Review: GURPS Hot Spots – The Silk Road

The long GURPS drought due to all the work on the Dungeon Fantasy RPG is finally easing and what does Matt Riggsby bring us? A desert! But this offering is most welcome as Mr. Riggsby takes us right into one of the most interesting areas, when it comes to cultural exchange: The Silk Road and especially the Tarim Basin. Yes, it’s a new GURPS Hot Spots volume and that means history nerd paradise with enough forbidden fruit to entice just about anybody.

Cover of GURPS Hot Spots - The Silk Road

Facts

Author: Matt Riggsby (a.k.a. Turhan’s Bey Company on the fora and twitter)
Date of Publication: 11/05/2017
Format: PDF-only (Warehouse 23-only)
Page Count: 54 (1 title page, 2 content pages, 2 index pages, 1 page ad)
Price: $10.00 (PDF), $0.20 per page of content; Score of 6/10
Preview: http://www.warehouse23.com/media/SJG37-0662_preview.pdf

Review

As all my other reviews this one will be rated according to meat (rules, stats, game mechanics), cheese (setting, characters, story), sauce (form, writing, style, art) and generic nutritional substance (universal nature, adaptability). At the end you find a weighted average of those components and a value score that also takes into account price per page. As a setting book cheese will be most important.

The Silk Road is a bit of an unusual topic for for a Hot Spots volume as even it’s central parts, which make up most of the book’s content, are more far-flung than a regular spot. The time frame (from the 2nd to the 10th century AD) doesn’t help to fix it any more to a specific point. What keeps the setting together is the flow of goods and ideas from East to West and vice versa and the fact that small groups (adventurers!) can make a difference in a region that lies at the margins when it comes to culture, civilisation and state oversight.

Ostensibly, the book deals with the reality on the ground in the Taklamakan, the Tarim Basin, the Hexi Corridor with some forays into further-off areas, but the setting’s feeling, the social interplay between the fringes of empires can be transferred to other settings. Riggsby manages to kindle the reader’s interest with the first few lines (artefacts!) and keeps it up until the bibliography.

There is no denying though that this is a historical supplement. I assume most people have at least some experience with those when it comes to GURPS. It’s not completely different from what has been offered before, but it is very accessible and well-done. Also it has some tantalising cross-over possibilities – indeed the crossover section takes up more than three pages, but let’s have a look at the overall structure.

After a one-page introduction to whet our appetites, we have the usual chapters on geography (twelve pages, with six pages of maps only) and history (five pages), then the book takes a detour from regular Hot Spots and omits notable people in favour of a gazetteer of the area (ten pages). This chapter includes towns and cities along with some other sites, interspersed with boxes on interesting myths, adventure seeds and notable artefacts, followed by an overview of the people, empires and religions of the area. This is similar to other such gazetteers you can find in many fantasy world supplements and serves much the same purpose. It paints a vivid picture of the setting and helps to distinguish places that would otherwise be just names on a map.

Chapter 4 (5 pages) is named War and Money and tells us a lot about the weapons and units favoured by the local powers as well as the trade goods that were shipped along the Silk Road. Stats are not the focus here and the next chapter: Life on the Silk Road (6 pages) shows us how people ate, what they wore and they entertained themselves. Buildings and the intellectual life are also covered.

Chapter 6 (8 pages) deals with the details of running a campaign in the area. The section on characters is relatively short. Campaign themes and cross-over ideas take up more space. A two page bibliography rounds off the whole thing.

Meat

Meaty and crunchy rules are not the focus of the book, but some rules slip in at different places. There is a concise, but nice passage of how to give the present religions the supernatural GURPS treatment. There are new rules for getting lost in the desert and for taking damage from sandstorms. We learn the terrain quality for travel and the environmental quality for hunting and foraging in the Tarim Basin. Tech levels are given in all relevant quarters. Matt Riggsby shows us what elements the armies of the region deployed. There is relatively little news on weapons  and armour, though. Most of these were influenced or even bought from outside and can be found in Martial Arts or Low-Tech. There is even a sourced price list for the most important trade goods and a listing of farther luxury trade goods.

Most meat is found at the beginning of chapter 6 with Cultural Familiarities, languages (including learning languages with more than one script), explanations of skills, jobs and one Craft Secret. Both the Guide and the Holy Mendicant are two interesting jobs that are a good fit for adventurers.

On the whole, there is little missing unless readers were looking for a full gear loadout or complete martial arts styles. The latter would have to be fabrication, because little is known from this area and time. For the fun factor we get a technique for throat-singing and a treatment of cannabis according to Low-Tech Companion 3.

Meat score: 6.5 (more than solid enough for a setting book)

Cheese

While The Silk Road does give a very good overview of its topic, it really shines at the small details where Matt Riggsby can show off his academic expertise. We learn that rope suspension bridges would have been useful, but were unknown in the old world. We hear some good old myths repeated and debunked in the same breath (Crassus’ legion in China). We marvel at wonderful artefacts like the Diamond Sutra (the world’s oldest dateable printed book) and wonder what else might lie hidden in the sands. In short, we find ourselves drawn into a world that was as rich in inter-cultural exchange as it was in danger.

Both the landscape and the history do get a very solid treatment in the book, but you won’t find singular rulers or a overriding passion for dates and battles. The history discussed here is that of the longue durée: slow processes that shape socio-economic development. The reasons that make exporting silk to the west a good strategy for China and much appreciated in the west are all present, while the recurring wars and changes in ownership are merely a background that doesn’t change the overall narrative.

Chapters 3 to 5 give the reader an intimate view of how life in the cities and on the roads of the Tarim Basin must have been. Where the archaeological record and written sources fail him, Matt Riggsby draws on contemporary custom to provide us with a picture (e.g. for food).  Chapter 6 discusses the most important ideas on how to make a campaign on the Silk Road. Apart from the merchants, missionaries and militants three-way split, we are also presented with a mapping on familiar settings. One of these is the Western – we are literally reading about China’s Wild West – the other one is Dungeon Fantasy of all things. After the first mental disconnect this even makes sense. The area features culturally less developed tribal people, fortified trading cities and ancient ruins and even dragon-bones. It’s not a far leap towards the Western as a genre and as we all know the Orcs are just more socially acceptable stand-ins for American Indians.

If there’s anything missing from the book, it may be a stronger link to the empires in the area. We are left with a general remarks on Chinese and Arab officials and customs, but it’s a bit thin for making up military and civil-servant characters. Of course, there is GURPS China to fill the gaps, but GURPS Persia and GURPS Tibet are still sorely missing and GURPS Arabian Nights is a bit far off in tone and content matter.

Cheese score: 9.5 (trying for perfection)

Sauce

After bells and whistles of GURPS Mars Attacks everything would be let-down, but for a historical book the illustrations are quite disappointing. I see that there’s vastly less in the way of royalty-free (or any other) artwork and photos about the subject than say Constantinople or Florence, but one or two authentically clothed and armed Sogdians, Tocharians or Göktürks would have really added to immersion, as would a view of one the mentioned cities or a typical house.

The maps, while useful and correct, could have been more impressive. I might have too high standards in this regard, but the mountain ranges look pretty artificial and the deserts are worse. The high-resolution, small-scale map of the Tarim Basin is the best-looking one and probably the most useful one too. The large-scale overview map of the whole area takes a bit to get used to, though. There’s also a map of a cave shrine complex that is a bit bare bones and would have been better without hexes.

Riggsby’s writing is engaging, interesting and colourful in the vein of the best Anglo-American popular histories. Jokes are far and few between, but this ain’t Dungeon Fantasy, after all. The style fits the subject matter perfectly.

Editing is good as always. I spotted only one minor pointer problem and the index looks fine too. Oh, and kudos for getting the German sharp s in Seidenstraße right!

Sauce score: 6 (give us some illustrations already!)

Generic Nutritional Substance

Generic usefulness is generally not the high point of historical supplements. The Silk Road remained the major route of exchange between China an the west for the better part of a century, though, so there’s a multitude of historical settings where it might crop up at least once. Matt Riggsby also goes to great lengths to present crossover opportunities and analogous settings. I feel Mr. Riggsby is now fully justified to present an expanded version with Zoroastrian Wizard templates as the default setting for the Dungeon Fantasy RPG.

Generic Nutritional Substance score: 7.5 (absurdly high for a very ungeneric setting book)

Summary

Hot Spots: The Silk Road is a really enjoyable read that will give its readers many ideas for campaigns and adventures. It is not a book that I can whole-heartedly recommend to people who really hate historical reading, but anybody else can rest assured that this is a good investment if you’re looking for something a little different for the usual RPG fare, while still giving your characters enough agency and interesting opportunities.

It is probably best used for a setting where characters are more or less mobile. While Mr. Riggsby does give a couple of sedentary campaign options, these are often a bit on the mundane even for people who like historical realism like me – although the caravanserai campaign does sound like it could be a lot of fun.

Total score: 8.05 (very, very good)
Total score is composed of a weighted average of Meat (15%), Cheese (50%), Sauce (20%) and Generic Nutritional Substance (15%). This is a cheese-oriented book. A “meaty” tech- or rules-oriented book would turn the percentages for cheese and meat around.

Value score: 7.025 (hits the sweet spot of PDF length)
Value Score is composed of the average of Total and Price.


GURPS is a registered trademark of Steve Jackson Games, and the art here is copyrighted by Steve Jackson Games. All rights are reserved by SJ Games. This material is used here in accordance with the SJ Games online policy.

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