Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Review: GURPS Low-Tech

More than once, I joked that 3rd edition GURPS had more published supplements than Talisman. And let's face it, 3e GURPS had a shmupload of worldbooks, with occasional supplements in between on how to handle different genres and settings in more general terms

But these days, it's a while between publication of hardbound books for Steve Jackson Games' flagship system, as the team is normally publishing either a) PDFs of smaller GURPS supplements or b) Munchkin expansions. They've chosen to reserve the physical production for those general genre books, the ones that would have narrowly escaped between the previous generation's worldbooks, and it shows in their presentation. The latest, GURPS Low-Tech, is out now, and I wish it had arrived sooner.

About the Main Game: GURPS

GURPS is one of the few systems I can hold up as an example of truly generic, multigenre gaming. Heck, that title is reflected in the expansion of its name: The Generic Universal Role Playing System. It was built to go anywhere and everywhere, and to allow for a certain amount of cross-pollenation. And while HERO System is a worthy adversary for the title of fully generic game, HERO started out in one specific genre, that of superhero roleplaying via Champions. I'm not sure that the Palladium system would count, but it's been moved through so many different settings that it might almost pass for generic now.

There aren't many fully generic games out there. Several have tried; it's a rather wide target which, while easy to aim at, is hard to obliterate completely. It's like those star targets at some roadshow carnivals: can you completely shoot out the star with just 100 BBs?

GURPS was also one of the first systems to eschew randomness in character creation. No more would players be bound to crappy rolls of attributes; they received a pool of points with which to buy attributes, advantages, disadvantages, and skills. There weren't many attributes, just a primary four. But there were quite a few of the advantages, disadvantages, and skills. And that list grew every time someone wrote a new world book or supplement.

GURPS shows its ties to the old Metagaming title The Fantasy Trip in a combat system which can play either situationally abstract or so number-crunchy it feels like you're in an old map-and-counters wargame. But like the character generation system, the combat system kept getting bolt-ons from its supplements.

Getting High and Mighty

In its third edition, it hit the big time a few different ways. There was no shortage of genre books, setting books, and licensed properties. There were also certain incidents which catapulted SJG into the limelight.

I'd list the selection here, but there's an easier way: SJ Games maintains its own PDF publication service, E23. A search for GURPS 3rd Edition documents turns up 184 items, and I'm pretty sure there are still 3rd Edition books that haven't made this collection yet. (If anyone wants to correct, please speak up below.)

The selection of books and supplements had gotten so spread out that they had to release two more books to get control of it all: Compendium I had all of the new character bits compiled from the various supplements, and Compendium II was the summation of all the new combat and campaigning rules.

Slow down, you move too fast

In 4th edition, they downshifted. They took a few steps back, looked at the state of 3rd edition, and realized "Wow, we've got a lot of individual pieces here. Let's make them work together." Gone were the days of dozens of worldbooks; the ones from 3rd edition could still be adapted unless they were especially rules-heavy, and they are still being made available as PDFs. The emphasis shifted from quantity to quality, and the line of titles that actually made it to Dead Tree Edition became more focused.

Generally, I regard this as a Good Thing.

Sure if you browse the GURPS 4e books on E23, you still get 141 hits, and that number is continually climbing. The difference is, all those 3rd Edition books started life on paper. A staggering majority of the 4th Edition books skipped the Dead Tree Edition entirely and went straight to digital.

Of the books that were published, you'd be hard pressed to find a miss among them. I can point to five world-specific books: Banestorm, Infinite Worlds, Transhuman Space, Traveller: Interstellar Wars, and Vorkosigan Saga. (I won't go into their individual virtues, because frankly I don't feel they're the focus of the line at the moment.) The rest are not setting-specific, and they're not even really genre-specific. They're more sort of campaign-attribute-specific.

Help yourself to our friendly, convenient self-service!

If you're building a campaign, odds are good that there's a GURPS book or two that will help. It all depends what kind of campaign you're building. There's Fantasy if you're working up more of a sword-and-sorcery campaign, and Magic if you want a classical grimoire approach or Thaumatology if you want your magic system to work a completely different way. There's Space and the softcover companion Spaceships if you're working in science-fiction. Across all genres, Powers might be useful if you want to milk the Advantages system for all its worth. Supers and Psionic Powers were both softcovers supplementing that one. Then there's Martial Arts if you're looking for a more combat-heavy campaign, Mysteries if you're looking for something more cerebral...

And if you're looking for equipment, there's Ultra-Tech for extreme far-future gear, High-Tech for more contemporary stuff, Bio-Tech for bio-engineered devices and nasty genetic surprises, and for gear from ancient history... well, that's where the gap was. It's just been filled by Low-Tech. See what I mean about wishing it were here sooner? The timeline finally feels complete.

The GURPS Low-Tech Book Itself

Enough about the niche it fills. Let's talk about the book itself. The blurb on the back states plainly...

The information on real-world equipment is useful for any campaign set prior to 1730, as well as historical fantasy.

The blurb undersells it slightly; it doesn't have to be historical fantasy It could be the sort of campaign dreamed up over the weekend with a shocking lack of attention to detail or actual knowledge of history. The book can help to fill in that detail by listing what was and wasn't possible at any given tech level.

There was a standard set in 4th edition GURPS of illustration and layout which still holds. The main-line books are hard-cover, have full-color glossy pages, even when they're just text, and the illustrations have a realistic, almost painted quality to them. This book fits well in that line. It may even go above and beyond the call of duty here, because the book has two indexes: One for general look-ups, and one specifically for weapons.

Fitting into the grand scheme that is GURPS

The book begins by describing a bit more about its "tech level" system, that the book covers its level 0–3, and what was in use in each of those periods. The difficulty: Tech Level 0 covers almost 2.4 million years. Mercifully not a lot changed during that time, but there's enough to justify listing each of its three or four periods separately.

The book then goes on to describe several skills and how they fit into the technology of the day. It then describes a few Advantages and Limitations that fit. And everything is cross-referenced to the Basic Set.

Biremes are made of these...

The first section of the book discusses materials. You might think, yeah, stone and wood and cloth, so what's there to talk about? It turns out there's rather a lot. For instance, "cloth" is rather more complex. At GURPS' TL0, you had reeds like hemp, flax, and jute, and you also had some cotton. You had wool too, but it required domestication of the animal, boiling of the fibers to remove oils so it could be spun... at TL1, you could have silk, and not until TL4 could you have spider silk. And so it goes.

It goes into deail on a lot of things like that: bone, leather, wood, wicker, paper, clay, brick, stone, mortar, paper, charcoal, and others... and a little bit about how these things would be gathered and processed.

This level of detail is a joy to work with, frankly. It's clear someone's done research, and now you get to benefit from it.

All Walks of Life

After the discussion of the core technologies and materials of those days, the book is broken into different categories depending what aspect of ancient life you're interested in. The categories include:

  • General Equipment (including the households of each day)
  • Information Technologies (how information is stored and managed, but this also includes navigation)
  • Weapons (both melee and ranged are discussed, including a significant little text box on gun powder)
  • Defenses (clothing and armor)
  • Security and Covert Ops (how information is secured, how information is gotten to, poisons and other ways the guardians of information can be dealt with, and a page about what's done to the people caught trying to do bad things like steal information)
  • Mobility and Transportation (vehicles), and
  • Medicine and Surgery

In all, I'd say it covers the bases. No fluff, just enough artwork to get points across, and a dense block of information. The bibliography for this book is a two-page wall of citations.

Fortunately I'm not paying for column-inches here...

I hadn't noticed it on a previous read-through, but I spotted it as I went through it for this review:

For a more-detailed treatment of computation, see GURPS Low-Tech Companion I.

They're talking about thisGURPS Low-Tech Companion I, an $8, 36-page PDF supplement to the book in which you just read that sentence. To the unprepared reader, it might cause spontaneous eyebrow elevation.

I can understand why they did it: the author gets a contract to write a book, does the research, and turns in more manuscript than they expected. Perhaps he went into more detail in some sections than others. Perhaps the information, while interesting, doesn't fit into most campaigns and therefore is unnecessary to the book?

And they have this rather nice PDF publication arm on the other side of the company, so why not stick the material that won't fit into the one book into supplements for those people that are curious? There's also a second Low-Tech supplement ($8, 40 pp.) which adds even more crunch to the use of medieval and ancient weapons.

Why they did that, I couldn't say. Perhaps the hardbound book would have gone over budget if they included that extra 76 pages of information. The GURPS Basic Set: Characters book was 336 pages, but that was a core rulebook. The GURPS Low-Tech book as it stands now covers a fair balance across all endeavors. The extra material might have threatened that balance with minutiae and detail, and if people want the extra information, it's available. For a price.

Smorgasbord for other tables? Food for thought...

Yes, the GURPS brand is evident on the front cover, but really, does it have to be used with GURPS?

he book is an almost encyclopedic look at historical technological developments. What few charts and tables it contains are clustered in the Weapons chapter, statted out in full detail. It shouldn't be that hard to ignore or convert the system-specific details and make it work for other systems too.

Buy This Supplement If...

  • You play GURPS 4th Edition
  • You just really like GURPS 4th Edition books
  • You're building or working with a campaign set before about 1730
  • You like attention to detail but hate doing your own research

1 comment:

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