GURPS Mars Attacks Review

Mars Attacks began as a trading card property originally produced in 1962 by the Topps Company. The original 55 cards presented a B-movie science-horror story of invasion by skinless, large-brained alien sadists from the planet Mars. In the decades since, the cards have been reprinted and updated several times, and the property was even adapted into a major motion picture by Tim Burton in 1996.

GURPS Mars Attacks, written by Jason "PK" Levine, is a roleplaying game adaptation published by Steve Jackson Games, who have also produced board games using the property (Mars Attacks: The Dice Game and Mars Attacks: Ten-Minute Takedown). The book updates the setting from the 1960s to the nebulous present, and details the invasion from decades of covert action (birthing the UFO scares of the mid-20th century) through the first year or so of direct conflict.

The invasion progresses in stages as the aliens unleash new horrors on the people of Earth, and the plucky humans adapt, band together, and counter them in turn. Each stage can be taken as a jumping off point for a campaign, offering flexibility of scope and theme. The timeline stops short of offering a definitive end to the story. Do the Martians overwhelm humanity with technological advantage and a complete lack of empathy? Or can human ingenuity prevail and fight back the monsters from our neighbor planet? That's up to your table to decide.

Physically, GURPS Mars Attacks is a 96-page hardcover, a form factor I usually dislike because of how slight the book feels. And yes, this one feels thin and light in my hands, but I'm not sure that's a bad thing, given how much is packed into the limited space. The pages are full-color to take advantage of the original Topps art, on a stock that feels, dare I say, luxuriant. The art, too, is magnificent, with nearly every page sporting an evocative illustration.

There's a surprising amount going in between these covers. In addition to the setting chapter providing multiple times and places to set campaigns, the faction backgrounds and rules material support playing as either the invading Martians, Earth military forces, or civilian and paramilitary human resistance fighters. Character templates — essential for guiding character creation in a system like GURPS — each come with pre-written variants that turn a generic "human civilian", for example, into a socialite, a mechanic, or even a zoo employee! (There is apparently a memorable moment in a recent re-release featuring humans unleashing lions on a squad of Martians at the Bronx Zoo.)  And 26 pages(!) is given over to GM advice on everything from balancing levels of gore and camp to moving the setting back to its Atomic Age roots to finally rapping up a campaign with one side emerging on top.

Of course, at 96 pages, there's plenty that couldn't fit in the available space. Vehicles, from saucers to aerospace fighters to giant robots, are presented in the barebones format of the GURPS Basic Set. Equipment unique to the setting is extremely limited, with references made to other GURPS "toolkit" books like Ultra-Tech. Throughout, Levine makes references to other books from the decade-plus run of GURPS Fourth Edition as optional expansions. Yes, these are properly optional, but still, this is the first time I've been genuinely happy that Fourth Edition dropped the extensive prefixed cross-references of 90s to early 2000s GURPS products.

In the name of full disclosure, I was predisposed to purchasing this book because I'm a longtime fan of and sometimes writer for GURPS. But I wasn't necessarily expecting to like it all that much. I'd seen the Tim Burton movie and all I could remember were silly CGI aliens that barked like dogs and blew up when they heard country music. So I was very surprised when I opened up this tight, evocative campaign guide. I'm already thinking about the games I'd run in this world.

Style: 4/5. This one really only suffers for being a too-slim hardcover because Steve Jackson Games just doesn't make softcovers anymore.
Substance: 4/5. I would have been happy with about 16 more pages, split pretty evenly between Martian and Earth gear and three or four more character templates.

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