spell more expensive, mages will only buy those spells central to their concept. This is not crippling -- many fictional mages get by with just one or two signature effects. It may also speed up play, since players won't be hunting through long lists of spells for something useful.

Since the spellcasting roll is a flat IQ + Magery, it's no longer possible to buy up skill in just one spell. For magic to be reliable, the mage has to have a good IQ and probably a high level of Magery. This may discourage Johnny One-Spell characters, as buying more spells makes better use of the points spent on IQ and Magery.

The Unified Paranormal Powers Theory

The BPRD: We're what would happen if Buffy got some funding.

Of course, the work of getting rituals, spells, and psychic powers to work together didn't end there. Most GURPS books are very quiet on the issue of how those forces interact, devoting at most a sidebar to it, and leaving much of it up to GM fiat. In the Hellboy world, these powers are explicitly manifestations of the same "metapower," and rules for their interaction were required -- particularly since this book's target audience includes a lot of potential first-time GMs!

Upon inspection, the problem wasn't as fearsome as we originally thought. When two powers interact, one is usually offensive, and one is defensive. The tricky part is that what a given defense protects against is, in existing GURPS books, usually defined fairly narrowly, and only with reference to the book in question. Mind Shield works against Psychic Vampirism, Telereceive, and Mental Blow. Magic Resistance works against spells. Et cetera.

In order to integrate the three systems, it was only necessary to restate the offenses and defenses in terms of what they protected, and how. A telepathic Mind Shield protects one's mind. The Strike Blind spell affects the body. Ergo, a Strike Blind spell isn't affected by a Mind Shield -- but a spell defined to affect the mind (such as Fear) would be. Rewriting the various spells, rituals, and psychic powers so that what they target or affect is explicit made many interactions fall into place.

The question of how a given defense works against a given offense still remained. Fortunately, all offensive abilities require a skill roll, and almost all defenses affect that roll in one of two ways: They either have a power, which subtracts from the offensive skill, or they have a skill of their own, and engage the offense in a Quick Contest. (A few other paranormal defenses work in terms of physical GURPS defenses like DR; no special rules were required for them.) Stating which protective powers worked in which manner allowed all the rules for defending against paranormal abilities to go at the top of the chapter, in generic form. Beyond that, all that was required was a little inclusive language, and some standardization of the formats for presenting rituals, spells, and psychic powers. While the three sections of the Paranormal Powers chapter still show some seams where they were joined together, we hope the Hellboy Sourcebook and Roleplaying Game presents, for the first time, a consistent system for melding GURPS spell-based magic, ritual magic, and psionics.

Article publication date: August 9, 2002

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